The following was
written in relation to the "Canvases
and Careers Today" symposium organised by the Institut
für Kunstkritik, Frankfurt-am-Main, 15th-16th December 2007.
speakers / respondents:
THE TAIL THAT WAGS THE DOG(1)
A lecture for Art Center in Pasadena, not delivered.
It is new Year's Eve 2007. I sit at my desk looking at a piece of paper with the works "ethical crisis" written on it. Underneath are a list of failings I feel I have been guilty of in the last year or so. I feel in a sense this endangers my life-world, or perhaps career. Because if you look into Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's book A New Spirit of Capitalism they talk about "business ethics"(2) and how essential it is for today's manager to maintain trust and reputation for his networked career. Ethics becomes self-policing and self-management. What are ethics beyond convenience, adjustment and effectiveness? "Self-monitoring"?
This morning, an argumentative phone call with Isabelle Graw, she plans to make a book from the conference in Frankfurt. I was horrible to her about it firstly because I felt I was being manipulated to provide long-term content to the Städelschule, one of the new Art-MBA Frankenstein courses and also because if I had known that there would have been a book I might not have done the conference. Also I had not seen John Kelsey's paper until he read it out, and I had literally no chance to "respond". I perceived my intervention in that conference to be a failure, a missed opportunity to turn a critical corner, and so maybe an "ethical crisis".
I failed to mention how the social clique I was trying to delineate, which was well represented in Frankfurt, was specifically reflected in the December 2007 issue of Artforum. John Kelsey had gone to the Miami Basel art Fair with 13 unsold paintings of mine as my gallerist at Reena Spaulings Fine Art and simultaneously listed my book Relax It's Only a Bad Cosima von Bonin Show as one of his Top Ten tips of the year. If I was my enemy, I would find this disturbing. John Kelsey himself is registered as one of Jack Bankowsky's "Top Ten" - just as "John Kelsey, critic", himself a living cultural artefact (as well as critic, artist, curator and dealer). Meanwhile a review of my show at John's gallery is in the same issue, along with countless other mentions, reviews, and features by/of other participants of the symposium: Melanie Gilligan casually reviews a fearsomely complex Adorno book, as well as a show by Nils Norman and Stephan Dillemuth. Johanna Burton reviews Sherrie Levine; she is the partner of the editor of Artforum and contributes frequently. Daniel Birnbaum, co-founder of the Insitut für Kunstkritik with Isabelle Graw and Rector of the Städelschule, writes his Top Ten. Perhaps the art world is shrinking.
The points I did manage to make were as follows. Firstly I disagreed with John Kelsey's thesis about fucked up or "hack" criticism, preferring a model of clarity. I felt that the "hack" model had been used in the 80s by Gary Indiana and somehow keys into the kind of history-free debate of that era. And several speakers at Canvases and Careers Today talked of "Wild Pychoanalysis", "Late Criticism" or "Bad Criticism", all concepts which tend to drift into a kind of marketing psychobabble. This "thinking out of the box" would not be possible if it was not repressing the fact that that intellectual work is crucial to today's market. A differentiation made by Tom Holert at the conference: between traditional art criticism and "critique" meaning critical theory with a political motivation. Art criticism here is functional for the market but can still be confused with the bourgeois evaluation of art objects in a decadent phase: "Late Criticism". It is critique, paradoxically, that is most useful to the market as a source of differentiation. It provides the key discriminatory knowledge whilst and because it retains the power to explain the way out of the market.
The other points, which I prepared earlier, were more abstract. Firstly I made the point that information is now the commodity, making the critic the epitome of power, not the collector, the dealer, the curator or the artist. Although the curator would be the most powerful of these, due to the primacy of mediation in their job. For example the many historical rescues being made by private galleries of previously non-commodifiable figures such as Tony Conrad, Guy de Cointet, Lee Lozano etc are dependent on the research of "critical" curators, some of them in-house.
The other point I went on the make is that through the changes described above, it is our group (i.e. many of those present at the conference) on an axis Berlin-London-York, the gallery blocks Reena Spaulings/Greene Naftali and Nagel/Buchholz, and the complementary inflight magazines Artforum and Texte zur Kunst that this new power system is delineated. We are the Clement Greenbergs of our own meta-management operations, our secret political groupings become sinister and paranoid strategy planning meetings to exclude anyone younger than ourselves.
