Stockholm Syndrome: A Letter to the editors of Artforum, and a response.


Joe Scanlan’s “Fair Use” [Artforum, May 2010], which takes the recent Tino Sehgal show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York as its pretext, is more a conceptual piece than an essay. Mr. Scanlan does not advance an argument. Rather he takes up a paradox, with apparent foreknowledge of the danger, as a magician might handcuff himself. The trick is not to extricate himself but to redeem the paradox by turning it into mock praise: “The worse the work is, the better it is. The more trite it is, the more profound it is,” and so forth. The complex structure of Mr. Scanlan’s argument and the elaborate typography that is required for its presentation seem to suggest not that art is being dumbed down but that the complexity is being relocated. Even though I think he is wrong about Sehgal’s work, I do not doubt that the almost unsayable complexity of his response is appropriate and that all appropriate responses are comparably complex.

Mr. Scanlan tells us at the outset that he chooses “to consider writing as a useless labor, apolitical and of little moral significance.” Immediately the complexity mounts. His piece is, despite his choice, perhaps political, almost certainly morally significant, and, though not doing what he intends, certainly useful or at least effective. If he is to say anything, he cannot not say what he is loath to say: Tino Sehgal’s This Progress filled the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum, an emptiness notable for the vastness of its emptiness, with nothing. The Museum of Non-Objective Art finally exhibited a work of utter abstraction.

Mr. Scanlan is truly appropriated: “The point of Sehgal’s work isn’t our apprehension of it, but its apprehension of us.” I will mention only his concluding attempt to deflate the paradox, with which he wrestles throughout the piece. It’s a low blow. Tino Sehgal, he tells us, is just like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Sehgal and Professor Hill have no legitimate talent or craft and both produce the same kitschy, feel-good results. Mr. Scanlan, however, scrupulously notes the difference: Harold Hill is a con man and Tino Sehgal is not. Why is Sehgal not a con man? Because Joe Scanlan is writing about him (trying and failing to say that he is a con man) in Artforum. Whatever he writes legitimates Sehgal’s “juggernaut of a career.”

I was an interpreter of This Progress, one of the elders who closed the conversations and sealed the deal with a final handshake. One hip visitor, who had discerned the pattern of aging interpreters, asked if I took him to a dead guy at the top. Another, less hip, having been asked at the bottom of the ramp if she wanted to see a work by Tino Sehgal, asked me, at the top, where it was. Occasionally, I was so bored with a visitor that I suggested he or she stop off in the museum shop, but some of the conversations cut deep. There was a guy who had just left the Marine Corps. He had been in the Special Forces. I asked, “Does that mean you assassinated presidents of small countries and things like that?” “You might say things like that,” he said. I interpreted the work also with Tino’s father, who did not identify himself until we had finished. He is an engineer and seemed not quite to grasp Tino’s remarkable success. When I told Tino about it, he asked what we asked of all visitors: “How was he?” “He was great. He thinks progress is communication.” Everyone had to work at making meaning.

This Progress is perhaps art for the interpreters more than the visitors. The savviest visitors understood that the work was larger than their brief, sometimes humdrum or normative experience. The interpreters and visitors together made a vast abstract form partially manifest. People came from all over the world and paid their money to help us make a work that they trivially passed through.

The six-week-long work exceeds perception and challenges cognition. The interpreters were not exploited art workers, as Mr. Scanlan implies. As a visitor, he and the others were helping us—the privileged audience—make an art that no one could fully see or think. I was repeatedly asked if we were debriefed. People wanted the results compiled. Even the clueless, some of whom asked if we were doing a scientific survey, wanted a report. The content, to say nothing of the meaning, of This Progress, however, exceeds summary and statistical analysis, not as a mysterious object but as a wild-assed experiment in communication. Sehgal’s craft is organization. He creates not art objects but systems through which the evanescent stuff of art meaning flows.

Interpretations by the interpreters also fall short. Physical objects attain meaning by muddling themselves with metaphysics and theories of soulful labor. We were empty-handed, not even things to ourselves, flowing up the ramp, making meaning of what was, after all, our lives. It is not about expression, like The Music Man, but about communication.

—Don Byrd
Professor of English
State University of New York, Albany

Joe Scanlan responds:

Professor Byrd is right to assume that “Fair Use,” my text on Tino Sehgal, is a conceptual piece. This was stated, more or less, in the table of contents, where it was listed as an “Artist’s Project.” I’m not sure why that should be a problem, other than that Byrd seems troubled by the fact that I did not make the same superlative value judgments he does in writing about Seghal’s This Progress. But he is mistaken if he thinks that the text did not advance an argument, or that I was loath to do so.

At the risk of ruining a perfectly good piece of writing by explaining it, I think critical writing can hang its hat on inaction and nothingness just as well as artworks can, and on occasion might even be obligated to do so. I would like to think that “Fair Use” had at least a whiff of John Cage having nothing to say and saying it, or of Samuel Beckett, when asked what Waiting for Godot was about, allegedly answering, “How should I know? I wrote it.”

Writing “Fair Use” was not a struggle at all, in large part because many of the words were not my own. It was the most fun I have ever had writing about art, precisely because the editors at Artforum allowed me to make shirking my ethical responsibilities as a critic an integral part of the piece. I suppose the gesture of weaving other people’s words into the text whole cloth and passing the burden of value judgment on to the reader (thereby avoiding both labors myself) could be said to mirror Sehgal’s own approach to making art and its meaning—but saying so outright would kill that possibility’s pleasure and effect. In any case, this reflexivity seems not to have occurred to Professor Byrd. That isn’t surprising, since his letter suggests that deferring responsibility is a remarkably complex and worthwhile strategy when artists do it but a travesty when critics do. I don’t believe in such caste systems, and I think viewers and critics have as much right to be dissembling and self-serving as artists do.

What I wanted to avoid in “Fair Use”—and thus draw out through that avoidance—is the low-grade Stockholm syndrome that many people engaged in participatory art suffer, the primary symptom being their inability to accept that something quite underwhelming could result from so much time and energy spent in captive social engagement. It would be worthwhile to study the relationship between the two—between the empathy that hostages often develop for their captors and the rosy scenarios painted by advocates of participatory art—not only for the sake of understanding how we optimize the value of our input regardless of the quality of our experience, but also to begin to understand how art institutions might be attracted to participatory art as an instinctive form of biological survival. In other words, what Frank Ochberg, the psychiatrist widely credited with the psychiatric definition of Stockholm syndrome, described as “a primitive gratitude for the gift of life.”

That is as far as I got in my thinking while writing “Fair Use,” before I ran out of time and space, but anyone is welcome to pick up the thread. For now, suffice it to say that I think Sehgal’s show at the Guggenheim was worth hedging about in the manner that I did precisely because it was so average. It remains one of the most extraordinarily average things I have ever seen. That’s not a low blow. On the contrary, I think that’s an extremely insightful, even cathartic, observation. In these algorithmic times, it might be the highest compliment that can be paid to any artwork.