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Negating art (working title)


The aim of this text is not an exhaustive art-historical essay but a short interrogation, for heuristic purposes, of concepts within art that turn against art

‘For heuristic purposes’ means that I write this down to clarify my thoughts in order to inform my own mode of working. While I do not expect to be able to identify any ‘valid’ stance or justify my current practice, I hope to sort through some of the partially overlapping and conflicting arguments around art, un-art, anti-art, applied services, and political struggle. Sorting this out seems better than podding on on the distinctly wobbly ground of a postmodernism that issues sheepish reconciliatory gestures towards the attackers on art, implicitly hoping that the force of the arguments has been muddied and submerged in the reverberations of art history and buried under layers upon layers of reverential, but re-integrated art work.

(Should I become convinced that shutting up still seems the best route to take, the question remains whether any stuff produced despite such conviction (or before it was arrived at) should be seen as sham or embarrassment, as exempt or paradoxical, as economically motivated art craft, hopeless middle-class excretion, worthless nostalgia etc.)


The debate as to whether art should stop, or where it should turn, or what it should become, seems rather quiet currently. Instead, there are signs that some intellectuals and art historians (I think of Wolfgang Ullrich, Flusser may be put into the same camp, to be called something like "benign demystification") have bargained for a new lease of life for art by questioning the utility of applying high moral standards to art production, and by deflating notions of avantgarde, of autonomy, of self-impelled artistic progress. Proponents of this line of thought welcome instead the emergence of art as a job or craft of many (a bit as in feudal times) and approve the blending of art with other fields, such as design, town-panning, therapy, or entertainment.

This will not only come as a relief to collectors and art lovers who must resent a suicidal turn that would condemn their mode of consumption (the mingling with the art crowd, the buying of status symbols, the visits to exhibitions as fodder for thought, or stuff for intelligent conversation that will add a shade of depth to their assured epicureanism). It will also be greeted by artists who usually have enough to worry about making a living to admit a fundamental questioning of their practice. The wish to keep up an artistic production and in turn, to sustain an income once the struggle for a place in the market has been successful is very understandable, and a negation of that practice without pragmatic options for alternative (and equally pleasant) ways of generating an income will not be heeded, necessarily so. After all, das Sein bestimmt das Bewusstsein. (The situation is slightly different for those artists who have a professional day job and are limited to produce whatever they do in their leisure time—at the expense of other activities. Those that do many odd jobs to earn a living—probably most artists—are again in a different position since for them, their artistic practice forms a supposedly meaningful nucleus that makes the multitude of low-profile jobs bearable. But this is a different discussion.)

I feel that the question whether art ought to stop or how it should turn against itself and its role in the capitalist economy is still valid, and the answer far from clear. The positions taken by the Kaprow, Situationist international, Metzger, Buren etc have been digested and turned into repertoire by art history. While they have spawned strands of practice like 'instituional critique' that have been re-integrated into institutions, they remain at bottom undigestable in that they attack the economic core of art-making. (Taking the analogy of craft, no carpenter would dream of declaring that furniture should be abolished). But then art is no common craft. The analysis is still largely correct; the capitalist system and the role of art within it has not fundamentally changed, or at least not to the better.

What has changed is that today there is hardly a trace of the belief in a potential for a fundamental change of society. This belief was widespread in the Sixties and has certainly encouraged a much more radical critique of the economic and social foundations and functions of art than is evident at present.

Negate the aesthetic discourse while staying within the art context (Daniel Buren, Michael Landy)

Buren calls (in 1969) for a break away from art and its current context because art is reactionary, part of the system, regardless whether it is art or anti-art, two modes which he sees as mutually constitutive [1]. In his view, the question brought up by Cezanne — whether the sujet can become unimportant, the picture a non-referential surface without perspective and without the gesture, the brush stroke (representing metonymically the artist) — has been clouded and bypassed by the Cubists, by Duchamp, basically by everyone who poses the question in order to come up with an always partial mystifying answer and thereby, push his or her own art work.[2]

Buren claims to have developed a propostion that finally makes the decisive step that artists before him were not courageous or clever enough to make. His system of stripes introduces a neutrality that he recommends as the other of the endless repetion of art and anti-art. While it puts the context around the stripes into relief, it also aestheticises them. The function of the stripes is only understood by those who readily carry, as Kaprow describes, the art bracket (i.e., the mental operation bracketing something as art) outside the institutions and art contexts. It may be aligned with Kaprow's art mode 4 (work in non-art modes but present the work as art in non-art contexts [followed by examples] (with the proviso that the art world knows about it)[3].

