eng Automatic Translation
  • Aleksei Borisionok
  • Maria Kotlyachkova

What is institutional criticism and why does an artist need it?

2 lecture

Institutional critique is a set of post-war art strategies that addresses the economic, political, and social underpinnings of the art system in capitalist society, although the very idea of such critique was introduced by the Futurists in their 1909 manifesto, where they called for rivers to be reversed and museums to be flooded.

The project is also largely based on the practice of institutional criticism, where, using the example of the work of one institution (), it articulates criticism of the system of art education, its gaps and inertia.

Denoting a whole set of problems that did not suit the post-war artists - the dominance of the market, the connection between the production of art and its exhibition / collecting with capital, the conservatism and hierarchy of museums, galleries and educational institutions, the working conditions of the artists themselves - the artists developed a number of critical practices that exposed, problematizing and revealing the place of art in the economic system. This method of criticism was named and canonized as institutional criticism (hereinafter referred to as IC). Art theorist Herald Raunig denotes this practice as a "systematic study of institutions (museum, gallery, various foundations and forms of sponsorship)", the results of which will be built into the very structure of a work of art.

Philosopher Michel Foucault, in his analysis of repressive institutions (such as prison, school, hospital), overlooked seemingly neutral artistic organizations (this idea was later developed by the cultural theorist Tony Bennett).

However, the art system is a complex network of various relationships between institutions, artists, the market, the public, with its own logic of development, hierarchies and statuses, structures of inclusion and exclusion, which are subject to a certain economic system and, obviously, are not neutral or independent.

Often these mechanisms fall under the scope of criticism from the side of artists, who expose the mechanisms of the work of art organizations.

The anonymous feminist and anti-racist group Guerilla Girls has been criticizing the work of art institutions since 1985 through banners, posters, stickers and actions, representing the work of mostly white heterosexual male artists.

The inscription on the paper bag: "What's new at the Guggenheim Museum about discrimination against art lovers? All the same old "isms": racism, sexism, classism, ageism, eurocentrism, nepotism, elitism, phallocentrism." When the Guggenheim Museum opened its branch in Soho, the Guerilla Girls and the Women Action Coalition learned that women and artists of color were not included in the opening exhibition. They sent thousands of postcards criticizing the director of the museum and organized a demonstration during which they handed out paper bags to put on their heads, based on the old American joke: "a bag on a woman's head erases all distinctions."

There are plenty of examples of such mechanisms of oppression, the production of ideology and the establishment of hegemony in the artistic field in the Belarusian context. is a hard-to-reach space for exhibiting work, as it is more concerned with commercial gain – sub-renting spaces, holding exhibitions of honey, cats and dogs, fur coats, religious commodities. Basically, reporting and anniversary exhibitions of members are held here. Another example is , an institution that for many years has been led by a director who has shaped its reactionary policies. The museum rarely exhibits progressive artists, is afraid to voice any criticism and speak on political and socially significant topics, to educate its public and diversify its programs, collections and ways of exhibiting.

However, various IC strategies have proven to be underdeveloped in Belarus. In many ways, obviously, due to possible repressions and the inability to continue a career. In any case, the narratives of contemporary art in Belarus contain such works that articulated criticism of the art system.

Another significant example was the action of the group at the official opening of the Triennial, where the members of the group read in a performative way, called on the artists to boycott the official event and proposed a parallel program.

IC has undergone at least three transformations in historical and theoretical perspective, developing its own methods, visual languages and ways of criticism.


The "first generation" of IC includes artists such as Hans Haacke, Robert Smithson, Daniel Buren, Marcel Brodters and Michael Escher, all of whom were preoccupied with the problematic existence as artists in the art system in the 1970s. In this "wave" art institutions become objects of criticism when the production of art, the internal connections between the agents of the field, the market, property speculation, the general financing of art institutions and the military, militaristic industries are exposed.

The subject of the study of these artists was the systemic conditions that doomed them to creative functioning in the ideological and economic context of the museum. There was also a common desire to overcome this systemic conditionality.

Hans Haacke presented documentation of twenty years of commercial activities of Shapolsky, a business partner of many members of the Guggenheim Museum's board of trustees, associated with property speculation and gentrification processes.

The first wave of IR in the sixties was directed towards the idea of transforming the white cube into a tool for the production of new living knowledge, rather than a set of exhibited objects, each of which has an impressive cost. This aspiration led to the creation of the critical statements of Hans Haacke, the entry into other spaces of Robert Smithson, the radical poetics of Marcel Brodters and others.


However, the desire for "free expression" within the framework of a museum or gallery, based on a "spontaneous vital impulse", as well as interest in the peculiarities of the place of exposure, were easily canonized and built into the history of art by the institutions themselves, nullifying their critical pathos, which led to the emergence of the second wave IC in the 1980s–1990s. Among the most frequently mentioned are such names as Rene Green, Christian Philipp Muller, Fred Wilson and Andrea Fraser.

