Commissioned texts

The Delirium of Openness – a text by Dave Beech. 2010

At a time of ‘ethical delirium’ that Alain Badiou describes as ‘generalized victimization’, the contemporary artworld’s rhetoric of openness is as familiar as it is nauseating. Everything from the ‘open work’, ‘open archives’, the ‘open city’, and fanaticism about ‘open source’, to the ‘open submission’ exhibition testifies to the dominance of this imperative.I can already hear some readers asking themselves, what could possibly be wrong with openness? Well, this short essay is an attempt to answer that question. The quick answer is that it is ideological. What I mean by this is explained best in Althusserian terms. Art is an ‘Ideological State Apparatus’. The difference between the State Apparatus proper (police, army, etc) and the Ideological State Apparatuses, is that the former functions primarily through repression (violent coercion) whereas the latter functions primarily through ideology (hegemony). Art is an ideological state apparatus, and every apparatus has its ideologies. One of the giveaways of ideology is that it is beyond thought, that it captures us without the inconveience of argument. This is why alternatives to the ideological always seem to be ridiculous. Ideology produces facile affirmation, such as the facile affirmation of openness in art today.

If openness was not ideological, if it simply described a particular arrangement of things, then there would be no universal tendency to prefer openness. That there is such a tendency is demonstrated on an almost daily basis. As I write this there is a billboard poster outside advertising the mini convertible with two simple captions floating over two images, first, a locked book and second, a mini with the roof down: ‘closedness bad’; ‘openness good’. The captions could be recycled to advertise contemporary trends in art education too, which typically presents the ‘open fine art course’ as the alternative to the old disciplines of painting, sculpture, plus the third area of your choice. Even Suzi Gablik, who seized on postmodernism as an opportunity to slag off critique to celebrate ‘re-enchantment’ in her book ‘Has Modernism Failed?’, has embraced the new ideology, singing the praises of art as an ‘open conversation’.

That there is a universal tendency to affirm openness does not mean that there is consensus on what openness is. There are competing views of what constitutes openness. George Siemens takes Google to task on its profitable promotion of a specific kind of openness: ‘Google is direct in stating that they feel “openness will win”. For Google, openness is a lever of competition, not a principle to be pursued in its own right’. Note, here, that Siemens criticizes Google’s reference to openness because he believes that they betray the true or full concept of openness.

This rivalry over openness occurs in art too. Consider the old-fashioned artist who refuses to allow the museum to display interpretative panels in the gallery defends a certain conception of the openness if the artwork to the viewer, while the concerned curator seeks to use the helpful texts to open the work up to visitors who would otherwise be lost. Politically, too, we know that rightwing ideologues are fond of using terms like ‘the open society’ and ‘open markets’ to account for the virtues of western capitalism and to diagnose the vices of everyone else.

Openness in the rhetoric of contemporary art regulates practices by providing an off-the-shelf method of examining their ethical dimension. The ideology replicates itself and extends its domain by the evangelism of the artworld’s pioneering spirits who pride themselves on discovering previously undetected problem spots to ‘open up’. This leads to an ‘ethical delirium’ in which artists, curators, administrators and critics engage in a furious crusade against closure in all its forms.

It is worth going over Badiou’s argument against ‘ethical delirium’ briefly as we will find that what he had to say sheds light on the ideological conditions of art’s imperative for openness. It goes like this. Contemporary (human rights) ethics requires two things, victims and evil. Its self-appointed mission is to intervene against evil on behalf of victims. Ethical delirium demands goodness and defines goodness as the elimination of evil. This explains why the West felt compelled to invade Iraq.

For Badiou the good intentions of the West apropos the wretchedness of the third world is linked to its military interventions against the evil of Islamic terrorism. They both function to confirm the superiority of the west, even when they seem to be acts of sacrifice, charity and selflessness. “Who cannot see that this ethics which rests on the misery of the worlds hides, behind its victim-Man, the good-Man, the white-Man?” As such, ‘generalized victimization’ is the condition of an ethics limited to human rights.

And it is also the condition of both the monopolization of ethics by the West and its determination to use ‘shock and awe’ to unseat evil across the globe. “Who can fail to see that in our humanitarian expeditions, interventions, embarkations of charitable legionnaires, the Subject presumed to be universal is split? On the one side of the victims, the haggard animal exposed on television screens. On the side of the benefactors, conscience and the imperative to intervene. And why does this splitting always assign the same roles to the same sides?”

