The importance of Muntadas's Between the Frames.
There are very few art works that simultaneously offer a critical look of the art world along with a documentary portrayal of its milieu and its players from their own words—taking as the very context where they are being made as their subject. This is the case of the ambitious multi-year video project Between The Frames (1983-1991) by Muntadas, of which 2023 marks 40 years since its inception.
Antoni Muntadas, born in Barcelona in 1942 and who has lived and worked in New York City since 1971, is one of the most influential post-conceptual multimedia artists (and one who also self-describes as a post-studio artist). I have always admired and seen Muntadas’s work as a prime example of critical hermeneutics— a form of meaning-gathering that tries to uncover how cultural messages “show and hide”, as philosopher Jonathan Roberge puts it.
From the beginning of his career, Muntadas has focused on the straight presentation of images and facts for the viewer to decode. His works often consists in the selection and presentation of information, images and facts, without commentary ( or the commentary being, in a sense, the very selection of that information). This is true from some of Muntadas’s earliest works, which centered on mass media images. One of his earliest exhibitions in the US, at the MIT Hayden Gallery in 1978, was On Subjectivity, focused on the ideological construction of meaning. As part of this project the artist mailed 50 photographs selected from the book “The Best of LIFE” (magazine) to 250 individuals so that the recipients could write captions for the images.
Then, in two subsequent video projects, one titled Between the Lines (1979) and another titled Watching the Press/Reading Television (1981), Muntadas draws attention to the very process by which the media impoverishes our understanding of reality, showing what he termed as “the informational limits” of television. In his words at the time, referring to Watching the Press/Reading Television, the work "it's about fragmentation. How media — in this case, magazines (People, Money, U.S. News & World Report) and television — reduces information."
Shortly after that project, Muntadas turned his sights to the art system.
As it is well known, in the 1960s and 70s international artistic networks strengthened thanks to technological improvements in communication and travel, but the 1980s also see a boom in the globalization of the art market (the Art Basel art fair, founded in 1970, had steadily grown in size and audience every year) and the rise of major art galleries in New York and elsewhere. This boom, in Muntadas’ view, redefined and enhanced “the roles of the dealer, the collector, the artist, the audience.” Following a similar conceptual approach from his previous works, Muntadas breaks down the phenomenon into parts, following a classification structure in eight chapters: 1. The Dealers; 2. The Collectors; 3. The Galleries; 4. The Museums; 5. The Docents; 6. The Critics; 7. The Media, and 8. Epilogue. The project includes the interviews of more than 150 individuals, all speaking in response to questions that have been edited out. The list of interlocutors is, in many ways, a who-is-who of the art world at that moment, including many individuals who wielded enormous influence and helped shape their respective areas (such as Harald Szeemann, Lucy Lippard, Ileana Sonnabend, Leo Castelli, Marcia Tucker, and many more) as well as artists who also defined the practice of the period (Dan Graham, Adrian Piper, John Baldessari, etc).
Interwoven throughout the interviews are a series of sequences that Muntadas has described as “open visuals”, such as images of a moving escalator in the chapter corresponding to the museum, images of a highway in the chapter dedicated to the docents, and images of the waves breaking in a beach in the chapter related to the critics— metaphors of sorts of the roles that those interlocutors play in the art world, and that operate in a way that suggests that we are witnessing a subconscious monologue.
I first encountered Between the Frames shortly after I first met Muntadas in Chicago in 1994 when he presented his project The File Room at the Chicago Cultural Center (another classificatory project, this one focusing on the subject of censorship) and was later able to access the project via Chicago’s Video Data Bank, during a time where I had recently started my career in museums and also during the high water mark of the institutional critique moment. Seeing the work was an enormously informative and clarifying experience to me, not only as a survey of some of the most influential thinkers and players in the art world of that moment but in the articulation of the roles that commerce, political and social status, exchange, communication and the structures of power and hierarchies created by those factors shape the way art is presented and consumed — all topics that were becoming active discussions. Most memorable for me, perhaps unsurprisingly, were the interviews with major artists such as Joseph Beuys (who died shortly after this filming and of which this is one of the few one-on-one interviews he gave, outside from his performative lectures), Adrian Piper and Hans Haacke. While it goes without saying that the art system cannot function without the crucial role of the artist, Muntadas made the decision not to make artists a chapter in itself but instead made them be the voices of the Epilogue, thus playing a respondent-type of role in this investigation. The project as a physical installation is presented as a series of rooms in a circular format, described by the artist as The Forum, where each one of the videos is played on a loop inside a room of a different color.