There is another debate also heard in the conference about whether the art market itself is self-validating and requires no critics. This must be true up the a point but it surely cannot self-validate at the distribution level without non-market research and critique occurring at the coalface (and in Marxist terms, one could describe this as a specialised form of primitive accumulation). Anyhow, critique is required to rescue art from ritual. John Kenneth Galbraith spoke of how the 1928 Florida real estate boom contained "the indispensable element of substance".(3) He meant Florida's obvious appeal as a sunny destination. Here it would be some real work still going on in somewhere on the edge of the art world, which would be a hard kernel of truth.
Some Historical background. 2003, the Iraq war. An implosion in the American artworld. An inner retreat. The political landscape had shifted so far right there was no stomach for a fight any more. Yet all of the younger writers, artists and curators had been brought up to believe in "independence" and struggle of one kind and another. That independent stance, through spaces like Reena Spaulings Fine Art and neo-liberal commands doubling as shows like Make Your Own Life at the ICA Philadelphia, took a turn inwards, and "scenes" were re-created not around politics but around depoliticised notions of collectivity. Yet usually each boho group needed some connection to money and power.
The model for this was American Fine Arts. The premature death of Colin de Land in 2003 had removed the barrier to the final capitalisation of his system. He was a living blockage to the potential commercialisation of his own ideas. In the ensuing period there was an onrush of gallerists trying to do a Colin, from the uptown (Greene Naftali) to the dimwitted (Dash Snow, Rivington Arms). Informal underground tunnels become the corridors of power. "Get out of the horse" Colin de Land used to say to artists who claimed to criticise from within - but you get out today and you are still in a bigger horse, the whole of Troy is a horse.
In a desolate amnesia, an inoculation from politics came to be considered politics in a marketable form. The problem which can be seen as the ever-primary problem for capital - how to create and/or loot surplus-value - was here answered because the previously resistant chaos, anti-marketing and post-institutional critique of AFA itself became the main selling point. The product became the lack of product. But what had previously been the content - anger - was not present. Meanwhile other artists such as Merlin Carpenter, Josephine Pryde, Nils Norman, wondered why they too were now considered the bearers of a marketable hipness. A larger change had occurred. The collective defences of the 90s - primarily related to secrecy, anti-media strategies and having no public relations, had now become what the media and PR industries cried out for. Non-PR became the new PR.
Critics, too begin to amass biopolitical
cultural capital. Isabelle Graw, John Kelsey, Daniel Birnbaum,
Johanna Burton, Tim Griffin, André Rottmann and others
associated with Artforum and Texte zur Kunst begin to occupy
a clearly identifiable mainstream (to the extent that a mainstream
is still possible). Their subtle recognition of the aesthetics
of critique and their obvious yet never stated network of insiders
and outsiders form a barricade against who knows what enemy.
In the case of Artforum the shift is also clearly to do with
the appointment of Tim Griffin as editor in 2003. The previous
editorship of Jack Bankowsky tried to edge the magazine toward
more a more lite theory tendencies; but this regime did not have
the fundamental understanding of the increased dominance of knowledge
in relation to personalities or objects. Personalities must now
embody this knowledge; and objects not doing so now occupy a
fairly low profile except at the auctions. Anyone buying young
art is buying cultural capital and networks. "Knowledge"
is here defined as the kind of connections described by Bontanski
and Chiapello; both a current address book as operative discernment
as well as those deeper links gathered over time through work
and the experience of criticality.
Art schools who have "got" this shift include Städelschule, Vienna Academy and Columbia. They attract by far the best students. Possibly a school like Art Center in Pasadena has missed it, since they seem to have recently closed a critical writing department and shed some of their more networked staff. When the above-mentioned generation of artists are confronted with these keen students they wonder why they are so professionalised. Maybe they should look in the mirror. Since this is an immaterial professionalism it of course includes its other.
As an inverse face of the political
mirror, one would have to say that this development, even though
it includes many who have struggled and fought for positions
in the left, is fundamentally conservative in orientation. Politics
as actual content can never appear, because that is all that
can appear, in the form of shadows. "Transparency"
is an interesting concept to explain what I mean here. It is
central to Nicolas Bourriaud's "Relational Aesthetics",
and more generally a key theme of 90s art discourse. To make
transparent the processes of decision-making has been an imperative
in government, business, education and the arts for a while,
and this has often been linked with an idea of democratisation
or a left agenda, and could have been ultimately derived from
Marx's attempt to unpack the commodity. However the concept's
liberatory potential is easily challenged...
