Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.
– Henry Miller
The unfunny joke and the unartist: the metaphysics of absence? A comedian and an artist walk into a bar…
Excerpts from Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke by Lee Siegel (marked “LS”) juxtaposed with quotes from Stephen Wright (SW) and Allan Kaprow (AK).
LS: “In the unfunny joke, the comedian’s format is the Trojan horse that makes its way into your secret store of feelings as you wait genially to be entertained. The surprise is the unfunny truth that cuts through your consciousness with the force of a sword.”
SW: “…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.”
LS: “Comedy is becoming an occasion to abandon humor for the exposure of unsoftened truth. Of course, comedians have always had license to be blunt so long as they cushioned their provocations with humor. In the case of the unfunny joke, however, the humor is absent.”
AK: “…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?”
LS: “These people are professional comedians and most of their acts are spent making people laugh. But there is a schizoid dimension to comedy now. As fiction merges into autobiography, and movies based on actual events proliferate, the compulsion for comedians to smash through the artifice of comedy and tell the unadorned truth without humor is becoming stronger and stronger.”
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.
1. Figuring out what is or isn’t art is like pondering what is or isn’t “authentic” Vietnamese cuisine – a hobby of pedants and thought police that usually just gets in the way of a pleasurable experience.
2. Conflating art with aesthetics is like conflating French cooking with the entire culinary universe, or maybe even haute cuisine with the totality of what constitutes food.
3. Molecular gastronomy might be the cooking equivalent of contemporary art, not only because of its rarefied nature, elevated ambition, and intellectual bent, but also because it is elitist, full of gimmicks, faddish, and dying a well deserved death.
4. Art is a cancerous cell in the body of aesthetic practices, attempting to replicate itself at the expense of the larger body, crowding the diverse, multi-cellular ecosystem with its one dimensional excesses.
5. Eliminate all art departments and replace them with aesthetics departments (but let’s eventually dismantle them too).
6. Art departments have actually become Art Department Studies, mistaking the problems of art students, professors, and the educational edifice with the problems of art. They also forget that their professionalizing practices (the critique, baptism by theory, the artist statement, etc.) do not serve art, but serve only to beg for disciplinary approval from the corporate university.
7. Art, then needs audacious cooks, perhaps some of which have gone to school, but many that have not, who are not cooking to impress their instructors, but to make tasty food. Art needs the audacity of participation, not led by art world facilitators, but by upstart food truck ventures, by home cooks, by all the people who are bold enough to believe that they are already participating if the so called experts would just get out of the way.
…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.
“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”
[There are a host of problems with this piece –
A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?
A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.
Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…
And why is being “romantic” so terrible?
Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]
These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.
In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9
In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.
… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.
We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.
While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.
In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.
Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.
Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.
Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.
Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.
Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43
In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46
Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.
Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52
Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.
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.
[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.
Meaningless Work – Walter De Maria
Meaningless work is obviously the most important and significant art form today. The aesthetic feeling given by meaningless work can not be described exactly because it varies with each individual doing the work. Meaningless work is honest. Meaningless work will be enjoyed and hated by intellectuals – though they should understand it. Meaningless work can not be sold in art galleries or win prizes in museums – though old fasion records of meaningless work (most all paintings) do partake in these indignities. Like ordinary work, meaningless work can make you sweat if you do it long enough. By meaningless work I simply mean work which does not make money or accomplish a conventional purpose. For instance putting wooden blocks from one box to another, then putting them back to the original box, back and forth, back and forth etc., is a fine example of meaningless work. Or digging a hole, then covering it is another example. Filing letters in a filing cabinet could be considered meaningless work, only if one were not considered a secretary, and if one scattered the file on the floor periodically so that one didn’t get any feeling of accomplishment. Digging in the garden is not meaningless work. Weight lifting, though monotonous, is not meaningless work in its aesthetic since because it will give you muscles and you know it. Caution should be taken that the work chosen should not be too pleasurable, lest pleasure becomes the purpose of the work. Hence, sex, though rhythmic, can not strictly be called meaningless – though I’m sure many people consider it so.
Meaningless work is potentially the most abstract, concrete, individual, foolish, indeterminate, exactly determined, varied, important art-action-experience one can undertake today. This concept is not a joke. Try some meaningless work in the privacy of your own room. In fact, to be fully understood, meaningless work should be done alone or else it becomes entertainment for others and the reaction or lack of reaction of the art lover to the meaningless work can not honestly be felt.
