At some point, I had the feeling that I couldn’t explain what I was doing, with conviction, to a stranger. The subjective nature of making “work” in a field where basically anything goes: critical or non-critical, aesthetic or conceptual, material or dematerialized – as long as you want to call it “art”. I felt suffocated by potentials and missed having a method for evaluating options. Possibly I was also suffering from some kind of imposter complex, where I felt like anyone at any time would notice that everything we were doing made no sense. These deep-seated anxieties probably reflect the fact that art is no longer very relevant.
… I just didn’t think there was a point or a respectable future in endlessly critiquing or arrogantly joking about innovations coming from other fields.
To continue making art after you reach a certain level of success, you have to have a mixture of talent, ego, and pragmatism. You have to suspend the disbelief and doubt about your self-centered and marginal mini-territory of custom-made industrial process hacks, and “themes”, all the time struggling to stay relevant and inspired while the upper-class gallerists and collectors – who are your only real support system – make the magic happen…You can survive if you stay inside the art bubble: writing grants, teaching, getting the odd public commission (especially if you come from one of those small, rich, socialist European countries that pay artists ridiculous amounts of money to do things that are questionably useful :)). I wanted to engage in the “real” world, where things are much more competitive, and also, yes, dumbed down for a more general audience (and for that same reason so much more effective and important).
… it was supposed to go around creating value through abstract financial art-world machinations. Anyways, I became totally disillusioned that this was interesting at all. It felt very easy and parasitic and had unclear metrics for success. Martin’s project was random but had clear metrics for success: units sold, growth rate, five-star reviews. Martin was “doing” what we were joking or commenting on.
My long-term goal is to supply concrete niches with products that “affect” a huge amount of people (this is about the body): from tea to shoes to food, eventually to architecture and beyond. I am training and studying all the time, trying to remain passionate and excited about what I do.
The problem that crops up in all discussions of this kind, however, is the ambiguity of the term “work,” particularly in a capitalist society. It has at least three distinct meanings that are relevant. One, it can mean activity that is necessary for the continuation of human civilization, what Engels called “the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life.” Two, it can mean the activity that people undertake in exchange for money, in order to secure the means of continued existence. Three, it can mean what Gourevitch is talking about, an activity that requires some kind of discipline and deferred gratification in pursuit of an eventual goal.
It’s for just this reason that I want to separate the different meanings of work. But doing so is essentially impossible in a world where everyone is forced to work for wages, because they have no other means of survival. In that world, all work is work in the first sense, “necessary” because it has been made necessary by the elimination of any alternative. And even the most pointless of make-work jobs will tend to demand discipline and renunciation of those who hold them — whether out of the boss’s desire to maintain control, or in the interest of making it seem that those who get paid are “doing something.”
So while Ackerman and I completely agree about the value of reducing the length of the work week, I don’t think that’s sufficient. Shorter hours needs to be paired with some meaningful ability to escape paid work entirely. Indeed, the distinction he makes between labor reduction at the intensive or extensive margin is misleading, since it encompasses only waged work. To return to where I began: someone who leaves the labor force to care for a sick relative, because they can now afford health insurance, is reducing work hours at the intensive margin, if we take “work” in the first or third senses rather than just the third.
Allowing people to opt out of labor is a far more uncertain, potentially destabilizing thing than simply reducing the length of the waged work week. But that is what makes it so important. What we need is not just less work — though we do need that — but a rethinking of the substantive content of work beyond the abstraction of wage labor. That will mean both surfacing invisible unpaid labor and devaluing certain kinds of destructive waged work. But merely saying that we should improve the quality of existing work and reduce its duration doesn’t allow us to raise the question of whether the work needs to exist at all. To use Albert Hirschman’s terms, giving workers voice within the institution of wage labor can never fundamentally call the premises of that institution into question. For that, you need the real right of Exit, not just from particular jobs but from the labor market as a whole.
Then, perhaps, we could talk about defending the dignity of work. Or perhaps, freed of the anxious need to both feed ourselves and justify our existence through work, we would find we no longer cared.
…A novelist who made a cult of laziness, he had no qualms about taking it easy when it came to literary invention—“The same idea is in all my books; I shape it differently,” he once said…
Cossery’s heroes are usually dandies and thieves, unfettered by possessions or obligations; impoverished but aristocratic idlers who can suck the marrow of joy from the meager bones life tosses their way. They are the descendants of Baudelaire’s flâneur, of the Surrealists with their rejection of the sacrosanct work ethic, of the Situationists and their street-theater shenanigans, not to mention the peripatetic Beats or the countercultural “dropouts” of the 1960s. Henry Miller, who raised dolce far niente to an art form, praised Cossery’s writing as “rare, exotic, haunting, unique.” Whether Cossery’s merry pranksters wish merely to have a good time or, as in The Jokers, to wage an all-out campaign of raillery against the powers that be, there is one belief they all share: the only true recourse against a world governed by “scoundrels” is an utter disregard for convention, including the convention of taking anything seriously.
…The proud beggars in this story are Gohar, who has abandoned a professorship to live on the fringe as a street philosopher and bookkeeper in a brothel; Gohar’s protégé, the poet and drug dealer Yeghen, who tries to live his life as if it were itself a poem; and El Kordi, a revolutionary sympathizer chafing against his dead-end job as a government clerk.
The Egyptian-French novelist Albert Cossery was a philosophical and aesthetic dandy who loathed the idea of work, celebrated underground movements and ideas, and absolutely detested power. He was the dandy as a political subversive—an idea that must be resurrected.
Cossery, in a sense, is something of the offspring of the Surrealist Jacques Vache, a self-described “umourist” who revelled in doing nothing at all. An artist who decided not to create art, a poet who decided not to write poetry, all in an effort to prove that creation of works is counter-intuitive to the true artist, who must live the art and not leave evidence or relics as proof of genius.
Governments are, in fact, quite terrified of this sort of philosophical dandyism—of the aggregate of individuals who subvert by gleefully doing nothing.
And so it is the politically subversive dandy—the transcendent dandy—who is best-equipped to lead a new politically-subversive movement, where a panoply of ideas merge like a kaleidoscope. The dandy understands the absurdity of power and the various ways to subvert, ignore and transcend it, without resorting to violent means.
Dandyism, at its core, is political subversion, and Albert Cossery was nothing if not a dandy. And it was the dandies, the forgotten and ignored whom Cossery celebrated in his novels.
