Lebenskünstler

Escape, Invisibility, and Professional Suicide in Art – A brief foray into science fiction and a detective story

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 11/27/2012

[Someone suggested I read the article After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social by Gregory Sholette. It is in e-flux‘s journal, which I generally find to be a complete waste of time (and not in a good way like Gallery Girls). Surely e-flux aspires to be as stultifying and obscurantist as October,  but since it was Gregory Sholette, and the person suggesting the link seemed reliable, I acquiesced.]

Scene 1: The dark star of suicide, or the infinite density of nothingness

“…After all, instructors can hardly follow Wright’s prescription simply by refusing to engage with art’s institutional frame, at least not until before that glorious moment when all delimiting social divisions are swept away in the ecstasy of revolution. Prior to that day of liberation, any failure to reproduce one’s own academic field simply amounts to professional suicide….”

There are several ways to approach the above quote from Sholette. The first is to adopt his own astronomical metaphors and propose that rather than “dark matter,” perhaps “black hole” might be more apt. That is, one can think of art as a star that exploded long ago and we mistakenly believe that the originating object still exists because the light from it still shines so brightly. This would mean that what we call “the art world” now is just the Baudrillardian death throes of a distant star and we are trapped in its immense gravitational pull, destined to be sucked into the black hole as it were. The “ecstasy of revolution” then is the event horizon of said black hole and suicide therefore is nonsensical in this scheme…

Or what of this alternative? Maybe it is “suicide” to reproduce one’s academic field. Or the becoming-professional of art is its own kind of death? And to perpetuate that is a far worse fate than walking away. Kaprow certainly appeared to think so (although yes he was an established artist with tenure!) when he implored, “Artists of the world, drop out! You have nothing to lose but your professions!

Scene 2: Why is “dark matter” so damn visible? And who is buying all that stuff at Dick Blick? And why did part of the “missing mass” go missing?

When I first encountered Sholette’s “dark matter,” I had high hopes (see this). But the “dark matter” of 2003  and the “dark matter” of 2005 changed ever so subtly from the “dark matter” of 2011. There are myriad explanations – was it Professor Plum in the Study with the candlestick? Or, more likely, an editorial decision?

The missing mass of 2003:

Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture – the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators and arts administrators. It includes informal practices such as home-crafts, makeshift memorials, amateur photography (and pornography), Sunday-painters, self-published newsletters and fan-zines, Internet art galleries — all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world. Yet, just as the physical universe is dependent on its dark matter and energy, so too is the art world dependent on its shadow creativity. It needs it in much the same way certain developing countries depend on their shadow or informal economies.”

The missing mass of 2011:

Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture – the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators. It includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices – all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to be invisible. While astrophysicists are eager to know what dark matter is, the denizens of the art world largely ignore the unseen accretion of creativity they nevertheless remain dependent upon.

What you may note is that in 2011 some of the missing mass has gone missing. The specificity of “home-crafts, makeshift memorials, amateur photography (and pornography), Sunday-painters, self-published newsletters and fan-zines” has been tidied up into “makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices.” And this revision sets the stage for the disappointment I mention here. Sholette’s book becomes then not so much a radical questioning of the creative economy, but a somewhat conventional questioning of the creative economy. By this, I mean that despite providing tantalizing hints of his admiration of, and insight into, the dark matter of anti/non professional creative practices and subcultures, very little light is cast. Instead, Sholette proceeds, despite his protestation, to celebrate if not  avant-garde strategies in some strictly defined historical sense, then vanguard strategies in which insightful political/intellectual/artistic leaders employ strategies of intervention and subversion.

So dark matter turns out to be not all that dark after all – Temporary Services, Red 76, The Yes Men, 16 Beaver, Critical Art Ensemble, etc. While none of these figures are “stars,” neither are they particularly invisible. It is certainly within Sholette’s purview to limit his discussion to the strains of dark matter he is most comfortable with, and the groups and people he does write about certainly deserve attention. But there is something symptomatic here, something that art/intellectual types seem perpetually trapped by – the allure of their own radiance.

