Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Malaise of The Critical Artist, Bret Schneider


The dominant order of the ‘critical artist’ in contemporary art, emanating from Duchamp’s intellectualism has digressed from transformative social critique to affirmative idealism. Contemporary art’s compulsion towards post-conceptual, immaterial, critical practices evidences the problematic success of the neo-avant-garde’s ideological support of the critical artist, as opposed to its failure. Marcel Broodthaers’s forecast of art eventually liquidating into the culture industry has proven painfully too true, and paired with the critical artist who was poised to change the industry from within, the critical artist has instead turned out to cater to empirically existing conditions within a given system. What is at stake is understanding why seemingly obsolete modernist problems like boredom, alienation, anxiety and reification persist when their solutions have been supposedly fulfilled by critical artistic expansion, most notably by secondary, explanatory information. Additionally, recent complaints about ‘misconceptual’ art that is as “catchy as the hook in a rock song”(Holland Cotter, The New York Times) suggest a growing malaise with critical art, which was originally created to avert the problems of a purely sensual art experience. The success of the artist-as-critic project, a phenomenon accruing from reactions to modernist originality, combined with a persistence of the problems they were meant to absolve suggests a crisis in the political imagination of our time. But this is evident even before the purely contemporary expectations of historical research; in Theodore Adorno’s criticism of Surrealism’s lack of critique and lapse into fetish in 1934 we witness an implicit shift from artist as autonomous, original creator, to artist as critic[1]. More significantly, Surrealism’s failure to properly critique society had proven Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which targeted dominant models of art perception as serving idealist functions. This idealism had run through Kant, Freud, and we continue to witness a drive towards immaterial ideology which supposedly critiques social orders, but practically deviates towards an empirically affirmative idealism in the continual expectation for artists to ’say something’ about society today. A symptom of this crisis is that the kernel of critical thought is increasingly digested exclusively within art itself. In other words, artists are futilely trying to rectify a deeper historical problem of critical transformation which extends far beyond them, and now failing. As artists absorb into the culture industry, they curiously become more ‘critical’ within their free-floating bubble, yet without fostering the broader social aspirations that once seemed possible. However, artists today who can synthesize the diverse new materials opened by this expanded field, and work this post-conceptual, now didactic criticism, materially offer insight into the historical necessity for the emergence of the critical artist, even if only accidentally. Which is to say, the critical artist is more an acute symptom of reification than its self-purported solution to it.

As a result of a trajectory through the culture industry artists inevitably become both irrelevant and ubiquitous, as is evidenced by the compensatory growth of intellectual validation through secondary discourse, multicultural mining, rote explanation, and contingent information irrationally grafted onto material. The culture industry renders the critical artist a pastiche of its past hopes. Such desperate grafting ironically giving the illusion of rational critique, is meant to be a salve for the continuing rupture between industrial material and and the diminishing intellectual means to comprehend its significance in a recklessly productive civilization. Artist lectures, artist statements, the rhetoric of explanations to the viewer, the vain attempts to clarify materials through secondary critique, are all stamps of the continuing nonfulfillment of form and sensation, divorced and polarizing from its increasing qualifying discourse. Out of some undiagnosed new condition of desperation, artists force iconic social topics into material in such a crude and pathetic imposition that it implies an intensive new paradigm to resolve seemingly archaic ruptures between sensation and intellectualism. Critique becomes another material. Some art today is an attempt to get at a critical coexistence of material and intellectual differences, even when those differences are unfortunately further widened. Sensational qualities of art, and their complexly accrued theories, are increasingly wrenching apart and losing their mutual effectiveness, and as a result many artists are trying to rectify this within art itself – a futile attempt when divorced from the totality that contemporary art has shattered so exhaustively. Displaying a wide-ranging contemporary ethos of art production which squeezes conceptual data and theoretical discourse into banal material play, postconceptual, misconceptual art results in an overwrought semiotic package streamlined towards making the most impactful commentary it can make by way of a synthetic unity of marginally related products (including criticism), in varying permutations.

