Art Discourse

Meta-theory Minus a (Dialectical) Bite.

A Second Response to Camiel van Winkel’s “Sandwich”

Steven ten Thije

February 9, 2014essay,

In his latest response to Camiel van Winkel’s The Sandwich Will Not Go Away Or Why Paradigm Shifts Are Wishful Thinking, Steven ten Thije critiques his concept of the “sandwich” as an analytical tool. Ten Thije claims that Van Winkel’s “sandwich” is nothing more than pure theory because it fails to offer the necessary connections to the extra-theoretical and, moreover, essentially ignores art altogether.

If we stick to food metaphors, we could say that Camiel van Winkel tends to sprinkle his responses with an ironic salt that tastes remarkably like vinegar. But regardless of how it is done, it is pleasant to be proven wrong on all points in that it allows the air to be cleared of several misunderstandings and, even if perhaps somewhat unfulfilling for him, it is good to see that we indeed agree on much more than meets the eye. There is no “normality” or “return” intended, we are all complicit in the “sandwich” and the Ivory Tower is for rent. (And, to return the favour, yes, I do think personality-based curators can be criticised.)

The word “marginal” is just a “neutral” term that we shouldn’t make too much “fuss” about. I’m happy to let that be. Unfortunately, however, he also consistently warps my argument and elegantly sidesteps the core of my critique and, as a result, leaves me with that same feeling of “willful misrepresentation” he complained of in his previous response. If this was the extent of it, then the debate would simply come to an end with two men going their own separate ways, agreeing that the common ground is just too small for both of us to stand on.

However, Van Winkel’s response began with a short presentation of his argument that felt refreshing and inspires me to do what I believe Van Winkel was hoping for: giving him a direct response to his proposal of the “sandwich as an analytical tool to understand the current state of discourse on art”.

When one reads the original text together with his first response, I can understand some of Van Winkel’s earlier frustration. In my previous response I didn’t engage too directly with the “sandwich” itself, because, aside of its relative accuracy, I wasn’t quite sure how it functioned as an “epistemological model”. Now it is clear that I should understand the “sandwich” as structurally linked to his previous work such as Moderne leegte and The Regime of Visibility.1 In studies like these he dialectically links developments in art to cultural phenomena. For instance, in Moderne leegte he links city planning and architecture in the postwar Netherlands to minimal and conceptual art. His “paradigm shift” argument is much like city planning in that it is another cultural phenomenon that he seeks to understand and reflect upon. Although, in this instance, he uses a model that is quite different from the ones he introduces in Moderne leegte because he ignores the artworks and instead focuses solely on discourse. Instead of a dialectics between art and culture, his “sandwich” offers a discursive dialectics, in which the three layers – “Romanticism”, “post-structuralism” and “cultural studies” – balance each other out but also create a type of constant short-circuiting.

The entire “paradigm-shift” argument is a symptom of this short-circuiting phenomenon. I hope the reader will forgive me for briefly repeating the notion of his “sandwich” – albeit here in more dialectical terms. The “Romantic” tradition celebrates identity and the self. It’s historical origin is situated in the early 19th century and was related to the birth of the civil subject and the nation state, which not only rejected the aristocratic model but also introduced a new type of heroic subject as well as the notion of heroic artists and art.

A prime example of this tendency is the position of artist Casper David Friedrich who abandoned hierarchical institutions such as the Church and the Academy and began drawing inspiration from his own individual, unmediated, subjective experiences. He painted churches in ruins to symbolise the waning influence of the aristocracy. Moreover, he celebrated the human subject as a being with the innate ability to experience the divine and know right from wrong. Of course, this is an overly simplified description of his complex position, but it illustrates the essence of the “Romantic” layer of the “sandwich”.

This layer is then dialectically opposed by the “post-structuralist” tradition, which debunked the heroic subject of modernity. Writers like Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes in many very different ways began developing a radical critique of the entire notion of the subject. Their famous “death of the author” idea is further illustrated by Foucault in his “Order of Discourse”, his famous 1970 inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, which opens with these lines: “I wish I could have slipped surreptitiously into this discourse which I must present today, and into the ones I shall have to give here, perhaps for many years to come. I should have preferred to be enveloped by speech and carried away well beyond all possible beginnings, rather than have to begin it myself.”2

The first “I” becomes blurred at a crossroads of various traditions of speaking that meet within the arbitrary historical subject, which Foucault wants to trace and understand in relation to each other. The “post-structuralist” layer presents the heroic self as annulled by the murmuring that emerges from the archive of discursive traditions.

