The World’s Best Artists
Olga Fernández LópezProfessor of contemporary art and curatorial studies at UAM
Contribution to the book Cristina Garrido. The Best Job in the World, published by Fundación DIDAC (Santiago de Compostela, 2022).
If this text were a book, it would be a crime novel, a story of restorative justice in which the detective, in solving a crime, would clear the charges against a group of innocent suspects, while she investigates and uncovers a setting over which, in passing, she casts a social critique. The real culprits probably end up getting off scot free while the detective’s gut instincts are further confirmed even as she comes out the other side changed. When digging into the past you run the risk of having to rewrite the future. The best work in the world could refer to an artwork or a vocation, but it could also be the robbery of the century or a perfect crime: a murder without a corpse or one in which the murder weapon is unwittingly eaten by those most interested in finding it. This story begins with a trial.
In legal terms, reasonable doubt refers to the degree of certainty that a judge or jury must have before finding the defendant guilty of a crime. This means that the jury must make its ruling after having weighed up whether the accused is guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This exercise could be viewed as contrary to the process undertaken by the prosecutor, whose job is to present sufficient evidence to make the facts of the case plausible. Reasonable doubt works in the opposite direction: to question the evidence to the point of introducing enough uncertainty to suggest the possibility, however small, that the defendant has not committed the crime. The field of art is prone to producing situations of reasonable doubt and very often it is difficult, if not impossible, to decide not just whether something is art, but whether something is sufficiently artistic1,as pointed out by one of the participants in the project El mejor trabajo del mundo by Cristina Garrido. Or, put another way, whether some people are sufficiently artists. These suspects inhabit, hesitantly or dismissively, the thorny ground of reasonable doubt. In the conversations our detective held with a group of eight possible suspects, the issue of self-identification, or not, as artists emerges as one of the key questions in connecting the differing personal and professional experiences of the interviewees. As expected, the answer is not as important as the stories they recount which, perhaps inevitably, give rise to more than reasonable doubts.
In Art on the Internet Boris Groys claims that the first attempt to defictionalize art in favour of reality took place in the avant-garde2. Following Peter Bürger’s well-known theoretical premise, the avant-garde strove to uncover the material, technological and institutional framework of the arts by dissecting the very framework itself. Later on, this aspiration took the form of different practices that are encompassed today under the catch-all of institutional critique. A large part of Cristina Garrido’s artistic output is indebted to this ambition to shed light on the fictions and aporias that underpin the field of the production of symbolic capital, to put it in Pierre Bourdieu’s terms. In this sense, El mejor trabajo del mundo is an evident continuation of the artist’s ongoing systematic analysis of the mechanisms and dispositifs that gird the contemporary artwork with material and discursive form, particularly those that impinge upon the public presentation of artists and their works.
At first sight, the project endeavours to engage with the circumstances that facilitated and, at once, limited the formation, socialization and professionalization of Spanish artists in the late-eighties and the nineties. To throw light, however briefly, on the shadow area in which the suspects dwell, it was necessary to turn the spotlight onto the other. To that end, and opposed to the more commonplace option of contacting artists who had managed to remain active in the circuit, Garrido carried out a series of interviews with others who, at a certain point in their lives, decided to give up professional art practice: either those who decided to stop working or to stop showing their work. Expressed again in the words recorded in one of the interviews, to pay attention to everything that the sea of creativity throws up, what it leaves behind on the shoreline: works, people and situations that are not visible.
This gaze required a setting to be created that would provide a voice to a generation for whom the constant spotlight of visibility, productivity and continuous validation in the form of exhibitions, events, sales, scholarships, awards, reviews, recognition, triggered a process of disillusionment and exhaustion. Mixing different sounds and frequencies: opposing the fantasy (or naivety) of developing life tailored to your skills in the artistic medium, to a sensation that began to break around the thirties, a sense of being separated from the flock, a self-expulsion (in one case expressed as artistic suicide), to finally come to terms with I do whatever I want and I leave the consideration of whether I am an artist or not to others. And while accepting that every interview contains a degree of stage setting, the dramatization of these experiences as a choral production, behind anonymous masks, helps to shape the portrait of a generation, over and above proper names and personalized stories, and enables a subtler approach to the context.
