text > Francis Alys: The Modern Procession at PS1

Having been asked to contribute with a short review for Art Experience: New York City magazine I drove my Nissan Altima one Friday afternoon to MoMA PS1. I parked for free, which is relatively easy in Long Island City, and entered this former public school through a back door as its main entrance was closed for restoration. I stepped into Francis Alÿs’ exhibition entitled “A Story of Deception.”

This unpoetic and mundane beginning is meant to suggest that I intend to write this short exhibition review by invoking the concept of “experience” – in both its aesthetic and ordinary sense. I do not know to what extent the name of this magazine and its editorial policy were influenced by what some call “pragmatist aesthetics,” which has been regarded as America's major contribution to this field. Pragmatist aesthetic theory places the concept of “experience” at its center, as did John Dewey in his Art as Experience. Dewey (the first and also the last truly pragmatist aesthetician) believed that an authentic aesthetic experience can only spring from an art which is made part of everyday life; it happens only when art is not placed in some “higher realm” and the artwork is not regarded as a “treasured fetish” locked away behind the thick walls of the museum. Instead, he believed, true art must be integrated into the fabric of ordinary experience and made part of everyday life. This aesthetic theory has earned its pragmatist label because it does not conceal the fact that art, like everything else in America, is also a means to an end. It has a purpose, an instrumental use, which is: to enrich the everyday life of the common folk. Dewey’s equalitarian aesthetics starkly contrasts with other theories, especially with that proposed in the late 18th century by Immanuel Kant and his followers, who have persistently insisted that true artistic experience is different from the ordinary kind since it is disinterested and without a purpose, and emerges as a result of the harmonious interplay of certain mental faculties – and if your faculties refuse to play with each other, or their play is not harmonious enough, then you may very well be excluded from having a true aesthetic experience. Dewey called this “elitism.”

It was this Deweyan idea of instrumentalized or deliberately purposeful art that aims at addressing the needs of everyone that crossed my mind as I walked through “A Story of Deception.” One work in particular seemed to have laid claim to such a theory, as if stepping forward and begging to provide a purposively democratic artistic experience for all. The Modern Procession, which occupied one former classroom in PS1, presented the viewers with documentation of a street-project that took place in the summer of 2002 in New York City. At that time Alÿs organized a performance in the streets in order to celebrate the moving of the Museum of Modern Art's most sacred icons from their permanent site in Manhattan (closed for restoration) to a temporary location in Queens. New Yorkers – used to all sorts of parades, marathons, and up and down marches along their islands – witnessed one Sunday morning a strange cavalcade. Picture this: a crowd slowly moving under the solemn and somewhat sad processional tunes blown by a Peruvian brass band; a riderless black horse, scared to the end of its tail by the hubbub of the megalopolis, trying to walk in pace with the confident humans; someone in the marching crowd sowing rose petals onto the hot asphalt leaving a dotted red path along the entire route; multicolored banners weaving high above the crowd and snapping in the ocean breeze; palanquin bearers within the crowd carrying a few sacred icons from the MoMA collection, artworks once signed by the now dead fathers of high modernism – a Picasso, a Duchamp, a Giacometti (as a matter of fact, the carriers carried copies of seminal works); in front of the modernist copies, other carriers carried an original “living” contemporary icon – Kiki Smith, the star of the New York art world dressed all in black and with her hair loose looking from atop, a peaceful yet determined Medea who has just betrayed her father. Around fifty MoMA employees (from curators to technical staff) all wearing shirts signed “The Modern Procession” and accompanied by a horse, a few dogs, and a Peruvian brass band, carried dead and live icons of the Western art world under the curious gaze of surprised passersby and emotionless video cameras (some carried along with the crowd, others screwed permanently into walls to survey the streets of the post 9/11 city). The cortège was led towards its peripheral destination in Queens by a couple of smiling NYPD cops.

The catalogue of the exhibition – fastened to the desk next to preparatory sketches and drawings – mentioned that this performance had challenged the predominant view that a Museum is a warehouse of treasures, and that the artist had attempted to set this conviction in opposition to a more social, or democratic understanding of the function of art – just as Dewey had envisioned it. Critics who wrote for the catalogue called the work “relational,” offering as proof sacred and secular precedents: mass religious processions from medieval Europe and Catholic processions from contemporary Mexico; mass Proletkult class celebrations organized in the streets of post-revolutionary Petrograd and Nazi volkisch rituals held in the streets of Munich during the Day of German Art. But as I walked around this classroom gazing at the documentation of The Modern Procession I kept thinking about American pragmatic aesthetics. Had Dewey been among the passersby in 2002, would he have approved of this work? To what extent is this work representative of democratic or social art and how comparable is it to religious or socialist mass processions mentioned by critics in the catalogue?

Formally The Modern Procession seems to qualify as an “art for life's sake” artistic experience, one which literally marches out of the confines of the museum gushing straight into the everyday life of the street. Perhaps Dewey, who was critical of the modern chasm between aesthetic and ordinary experience, would have saluted Alÿs’ Procession from the sidewalks, seeing in it an attempt to bridge two separated forms of experience under one unified life principle. But he may have also found the work too formal, too procedural, too separate and protected from everyday life, whether by the NYPD or by the distinct shirts that the processionists wore. Who knows, maybe this was the artist’s intention: to show under what condition an artist today can collaborate with an art institution, especially with one overburdened by its lasting tradition and universal respectedness, which on a more practical level translates into intricate restrictions, regulations and rules. The artist’s statement from the front page of the catalogue makes clear that the work was intended to be more ironic and mocking than I had initially suspected, and now I begin to realize that I may not have chosen the right work from the exhibition to talk about a unified artistic experience that Dewey once envisioned as best suited for his country. Or maybe the current model of democracy does not correspond to that envisioned, more than half a century ago, by Dewey? In some ways the interaction between Alÿs and the museum is reminiscent of contemporary liberal democracy, which as critics believe is about reconciling mutually exclusive beliefs and working out compromises between competing interests and values. The catalogue of The Modern Procession and the room at PS1 which put on display the process of organizing this project confirm this parallel, as it shows numerous proposals submitted by the artist at an earlier stage, sketches, correspondence with the curators, various routes and plots, many of which were dismissed or rejected in light of the existing insurance policies, institutional and municipal regulations. In the end the actual art work – The Modern Procession, which I watched on a monitor hanging in the corner of a former classroom at PS1 like a religious icon in the home of a Christian Orthodox believer – looked like a compromise finally reached between a parishioner and the church, between a contemporary artist and a modern museum, as they made yet another step towards defining what today qualifies as legitimate aesthetic experience.


Octavian Esanu, 2011
This short text has appeared in Art Experience: New York City Vol. I, No. 3