The more that ethical delirium monopolizes virtue the more the West feels justified in its charitable and military missions and the more the Other is reduced to the condition of the subhuman: ‘it is perceived, from the heights of our apparent civil peace, as the uncivilized that demands of the civilized a civilizing intervention … And this is why the reign of ‘ethics’ coincides, after decades of courageous critiques of colonialism and imperialism, with today’s sordid self-satisfaction in the ‘West’, with the insistent argument according to which the misery of the Third World is the result of its own incompetence, its own inanity – in short, of its subhumanity.”

To speak about the ‘reign of ethics’ in this way is to re-attach our shared values and imperatives, our unquestioned assumptions about what is good and right, to the state. In a word, the ‘reign of ethics’ is ideological. Delirium is one of the characteristics of ideology. This is not simply a poetic way of saying that ideology is false. Delirium has two key aspects in this regard. First, it is not do much false thinking as not thinking at all. Ideology refers precisely to those values, beliefs and truths that we hold without thinking. Second, delirium is compelling. Ideology grips us, like an overriding inner force, as if our identity depended on it – which, in fact, it does.Don’t get me wrong, the evangelism for openness is not always dumb and uncritical. Noack and Buergel chart a course between autonomy and instrumentality which they describe as ‘doing something that opens up possibilities’. Openness, for them, needs to be supercharged in what they dub the ‘radically permeable’ which implies ‘two openings’ in ‘a praxis of permeability that goes beyond the idea of permeability and beyond permeable form’. This is a sophisticated defence of openness with critical intentions, but it is embroiled in the delirium of openness nonetheless. In the last analysis, invoking ‘openness’ in this way buys friends by trading in ideology.

Recently a curator told me, “we don’t have private views here, we have openings”. This is symptomatic of the consensus in the artworld today, gripped by the rhetoric of openness (access, hospitality, welcome, etc) that our current delirium finds irresistible. ‘Opening’ couldn’t have better connotations. By comparison ‘private view’ sounds elitist, old-fashioned, aggressive and closed. However, despite appearances, the terms opening and private view are interchangeable. This is because opening does not refer to a quality of the event, in which perhaps it might contrast with the closure of a private view. Opening merely identifies the sequence of events. The opening or private view is the inaugural event of an exhibition: when the gallery is open before it is open. Let me explain.

The opening, in this special sense, immediately precedes the opening of the exhibition. Prior to the public viewing of the exhibition, another public, a putatively private public, enters the gallery for a previewing. The private view is private only insofar as it precedes the opening of the exhibition to the public. Anyone can go to a private view. You are not predestined to belong at a private view. It is simply by virtue of arriving early that this first public is inscribed as private. In other words, the alleged privacy of the private view is not due to the character of the public that attends the preview. On the contrary, it is the timing of the private view – the view as preview – that accords the public of the private view its character as private (simply by virtue of preceding the public). There are not two publics in existence prior to the event to which the distinction between the preview and the public view corresponds. The private public and the public public are indistinguishable except by the time at which they attend the gallery. There is nothing particularly private and restrictive about who attends a private view. And there is nothing open about an opening.

The delirium of openness has gripped the artworld. The reign of ethics is the perfect ideological eco-system for the propagation of openness as a universal imperative. And, like ethics, openness feeds off and reinforces a ‘generalized victimization’. The ideologues of openness are compelled to intervene against the evil of closure in all its guises on behalf of those victims who are excluded, restricted, passified or silenced. The ‘open work’ liberates the viewer from the author, thereby casting the viewer as a victim in need of liberation. The ‘open submission’ exhibition liberates the (overlooked) artist from the curator, thereby casting the (overlooked) artist as a victim in need of special measures – casting the curators or organizers, at the same time, as more open, more ethical and pioneering.

Open exhibitions are no more open than other exhibitions. Openness is not a quality of the open exhibition. What the organizers of open exhibitions – and all the pioneers of openness in art – need to remember is that, like there is no economic solution to capitalism, there is no curatorial solution to art. It is a piece of managerial ideology that looks for a technical solution to social problems, but if openness seems to be a no-brainer, this is not because it is a technical solution but an ideological imperative. In fact, rather than the result of openness being guaranteed to ‘improve’ the situation of those who are constructed as victims in need of our intervention, we know that inclusion is an efficient instrument of neutralization. Openness is not the solution, it is the problem.