Geographies of Professionalisation – panel for AAANZ conference 2014

Should have placed this here earlier – below the panel description for the panel “Geographies of Professionalisation”, organised by Rachel O’Reilly and myself for the AAANZ conference GEOcritical, December 2014. See the Call for Papers, abstract submissions due 29th August but we can probably take late ones until the 31st. Please propose! Email danny at

Geographies of Professionalisation

A Session Proposal for GEOCritical, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, Launceston 5-8 December 2014


Danny Butt, Research Fellow, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne* 

Rachel O’Reilly, independent writer and curator, Amsterdam/Berlin.

The expansion of the market for university qualifications (for artists, curators, and administrators) has combined with the rise of the international biennial/festival to produce expanded and geographically synchronised fields of professional art discourse. Professional practitioners travel in circles of international prestige, evaluated less by their development of an institutional archive and more by their relationships with contemporary producers and institutions.

The historical marker of professionalism was a certain autonomy and a disinterested, neutral, public character that distinguished itself from mere exchange-value. However, the expansion of mechanisms of professionalisation through privatised universities and cultural institutions questions this disinterest. As Samuel Weber notes, professionalism requires “a certain kind of place, or, more precisely, a certain kind of placement.” The professional is in a structural location, programmed by global forces, that formats particular places and sites in terms of their potential for profit.

The dynamics of this “placement” have been on display in actions against corporate sponsors of large-scale exhibitions funded from industries including oil and gas, mandatory detention, and speculative finance. Sponsoring corporations are actively profiting from the neoliberal and neocolonial transformation of territory, property and democratic governance. The political economy of the presenting institution supports a curatorial ideology of neutrality: a withdrawal from thinking the political as the means of holding institutional power. This neutrality is justified in an appropriation of art’s “autonomy”, yet the autonomy of the artist is never global. As Guattari describes it, “the task of the poetic function… is to recompose artificially rarefied, resingularized Universes of subjectification.”  In other words, the aesthetic work of resingularisation can be seen as moving in an opposite direction to globalising neutralisation.

This panel asks how artists, critics and curators orient themselves to the geographical imaginary of professionalisation, navigating local and global forces that produce contemporary artistic subjectivities.

Relation to conference theme (150 words)

The panel is a direct response to the question of the “geo”, asking about the planetary distribution of knowledge formations that produce contemporary art. We aim to solicit papers that engage the tension between international discourses and local sites, incorporating issues such as local and indigenous knowledges, reterritorialisation of national cultural institutions, and the rise of environmental and ecological issues in contemporary art.


Contemporary Art History and Professionalisation

It’s interesting seeing art historians deal with artists who are their contemporaries or near-contemporaries, as this is not what the discipline was designed for and so the meeting highlights how different the professionalisation and subjectification of art historians and artists has been. While artists do gain a sort of structural validation due to their choice of material (ironically, increasingly including art history) the requirement to “do something” with that material (i.e. enable a kind of affective truth) is far higher than for the art historian, whose ultimate validation comes from a genre of truth as the avoidance of being proven false, quite a different enterprise. [This is all changing as contemporary art history becomes an archive that both artists and art historians mine to their advantage through the shared tools of computing, adopting referencing as a style, but still I think in different ways.]

Perhaps peer reviewing of contemporary art historians could occur more through the tools of art criticism, evaluating the work of art historians according to their formal strategies within specific institutional settings and within the context of an overall project that will be tied (always badly) to their creative “identity”. If that kind of evaluation were more prominent, the survival strategies of art historians would perhaps need to go through the kinds of critical pressure that those of artists have, to become less clearly institutionally predictable. Contests between art historians who were involved in various kinds of critique of their own institutional conditions and forming independent alliances to escape them versus those who benefit from business as usual might become more interesting to artists even as those contests made art history less useful.

The most enduring feature of the modernist legacy to me was not to think of disciplinarity as seeking purity but for every disciplinary form to court its own institutional decomposition. It’s now over 20 years since Bal and Bryson noted that “art history seems hard pressed to renounce its positivistic basis, as if it feared to lose its scholarly status altogether in the bargain.” If we consider that the humanities have now become a financialised enterprise subject to many of the same kinds of pressures as any other industry (gaining market share, impact, growth, profitability), perhaps this diagnosis still holds, but the location of the “positivity” has changed from academic declarations of fact to more behind-the-scenes structures of professionalisation. “Theory” and a critical community would then still be among the few available tools to open up these naturalised engines of professional force.