Perhaps what Sholette describes in his final chapter as “isolated flashes of defiance” are not only found in the places he is so accustomed to looking – among his academic professional and activist peers and among the most obvious forms of resistance. It seems that Sholette, and even Stephen Wright, too often look for the “invisible” in the didactically resistant. One certainly wonders why they always seem to find activist/intellectual/artist types and not people more like Kaprow’s unartist:

“…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art.”

Sholette recognizes that “creative dark activity refuses to be productive for the market,” but its final act of refusal may well be in refusing to be productive for him. I guess I just wish he spent more time with Kaprow’s “beach bum” or even his own “river rafters” than with Bruce High Quality Foundation – it might illuminate how to go on living after “professional suicide.”

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5 Responses

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  1. gregory sholette said, on 12/28/2012 at 10:55

    Randall Szott’s fulminations over my alleged “turning away” from the “dark side” of leisure arts remind me of the man found looking for his lost keys at night under a street lamp when in fact he lost his keys somewhere else. Why is this poor fellow wedded to that one location? Because, he explains, “that is where the is.” And like Mr. Szott our searcher is disappointed when the thing he desires does not turn up exactly where he thinks it should be. Likewise I am sorry to disappoint Mr Szott, the good doctor of leisure arts, but my concept of artistic dark matter is now and has always been first and foremost about the political economy of art, not his personal hobbyhorses. While I do approach this subject by examining the structural entanglement of the art world with its shadowy missing mass that I describe as a combination of three practices including the hobbyists and amateurs and Sunday painters that Mr. Szott is singularly focused on; but also the thousands of pre-failed artists who stream out of MFA programs annually only to wind up working as studio attendants, art handlers, and fabrication specialists, and finally, most significantly for me, a third category of activist and collectivist artists who have fallen off the art historical radar screen. While admittedly this last category is the smallest of the three it is most important to my argument because in a sense these politicized artists overtly “identify” with the failed, the informal, the overabundant forces of artistic production. I also note that of the politicized groups I discuss in books and essays most remain largely invisible despite the fact that the art world increasingly celebrates select examples “social practice” art.

    But yes, sure, just as Mr. Szott vexingly charges me, I could have focused my book more or less exclusively on those informal creative practices residing largely outside or completely outside the art world – the home-crafters, zinesters, LARPers, and so forth. Why did I not do this? Because I decided (and I think this is correct) that the book’s audience would be other artists, students, art historians, and academics who might be persuaded to re-think their assumptions about the way the art world works, and perhaps even begin to think the political economy of art more openly and more radically. That said, there are a lot of references to the informal arts throughout Dark Matter, in fact right on the same page immediately following the paragraph Mr Szott disapproving cites I underscore the importance of non-professional creativity to my thesis by stating:

    “Consider the destabilizing impact on high art were some of these hidden
    producers to cease or pause their activity. What would happen for example if
    the hobbyists and amateurs who purportedly make up a billion-dollar national
    industry in the US simply stopped purchasing art supplies or no longer took
    classes with “professional” artists, or ceased going to museums to see what
    bona fide artists do?2 And why consider only the tactical withdrawal of amateur
    participation, which is by definition marginal? What about the dark matter at the
    heart of the art world itself? Consider the structural invisibility of most professionally
    trained artists whose very underdevelopment is essential to normal [art world functions.]

    From Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, page one.

