Channels of Distribution

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 2/ 2015: Other voices, other rooms

The seminar ‘Re-public Jewellery’, which I discuss in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine, advocates that the public sphere is a natural environment for jewellery art. Crafts disciplines like textile and ceramics may historically have been more linked to the private sphere of the home, but for jewellery, the social aspect is crucial. However, the concept of the public sphere is problematic, for often in aesthetical discourse, it is conceived as the opposite of the white cube found in museums and galleries. The dichotomy here is strange because these are public institutions, in principle accessible to all. The curator Juan A. Gaitan argues that the institutions that hold exhibitions and the exhibition format itself, contrary to what the art jewellery seminar implies, serve a significant function in the public sphere. Rather than standing in opposition to the public sphere, he sees the white cube as one of the important venues where the public becomes public. He writes in his essay What is the Public?: ‘In fact, exhibitions were one of the first manifestations of the birth of the bourgeois public sphere’.[i]  

The bourgeois public sphere

There is an important point made in this quote that may be read as a critique of the exhibition format, the museum institutions that foster it, and the public sphere itself. According to Jürgen Habermas – perhaps the most influential thinkers on modernity and the public sphere in postwar Europe, especially through his 1962 publication The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – the public sphere is a concept of the bourgeoisie. Prior to the 1800th century the concept of a ‘public’ as opposed to a ‘private’ sphere did not exist. New social structures in Europe were backgrounded by the development of industry, expanding cities, the capitalist economy and post-Enlightenment concepts of democracy and free speech. The public sphere emerged out of the rational-critical debates that occurred in salons and coffeehouses.[ii] Richard Sennett, in his book The Fall of Public Man (1977), states that in about 1750, coffeehouses constituted a sphere where class, personality and social background were of little or no significance; emphasis was on rational argumentation – a joint effort between rational men to solve societal problems through discussion, which in turn led to political action.[iii]

However, in the quote above, Gaitan stresses the word bourgeois because the public sphere may not, after all, be accessible to everyone (which is what the idea of ‘the public’ implies). A little later in the essay he writes that ‘the public’ means ‘the segment of society that visits museums, libraries, galleries, concert halls, cineplexes, circuses, and theatres; watches television, listens to radio, and so on’. In other words ‘the public sphere has a number of forms’ which can be seen as gatherings of ‘non-parallel and exponentially individualistic identities and interests’. There are, in his view, exclusions that are ‘performed by the apparent inclusiveness of the public sphere’ and it may be that exhibitions of contemporary works serve a function here: ‘in the encounter with art the public sees itself reassured as belonging to a humanity that, even fragile, is also eternal’.[iv]

The public doesn’t exist

It’s not entirely clear what Gaitan’s view on the public sphere is, but it seems that he believes that there is no true public other than that which is manifested through exhibitions and other forms of cultural production. At least he concludes his essay by stating that the public is ‘the culture industry’s phantom limb’. In an interview humorously called ‘Public Enemy’ in the Norwegian website Kunstkritikk,[v] Andrea Phillips, Director of PhD programmes in the Art Department at Goldsmiths/University of London, makes a similar statement; she makes the claim that there is no such thing as the public: ‘The idea of the public is a political phantom which never really existed; therefore we have to work on solidarity within institutions on a more pragmatic level’, she says. A little later in the interview, she talks about art in public spaces:

'I suggest that in order to build new communities and fulfil the promises that the art world posits within the concept of public art, we actually have to drop the idea of the public completely. The concept of the public is formed through a European post-Enlightenment liberalism, which is itself a precursor of the neoliberal privatisation that we are completely enveloped by in the US and the UK – and that you are currently facing in Scandinavia.'

Habermas and Sennett’s concept of the public sphere is an inclusive social ‘space’ where everyone has access regardless of political, religious or other views, and regardless of social background: ‘We call events and occasions “public” when they are open to all, in contrast to closed or exclusive affairs’, Habermas writes. The public sphere consists of arenas ‘where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated’; it is, in his view, a ‘collective body constituted by, and in this process’.[vi]

As Phillips, Habermas and Sennett state in various ways, the concept of ‘the public’ derives from ideas spawned during the Enlightenment; humans are reasonable individuals, and the abilities to think analytically and independently are available to everyone and thus universal. Enlightenment thinkers rejected traditional social, religious and political ideas and stressed the belief that science and logic give people more knowledge and understanding than tradition and religion. To sum up so far: the bourgeois public sphere can thus be said to consist of private, reasonable citizens grouping together in a common social space to share views and experiences as part of improving society for all. This is what Phillips calls ‘a political phantom’.

Plural publics

While Habermas and Sennett seem to agree on how the public sphere emerged (as mentioned above), they differ on how its history has played out. In Sennett’s analysis, the public sphere has become tainted by the intimacy that belongs to the private sphere, furthermore, people’s personalities are now rated as more valuable than good argumentation. In Habermas’s view, the public sphere has eroded and collapsed due to economic and structural changes. The bureaucratic state, he thinks, has taken over people’s private lives.  

