Andrea Fraser: Collected Interviews 1990-2018 - Koenig Books/A.R.T. Press, 2019
If there is a particular value of Andrea Fraser: Collected Interviews 1990-2018, it is that it illuminates the problem of Fraser's decline in her later work by giving an unguarded window into her personal identity. The book functions like something of a psychoanalytic detective case, tracking the lines of the relationship between Andrea Fraser, the person, and Andrea Fraser, the artist. Fraser, the person, disdains the art world, with its money, biases, and hypocrisy, and is uncomfortable with her participation in it. Fraser, the artist, instrumentalizes that discomfort by inserting herself within the art world at pressure points that criticize or ironize it but at the same time desires success and validation within that system, making her overall position one of pointed ambivalence. This ambivalence is the driving force of her successful work, and her later practice founders after the point where Fraser, the person, assumes dominance and turns her focus away from a self-reflexive critique of the arts towards a more explicit engagement with politics and psychoanalysis. In the absence of an interest in aesthetics or a studio practice, or indeed any apparent interest in art except as a social structure and a subject of critique, the problematizing of her own position within the arts was the only productive force that made her work function effectively as art. Her earlier works relentlessly position her within the art world as an insurgent agent in various roles: a jester in her museum tours, a consultant that probes points of discomfort within the institutional establishment with her prospectus works, or a simultaneously serious and ironic caricaturist of the members of the art world, herself included, in pieces like Art Must Hang, Exhibition, and Official Welcome. These are intelligent, pointed yet ambiguous instigations against the inherited biases of the art establishment, and they do so with alternate or concurrent provocations of humor and discomfort. Without the affective charge of her ambivalent self-positioning her later work falls to the level of technically virtuosic but affectively empty performances of political or psychoanalytic content, essentially the art world version of the one-man show, for instance a radio broadcast of a conversation between feminist men from the 70s. Such a performance has nothing to do with her, or art for that matter, and accomplishes nothing more than what listening to the original broadcast would do aside from the technical feat of her performance. Even worse, her Whitney installation Down The River, an installation of a field recording of Sing Sing Correctional Facility in an empty gallery space, articulates nothing more than the half-baked observation "museums are institutions, but so are prisons..." as if such an idea was somehow politically articulate or profound. Without utilizing herself as subversive vessel in her work she reduces her work to a by rote recapitulation of techniques and concepts previously explored by her practice, but with none of the prior investment that made it compelling.
Her last major work, which still problematizes her position but ushers in her move away from art world self-reflexivity, is Untitled from 2003, a video piece where she has sex with a collector. In interviews she consistently downplays the work's sensationalism with various excuses: that the collector paid not for sex but for one of the editions of the work, that the collector risked his position more than she did, or that she found the sexual encounter far less violating than the fact that she had made objects that were sold on the art market. Her first two arguments are moot in that they appear to be little more than demurrals from admitting that, at least in part, the piece was intended to generate notoriety, but the third is more complicated and contradictory. She dismisses a reading of the work as sexual violation as art, but reveals that the work is a violation of her ethics, an enactment of the prostituting dynamic of the art market. So, although the sex itself may have not been a violating experience, the selling of the work as an edition was. However, she chose to make a work that would be sold in the first place, and at that a work that symbolically enacts her feeling of being prostituted/violated. All this means that the piece is precisely sexual violation as art in the sense that it is a metaphor for the violating nature of the art market, an artwork about the selling of the work itself, or, to put it bluntly, a recursively complex act of selling out. What she seems to be running from the most in her comments on the piece is why she chose to return to the art market and make an edition in the first place, the real subject of the piece. She never says why, but it seems to have been a final act wherein Fraser, as a person, extinguished the problematizing identity of Fraser, the artist, because she found herself in a position with no alternative to complicity with the art market and therefore settled on a self-flagellating work that compromised her convictions while expressing her sense of failure in the compromise within the work itself. In the wake of this, her position regarding art shifted from ambivalence to indifference.
That her work ended up indifferent to art is unsurprising considering the integral biases within her practice and perspectives on art, most glaringly her apparent disinterest in art itself. Outside of her direct forebears in the lineage of Institutional Critique like Louise Lawler, Michael Asher, Hans Haacke, and Adrian Piper, she makes only one positive reference to specific artists in the entire 560 page book. In response to a question about pleasure in art she replies that she finds little pleasure in art but loves the work of Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, and Fred Sandback.* Naturally, loving austere hyper-minimalists is no sin, and considering the rare instances of aesthetic content in her work such an influence makes sense. However, in her hands such austerity feels less like a refined extremism than an attempt to simply sidestep or negate aesthetic sensibility altogether. In considering the first generation of institutional critics such Lawler and Asher, their own brand of minimal non-art served to expand the aesthetic boundaries of art. Although Fraser is certainly a good student and learned her critical and theoretical lessons from her predecessors, she has no apparent interest in a formal or even art-based consideration of their work. Pointedly, in some of the book's earliest interviews, she puts forth a critique of museums as institutions whose purpose it is to reify the personal tastes of the upper-class collectors who founded them, (i.e. Bordieu's Distinction) a position that betrays a contempt for all aesthetic sensibility by reducing qualitative judgment itself to a question of class. If one believes Titian is revered only because of the personal tastes of his collectors and museum curators, and not due to an undeniable quality in his work, what possible interest could that person have in the history of art? The most revealing clue to Fraser's personal relationship to art comes not from her interviews but from Official Welcome, at a point near the end when she starts crying:
"I just want to say that uh, you know I wanted to be an artist since I was like four years old, because my mother's an artist, and because I really love to make things. I lost that love, unfortunately, but I just, I want to say that it helps, it really helps to know that there are people who are following what you do and who think it's important enough to try to understand. And um, and that's all really."