    The book has its flaws, but it also has many more references to amateur art that Mr Szott declines to acknowledge, just as he fails to comprehend that my critique of avant guard art is not his critique of avant garde art, presumably leading him to conclude that I am hypocritically seduced by all that glitters. To him I suggest re-reading my earlier versions of the dark matter thesis. No, not just selectively examining a few paragraphs that happen to appeal to your specific interests, but read the essays in their entirety. And do so in the context of the dozens of other essays and books that I have penned because it is obvious to even the casual observer that the political dimension of contemporary art has always remained front and center in my thinking and writing. In all of these texts -whether they focus on interventionist public art, collectivist practices, anti-gentrification, tactical media or another topic- one underlying concern returns again and again: it is the structural absence of certain forms of cultural production within the mainstream art, and that lack includes, but is by no means limited to, amateur artists and hobbyists and Sunday painters. In other words, the big picture is not about your interests Mr. Szott. Sorry. But then yours its not exactly a leisure activity either Mr. Szott is it? After all, according to your own wikipedia article, you seem to have nicely benefited from dwelling on the informal arts even as you systematically denounce the world of high art and its pretensions and theories. In fact you have been a lecturer at CCA, SF MOMA, and even Yale University. Not bad. Wikipedia even explains that you are an anonymous writer for your own blog (how charmingly subversive), and that you are professionally associated with the field of social practice art (nice work because hey, its a growing field after all). So it seems I did indeed miss something after all, I missed the boat (and not the one you allegedly sling hash on). My only question to you is this: why would I abandon what you have clearly shown to be the academic equivalent of a cash cow?

  2. Randall Szott said, on 12/29/2012 at 10:01

    So does this mean we’re not going to remain facebook friends?

    Seriously, I admire your work. I have read most of it. I may not have read it as sympathetically as you like, but I have read it closely, so closely, in fact to notice the subtle changes in your argumentation (and quoted one of those changes above). I admire it enough to write about it, to think about it, and yes, to criticize it.

    Your analogy of the man looking for his keys is quite apt, but carries little force as I freely admit that it is my *own* desire for your book that is not met. In fact I specifically stipulate:

    “It is certainly within Sholette’s purview to limit his discussion to the strains of dark matter he is most comfortable with, and the groups and people he does write about certainly deserve attention.”

    In some sense the “lost keys” analogy amounts to saying “I know you are, but what am I?” as it simply reverses my statement about you:

    “Perhaps what Sholette describes in his final chapter as “isolated flashes of defiance” are not only found in the places he is so accustomed to looking – among his academic professional and activist peers and among the most obvious forms of resistance.”

    So we both think the other is blinded by his own interests. Fine. Reading and quoting selectively to make an argument is a time honored critical tradition of which we are both guilty.

    I don’t know you personally, so it is hard to understand your tone. I have described myself with much self-deprecation. I mean I *am* a schmuck with some blogs. I don’t mind what seems to be an intense response from you, but a little sense of humor wouldn’t hurt would it? And why is it so important to correct the ramblings of an internet troll? I will, however, attempt to correct a few of the zingers you threw my way (you’re no troll are you?).

    I wrote anonymously for LeisureArts as I was, and mostly still am, a nobody. It wouldn’t have helped anyone to contextualize my ranting by providing a name, there was nothing intended to be “subversive” about it. But more importantly, I am not competing in the same attention economy that you are – my career success is completely independent of the art economy. I have the luxury of employment in a different field. Although it is not a “luxury” that is unavailable to you either. You could quit that teaching gig of yours, but no, that would be “suicide.”

    I have indeed been invited to speak at some of the places you mention. Although it has been no “cash cow.” Surely the incessant screeds from W.A.G.E. find their way to Queens. At nearly every gig I’m invited to, I use the money to provide something for the audience – they deserve *some* compensation for having to listen to me talk! So, at CCA I distributed copies of Carl Wilson’s “Let’s Talk About Love” and I took a group of students on a road trip to Reno, at the University of Houston, I brought food, at Summer Forum, I provided wine and beer, etc….You see I don’t do this for the money, or for my tenure and promotion papers (I’m certainly no art “worker”), I do it because I have a (very) small group of friends and readers that encourage me to keep at it (really, people actually write me – shocks me too). Don’t get me wrong, I love mixing it up, but this is just a “hobbyhorse” of mine, not a career path. If I want accolades on my vitae (yeah I keep one because gig givers ask for one – it is a real fun read), I just put them there – whether they happened or not. It is a fool’s game to worry about the reality of professional “achievement” in the arts. And I am living proof that any idiot can have a Wikipedia page (and a reminder not to believe everything you read on the internet).

