The Learning Public | 2010

Art history and the art market require a public - not to write stories or move money around, but to validate the claims to power of those stories and that money.


We like to think of this public as students of art. It includes not only the crop of 17-24 year-olds harbored in degree-granting institutions, but also artists, curators, critics, dealers, and collectors – what might appropriately be called the art world, but only insomuch as these players understand themselves as a learning public.


The people that invest history and money with power are not a consumer base - not a passive audience, but a knowledge base - an engaged public. That is to say, the task of giving value to art history and the art market lies in the hands of people concerned with knowing what art is.


Continuous critical re-evaluation is what defines the learning public. To learn art and to experience art are the same thing. To learn and to experience are acts of the will to realize its desire in the external world through a distanciation of identity. We come to critical-awareness through a kind of separation from our (individual and collective) identity. 


But the learning public has accepted a distorted mirror. It’s power remains latent. Power will always reside where power is understood to reside, and the learning public has misconstrued the battle for power over what art is as a battle between the private and public sectors.


Currently, the most significant and creative remodelings of art’s institutions are coming from the private sector. This is because the private sector, in many cases, has appropriated the methods of the learning public. The private sector is more lithe, more creative, more willing to take risks, precisely because it acts like an engaged student – open to experimentation, skeptical, hungry.


Compared to most public institutions, which operate in perpetual fear, and strive toward the safety net of certain death, it’s easy to see the appeal for the new models coming out of the private sector. But whatever the gains, the private sector still instrumentalizes art for profit. We need a lens on art that instrumentalizes it for itself – an art for art’s sake that can extend to the social.


The task is to position the learning public of art in such a way that it can engulf the public and private, turn a corner in our understanding of what art is, and get beyond the tired dichotomy of individual aesthetic contemplation vs. socio-political engagement. The task is to understand art through the educational frame.


The educational frame means that 1) we learn things from works of art, 2) those lessons can be implemented in the world without duplicating the private sector’s instrumentalization of art for profit, and 3) the result will be art institutions that are themselves works of art.