This is not perhaps the place for a prolonged analysis, but a few notes on what’s called “the art world” might seem to be in order. It is a common perception, not untrue, that at least since the ‘20s the art world has been in a kind of permanent institutionalized crisis. One could even say that what we call “the art world” has become the ongoing management of this crisis. The crisis of course is about the nature of art. The entire apparatus of the art world – critics, journals, curators, gallery owners, dealers, flashy magazines and the people who leaf through them and argue about them in factories-turned-chichi-cafes in gentrifying neighborhoods… – could be said to exist to come up with an answer to one single question: what is art? Or, to be more precise, to come up with some answer other than the obvious one, which is “whatever we can convince very rich people to buy.”
I am really not trying to be cynical. Actually I think the dilemma to some degree flows from the very nature of politics. One thing the explosion of the avant garde did accomplish was to destroy the boundaries between art and politics, to make clear in fact that art was always, really, a form of politics (or at least that this was always one thing that it was.) As a result the art world has been faced with the same fundamental dilemma as any form of politics: the impossibility of establishing its own legitimacy.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
It is the peculiar feature of political life that within it, behavior that could only otherwise be considered insane is perfectly effective. If you managed to convince everyone on earth that you can breathe under water, it won’t make any difference: if you try it, you will still drown. On the other hand, if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were King of France, then you would actually be the King of France. (In fact, it would probably work just to convince a substantial portion of the French civil service and military.)
This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one’s power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one’s power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything – divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But “make me your leader because if you do, I will be your leader” is not in itself a particularly compelling argument.
In this sense politics is very similar to magic, which in most times and places – as I discovered in Madagascar – is simultaneously recognized as something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works. This why magic, from ancient Thessaly to the contemporary Trobriand Islands, always seems to dwell in an uncertain territory somewhere between poetic expression and outright fraud. And of course the same can usually be said of politics.
If so, for the art world to recognize itself as a form of politics is also to recognize itself as something both magical, and a confidence game – a kind of scam.
Such then is the nature of the permanent crisis. In political economy terms, of course, the art world has become largely an appendage to finance capital. This is not to say that it takes on the nature of finance capital (in many ways, in its forms, values, and practices, is almost exactly the opposite) – but it is to say it follows it around, its galleries and studios clustering and proliferating around the fringes of the neighborhoods where financiers live and work in global cities everywhere, from New York and London to Basel and Miami.
Contemporary art holds out a special appeal to financiers, I suspect, because it allows for a kind of short-circuit in the normal process of value-creation. It is a world where the mediations that normally intervene between the proletarian world of material production and the airy heights of fictive capital, are, essentially, yanked away.
Ordinarily, it is the working class world in which people make themselves intimately familiar with the uses of welding gear, glue, dyes and sheets of plastic, power saws, thread, cement, and toxic industrial solvents. It is among the upper class, or at least in upper middle class worlds where even economics turns into politics: where everything is impression management and things really can become true because you say so. Between these two worlds lie endless tiers of mediation. Factories and workshops in China and Southeast Asia produce clothing designed by companies in New York, paid for with capital invested on the basis of calculations of debt, interest, anticipation of future demand and future market fluctuations in Bahrain, Tokyo, and Zurich, repackaged in turn
into an endless variety of derivatives – futures, options, various traded and arbitraged and repackaged again onto even greater levels of mathematical abstraction to the point where the very idea of trying to establish a relation with any physical product, goods or services, is simply inconceivable. Yet these same financiers also like to surround themselves with artists, people who are always busy making things – a kind of imaginary proletariat assembled by finance capital, producing unique products out of for the most part very inexpensive materials, objects said financiers can baptize, consecrate, through money and thus turn into art, thus displaying its ability to transform the basest of materials into objects worth far, far more than gold.