Meaningless work can contain all of the best qualities of old art forms such as painting, writing, etc. It can make you feel and think about yourself, the outside world, morality, reality, unconsciousness, nature, history, time, philosophy, nothing at all, politics, etc. without the limitations of the old art forms.
Meaningless work is individual in nature and it can be done in any form and over any span of time – from one second up to the limits of exhaustion. It can be done fast or slow or both. Rhythmically or not. It can be done anywhere in any weather conditions. Clothing, if any, is left to the individual. Whether the meaningless work, as an art form, is meaningless, in the ordinary sense of that term, is of course up to the individual. Meaningless work is the new way to tell who is square.
Get to work
I can legitimately say that taking art as a the thematic axis for a chronicle of my work is not fair to the work. In the first place, from the beginning I was interested in the correlation of arts. I quickly graduated to “interdisciplinary projects” such as concept art, which had art as a precedent, but stemmed from my iconoclastic philosophy of 1960, and had outgrown art. To force my projects back into the art mold made it impossible to understand them.
From the outset, say 1958, the division of art, culture, into categories which became separate professions meant nothing to me. I simply disregarded the compartmentalization of culture, and assumed that I should pass freely among philosophy, exact science, linguistics, poetry, painting, music, whatever. Using each to illuminate the others and transferring methods from one to the other. My first “flat visual works” were precisely translations from serial music and so-called chance music. My poems also.
At some point in the first half of 1961, I completely lost interest in the “art professions,” music, painting, sculpture, poetry. My works at this time were “interdisciplinary projects” or out-of-category projects—which were shaped by my philosophical perspective, which I continued to refine throughout the spring. When I mailed Philosophy Proper, Version 3 to Carnap in 1961, he didn’t reply…
The artists whom I met through Young did not seem to be full-time artists. Only De Maria was already a “power artist”; I didn’t register it because in person he was affable and generous and because I had signed off on the art machine almost before I knew what it was. Morris, a student of Lippold at Hunter, explicitly condemned wanting to get rich and famous in a letter to Young. In other words, Morris nominally rejected the actual purpose of major public art, which is professional success. (The golden paintbrush.)
I become more and more uncomfortable that artists were offering things that intrinsically weren’t worth doing, whose only payoff was to leave the audience feeling baffled and frustrated. They were competing for social approval on that basis. They were making careers out of bluff, posture, hoodwinking the experts into giving approval for what nobody would do without the social context.
[Despite all the talk about new new new, the artistic fraternity could only deal with painting this, sculpture that. their inovation consisted in brandishing postures at each other for social effect. by definition they were intellectually vacant.
[it’s all posture, a game being played inside an elite institution, the self-important overpriviledged cognosenti, posture game or intimadation game. this cognoscenti does not have anything to say about philosophy, science, economics, government that I respect in the least.]
they were not seeking interdisciplinary or out-of-category innovation. Thus, the works which I poured myself into developing went utterly over their heads. drew a blank.
Substantial innovation, e.g. concept art, went over their heads.]
I passed from the mystique of the avant-garde to the conviction that art had a flawed premise. Cage had already said it, with a different rationale. But he didn’t mean it. [Later, Ben Vautier would deliberately use anti-art as a ploy, the collectors paid him to scam them.]
I became willing to forgo “participation.” I revived the utopianism of my cultural position. What ought to be was so far from what was socially feasible that there was no bridge between them. I chose to again emphasize what ought to be. It was a drop-out stance which combined utopian social speculation with solitary self-realization.
Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual’, professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, – PURGE the world of Europanism [sic]! PROMOTE a revolutionary flood and tide in art. Promote living art, anti-art, promote Non Art Reality to be grasped by all peoples, not only critics, dilettantes and professionals. FUSE the cadres of cultural, social & political revolutionaries into united front & action.
– George Maciunas 1963
Frequently compared to play, art and culture – like religion – have more often worked as generators of guilt and oppression. Perhaps the ludic function of art, as well as its common claim to transcendence, should be estimated as one might reassess the meaning of Versailles: by contemplating the misery of the workers who perished draining its marshes.
