van den Berg, Karen: The Tear Gas Biennale and New Evaluation Standards for Activist Art

Along with the rise of the 21st century, the social role of art has changed, not least in such a way that artistic activists are no longer a marginal minority. Instead, the most prominent artists today claim to be activists. This has simultaneously led to a shift in the standards by which art is judged. Art is no longer measured solely by its aesthetic qualities or by the criterion of authenticity, but rather by its social impact. Political art in particular is always judged by how it positions itself in relation to its own production conditions. Walter Benjamin already called for this evaluation criterion in his influential 1934 essay “The Author as Producer”. According to him, politically engaged art is expected to be committed to the transformation of its own production apparatus. If artists only supplied existing institutions and reproduced the working conditions prevailing in them, then their revolutionary power would consequently come to nothing – even if the content of their works was of a socio-critical nature.

In my presentation, I would like to trace the shift in standards of aesthetic judgements using the example of the Whitney Biennial in New York in 2019 and the work “Triple-Chaser” by the London collective Forensic Architecture exhibited there. An evaluation of the press response to this prominent case serves as the basis for my analysis. The work “Triple-Chaser” shown at the Biennale proved that the Vice President of the Museum’s Board of Trustees was an arms dealer who delivers his products to conflict zones and in so doing violates human rights. In my presentation, I will trace the course of the media debate surrounding this case to shed light on the question of how the work itself as an aesthetic artifact disappears behind the political impact of the debate around it. I will illustrate how the attention of the art world has increasingly shifted from the work itself to the question of whether it should be cause for the art patron to resign from the board. In comparison to older institutional critique art – such as that of Hans Haacke – this example shows the shifts in the standards of evaluation in the art field.