The questions that arise for me while looking at that work again mostly relate to how the art world has changed, and how it has remained the same— over these last four decades, such as the uncomfortable position that the art practice has to occupy between serious discourse and marketing. Kathy Halbreich, for example— then an up-and-coming curator— says in her interview:
I think as art and fashion become closely aligned, the market becomes a major influence. I think that this is the age of the market. There are more people who want to buy art. There are more people making art and there is more room to manipulate the buyer and the maker. I think institutions which are nonprofit, as this one is, have a responsibility not to muck around in those waters.
In many of the interviews there is a clear awareness of the way in which market forces are shaping the art system. Dan Graham compares the art world of the 1980s to the type of investments in real estate, and Hans Haacke draws attention to the increasing role that corporate culture has in art:
Corporations got involved in the arts because the arts were something with which they could polish their image, and through the arts, they also become more forceful in their lobbying for interests very close to the bottom line.
Allan Kaprow, on his part, reflects on the way that the financial need and interests impact artists:
If you become successful in terms of the economic system that art is part of, you become automatically bound up with the value systems, the value range, of those who have the money to have leisure time and to purchase artwork. This is a problem for a lot of us, because we don’t all share the values of those who have the power. It’s very difficult for an artist, therefore, to choose an alternative market, that is to choose a market which will allow that artist to survive in the way that a plumber or a carpenter survives – to earn a living.
In a sense, Between the Frames functions as a document of how art professionals reflect on their own methods and expertise. It is interesting, for example, to see the art historian Dore Ashton describe herself as temperamentally “anarchistic” and in fact reject the idea that what she does as a scholar is a professional specialty (“I see my passion is to understand what attracts me, what moves me. So I guess you would say I am either an amateur or a dilettante”). As for the trailblazing Marcia Tucker, she questions the idea that experimentation is the territory of young curators:
The more you work, the older you get, the more adventurous you get […] The people who are very young are much more self-conscious about what they do and try very hard to do things right. The older you get, the less concerned you are with any of those things, and the more you can really take chances in your work.
For the subject of education, Muntadas chose to interview docents in the Long Beach Museum, some of which articulate the inquiry-based approaches that became standard practice during the 90s and beyond (Barbara Stewart: “We are not really there to interpret, but to help the viewer see what is actually in the piece and to get out of it what they can, depending on where they are in their appreciation of art and their open-minded view of their world.[…] I like a dialogue with the viewer, rather than a lecture”).
I asked Muntadas whether, should he had to add a new chapter to Between the Frames, what would it be. Almost immediately he replied: “the art advisor”, followed by “the auction houses” and “the art fairs”. In other words, the ultimate expression and/or culmination of a global art market that in many respects started during the period when this project was created.
Having viewed the videos once more from the perspective of 2023, I confess I departed from the mindset that I would be looking at a bygone art world, one whose concerns and issues are no longer ours; that I would witness more a series of debates from the 1980s that pertained more to a historical archive. But what strikes me about Between the Frames is how it is accurately predictive of much of what the art world is today: mostly, how the takeover of the market that started to become evident to everyone has largely been completed and become such a status quo that we don’t seem to find many avenues for circumventing it in real ways.
But a reading of the work exclusively in those terms would be too simplistic, as well as lazy. Mainly, to me, what emerges while watching those interviews are certain common themes connected to how the meaning of art is collectively constructed. For example, in at least two instances in the interviews one encounters the phrase, first articulated by Castelli and then repeated by Baldessari, “mysterious consensus.” Castelli says: “I depend of a mysterious consensus that gets established about a painter”, and then Baldessari adds, referring to Castelli’s comment:
I think a “mysterious consensus” can operate in a village-type situation like New York, where everybody… It is a large village, of course, but everybody is very close together. So things operate a lot by what we call “street talk,” one person hearing another person, another person, another person.” […] “That is exactly what makes the stock market go up or down. Talk. Optimism or pessimism.
What both are referring to is the process of construction of extrinsic value, created through discussion and criticism, which then translates to tangible forms of exchange (i.e. financial); in other words, the very process of production, presentation, and collecting that constitute the dynamic of the art system. What might lie between the frames might well be, precisely, the mysterious consensus.
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