Today culture is commodity and art perhaps the star commodity. The situation is understood inadequately as the product of a centralized culture industry, a la Horkheimer and Adorno. We witness, rather, a mass diffusion of culture dependent on participation for its strength, not forgetting that the critique must be of culture itself, not of its alleged control.
The avant-garde has generally staked out wider claims, projecting a leading role denied it by modern capitalism. It is best understood as a social institution peculiar to technological society that so strongly prizes novelty; it is predicated on the progressivist notion that reality must be constantly updated.
But avant-garde culture cannot compete with the modern world’s capacity to shock and transgress (and not just symbolically). Its demise is another datum that the myth of progress is itself bankrupt.
Occasionally critics, like Thomas Lawson, bemoan art’s current inability “to stimulate the growth of a really troubling doubt,” little noticing that a quite noticeable movement of doubt threatens to throw over art itself. Such “critics” cannot grasp that art must remain alienation and as such must be superseded, that art is disappearing because the immemorial separation between nature and art is a death sentence for the world that must be voided.
Adorno began his book thusly: “Today it goes without saying that nothing concerning art goes without saying, much less without thinking. Everything about art has become problematic; its inner life, its relation to society, even its right to exist.” But _Aesthetic Theory_ affirms art, just as Marcuse’s last work did, testifying to despair and to the difficulty of assailing the hermetically sealed ideology of culture. And although other “radicals,” such as Habermas, counsel that the desire to abolish symbolic mediation is irrational, it is becoming clearer that when we really experiment with our hearts and hands the sphere of art is shown to be pitiable. In the transfiguration we must enact, the symbolic will be left behind and art refused in favor of the real. Play, creativity, self-expression and authentic experience will recommence at that moment.
[found the fragments of a talk I was going to give once and spent a little time editing it]
The arguments stopped when the bar cleared out. Ideas abandoned – crushed limes amid melting ice and chewed up thin red straws. One could’ve measured things by the ferocity of hangovers or the days upon days of jackets reeking of ash. I’ve got notes somewhere. I could title them “Minutes of the outside looking in committee,” but that might mislead.
In the early years it was pizza, wine, French feminists, Asian philosophy, salads with feta cheese, Donna Haraway (and plenty of other cyborgian stuff), southern folk art, Gregory Bateson, and oodles of continental thinkers. The Zapatistas were a frequent topic thanks to a history graduate student and member of the “band” Stool Sample Sandwich. He took so long in the pursuit of his degree that he ran out of time and never got the degree. At this time, I had a concealed weapons permit and there was a particularly heated exchange around the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of an armed left.
Influence is a funny thing. A comment made in passing by a professor from that era has gnawed at me in a pretty profound way – “Derrida is a great reader, but he ought to take up camping.”
Even though I had been camping all the time, camped my way across the country, and continued to do so upon moving to San Francisco, I still found myself in a Thousand Plateaus reading group. My heart just wasn’t in it any more. Somewhere, amid the fog and redwoods, my love affair with theory began to dwindle. Or maybe it was the gambling bus I used to take to Reno. After taking advantage of the complimentary Heineken and casino credits, I would retreat to my hotel room and pull open the curtains for a view of the sun sinking behind the mountains. I would scribble away in my notebooks whose content slowly changed from extensive notes on books to something a more presumptuous person might call poems.
But there were still plenty of arguments to be had, only now the food was gone. It was gimlets, wet naps, and snack mix. Theory was fading fast. DJ Spooky played an important role. Funnily, it was at yet another casino that I saw him play a set followed by a really sad “mashup” of theory. He also recounted his numerous art world accomplishments and I remember thinking that theory had jumped the shark. I went to find the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car and tried to goad Baudrillard into gambling with me (he declined).
Perhaps as penance for my blind devotion to theory (It might have been an attempt to impress a poet I had a crush on too) I read poems. That I wrote. Out loud. In public.
Shortly after this, I skipped town for Ohio in search of new arguments and a second grad degree amid football jerseys and chain restaurants. Actually, I was looking to “do nothing” which being the greatest of academic sins (apparently), brought judgment raining down on me. The bars, the flea markets, and a few key allies gave me cover, but I’m pretty sure that it condemned me to hell, or maybe just academic purgatory…Somehow I thought that it would be “refreshing” for a hiring committee to receive an application to teach in an art program from someone who was not an artist, critic, or curator, and who had no portfolio, no publications, no exhibitions, someone who had an MFA in “nothing,” someone who survived (barely) on his wits alone…
My affinity for pancake breakfasts not in the gallery, but at the VFW post and for “installations” at thrift and antique stores did not win me any interviews. I was not interested in art and it was not interested in me.
