Why Does Andrea Fraser’s Work Make Me Cry?

There are some Dia Artist on Artist Talks I go to regularly, like Amie Siegel talking about Donald Judd’s furniture in 2016, and David Diao talking about Barnett Newman in 2013. But I somehow never worked my way through the series, and so when I quickly downloaded a bunch of talks to listen to on the plane, I was completely blindsided by Andrea Fraser’s 2004 talk about why Fred Sandback’s work made her cry.

Fraser’s detached clarity in analyzing the causes and meanings of crying in response to an artwork is soothing and alluring. So much so that the existential implications of her question for a practitioner of institutional critique almost sneak up on you. And then she’s crying repeatedly, at the inequities of privilege and education perpetuated by the institutions that host her teary experiences; at the impossibility of art, and her own practice, her own continued existence, within this overwhelmingly stratified system.

I have tried and failed to summarize her analysis, or to blockquote my way through this. [Just listen to the thing. Or read the nearly identical text version, published in 2005 by Grey Room (pdf), and then you can just cry on your own.] The best I can do is this proposal of a Bordieu-influenced utopia of a non-stratified society where the ability to understand and react to art is not reserved for a privileged elite:

This lost world of shared culture and competence may be no more than a kind of anthropological fantasy, our very own myth of origins. However, I think that it is what serves as a lost object for many artists and much art. It is the idyllic, primal state of culture we want to imagine once prevailed before the expulsion, when we were driven out into the world of specialization, hierarchical divisions of labor and competence, and competitive struggles for recognition and reward. I can recognize it as a lost object of my own work, and I perceive a longing for it, too, in what Fred Sandback called “pedestrian space”: “literal, flat-footed, and everyday,” where the work of art exists “right there along with everything else in the world, not up on a spatial pedestal.” It was an idea, he wrote, full of “utopian glimmerings of art and life happily cohabiting.”

But it was the invocation of Hana Siegel’s mid-20th century equation of art and loss that really landed for me: “The work of art, like the work of mourning, is a process of reconstructing lost and ruined objects, lost and ruined worlds.” I’ve felt this for years, and made things based on it, without knowing it. I don’t know how I didn’t know this talk and essay before, but it feels like it has been hovering over my life and relationship with art (and institutions) since 2004.

Maybe what really got me is hearing Fraser breaking down repeatedly as she spoke. I confess, my reaction is complicated. I try to at least be aware of the difference of artist and work, but there is something specific to Fraser’s practice that always leaves me wondering where the edges of performance lie. It’s no different here, where both art and artist face the same existential threat from her potential findings. I think that is ultimately part of the point of her critique, here and elsewhere, to make others aware of their own subjectivities by blurring and questioning the demarcations of her self.

I guess what I’m saying is, I feel implicated, but I still cried.

[next morning update: reading of Laura Cumming’s memoir, Thunderclap, she writes of her father, painter James Cumming, in part by writing of artists whose work he taught her to see, like Carel Fabritius: “‘The painter dies, though I still cannot believe it,’ she writes of her father’s passing. ‘He dies, but his painting survives.'”

When she published the text of her Dia talk, Fraser wrote, “I don’t feel that I can dedicate this essay to the memory of Fred Sandback, a man I never met, but I can dedicate it to his art, which survives.”]