9.5 Theses: Art and Theory – Chapters Eleven through Fourteen
Temporary Art Review is pleased to announce a new column on our site: BOOK CLUB.
For the first edition of BOOK CLUB we will review Ben Davis’s 9.5 Theses on Art and Class. Starting in October, a new post will be published every two weeks focused on each section of the book. For each section, Temporary contributors will initiate a discussion through the comments in the post and anyone may continue the discussion by contributing their own comments and observations on the text.
About the Book
In 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, Ben Davis takes on a broad array of contemporary art’s most persistent debates: How does creative labor fit into the economy? Is art merging with fashion and entertainment? What can we expect from political art? Davis argues that returning class to the center of discussion can play a vital role in tackling the challenges that visual art faces today, including the biggest challenge of all—how to maintain faith in art itself in a dysfunctional world.
9.5 Theses on Art and Class may be purchased directly from the nonprofit publisher Haymarket Books, a project of the Center for Economic Research and Social Change.
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BOOK CLUB Schedule
October 7: Art and Class – Chapters One and Two
October 21: Art and Politics – Chapters Three, Four and Five
November 4: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Six, Seven and Eight
November 18: Art and Its Audiences – Chapters Nine and Ten
December 2: Art and Theory – Chapters Eleven through Fourteen
December 16: Conclusions – Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen
We look forward to the discussions!
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I’m going to start off with a few thoughts on Chapter 12: Crisis and Criticism. In this slight and somewhat distracted chapter, Davis briefly addresses the ongoing “Crisis of Criticism” and our “post-critical condition,” linking its decline to changes in market conditions, academics and the government. For now, I’m going to ignore Davis’s own conclusions in order to produce a more open-ended discussion.
The chapter concludes with a straightforward assertion:
“Criticism’s goal should be to ‘oxidize the atmosphere in which artists breathe and create’ (Trotsky’s, “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art”), to open the circuits between politics and art…”
First, I’m interested in other ways to finish that sentence. How are we to articulate criticism’s goals today?
Second, Davis marks Artforum as the beacon of pre-crisis criticism that marked his own interest in the field and defined a productive period of “theory-driven criticism.” What are our own time’s defining examples of criticism? What do they say about our current “crisis?”
My own observations are that what I perceive to be the dominant critical platforms all intersect predominantly with politics and cultural theory more broadly, with art criticism itself playing a secondary role. Without placing a value on this trend, a short list of ‘post-crisis criticism’ would be e-flux – both the listserv of marketing materials and its theory-heavy e-flux journal; Filip; Mousse; Triple Canopy; and so on. What stands out is the dearth of traditional art criticism. Anecdotally, on this site we have noticed that exhibition reviews have a much more limited readership than essays, interviews and even profiles. These trends signal not an emphasis in theory-driven criticism, but critical theory proper overshadowing our entanglement with art. Perhaps post-crisis criticism is similar to post-crisis art and they are both trying to find a grounding. If criticism’s goal is to “open the circuits between politics and art,” then it is happening, in theory at least.
I’m curious how you draw the conclusion that “These trends signal not an emphasis in theory-driven criticism, but critical theory proper overshadowing our entanglement with art.” Perhaps essays represent a deeper engagement with theory as prompted by art, and interviews and profiles tend to elevate artistic creation and inspiration above theoretical concerns. Personally, as an art critic myself, I relish the opportunity to synthesize theory and the viewing of art in extended reviews and essays that consider exhibitions from a deeper perspective than simply describing the art on view for a remote readership. I reject Artforum in as much as it’s theory-driven perspective has largely served to obscure the market forces that drive it’s existence (as evidenced by the magazine’s ad-to-content ratio) and take similar issue with e-flux in that its critiques are represented as independent of the very institutions that underwrite its business model. As far as I’m concerned, critical theory underpins rather than overshadows engagement with contemporary art and art publications owe their readership transparency with respect to the necessary and unholy relationship between economic viability and critical independence.
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that “critical theory underpins rather than overshadows engagement with contemporary art” at its best and that this function is necessary as we examine the market forces that shape the production, presentation and critical engagement with art. I think my broader question is, if true, what does the heightened presence of critical theory (instead of art criticism proper) mean? In many ways, I think one reason is exactly what you touch on: the compromised character of most art institutions and publications. I think there is a valid concern in regard to what art means when it is so interpenetrated with that which it hopes to remain independent of and be able to speak to.
Theory is one way out. Thinking through the “unholy relationship between economic viability and critical independence” does require critical theory as a precondition. What is interesting is that much of the critical theory we are talking about addresses this compromised situation – whether in Artforum, October or e-flux journal – yet it rarely returns the critique to itself. One poignant example of this is in Hito Steyerl’s “Politics of Art” from e-flux’s “Are You Working Too Much?”:
“We could try to understand [art’s] space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere.”