…Characters opt to withdraw from any idea of a career. To recognize the absurdity of joining power in its game (government) and staying as far away from it as possible. To know that love—for friends, fuck buddies, boyfriends, girlfriends—was all and that it was untouchable, transcendent.
We need a new era of dandyism, of subversives. We need a new counter-culture.
The dandy as imagined by Cossery has time to think and enjoy life. Idleness is not only a virtue for Cossery and his characters, it is elevated to the natural state of being—a rejection of the unnatural tethers which are fixed to our bodies as soon as we escape the womb: the classroom, the cubicle, the wage, the dollar, rent, and so forth.
artists without artworks – “who have radically chosen non-creation and have assumed the status of artist, the living for one’s self, outside of all artistic production”
These days the disappearance of the work increasingly haunts art. This unique thing to be venerated, to reflect upon, or to contemplate belongs less and less to our artistic practices. However, is this necessarily the same as saying that there is no art left? In a certain way art is done with art, in terms of what we have come to call art. We keep the name—art—yet, fundamentally, its content has changed. We can therefore no longer think through discourses on art, either aesthetic or historical, that unite notions of art and artwork to the extent of making us believe in the necessity of the latter as an absolute creation and of asserting the complete independence of the art field. Art practices themselves have abandoned the notion of artwork and the idea of art that accompanied it. Twentieth-century art has thus unceasingly been haunted by minority- becomings, those of “artists without artworks,” to borrow a phrase coined by Jean-Yves Jouannais, (1) who have radically chosen non-creation and have assumed the status of artist, the living for one’s self, outside of all artistic production (Dadaism is a fitting example). Moreover, in this century other artistic practices have come into being that make the word “work” difficult to use with respect to them, and the term “artwork” even more so: performances, actions, happenings, ephemeral art, certain installations and videos, and so forth. Finally, we know very well that we must not examine art as a series of incontestable objects to be preserved. Art does not deploy itself only as a succession of productions offered to the veneration of the public in museums or in galleries, but equally as an artistic path or trajectory.
It then becomes a matter of abandoning aesthetic discourse as a discipline that follows the artwork and takes an interest in its reception, in the notion of taste, and that analyzes the internal elements that objectively constitute the artwork. Even very recently, with a philosopher such as Nelson Goodman, we still consider the finished or accomplished work through a philosophy of interpretation that studies how to “make works function.” (2)
What is forgotten in all these perspectives is that art, before being an artwork, before it can be understood as a “masterpiece,” also constructs itself by means of the overflow that brings it into being, by experiences that result from a non-linear activity on the part of the artist. The artwork is not necessarily abandoned but reconsidered in the overflow itself. Ensuring that the trajectory is the equivalent of the work, that the work is nothing other than an artistic experience (including the experience of not making), may be the paradoxical signature of the contemporary artist.
However, how can we come to an understanding of art from the perspective of experience? If the artist’s experience actually exists, it always resides in a sort of formalization of experience itself. Art is no longer defined expressly through the creation of a work often associated with the figure of the inspired artist or of one who possesses genius; it is sustained through formalization, by means of a kind of language or art form, an individual experience rooted in the sensible world and in the singular impressions that are retained by the artist. In support of the idea that the work disappears in favour of the setting in place of artistic experiences, I would like to mention an artist such as Allan Kaprow who developed the concept of the happening in 1959 in New York. As a performer, Kaprow thought he could abolish the frontiers between art and life through a formalization of the experience that takes the shape of experimentation in happenings. Art had to return to events and daily objects in order to restore the proximity between artists and their public and between works and actions. Since the 1960s, the production of environments that introduce objects of daily use around which the public moves amounts to manifestations of a definition of art as an experience of the world that surrounds us. This definition of art brings it closer to life. However, it never reaches the point of confusing the two. The artist’s experimentation always amounts to a formalization of lived experience insofar as it stops short of making this experience sacred, which means that art sides with transience. The fact remains that such formalization in experimentation establishes the power of actions and events in art. The disappearance of the artwork resides in the erasure of its autonomy and of the myth of art’s exceptional character. Art becomes experience, experimentation, and intervention. Not only does it reflect on ordinary life but also, in the same movement, it affirms its precariousness against all logic of power. Precarious, art no longer recognizes itself in the enshrined edifice of the artwork, but tries tirelessly to reclaim the tangled web of experience with what constitutes its own work, formalization, but a formalization that has become uncertain and relational. In having become fragile or tenuous, the work on forms must always begin anew insofar as it has the tendency to melt into lived experience or into the complexity of the world.
It is specifically the artist’s experience, with his or her doubts and everyday uncertainties, that is formalized in such a way as to turn experience into an expression, and expression into an experience. Art distances itself from a thinking that would bring it back to the enshrined site of the work, better to correspond to a world of diversity, series, networks, and links; thus, the artist can experiment and produce an artwork that from now on stands as a fragile trace of this experimentation. Not only human beings are vulnerable, but also art itself as it bears the burden of vulnerability, far from the all-powerful artwork.
Nevertheless, has the work disappeared? No, it lives through its extinction. It still shines in the evanescence that dissipates it, similar to an ephemeral mark in a delimited space and time. In this dissipation of the artwork that postpones it without cancelling it out, the experience of the work’s absence maps out the conditions of a negative artwork. In contemporary art, the subject is not the folly of the artwork’s absence but a certain regime of experimentation of the covert work: the artwork’s disappearance as an illicit work!
“What could be more normal than artists producing artworks? After all, they’re just doing their job, and there seems to be no stopping them.”
Art’s broken promises
By and large, when artworlders talk about what might be broadly described as art’s ‘use value,’ they’re bluffing. Anyone who believes that art, in any conventional sense of the term, by ‘questioning,’ ‘investigating,’ or otherwise ‘depicting’ some socio-political issue, actually empowers anyone to do anything about it, is actively engaged in self-delusion. Yet art continues to make such promises — using its institutions to lend them not only a largely unchallenged semblance of truth, but all the trustworthiness of convention — only to immediately break them. Why? Is it because art is unable to do away with its romantic underpinnings, except by abandoning itself to all-out cynicism?