I personally feel least familiar with the last layer of the “sandwich”, which in Van Winkel’s reading seems to produce a dialectical synthesis of the first two layers and is called “cultural studies”. This recent discursive tradition features the subject-position central to Romanticism being translated into abstract and generic subjects such as gender, class or race. Cultural studies draws its inspiration from both sides and creates a perpetual mini-dialectic in which a cultural group gets dressed up as a kind-of super-subject and is invested with heroic agency that reminds one of Romanticism and is used to overcome the limitations of this subject-position. The feminist position, for example, ultimately leads to a total implosion of the notion of gender out of which emerges a new, genderless category referred to as queerness.

Here is where the “sandwich” produces a constant desire to announce “paradigm shifts”, which – especially in the fine arts – will never truly produce a shift in the “sandwich” itself, or even any real dialectical development, for that matter. This becomes pertinent when we revisit the Kuhnian notion that a “paradigm shift” marks a revolution in understanding in which phenomena that were once incomprehensible suddenly become comprehensible. “Paradigm shifts” mark an instant of radical reform in which something is lost and something is found and these phenomena go unrecognised from within. What is essential here is that data considered inexplicable suddenly becomes coherent and vice versa. The possibility of a shift starts with a dialectical exchange between the theory and the data.

The false nature of the “paradigm shift”, that seems so essential to today’s art world discourse, is the fact that it is not at all clear what is confronting what. Is art supposed to instigate a shift in another field outside of art, or is it art itself that is going through a “paradigm shift”, or perhaps both? Here a knot is tied that is difficult to untangle because it is entirely unclear what is data and what is theory. Here language becomes “obscure” and “academic” and the “mannerism” commences. Next to e-flux, Van Winkel refers to the ambivalent blessings of “artistic research” in which art itself enters the world of academia and becomes knowledge production, but then runs the risk of ending up in a closed loop where it becomes both the data (as the work) that it then itself explains (as the research). When the specificity of art is no longer understood as an autonomous force that stimulates the reflection and understanding of our contemporary position by differing, it gets lost in an amorphous zone where theory, art, utopianism and marketing all commingle to become an undifferentiated whole.

The question that Van Winkel seems to want to ask is: Where does the rubber meet the road; or perhaps: Can the rubber ever meet the road again? Here is conceivably where the unfortunate misunderstanding between us begins. Because we share a concern for the fact that a substantial part of the cultural criticism in and about the contemporary art world simply never ends up being read by anyone outside the art world itself; that any real dialectical exchange between an artwork and another cultural context is almost impossible because the entire world of art production and its reception is self-contained in a discursive vacuum. However, the more pressing question for both Van Winkel and myself is: What can we do in this situation? And here is where I feel Van Winkel’s essay falls short. The “sandwich” may very well function as a tool for analysing how and why certain discursive patterns in contemporary art writing are indeed ineffective or flawed, but it offers little perspective on whether it is possible and, if so, how one could constructively act upon the presented data in this situation.

Van Winkel describes the logic of the “grotesque” situation we find ourselves in but this does not qualify as dialectical analysis. In his defence, however, I must say that he is also careful to not refer to his “sandwich” as a dialectical analysis, preferring the more neutral “analytical tool” and “epistemological model”. But it is this analytical neutrality, which attempts to reveal the logic of what we know, that ends up disappointing us, especially compared to his more explicitly dialectical earlier work. He ends up transforming his argument into almost pure theory, or meta-theory, without offering any clear links to the extra-theoretical that could dialectically develop his argument. This is why I wrote my “schoolmasterly” explanation of globalisation and neoliberalism. I think these are precisely the two phenomena that need to be addressed as the real political and economic context for the “sandwich”. Without a context of this kind, the analytical tool only ends up performing half of its dialectical function and I’m afraid that that is ultimately no dialectic at all. This is also why the primary emotion the text arouses is frustration because one clearly senses that Van Winkel is not terribly positive about the current state of affairs, and finds himself completely trapped by them.

However, neoliberalism and globalisation, important as they may be as defining-the-current-moment phenomena, only represent half of what is missing in Van Winkel’s analysis. It is art itself – or more precisely, the artworks – that are the most striking in their absence. (This critique was also articulated by Frank Reijnders in his review of Van Winkel’s “De mythe van het kunstenaarschap” (The Myth of Artisthood).3 Comparing Van Winkel’s own analysis in Moderne leegte, or The Regime of Visibility, with his “sandwich” as “analytical tool”, the main difference we notice is that art itself has vacated the field of inquiry. Of course, one can argue that this is a strategic choice of a temporary nature, but the argument thereby misses the one element that could actually produce a real dialectical argument.