It is never clear, in this context, who exactly is scamming whom. Everyone – artists, dealers, critics, collectors alike – continue to pay lip service on the old 19th century Romantic conception that the value of a work of art emerges directly from the unique genius of some individual artist. But none of them really believe that’s all, or even most, of what’s actually going on here. Many artists are deeply cynical about what they do. But even those who are the most idealistic can only feel they are pulling something off when they are able to create enclaves, however small, where they can experiment with forms of life, exchange, and production which are – if not downright communistic (which they often are), then at any rate, about as far from the forms ordinarily promoted by capital anyone can get to experience in a large urban center – and to get capitalists to pay for it, directly or indirectly. Critics and dealers are aware, if often slightly uneasy with the fact that, the value of an artwork is to some degree their own creation; collectors, in turn, seem much less uneasy with the knowledge that in the end, it is their money that makes an object into art. Everyone is willing to play around with the dilemma, to incorporate it into the nature of art itself. I have a friend, a sculptor, who once made a sculpture consisting simply of the words “I NEED MONEY’, and then tried to sell it to collectors to get money to pay the rent. It was snapped up instantly. Are the collectors who snap up this sort of thing suckers, or are they reveling in their own ability to play Marcel Duchamp?
Duchamp, after all, justified his famous “fountain,” his attempt to buy an ordinary urinal and place it in an art show, by saying that while he might not have made or modified the object, he had “chosen” it, and thus transformed it as a concept. I suspect the full implications of this act only dawned on him later. If so, it would at any rate explain why he eventually abandoned making art entirely and spent the last forty years of his life playing chess, one of the few activities that, he occasionally pointed out, could not possibly be commodified.
Perhaps the problem runs even deeper. Perhaps this is simply the kind of dilemma that necessarily ensues when one two incommensurable systems of value face off against each other. The original, romantic conception of the artist – and hence, the very idea of art in the modern sense – arose around the time of industrial revolution. Probably this is no coincidence. As Godbout and Caille have pointed out, there is a certain complementarity. Industrialism was all about the mass production of physical objects, but the producers themselves were invisible, anonymous – about them one knew nothing. Art was about the production of unique physical objects, and their value was seen as emerging directly from the equally unique genius of their individual producers – about whom one knew everything. Even more, the production of commodities was seen as a purely economic activity. One produced fishcakes, or aluminum siding, in order to make money. The production of art was not seen as an essentially economic activity. Like the pursuit of scientific knowledge, or spiritual grace, or the love of family for that matter, the love of art has always been seen as expressing a fundamentally different, higher form of value. Genuine artists do not produce art simply in order to make money. But unlike astronomers, priests, or housewives, they do have to sell their products on the market in order to survive. What’s more, the market value of their work is dependent on the perception that it was produced in the pursuit of something other than
market value. People argue endlessly about what that “something other” is – beauty, inspiration, virtuosity, aesthetic form – I would myself argue that nowadays, at least, it is impossible to say it is just one thing, rather, art has become a field for play and experiment with the very idea of value – but all pretty much agree that, were an artist to be seen as simply in it for the money, his work would be worth less of it.
I suspect this is a dilemma anyone might face, when trying to maintain some kind of space of autonomy in the face of the market. Those pursuing other forms of value can attempt to insulate themselves from the market. They can come to some sort of accommodation or even symbiosis. Or they can end up in a situation where each side sees itself as ripping the other off.
What I really want to emphasize though is that none of this means that any of these spaces are any less real. We have a tendency to assume that, since capital and its attendant forms of value are so clearly dominant, then everything that happens in the world somehow partakes of its essence. We assume capitalism forms a total system, and that the only real significance of any apparent alternative is the role it plays in reproducing that system. Myself, I feel this logic is deeply flawed – and politically disastrous. For two hundred years at least, artists and those drawn to them have created enclaves where it has been possible to experiment with forms of work, exchange, and production radically different from those promoted by capital. While they are not always self-consciously revolutionary, artistic circles have had a persistent tendency to overlap with revolutionary circles; presumably, precisely because these have been spaces where people can experiment with radically different, less alienated forms of life. The fact that all this is made possible by money percolating downwards from finance capital does not make such spaces “ultimately” a product of capitalism any more than the fact a privately owned factory uses state-supplied and regulated utilities and postal services, relies on police to protect its property and courts to enforce its contracts, makes the cars they turn out “ultimately” products of socialism. Total systems don’t really exist, they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and the fact that capital is dominant now does not mean that it will always be. […]
excerpt from the essay “The Sadness of Post-workerism“, in “Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination“, by David Graeber