Institutional Critique as an analytical tool

‘Institutional Critique’, an approach that emerged in the 1960s from the art world, is a form of commentary that critically reflects on the concept and social function of art and the institutions it is housed in.

Institutional critique seeks to critique the ideological, social, economic and representative functions of a museum or gallery. It also aims to make visible the historically and socially constructed boundaries between the inside and outside, elitism and populism, and the public and private. The outputs produced by institutional critique can take multiple forms including interventions, critical writings and (art)political activism.

The approach, which was originally an artistic practice conducted mainly by artists, is now being used in numerous and differing contexts.

Institutional critique does not aim to oppose or abolish the institution, but rather improve, modify and progress it.

Institutional response to institutional critique

According to Shiekh (2006), during the 1990s it became fashionable for curators and art directors to commission and hold the critical discussions at their own art gallery or museum. This resulted in the institutional critique framework, the artist’s role and the critique being taken over by the very institution it stood against and ultimately being institutionalized.

Shiekh (2006) has argued: “the total co-option of institutional critique by the institutions (and by implication and extension, the co-option of resistance by power)” made the critical method obsolete.

Although this institutionalization presents a dilemma, it is possible that institutions integrating the critique do not necessarily render the method redundant. For example, institutional critique can critique this very practice. Furthermore, it’s important that institutions listen to, and act on, the issues raised by the analytical approach so integrating it may not always be a bad thing.

Historically it was a subject from outside the institution who conducted the critique but now it is being performed by administrators, curators and directors. However, having an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ position in relation to an institution is increasingly difficult.

One of the leading author on institutional critique Andrea Fraser (2005) has argued in her essay From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique, movement between an inside and outside of the institution is no longer possible. This is because the structures of the institution have become totally internalized. Fraser (2005: 283) writes:

We are the institution. It’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.

Fraser suggests we are to create critical institutions (“an institution of critique”), which can be established through self-questioning and reflection as this is institutional critique in practice.

Institutional critique and 33,000 Everyday Artists

The approach can be potentially illuminating in relation to this research project as we aim to understand King’s as an institution, its values and culture. Indeed, 33, 000 Everyday Artists can be seen to be a form of critical artistic practice itself.

Porter et al. (2000) have argued for institutional critique as an activist methodology for changing institutions. They suggest it can be employed as an activity of rhetoric and composition aimed at change. This change involves improving the conditions of those affected by and served by institutions. The authors highlight the possibility of rewriting our own disciplinary and institutional frames.

Sosnoski (1994: 212) notes, “Institutions, like all social contracts, can be rewritten. However this is not a simple process.” A university is a critical institution but needs to be critical of itself. Institutional critique offers an analytical tool to do this.Through interrogating the culture of King’s, evaluating the institution’s conditions and all of our everyday complicities, we can change the culture of King’s and make it a better place to study, work and be part of.

Following Fraser (2005), as the institution is internalized, embodied and performed by individuals, engaging in institutional critique, demands we ask questions ultimately about ourselves.

References

Andrea Fraser (2005). From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique. Artforum, September 2005, XLIV, No. 1, pp. 278–283.

James E. Porter, Patricia Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeffrey T. Grabill and Libby Miles. (2000). Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51, No. 4: pp. 610-642.

Simon Shiekh. (2006). Notes on Institutional Critique. Transform: European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies.

James Sosnoski. (1994). Token Professionals and Master Critics: A Critique of Orthodoxy in Literary Studies. Albany: SUNY P.

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