(Oh for Pete’s sake, “its” is a real word. Damn you autocorrect.)
I thoroughly agree that a key problem is our emphasis on critique without self-critique. In this regard, critical theory too often serves to mask rather than articulate compromised relationships in the art system. The debate over International Art English from earlier this year (which I synopsize and respond to here: dailyserving.com/2013/07/hashtags-international-alt-hinglish/) hinged on this tendency of critical language to restrict communication and critique. The publications you list are among the most guilty of using theory language to present a critical position that deflects attention from their business practices. For this reason, I was surprised that Ben Davis himself was fairly dismissive of the IAE conversation in his own response in ArtInfo.
I was going to write this a couple days ago but cold feet—so please treat it as an extension of y’alls last few comments
—A thing the both of you seem to not acknowledge, and know that I recognize I am totally complicit as well, is that our language, word choices, thought trajectories, and platforms are all bought, sold, generally paid for by institutions, art worlds, and the same thing(s) we’re trying to unpackage.
And much like the economies we’re discussing language is merely an abstraction, a system of representation.
D. Graham Burnett
-It has been observed, money resembles nothing so much as language, which is similarly promiscuous.
my youthful, reactionary, naive, and undoubtedly problematic thoughts:
I’ve found it exceedingly difficult commenting on Ben Davis’ text partially due to how massive and oppressive issues like these feel. I also know that to have any conversation in and around this topic one must sidestep the question of, which I brought up in previous posts, at what point do we, as self-reflective crusaders, begin talking about the influence of commerce, cash, and commodities. Does it only happen at the maximal guilded edifice of Koons’ or Murakami’s or Hirst’s production? Or, more likely, does it begin at the moment maturation skips past just being weird and experimental mud squishing children, when some begin calling the weirdness, art or identify and fix our identities as artists?
It’s a dangerously slippery sliding scale that I don’t think I can or at least wonder if I do subscribe to. A little harm is still a little harm and a lot of “little harm(s)” make something frighteningly harmful akin to a 50 million lb work of art.
What’s more, it’s increasingly difficult, in considering money, that my current situation is made murky by- 2 galleries owing me money, work being stuck overseas as the result of refusal of an exisiting contract, little to no interest in the purchase of any of my work, an institution that has very little in the way of funding for their art faculty, not to mention the fact that I made more hourly working as a bicycle mechanic than I do as Assistant Professor teaching America’s best and brightest at Indiana University.
Lastly, and not to disparage Sarrita, as I’m sure she’ll be the first to join me in my kvetching, I’m sitting, without compensation, typing this bit of commentary with bills bills and automobills sitting at my feet on the coffee table.
As a side note-
next to those bills is a $12 “money” themed Cabinet magazine which I picked up in order to learn what the deep-thinkers, the intelligentsia thought about money.
-The magazine, which I’ve heard rumored, “just breaks even”.
In an earlier comment, I quoted Hito Steyerl because I think she deals with these issues in the most transparent way I’ve seen. The fact is, we are all to varying degrees complicit in the ways we adopt and, in many cases, aspire to the models we critique. The market will always attempt to absorb and distort any critique against it and few expressions remain outside of that. It leaves artists in a confused and burdened position, to critique the thing they hope to enter without limiting their ability to continue. Steyerl takes an interesting approach in an interview published by Mute (http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/junkyard-wrecked-fictions):
Andrey Shental: In the text ‘Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-democracy’, you say that the truly political art is made politically, namely it is responsible for the politics of its own production and distribution. How do you deal with this issue yourself?
Hito Steyerl: It is a very difficult question. Many of the things I’ve said in the text I could not have said if I hadn’t been deeply embedded in this system. I need to have these experiences in order to be able to express them. I’m sure other people are able to do it differently. I might be just too stupid, but I don’t think that a complete withdrawal or a position of innocence is very productive because I simply wouldn’t know what was going on. At the same time, I am far from thinking that I actually have any comprehensive idea of what is going on and how.
I think it is even more difficult for artists/critics/curators/whomever is tangentially related to the ‘art world’ who have not tangibly benefitted from the system – who are not “deeply embedded” but are victimized by it (in many of the ways you talk about). Most artists I know would want to be more embedded in the fair/biennial/institutional fields we are perhaps critiquing, but don’t have access to it. Though this isn’t a position of innocence on our part, we (Sarrita and I and Temporary as a platform) have chosen not to engage any model: we are not nonprofit, we are not for profit, we don’t sell ads, we don’t really write grants, we unfortunately don’t pay writers, but we also do not pay ourselves. We took the tool of the internet and its capacity to distribute ideas at (essentially) no cost. I say this only to make it transparent that, in many ways, the site is an experiment at what we can do without bringing the market into our work at all. I don’t think that is a model for others to adopt, but is a byproduct of not being content with the models that exist. Any step towards ‘sustainability’ or a ‘career’ in this, however, perhaps requires something closer to Steyerl’s position – taking responsibility for one’s own production and distribution with an awareness of what aspects are within one’s control, while being aware that any step forward likely enters a compromised terrain.