Photo of book showing a photo of a Daniel Buren work featuring stripes

Fig 1: Daniel Buren's stripes in a cityscape
“Was angestebt wird, ist (...) mit dem Verschwinden der Form (jeglicher Form) die Eliminierung jeglicher Spur zu erreichen (...) wenn also die Spur, anstatt glorreiche oder triumphierende Demonstration eines Autors zu sein, als Befragung seines eigenen Verschwindens/Uninteressantseins auftritt — dann kann man von Auslöschung sprechen; oder wenn man so will, von der Vernichtung der Spur als Wert, und zwar durch ihre eigene differenzierende Wiederholung (...). Es handelt sich also um ein ununterbrochenes Auslöschen, womit die Idee, der Wert und die Bedeutung der Form/Sache möglichst vollständig erstickt werden sollen.“ [4]

The break with art is a step that Buren claims to be inevitable (and therefore, one could imply, mandatory for other artists). When investigating whether his practical proposition, the neutral stripes in different places and formats and colours (except that white is curiously chosen as the constant colour of two) implement such break in an exemplary way, it is curious to see that his mind, versatile enough to pontificate on the timidity of all previous efforts to break away, stops short of admitting that the field of art surrounding his own production and his assumed role as heretic and eschatologist is constitutive of his discourse, whether the stripes appear in museums, on public billbords, or in subway stations. Their message is understood only by those who know his work and its discursive context, and is not substantially different from the work of other artists creating an identifiable niche and identity. His efforts to prove the neutrality of the proposition are unconvincing. To me, the stripes seem not neutral, but mystifying; not anonymous, but representative of a personal style. In the context of many other diverse works, they do not stand out as the great liberating 'other' of art.

A note about Michael Landy's projects (art bin; Breakdown, a conveyor belt carrying all of Landy's possessions in a C&A store in Oxford Street, London) - the symbolic media existence of this work

Re-conceptualising art, rejecting aesthetics in favour of an analysis of art's (social, political) function

The dominant mode of reception of art remains until today (and is likely to remain?) stubbornly aesthetic, regardless of the professed intent of the object or proposition hurled at the audience.

Artists have spoken out against the bond between art and aesthetics and have tried to replace it with something else (whether this 'something else' always boils down to just a different flavour or spin of aesthetics is open to discussion). In any case, the history of reception erodes original intentions. According to Duchamp's interviews and letters, his ready-mades were never meant to constitute a 'new aesthetics' or introduce objects not considered art into the realm of aesthetic consideration. If we are ready to believe him, his gesture was one of (declared) indifference to the aesthetic aspect of the object turned ready-made. In that respect they can be seen as a gesture simultaneousy negating art and anti-art:

When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty. [5]

It is with sadness that we read the following lines from an interview with Kosuth, because we know that the attitude (just an attitude?) of re-thinking art outside the market has not taken roots:

I think to be an artist now means to question the nature of art—that's what being 'creative' means to me because that includes the whole responsibility of the artist as a personas well as the cultural implications of his or her activity. To say that the artist only makes high-brow craft for a cottage industry's specialized market might satisfy the needs of this society...but it's an insult to the valued remains of an 'avant-garde' tradition...unless artists reconceptualize their activity to include responsibility for re-thinking art itself, then all that is of value in art will be subsumed by the market, because then we will have lost the moral tool to keep art from just becoming another high-class business.

Joseph Kosuth in an interview with Jeanne Siegel, 1970

Moving artistic activity outside recognised genres and outside the art context and its validating function, turning it into some sort of research (Alan Kaprow)


Photo of book showing a photo of a truck delivering ice for Allan Kaprov's Fluids

Fig 2: Delivering ice for Alan Kaprow's fluids.
“These audiences were mainly art-conscious ones, accustomed to accepting states of mystification as a positive value(...) the audiences were thus co-religionists before they ever arrived at a performance. (...) It was apparent to some of us that the level and kind of involvement was pretty trivial. Tasks on the order of sweeping or reading words remain relatively mindless as long as their context is a loose theatrical event prepared in advance for an uninformed audience. Familiarization, which could generate commitment, is quite impossible when a work is performed only once or a few times (as it usually was then).” [6]

Advocating the use of artistic means in direct social/political action with a revolutionary intention (Debord) while relinquishing more or less any production of commodities for the art market

In contrast to Buren's gesture of a proposition promising radical departure, Debord frequently stresses the involvement of the situationist movement in the universal decomposition that has befallen art and the surrounding society, which explains for him the paucity of work and the difficulty of escaping the repetition and futility of common art practice [7]. He does not hope for more than the beginnings of a collective effort to escape the deadlock, by inventing new practices and experimental methods that take reality itself as material. In contrast to biting attacks on avantgarde authors and artists of his time (e.g., Robbe-Grillet), there is also an utopian promise of 'inventing completely new feelings' and constructing novel situations that allow a new kind of experience, foreshadowing what may become a new society - something Buren would certainly reject as a variant of the idealism he tries to put to rest.

Actively turning against art (art strike), deploying modes of work that (intend to) mock the primary art market (e.g., Steward Home's pulp novels)

The art strike position can be seen as a direct descendant of the situationist movement. Steward Home, one of the people behind the proposal for a 1990-19930 art strike (purportedly heeded only by him and two others) aimed to shake up the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts and artists' confidence in their own role. ‘As was observed in some Art Strike propaganda, most artists appear to be nervous about what they do and feel anxious as to whether they perform a socially useful function. What the Art Strike made clear is that artistic activities have no social value whatsoever and in fact are extremely wasteful.’ [8]

Home's pulp novels (see my review of 'Slow death') intend to mock and deride literature proper. They have an ambiguous status: while they ostentatiously negate the rules of common self-appreciative authorship, they are rather conciously bad, bad in an artful and provocative way so as to tease an educated taste. They seem to vie for the cult status of the fearless outcast that implies the hesitant admiration the compromised and culturally impotent intellectual. I guess no one else would care.