…What could be more normal than artists producing artworks? After all, they’re just doing their job, and there seems to be no stopping them. And besides, who would want to stop them? So they go on and on making art — adding to the constantly growing category of objects obeying that description. What is more unusual, and far more interesting, is when artists don’t do art; or, at any rate, when they don’t claim that whatever it is they are doing is, in fact, art. When they recycle their artistic skills, perceptions and habitus back into the general symbolic economy of the real.
There is, of course, a context for this shake-up of the status of art and the artist, bequeathed by the twentieth century: artistic activity itself is developing on a massive scale and in a mind-boggling variety of forms, and the production of meaning, form and knowledge is no longer the exclusive preserve of professionals of expression. One finds artistic skills and competencies at work in a variety of areas far beyond the confines of the symbolic economy of the art world, and the practices which they inform are in many cases never designated and domesticated as art. The fact that this sort of art-related creativity seeks no particular validation from the art world, that it pays scant heed to the values and conventions underpinning it, should by no means inhibit us from charting its genealogy and identifying its inherent rationality. And yet, aesthetic philosophy, persisting as it does in construing art as an enigma to be deciphered, as an object begging interpretation, seems decidedly ill-equipped to theorize art in this expanded sense. Beyond both the well-worn logic of appropriation, which consists of recuperating as art all description of objects and activities not intended as such; and beyond the converse, though symmetrical logic consisting of using artistic practices — those, in other words, initiated and managed by artists — to stake out and claim new territories for art, it seems worth pursuing use-value in this particular direction though on the basis of an extraterritoriality and reciprocity that prefigure an unforeseen future for it.
…Duchamp points to the symbolic potential of recycling art — and artistic tools and competencies — into the general symbolic economy of life (as opposed to the standard readymade, which recycles the real into art). The point, and starting point, of this project is to reactivate this unacknowledged genre of artistic activity.
Art without artists, without artworks, and without an artworld
So what happens when art crops up in the everyday, not to aestheticize it, but to inform it? When art appears not in terms of its specific ends (artworks) but in terms of its specific means (competencies)? Well, for one thing, it has an exceedingly low coefficient of artistic visibility: we see something, but not as art. For without the validating framework of the artworld, art cannot be recognized as such, which is one reason why it is from time to time useful to reterritorialize and assemble it in an art-specific space. In one way or another, all the collectives in this project confront a common operative paradox: though informed by art-related skills, their work suffers from — or, should we say, enjoys — impaired visibility as art. Yet this impaired visibility may well be inversely proportional to the work’s political efficacy: since it is not partitioned off as ‘art,’ that is, as ‘just art,’ it remains free to deploy all its symbolic force in lending enhanced visibility and legibility to social processes of all kinds. It is a form of stealth art, infiltrating spheres of world-making beyond the scope of work operating unambiguously under the banner of art. The art-related practitioners involved in this project have all sought to circumvent the reputation-based economy of the artworld, founded on individual names, and have chosen to engage in collaborative action; they use their skills to generate perception and produce reality-estranging configurations outside the artworld. As the wide range of tools developed by these collectives show, this has nothing to do with an ban on images; art has no reason to renounce representation, a tool it has done much to forge and to hone over its long history. The question is the use to which such tools are put, in what context, and by whom: tools whose use-value is revealed as they are taken up and put to work.
The artist without works pursues the assertion of an ideology rather than the building of a career – Undeeds, unart, and the undone.
An artwork does not necessarily need an author, an author does not necessarily need an artwork. Since her student days, Dora Garcia has been fascinated by the figure of the artist without works. An absurd figure, often tragic, it started to gain weight and prestige when it crossed with the figure of the dandy. A dandy is an artist who considers the production of things (books, music, or art) to be the dullest of things. Needless to say, to think of a career as a producer of “things” would add vulgarity to dullness. The dandy artist without works evolved later to the conceptual artist, on the one hand, and the counterculture hipster, on the other. The difference is mainly one of cultural environment. But the core is the same: an artist who tries to have an ideology rather than a body of work. The very word would produce a leer on the face of the artist who stays as far from the institution as possible, who flees from the idea of the “guild” or “profession” as if it were the bubonic plague (Guy Debord, Gil Wolman, Tristan Tzara). Because the artist without works nevertheless enjoys seeing and reading and listening to good artistic products, they will try to either have them made by someone else, or to have them made by nobody: a music that composes itself (Cage), a painting made by a machine (Duchamp), a book that has been found (Borges), a text written by other texts (Burroughs). The artist without works despises the petit bourgeois idea of the “genius” as a virtuoso who excels in their field and is ready to be served as entertainment in the bourgeois salons. The artist without works has nothing to offer to the mainstream public, and fame would make them think that something is definitely wrong.
An Artwork Does Not Necessarily Need An Author; An Author Does Not Necessarily Need An Artwork
As soon as artists start being shaped in art schools, a yearning is imprinted upon them, setting up the source of a lifetime of uneasiness, longing, and want. The yearning for fame and recognition, which must be achieved by an unstoppable production of things. However, and paraphrasing Francis Picabia, by fleeing the atrocious destiny of being unknown, artists necessarily land on that other atrocious destiny: the failure. Francis Picabia: “Men can be divided in two categories: failed and unknown.”
What follows wants to be a personal homage to those artists who have not produced things, who have produced things but have tried to hide it, or who have directed the steps of others to produce things they wanted to see but did not want to make; and in NOT doing have exerted a vigorous influence in other artists. The artists without works.
We could imagine the artist without works as a tragic figure, paralyzed by the fear of not meeting his own expectations, or not deserving to be in the same room as those he admires most. Or, we could imagine the artist without works as well as a defeatist figure, the type of artist who puts into question the sense of doing anything if it will be however misunderstood, misused or even worse, forgotten.
These figures exist; but they are not what I am talking about. The artist without works I want to pay homage to is not tragic, but joyful. Is the artist that, intersecting with the figure of the dandy, even intersecting with the figure of the hipster and the countercultural hero, prefers NOT WANTING. Note that it is not the elimination of will power but on the contrary the glorification of the will of nothing. The artist without works pursues the assertion of an ideology rather than the building of a career, an ideology that would not rest on objects but on deeds, or rather, un-deeds. The artist without works seeks the beauty of the not doing, not wanting, not leaving something behind. He chooses the radicalism of the refusal: I am not there, I’d rather not to.
Refusal of many things. One, refusal to make sense.