Misconceptual Art
The cultural investment in the critical artist has reached such an impasse that Robert Storr labels it ‘misconceptual’, even going so far as to suggest it need not be understood because “you know it when you see it”[2]. The impasse is the accumulation of contemporary ideologies that art should explicitly critique the existing material world, taking cues from Duchamp’s hopes for art to become intellectual rather than retinal. Storr’s statement leads people to believe that many of the artists today who practice conceptual art have little understanding of it whatsoever. In fact, the scenario is more that artists today only understand conceptual art. The illusion that they don’t understand it comes from their poignant inability to synthesize conceptual art’s intellectualism with a rapidly changing cultural industry that renders historical imperatives obsolete. In other words, new art is not ‘misconceptual’, its just that conceptual art today is colored by the streamlining which has seized it, and which art presents in acute form. We have recently learned that conceptual art assimilates one-liners swiftly. Ironically, art’s liquidation into the culture industry was initially postulated by some aspects of conceptual art, and this implies a problem not with so-called misconceptual art today, but with conceptual art’s ideological foundations of an idealism which lives on in distorted form. The problem is not that artists today are not conceptual enough, its that conceptual art was not a fulfilled project and needs to be fulfilled today to show what it truly was in the 1960’s. When it does so in misconceptual art it shows its implicitly fallacious character more than it did previously, in that critiquing social norms from a distance seems like a ruse of artistic practice. Misconceptual art shows us the fallibility not merely of todays artists, but rather of conceptual art’s failures to project a more substantial plan for the future. The recent ‘misunderstanding’ is really just a further understanding. This makes Storr’s reliance on Lawrence Weiner and Kara Walker all the more nostalgic. The lack of understanding the phenomenon creates a scenario where it is simultaneously resisted and generated, and is the result of an incompleteness of art and criticism. If artist’s today don’t get involved with their material, but critique it distantly, this heightens the promise of conceptual art, which was always problematic in its removal from materialism. Such hands-off removal has not surprisingly fostered a situation where many artists today merely pick a cultural relic and do nothing to it, thus affirming empirically existing material conditions (in that the object is unchanged) and empirically existing consciousness, which seeks to use the material to predictably say something about society already prefigured in the distorted subjectivity of the creator.

The New York Times’ Holland Cotter likewise voices a complaint about misconceptual one-liners in The Boom Is Over, Long Live the Art: “…it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.”[3] The critical artist has turned into the didactic artist and instigated an indefinable malaise from the now obsolete critic. When material is used as a soapbox to preach a message from the maker, the same things end up getting said, as psychological determinsim, untouched by material, reigns supreme. In sum, the intellectual artist has become a pastiche of itself. But some artists use pastiche as a style in itself. The scenario is that the pressures of creating in the culture industry, ironically accountable for 1960’s political motivations, drives artists to increasingly validate their practices by streamlined intellectual discourse. Such an odd synthesis permits these intellectual and philosophical concerns to become artificially sleek. Cotter’s complaint, which escalates the seriousness of art to do something meaningful, only widens this gap between what we expect from art and what can actually happen in a society which turns thought into a fashionable good, not to mention the inability and irrelevance of art to revolutionize itself but instead reify its own pre-existing conditions. Radicalization of art has only happened in times of broader social conflict where more than its local effects were at stake, which explains why artists who seek to absolve society of its discontents from afar, without being materially invested, are only more of an isolated, esoteric joke removed from real practical change. But despite the complaints from melancholic critics, many artists today attempt to address historically invested intellectualism by recognizing its accompanying poverty of empirically compromised material that fail to measure up to its own hopes. The artist-as-critic has created a curious situation which at once makes art practices seeking a unity of sensation and discourse didactically fashionable, stylistically ambiguous, and synthetically associative. That an attempt at synthesizing art with its manifold supporting theories and integrated cultural vectors happens collectively and is suffused throughout almost all art practices today makes it all the more practical, and suggests a possibility of returning to the many ‘real’ artistic moments that were missed. Merely dismissing a phenomenon as misconceptual denies its ability to clarify those implicit historical hopes and the continual failure for them to be realized.