In contemporary art transparency is a kind of foil overlaying secrecy; it does not work. From the hidden bling of the rich to the routine self-critical utterances of the artist or museum; the power grouping makes everything transparent except its own key relationships. For example Liam Gillick, a figure from the 90s who prefigured some of the problems discussed here. His aluminium and plexiglass structures embody notions of discursive space and democratic negotiation, yet these are shown in galleries and institutions whose direction he influences through long term friendships with curators. These synergies are not transparent but invisible. And the same could be said about the not fully publicised friendship between myself and Isabelle Graw of Texte zur Kunst. This phenomenon exists in the top levels of government and the media as well. Conservative journalist Peter Oborne's recent book The Political Class argues that a professional elite has embedded itself in UK government circles and "the broadcasting and newspaper media - which so often talk of transparency - [and] are institutionally more opaque than parliament".(5) A language of transparency is used but, under a populist front, a small group holds all the cards. This network is often based on friendships, at the crossroads between everyday life and work, and what Oborne describes as " the emergence of a marketplace of influence and access".(6) Having a closed groupuscle, previously the Baader-Meinhof or Situationist cell model, can also be seen as a potential maffia and deeply conservative.
Beyond this empirical research, I came across an earlier critique of the term in Homi Bhabha's work on colonialism, quoted by Deborah Cherry in Beyond the Frame, in a chapter on women artists touring Africa:
"Transparency is the action of the distribution and arrangement of differential spaces, positions, knowledges in relation to each other, relative to a discriminatory, not inherent, sense of order. This effects a regulation of spaces and places that is authoritatively assigned; if it puts the addressee in the proper frame or condition for some action or result."(7)
So transparency in a colonial context means a forced re-mapping of space. An empty space is created where previously there was a population. This occurs through painting as well in the colonial context: Bhabha continues: "In visual terms these 'rules of recognition' offered to make sense of 'a discontinuous and alien landscape'".(8) So transparency, far from the notion of self-critique, has always had a secret other meaning - a method of colonial expropriation.
Furthermore, 90s ideas like "transparent" self-criticism and the moderation they promote tend to push the tendency of the profit margin to collapse and inevitable market failure ever further into the future. They extend market cycles.
Critics are not really paid at all. But perhaps even because of that they are potentially rich: information itself is also institutional power and wealth. The commodity is now information. The critic might just be the embodiment of power, being as she is able to accept or reject more lucrative positions, for example a curator for a private gallery such as Gregor Muir at Hauser and Wirth in London. On the one hand they could increase their cultural capital for later redemption precisely by rejecting a cheesy pay-day, on the other hand immediately taking a salary not incomparable with that of a successful artist, and with greater prestige, perks and security. Also, the emergence of the consultant could be a significantly lucrative career path for the art critic or frustrated academic. As JJ Charlesworth recently point out: "In the new artworld, there's money in being the gatekeeper and selector, and with so many spectators looking in, anxious to know what you know, and artists clamouring to be picked up, the person who selects is the one who dictates visibility."(9) Far from the conference's tendency to assert that criticism has been marginalised, I maintain it is more powerful than ever before in an economy based on knowledge. Even, perhaps even especially, when the cultural capital it accrues is not immediately cashed in. In the art industry we know now, cultural capital is much closer to stored money than what Bourdieu proposed. And perhaps one could go so far as to say that the art market per se, in sense of selling pictures, is no longer what is at stake, though money and Capital are. The critic chooses when or when not to cash in: "Time represents the basic resource for connecting the actors who control access to money".(10) And as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out, creating the surplus value needed for capitalist reproduction is based on past as well as current labour - someone else's labour, control of time being a key issue here.(11)
Criticism as a means of easing yourself into new market sectors, in a marketplace of access. But for today's artist/activist/critic, what form does this product take? Here is the essence of the micropolitics of the current conjuncture. In a sense, under Capitalism we can say this cultural capital, if of value, is always converted back into money eventually - but by whom and at whose expense? Here it might be useful to compare how artists use "scenes". Just as every critic trades a "scene" of some kind, each scene has a turncoat artist of some kind, we can think about Seth Price in relation to Continuous Project, Tino Seghal to other people's research into performance or Jeremy Deller to 90s activism. The method by which that cashing-in takes place is of extreme political importance here, and the new hierarchy I describe can only persist dependent on some more traditional form of commodity exchange which somehow pays up for cultural capital or at least offers that illusion. And how is critique value? Is it value to the extent to which it is critical, surely not? I have to admit this thought process has made me acknowledge that I do not really grasp the issues here, which has been genuinely quite unsettling. But very provisionally I would say:
1. Art is a luxury good, so it is not
creating value in the Marxist sense, i.e. not extorting the surplus-value
from workers which feeds the productive cycle. It does not add
much in other words.