Sennett, in many ways, revisits this discussion 40 years after publishing The Fall of Public Man, in a new book which made him known in the crafts world, namely The Craftsman.[vii] Here he points to craftsmanship – to doing something well for its own sake – and the dynamic that can be found in the work system of the workshop. Every worker’s role is clear. The roles are structured somewhat hierarchically, but all the craftsmen can express rational criticism regardless of their place in that hierarchy. Sennett sees this situation as an ideal for a society where (public) individuals work together to improve life, be it through improving an everyday object, a computer system, or political society.

In recent debates on the concept of ‘the public’, there has been a discussion of plural publics. Is it feasible, for example, to divvy up the all-inclusive (universal) concept of the public? If it is the case that not everyone is included in the unified concept of ‘the public’ – if a person only has access to only one among many publics – then there is no true public sphere. Assuming this to be the case, it is one reason why Phillips thinks we should stop talking about ‘the public’, and rather talk about ‘the commons’:  

'To a certain extent the issue of public and publics has been developed with the idea of ‘the commons’, which is a post-medieval concept of equal and free access to land use among the peasantry. But we have to understand the commons as very pragmatic mechanisms based on fair trade and fair use. It’s actually quite a good model in terms of rethinking how to use art institutions.'

Common ground and contact zones

In the essay Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden, curator Maria Lind describes an exhibition she curated in Tensta Konsthall, on the outskirts of the Swedish capital. In my view, it represents a radical rethinking of how to use art institutions. Lind’s complex exhibition, with the same title as her essay, actively engaged various members of the local community – a community consisting of a large number of people from different cultural, religious, political and social backgrounds. The exhibition extended beyond Tensta Konsthall’s premises. Various cultural groups in the area were invited to participate: drawings by the Somali artist Amin Amir were included, as was archival material from the Kurdish community.

In the essay, Lind reflects on anthropologist Mary Louis Pratt’s concept of ‘contact zones’ – a term Pratt uses to describe ‘social spaces where various cultures try to deal with each other, often through asymmetrical relations of power’.[viii] Lind explains that when these contact zones are active, transcultural communication can occur, which is what happened in and around Tensta Konsthall. In many ways Lind’s exhibition was about reclaiming a role for the art institution as part of public life in Tensta. In reclaiming this role, the boundaries between the art institution and the outside world became blurred.

In my view, this exhibition and the way Lind worked with the art institution challenges the notion of ‘the public’ in a productive way. While Phillips talks about ‘the commons’ as something pragmatic and, it seems, very much connected with having access to physical spaces, the contact zones that Lind establishes through the institution of Tensta Konsthall are very much in line with what Habermas says about the public sphere as an arena ‘where meanings are articulated, distributed, and negotiated’.[ix] Still, as Habermas points out, power relations are never symmetrical. An art institution, as an authority, has a special responsibility to establish these contact zones and to make them as accessible as possible.  

Art vs the public

I will leave Phillips and Lind here and move on to a discussion that the editorial board of the Norwegian art magazine Kunstforum (where I am editor-in-chief) had when we were planning an issue on ‘public art’.[x] When deliberating over which artists and discourses to include in the magazine, a question emerged: When is art ‘public’, and if it is not public, what is it? What is the antithesis of public art?

We conceived the ‘natural habitat’ for art to be the exhibition format because it seems so logical that art should be displayed in museums and galleries. We do not ask ourselves why art is shown in a museum or a gallery; when a work of art is in a gallery it is by definition a work of art. It is confirmed as a work of art, meaning it is elevated from being a ‘common’ object to being an object of cultural significance. At the same time, it is reduced to a work of art, meaning that it attains value within the institutional framework, but that that value is also confided to the institutional space; if it is provoking, we can just tell ourselves that ‘oh, it’s just a work of art, it’s supposed to be provoking’ – it does not really affect the political world outside, at least very rarely, and in any case, not directly. Art may very well change the way we think about the world, and that renewed thinking may lead to social change, but it rarely has a direct political impact on society. In fact, from a Kantian perspective, art should not be a means to an end at all, but be of value in its own right.

However, if a work of art is shown in a space outside the art institutions, for instance in front of a train station or in the entrance hall of a governmental building, or if it is distributed through other means such as radio or a fashion magazine, we experience it differently and from another perspective that we would within an art institution. The work may in fact very well be ignored altogether, we do not really see it as art, and maybe it has to vie for attention due to being surrounded by billboards, cars, people and other things. Or perhaps it just blends in with architecture and the physical space. The work may also provoke the general public for reasons that may not be evident to art world insiders. In Norway, for instance, certain artworks have triggered heated debates in national media, on account of the atrocities the works represent.

