Punching Down: Art Therapy and Institutional Critique

As a modern practice, Institutional Critique is something of a double-edged sword. Part of the central irony is that work that comments on the institutions and conventions of the contemporary art world is contained entirely within the very structures that it interrogates. Some institutions are keenly aware of this and use it to their advantage, such as MoMA and other museums commissioning and displaying critical work as a way to shield themselves from inquiry. In order to maintain a necessary critical distance, successful inquiry often needs to be presented outside of the Institution. (Jayson Musson’s YouTube series Art Thoughtz is a good example, even if it comes with its own problems around celebrity and disarticulation.) This can also help overcome another potential hazard with Institutional Critique- that when the relationship between inquiry and subject becomes too close or obtuse, the inquisitor can end up levying their criticism at a different, and perhaps undeserving, subject.

Which brings me to Snow, the interdisciplinary exhibit by Zachary Cahill showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art through the end of the month. The artist presents a collection of works from the imagined perspective of an art therapy patient- with all the formal deficiency and asinine politics that characterizes such work- within the hypothesized setting of a socialist dystopian near-future. Walking through the exhibit, it’s clear that Cahill is trying to load some of the stigma of modern mental health care (hyper-medicalization, schmaltzy inspiration porn, etc.) onto his fictional setting, which then becomes a vehicle for criticism of social and cultural institutions generally and the role of art within these institutions specifically. The problem with Snow is that Cahill’s work yields consequences that are arguably unintentional but almost certainly harmful.

One immediate question is whether work that exists within an art therapy context should be subject to critique at all. Cahill clearly believes that all art, even art of this sort, is fair game. It’s a cultural artifact, and therefore susceptible to critical inquiry. At the risk of inviting a host of “slippery slope” comments, I’m not sure that’s necessarily true. I don’t believe that people who make work as part of art therapy treatment make their work for me. My experience as an outsider to this particular context frames my experience of this genre of work, and to deny my relatively privileged status in any review of that work is incomplete at best and, frankly, ableist at worst.

This is somewhat akin to white film critics who choose to critique a Tyler Perry film and detail its shortcomings while refusing to consider that they’re not the intended audience. While it’s dangerous to suppress or avoid cultural debate, it’s also dangerous to ignore situational realities.

It’s also worth noting that the kind of institutions this form of art practice is meant to interrogate offer the benefit of shielding the artist from any blowback. Assuming that Cahill meant no harm, the result is still a troubling power imbalance between the artist and the subject of his inquiry. Cahill is making levying his critique of art-as-therapy with institutional support and legitimization, rendering (perhaps inadvertently) the target of inquiry unable to defend themselves. (Specific cultural institutions might also be unable to respond to critique, but with the kind of financial and cultural capital they have access to, they don’t really need anyone sticking up for them.)

Some of this assumes that the collateral damage from Snow is unintentional. It’s entirely possible that Cahill knows what he’s doing, and that a central component of his argument is that art shouldn’t be used as a form of therapy. After a few walkthroughs the work does seem to present itself as a sort of warning about art as a therapeutic process. Within the greater context of his theorized setting, and in reference to his previous exhibits, art therapy is portrayed as part of an overall strategy by this imagined authoritarian construct to use art as a sort of Opium Of The Masses form of social control. (Which, yes, thank you Mr. Cahill, but many of us also read Brave New World in high school. We get it.)

For one, this approach makes certain assumptions about the practice of art therapy, namely that it can only function in an institutional context. That it’s a form of therapy which can only be administered in a hospital, or sanitorium, or correctional facility. This inextricable link that’s being argued is, perhaps, not as much of a given as Cahill suggests. And if that’s true, that art therapy is not fundamentally bound up with institutions, then the potency of this particular device is sharply diminished.

But beyond that, the nature of the critique suggests that the potential ramifications of art-as-therapy- both within the art world and in the wider culture- outweigh the individual benefits of a patient working to manage their mental illness or personal trauma. This makes me think of an anecdote within comedy of unknown provenance and dwindling currency- that comedians should punch up, not down. There are a number of entities and trends within the art world deserving of Institutional Critique- from a culture that increasingly revolves around art fairs, to commercialization, to the echo chamber effect, to the exploitation of creative labor by the art world’s biggest names. That Cahill seemingly chose art therapy as his target is baffling at best and problematic at worst. There are more worthy targets out there.

James Patrick Gordon is a writer and artist living in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter and on Tumblr.