The killing of the author brings to the artist an exhilarating freedom. Freedom, as when we free ourselves by pretending to be someone else.
Two: Refusal of quantity.
No need to write them in full, just write an entry in that imaginary encyclopedia. Going back again to the depiction of the artist producer as merchant, another typical vendor viciousness is the will to produce much, so as to keep their clientele fulfilled and contented. But Pessoa, another expert in disappearance, says: “Each of us has a little amount of things to say, but there is not much to say about that, and posterity wants us to be brief and precise. Faguet (author of Petite histoire de la littérature française, 1913) says clearly that posterity only loves brief authors.”
When one just has to write novels of three lines, what does one do with the rest of his time? Pierre Cabana says: “Our best artwork is the use of our time”. Seas of time open for the creator of micro-narratives, becoming therefore the dandy, the amateur, the dilettante. But not only.
First, the artist without works disappoints the audience with his indolence, by not doing any productive work whatsoever. “Nothing can offend them more” as Guy Débord said. Second, he infuriates them by insulting them, and third, he terrorizes them with his criminal behaviour.
Félix Féneon, the inventor of “Nouvelles en trois lignes” was said to be an anarchist who deposited bombs (1894, restaurant Foyot, Paris). The surplus of time makes of the artist without works a hobo, a walker, a demonstrator, a subversive, a striker, a drug-dealer, an outsider, a sexual degenerate, a surrealist, a banalyst, a situationist. The iconoclastia of conceptualism was not so much a sign of linguistic Puritanism as a refusal to produce, a political stance, a sabotage.
It is obvious that if there is an audience the artists without works couldn’t care less about, are the critics. It is important that those un-made artworks are beyond good and bad, they are, in fact, indifferent to the idea of criticism. As Robert Filliou established with his principle of equivalence: well done = badly done = undone.
Last refusal: Refusal of being here at all.
Creating art by doing nothing – Félicien Marboeuf and rejecting the productivist approach to culture – “My art is that of living”
More than 20 artists will pay homage to Félicien Marboeuf in an eclectic exhibition opening in Paris next week. Although he’s hardly a household name, Marboeuf (1852-1924) inspired both Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust. Having been the model for Frédéric Moreau (Sentimental Education), he resolved to become an author lest he should remain a character all his life. But he went on to write virtually nothing: his correspondence with Proust is all that was ever published – and posthumously at that. Marboeuf, you see, had such a lofty conception of literature that any novels he may have perpetrated would have been pale reflections of an unattainable ideal. In the event, every single page he failed to write achieved perfection, and he became known as the “greatest writer never to have written”. Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter, wrote John Keats.
…The artists he brings together all reject the productivist approach to art, and do not feel compelled to churn out works simply to reaffirm their status as creators. They prefer life to the dead hand of museums and libraries, and are generally more concerned with being (or not being) than doing. Life is their art as much as art is their life – perhaps even more so.
…Jouannais celebrates the skivers of the artistic world, those who can’t be arsed. “If I did anything less it would cease to be art,” Albert M Fine admitted cheekily on one occasion. Duchamp also prided himself on doing as little as possible: should a work of art start taking shape he would let it mature – sometimes for several decades – like a fine wine.
With his bovine-sounding surname, Félicien Marboeuf (1852-1924) seemed destined to cross paths with Flaubert. He was the inspiration for the character of Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale, which left him feeling like a figment of someone else’s imagination. In order to wrest control of his destiny, he resolved to become an author, but Marboeuf entertained such a lofty idea of literature that his works were to remain imaginary and thus a legend was born. Proust — who compared silent authors à la Marboeuf to dormant volcanoes — gushed that every single page he had chosen not to write was sheer perfection.
Or did he? One of the main reasons why Marboeuf never produced anything is that he never existed. Jean-Yves Jouannais planted this Borgesian prank at the heart of Artistes sans oeuvres when the book was first published in 1997. The character subsequently took on a life of his own, resurfacing as the subject of a recent group exhibition and, more famously, in Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas’ exploration of the “literature of the No”. Here the Spanish author repays the debt he owes to Jouannais’s cult essay (which had been out of print until now) by prefacing this new edition.
Marboeuf has come to symbolize all the anonymous “Artists without works” past and present. Through him, Jouannais stigmatizes the careerists who churn out new material simply to reaffirm their status or inflate their egos, as well as the publishers who flood the market with the “little narrative trinkets” they pass off as literature on the three-for-two tables of bookshops. In so doing, he delineates a rival tradition rooted in the opposition to the commodification of the arts that accompanied industrialization. A prime example is provided by the fin-de-siècle dandies who reacted to this phenomenon by producing nothing but gestures. More significantly, Walter Pater’s contention that experience — not “the fruit of experience” — was an end in itself, led to a redefinition of art as the very experience of life. A desire to turn one’s existence into poetry — as exemplified by Arthur Cravan, Jacques Vaché or Neal Cassady — would lie at the heart of all the major twentieth-century avant-gardes. “My art is that of living”, Marcel Duchamp famously declared, “Each second, each breath is a work which is inscribed nowhere, which is neither visual nor cerebral; it’s a sort of constant euphoria.”
“the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.” – Stephen Wright on “art without qualities”
[Stephen Wright is one of the last truly vibrant theorists left in the art world. Although maybe that is because he spends so much time outside the art world. And maybe his early years in the Pacific Northwest gifted him with the temerity of a cryptozoologist (escapologist). He is relentlessly innovative with turns of phrase and new memes, not in some pointlessly entrepreneurial attention seeking way, but as a matter of necessity – because the things he is trying to describe are outside “accepted formal parameters of art” (as he quotes Raivo Puusemp saying in this post). Wright, if not a member himself of the “offroad conceptualists,” is surely their greatest chronicler.]
…Upon resigning as mayor, Puusemp left Rosendale forever, moving to somewhere in Utah, and thereby joining the nebula of “offroad conceptualists” who have withdrawn from the artworld attention economy into the shadows, never performing what they do as art.
Of course plenty of things are not performed as art (in many cases because they just aren’t) although their coefficient of art — in terms of their form, contextual engagement and the competence they epitomize — would be largely adequate for them to successfully lay claim to artistic status. And it is precisely this issue which makes Raivo Puusemp’s short preface to Beyond Art so compelling. From it can be deduced an entirely original and under-theorized line of institutional critique as the background of his project to instantiate a plausible new artworld in Rosendale, A public work.