So now I’m a cook.
[This is a three in one post of material (in reverse order) I did for LeisureArts on David Robbins. Although I might choose another word than “production,” I think Robbins asks a question that still needs much contemplation – “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?”]
An initial stab at a semiotic square [David Robbins]
Note that “High Entertainment” is a category Robbins describes as “…works and artifacts that retain fine art’s complex ambitions for the culture while eschewing the specialized language of fine art in favor of mass accessibility – [it] can be manifested in games, toys, fashion, public sculpture, books, hoaxes, indeed in any product that has contact with the public.” p. 311
Art/Life – David Robbins – LeisureArts
The old art/life distinction.
The “triangulation” theory of David Robbins.
This notion is worked out in various ways throughout his book The Velvet Grind, but the essay “On Talent” spells things out pretty directly:
That something might stand outside art and report on it, comment on it, editorialize about it in an iconic language of its own – this was, and apparently still is, disorienting. The reason, I submit, is that it instantiates a complication of the modernist dialogue between life and art. Talent suggests that the old binary model has been superseded by a triangulated model whose points are life, art, and entertainment – a competing communication system no less madly self-sustaining, self-referential, and self-celebratory than art. “Showbiz” adds another category that’s neither Art nor Life. p.24
Robbins’s triangulation is an important step to finding new forms and languages for what he calls “imaginative practice” – creative, funny, thoughtful forms of invention that are not art. We at LesiureArts find Robbins incredibly useful [We hope to write more, but being the slackers that we are, this might be as far as we get]. He also writes about inventing experience which he distinguishes from producing culture. This is a welcome relief from all of the talk about cultural production, as invented experience resonates nicely with John Dewey’s aesthetic theory which is in dire need of being read by the legions of curators and artists who are reinventing the wheel of experience based practices.
The LeisureArts modified model.
As we mentioned, the triangulation theory is an important step, but LeisureArts is interested in expanding the terrain of inventive practices and theory to cover a host of other activities that Robbins’s triangle can’t account for. That leads to the above modification. In leisure, we have a broad field of activities that fall in between the various oppositions, some closer to one vertex or the other, but the field itself exists in a kind of equipoise (ideally). Adding leisure to the model allows for the inventiveness of car customizers, tea cozy makers, coat hanger collectors, home cooks, and others to mingle on equal footing with so called “high” forms of culture be it entertainment or art.
David Robbins – The Velvet Grind
…the pertinent question is no longer “what infinite variety of materials, strategies, concerns might we include in the context of art?” It isn’t “what might we map onto the coordinates of art?” These were the questions of modernism. The more contemporary question – tomorrow’s question – is “who are we when we pursue a larger field of production, some of which is art?” (p.29)
The maximum site of invention, now, is one that forces the culture of criticality into direct and continuous contact with its strongest and most radical cultural alternative, the culture that thrives despite art’s low regard for it, the culture, ladies and gentleman, that actually expresses respect for lives conventionally led, the culture that doesn’t need art: entertainment. (p.167)
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 would like to imagine a time when Tail Wagging Dog could be experienced and discussed outside the arts and their myriad histories and expectations. It would be a relief to discard the pious legitimizing that automatically accompanies anything called art; and to bypass the silly obligation to live up to art’s claim on supreme values. (Art saves the world, or at least the artist.) The arts are not bad; it’s the overinflated way we think about them that has made them unreal…in the foreseeable future, complete detachment from art culture is unlikely…The best that can be hoped is that a gradual weariness with the art connection will naturally occur as it appears, correctly, less and less important.
It’s more about inventing a context. It’s not about bringing things into art, that Duchampian thing. Instead it’s about making a new context for cultural production and presentation. I’m not really interested in the problems of art anymore.
Art’s Future is Not Art – Jerry Saltz – Post Art (or invisible art, spy art, escape art, unart, or the He Said of He Said She Said, etc.)
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.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I find Alexander Koch’s work (and Stephen Wright’s) to be absolutely compelling with regard to the art/life divide, so called “dark matter” and the invisible creative practices of escape artists.
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.