This confession, while not particularly surprising considering her other positions, is important as tangible evidence of her negative relationship to art, a personal dynamic that informs her ambivalence and ultimately hampers not only the course of her career but the political substance of her art.
Fraser's work, in the absence of any tangible engagement with art as a subjective experience of contemplation or enjoyment, conceives of art exclusively in the terms of the social system of the art world and the art market. As such her critique is only concerned with art because she is critical of art and cannot therefore use art as a means of critique of something else. Unlike an artist such as Allan Sekula, who uses formally conventional photography to make politically critical work and is secure in using his work as a means to a political end, Fraser is critical in form and ambivalent in content, so that her discomfort with art as a means limits the focus of her critique to the means themselves. This is why the shoehorning of explicit politics into her later work is so ineffective; reappropriating her self-critical means into a vehicle of outward critique misjudges the efficacy of her art. In deference to her earlier work, she frequently refers to her work not as a critique but as "Institutional Analysis", reflecting the grounding of her thought in psychoanalysis and sociology. If there is a weakness in this position, it is in the implication that she functions as an analyst of art and institutions, when in fact she functions as a simultaneous analyst and analysand of her own position. In her later interviews and a video piece from 2008, Projection, she even suggests that her earlier work's tendency towards conflict was the result of a self-destructive compulsion to push boundaries. This and the general conflictual trend in her thought brings to mind the classic Anti-Oedipal argument that psychoanalysis generates the neuroses that psychoanalysis purports to address, which lends some irony to Fraser's position, considering her obsession with critiquing the heteronomy of the art world and her blindness to her own heteronomous position to psychoanalysis.
The most revelatory interview in the book is the last, from 2018, where she and the interviewer talk almost exclusively about group relations, a sort of collective psychoanalysis where participants attend conferences and analyze the interpersonal dynamics of the group itself. Her involvement dates back to around the time that she made Projection, the first piece in her late-period work that moves away from an analysis of the art world, and seems to have been a determinant influence on that shift. She and the interviewer, who also attends group relations conferences, are palpably excited about the subject, with the slightly fanatic enthusiasm of someone who just discovered Transcendental Meditation or raw veganism. In regards to work from this period she says that she became interested in portraying interpersonal fields in her work, which contextualizes those pieces without quite improving them. More pertinent is her tangible passion for group relations, which contrasts pointedly with her ambivalence to art. Group relations, as a real-time live enactment of the sociological and psychoanalytic practices she has always been preoccupied with, seems to be more satisfying to her than art ever was, and by involving herself in this discipline she has managed to sublimate her fraught relationship to art into a simple indifference. In doing so, she puts to rest the question begged by the course of her career, namely "If you dislike art so much, why not do something else?" If art lives and dies dependent on an artist's affective investment in the work, an art practice antagonistic to art is unsustainable. Her earlier work succeeds by the affective antagonisms of her ambivalence, but it seems on a personal level that the process was emotionally unrewarding. The stereotypical image of the artist, a painter immersed in the problems of representation, color, line, and so on, is someone nourished by their practice because they love it, like the old cliche "I became an artist because something in me needed to make art," which may be overly romantic but not necessarily inaccurate. Fraser seems to be someone who ended up in art for mostly incidental reasons, like being a high school dropout, and was never a comfortable position for her. Compelled to pursue an art career because of her early success, she was probably incapable of turning down the opportunities handed to her in spite of her unease. Her sense of significance in her work as an inheritor of Institutional Critique and an advocate for alternative modes of working with art institutions bottomed out at some point, likely around the time of Untitled, which is not simply a case of her giving into the pressures of the art market but more generally of the historical position of the arts in the early 2000s, when moneyed interests took dominance, which they still hold today. It's in this climate, where a young artist has no choice but to capitulate on some level to money, that Andrea Fraser's career appears quixotic, not because she was too idealistic in her aspirations for a different system of the arts, but because her emphasis was so much upon the structure of the arts that it lacked a sensibility for what art offers whether or not private wealth dominates it. Art is a complex phenomenological system that operates on our emotions. It is not apolitical, but if it succeeds politically it does so on the level of affect, not rhetoric. Without a doubt it is better for the arts to have public funding and reduced pressure to capitulate to the market, but art is finally not reducible to the systems of the art world, which is Fraser's error. It is this blindness to the experiential value of art that makes her position confusing, even paradoxical: if one's art is entirely concerned with fighting to improve the art world to the exclusion of a sense of value in art, what does she want art to be?
*Andrea Fraser: Collected Interviews 1990-2018, p. 198.