But before considering the underpinnings of the project laid out in the document’s preface, let’s pause for a moment to consider just exactly what “not performing art” means in the case of Raivo Puusemp. Since his stint as mayor of Rosendale, Puusemp has ceased making art; he hasn’t even done art. But he’s thought it. Meaning that he’s not so much a former concept artist, as that he remains an artiste sans oeuvre. Not in the affected sense of a dandy, but with the infectious humility of concept art. As he put it in a recent public conversation with curator Krist Gruijthuijsen at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the venues to recently host a retrospective of the artist’s work, up to and including his stint as mayor) Puusemp acknowledged as much, at least implicitly, describing how his relationship to art had itself become conceptual. “I’ve always thought about art, I just haven’t done it. I would see something, and think someone should do that. But I would never do it myself.”
…He’s sees conceptual-artistic potential in any number of situations, relations and things, contemplates making it art, but leaves the doing, the making, the “performing” (or not) to others.
Of course, this principled imperformativity only makes sense against Puusemp’s background as an active artist in the 1970s. This is the paradox of the imperformative: not-doing only has traction against a horizon of reasonable expectation of an ability-to-do and the deed itself. Countless things don’t get done, but the imperformative implies that something actually eludes performative capture — that it is done quietly, and not necessarily materially (who knows?) in the shadows. And the shadow of the deed is the idea. But the very fact that Puusemp would be inclined to contemplate people performing (or not) ideas he had thought of also stems directly from his previous artistic practice.
Several things happened that would lead Puusemp to choose to move into the shadows. For one thing, he became involved with an underground group in New York City called “Museum” which allowed him to understand art as an essentially collective endeavor and to gain insight into group dynamics and process. But above all, he writes, “it became apparent that art was a continuum of predictable steps each built upon the last. It seemed that by being familiar with the then accepted formal parameters of art, and by doing work within those parameters, there was a great likelihood of art community acceptance of that work. Creative leaps were reduced to inevitable innovations and predictable steps. I became fascinated with the process of conception to completion rather than the product. From that point, I found it difficult to continue making art within the standard context.”
–Did you still think of yourself as an artist?
–It’s hard to say. I just kind of walked away from it, or from the object stuff anyway. I was thinking about things a lot. I mean, the other thing is, I started looking at this Rosendale thing more and more as a piece of art. It was a strange thing to do, like living a dual life. On the one hand, I was doing this thing, but I couldn’t tell people I was doing it because they would think I was using them or kind of manipulating the whole thing.
–But was it always intentional for you that running for mayor would be an artwork?
–I think it evolved. I was intrigued by the possibility…
Raivo Puusemp, a possibilitarian? That was the term (Möglichkeitsmensch) that Robert Musil coined to describe Ulrich, his Man Without Qualities. Not because his protagonist was without quality — his insights were of exceeding quality — but because he possessed none that determined the others and locked him down into a particular ontology. We tend to think of artworks as characterized by a deep singularity — and as the documents on Rosendale’s dissolution show, it was a project so steeped in nitty-gritty singularity as to conceal its self-understanding as art. But as a morphing pursuit of intriguing possibilities, and in light of Puusemp’s decision to further withdraw from exercising artistic agency, Rosendale, A Public Work may be seen as paving the way toward an art without qualities.
The despotism of theory and careerism – Slackers, the humanities, and understanding the difference between laziness and leisure
[This addresses a piece by Lee Siegel that I posted earlier. Sometimes I roll with conservatives.]
Siegel reminds us that literature wasn’t taught in our colleges until the end of the nineteenth century because reading novels and poetry “were part of the leisure of ordinary life.” That’s what an educated person did, and not, of course, for college credit. Thoughts and imaginations were shaped by literature as much as anything else. Sometimes they may have been silly thoughts and romantic imaginations—such as the chivalrous southerners who were moved by Sir Walter Scott to choose a very bloody and very optional war. And sometimes, as in the case of Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare and the Bible almost all alone were enough to discover and “communicate” both the urgency and poetic/theological significance of the seemingly prosaic American proposition.
There was, as Siegel suggests, a kind of “existentialist” moment that began after World War II and persisted through part of the Sixties. The focus on one’s personal destiny in a world distorted by technology and ideology—a world that produced unprecedented mass slaughter—privileged literature over other forms of “communication.” Insofar as philosophy was existential—and so obsessed with Camus, Heidegger, and Sartre, even it seemed more like literature than a technical or “theoretical” discipline. The goal was to save reflection on the truthfully irreducible situation of the particular person from the clutches of theory. The predicament of the person born to trouble—or at least a brush with absurdity—is what novels are about. And the insufficiency of philosophic prose to display that predicament explains why Sartre, Camus, and Walker Percy, for philosophic reasons, wrote novels. It is close, at least, to why Plato wrote dialogues and why St. Augustine wrote his Confessions.
As the great critic Lionel Trilling pointed out, it might have been near-ridiculous to teach books that should make us radically discontent with our ordinary lives in the newly standardized format of American higher education in the 1950s. And it increasingly became doubly ridiculous to have those books taught by careerist professors with the souls without spirit and heart of specialized scholars. It might be triply ridiculous to expect administrators, bureaucrats, and other certifiers of competencies to be able to understand—much less articulate—a credible defense of “the humanities.”
The existentialist point of “the humanities” is to experience the mysterious singularity of the particular being stuck for a moment between two abysses, born to love and die, to be moved by the sometimes inexpressible suffering of the being who must love and die, to experience the joy of “insight” with others, an experience that has nothing to do with “collaborative learning.” …
…They were about concerns that should animate one’s whole life. But today, we sadly say, the humanities aren’t typically a refuge from either the despotism of fashion or the despotism of theory, much less the despotism of careerism. That’s one reason among many they seem like a boring waste of valuable time for most students.
Given what most of our institutions of higher education are really like today, Siegel celebrates their abandonment of the humanities. Now literature is free to flourish somewhere else. It’s true enough, I can add, that Socrates never taught for money. And he never could have gotten tenure. He didn’t publish, and his student evaluations would have been uneven. It’s far from clear why it would help a great writer to get any degree at all, and certainly not one in “creative writing.” Someone could argue, of course, that things were different when people routinely read real books outside of class. But there’s no reason why they can’t do so again.
