The painter of modern life: the story of a flâneur who falls in with an underground caste of painters, militant reformists of painting who reproduce the depravity of art taste; the dialogue between their work and the art world becomes increasingly internal, self-reflexive like a magister ludi of vacuity geared towards mirroring the stupid game of the art market. At once shows the extreme ambivalence in Carpenter's project and the hidden optimism - someone who is both devoted to critique of art-world privilege and intrigued with the mechanics of its allure. A Sentimental Education-like conclusion where in the end the most significant moment was at once the most depraved and emotional, i.e. love of glamour, cars, girls? There was no turning point into depravity, from the beginning the finest hour was ignoble.
Maybe the insurgent idea is a bit much and it should just be an atelier of empty-headed painters that reproduce an image of contemporary painting in as many ways as they can. From there it would be inferred that they are evoking its null and superficial condition. There can be little jokes referring to the meaninglessness of canonical and recent works. Actually maybe there can be two ateliers, the insurgents and the apoliticals, one engaging in collective work as a form of de-individualised, political organization, the others as a mock-corporation, going through the motions of inverting and ironically sentimentalising the tropes of the painting genre. Neither of them acknowledge what the other is doing, the insurgents think that the others are just making boring trendy crap, the apoliticals think that the insurgents are naïve and quaint. But their production is uncannily similar. All this can climax in an international biennale where they do the same art action for totally opposite reasons.
Set in the present, written in the style of Sentimental Education: a comedy where no partisanship or position is above ridicule. We're kept at a distance by free-indirect discourse, maintaining a second-order commentary throughout.
The labour conditions in both ateliers are the same: the assistants make all the work and are granted free reign to make whatever they wish, in fact they are expected to provide the ideas. The insurgents imagine their assistants to be better conductors for the vicissitudes of (art world) tastes than themselves; they represent everyday artists and consumers of culture who wouldn't necessarily subscribe to their views. Nevertheless, they show them examples of Art & Language paintings and a few by Albert Oehlen to get them started. The mock-corporates have a similar work arrangement for their assistants, which they arrived at through intuitive neo-liberal flexibility and 'outsourcing'. The assistants are left to their own devices to work within the modus vivendi/operandi of the atelier, as stipulated in the conditions of the assistant's copyright waiver.
The insurgent's claim to consciously construct their labour programme as a meta-commentary on their project as meta-painters; they must regard their work as a reflexive analysis through enactment of power relations between renowned and unknown, as well as boss/worker, i.e. gallerist-curator/artist.
'What artists do can't be called work' (from Flaubert's Dictionary of Received Ideas) is written above the entrance to their studios.
They know that artists' lifestyles have furnished the knowledge economy with models of atomised labour and flexible schedules where work includes one's social time and subjectivity. Acknowledging the implications of this shift, they try to promote solidarity, stability and sociability in the assistants' otherwise precarious labour structure but ultimately concede that to have employees is to exploit them.
Some of the assistants at the corporate atelier become disenchanted - they had assumed that collective art labour would entail an abolition of authorial privilege, but instead found themselves feeding their ideas to the name brand artists without recognition. They break off to form their own insurgent group modeled on their politicised opponents. Mimicking their organizational form and ways of working, they view their former antagonists as the repressed of the corporate atelier. Wise to the persistence of hierarchy within supposedly transversal group dynamics, they self-organise as a series of closely-knit, monad-like cells, communicating at a distance. They develop a style of oblique and refined, yet very extreme negations of painting, using a knowingly pop art redeployment of pop cultural materials, such as chart band album covers and women's lingerie advertisements. These 'monads' see pop-culture as the grand condition of all cultural production both high and low, but unlike the generation of pop artists, they couldn't care less about degrading high-art pretensions. They mostly concern themselves with monitoring mainstream aesthetic trends and simulating this play of empty signs in their work. If asked whether this is social commentary, they would probably say no.
One critic says cryptically: 'In their (the monads') hands pop culture references are a voice stolen from the mire of contemporary "post-critical" painting and given back to the responsibility of form.'
[Despite the attempt to show that the differences between the two groups were indeterminate, we should drop the mock-corporate studio, lest it implies a feeble opposition between their commodified position and politicised art. While both the insurgents and the mock-corporates would have actively exposed the commodified nature of art practice - one in opposition, the other through affirmation - this direction isn't particularly useful in regards to Carpenter's project where the commodity status of art is an a priori.]