This is also why his simplistic criticism of the Van Abbemuseum and the Museum of Arte Útil4 is so disappointing and even substandard for an academic of his stature. Maybe he is critical of the museum’s prevailing rhetoric, but by limiting his criticism to what the museum proclaims, instead of also including what the museum chooses to exhibit, he produces a very biased and limited view that ignores the many and varied artists and artworks represented in that museum. Here is where I would like to request that Van Winkel show some curiosity or generosity because the artists and artworks exhibited in the Van Abbemuseum have their own unique place in the world and should not be summarily discounted simply because of their context. Taking these works seriously as independent voices capable of dialectically engaging with their context, would be completely in keeping with Van Winkel’s own expertise. Such a dialectical analysis could provide rich new perspectives on the current state of the art world and beyond. If not, I’m afraid that my “father” remains trapped in a paternalism that only sets the limits of where we are currently at in the form of a meta-theory minus the necessary dialectical bite.

1. Camiel van Winkel, Moderne leegte. Over kunst en openbaarheid (Nijmegen: Sun, 1999); and The Regime of Visibility (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2005).

2. Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse”, in Robert Young (ed.), Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader Boston, London and Henley: Routledge, 1981 (51).

3. Frank Reijnders, “Het soevereine kunstenaarschap. Kanttekeningen bij een mythe”, in De Witte Raaf, No. 131, January–February 2008. Available at:

4. Museum of Arte Útil, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, 07-12-2013 / 30-03-2014.

Steven ten Thije is a research curator affiliated with the Van Abbemuseum and the Universität Hildesheim. He was a coordinator of The Autonomy Project and co-organizer of The Autonomy Project Symposium ( He co-curated Spirits of Internationalisms, part of the European collaborative project l’Internationale.

Open no. 14, General
De mythe van het kunstenaarschap

De mythe van het kunstenaarschap (The myth of the artist) is the second instalment in a series of essays initiated by the Fonds BKVB (The Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture, responsible for making grants to individual visual artists), intended to stimulate thinking about art and what it is to be an artist. ‘What is an artist, and what is he expected to be able to do?’ are the questions Camiel van Winkel was asked. This art historian and theorist, who previously published Moderne Leegte (Modern emptiness, 1999) and Het primaat van de zichtbaarheid (The regime of visibility, 2005), is a fine arts lecturer at the akv-St. Joost Art and Design Academy, ’s-Hertogenbosch. The subject of his lectureship is ‘the changing cultural and societal position of the visual artist’. Van Winkel doesn’t consider being an artist as a natural given, but as a cultural construction, which he submits in this essay to a critical analysis as a myth.

Van Winkel’s premise is that the visual arts as a discipline no longer represent a general expertise upon which artists can rely: the substance of its discipline has become indescribable and general criteria for a successful work of art no longer exist. He blames this on the avant-garde artists of the twentieth century, who systemically rejected the idea that being an artist could be conditioned by a standard of technique, skill and tradition, and who appropriated domains that had hitherto been outside the realm of art. Now, however, there is growing societal and political pressure to submit art to standards of professionalism and competence, says Van Winkel. His essay relates to this development and partly derives its urgency from it.

In order to meet these general demands for professionalism, identification as an artist today feeds on old artist myths and thus manifests itself as a myth also. ‘Being an artist is the imaginary centre of a nebulous universe of ideas, fantasies and beliefs. It seems no exaggeration to state that this nebula consists for the most part of clichés that are constantly repeated and reproduced by artists, spectators, fans and other parties involved.’ This hybrid and incoherent mix of propositions does, however, have a structural effect, Van Winkel observes, entirely in keeping with Roland Barthes, resulting in that which is historically and ideologically defined, the state of being an artist, being presented as a timeless natural phenomenon.

The idea that identification as an artist is currently deriving its most valid definition and the assumption that the artist is driven by a sovereign drive to create are, according to Van Winkel, the core of the myth of being an artist. The method he uses to dissect this myth is that of research into discourse: what has been thought and written about the modern idea of the artist? He has studied, along various contemporary writings, texts by Mallarmé, Balzac, Sylvester, Merleau-Ponty and Lauwaert, among others. From this he has distilled three historical ideal models, which form the components of the unstable myth of today: the classical Beaux-Arts model, a romantic model and the avant-garde / modernist model. The artist as a craftsman, inventor, visionary, (unrecognized) genius, autonomous creator, investigator, innovator or businessman – these are old clichés that now exist alongside and are mixed with one another, detached from their historical context.

Although artists have tried to dismantle the myth of the idea of the artist – demystification is part of modern art – they have succeeded only in reaffirming it in a roundabout way. There have been attempts to imbue the condition of the artist with a function and a task, by reformulating it as ‘artistic research’ for instance, but this cannot hide the fact that the artist, in social terms, is left empty-handed. Individual expertise, a canon or set system of values about technique, skill or mission dissolve in a practice in which art can be anything and in which anything can be art.

