Often described as a third-generation institutional critic and second-generation feminist, Andrea Fraser’s performances add gender and sexual dimensions to the critique of art institutions carried out by Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, Carl Andre and others. Fraser’s approach is usually to assume the role of a museum volunteer or invited artist and then shift her position during the course of her performance to one of keen critic. In a 1989 performance as the museum tour guide ‘Jane Castleton’, she parodied Philadelphia’s upper middle-class to such a degree that her tour of the city’s Museum of Art degenerated into a nonsensical patchwork of quotations from magazine articles and nostalgic memoirs, which she spouted like a robot on the blink. For a work in 2003 she slept with a collector – the record of which was the work itself.
It’s therefore reasonable to expect Museum Highlights – the recently published collection of Fraser’s essays, performances and speeches – to spin off into textual delirium: quotes from Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault and Jean Baudrillard clash and merge with the artist’s own criticism. Although the book functions as a reminder of why institutional critique is more often than not met with the argument that ultimately the artist remains within, and supports, the art-historical discourse and power structures they attempt to alter, the problem of immanent critique works well to Fraser’s advantage. In her excellent examination of the Art Workers Coalition ‘What’s Intangible, Transitory, Mediating, Participatory, and Rendered in the Public Sphere?’ (originally published in October, Spring 1997), she considers Conceptual art not in terms of the work produced but in terms of the economic and social changes it has forced upon the art world. By providing a service, the artist commands a one-off fee as opposed to creating an object that accrues in value, thus creating an immediate relationship between the artist and their audience. The book is arranged thematically, with the bulk of the theory (heavily weighted towards the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) at the beginning, while the essays and performance transcripts later in the book serve as examples of her analyses. Fraser believes her performances specifically implicate her audience, which has, directly or indirectly, paid for the privilege of hearing her speak. Similarly, the competitive struggles she details as characterizing the field of the art profession are reflected in her well-researched account of the cross-borough, internecine squabbling brought on by the British exhibition ‘Sensation’ held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
The trajectory outlined in the book – from the Arts Workers Coalition through the US culture wars to today’s malaise – is not heartening. Museum Highlights finishes with an oddly toothless essay on the Guggenheim Bilbao, in which the issues the Guggenheim franchise exemplifies – museum expansionism, museums as strategies for urban regeneration, the isolation and aesthetic neutralization of artists and art practice, uncritical media reception, spectacularization – seem insurmountable.