I don't know how anyone without a reading habit would take to these novels if they were part of the normal airport bookshop repertoire. There is a masochistic element in buying and reading them: readers learning about Home and his pulp novels know in advance that normal reading expectations will be disappointed. They may also know that they fall victim to a conscious and openly declared money-spinning scheme occupying a niche right outside (or still inside) the established mainstream market literature. They are told that the joke is on them, but they still want to hear it. They know that the violence and the sex included will be consciously dull and repetitive, but such disappointment still contributes to the residual attraction these novels hold for them. I imagine some will read them to prove to themselves that they constitute no threat to their established literary taste, that they can pigeonhole Home as a curious exception.

Market abstinence: a radical critique of the art market and a new model for exchange (Michel Chevalier)

Another approach negates art's role as a market commodity, a role exemplified in paintings from internationally acknowledged artists that collectors like to buy. Michel Chevalier's Unlimited liability project is a shop where many different artists can sell things provided these things are not paintings or drawings. The maximum price of items is €30. The twist is that only people with less than €50.000 of liquid capital are allowed to buy; you have to sign a contract in which you declare you don't own more than that sum (and implicitly risk a law suit if it becomes apparent that you have lied about your financial situation). This is intended to keep collectors out (who one imagines to have plenty of surplus capital sloshing around).

Photo of book showing a photo of a truck delivering ice for Allan Kaprov's Fluids

Fig 3: The wallpaper interior of the basement flat used as shop in 'Unlimited Liability'.
“The project website explains: "What makes the project different from multiples-shops and "affordable art" fairs is that it attempts to take the democratization-of-art project into as-yet untested waters. The DIY approach of alternative production/distribution is protected by a firewall against cooptation."

(I should put in a note here to make it clear that my take on the project is influenced by the fact that my novel Secret Ballet has twice been up for sale as part of Unlimited Liability (with no one ever buying a copy)).

So as long as you use media other than painting/drawing, art just lingers on here as a varied activity (there are also performances and live music events), often with a strong political angle. Objects include t-shirts and documentary media spun off political activism (such as events that disturb the intended metropolitan habitus in Hamburgs newest quarter HafenCity), printed art theory, multiples, and avantgarde music CDs and films. There are also objects for consumption such as dried coke concentrate, 'miel beton' (honey from Parisian urban areas) or self-made marmelade that seem to fit the catalyst role of objects in a communcation and community art context.

Two questions related to the roles and choice space of the individual artist come up:

  1. Is this a model for organising the (necessarily large) number of commercially unsuccessful artists in a formation (both in a social-economical and a mental sense) that turns objective exclusion — the experience of being rejected by a system that picks very few successes out of many failures — into a self-chosen refusal to engage with the market? In other words, is there an element of sour grapes at play here, lining the political and activist stance?
  2. Does the concept imply that artists insisting on their intention to do just that: produce art and make a living through it by playing to the gallery system, are inevitably either apolitical victims of self-delusion (dim and therefore unworthy); or cunning, hard-nosed entrepreneurs; or ravished fools, all of them mindlessly perpetuating in their success the gallery system and in turn, the misery of the reserve army of rejected artists? In such resentment towards commercial success (if I am right to suppose it here), is there perhaps an implicit negation not of art, but of the fundamental desire to be acknowledged, to be loved and admired, to be successful?

And another question: taking the renunciation of the market as a defiant gesture, is there perhaps a secret hope that this very rejection would inversely create market interest? So that one could eventually become desirable instead of desiring? After all, the system must always extend its boundaries to escape its boredom; putting oneself 'off-limits' is not the worst way of triggering a craving to go beyond that limit.

From the perspective of a resolute market abstinence, the art clown who enjoys himself (or herself) immensely while making loads of money must seem the most despicable creature — especially if he or she purports to act beyond or in violation of the system that feeds him or her. In discussions between artists represented in the context of Unlimited Liability, I found it telling that no one admitted that he or she would not mind being successful, or that one might even be tempted to join a gallery if given the option. The host being present, this may also be due to the fact that such admission might be read as an implicit disregard for the generous context of unlimited liability (a feeling of unease extends to this very description here, which may appear unappreciative or even malevolent coming from someone who has been part of it).

Given that the gallery system and to some extent instituional funding are reserved for the 'names' that managed to climb the ladder, it seems inevitable that for most, art-making can only be paid for by labour in other contexts. 'Unlimited Liability' makes this situation explicit, politicises it and calls for a more democratic art system (whatever that would exactly mean) — one that would leave the sullying compromises of the gallery system behind. Will it happen? Hardly, but that is not the point, I guess.

(to be continued)


Last update: 29 January 2010 | Impressum—Imprint