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Institutional Critique Collage

Institutional Critique - History and Concepts

Started: 1968
Institutional Critique Timeline

Beginnings of Institutional Critique

The term "Institutional Critique" has two related but differentiated usages. It is often used as a phrase which describes how many different modern art movements or artists critiqued in various ways the artistic, cultural, or social institutions of their era. Critique, or the detailed and systematic study and analysis of systems and concepts, has always been part of artistic production (to greater or lesser extents depending on individual contexts and examples). In an artistic context, to say that an artist is engaging in a critique of something often suggests a negative slant to their analysis, or an attempt to reveal ethical or systematic problems about that which they are assessing.

An artist engaging in Insitutional Critique is then usually understood to be one that reflects the negative aspects of artistic institutions as they see it, which might include galleries, museums or the art market. Any art which challenges the aesthetic criteria of the time, or deals with controversial or 'unsayable' things might be then read as implicitly critiquing the institution -what cannot be said or displayed, and why not? What does that exclusion reveal about the political, financial or social underpinnings of the art world? These conversations feature significant crossovers with other activist artistic projects, often including work that addresses access and ethics in relation to issues of gender, race, class and disability. Almost any artist that confronts the deficiencies of the gallery through their work might then be said to be engaging in a kind of Institiutional Critique.

However, in the mid 1970s the term began to be used more specifically to identify a movement made up of Conceptual artists that, beginning in the late 1960s, focused on critiquing the systems and structures of art institutions, as well as their connection to larger political and social structures. Influenced by Minimalism and the Light and Space movement's focus on the phenomenology of the viewer, the movement referred to as "Institutional Critique" created site specific installations that emphasized the indeterminate and the temporal to question the financial, social, and cultural structure of the art world, and the systems of aesthetic evaluation that world employed.

As art historian John C Welchman wrote of the movement: "Art historians have identified two main waves or generations of institutional critique as they developed in Western Europe and the US, the first dating to the 1960s and 1970s with a focus on the institution of the museum and gallery, and the second associated with the later 1980s and onwards in which the institution being critiqued came to include a range of others beyond museums, from the political to the financial, and the 'institution' of the artist as situated with the museum of gallery." This first wave includes artists considered the pioneers of the movement, such as Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, and Daniel Buren (although these artists often resisted collective definition as a movement). The second generation, which included Fred Wilson, John Knight, Louise Lawler, Andrea Fraser, Carey Young, Renée Green, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Barbara Bloom were generally more comfortable with the label of "Institutional Critique" being applied to their work than the first.

Relationship to Conceptual Art

The pioneers of Institutional Critique took Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" as a working precedent, while emphasizing a conceptual framework similar to Sol LeWitt's argument that "No matter what form [the artwork] may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned". Institutional Critique therefore adopted both an emphasis on concept and the notion of the readymade, with both turned toward an interrogation of art institutions and their relationships to the financial, political, and social power. The arrival at a final artwork was therefore less the objective of the artists involved than the thought processes and research that went into the piece's realization.

This is usefully illustrated by Hans Haacke's MoMA Poll (1970). In this work Haacke asked its viewers to vote on the ethical ramifications of Nelson Rockefeller's position on the MoMA board. It therefore placed the executive operations of the museum where the work was being displayed under the microscope, and became a seminal work in launching Institutional Critique in the United States. Like most Conceptual works, the aesthetics of this piece were simple at first glance, but were actually a sophisticated illustration of a current political issue. This became clear once the concept was revealed to the viewer. This reveal of meaning, arrived at through the tactical deployment of seemingly familiar or unremarkable objects is a hallmark of both Conceptual Art and Institutional Critique.

Institutional Critique in Europe

In Europe Daniel Buren and Marcel Broodthaers pioneered their own form of Institutional Critique. A Conceptualist, also sometimes identified as a Minimalist, the French artist Buren was known for his stripe works, using white and one other color on awning canvas as what he called a "seeing tool", to challenge the viewer's perception of traditional art. He displayed his Affichages Sauvages (1968-69), or "wild posters" in unauthorized public spaces in Paris, challenging traditional ideas of how art should be exhibited. The series also reflected Buren's involvement in the 1968 student protests in Paris.

