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The art market—a testing ground for the architects of reaction and restoration
This talk involves what one teacher of mine in art school said was "over with" in the art field, namely, "negative critique" (in French: la critique négative). However, an approach limited to a critique of some putative quality deficits in contemporary art is not my goal here because I believe that it misses the point. Need I say, it is also becoming quite common, as discontent spreads even to longtime art-market cheerleaders.
Many of the symptoms I address have precedents which go as far back as the emergence of professional art-merchants in 18th-century Netherlands. Modernism itself has a checkered past, as Albert Boime's study of Impressionism after the Commune and Eva Cockcroft's study of Abstract Expressionism in the Cold War demonstrate. Over the last two-hundred years, at its best, art has toppled icons and triggered broader socio-cultural movements (for example, punk), antagonizing and discrediting the forces of political reaction, often with dire consequences for its own practitioners. The ambition of art to change society even as it ceases to be art in an "identitarian" sense has taken form in uncompromising projects in various periods of the last century. Yet these extremes have nearly always coexisted: one art that breaks ground and another that idly recycles and borrows, or, as Pierre Bourdieu puts it, one that shows a "mastery of the relatively cumulative history of prevous artistic production" and one that is a product without a history or perhaps of a "negative history, that of the media coverage of art of the previous period."
The state of power relations within society as a whole bears greatly on which art prevails in a given period: art that addresses new audiences, often with great resistance, or art that "goes with the flow" in courting dominant fractions, exhibiting what Baudelaire called the "naive belief in an 18th century-style patronage." This second art has a near-monopoly on visibility at the moment, so that one could all it "official art." I will refer to it with the term gallery-art, with the following field-structural definition: art sold in commercial galleries of the so-called contemporary art circuit, frequently highlighted in (and legitimated via) the many international exhibitons and publicly-financed art-institutions (museums, academies) which art-commercial interests have managed to instrumentalize, via associations, lobbies, networks, graft etc.
This talk, however, is devoted to the converse point: to understand the state of power relations in the interest of influencing them today, it is worthwhile to consider how they are and were played out in the art field. This is by no means a transhistorical rule, it is specific to our present age for reasons I will mention later.
I, personally, am often struck how consideration of gallery-art as a barometer of dominant thought and strategy, in the interest of "knowing the enemy well" as Poulantzas puts it, is sadly lacking in left-intellectual circles today.
2. HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Several commentators trace the current and ongoing political crisis today to the early-seventies, a period in which state and corporate repression (domestically, at least) seemed to yield diminishing returns for the dominant fractions. This fact was played out spectacularly by the Watergate scandal and aftermath. New forms of consensus-building were required, a wave of restructuring, under the aegis of the term neoliberalism, was unfurled. Boltanski/Chiapello have shown how French business owners, taking their cues from the OECD strategists, developed new management strategies which coopted 68ist themes. With regard to American cultural life, Timothy Brennan has recently argued that "the transitional moment 1975-1980 is best characterized as the fusing of left and right positions still evident today." This same period was decisive in the art field, with radical approaches becoming abruptly swept aside in favor of a return to painting and sculpture around 1978, then finding themselves selectively quoted, post-mortem, in a sedate '90s art which flourished in osmosis with academic theory and a new generation of collectors.
The art world, in this period, provides a case-study for a "retour à l´ordre" which is different from what happened other cultural fields also marked by backlash (the recording industry) because it set in so subtly, diffusely, and internationally, taking full advantage of tolerance where it could find it. The '60s avant-garde found itself outflanked, and even today it is hard to fully explain why, although some facets of this evolution have been examined.
The mid-fifties to mid-seventies saw a wealth of approaches which challenged fetishist forms, elitist conditions of reception, and quietist practices. Some terms from this period are still with us today, although often used with meanings not giving justice to the original projects: dematerialization, conceptual art, intermedia, situationnism, fluxus, happenings.
