“Art, non-art and after art”, critical text by Luiz Camillo Osorio

The first text of the year of Luiz Camillo Osorio‘s column discusses the autonomy of the definitions given to what is currently considered art – and by whom such denominations are made. Considering that the power of art “is only interesting to the extent that it is constantly put at risk”, Camillo reflects on the constant incorporation of new activities and practices, which for decades would not have been included in museums and galleries, taking as an example the group Forensic Architecture, which was one of Turner Prize 2018 finalist’s. He debates on why a research agency originally focused on journalistic investigations, and therefore, “non-art”, could be in an exhibition at Tate Modern and, from raising this issue, Camillo suggests new possibilities for art.



by Luiz Camillo Osorio

“The history of art is the conflict between all the optical experiences, of invented spaces and figurations”
– Carl Einstein

The art world is highly contradictory. It is at once both commercial and intellectualized, democratic and elitist, complex and banal. For many people, this is a problem. I believe this is the reason that we have to discuss whether we want to address what is most thought-provoking when we talk about art today; trying, at the very least, to separate the wheat from the chaff, without ignoring or thinking that we will overcome the contradictions. The autonomy of art is only interesting to the extent that it is constantly put at risk, seeking to be something beyond art. A painting like that of Sean Scully, for instance, teaches us to see the world, to stop to see things, which is to say, it is painting, it is education and, why not, it is political – if we assume that not having time to see is always a form of domination.

With some astonishment (and great interest) we have seen, included in art exhibitions, activities or practices which were not produced with this intention. Obviously, since Duchamp and his ready-made, the line which separates art and non-art has been blurred. However, I now believe that we are witnessing another kind of phenomenon, namely: it doesn’t make much difference how we call an activity, an image or an object; becoming art is a virtuality inherent to the onset of any kind of intervention. This process of becoming art is contingent and articulated in conjunction with specific connections which may cease to have value outside this context and language game. To be very succinct: the vanguards at the start of the 20th Century exponentially broadened the possibilities of art; while contemporary art seeks to expand the possibilities of non-art through art. To cite a prescient phrase of Lygia Clark, this is about perceiving states of art without art. Or even broadening the debate about what the artist Tania Bruguera calls Useful Art.

It is important to highlight that something done with a non-artistic interest in an exhibition and, as such, adding a becoming-art to non-art, does not disqualify or prevent us from considering productions traditionally considered to be art, as such. A good painting will continue to be art. And neither does this other activity which acquires momentary status as art lose its original function. It merely adds another possibility; that of being taken as art and, as such, developing an interpretative connection which was not foreseen and often also bringing unexpected practical results. Even if art must be able to continue to be something which has value through its mere disinterested appearance, producing practical consequences does not counteract this power, but adds others too it, conferring on usefulness itself outcomes which go beyond specialist know-how. Art can come to have some function without being instrumental.

One thing is certain: the tools that are now at our disposal to produce texts and images, disseminate them on the Internet and make them circulate rapidly on an almost global scale are astonishing. This mass of images in circulation carries unknown energies and potentialities which vary according to the forms with which we present them. The relationships which are being produced between these sets of images made with different intentions end up re-signifying them in each specific context in which they can be displayed and combined.

To explain this situation, I think, for example, of the inclusion of the collective Forensic Architecture among the finalists of the 2018 Turner Prize. On their website, the group presents itself in a highly objective manner: “Forensic architecture is an independent research agency based at Goldsmiths, University of London. Our interdisciplinary team of investigators includes architects, scholars, artists, filmmakers, software developers, investigative journalists, archaeologists, lawyers, and scientists. Our evidence is presented in political and legal forums, truth commissions, courts, and human rights reports. We also undertake historical and theoretical examinations of the history and present status of forensic practices in articulating notions of public truth” (https://www.forensic-architecture.org/).

The fact that they are currently participating in an exhibition at the Tate, in the most important prize in contemporary art, implies embracing the idea that there is something in the development of this forensic research work which converges with current possibilities of artistic production. As the architecture critic, Rowan Moore, highlighted in the Guardian “in a world saturated with images, where almost everything acquires visibility, they try to bring to light what was concealed. They call their activity counter-forensics, with forensics being the art of the police” (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/feb/25/forensic-architects-eyal-weizman).