Similarly, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers was the spokesman for an artist group that occupied the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1968. As his combination apartment/studio became a hub for the group, as well as a storage space for their various works, he conceived of turning the space into an imagined museum. He subsequently created his first iteration of his Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) (1968-72). This consisted of a fictional museum, created within an apartment and which satirically labelled objects with labels which read 'this is not art' and similar subversions of institutionalization. Both artists reveal a tension in Europe between the highly traditional and formal grand museums of the continent and a new wave of irreverent, politically active artists willing to move between the street and the gallery.

Pioneers in the United States

This photograph shows Hans Haacke's <i>Condensation Cube</i> (1963), a Minimalist Plexiglas cube in which the hydrological cycle occurs, as seen in the mist beading on one side of the container.

Though he grew up in Germany, Hans Haacke played a leading role in Institutional Critique in the United States. In 1965 Haacke wrote a manifesto advocating for art that was nonstable, indeterminate, could not be predicted precisely, and that lives in time. Each of these were concepts that became fundamental to Institutional Critique. Early works like Condensation Cube (1963), for example, emphasized the condensation cycle, a natural process that occurred in real time during the installation. As he noted, "Whether one looks at the Condensation Cube as an artwork - there is no definition for art other than one based on a social agreement - or one doesn't, in either case, the object's physical interaction with its environment is an integral part of it. In other words: it is not an autonomous object. Its surroundings belong to this "system" of interdependent relations." Haacke was influenced by Jack Burnham's "System Esthetics" which discussed the effect of science upon 20th century sculpture and by Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory (1968), which he said, "inspired me to continue with my kinetic, process-oriented works, and also to expand into biological and - toward the late 1960s - to deal with social 'systems.'"

In 1967 Haacke began teaching at Cooper Union in New York, where his interest turned toward the art world and the critique of its social and political systems. As he observed, "what we have here [in the art world] is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored." In Haacke's view, financial sponsorship of art by institutions resulted in them gaining "symbolic capital", including an enhanced public reputation and visibility that added to their financial value. In his view, while the corporations and art institutions were aware of this exchange, the public was not.

Haacke was also active in the Art Workers' Coalition, a 1969 protest movement which included Lucy Lippard, Robert Morris and other artists. The group issued "13 Demands", calling for artists' rights, the equal representation of woman and black artists in art institutions, museum reform, and the end of the war in Vietnam. As he noted, it was "the time of the cultural revolution that shook Paris and other European cities. In the US, the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prompted me to write a preface to a lecture that I was scheduled to give. The Vietnam War affected a great number of American families directly. It fired demonstrations on campuses and in the streets of major cities. There were the My Lai and the Kent State massacres. Racial discrimination triggered large public protests. In New York, artists got together and formed what they called the Art Workers' Coalition to challenge the boards of trustees of museums whom they saw as representative of the forces they viewed as allied with the powers they despised. Nobody had the time to worry about the fortunes of the art market."

Alongside Haacke, Michael Asher was another key pioneer of Institutional Critique, with projects that he called "dislocations." Associated with Minimalism and the Light and Space movement, Asher began creating installations in the late 1960s that explored form while also, as art critic Alexander Alberro wrote, "probing the often hidden conditions that determine how art is viewed, evaluated and used." In 1969 he installed blower units above the door at the Whitney Museum of America Art, so that viewers had to pass through invisible but tangible curtains of air as they negotiated the gallery space. In the 1970s his work turned, as Alberro describes, "to critical interventions. His central concern now became the symbolic and material economies underlying art practice". This can be seen in his Installation Münster (Caravan) (1977-97) where he placed travel trailers in the streets with local museums serving as the information source for their location, then moving the trailers every Monday when the museums were closed. He revisited the project in 1987 and 1997.

Second Wave

A photograph of Andrea Fraser giving a radio talk at the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2016.