Enter the 'man of taste' It is common knowledge that good taste is attracted to its opposite; since good 'taste is made of a thousand distastes' [Paul Valery] it is natural that what is deemed bad will eventually come to signify the good. It's uncertain which is harder to achieve: true good or bad taste. Like so many painters, the man of taste forages through the visual artifacts of bad taste, and avoids picking those that are already ripening to become good again. It's a tricky business - self-referential inversions of taste have been fashionably de rigueur for as long as the concept of good taste has existed and are certainly common as chips in popular media culture, i.e. trendy avant-gardist revivals feed the mainstream with new material that quickly becomes unfashionable again. Good taste must constantly annex all manner of bad tastes in order to renew its sophisticated self-reflexivity. Therefore, the movement proper to taste is self-negation. Taste is a dynamic self-annihilating process that dissolves its conditions of judgment, eventually exposing their non-existence. The man of taste would probably say the same of all art. He would happily elucidate this situation, and yet still be unrelenting in his attempts to out-maneuver both art world and popular culture by (re)staging ridiculously uncouth reappropriations, before the rigor mortis of the transvaluation and assimilation process sets in. One objection to the man of taste's argument is that his lengthy explanation is just a fancy way of saying that art is shock and shock-devices give diminishing returns. He would partially agree. Then, with uncharacteristic profundity, he'd say that both terms 'shock' and 'diminishing returns' crudely simplify qualities of judgment that are ultimately much more fundamental to the nature of art and thought.
It seems the man of taste directs his work and his everyday life entirely in accordance with his sense of discernment and could best encapsulate what he does in the phrase 'Every artist carries a list in his head of things that are no longer possible.' [Thomas Mann ventriloquising Adorno in Doctor Faustus]
The first encounter between the monads and the man of taste is at a seminar organised on the occasion of an artist's performance. The artist re-enacts highlights from Alexandre Kojève's famous 1930s lectures on Hegel's 'end of history'. Quite early in the discussion, the man of taste and several members of the monad group get into a fight regarding whether art history ended at some point or not. The monads agree with Kojève's argument that through the total domination in late capitalism we have entered a post-historical period in which the process of work and negation, conflict and action that make up the constant transitions of human history has come to a close, resulting in a devolution of human life into animal-like lack of self-awareness. They believe that our current period of art can be diagnosed in terms similar to Kojève's description of post-historical art: a static state in which the function of artworks inevitably become culinary because of this lack of conflict and exteriority. Thus the monads maintain that contemporary art is made with as little self-reflexivity and criticality as birds building their nests and spiders spinning their webs. They claim that the predominance of an often unwittingly culinary tendency in contemporary art was brought about by the last century of modernist practices of capture and aestheticisation of conceptual, critical and experiential qualities, as well as objects, that lay outside of art. The afternoon drags on as they describe how these processes intensified in the latter half of the century so that every manner of experience was reoriented to eventually follow the logic of the commodity once it was subsumed within the realm of art. So much from 'outside' of art has been absorbed in a process of challenging art's constraints, yet the homogenising commodity function of art eventually neutralises all confrontation, reducing conflict to a formalized ritual of subversion. They believe that the art we are left with today is a very clear demonstration of the colonization of every aspect of life livable by capitalist market rule.
The man of taste consistently disagrees during this protracted declamation, his rebuttal being that "Art history can never be said to have come to an end in so far as there are always new aesthetic decisions to be made in response to new contexts." Perhaps he means that despite what the monads claim, art still continues as a social practice. He makes his case by citing historical works by artists like Jeff Koons and David Salle. He also points out that the whole argument is very late 80s/early 90s and that if we are working after the end of art then we should admit that we have been through several such ends in succession. The monads retort that that is exactly their point and the conversation deteriorates into a shouting match.
Meanwhile an artist who uses the style of courtroom drawings, normally to represent fictitious art world scenes, has been sketching the altercation. Though it hadn't been preplanned, her drawings became integral in the production of buzz around the 'happening' later on.
The monads see the only mode of conflict left for artists at present is in clarifying how art is nothing but commodified aesthetic cultural signifiers, while the possibilities of a resistant art are only in deliberate self-negation through involuted elaborations of its nullity. The monads use these tactics in their work but acknowledge that, in the end, this type of production is simply a form of continual repetition with minimal difference, and don't consider it adequate to creating an Event in what they deem the sense proper to history.
The man of taste was deeply shaken by the disagreement and later that evening, he vehemently argues his point to a friend: "There's nothing more significant than the conflict between tastes, by this I mean the aesthetic cultural signifiers that one adopts as one's style and preferences as well as the systems of discernment attached to these decisions. Individual and collective tendencies of taste reflect specific intersections of historical, social and aesthetic moments in a very tangible but still irreducible form." And as for capitalism, he figures that art always does take on the system in its own terms, and that art doesn't become resistant through arguments but through aesthetic decisions. He doesn't notice how his argument is in fact compatible with his rivals, or even how they're reliant on similar terminology.
