Artspeech at MoMA, New York

by Michelle Millar Fisher, June 2011

What is “art speech” and how does it function and change across contexts, as art practice, interpretive gesture, vehicle of critique or connoisseurial, canonical voice? Is the spoken word just a lesser afterimage of text or is art speech always more compelling in person? Part of the annual Contemporary Art Forum at MoMA, Art Speech, co-organized by director of public programs Pablo Helguera and art historian James Elkins, attempted to wrestle with these questions. Unsurprisingly, for a forum that aimed to deconstruct the very format it took as its modus operandi, hot air was in plentiful supply over the course of the two day symposium. The moderators sometimes struggled to distill questions and elicit audience response, but maybe that was the point: art speech nimbly defies definition and is difficult to facilitate en masse. That Helguera and Elkins offered a forum for these questions was the important part.

Yale philosophy professor Jonathan Gilmore set the scene with a reflection on one of the genealogical roots of art speech, a historiography of the art history slide lecture. Taking most of the audience on a journey back to their college days, he described the “ideal beholder,” the lecturer holding forth in a darkened hall who unites as he informs the audience in their own silent acts of looking at a projected image. Presented as an archaic model of art speech, it was nevertheless the very same act he committed, demonstrating how little the museum public program has developed and thus the difficulty (and necessity) of this self-reflexive symposium. Witte de With staffer Monika Szewczyk took up the baton with a critique of MoMA’s audio guides, commending one for blind visitors before focusing on the collection guide voiced by curator Ann Tempkin. While she fretted about Tempkin’s “reductive view of Cubism” and described artworks as a “battleground” ripe for competing and contested interpretations, she seemed unable to realize an alternative that would work for MoMA’s heterogeneous audiences. Suggesting “a polyphony of voices” instead of Tempkin’s sovereign one, her revised “utopian proposal” demonstrated that, perhaps, commentary from a few more art historians, with artist quotes thrown in, could suffice as enough range. In Szewczyk’s world, art speech is still a one-way street between an institutional voice and an audience where one spoke and the other listened, no questions asked.

Must art speech be a binary exchange between speaker and silent audience? The symposium seemed to have been designed to challenge this status quo, and yet artist Carey Young reinforced the divide even as she deconstructed it, delivering a dynamic overview of her piece Speechcraft (2009) as another podium lecture. Speechcraft is a mass performance event where Young uses her studio as the preexisting Toastmasters Club, an organization devoted to advancing the public speaking skills of its members, and the format of their meetings as a readymade, a utopian community within which to mold speech into art. Her work provokes questions about what we expect from a lecture on art, who it should be given by and in what context. Like Young, the recent pedagogical turn in contemporary art has seen artists from Tino Sehgal to the Bruce High Quality Foundation embrace art speech where Andrea Fraser once purloined it, taking institutional languages as their medium. With the specter of the “entertainment economy” of the museum as backdrop, both speakers and audience members expressed concern that the idea of performativity, a nebulous and much overused concept in contemporary art discourses, could now be stretched ever-further to describe art speech today.

A video excerpt of T.J. Clark lecturing on Pissaro and Cezanne was the focus of much of the rest of the symposium, played and then taken apart, first by Claus Noppenay, a Swiss professor of economics and a neophyte art historian, and then by Ellen Levy, professor of poetry at Pratt, who likened Clark’s emotional speaking style to lyric poetry. The night concluded with Benajmin Binstock’s excellent short film on old masters and provenance research, which underlined the play of politics and economies in speaking about art, a conversation that deserved a symposium of its own. The next day Donald Preziosi delivered a familiar presentation and first year Ph.D student Anna Kryczka was criticized for presenting at the opposite end of the spectrum, too early in her research. Performance artists Our Literal Speed parodied, Alexander Alberro pontificated and Charles Altieri waxed lyrical, demonstrating various approaches to and reception of art speech without necessarily ever getting to the crux of questions that lingered, half-asked, by an audience both engaged and anxious for their turn. As Jonathan Gilmore suggested at the beginning of the program, we place great expectations on art speech to uplift us, to edify us, to leave us intangibly yet powerfully “touched,” maybe even changed. However, it seems those tasked with programming and presenting in institutions are still scared to properly allow their audiences to take these reins. When art speech works, it allows for pause, for silence, for listening, for the absence of speech in order to engage others in thought, word or deed.  Clark presciently suggested from the recesses of the video archive that the artwork and the public program “often do not give answers to the questions we came crying to ask. Are we asking the wrong ones?” His voice, perhaps the most powerful of the symposium, underlined the agonistic friction between speaking and listening, and the delicate line between art speech as success or failure. A lesson for us all.

Contemporary Art Forum: Art Speech, A Symposium on Symposia
20 + 21 May 2011
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street, New York