I am for an artist who vanishes
Life/work: A question.
Embedded in Claes Oldenburg’s 1961 manifesto, I am for an art, he let loose the phrase I am for an artist who vanishes. In it, he twists art into a number of compromised positions, questions of where art persists with or without an artist. Today, the questions have a different resonance, not about art’s revolutionary power, but about how we’ve undercut that power. I want to understand what the collective life of art is as it leaves the CV of the artist and enters a broader field: What social work it is performing? How does art interact with the world when it is bounded by a CV, when it is always also a professionally patterned step and not only an act with its own force?
I can’t ignore my own arc and what it is to be for something. For me too art is an act and a career. I carry a position and a perspective as a critic, curator and artist. In these positions, I engage a series of opportunities that advance outward, always wavering between personally beneficial and publicly meaningful. Speaking first for Open Engagement (a public forum that attempts to further a dialogue about participation and sociality, about work and life) and now publishing on Temporary Art Review (a platform I am in some way responsible for and to), I am complicit in any statement about how to both act and vanish. The question for me is how to be for something while not being embodied or being embodied as multiple persons. To speak as a dislocated voice in multiple places at once. To throw my voice and still hear it, because I also need to hear it.
I am or perhaps we are for an artist who vanishes, who does not need to be seen as an artist or who contains the possibility of persisting beyond art or any of its worlds.
This was initially written for the Open Engagement conference held in May, 2014 at the Queens Museum. The title of the essay began in all lower case letters – I am for an artist who vanishes. After I sent it in for review by the organizers, it migrated to capitols – I Am For An Artist Who Vanishes – becoming official, part of the record. I requested that it be written again in lower cases. The edits were graciously made and when it finally was published online as part of the program, it had become a question: I am for an artist who vanishes? It had left my hand and taken on a second, indeterminate life. The question had become a collective one. I am for … What? An artist who vanishes, dissolves, whose force becomes a question? A question continues, opening outward with force until it is answered. I am for an artist whose words are changed in translation, in copy and paste, in dispersion. Whose declarations also dissolve.
Or…. ? I am for something I can’t define or declare completely. It eludes me. This indeterminacy is important because I am not sure we know our way out of this situation yet. We’ve lost our voice and that is our only hope.
A demonstration. An ambush. A start.
The collapse of art into life has pervaded art practices over the last decade, but the ideology of the individual artist as essential value creator and eventual recipient of acclaim continues unabated. The dream of participatory art, socially-engaged practice, Arte Util, and other movements is an art with a practical use value. An art whose residue remains with a social and political life beyond the act. Our stated goals as socially-engaged artists often intersect with a political horizon, a changed landscape, a charged community of possibility. Yet, it can be argued that often the primary result in a successful body of work is the advancement of the individual artist. The work leads to commissions, to editions, to press, to a retrospective – to the discontinuous climb of a career. Participatory art has eclipsed participation, becoming a commodity funded and consumed, swallowed whole as event, ephemera and shimmering value embodied in sponsors and producers.
However, this is not just about socially-engaged or participatory work. Increasingly, we can pick a point anywhere along a line. Are we discussing art education and the professionalization of artists through MFA programs? Art fairs and the speculation of the market? How we value artistic labor? Whether to live in New York, Berlin, London or Las Vegas? Internal to all of these prompts is the eclipse of an art career over the artistic action. The possibility presented is one of a sustained career, not a life that leaves us. The merging of art and life has not become revolutionary as we once thought it would and sometimes hope it will. It is a life-work.
Would we be satisfied to know our work outlasts us unattributed? Or that our best ideas did not get us anywhere professionally? Or is our form circular? After all, we do not take on debt for degrees to transform anything. We aspire to enter circulation as a commodity; our investment is in ourselves, our work-life.
If our hope is for our work to terminate within the domain of a career, to move through compromised display and contingent circulation, then it’s a patterned course of capital, this path routed on its surface and embedded in its body. How can it be anything else? This plinth we make for and from is the limit of our artistic existence. It is a CV distilling value no differently than a stock report; buy now, sell you later; it is a cube, a degree that begets a debt; it is the aspiration that dictates action. Not only is the institution inside of us, as Andrea Fraser has already diagnosed, but we do not really wish to escape the institution, the field, the apparatus; only perhaps, as Fraser has, critique the institution into complicity and acceptance of our form but not our meaning. In other words, critique the institution into a career. It is this cynical cycle that we cannot seem to escape. Because we do not truly want to.
However, if our horizon is truly a socio-political one, based on change, movements, meaning, then it is perhaps our careers that must be eclipsed.
I am for an art without an artist, an act that does not need to be captured and valued as art.
I am for margins absorbing all centers, the voice only, dislocated and pervasive.
I am for an artist who vanishes into an action, a value that comes to live within and among people. An act of adoption, dispersion and transformation.
I am for an exodus. An event. A voice in the wilderness, speaking, but never the artist only, advancing.
I am for an art that will last even if it is not art.
I am for a confusion of voices and the canceling of careers.
I am for an artist whose force becomes a question, continuing outward, howling, until answered.
So, here we are, asking: Can we transform our goals until institutions bend with us? Can our work live without us?