This of course can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on what an artist seeks to achieve, but ultimately it shows that the context of a given art institution makes a work of art accessible to the public as art, while the contexts outside the artworld do not necessarily make the work accessible as art. In the final analysis, it may seem as though art and the public are, in fact, at odds with each other. Maybe art is, after all, a ‘public enemy’.

Poetry as raw material

In the public art issue of Kunstforum, we included an interview with the poet and artist John Giorno,[xi] who has been very inventive in distributing his words. This was especially so in the 1960s when he (besides being Andy Warhol’s lover for a while, sharing an apartment with William S. Burroughs and hanging around all the cool people in the Pop Art scene, the poetry scene and the experimental sound scene in New York at the time) established Giorno Poetry Systems as a platform for reaching a larger audience. Through the 1960s, he published poems in books and magazines, performed poetry readings (he even started a poetry festival) and recorded poems in his loft. These were released as LPs, and, as Giorno recalls, were often played on local radio channels:

'We invented spaces to do poetry. Our albums became very popular, mini-bestsellers on the independent scene. We would send them out to various FM-radio [stations] all over the country, and they would play cuts from the albums. Suddenly, you’d get the weekly play charts and William Burroughs was number one.'[xii]

His most known ‘work’ from that time was ‘Dial-A-Poem’ – a phone service where you could call a number and get a poem read by poets like John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Jim Carroll. The work was part of an exhibition at MoMa in 1970, and according to Giorno, more than one million people called in after he put an ad in the New York Times. For the last twenty years or so, Giorno has re-entered the artworld with poetry paintings, but he stresses that he is a poet, not an artist.

The conversation I had with Giorno led me to think about ‘the public space’ as made up of various channels or systems of distributions. To Giorno, poetry is a raw material that may be transmitted through a number of means and media (which is not to say that the transmission system doesn’t affect the way the work is understood and experienced), making it available to different kinds of users or consumers.

Systems of distribution

When looking at the work of Franz Petter Schmidt in his exhibition Weaving Fabrics for Suits at Oslo Art Society, I was reminded of how Giorno worked with various distribution systems. The exhibition showed the work Schmidt had been involved in for more than a decade, especially in the last three years as a research fellow at Oslo Academy of the Arts. The website of Oslo Art Society has this to say:

'In the exhibition Schmidt has brought out various objects and stories from weaving mills, some that are closed down and others that are still in business, in order to focus on our valuation of both material and immaterial cultural heritage. It also includes suits sewn by tailors and designers, made of fabrics Schmidt has produced in the weaving mills with which he has collaborated.'[xiii]

Gjertrud Steinsvåg, who has interviewed Schmidt for Norwegian Crafts Magazine, writes about the exhibition:

'This dramaturgy creates a complex exhibition. While thoroughly orchestrated, it is imbued with a certain je ne sais quoi. Still, it attracts and fascinates me – and it makes me curious to dig into the layers of symbolic value in each element. It strikes me that it is the person Franz who fascinates me. That while Weaving Fabrics for Suits is a local, almost romantic story about materials and collective heritage, it is also a story about Franz himself.'

For Schmidt, the gallery is one way of ‘distributing’ his project – the story about materials, heritage and about himself – and he made a very conscious decision to show it in the clean, white cube at Oslo Art Society. Another distribution channel is his collaboration with the fashion collective HAiK (interviewed in Norwegian Crafts Magazine 1/ 2015), which has made a collection that uses his fabrics. These clothes are distributed and sold in various fashion stores. Through being worn by people, his works and all the stories that go into them are distributed in public.

Winding up this editorial, I would like to suggest that the public sphere and the white cube may productively be seen as complimentary channels of distribution. They are not in opposition to each other, nor do they require that we be conscious about the particularity of each channel. In fact, it would be logical to say that the public sphere in this perspective consists not of one channel of distribution, but several, all requiring specific means of communicating the ‘message’.

[i] Juan A. Gaitan: What is the Public? p. 33-39 in “Ten Fundamental Questions on Curating” (ed. Jens Hoffmann), Mousse Publishing, 2013.

[ii] Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (1962 trans. 1989), Polity, Cambridge.

[iii] Richard Sennett; The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

[iv] Juan A. Gaitan: What is the Public?

[v] Simen Joachim Helsvig: Public Enemy, 27.05.15, (last visited on 15.06.2015)

[vi] Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (1962 trans 1989), Polity, Cambridge.

[vii] Richard Sennett: The Craftsman, Yale University Press, 2008.

[viii] Maria Lind: Tensta Museum: Reports from New Sweden, p. 83-103 in “Documents on Contemporary Crafts no. 3: Crafting Exhibitions” (ed. André Gali), Norwegian Crafts & Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2015.

[ix] Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, (1962 trans 1989), Polity, Cambridge.

[x] Kunstforum 1/ 2015

[xi] Andre Gali: ‘Paintings by a Poet’, Kunstforum 1/ 2015.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] http://www.oslokunstforening.n... (last visited om 16.06.2015)