Anna Odell and the problem of artistic morals

The shit has once again hit the fan, when Konstfack art student Anna Odell a few days ago made a socially investigative action in Stockholm, pretending to be psychotic and suicidal. The story goes like this: She appeared on top of a bridge in the midst of Stockholm, where she attracted so much attention that policemen by force coerced her to a emergency psychiatric ward at the S:t Göran Hospital where she reacted with such frenzy that she was given soothing medication. After a few hours she revealed that it was part of an art project and she was let go, but nono, not by the media. This time it was blown out of proportion, but, nota bene, Odell herself had not planned this, but, according to a reliable source from the institution, she has been working on this project for more than a year, already. One problem with the above narrative is that is is already being criticised for lacking in reliability. Read more reports of it here and in English here.

The staff at the emergency ward soon after filed a police rapport and now publicly demand an apology and a refund of the cost that was needed to hold a ‘perfectly sane person at the emergency clinic for several hours’. An arketypical reaction from the artworld would be: leave the artist alone, her intentions are yet to be revealed and they will re-contextualise the possible agony caused by the whole of the project and disclose a higher purpose. A typical reaction from outside the artworld would be: by acting off of others’ goodwill and resources as well as causing harm, the artist needs to apologize or, at best, try to explain what the h*** she did and why, before it can be principally defended.

Well, first of all the project seems highly speculative in its first reification; it is clear that artist Anna Odell could have documented, observed or (publicly, but carefully) reenacted a statement about the psychiatric world without risking to commit a crime. With this being said, we must consider that this is only a first part of a projct to be presented in May 2009 for the annual Graduation show at Konstfack and it is not unheard of to seek a maximum of subversion whilst in art school. For this reason it is not in the interest of neither Konstfack nor Odell to be plain, conformist or latte-liberal, but rather find a way to spur debate and a public outcry reaction. And debate was apparently something she wished for , but as many bloggers point out, she had initially wished for a more specific debate vis-a-vis the psychiatric industry, which did not fly very well, as of now, at least.

The two arguments that her professors and teachers at Konstfack brings forth in DN, 1. that the action should be compared to journalistic methods like Wallraff and thus seen in the light of biopolitics and cultural critique and 2. the work is not yet finished, thus nothing should yet be stated about the means for the upcoming end.

Argument 1 is one that artists and art theorists usually use when defending the right of subversion in public space, as a democratic splinter, oozing critique on areas that requires other method. Not for speculation or provocation or fame, but as a means for another for of criticism, what Hal Foster refers to as the turn to Anthropology. Well one problem with this argument is that is avoids the full comparison with subversive research or journalism; when Odell will exhibit her project, it will not necessarily be in a matter that satisfies or communicates with a ‘public’. In fact, it is of grave importance that art project usually don’t emulate methods of subversion that are commonplace, since it would of course risk being reduced to journalism.

Argument 2 only has bearing if we accept a pragmatist view of contemporary culture; if art can defy laws or moral codes of conduct in order to send an esoteric message to a small group of artworks denizens, does not this fact reduce it to a form of liberal, calculating economism? We must consider the possibilities that neither critics nor audience at large will be satisfied by the entirety of the project, what then? Will critics like Ingela Lind condemn the work or just keep defending the moral law with one hand while paving the way for breaking artistic tabus with the other? This argument could be as a cynical trade-off by Odell: 10 000 kr(the cost of treating her during her stay at the emergency room) + the discontents of a psychiatric ward and a few bloggers and Op-Eds against a project being view mainly by an art audience, commented mainly by and art audience and research mainly extended toward an art audience.

Now I truly hope Anna Odell proves me wrong, hope it really was worth it, but this case should not be left unmarked by all critics interested in the political powers of art. Ii will be back with more analyses of this case from behavioral economics (what gain is in it for the artist, or loss for the ER?), biopolitics (to what extent is her body reduced to a vessel for upholding an ideology?), ethnology (how much of the project has culture as its subject?) and art criticism (but is it art?).

Stay tuned.

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6 thoughts on “Anna Odell and the problem of artistic morals

  1. Alexander Stasinski skriver:

    What is striking about Anna Odell’s act is that it does not feel like a breath of fresh air in the history of art. To dig up some Foucault from the 60s, hit society in the face with a fist, and then expect a sober discussion with all parties (preferably including the artist) sitting together at the table, feels a bit uninspired and naive.
    Sure, we need a good debate about psychiatric politics, but I think there are more efficient artistic expressions to reach this goal (for example ones that would provoke without hurting).

  2. Robert Stasinski skriver:

    Yes, there are surely more efficient ways of facilitating and initiating debate about psychiatry, but the nitty gritty is if this is immoral or illegal, or both. Odell does a statement but it is basically without analysis of the big picture:

  3. […] Konstfack Drops Their Internal Report The Anna Odell/NUG affair at Konstfack, blogged about here a few week ago, have just taken a new turn with the release of the Konstfack internal report on the […]

  4. Mia skriver:

    Anna Odell relies on the fact that the artwork isn’t finished yet and will be revealed in May, so I guess we’ll have to wait a few months to decide whether it was worth it or not. Like you, I hope she proves me wrong and show us all that it indeed was worth it. Although I have to admit that I find it difficult to think of a reason that would make it worthwhile. She claims she wanted to open up an otherwise closed world (the closed psychiatric ward) but my experience is that Swedish mental health care isn’t a closed world. Ask anyone who’s ever been placed at an institution and they’ll (more or less) gladly talk about their experience. Maybe Anna Odell and I just haven’t been hanging around with the same crowd…


  5. Alexander skriver:

    The debate which started due to her work has lead nowhere. No faults of the personnel where exposed, but yet she keeps whining like the bitch she is. I hoped for a more severe punishment.

  6. Robert Stasinski skriver:

    I am not sure a severe punishment would benifit anyone i this case. I do not want to take away the possible pain caused by the artwork, anyone that feels hurt should be respected fully. But, anyone that also has any understanding of the history and lessons of art know that the small leaps of distrust of instiutions and ideologies are what moves this culture form forward. Anna Odell has made a point, that was also the very aim of the project. Now it is up to every bystander to find out what we can learn from it.


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