There is probably something to Siegel’s perception that the effort to defend the humanities everywhere in our educational system might be misguided. Maybe the focus should be on “countercultural” (which doesn’t mean all about the Sixties) institutions that exist in a communal context and that have what it takes to resist standardization, trendy theory, and the understandable but still excessive focus on techno-productivity. Maybe they can in some indirect way elevate us all.
Or maybe we should ask that there be just a lot more celebration of the diversity that still characterizes higher education in America, even in particular institutions and sometimes within particular departments. The enemy of this diversity is standardization—what comes from shamefully intrusive accrediting agencies, government bureaucrats, the use of “branding” and various forms of management-speak to describe liberal education, the adoption of the skills-and-competencies model (which is okay for tech schools) to evaluate higher education, and the insistence that the standard of productivity should drive all educational funding.
One advantage of standardization, of course, is that it holds slackers accountable. But we shouldn’t work too hard to get rid of all those slackers (such as those “tenured radicals”). Otherwise, we’ll too often mistake leisure for laziness. We might even mistake metaphysics, theology, poetry, and so forth for self-indulgent pursuits that don’t prepare students for the rigors of the competitive twenty-first-century marketplace. More than ever, it seems to me, it is essential to hold members of our “cognitive elite” to a standard higher than productivity. All Americans’ lives would be less pathological—and so, for one thing, more productive—if imaginations were, once again, filled with “real books.”
[To be clear – I love the field Wright stakes out even though I would argue with many of the details. One specific objection would be the idea of art as an inherently “critical” enterprise. This seems to be demonstrably false as a historical matter and an unnecessary notion ideologically. That is, one might ask – “Wouldn’t it be important to escape capture by the empire of criticality too?” ]
…Third Text’s controlled coefficient of specific visibility as a collective, conceptual artwork situated it in the “art-beyond-art” category — that is, of practices whose self-understanding is as art, but which manage to avoid being performed as art, somehow foiling the powerful apparatus of performative capture within what Araeen calls “the legitimising prisonhouse” of bourgeois aesthetics. Though Third Text, as we know, has since been captured by those very forces it had set out to challenge, Rasheed Araeen, we can be sure, eludes capture.
What’s most important about Art Beyond Art, though, is its discussion of the obstacles art faces today, and how it might elude them. Given Araeen’s experience in escapology — not of the Harry-Houdini variety of cuffs and chains, that wouldn’t be his style, but in escaping institutional, epistemic and performative capture — he has some important points to make. Here’s how he sets the stage:
“At the end of the sixties there emerged a concept of art whose true significance has not been generally and fully understood of recognized. Its significance was not in its newness or innovation, but what was conceptually a radical shift from art as displayable objects that can be looked at and contemplated — painting, scultupre, installations, photography, etc — to art as a process of transformation within the everyday. Historically, it was a movement of the idea that entered human imagination with a consciousness that sought integration of art with life, so that it would by becoming part of life’s everyday energy and creativity join its journey towards what for Hegel was its ultimate fulfillment. But this was not to happen. The journey was halted as it entered the cultural citadel of bourgeois capitalist society to seek legitimation. And, as it succumbed and capitulated to the privileges that the bourgeois art institution offered, the idea became trapped with in the logic of the very institutional space it was allowed to enter and occupy.”
“What is fundamental to my suggestion is the idea that it is possible to perceive or produce art in a radically different content, an art which locates itself away from the bourgeois institution and is not necessarily dependent on its mediation and legitimation.” This involves, amongst other things, making theory a practice, wresting it away from the academy: “It is with the imaginative power of art that I want to move forward; with a proposition that may lead to a new kind of thinking and produce a new kind of critical practice, out of which may also emerge a revolutionary concept of art based on the nominalism of the everyday work carried out by people themselves or their material production.” …
…art, he writes, “must lead a double life.” “On the one hand, it is a conceptual artwork but, on the other, its material form must become independent of whether it is a work of art or not. Only when it can escape from being merely an art concept or form that it can avoid its reification, and only then can it continue to maintain its transformative function within the productive force of everyday life.”
“Although what I propose as a collaborative practice results in a material form — it may be a farm, a factory, a supermarket, a transport system, etc, collectively run and owned by the workers themselves — I continue to call it a conceptual artwork. Why? Because it is not possible to get rid of art as a special category or completely dissolve it in other things so long as there exists capitalism and its division of labour. The complete dissolution of art into life so that art loses its identity as art will deprive it of its transformative function. If it is allowed to become like any other thing, without maintaining its specific non-instrumental imaginative power, art will not be able to act upon those things which are the products of consumer culture and turn them into a critical force capable of confronting the bourgeois society. In other s words, art’s function as a liberating force is dependent not only on its becoming something other than art but also maintaining its identity as a specific material as well as a symbolic practice.”
In essence, art secretes a kind of invisible but conceptual otherness within the everyday life processes that it permeates. Acting as a kind of yeast, the idea of art brings about a minimal shift within sameness. Though its dissolution into life may be impossible, it may act like a solvent upon ontologically stable relations. Like mycelium in a mineral, the idea steadily, “without complaint or resentment,” dissolves the obstacle.
“…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
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’ . 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.
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) . 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 …
In which Suhail Malik is invited to read Allan Kaprow – Or some answers to the questions of art’s exit, and more questions
Contemporary art’s shortcomings are increasingly evident even with respect to its own purported ambitions: proposing alternatives to homogenizing, normative conventions; as a method or mechanism of escape from the standardizations and conventions set by large-scale, commercial-corporate, or institutionally secured forms of recognition; as a site of utopian proposals, and so on. These imperatives impose themselves yet more severely when contemporary art itself establishes such norms and institutional figures. The effort is then made to escape art as we have it, perhaps for a more valid, more immediate, perhaps more populist or accessible kind of art which, for that reason, would have yet greater critical-political traction than institutionalized art. The now-familiar emphases on public participation, nonart, smuggling, deterritorialisation, inbetweenness, eventhood, indeterminacy, deskilling, etc. all heed this imperative. But as re-iterations of the logic of escape, these efforts also perpetuate and entrench the very limitations of art they seek to overcome. The resulting interminable endgame of art’s critical maneuvers serves after a short moment to provide new paradigmatic exemplars for it, a condition of tamed instability that characterizes contemporary art today well enough.