The sociological importance of this mythical discourse is that identification as an artist is being assigned a model function. In this context, Van Winkel cites the Flemish essayist Dirk Lauwaert, who argues that the function of being an artist lies in creating an empty zone in society, a place in which nothing is prescribed or established, in which non-artists can find their reflection. Agreeing with Lauwaert, Van Winkel observes that this ‘calling’, however, has become devoid of content: ‘It must be done, but no one knows what must be done anymore.’

Van Winkel also points out signs of an apparently demystified artistic practice: artistic attitudes (such as creativity, imagination, unorthodoxy) are increasingly exploited by business, the media and politics as part of contemporary demands for self-fulfilment. This probably leads to the double phenomenon of ‘artwork without an artist’ and ‘artist without an artwork’, he states. The first is a commercial phenomenon in digital culture, in which it is possible ‘to obtain an “artwork” without an artist: send a photo to a company and get it back as an artwork in the style and dimensions you want on real painting canvas’. The artist without an artwork is the ‘post-artist’ whose artistic practice consists mainly of adapting and recycling existing cultural material and imitating all manner of non-artistic activities (therapy, community work, anthropology, teaching), in which the making of a concrete work of art has receded to the background. The ‘post-artist’ represents the end of the last remnant of the artist’s function as a social model. However, Van Winkel concludes that these current developments are probably nothing more than a little chop on the surface of the ocean of cultural history, which scarcely influences the mythical undertow.

This ends this clear and eloquent essay on a somewhat defeatist note: the myth of being an artist can probably be dismantled and reconstructed with elements from the same models ad infinitum, in an almost mechanical way. Who knows, another model may come along in a few years, but it remains a Catch-22. This perception comes from the fact that Van Winkel consistently remains detached in his analyses. He is not out to prove that one myth is sociologically, politically or artistically better than another. Nor does he want to totally demystify the myth in favour of a new proposition – a genuine demystification, according to his reasoning, is virtually impossible – or to radicalize the perspective of the ‘post-artist’, for instance. Or even to consider the myth itself as the specific expertise of the artist.

Van Winkel’s engagement lies primarily with the discourse as a system in itself. While this is legitimate enough, forestalls fashionable twaddle and has a revelatory effect in regard to such hollow concepts as artistic research, its critical potential seems to founder there. He himself concludes that ‘the myth of being an artist has grown into a dominant sociological and cultural reality, towards which people direct their lives, for which institutions have been established and which involves a huge quantity of cultural and symbolic capital’. For a genuine understanding of this, exposing the mythical structure of what it is to be an artist seems inescapable, he seems to suggest. But does his reading of the myth politicize this reality? Or does it add an easily absorbable layer to the myth?

Van Winkel’s myth of the artist is of course itself a myth, constructed out of the myths he describes. The premise, for instance – or is it a myth? – that the avant-garde is responsible for the lack of definition of the contemporary idea of the artist comes out of a reductionist modernist philosophy. In it there is little room for less visible forces, representations or counter-myths (sociological, historical or technological) that eat away at dominant paradigms. And yet the ‘myth of the myth’ should be unravelled – but perhaps this is asking too much of an essay that is part of a research project ‘in progress’; we will have to wait for more. It would be nice, though, if Van Winkel would put his own position as a ‘mythologist’ – however much this, according to Barthes, can be nothing other than that of an outsider – into play, or even at stake.

Art Discourse
The Sandwich Will Not Go Away Or Why Paradigm Shifts Are Wishful Thinking

Camiel van Winkel postulates the notion of a sandwich of artistic-academic discourse to dispute the supposed paradigm shift in the arts and society as put forward by key figures in the institutional art world. Considering the paradigm shift a mere escape fantasy, Van Winkel senses a distaste for the autonomy of art. Steven ten Thije, researcher and curator of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, will soon offer his response to Van Winkel’s essay.

Art Discourse
A Grotesque Situation

Camiel van Winkel responds to Steven ten Thije as part of their discussion regarding Van Winkel’s essay "The Sandwich Will Not Go Away Or Why Paradigm Shifts Are Wishful Thinking" on the state of contemporary art discourse. Van Winkel here argues that Ten Thije never actually addresses the content of his essay, and then pretends that it is about artistic autonomy. Look for Ten Thije’s concluding reaction to be published here soon.

Art Discourse
Who is making the “Sandwich”?

In a critical response to Camiel van Winkel’s essay The Sandwich Will Not Go Away Or Why Paradigm Shifts Are Wishful Thinking, Steven ten Thije insists that merely describing the sandwich is not enough; if we find it difficult to digest, we should ask ourselves: Who made this sandwich? Ten Thije rejects the black-and-white polarity that some insist exists between autonomous art and an art that is less so. He pleads for more generosity and a new attitude from everyone involved in the cultural sector.