The second wave of Institutional Critique in the 1980s included Fred Wilson, John Knight, Louise Lawler, Andrea Fraser, Carey Young, Renée Green, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and Barbara Bloom. Many of the artists were influenced by Haacke and Asher in particular. Fraser became a leading critic and theorist within the movement, noting that the, "'institution of art'...includes not just the museum, nor even only the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, but the entire field of art as a social universe." She was also a leader in the movement's emphasis on performance that expanded the nature of critique to include corporate and legal systems, as can also be seen in the works of Carey Young. At the same time, artists like Fred Wilson and Amalia Mesa-Bain reconfigured museum collections to create startling juxtapositions that critiqued not only the museum, but also historical, political, and social structures of racial and social inequities, tying the movement to the then emerging narratives around Identity Politics in the art world.

The art environment faced by the second wave of artists was different, in part because art institutions had begun to move toward incorporating Institutional Critique into their exhibition programs, and due to the increasingly globalized art market. As Hito Steyerl noted, "It wasn't so much different from the point of view of the artists...who tried to challenge and criticize the institutions which, in their view, were still authoritarian," but that the cultural institution was now "often viewed as an economic one," rather than "a representative public sphere." Artists responded by expanding the critique to other institutions, for example, corporations and corporate language or systems of colonialism, with Fraser describing how the movement "opened the way for the artistic conceptualization - and commodification - of everything."

Institutional Critique: Concepts, Styles, and Trends


Artists working with installation, a dominant mode within Institutional Critique, primarily employed readymades to reimagine the museum as an institution operated on different principles, or as a site of internal inconsistency in their judgement of quality, as in Broodthaers' invented Musée d'Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) (1968-72). By focusing on a superficially random element in artworks from the 19th century (such as the use of the image of an eagle), Broodthaers revealed the arbitrariness of the unexamined curatorial fixations that often govern major European institutions. Another action characteristic of Institutional Critique involved installations altering an already existent institutional environment, as seen in Michael Asher's interventions or Hans Haacke's Viewing Matters: Upstairs (1996), where he moved works previously consigned to the basement to the main galleries in order to question the museum's hierarchies and curatorial values.

Subsequent artists, including James Luna, Fred Wilson, and Amalia Mesa-Bain similarly challenged aesthetic and cultural hierarchies by presenting works from a museum's collection in new configurations that, as art historian Jennifer A. González wrote, emphasized that "race is a social discourse that has a visual history. The collection and display of bodies, images, and artifacts in museums and elsewhere is a primary means by which a nation tells the story of its past and locates the cultures of its citizens in the present." The recontextualization enacted by these artists, such as James Luna's incorporation of his own body into anthropological displays relating to Native American culture, reveals the often unchallenged primacy of a white European curatorial perspective. Renée Green's later work of Institutional Critique Permitted (1989), an installation focused on Sarah Baartman (known as the 19th century "Hottentot Venus") similarly critiqued the aesthetic and cultural contexts of the Black female body put on display.

Later artists have expanded the range of the movement's critique to social and cultural realms, with Amalia Mesa-Bains' altar installations drawing upon Chicanx cultural history and aesthetics to create work within institutions which had consistently presented them in reductive or patronizing ways. Other artists like Pepón Osorio have similarly contrasted the frame of the museum and its expected audience against their own experience, particularly in relation to societal issues of cultural marginalization, through installations that include material that has historically been kept out of the museum (such as testimony from working-class voices of color).


Performance was an important medium within Institutional Critique, with many artists positioning their own bodies as artworks to be displayed, documented, sold or engaged with through financial transactions. Mierle Laderman Ukeles' cleaning of the Wadsworth Athenaeum's public spaces in 1973, for example, reveals the 'invisible labor" that maintained the institution. Artists often critiqued the institution by playing 'roles' within it, as seen in Andrea Fraser's Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk (1989) where she parodied a verbose and pretentious museum guide. Other artists, like Carey Young, gave lectures and performances that expanded the critique outside the art world into corporate communications and the judicial system.

