Lebenskünstler

“…everyday life will then become so full of beauty that it will become art.” – No, it already *is* full of such beauty, but thankfully is *not* art

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 07/02/2013

Changing Places – Dan Fox talks to Nils Norman, Timotheus Vermeulen, Anton Vidokle and Sharon Zukin

DF: One of the problems is that the ‘art world’ superstructure has grown so large that it’s difficult to navigate our way through it with a clear perspective on our own roles. How do you stay independent or achieve agency amid such a tangle of institutions and businesses? One option would involve leaving the ‘art world’ altogether, although most people would be reluctant to do so. I also think cognitive dissonances can be identified amongst those who Nils says ‘are critical of how they are inscribed within gentrification processes’. For instance, artists who claim radical political positions from within the support structure of major museum or commercial gallery exhibitions, and who speak in visual codes legible to those in the specialist subculture of art. But it’s tricky; even having this conversation is complicated by whatever its host context may be, whether that’s an art magazine, not-for-profit venue, or wherever.

AV: Economic dependency on the art industry is probably not the only thing that keeps artists from just walking away: you can also support your art practice by doing something else and many do just that. All of these institutions you mention control access to audiences, be it the professional audience of your peers or a broader audience interested in art. This is also probably one of the main reasons why artists tend to live in cities: to be a part of a community, a conversation. Cities are not merely markets.

There have been several moments in recent history when artists tried to move out of cities for various reasons, most recently in the ’70s. It seems to me this was unsustainable and most have moved back since then. Martha Rosler, in her 2010 essay ‘Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism’, cites Chantal Mouffe’s suggestion that artists should not abandon the museum – meaning the art world – and adds that we should also not abandon the city. I fully agree with this.

AV:…While as an artist you may think that you are free to do what you want, in order for it to be economically sustainable, critically acknowledged or just even to bring it into contact with the art audience, it needs to conform to certain network protocols that dictate what sort of production can enter circulation. With the ever-increasing professionalization in the arts today, and the economic restraints of the art world, it seems that the field is moving towards restoring a more prescriptive position towards the artist.

TV: I agree. Artistic sovereignty is a discursive construct, perhaps even a myth, that is always negotiated through cultural, spatial and historical parameters.

There is a more cynical take on the relation between art, cities and capitalism, which is that the city always already allows for numerous areas to adhere to the possibility of alternate rhythms. In this view, it doesn’t make a difference whether artists or institutions are the canaries in the mine. After all, the mine is owned by the same people that own the canaries …

AV: This resonates strongly for me. It could be interesting to try to describe this ‘artistic rhythm’ you speak of. We seem to inhabit this sort of flattened, urban, capitalistic time, in which each tick of the clock is a potential investment, because we use time to make money. That’s a really monotonous rhythm.

Someone like the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinovic´ comes to mind, and his photographic series of himself sleeping or thinking in bed: ‘Artist at Work’ [1978]. In his writings from that time, he suggests that Western artists are bad artists because they work too much, and that a good artist is a lazy artist. That’s a different rhythm: syncopated by a certain refusal to perform, to be productive. Very different from, say, flexible time in creative industries today.

NN: Discussions around gentrification tend to romanticize the subversive and autonomous agency artist’s projects have in these processes – the tactics, the skipping, the interventions. This is combined with an idea that somehow everybody wants to live like artists, a theme heavily exploited by Richard Florida.

SZ: What about Marina Abramovic´, who plans to convert an old theatre in the newly gentrified Hudson River Valley, north of New York City, into an arts centre named after her and focused on her long-duration performance pieces? In The New York Times [7 May 2012], she said: ‘The concept is very clear. I’m asking you to give me your time. And if you give me your time, I give you experience.’ Has she found a way to market Conceptualism that seems to compensate for our time-starved modernity?

AV: Sounds frightening. Does one have to be naked the whole time there too?

DF: To me, Abramovic´ reinforces a stereo-type of the artist who has access to mystic truths; that crypto-religious thing, whereby if you make the pilgrimage to the temple to sit in front of the oracle and stare into her face, you will access some profound emotional core of your being, because the oracle has endured extremes of pain and discomfort (and spent large amounts of free time) on your behalf. It’s another version of the skipping game: the artist as an individual with a direct line to some higher level of knowledge/experience.

SZ: …

Any artist who wants to sell their work must apply to the gatekeepers of one or more of these hierarchically arrayed districts, a point graphically made by William Powhida in Oligopoly (Revised) [2011]. These gatekeepers are curators, gallerists, critics, journalists and, above all, entrepreneurs. They may be entrepreneurs for economic reasons, or for cultural reasons: to provide goods and services for people who share their aesthetic tastes. And for social reasons: to create a community. In brief: many art-world entrepreneurs are artists.

SZ: How can we create alternatives to the mainstream market economy? By trying to withdraw from it – say, to a mountain in Utah or Nepal? By changing our individual awareness of consumers’ effect on the cosmos – and consuming slow, or less, or not at all? By developing diversified networks of exchange like Ithaca Hours or community-supported agriculture or barters? Or by making structural changes to eliminate over-production, to tax those who consume too much, or to turn the production of toxic goods to goods that benefit collective well-being? And how does any of that apply to the production of art?

AV: Well that’s the economic aspect of production, but as an artist one also has to produce meaning and affect. It’s not only about working with minimal damage to the environment or to others. How do we talk about that? How do we account for it?

SZ: Consumption takes in the production of meaning and feelings, it’s not just economic or environmental. There’s a deep spiritual longing – for the good, the beautiful and the true, as I discovered when I did research on shopping a few years ago; for authenticity, if we use that to mean what is good both inside and outside the self; for communion, community and satisfaction – all longings that are often pursued through consumption. Artists express these longings, and we who are not artists sometimes manage to craft something – a loaf of bread, a specially knitted scarf, a self-built table – that expresses them too. How can we make it possible for everyone to develop means of expression? Or are critics, artists and writers going to remain in opposition in every form of society?

AV: My favourite passage in Karl Marx’s writings is where he describes how life can be organized without narrow professionalization: one day you can be an artist, next day a cook, then a ‘critical critic’, and so forth. Identities in such a society will be fluid and alienation will disappear. I think that everyday life will then become so full of beauty that it will become art. In such a society, artists, critics and writers will not remain in opposition. But, until then, opposition is ok with me …

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