The crime scene
In recent years we have seen various historical analyses that gave an account, from critical positions, of the contemporaneization of the field of art in Spain in those times. More specifically, there is a plethora of texts describing the causes and consequences of the replacement of a post-Francoist and modern art system with a neoliberal contemporary one. Among many other possible characterizations of our art field, they addressed issues such as governmental and regional politics, institutional politicization, market dysfunctionality, the unbridled growth of art centres, neglect of educational practices, lack of critique, the rise of curatorship, the anxiety for internationalization, the scant opportunities for community participation or the spectacularization and touristification of culture. That being said, none of them examined collective memory, that active history that operates in the present, and none of them enlightens us on the longings, learnings, pressure, disillusionment, pain, resistance, disaffection, mourning or the reinvention of the artists who embody this period. Nor indeed on aspects hard to grasp in another way, like, for instance, the subtleties of gender issues that cut across their bodies and discourses, more perceptibly applicable to women artists but also to men.
The singularity of each agent, the shared generational experience and the conditions of historical possibility all meet at this intersection of narrations by former artists (who possibly still are in other ways). However, the question that Cristina Garrido asks of our institutional prehistory and which seems to support the directionality of a coherent trajectory, her own, is ultimately resized in various directions. On one hand, it affects her own work. It would seem, a little quantumly, if you allow me a momentary lapse into science fiction, as if the pieces by the artist were a kind of compensation, at once induced and deferred, so that a previous generation could obtain answers to questions that they did not wish to or could not pose back then, in such a transitional moment. In this way, the temporalities connect in both directions: it is not from the past where a linear narration is established that ends up explaining our present, but rather the present of the suspects intersects with Garrido’s work to generate a new narrative that is organized from lived experience. The theatrical quality of the piece unquestionably adds to this conjunction of temporalities. On the other hand, the work poses a question, beyond epochal conditionings, on the repetition of certain conflicts and life dilemmas that atemporally affect the best workers in the world, and not just artists.
The conversations readily reveal some particular tones of the moment: the deficiency of teaching in Fine Art schools as opposed to the symbolic and practical value of institutions like Arteleku, the mirage of an incipient yet insufficient market, represented by the ARCO art fair and characterized by short-lived galleries, institutional abuse, camaraderie between artists and the coexistence of painting, conceptual art and performative practices, which was not as conflictive as it was made out to be. With respect to leading artists, Isidoro Valcárcel Medina and Joseph Beuys stand out as significant figures with far-reaching and wide-ranging influence. The former is noted for his pedagogical transcendence when it comes to offloading the obsolete burdens of academic learning, his concise and sober practice, the need for practically nothing in order to make art, the one-off intervention in surrounding reality, the ephemeral condition of practice itself. The latter assimilated the possibility of reparation but, above all, he is known for his material work, self-organisation, the possibility of expanded art and social sculpture. It is worth recalling that the reception of Beuys’s work and ideology in Spain was especially significant in the eighties and the first half of the nineties. Between 1981 and 1996, one can trace various exhibitions (Caja de Pensiones, Galería Edurne, Fundación Miró, Museo Reina Sofía, among others) and interviews, reviews and monographs in journals (Guadalimar, Arena, Buades, Lápiz, Zehar, Creación). Almost one appearance per year on the artworld public opinion. The interest in his figure coincides with a moment of post-Fluxus revival that animated some performative practices. However, perhaps more than this development, Beuys had a less literal influence in the effective acceptance of epistemological change that this artist posed with respect to art and creativity.
Unlike the presence of Valcárcel Medina, which has been silent yet constant and influential in the Spanish art scene over the years, Beuys’s historiographical fortune and recognition as part of the sentimental and artistic education of a generation began to be overshadowed in the mid-nineties. Beuys went from being a widely recognized creator to being an example of the kind of artist identified with Messianism and with a practice of a symbolic order associated with materials, far removed from (neo)conceptual demands and the critical character that some agents, like José Luis Brea, demanded from the Spanish art context. This proposal coincides with the decline of German references, up until then central to art in Spain, a certain confusion of Beuys with neoexpressionist artists and a growing reception of US practices and discourses among critics and historians. How and ever, following the interviews, one could put forward the hypothesis that the intervention in social reality by some of them, under different professional practices, seems to have been underpinned by the conscious expansion of a creativity that overstepped the ordered field of art. It turns out that reasonable doubt is also at work in the search for a body to resolve the crime.