[Another distinction emerges here: the beliefs and structures that support consciously polemical or socially engaged art versus work that deals with similar issues by more formal methods. The latter tends to present an 'immanent critique' that can potentially, imperceptibly blend into more overtly decorative types of art. Though obviously the two types of production aren't entirely distinct, the former could be seen to orbit the conference circuit and depend on public funding while the latter tends to get pulled towards the private galleries. The monads and the man of taste might represent both tendencies respectively, although as painters they are both compatible with the private gallery system. However, since recent shifts in contemporary painting away from self-reflexive enquiry, both, but the monads especially, would represent a relatively marginal position and might not be very successful.]
In the meantime there have been a glut of articles about the return of beauty in painting, of 'less aggressive pictorial strategies' and 'new utopian figuration'; another variation on bidding farewell to criticality in painting. From then on we observe an increasingly unabashed use of the word 'beautiful' in general conversation, while it would have seemed like an unsophisticated catch-all term before.
An Art History and Visual Culture programme at one of the major universities holds a two-day conference at a very high-rolling private gallery, entitled 'Surface: Painting's Critical Veneer'. A discussion on superficiality and appearances in painting; the insurgents, the monads and the man of taste are all invited to discuss the use of semblance and dissemblance, mimesis and pop-cultural posturing as critical strategies and the different critical positions that they represent.
After lunch, an art critic delivers a denunciation of the trend in most contemporary painting to build in off-the-peg techniques to signify criticality. She identifies this as a tendency to pay lip service to earlier self-referential discourses on painting in the hopes of lending legitimacy to basically uncritical work. Her speech is followed by a panel discussion intended to debate whether there is still a possibility of criticality in painting and in art in general. It is agreed that strategies of conceptualism supposedly 'immanent' to form have been around the block a few times and can no longer be represented as a potential solution for the impoverishment of consciously polemical art. They deduce this through fairly narrowly defined yet unfocused series of themes, clearly bewildered by the broad scope of the discussion. The panel also concludes that they are not of one mind regarding the meaning of critical practice nor whether it is desirable. Adorno is brought up a few times in completely contradictory ways.
The keynote speaker starts laying into painting: "Everyone, especially the savvy reactionary, would agree that painting's foregrounding of and meditation on appearances is its strongest point. This is why current painting is often at its most cowardly when it meditates on its 'artificiality'." Painting will always have to offer up an explanation for its tenuous relationship to criticality and this current bind is a position from which it can't return. She relates an anecdote to the audience: an English artist paints the Queen in exactly the way that she is depicted in her press material, so as to reframe and draw attention to the ideology reified in that image. The painter's dealer sells it directly to the Queen, who is very pleased with the likeness. The audience seems unimpressed with this explanation, seeing little or no point in bringing up the Queen, and the conversation turns to other things.
A woman in the crowd pipes up that it is obvious that many painters continue to paint because it sells and that this fact should be out in the open in their work.
Someone responds to her by saying that we all make art because it provides a relatively better standard of living than many other occupations, while allowing us to have pretty flexible lifestyles and not have to work for particularly despicable organisations. That she really shouldn't be so hard on painting.
The first woman assures them that she wasn't speaking against painting at all.
One member of the panel puts forth a proposition: "Criticality is just an assumption left-over from modernism and quite frankly, I think that most so called 'critical' artists under the misconception of being political are the ones who have a romantic notion of the artist!"
A freelance curator in the audience, eager to identify some defining moments in the current art world climate, remarks that this conversation is quite similar to the infamous Kojève debate some weeks before.
The conversation dissolves into inane comparisons with no commonality of terms.
After the conference there is a small dinner party for collectors who had attended the event. The gallery had been pleased to host the conference, as they could use it to generate interest in their roster of admittedly marginal 'critical' painters, having recently become anxious with the apparent turn to a softer, less difficult painting. The paintings the gallerist is exhibiting for sale are by the man of taste, the monads or the insurgents. They blend together so seamlessly that a few guests joke that they should all amalgamate into a super-studio. The gallerist decides to himself that it's a great idea, while he graciously reminds his clients of the artists' passionately conflicting views. A painting by the monads depicts a truncated image of a well-known fashion model wearing a sheer slip, positioned diagonally across a nearly empty white canvas. An expensive looking dog is sitting in the background. "What do you think of this one?" says the collector to his wife.
how the text appears in the catalogue (design by Non-Format)
|This essay was commissioned for the Nueva Generación catalogue published by Distrito 4, Madrid, to accompany the Merlin Carpenter exhibition in September 2004. See also MC text from the same catalogue. Both appeared in Spanish translation in the book.|