Some questions immediately arise: will bringing these investigations to an exhibition not deprive them of the capacity to intervene in reality itself? Why mix the desire to reveal the truth with the world of fabulation so singular to art? How can the experimental space of art play an important role in optimizing ways of making facts visible at a time shaken by fake news?

Independently of, and beyond the validity of these questions, we must not freeze conventional forms of art or lose sight of the fact that a given notion of art can cease to be hegemonic without ceasing to exist and produce meaning.

The notion of art has been radically transformed in recent decades. The conceptual shift of the 1960s multiplied the poetic processes and the materiality of art itself. Documents, records, and photographs have been incorporated, and new connections have come to exist between conceptual narratives and esthetic experience. Yes, one must still speak of esthetic experience, of new ways of seeing, expressing and sharing what we understand as art and reality. As Thierry De Duve has demonstrated, the esthetic question has shifted, since Duchamp, from the classic question: is this beautiful? to the more disorienting: is this art? And in the light of the question, is this art? others unfold, such as, what are the implications that this possibility of art has for my life and the world around me?   

In this regard, the book After Art by David Joselit can be very useful to us in thinking about all this. To begin the conversation, how should we comprehend this after? as something becoming-art without being art, rather than in the temporal sense of something that happens when art isn`t possible anymore. As such, the artistic condition is highlighted even when one goes beyond it, not being fixed in the mere condition of the work of art. A drawing by Rafael (not the Renaissance painter but the mentally ill artist living at the Hospital Engenho de Dentro in Rio de Janeiro with the psychiatrist Nise da Silveira) produced at the studio of the psychiatric hospital, is a work of art and also something to be used in the analysis of psychiatric disturbances and in the humanization of their treatment. It is art and more than art, which is to say, together and based on art, other functions are highlighted, are added to the artistic process, without eliminating the other. By way of analogy, a forensic investigation, even when it is not art, can artistically mobilize new ways of perceiving, shifting what was known and what it was considered possible to see.

According to Joselit, one of the aims of his book After art was to broaden the definition of art, “to embrace heterogeneous configurations of relationships or links, what the French artist Pierre Huygue has called a dynamic chain that passes through different formats”. The fact that an investigation by Forensic Architecture passes from a court to a museum should not be seen as a contradiction between fact and fiction, but as potentialities inherent to the manner in which the image is treated and disseminated, bearing in mind that it functions as a proof or revelation – always having as its aim the capacity to reveal something which was not visible until then.

An important point in Joselit’s whole discourse is the use given to the notion of format, in place of Mediums or artistic disciplines. Format, according to the author, “is a heterogeneous and often provisional structure that channels content. Mediums are subsets of formats – the difference lies solely in scale and flexibility. Mediums are limited and limiting because they call forth singular objects and limited visual practices, such as painting or video. Mediums are analogue in a digital world. Formats regulate image currencies (image power) by modulating their force, speed, and clarity”. Tracing these forces, uncovering them and producing them is something which occurs based on how we are affected and what we do after that. It is the critic’s role to analyze connections, reconcile modes of feeling with ways of saying, redefining our interactions with a fleeting and dissonant reality. Art continues to be this indeterminate event which opens up new possibilities and ways of connecting with the world, with the reality around us, which is always plural, open and in dispute.

Joselit asserts that he wishes to observe the connections produced by art as a mode of translation between value systems and different cultures. Different perspectives and fields of knowledge must be reconnected. Since Joseph Beuys and his Forum for Direct Democracy, created in Document V of 1972, the argument that everyone is an artist is a way of expanding the scope of the experimental production of art, incorporating activities in a crisis such as pedagogy and politics. The imagination must be expanded if we wish to reconsider our modes of production of subjectivity and our ways of living together.

There are not only those who, with greater or less justification, deny any artistic quality to the activities of Forensic Architecture; there are also those that reject the scientific nature of their evidence, as occurred recently in Germany, precisely because they are considered, or rather, accused of, being artists! It is not easy to work at the margins, on the frontier between different fields of knowledge. Before we discuss what art is, we should deepen the debate about what we do when we say (and feel) that something is art and to what extent this interferes in our ways of thinking and acting.

JOSELIT, DAVID – After art, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2013.


Luiz Camillo Osorio is the Curator of PIPA Institute, PIPA’s founder and Board Member. He is a Professor and current Director of the Philosophy Department at PUC-Rio. Camillo was the Curator of MAM-Rio between 2009 and 2015.

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