This series proposes that for art to have substantial and credible traction on anything beyond or larger than itself, it is necessary to exit contemporary art. An exit that requires the revocation of contemporary art’s logic of escape. If the demand here has an appeal and deserves attention—and it need not since the current constitution of contemporary art serves very well the aesthetic, intellectual, and sociological forms that sustain prevalent power in and through the art field, including all prevalent forms of critique—then this demand must be placed not just on the art itself but also on the ideas it invokes, as well as the social structures and ethos sustaining this configuration. The question then is what this art other to contemporary art’s paradigm of escape can be? What other kind of social structure and distribution of power than that prevalent in contemporary art would support it? What should an art that is not contemporary art do? Of what would its traction consist and amount to?
“…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.”
“Why would an ex-artist potentially bring more creativity, more imagination or more self-responsibility to natural sciences and medicine than anybody else? I think Richard Rorty (whom we both admire) would actually support me here. If artists merely become social scientists or long-distance runners, or if they do become social scientists or long-distance runners “as artists”, would sound for him a) as really hard to distinguish, b) unclear what this distinction is good for, and c) sound like an attempt to find something essential about what artists are, exactly in the very moment of their disappearance, whereas my theoretic proposals of the artistic dropout try to contribute to an anti-essentialist perspective on that disappearance.”
“For some time now, my work has been circling the question: What if, as an artist, you decide to give up your artistic practice, disappear from the art scene, and leave the field of art altogether? Does this simply mean you have given up, that you have failed? Or would you merely be switching to a new line of work, changing your job? Or could there be, potentially, more to it than this? Could leaving art be, perhaps, a gesture of critique and (artistic) sovereignty? It will, indeed, come as no surprise if we say that today there are far more former artists in the Western world, than there are practicing artists. Given the large number of artists who graduate from our academies and the very few who eventually succeed in a professional career, the »ex-artist« is a very common phenomenon in our social environment – mind you, without being a particularly seductive subject for art critics or art historians.”
“The best parts of Documenta 13 bring us into close contact with this illusive [might he have meant “elusive?”] entity of Post Art—things that aren’t artworks so much as they are about the drive to make things that, like art, embed imagination in material and grasp that creativity is a cosmic force. It’s an idea I love. (As I’ve written before, everything that’s made, if you look at it in certain ways, already is or can be art.) Things that couldn’t be fitted into old categories embody powerfully creative forms, capable of carrying meaning and making change. Post Art doesn’t see art as medicine, relief, or religion; Post Art doesn’t even see art as separate from living. A chemist or a general may be making Post Art every day at the office.”
“I am referring to an art without artwork, without authorship (not signed by an artist) and above all without a spectator or audience. It is visible, public, and indeed, it is seen–but not as art. In this way, it cannot be placed between invisible parentheses–to be written off as “just art,” that is, as a mere symbolic transgression, the likes of which we have seen so often, whose principal effect is to promote the artist’s position within the reputational economy.”
“There are more stealth practices going on than the artworld ever acknowledges, or even knows about. This is for the self-evident reason that they are, by definition and by design, hard to see let alone recognize, but also because they subvert mainstream artworld values, for there is nothing to exhibit and thus, nothing to sell. Stealth practices tend to be written off as non-art, if not quite nonexistent. The art-critical challenge is to draw attention to them in an appropriately elusive way, both for their intrinsic worth and because they obey a certain art-historical logic. Stealth and spy art practices have become a viable way of pursuing art at a historical moment when art has withdrawn from the world–though that may appear grossly counterintuitive to anyone whose only sources are the official organs of the artworld like Flash Art or Art Forum. In the face of the omnipresence of the cultural and consciousness industries, art has withdrawn from the world and has hidden before our very eyes–the only place it is safe from artworld recuperation, the only place left where the artworld is not looking for it.“
Let me flag out five “archetypes of dissent”: (1) Secret Agents; (2) Double Agents; (3) Maggots in the Apple; (4) Great Escapers; and (5) Great Refusers.
Secret Agents are people who devote their very lives and being to the radical cause. They may be professional organizers and tacticians, plotting and dissenting, often clandestinely, writing and printing militant literature, existing to spread the word and fight the power…
If Secret Agents have a “cover,” Double Agents conceal their dual identities. Their being isn’t “either/or” but “both/and.” In practice, this makes for a strange, schizoid practice, a deeper political idealism lurking behind a socially conventional pragmatism, a person in society who is rebelling against society…
“Maggots in the apple” is the evocative phrase Henri Lefebvre took from French novelist Stendhal…And they work, if they can find it, insecurely, at McJobs, on temporary contracts, on workfare programs and in internships. Many are students and post-students who know that before them lies a dark, deep abyss that’s about to engulf them, a black hole of the labor market and debt. This ragged array of people now attempts to live out within bourgeois society, challenging its “moral” economic order, surviving in its core, “like a maggot in an apple,” trying to eat their way out from the inside.
Great Escapers take to flight as a form of fight and express a spirit of critical positivity. They have absolutely no truck with existing society and go it alone, or alone with others, to create alternative radical communities and communes, frequently self-sufficient, both in the city and the countryside…
Great Refusers take to fight as a form of flight. They express a spirit of negative defiance, immortalized by Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the no-holds-barred outcry “against that which is.” In refusing to play the game, in voicing NO, in individually and collectively downing tools, Great Refusers already begin to create another dimension to life…
Doubtless, dissenters here can fall into more than one category, and might even fall between categories. Their respective constitution and organizing causes, be they romantically idealist or pragmatically realist, can likewise change over time, subject to personal and political circumstances. Indeed, the changing nature of their revolt suggests that this falling in and out of categories, and between categories, will make dissent both positively and negatively charged, a constant toing and froing that makes revolt more flexible and adaptive.
Meanwhile, all categories need each other, reinforce one another, and offer both offensive fronts and rearguard defenses. And the efficacy of any dissent will likely be predicated on how these dissenters organize themselves internally yet coordinate themselves externally, reach out to one another, create a bigger kaleidoscope, a more inclusive constellation of dissent that coexists horizontally, democratically.
I find myself in the unfortunate position of defending Andrea Fraser, art, and Dave Hickey.
