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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Gregory Sholette – Curator’s Disease – Edward Tiryakian – Existential Phenomenology

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 04/02/2012

On one level, I love Sholette’s book Dark Matter, but at a much deeper level I find it infuriating. While it does hint at a profound re-evaluation of art/politics and at shedding light on “dark matter” it ultimately treats dark matter with curator’s disease…that is it serves as a vague intellectual theme used to illustrate a preordained vision- in this case the rather conventional celebration of the heroic artistic avant garde – rather than as a radical foil to academic triumphalism. Stephen Wright and Alexander Koch are doing much less conventional work addressing so called “dark matter.” Having said that, I’m still thankful the book exists and talks intelligently about some great folks.

Coincidentally, while revisiting Sholette, I discovered this quote from Edward Tiryakian describing existential phenomenology in Stanford Lyman’s A Sociology of the Absurd (1970):

“…[it] seeks to elucidate the existential nature of social structures by uncovering the surface institutional phenomena of the everyday, accepted world; by probing the subterranean, non-institutional social depths concealed from public gaze, by interpreting the dialectic between the institutional and non-institutional.”