    Finally, it is funny that you say I “systematically denounce the world of high art and its pretensions and theories.” I do my fair share of denouncing to be sure, but I am dumbfounded to see it described as systematic! And it is also curious to me that of all the things one might be dubious about when it comes to me (and I readily acknowledge there are MANY THINGS), that the only thing you qualify with “allegedly” is my boat job. I assure you the job is real, and I am writing this response within a stone’s throw of Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, VA. The guys out here wish you were right though about slinging hash – they think I sling far too little of it, but it is a pain in the ass to chop all those potatoes, especially when I have blog comments to respond to…

    P.S. If asked, I will accept an invitation to visit Queens College. If not asked, I’ll likely put it on my vitae anyway.

  3. gregory sholette said, on 12/29/2012 at 13:38

    There is an crucial difference Randal (if it is ok to call you by your first name though we have not met) between exploring an interest in something you like, and producing a thought-out and carefully researched analysis of how a particular interest may be part of a larger cultural critique. As a matter of fact I started my writings on what I call dark matter back in 2001 and I was not even thinking about the informal arts, hobbyists, or home-crafters. Instead I was drawn to include them as my thesis grew and developed. But of course your entitled to disagree with my final analysis, even to find fault with my methods, however, to describe my project as blind self-obsession is at best a form of intellectual parsimony and at worst an insult. Sympathy or its lack has nothing to do with it, you still owe the person you “take on” critically to be thorough and to do your homework, rather than just skim across the bits that interest you. Still, I am sorry for the “alleged” comment regarding your job (there is no verification of it offered on Wikipedia fyi), as someone who has done almost everything except cook in a ship’s kitchen to survive, including slinging pizzas and washing diner dishes, to serving as a janitor, a messenger, and a model maker, I respect your decision to avoid full-time academic jobs, but I will never apologize for my own efforts to secure my job as a professor. Compromise may not be cool, and accepting a degree of contradiction annoying, even repugnant , but sometimes both are necessary in order to accomplish other goals (including paying the over-the-top rents here in NYC, and to be honest, I am a lot better at teaching than I ever was at cleaning floors or tossing pizza dough). And you should not be surprised if my tone seemed unduly harsh, when someone accuses another of hypocrisy, even in a roundabout way, they have no choice but to respond in kind. Finally, in terms of Queens College, sure, the door is always open to you and to others interested in dropping by our grad program, it meets Tuesday evenings from 4 – 8 (though I will only be chairing the MFA through the Spring 2013 semester). Although I hope you understand that as a public school we are not endowed with funds like a Yale or a CCA, so it would have to be strictly gratis.

  4. Randall Szott said, on 12/30/2012 at 07:08

    “There is an crucial difference… between exploring an interest in something you like, and producing a thought-out and carefully researched analysis of how a particular interest may be part of a larger cultural critique.”

    Agreed, and being a creature of academe you are somewhat obligated to the latter whereas I have deliberately chosen to be unprofessional, to be a dilettante, and to argue more by resonance (as Critchley might say) rather than by something more systematic. I also believe that the venues I choose to articulate my point of view are of crucial importance. Blogs and facebook are appropriately marginal and not subject to the stultifying homogeneity of academic journals. They also are far more public and not restricted by editorial gatekeepers. Plus it allows folks like you to engage with, and correct, what you see as errors, something October could use a lot more of! It is a lot messier out here in the blogosphere. I may be utterly piecemeal in my approach, but I assure you, there are few people as “carefully researched” as I am.

    In that vein, this statement of yours is problematic for me:

    “But of course your entitled to disagree with my final analysis, even to find fault with my methods, however, to describe my project as blind self-obsession is at best a form of intellectual parsimony and at worst an insult. Sympathy or its lack has nothing to do with it, you still owe the person you “take on” critically to be thorough and to do your homework, rather than just skim across the bits that interest you. ”