and this might be of interest, although it is a mere drop in the bucket that is, Forgetting the Art World
Pamela M. Lee
-To forget the art world is to acknowledge that what made its activities, operations, and communities, so distinct or memorable in the past—a kind of figure to a social ground upon which it was historically fisxed and dialectically established—has now given way to a pervasive routinization of its norms and procedures. When contemporary experience is ever rationalized through the logic of design; when the word “creativity” is taken as a cognate to the “market”; and when social relations are relentlessly mediated by a formidable visual culture—a culture of the image writ large through the peregrinations of global media—the art world as we once knew it begins to lose its singularity and focus, to say little of its exclusivity.
I posted the link to my previous text not just to self-promote but because I was able to address the complexities of language and complicity and access in a more thoughtful way than a blog comment will allow. Also, because I don’t wish to spend much of my uncompensated time rehashing an argument I already got paid to make elsewhere.
I’m a reader and a fan of Steyerl and of Lee as well, but I also find that both of them tend to speak from the lofty position of the academic (I’m also one of these, at least as much as an adjunct can be). That’s a position that exists specifically to maintain the appearance of impartiality (hence the “Ivory Tower”) while benefiting in point of fact from a web of powerful interests. Steyerl is able to maneuver in a more nuanced way because she is also an artist operating in a space where critique is encouraged but also circumscribed by institutional parameters. Lee is working from a false premise – that the “art world” has ever been a singular entity for any but the most privileged participants.
As pacifist, some U.S. Quakers feel so strongly about the cause of peace that they maintain an income low enough that they aren’t required to pay the income taxes that fund the U.S. military. But these Quakers can’t then simply stop there. Even though they have done their best to separate themselves from military funding, if they care about peace they must continue to engage with militaristic society in the hope of disassembling military culture.
I had been thinking about this Quaker approach as a parallel to Temporary Art Review – an organization that has placed itself outside many of the concerns of the art-world, but still focuses on said art-world because it’s hegemony can not be ignored without consequence. But the more I think about it, the more I think the analogy breaks down because I believe Temporary Art Review (and artist without art-world access in general)can ignore the art-world. I care a great deal about art. I don’t care so much about the art-world. (Even if some of the art I care about is embedded in and influenced by the art-world.) A pacifist can not be an isolationist because people are dying and that must be addressed, but we can have a robust sphere of art making, and truly care about art, independent from (or at least only tangentially connected to) the art-world. And this is not a failure because there is no moral engage-with-the-art-world imperative.
Three cheers for art-making isolationism.
(Although, like the Quaker making a low income, sacrifices might need to be made. Isolationist might go unpaid for their art making and need to depend on a day job.)
The analogy is an interesting one to consider, both for Temporary Art Review and for artists working through these questions and how it returns to their practice. I do think that until a thoughtful minority decide to ignore the structure of the dominant forms of the art world, it is isolationism without weight. A human strike, symbolically powerful, but not a general strike, structurally powerful. I think the latent legacy of “artist-run” spaces is that they provide a possible model, system, parallel art world, community, etc to make a broader isolationism possible if that function is what is embraced rather than a kind of farm system that feeds into the larger art world. I think some of this informed a recent piece I wrote in which I was attempting to articulate, for myself mostly, the legacy and future of the alternative space and what some of the blind spots are. (See here: http://temporaryartreview.com/wild-building-after-the-alternative-space/) I think the legacy of Occupy (and Occupy Museums) is not what was accomplished at the time, but the fact that this question is not going away. However, we are not at a point in which many are actively building a structure apart from critique.
For most of us, I think it comes down to whether we are willing to forgo the rewards of the art world – namely, validation from “above,” opportunity, money, attention – in order to live and work in a manner that extends our ideological ideas. For some, I think Steyerl’s work-from-within is perhaps appropriate, although as Anuradha pointed out, is also potentially problematic and particularly convenient for many already ‘within’. Regardless, I am unsettled to simply be thinking through this, or commenting on it, and am more interested in how to activate it as a real condition of possibility.
I’m glad you added the caveat that a successful alternative structure requires the need for a critical (albeit small) mass, your “thoughtful minority.” I got a little carried away in my boosterism for isolationism. I’m all for isolationism, but I don’t want to do it alone.