Roelstraete’s argument here has a familiar ring to it. Any vegetarian would likely recognize it – you don’t eat meat, but you’ve got a leather wallet. Or Anarcho-primitivists might see it too – you are arguing for an end to modernity, but you use a computer to type your manifesto. Maybe even anti-capitalist activists might notice – why don’t you leave this country or stop using money if you’re so sick of it? And who do you think reads your anti-capitalist essays other than anti-capitalists?
And perhaps Roelstraete “should be forgiven” for completely misunderstanding the distinction between being “more real” and being real in a different way. Just as the lives of the wealthy are “real” in some reductive ontological sense, it should not be mystifying to say that “real” life is not one of servants and private jets being at one’s beck and call. And McDonald’s might claim that Chicken McNuggets are real food and be correct in a very basic sense, but claiming fast food isn’t real food is not denying this. Sure the art world is a part of the real world just like Rodarte makes “real” clothes and Ann Romney had a “real” job, but they are not real in the same way as clothes from Wal-mart or being a cashier there. And to say “in the same way” is stopping short a bit – it would be more accurate to say they are not equally real in any way that actually matters. They are less real in this pragmatic sense.
One wonders how a curator might not understand an artistic proposition – how is it he ends up “wedded to the wrong notion of art?” Surely he understands that Duchamp’s urinal is both real and differently real, or that to declare the urinals in the MCA bathrooms more real than Duchamp’s implies nothing else than “more” real for a particular purpose. To borrow from Stephen Wright, if you need to piss, a double ontological toilet might not be the best choice and it may in fact be “better” to piss in a real one. Although Duchamp’s idea of the “reciprocal readymade” might cause us to reconsider even that decision.
In the various gestures of leaving that Roelstraete takes umbrage with, he appears to fail to see them as gestures. Ironically he sets up an even stricter “antimony” between art and the real world. He seems to want Fraser et. al. to really leave, a possibility he forecloses given that he believes that art and the real world are besties. It would seem that he wants to distract us from the flavorless, heat lamp warmed “food” of the art world by arguing about its reality rather than its desirability. When some declare let’s leave this place and find some real food, he merely wishes us luck and mumbles smugly like a Taco Bell manager, “They’ll be back.” And that art world attitude is what has my soul truly despairing.
Stephen Wright – & then you disappear
The comments above are from a procedural document on the road to obtaining my MFA (2000) and read:
We accept Randall’s outline as an indication of the written trace of his practice. The performative trace of Randall’s practice need not necessarily take form as a gallery exhibition, yet a challenge for Randall remains his resolution of what will constitute our apprehension of his practice.
Q. “What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?”
A. I don’t know and I don’t care.
Escape, Invisibility, and Professional Suicide in Art – A brief foray into science fiction and a detective story
[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.”
Steven Wright vs. Stephen Wright – Double Ontology, Escaping the Art World – Baudrillard & Kaprow and Abbott & Costello
[Cue video to 7:06 – 7:32]
“But it is no longer a question of either maps or territory. Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction’s charm. For it is the difference which forms the poetry of the map and the charm of the territory, the magic of the concept and the charm of the real. This representational imaginary, which both culminates in and is engulfed by the cartographer’s mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory, disappears with simulation, whose operation is nuclear and genetic, and no longer specular and discursive. With it goes all of metaphysics. No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation.”
[From that other comedic genius, Jean Baudrillard]
“…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. Signal scrambling, perhaps. Something like those venerable baseball aficionados in the vaudeville act that began, “Who’s on first?”
[Kaprow invoking comedy]
…They seem to be seeking to escape performative and ontological capture as art altogether. It is certainly possible to describe them as having a double ontology; but it seems more closely in keeping with their self-understanding to argue that this is not an ontological issue at all, but rather a question of the extent to which they are informed by a certain coefficient of art. Informed by artistic self-understanding, not framed as art.
[see Kaprow’s “stored code” above]
This may be a way to renegotiate the asymmetrical relationship between art and memory. Though both are constructs, art long focused on shaping and reshaping memory’s matrix-like status — in other words, art stemmed from memory, yet somehow managed to scale memory down and thereby to hold it at a distance. The practices I have briefly described, and countless others today, have come to challenge this scalar bias and instead, increasingly, to operate on the 1:1 scale, no longer distinguishable from their object on the basis of scale and thus of use. Such full-scale aesthetics may make it possible to force memory to the fore as a dimension of the historical present, and as such, fully political.
[see Baudrillard’s “mad project” above]
I love Steven and Stephen (talk about double ontology!!!), but I think Steven’s distillation wins in this instance. I also think Stephen cites terribly insufficient examples of “escape.” And the challenge to ontology itself offered by Baudrillard should at least, when talking of maps and territories, be addressed if only to engender the silly confusion of a theoretical vaudeville.
I suspect that one reason for the artworld’s warm embrace of Rancière’s aesthetic theory is that it tells the artworld what it wants to hear about itself; it reinforces the glowing stereotype that the artworld fancies for itself – that is, as an inherently political and almost subversive place, whatever sort of predictable and conventional buffoonery it actually engages in.
And it may well be for this reason that ever more artists today are quitting the artworld, sacrificing their coefficient of artistic visibility in favour of a more corrosively dissensus-engendering capacity in the dominant semiotic order. For to see something as art according to the dominant performative paradigm of the contemporary artworld, is to acknowledge something terribly debilitating: that it is just art – not the dangerous, litigious, real thing. It is not my intent to deny that art can, on occasion, do what Rancière claims it can: for the artworld élite that likes that sort of thing, the concentrated, composed and self-reflective works one finds in museums have a disruptive value that is far from negligible. But deliberately circumscribing it within the policed structure of the artworld is to ensure that our relationship to art remains one of constantly renewed, constantly dashed hopes.
Forty or so miles north of Venice, on the slopes of Cartizze — prime prosecco country — is a charming stone house called Osteria Senz’ Oste. Depending on whom you ask, the name translates to ‘‘Tavern Without Host’’ or ‘‘Bar Without Barkeep,’’ and the place is exactly that.
“The very artiness of the events organized by even the most progressive artists showed thay they still saw themselves and their work as an elite – as somehow special. Nor could I sympathize with people who wanted to form an artists’ union or, to give a more proletarian ring to it, an art-workers’ union. To me such a pretence served only to emphasize the split between art and everyday life…Seeing art increasingly as a middle-class pretension, I had little choice but to give it up…I would have to sleep in a lonely bed.” – Roger Coleman