EXAMPLES: HIGH RED CENTER, SHARITS, BALDESSARI/NICOLAIDIS, TUCUMAN ARDE, PIPER, HAACKE
CASE STUDY OF HISTORY REWRITTEN: FLECK CONTRA LIPPARD/CHANDLER/BURGIN
3.THE TESTING GROUND, RESTORATION STEP BY STEP
PARALLELS TO ACADEMIA/MOUFFE/NEGRI-HARDT
4. ART ON THE PULSE OF NEOLIBERALIST IDEOLOGY
POP/IDENTITY POLITICS (1980-1999)
ANTIHISTORICISM/LA LOGIQUE DE LA MODE
THE NEW BOLDNESS (2000-2006)
ART AGAINST THE POPULISTS/PEOPLE (2005)
5. WHY IS ART VALUABLE TO DOMINANT FRACTIONS?
Despite being, on the show-room level, ever more the narcissistic mirror of collector-class values, being brazenly subordinated to a sort of playground (or "funhouse", if certain practices by male collectors are to be factored in) function, gallery-art "works" in the cultural landscape, maintaining its generously-allotted place in the public sphere and crowding-out less-welcome cultural practices. This is because, in the "back-room," art-actors mobilize valuable symbolic ressources that allow the field to reproduce its legitimacy. Once tried and tested, these ressources can then be exported to other areas: first, upscale media content and fashion, then corporate policy, and later: mass-media campaigns of various sorts.
5.1. Gallery-art draws, in both senses—
First, a conservative return to signature, to a recording/reflection of the real with the added-value of the creator´s personal sensibility/biography (and post-Duchamp strategies, despite the hype, hardly ever do more than refine this motif).
This scheme reinforces quietism by resorting to an odd humility, apparently inspired from scientific method, but really rooted in the bourgeois ideology of "disinterested" art: while reflection may be deeply subjective and irrational, any approach affecting viewers or the environment with anything ressembling an "intention" may draw the most unqualified reprimands and calls-to-order.
In a period of hypercomplexity and chaotic scrambling for opportunites and positioning, art's lack of surprises provides a soothing reminder that there is a grand design, namely the ascendancy of (naturalized) bourgeois values. Symbolic ruptures and visual explosions have their place, but only within the sales-culture, which needs all the firepower it can muster to coax consumer spending out of the downwardly mobile masses.
The second way it draws is as a magnet. One may really wonder if the complete lack of left-intellectual critiques of "official art" protagonists is due to one of the three (or a combination thereof): the intimidation that this most hermetic of cultural sectors affects, simple boredom and lack of interest, or fear of being identified with the "other" art-bashers, those from the right (be they theoretical: Baudrillard; or bozo: Jesse Helms). The symbolic validity of gallery-art as a field is symbolically unimpeachable, it seems, despite the extreme ease with which one could pit less-legitimate forms of art against it. This unimpeachability of gallery-art (which has usurped for itself all claims to being art-which-counts) rests on three columms, which weight-in on social groups who wouldn´t necessarily be sympathetically predisposed to art, having no likelihood of becoming collectors themselves.
1. la bonne volonté culturelle (Bourdieu) (mouthpiece: Art).
2. therapeutic morality/charismatic ideology (Bourdieu) which can only laud objects embodying "freedom," which seduce like no other commodities (mouthpiece: Monopol).
3. art as a repository of aesthetic being (mouthpiece: Texte zur Kunst).
Conclusion: art as palliative.
5.2. Gallery-art disables, neutralizes, and coopts.
conclusion: art as counter counter-culture, trojan horse.
exhibition: Hardcore (mouthpiece: Rebel Art).
Art´s unique selling proposition is that it juggles theoretist discourse, symbolic violence, and artefacts in an operatiopn that loudly proclaims reflexivity but cancels out precisely that relexivity most threatening to its main protagonists and financial benefactors. More: due to high symbolic profile, art provides reinforcement for quietism proponents in the broader culture.
6. CONCLUSION: OPPORTUNITIES/CAVEATS