April 3, 2024

Critique and Complaint

Boris Groys

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Today, when we want to see art, we go to a museum (art gallery, kunsthalle, etc.) or we look at images flickering across our computer screens. In both cases we see what is shown to us—either exhibited by the institution or circulating on the internet. An unavoidable question emerges: Why is it that these images and not other images are shown to us? Is it because there are no other images? Maybe. But maybe there are other images—that remain hidden from us. This suspicion produces institutional critique, on the one hand, and complaints related to internet, on the other. Let’s analyze the difference between critique and complaint—and why the same suspicion produces these two different responses to the museum and the internet.

The history of the museum is the history of the struggle against selectivity and for inclusivity. Today, for many this struggle seems to have reached its end point and lost its relevance. The reason for this development is the emergence of the internet. The internet has no curators. Everyone can produce texts and images on the internet, and make them accessible to the whole world. Indeed, the internet makes art production and distribution relatively cheap and accessible to everyone. But can we say that after being liberated from the censorship of the museum system, all images now float freely, equally accessible to everybody?

It’s easy to see that the internet did not become a universal public space of equal access. The internet is an extremely narcissistic medium; it’s a mirror of our specific interests and desires. It does not show us what we do not want to see. In the context of the internet we communicate mostly with people who share our interests and attitudes, be it political or aesthetic. That is the first reason for thinking that a lot of information, including images, remains outside our reach—simply because we don’t know about them, don’t know where to find them on the internet. The second reason is that the distribution of images on the internet is regulated by algorithms that are hidden from us, as users, and accessible only to specialists. Thus, we cannot judge the way these algorithms operate. The only thing we know about them is this: they function in a way that makes it easier to access popular images than unpopular ones. The internet prefers the popular over the unpopular. If one shares the opinion that popularity is the best, if not the only, criterion for the quality of art, then it’s only logical to prefer the internet over the museum system.

Indeed, in museums, as we know them, one finds a lot of images that can hardly be characterized as popular. One can argue that museum curators act in the name of their own taste—and against the general public’s taste. And, what is even more important, they often act against the taste of the communities in which the museums are situated. This is, today, the main line of criticism directed against museums: when people go to museums, they want to see images that correspond more to their cultural identity and tastes. There are, of course, some counterarguments—for example, that a museum should not only reflect the tastes of the community in its immediate vicinity but also art history and the international art scene. This is an old conversation, and it makes no sense to start it again here. It’s enough to say that it’s a rational conversation—that is, a conversation that helps us understand what we want to see when we think we want to see art.

This conversation is rational because a museum exhibition is always based on principles and criteria that can be rationally formulated. When we visit an exhibition, we look not only at the exhibited images and objects; we also reflect on the spatial and temporal relationships between them, their hierarchies, the curatorial choices and strategies that produced the exhibition, etc. Here individual artworks are removed from their original contexts and put into a new, artificial context in which images and objects meet in a way they could never meet “historically,” in “real life.” In such exhibitions we can see, for example, Egyptian gods besides Mexican or Incan gods—in combination with the utopian dreams of the avant-garde that were never realized in “real life.” These juxtapositions implicate the use of violence, including economic and direct military violence. Thus, art exhibitions demonstrate the orders, laws, and trade practices that regulate our world as well as the ruptures to which these orders are subjected—wars, revolutions, crimes.

These orders cannot be “seen.” But they can and are made manifest in the structure of an exhibition, through the way it “frames” art. Here it’s important not to forget that every individual exhibition can be considered part of the virtual world exhibition. Indeed, the inclusion of any particular artwork or artist in an exhibition means, at least potentially, the inscription of this artwork or artist into the “art world,” the “global art milieu.” That’s why exhibition curators are traditionally accused of having too much power. Accordingly, not only global exhibitions, such as Documenta and the various biennials, but virtually all exhibitions are criticized for the choices they make. This critique is directed against curators, museum directors, and other responsible people. Their names are publicly known, their opinions and attitudes are also mostly known, and thus they can be criticized in a rational, understandable way.

The internet, on the contrary, is anonymous. One criticizes big corporations for their lack of censorship, for allegedly allowing the circulation on the internet of too much “fake news” and other information that’s damaging to public order and moral standards. However, one obviously cannot criticize Google or Microsoft for preferring, let’s say, Jeff Koons over Joseph Kosuth. One can only state that Koons is more popular than Kosuth—so a user has a good chance of seeing images of Koons’s work on the internet. The internet as such has no taste that can be criticized. Nor do the people creating algorithms have a specific taste in art they would like to impose on the public. The taste that manifests itself in and through the internet is popular taste.

But then the question arises: Where did the internet public come from? Obviously, the internet public is a product of the internet. There was no internet public before the internet. When we speak about popularity, we speak about populus. But populus is always a construction. As a rule, the demos, populus, or nation is created by a state. If the borders of the state change, its populus also changes. Museums also produce their public. To become a part of the museum public means to decide to go—more or less frequently—to museums. One is not born an art spectator, as one is born a citizen of the state. One becomes part of the museum public as a result of a commitment, of a conversion. In our secular culture the museum is heir to the Church. That’s why one can also cease to be a part of the museum public, losing interest in art and trading it for an interest in, say, football. But one can also start a revolt against the dominant museum-church and found a new sect.

However, the internet public is not formed by any state authority or any ideological or cultural conversion. It’s simply comprised of the mass of people who have enough money and the available infrastructure to access the internet. People get on the internet not to see art but to solve their ordinary life problems. The internet is primarily a medium of consumption. The access that internet users have to art can be compared not to a visit to a museum, but to the experience of hearing music at the supermarket. Is it possible to criticize the taste of this noncommitted public? Of course not. The reason for this impossibility is clear enough.

One can criticize the taste of another if it takes the form of an aesthetic judgment based on certain principles and criteria. One can argue that these principles and criteria are wrong or that they are interpreted in the wrong way. In other words, one can criticize the taste of professional artists, curators, and, we might say, professional art spectators. But the reaction of the internet public to art is different. One simply says: I like it or I don’t like it. One is not a Kantian art lover who wants others to share their taste and so makes arguments to justify it. If I do not insist that other people share my taste and do not argue in support of it, my taste becomes uncriticizable. Thus, the taste of the internet public is uncriticizable. Indeed, the flip side of so-called respect for the taste (opinions, desires, etc.) of others is the immunization of one’s own taste (opinions, desires, etc.) from rational argumentation. What remains is only: “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” It seems that by rejecting any criticism of the taste of others, I, as a reward, receive total freedom for my own taste—liberated from the dictatorship of curators and critics and, in general, from the opinions of others.

However, dependence on others does not disappear. It takes a different form. Before, I was dependent on the taste of museum curators and had to see what they wanted to show me. Today I have to see what is popular. What is not popular does not enter into visibility; it disappears from public view. This is true for ordinary commodities. The same is true in the aesthetic and political spheres. Thus, I can still see only what others show me. The only difference from the past is this: earlier I could criticize the taste of curators, but it makes no sense to criticize popular taste because it operates beyond the sphere of rational language. Today, I can only complain that I cannot see what popular taste does not want to see—even if it’s not clear what this alternative could be.

Museums, Internet
Artificial intelligence, Algorithms

Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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