    Again, I do more “homework” than you can imagine. If there’s anything I’m actually good at, it is reading – voraciously. It seems to me that you accuse me of skimming because my take on your writings is inconceivable to you. But I think you vastly overstate the scope of my objection – I would, and did, characterize it as “disappointment.” I don’t have a problem with your final analysis as such, just with how conventional it ends up being given the promise of earlier iterations. I certainly don’t fault your methods (unless we stipulate my larger objections to the way academic publishing constrains thought). As to “blind self-obsession,” I think this is a completely overblown interpretation. I *did* say you might be trapped by “the allure of [your] own radiance” and in my reply to your initial comment I said we were both convinced the other was “blinded by his own interests.” The former is a nice turn of phrase, but hardly parsimonious even if it might be mildly insulting. The latter is probably an overstatement of what I actually think about you, but maybe not what you think about me…I agree that I owe it to the folks I write about to criticize in good faith although skimming, for a dilettante like myself is something I would like to defend at some other time. But I would add that since you have decided to take me to task, that you should probably heed your own advice. Maybe you did read through this site and LeisureArts thoroughly, but I get the sneaking suspicion that you might have merely skimmed “across the bits that interest you.”

    “Still, I am sorry for the “alleged” comment regarding your job (there is no verification of it offered on Wikipedia fyi), as someone who has done almost everything except cook in a ship’s kitchen to survive, including slinging pizzas and washing diner dishes, to serving as a janitor, a messenger, and a model maker, I respect your decision to avoid full-time academic jobs, but I will never apologize for my own efforts to secure my job as a professor.”

    No apology necessary, for your own efforts or the “alleged” comment. My job (and if you need proof just look at my “Maritime” folder on facebook – we really are “friends” there you know) is itself a compromise – I am away from my family half the year, but I also have a three week vacation every three weeks which allows me to do all the thorough research you don’t think I do!; I make food and work with ingredients I find repugnant, but It pays me quite well, enough to afford to support farmers that grow food the right way when I’m home and has amazing benefits (a strong union job); the carbon footprint of this job is disgusting given how much I fly and the fact that the boat burns diesel fuel 24 hrs a day; I also work with people whose politics I find troubling to say the least, but that forces me out of my ideological bubble something the urban academic left could use a lot more of! So I understand compromise, but that doesn’t mean that I should ignore the ways in which the activist/intellectual/artist class talks about overturning hierarchy while mercilessly reinforcing it or stopping short (which is more of what I “accuse” you of) in the implications of their analysis. Like I said, I understand contradiction and am guilty of it myself all the time. I mean I rail on an on about the art world and academia. I talk about leaving it, dropping out, escape, and yet I never really do. I never really quit. I just talk about it. I’m like the boy running away from home who gathers his stuff and tells his parents “I’m running away.” And when they ignore him, he says again, “No really guys, I’m leaving.”

    “And you should not be surprised if my tone seemed unduly harsh, when someone accuses another of hypocrisy, even in a roundabout way, they have no choice but to respond in kind.”

    I don’t mind a harsh tone. After all, I am fluent in hyperbole and bombast. My objection was that you seemed to want to make it so personal and, well, you seem so god damn self-serious. On the other hand I do admire that you have such a sense of urgency about your work – that you think there is something at stake in it. I believe quite passionately in what I do as well, but I just find it less draining when I keep things a little humorous and wish others would do the same.

    Now, about that visit to Queens…I have to admit that I try to avoid NYC as it is filled with too many strivers, hustlers, and over-achievers for me. Plus, your “invitation” was so half-hearted! I prefer more laid back slacker kinds of west coast cities, like Portland. It is why, despite all the friends and “colleagues” that attend the Creative Time Summits there, I do not attend. I prefer Open Engagement, an event that is free, chaotic, messy and often infuriating. It doesn’t take itself so seriously. Maybe we could have a conversation at OE 2013 for Bad at Sports about “work” which I think you describe in a very interesting, yet peculiar way. Or maybe I could buy you lunch with funds obtained from my “cash cow.”

  5. gregory sholette said, on 01/04/2013 at 18:54

    Ps curious what exactly it is that makes the term avant-garde when applied to art such a dirty word for you Randall? I tried to understand from your blog and only found comments like ” all the good old avant-garde stuff.” Is there something more to it ?


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