Stéphanie Morissette

In the contemporary art milieu today, I am not questioning myself about what form of a new and unknown art could take. Rather, I question myself about the subtle control that institutions, museums and curators exercise on the creative process of artists and how the artist's dependence on the art milieu could potentially prevent the emergence of a new form of art, leading artists to self-censorship.

Self-censorship, taken in this context, means the artist feels he has to limit himself. The artist has to think about what the public and the art milieu want, and he feels he has to compromise his ideas in order to fit the milieu. An artist who has been refused a grant or subsidy for a project and who then decides to rework his original idea, just to meet the criteria established by the financer, is censoring himself. Self-censorship stops the artist from fully exploring his creative universe. It destroys spontaneity. Censorship does not come from governments or religion anymore. The power is now in the hands of the art milieu itself; the institutions, the artists, the museums and the curators. Art professionals feel pressure to show things that will please sponsors.

Artists face many difficulties in trying to bring projects to term. Few artists can afford equipment, like camera and computer, necessary for certain forms of art. It can be easy and practical to work with CD-ROM, video and the Internet and it can make life easier when there is time to apply for events and exhibitions. However, the material, conception, realisation and exhibition remain expensive when you create installations or when you need more than one monitor or projector. The installation is often expensive to carry and insure. To give shape to their projects, artists need financial help from the government and its institutions dedicated to art, from art foundations, art organisations, and museums.

By creating installations, performances and ephemeral art that no one can buy, or by doing artworks from which many copies can be made without altering the piece, artists initially wanted to explore new territories, new spaces of creation and wanted to challenge, and gain more independence, from the art market and institutions. But this independence is now jeopardized, precisely because it is financed by subsidies and grants coming from governments, art organisations, museums and art foundations. To access this financial help, artists need to fill out forms and meet certain requirements and criteria. The artist needs to define his art in terms of categories established by sponsors, who often are curators, institutions, art organisations and art professionals. Money is often conditional on the artist creating a piece related to a certain topic and destined for a specific museum or building.

For the sake of the creation, an artist will sometimes accept to adapt his discourse to fit the criteria and categories established for subsidies. Artists need to think about their projects years in advance because the money only comes months after applying for a grant or a subsidy. There is little room for spontaneity because programmes in art centers and museums are scheduled years in advance.

The art system includes artists, conservators, critics, curators, gallery directors, private collectors, art organisations, festivals, events, biennials, art centers, bursaries, subsidies, grants and awards. The entire system depends on funds, sponsors, public money and subsidies. And those who give money are in a position to exert pressure on art professionals to ensure that their money is used in the way they have decided. The artist's creativity is not trusted.

Artists and curators sit on boards of directors for certain art organisations and write for art magazines; they also direct festivals or art centers and can be members of the juries which award grants. Individuals often play more than one role and the lines that help distinguish the artists from the rest of art professionals become less clear and more blurred. This can give rise to an incestuous milieu, in which the artist is both the critic and the criticized, and this can encourage the exchange of reciprocal favours. By avoiding critique of a certain person's work, an artist can protect himself from being criticized in turn. The consecration of an artist comes from the milieu and its institutions, and in order to be recognized, the artist must try to please the milieu and must try to get positive feedback from other art professionals. The artist is dependent on the milieu's acceptance of his art if he wants access to money, if he wants his work to be shown in galleries and museums, and if he wants magazines to write about him. The system promotes insiders and marginalises those who refuse to participate.

Like it is said in the Anthology of Art: "the appropriation of art by institutions has shown that art and discourse are interconnected, placing equal emphasis on theoretical reflection and on the work of art itself. Contemporary art reflects the conditions of its own production and promotion".

Everybody knows how it works, seems to be pleased with it and insiders have no interest in disturbing the system. In the context of contemporary art, a new and challenging art can only appear when changes occur in the art milieu and when the art world becomes less contrived, less self-interested, less self-promotional and more open.

Stéphanie Morissette
Montreal, July 2002