Returning to Boris Groys, according to the author, the split between the private gaze and experience, on one hand, and the public gaze and exhibition, on the other, is one of the constitutive elements of modern artists. In the aforementioned text, analysing the fictionalization of the creative subject with the advent of Internet, the author briefly outlines some of the arguments around which the paradigm prior to the global network was organized. For Groys, modern artists tried to instigate a revolution against the dominant mechanisms of institutional identification, against the identities assigned to them and in favour of sovereign self-identification. To this end it proves highly germane that creative work was de-synchronized from the public gaze. This work ought to be carried out in a time of reclusion, separated from a later moment of exhibition or public presentation of the work. For Groys, following Sartre, this distance was fundamental for the activity of the modern artist in order to eschew its reification under the gaze of the other and to enable a future project that would keep open the possibilities for changes in its subjectivity. This period of absence could last days, months, years or even a whole lifetime. The important thing is that the creative work should remain hidden from the eyes of others and that its exhibition could take place hypothetically, even though it might never actually happen or only posthumously.
As opposed to this practical and discursive conception of the modern artist, for Groys the possibility of keeping the text of an author fictional vanished with the inscription of artists in Internet, given that this fictionalization is handed over and annulled when mixed with the information on the artist as person. In his words: “Art is presented on the internet as a specific kind of activity: as documentation of a real working process taking place in the real, offline world.”3 Groys specifically underscores that the search for information on an artist in Internet gives us, at once, their biography, their works, their activities inside and outside the art world, reviews, images, details of their private life and webpages (their own or their galleries), where you can find portfolios, documentation of their activities, their creative processes or other kinds of information. Besides taking on an aestheticized form, this documentation can be changed, reformatted, rewritten. Internet has become not just a place for exhibiting and distributing art, but a workplace. This situation made him wonder whether the apparent guarantee of the fiction of the offline work with respect to its online reproducibility is not transformed by this expansion of the artist’s productive-creative dimension. Following this argument, the appearance in this catalogue of sketches, exercises or drawings by Cristina Garrido from periods prior to her public presentation as an artist digs deeper into the question of the effects of this expansion.
With regards our suspects, in the vast majority of cases, it is complicated and exhausting work to find clues on Internet that would lead us to resolve our doubts. Their trail on internet is practically non-existent. It is clear that they have all left the scene of the crime and, in some cases, it is not even possible to know if they were ever there in the first place. Despite the efforts of a good detective like Garrido digging into the least accessible archives (catalogues, posters, photos, reviews) and questioning friends and secondary sources to get her hands on evidence of the moments before the disconnection, perhaps, as we pointed out, the past is not as important as the present. The question is whether you still think about making art, in the words of one of them. And so, merely listening to their stories we can catch a glimpse of the corpus delicti, which keeps on cropping up, displaced or transmuted to the field of intimacy, privacy, labour or the imagination. Perhaps, our suspects’ self-concealment of their past is a necessary ploy in order to keep on working in the shadows, making the best works in the world.
The case seems to be closed and our novel looks like it is drawing to a conclusion. We have misplaced the murder weapon and the body, our suspects continue with their lives as if the detective had never interrupted them, fine arts schools remain locked in their ivory towers, artists are still precarious, the art world shows sign of fatigue, collecting is still conspicuous by its absence, many institutions continue to be politicized, internationalization is still the longed-for guest that never arrives, internet has changed the rules of the game. It is no surprise that a crime novel has a bittersweet ending.
And yet we are left with the pleasure of the novel and the single-minded piecing together of the archive. Archive practice, like the case at hand, has allowed artists to question official histories, to open participation to the reconstruction of shared pasts that had remained hidden, creating memory from the body of individual and collective experiences and also transforming imaginaries. Aware of their value as repositories of temporalities, artists not only rummage in, shed light on and rewrite from already existing archives, but they have also striven to create new ones. Archives, both old and new, containing everything from the most reliable documentation to the most outlandish fiction, have enabled a non-historicist opening up of the past that is projected on the present and the future.
To be continued…
1. Expressions in italics are extracts from interviews, opting for italics instead of inverted commas to underscore the different voice.
2. Boris Groys, “Art on the Internet”, in In the Flow, London, Verso, 2016.