Wow. What an amazing discussion. I continually appreciate the candid nature of these comments. Over the course of these section posts, they have made me aware of how much self-censorship normally exists around these topics. This is not surprising, of course, when disinterest or even criticism can in actuality limit one’s opportunities – or at least seem that way. I am also wondering now: instead of thinking of oneself being in or outside the ART WORLD can we really consider there are different art worlds through which we all navigate? Is that differentiate really possible? or even helpful? Or, as it has been suggested, is it more productive to just ignore/side-step the idea altogether?
Here I will (also) point to an article I wrote earlier this year that concluded with this idea I am now questioning:
“As [Christine Wong] Yap points out again more recently (http://blog.christinewongyap.com/2013/03/31/saltz-nyc-galleries-and-spaces-for-dialogue/), critics like Jerry Saltz with long-standing NY-centricism are just now realizing there are multiple artworlds. But, if like Yap, you instead hold this artist-“center”ed-way of thinking, the role of critic should be entirely focused on conveying “what artists make happen”…”
“It makes you sound like an undergrad.”(157)
Changing topics now (but not really), I wanted to bring up the final chapter in this section “The Semi-Postmodern Condition” which I surprisingly found has stuck with me quite a bit.
First, Davis lists off the terms that have supposedly replaced the 90s powerhouse of theory term POSTMODERNISM, many times by its own proponents, including Rosalind Krauss’ “continuance of modernism” and Hal Foster’s simple “contemporary art.”(158)
He then goes on to unpack “two different types of uses” attributed to Postmodernism:
First – “critique of essentialism” and “institutional critique.”(159) of which the problems he summarizes as “the overvaluation of theory and discourse over context and political analysis.”(160)
Second – “postmodernism as historical phase” Here he quotes Fredric Jameson’s formulation (from 1982!): “Postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism.”…”nether a good nor a bad thing; it is just a condition that everyone is responding to whether they like it or not.”(160)
But – “What is “late capitalism,” really?” Davis at least argues – who knows? – except maybe some specialized economists. But the term is certainly used all over the place today without qualification.
Davis’ preferred definition come from David Harvey’s Condition of Postmodernity – where he discusses economics changes made in response to 1970s stagnation, or “flexible accumulation,” in other words, “Currencies were allowed to float. Finance was deregulated. Derivatives were introduced. Labor was attacked” etc. etc. essentially, what we now call neoliberalism. “Here, then, is the paradigm shift that provides the background for the theoretical and artistic rise of “postmodernism,” which does indeed represent an acceptance of the flexible, the free-floating, and the mutable all embracing existential realities.
The emblematic figure of “postmodernity” in this sense – the person who stands at the nexus of its political, economic, and cultural aspects – is neither artist nor philosopher but ad man Charles Saatchi”(162)
But – What is neoliberalism really? Davis goes on to explain that neoliberalism is not just this condition, but “an ideology that has been used to sell all these changes.” He then corrects Jameson’s quote “Postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism.” by saying instead “postmodernism is the cultural ideology of neoliberalism.” Davis then goes on to give many examples of contemporary artwork in the “style of apolitical nihilism disguised as radical critique.”(164)
Now, after bashing just about any current thinker that is writing about neoliberalism – Groys, Agamben, Badiou, Negri, Ranciere and Zizek – he notes that hey do not offer “any graspable alternative vision of social organization or political strategy.” I would add here – neither does Davis.(166) Equally, just as the 2008 economic crash did not change neoliberal economic ideologies – it has fact has only hardened/expanded them. Davis further notes, alternative political and economic ideologies may be seen as emerging from Occupy and the Arab Spring, but only in a nascent, emerging stage.
“So where are we?…On the political and economic plane, your have the discrediting of the old ruling logic, but nothing new to do the job – so neoliberal notions that corporate power must be reasserted at the expense of the average person continue to be the default wisdom. At every level you have something like a “semi-post-postmodernism,” a deliberately ugly term for a disorientating period.”(167)
The remainder of the essay wonders off and I don’t really get what Davis is saying except for the clue from a David Harvey quote – “[we are] going to get out of this crisis the same way we were?” Davis doesn’t explain this apparent contradiction well, but it gives me the notion that if we thought we had left postmodernism behind – but it remains a relativistic reality – then we must return to how we thought we left postmodernism in theory – and do so in reality.
When I was in undergrad, studying art and philosophy, I had a clear sense that what was being discussed in academic circles and explored in artist’s work had some lag time before it influenced mainstream culture. Maybe that lag time is much shorter than it used to be, but to pretend it no longer exists is perhaps the problem. In other words, maybe we should start to trust that we do know what needs to happen and then we can start to figure out how to do it.
Davis states “If the “serious” side of the art world continues to recycle the same old antihistorical academic bullshit, then it is going to continue to be a place of intellectual irrelevance…” If my grad school memory serves me, then the discussions that started to displace postmodernism (for me in the early 2000s) was ‘postcolonial’ and queer theory…and that seems like a good place to start taking things more seriously – in reality.
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