Performances often referenced art history and its hierarchies, such as Fraser's Kunst muß hängen (Art Must Hang) (2001) which replicated a 1995 speech by the German artist Martin Kippenberger. As art historian Helen Armitage described, the speech, "in Fraser's words, was laden with homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia - viewpoints she suggests that Kippenberger affected as a caricature of the German art scene at that time, her re-enactment becoming an institutional critique of Kippenberger."

In each case, the respective artist's performance was site specific, keyed to a particular institution, event, and audience. Fraser's Official Welcome (2001), commissioned by the MICA Foundation in New York, was performed at the foundation's private event for the unveiling of a new art work, as she impersonated various art celebrities and patrons, then stripped to her underwear and stated, "I'm not a person today. I'm an object in an artwork." Chris Burden's works like his Five Day Locker Piece (1971), in which he locked himself inside a university locker for five days were an implicit critique of the MFA as an art institution. In his Exposing the Foundation of the Museum (1986), Burden also excavated beneath the Temporary Contemporary, newly designed by Frank Gehry, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, as a critique of museum construction projects designed by famous architects that overshadowed the art they were intended to exhibit.


A photograph of Louise Lawler at her 2013 retrospective exhibition in Cologne, Germany.

Institutional Critique often used found images, as seen in Marcel Broodthaer's readymade images of eagles, and photographs taken by the artist as seen in Hans Haacke's Shapolysky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings (1971) to starkly illustrate the real-world nature of their critique. Andrea Fraser's White People in West Africa (1989/91/93) similarly combined found images with her own photographs "to examine white tourism within the contexts of colonialism and neo-colonialism", as art critic Helen Armitage wrote.

Though primarily known as a member of the Pictures Generation, Louise Lawler's work had equal relevance to Institutional Critique, as her photographs of artworks by leading artists like Joan Miró, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol in collectors' private homes or in auction houses creates provocative juxtapositions of art and setting. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote, "The floral pattern on a Limoges soup tureen vied with a Pollock drip painting on a wall above it", offering an implicit critique of aesthetic evaluation driven by art investment, and the market that valorizes it.


While amateur and professional video, both planned and unplanned, documented the temporary nature of some of the installations and performances that made up the Institutional Critique movement, video as a medium also directly informed and shaped some artists' work. As a cheap and quick medium, video suggests immediacy and veracity, which adhere to the central objectives of Institutional Critique - the revelation of unjust or unexamined systems. By the use of editing, framing and narrative structuring artists were able to use video to guide viewers through their critique of a particular institution in a more direct manner than might be possible through a single sculpture or installation.

The Photographers' Society of London commissioned Carey Young's Everything You've Heard is Wrong (1999), a piece drawing on corporate presentation practice at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. The artist delivers a corporate-style speech in the anachronistic public location, a space which invites questions and debate from the audience that gather. Using an awareness of the medium of video as a framing and focusing device, the performance ends at the moment the audience begins to ask questions, fundamentally differentiating it from the live experience and illustrating the inability of the corporate model of communication to function in immediate and direct engagement with people on the street.

Renée Green's video Venue (1994) similarly used the temporal possibilities of video to document her attempted conversion of the Pat Hearn Gallery into a rental space meant to be a community and commercial venue in New York. The month-long process involved advertising the space, hiring a booking agent for a concert, art exhibitions, and a fashion show within the gallery. Telescoping the month-long project into a concise summation of its key moments, the video documentation presented with full transparency the economic processes tied up with this activity. Its documentation of the ramifications to the institution and wider community conveyed an implicit critique of the opacity of the art world, and the impossibility of objective analysis within a day to day engagement with them. Video allowed Green to present the experience as a single, easily followed narrative that would have been far more opaque if presented through other forms of documentation.

Later Developments - After Institutional Critique

Artists of the Institutional Critique movement were immensely influential, informing many later artists and movements. The Guerilla Girls, for example, whose Feminist Art began on the street in the 1980s, challenged art museums, galleries, art collectors and critics for their underrepresentation of female artists and artists of color, echoing many of their criticisms of the gallery as an institution. This work eventually migrated inside the institution, arguably changing it profoundly.

