The Limits of the Limitless


In his 2006 article “I’m sort of sliding around in place…ummm…,” Sam Gathercole explores art’s defining principles—or lack thereof—in the 1970s. The article, featured in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, discusses artist’s disillusionment with social critique, and the resulting fragmentation, or pluralization, of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. What Gathercole’s article exposes, although it is not explicitly discussed, is that the true limitations of art institutions—such as museums galleries—is their limitless reach.

Artists of the 1970s, disappointed with the 1960s counterculture, attempted to induce reform through infiltration and subversion. As Gathercole brings to light, “in spite of the perceived ‘failure’ of the historical avant-garde, it had nevertheless made ‘art recognisable as an institution and also reveal [art’s] inefficacy in bourgeois society as its principle’” (Gathercole, 65). Much of the art of the 1970s attempted to make social critiques from within the institution. Via infiltration and subversion, the artist Hans Haacke attempted to critique the unethical associations and practices of the Guggenheim Museum via the exhibition of his piece Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 at the Guggenheim Museum. The Museum’s director prevented the display of the work, which exposed a Board Member of the Guggenheim’s involvement in property speculation. Although the work was barred from the Museum initially, Shapolsky et al. is now part of Whitney Museum’s permanent collection. Similarly, Judy Chicago critiqued the institutionalized erasure of women from history—including art history—in her 1978 installation The Dinner Party. While Congress blocked the donation of The Dinner Party to the University of Washington, the work was eventually acquired by the Brooklyn Museum. The question that remains is whether the adoption of these artworks by the institutions that they critique, although in line with the initial intention of the artist, actually constitutes reform, or whether the inclusion is a self-aggrandizing cooperation of the artists’ radicalism.


(Hans Haacke, Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, 1971

As art institutions are in the business of displaying any and all art, after the initial shock of radical art subsides, institutions are free to adopt art that critiques its own nature without truly facing the repercussions. Gathercole’s briefly touches upon this subject in his discussion of site-specific art. Speaking of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Gathercole says:

“Smithson described museums as ‘asylums and jails’ in which art is ‘confined’…. ‘From gyrating space emerged the possibility of Spiral Jetty. No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structure, no abstractions could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.’ This ‘actuality; appeared to the artist to be a reality beyond human control and corruption….unmediated by intellect.”(Gathercole, 68)

By creating art which cannot be co-opted and subsumed by art institutions—although reproductions and discussions in these spheres may attempt to do so—Smithson creates one of the few spheres in which critique will always remain a critique. Smithson reveals that site-specific art, and perhaps even ephemeral art such as performances like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, are unmediated and therefore untainted. While the adoption of art such as Haacke’s may symbolize progress and reform, the initial exclusion stripped the art of its initial potential power, and later inclusion becomes in part self-aggrandizing. Thus, the limits of art institutions may lie within their limitless reach, represented by the inclusion of art critical of its very nature, and the oppression of spaces outside its own realm.



(Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s