The artists of this generation first of all paid attention to the influence of the institutions of art on the very subjectivities of artists and the public. Andrea Fraser: "The outside does not exist for us because the institution is inside us, and we cannot get out of ourselves." In contrast to the first generation of IC, the artists showed that there is no "pure" art on which a museum or gallery imposes its own rules, but rather the objects of art themselves are built according to the same repressive institutional logics and impose them on the viewer. Therefore, the artists proposed a number of strategies for working with museum representation, analyzing its relationship with economic power, science, ways of exhibiting and the problems of the Other in the context of globalization.

The artist's dealer contracted a collector who agreed to have sex with the artist for approximately $20,000, resulting in a video simulating being filmed with a hidden camera in a hotel room. This work problematized the status of the exploited artist by male collectors, gallery owners and spectators.

Under the influence of feminism and criticism of globalization, they turned the IC to the very subject, in which the repressiveness of external power is rooted, analyzing the internal contradictions of art institutions, but at the same time ignoring the spaces of culture outside the market, which the third generation of the IC turned to.


The generation of the third wave of IC, which includes not only artists, but also curators, philosophers, and even the institutions themselves, use the metaphors of "escape, exit from the game, betrayal, desertion, exodus" (G. Raunig). They revolve around the economic analysis of the system of arts and cultural industries, as well as attempts to go beyond it through new forms of resistance (for example, associated with the notion of "multitude" and other theories and concepts of modern political theory).

Linked to this are projects that go beyond institutions, do not close in on themselves and open their spaces outside the market to intersect with other fields of knowledge – science, activist practices, local communities, self-established institutions, cooperatives – towards an attempt to invent new anti-authoritarian forms of life and art production.

Maurizio Catellan and his bogus Biennale, in which ten famous artists spent a week just relaxing in the Caribbean, is an honest attack on the endless, merciless and meaningless international biennale of contemporary art, in which the same famous names take part in a rally.

ART THOUGHTZ: Institutional Critique is a satirical hip-hop lecture about the institutional criticism of the American artist Jason Masson under the pseudonym of the art critic Hennesy Yongman (after the name of Hennessy, the cult hip-hop drink of golden youth). On his youtube channel you can find rap lectures on art theory on almost any topic.

On the other hand, the institutions themselves (mostly small-scale and city-funded) began to absorb and actively accept IC to transform their exhibition and educational programs, more oriented towards procedural educational programs, cooperation with surrounding communities and institutions, and more democratic politics.

The new Art and Architecture Biennale near Stockholm, in the Fitja district, mostly populated by immigrants. This is a project of the Kunsthalle Botkyrka Konsthall, in which the curator and artists of the project reflect on what kind of contemporary art institution is justified in such a context: is the white cube relevant, what kind of kitchen or even a garden is suitable for artistic experiments, what will be a library. The project, like Tensta Konsthall, is a critique of the exclusion of the immigrant audience from Sweden's cultural involvement.

Actually, we also have examples of the implementation of IC in the very work of institutions. For example, the gallery "Ў" presented the exhibition " ", in which it exposed the myths of the work of a private gallery, exposing the bureaucratic and organizational problems that a private organization has to experience in Belarus. The exhibition was made by all employees of the gallery, including the accountant.

In order for IC not to freeze in the form of canonized objects of art in museums and galleries, limited by their rules, it must intersect, flow and overlap other forms of criticism, contexts and audiences, take a self-critical position both in the very field of art and beyond.

We would formulate the conditions for the possibility of developing IC in our cultural field as the intersection of the practices of the first and second waves – tactical participation in exhibitions and projects that can sharply and polemically criticize the art system, and participation in those projects that can make it possible.

On the other hand, this is the horizon of the third wave of IC – a refusal, an exodus from the official system of art and the market in order to condense artistic practices and laboratories, a search for the intersection of art with other areas of knowledge, activism and science beyond the framework of opportunistic state projects and cultural markets.

In this sense, the work of is important, which could be described as post-institutional criticism, in which she not only criticizes post-socialist academism, but reveals the contradictions in understanding the autonomy of the artist in the context of academic painting and contemporary art.

Stay critical, stay dissatisfied, stay dissatisfied!

An example of the absurdity of the planned management of an art institution. The document is available on the website of the Academy of Arts. They want us to be no more than 19%. In fact, there are many more of us!

Texts about IC in the public domain:

1. The Giant Step . Reflections and Essays on Institutional Critique

2. Art and Contemporary Critical Practice (ed. By G. Raunig and G. Ray)

3. Issue of the magazine Transversal. Do You Remember Institutional Critique?



  • Aleksei Borisionok
  • Maria Kotlyachkova
  • Marina Naprushkina
  • Новое движение
  • Facultative course of Activist Criticism (FAC)
  • Belarusian State Academy of Arts
  • Palace of Arts
  • Belarusian Union of Artists
  • Museum of Modern Fine Art