At the same time, critique was also turned upon the movement itself. As Andrea Fraser in "From the Critique of Institutions to the Institution of Cri-tique," (2005) wrote, "Just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc....So if there is no outside for us, it is not because the institution is perfectly closed, or exists as an apparatus in a 'totally administered society', or has grown all-encompassing in size and scope. It is because the institution is inside us, and we can't get outside of ourselves." Noting Daniel Buren's Guggenheim exhibition, the LA County Museum of Art's "Institutional Critique and After," and the 2005 Getty symposia on the movement, Fraser wrote, "Nearly forty years after their first appearance, the practices now associated with 'institutional critique,' have for many come to seem, well, institutionalized."

Haacke in particular, however, has continued to be an influence on artists including Olafur Eliasson, Tuer Greenfort, and Mark Lombardi, who engage in similarly irreverent and playful interactions with the audience for their art. Haacke has also provided a model for resisting the pressures of the art world and the relentless focus on career progression instilled in many forms of art education (such as MFAs). As writer and editor Andrew Russeth noted, "for many young artists, Haacke remains a kind of gold standard - a heroic example of remaining independent in the face of market pressures, and for 35 years, from 1967 to 2002, he was a guiding force for free-thinking students as a professor at Cooper Union."

The international breadth of the movement has remained characteristic of Institutional Crtique, and has expanded to include younger artists from diverse backgrounds, such as the Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo, whose work addresses invisible social forces and their influence on individual desire, the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel, whose work manipulates the social contract of artist and audience, the interventionist Finnish artist Pilvi Takala, and German artists Maria Eichhorn and A. L. Steiner, whose practices interrogate the invisible backstage forces that govern the ability of artists to display certain images over others.

At the same time vigorous consideration of this third wave of Institutional Critique has been undertaken by a new generation, as in video artist Hito Steyerl's The Institution of Critique (2006), an essay where Steyerl breaks down the political and social contexts of each wave of Institutional Critique, building to an assessment of recent work (a 'third wave') in the field. Steyerl argues Institutional Critique in previous format was unable to negotiate the limiting strictures of neoliberalism in an effective way, becoming trapped in its attempt to offer a meaningful answer to the problem of the increasingly decentralized institutional model.

Art critic and curator Simon Sheikh locates the movement's third wave primarily within the curatorial world, particularly in group projects like Transform (2005-08), a project of the European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies that used a variety of research and cultural exchanges, exhibitions, and conferences to focus on the practices of Institutional Critique. Another example might be the work of curator Jonas Ekeberg, who launched the project space Oslo Kunsthall in 2000 in Norway, as part of what he calls the "New Institutionalism". Changing the institution in response to Institutional Critique, he asked, "If the artists were critical of the conservative structure of the institution, why not change that structure?" As a result, the movement has taken on an ever-greater complexity, encompassing these curatorial initiatives as well.

Key Artists

  • Daniel Buren is a French conceptual artist best known for his provocative public art pieces and use of contrasting, colored stripes.
  • Marcel Broodthaers was a Belgian poet, filmmaker and conceptual artist who was born in 1924. He worked principally with found objects and collage, which often contained text. His most noted work was an installation, Musee d'Art Moderne, Department of Eagles, which began in his Brussels home.
  • Hans Haacke is a German-American Conceptual artist that cleverly and memorably critiques institutions and conventions of the art world.
  • Lawler's photographs explore the presentation of art in galleries, museums, and other locations. She is considered to be part of the Pictures Generation.
  • Levine is an American photographer, appropriation artist, and seminal figure of The Pictures Generation group. The subject of much controversy in the 1980s, Levine is best known for her rephotographs of work by Edward Weston, Vincent van Gogh, and Marcel Duchamp.

Do Not Miss

  • Environmental Art refers to art dealing with ecological issues in the aethetic, formal, the political, the historical, or the social context. First associated with Earth art, the expanding term of Environmental Art also encompasses the scope of the urban landscape.
  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
  • Situationist International was agroup of social revolutionaries who were avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists that joined to critique capitalism and social issues.

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle, Lewis Church

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Institutional Critique Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle, Lewis Church
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 15 Jun 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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