The problematic and separate question of exactly how and when this expropriation takes place has not even been broached here. But it seems to happen at the exact same moment that new knowledge is collectively produced. Someone plundering an ill-defended critical community turns its contradictions into a narrative. This narrative is distributed as fast as it is "turned" as fast as it happens. It operates as metadiscourse and can probably only be described by a metametadiscourse dealing with wider political superstructures, and not one rooted in the blown out reality of the previous critique, now devalued.
Knowledge is not value and critique is not class struggle - but they can still be expropriated. Value can be eked out from the very critique of capital itself. And once this has happened, fresh surplus-value is in fact created - in an inversion Marx perhaps could not have anticipated. And a further irony is that this critique of critique-marketing, as well as the economic Marxist tradition that it comes from, is already on sale back to speculators.
All cultural producers are critics, all are involved with marketing information and are thereby involved with the politics of knowledge. Information is the institution. If we - we are all critics - are the institution, then institutional critique is of ourselves and our role as value suppliers at the margins of a huge cultural industry. Reading books adds value, it is not necessarily liberatory, it could be functionalised factory farming of info, reading = capitalist writing. Theory and politics may not be an escape route any more. Art may be one of the border forms that allow them to be marketed.
The current and coming market crash only hastens the rise of an information-based art world. As dumb objects fail, we dominate. We critics/critical artists become a significant problem in "a symbolic system of power"(12) a wider landscape of wealthy elites closed in on themselves and getting ready for the long haul.
Possible strategies? If you criticised your friends you would be implicated. Self-criticism then maybe starts with your friends. From here one can also question the inherent value of collectives, collaborations and scenes, when they are unaware of the need to pre-empt potential misuse.
Instead of critiquing market formations in advanced capitalism and feeding this data as information to the art world, better to feed the art world to the art world - because it itself is an advanced form of financial speculation. As the Whites say, the work then becomes "the structure and functioning of the world of art as a whole."(13)
Is there something beyond selective transparency and business ethic it conceals? As a metaphor one could mention the less well-known role of psychoanalysis, as written about by Andrea Fraser in a recent Texte zur Kunst.(14) It is not about uncovering key events and thereby understanding yourself in order to perform better. Its contribution is to speak what is currently actively repressed in order to inaugurate a struggle, through a specific transference with the analyst. And not make you happy, prepare you for work or make you better. The result would be a non-result, a non-market discourse. Not transparency of content, but system transparency? Not networks but what I tentatively would call "affinity networks", against co-opted collectives or friendships. How to speak the unwritten: "shatter discourse in order to bring forth speech" (Lacan).(15)
Merlin Carpenter, Los Angeles, 12 February 2008
(1). This title is stolen from Fareed Armaly whose text of the same name, most probably still unpublished, explored the incestuous character of the art scene in Cologne circa 1991.
(2). Luc Boltanski & Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, London, 2005, p. 95.
(3). Quoted by Peter Y. Hong in How We Cashed in Before the Housing Crash, Los Angeles Times, 20 January 2008.
(4). Stephen Mihm, The Black Box Economy, The Boston Globe, January 27, 2008.
(5). Peter Oborne, The Triumph of the Political Class, Simon & Schuster, London, 2007, p. 299.
(6). Ibid p. 86.
(7). Homi Bhabha, "Signs taken for wonders", in The Location of Culture, Routledge, London and New York, 1994, p. 109. Quoted in Deborah Cherry, Beyond the Frame, Routledge, 2000, p. 86.
(8). Ibid Bhabha p. 110, Cherry p. 97.
(9). JJ Charlesworth, Tales From the City: London, Art Review, 18 January 2008.
(10). Boltanski & Chiapello, p. 152.
(11). Rosa Luxemburg, The Accumulation of Capital, Routledge, London and New York, 2003, p. 61.
(12). Boltanski & Chiapello, p. 94.
(13). Harrison C. White and Cynthia A. White, Canvases and Careers, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1993, p. 43.
(14). Andrea Fraser, Psychoanalysis or Socioanalysis Rereading Pierre Bourdieu, in Texte zur Kunst 68, December 2007, p.139.
(15). Jacques Lacan, "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis", in Écrits, W.W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2004, p. 98.
TEXTS BY MC