People waiting in line to enter Damien Hirst’s exhibition Beyond Belief, White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London (2007)

The course Critical Issues in the Cultural Industries is centred upon the appearance, role and influence of present-day popular culture, or what in the mid-twentieth century the philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer referred to as the ‘culture industry’. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, does the culture of the masses still present a threat to High Art, as Adorno and Horkheimer then feared? Or have the arts today completely lost out in the battle against standardisation, leveling, commercialisation and popularisation? Has art finally become a lucrative business in the modern economy, a mere component of the entertainment sector, or can it still operate autonomously and critically? And if so, what are the visual and discursive, material and conceptual strategies at hand? Or has the picture never been as pessimistic as Adorno and Horkheimer painted it? Is there still a division to be drawn between elite and popular, bourgeois and everyday culture, or do we need other terms to assess present-day developments and events in the art world and the cultural sphere at large?

The institutionalisation of the sphere of the visual arts since the nineteenth century and the ensuing distribution into different sites and institutions serve as the historical and theoretical framework for these questions and queries. Our aim was to explore the development and change of the classical sites and institutions of the arts – the museum, the studio, the exhibition and the market – under the influence of the rampant phenomena of the cultural industries in the twentieth century. What is left of their historically defined function of providing a critical space of exemption, if not opposition, within the bourgeois public sphere? To what extent can they still produce, preserve and distribute aesthetic and historical knowledge while neither immediately nor entirely being subjected to ideological instrumentalisation or economic interests? Do they still serve as places for critical resistance and radical negativity, or have they turned into sites of meek affirmation and obedient approval?

The course program alternated between a theoretical course and an editorial session. The themes discussed during the theoretical course (centred around one institution: museum, studio, exhibition and market) served as a critical framework for the essays by the students, which were openly discussed and edited during the following editorial session. Students had to adopt the format of a critical review in a magazine (550 words) but were free to choose the subject according to their personal interests, albeit in negotiation with their colleagues. Each student took up the editorial responsibility for one section.

This website collects and makes public the students’ collective efforts, in a sober form and precise structure that was designed and organized by themselves as well. It befits their sincere attempts to raise a personal and critical voice in an era where it remains important to prevent critical discourse of turning into one of the many industries of culture.

Wouter Davidts

December 2009

List of Contributors:

Martijn van Beek is currently in the second year of the VAMA research master and is preparing a MA thesis on the interaction between mathematics and seventeenth-century Italian architecture. In 2008 he finished his BA thesis on prints by Giovanni Battista Falda at VU University. He has published on the rise of public housing in Amsterdam in the nineteenth century. An article on artistic visualisations of theological thoughts by the Spanish monk Juan Andres Ricci de Guevara is forthcoming.

Jane Boddy finished her bachelor in Art History at the University of Leiden in 2009. She wrote her  bachelor thesis on the meaning of the stained-glass windows of the cathedral of Rheims. She investigated how the blue glass of Marc Chagall could shed light on the original thirteenth century glass and the nineteenth century Gothic revival glass. Focusing on the interaction between past and present, this  research reflects Jane’s themes of interest. She is currently in her first year of the VAMA research master.

Elise Noyez graduated as an architect-engineer at the University of Ghent in 2008. In her MA thesis entitled Space And Work In The Photographic Portrait Of The Artist, she examined the construction of meaning and its connection to artistic practice and discourse in seminal artists’ portraits by Ugo Mulas and Gianfranco Gorgoni. She is currently in the second year of the VAMA research master and is preparing a thesis on the notion of scale in Conceptual art. Her research interests centre around (post)modern American art practices and their relations to architecture, as well as the representation of the artist.

Laura Prins has finished her bachelor Art History at the University of Groningen and her master at the University of Amsterdam. After an internship at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, and Museum of Modern Art, New York, she decided to focus more on research at the VU university. She is currently in her first year of the VAMA. Her MA thesis was on the representation of hysteria in the early Third Republic of France. She is now working on an article on hysteria in Dutch Naturalist literature. Her main research interests are on the verge of art, culture and politics.

Stefaan Vervoort graduated as an architect-engineer at Ghent University in 2009. In his MA thesis entitled The Museum Expansions of MoMA, Stedelijk Museum and Moderna Museet. On Architecture and Institutional Self Image, he investigated the role and significance of architecture in the formation of art museums, and most particularly the extent to which architectural design practice can critically intervene in the material shaping of the museum institution. His research interests focuses on the formation of institutional structures and the notion of institutional critique in contemporary artistic practices, as well as their common association with architecture. He is currently following the first year of the VAMA research master.


This website is the outcome of the course Critical Issues in the Cultural Industries, supervised by prof. Wouter Davidts within the context of the Visual Arts, Media & Architecture MPhil program at VU University Amsterdam. Contributors to the site are the first and second year students of the research master enrolled in the course.