Misconceptual one-liners are important gauges of diverse social pressures and a result not only of the heavy internal issues of the intellectual avant-gardes, but also from the complicated stresses to communicate efficiently in a world where communication is brought into existence increasingly by competition. That these projects which seek to absorb and ‘trump’ the poignant shortcomings of modernism’s sensation, and also postmodernism’s use of critique and secondary discourse, go critically dismissed is the problem. Synthesis of extremes, artificial collages, and remedying sensory failures through secondary discourse has been the standard model since Dada. But the real issue is that though artists increasingly try to unify art and secondary discourse, this project is preordained to failure, at least when measured against the universal social overcoming which criticism was expected to foster. The artist-as-critic has eradicated the traditional role of emancipatory critic and merely erected a fractured approximation of criticism and pastiche in its place. The unquestionable simplicity of misconceptual art suggests a failure of critique and not merely of art.

Labeling an entire generation of art as ‘misconceptual’ sidesteps understanding of what social pressure has given it prominence, and glosses over how ‘misconceptual art’, though bearing the legacy and mark of conceptual art, has transfigured into something else by the continuity of public disinterest. Misconceptual art perhaps has more in common with Dada’s synthetic assemblages than conceptual art’s time-saturated processes, and is burdened by crude templates of streamlined transmission which hastens viewing in the culture industry. The didactic, streamlined functionality which appears to permit no interpretation from the viewer, works as a rote catalog for a world where new material is promulgated at a rate faster than it can be assessed. Artists today pick and assemble arbitrary items in endless permutations, rather than do something to it, as Jasper Johns would say, and echo the fastidious, studied, and calculated campaigns of advertisements, for example. Creativity occurs as a select-and-combine process. A situation like this implies the heightened arbitrariness of production, as it doesn’t matter so much what one chooses, as much as it does that one chooses. What is chosen is arbitrary, and this has repercussions in criticism, where arbitrariness feeds uncritical affirmation, or at best a field of critique dominated by judgment of what one chooses as opposed to what one does with what is chosen. However, at the same time, one does choose, and this implies an active role in the process of creation, and a semblance of freedom in that process. I say semblance, because it is artificial – the idea of subject matter in general is obsolete, and its ambitious intrusion into art matter suggests a helplessness in its ambition more than anything. So it seems there is a fascinating escalation of the dialectical competition between freedom and arbitrariness.

Non-Specific Objects

If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these ‘relations’ and ‘objects’ to the same plane of reality
– George Lukacs

The interrelatedness of objects is glossed-over in the determination to use specific ones to say something about society at large. This process, in which all art is borne, only shows how ’society at large’ is misunderstood realistically and further defined by the fantasies which result from reification. Artists often pick objects because they supposedly say something specific and partake in different modes of understanding. In the work of Mark Dion for example, the material method which pierces through the secondary discourse and trumps its autonomy is one of searching, shopping and selecting objects, and then subsequently arranging. In other words, the ‘critique of nature’, which is what is commonly received as the art’s purpose, is a reified ruse propped up by a very different process of buying. Dion’s art says more about how fantasy-critique plays a part in the everyday psychology of exchange than it ever could about nature (or conceptions of nature). The creative role is marked by a curiosity of the new objects of culture – that it here manifests as the old is all the more odd and pertinent to reified consciousness – and this of course resembles Surrealism’s romance of the 19th century, which actually said more about the conditions of its own era of escapism. Of course, what has made Dion a recognized artist is specifically the secondary information and forced subject matter: institutional critique of knowledge and nature, or more importantly an institutional critique which acutely fails to manifest in the sensory material of the work itself, as each are separately autonomous and poignantly non-identical. That the dominant order of art fixates on the often overly ambitious secondary information that abstracts the exchange value of the material, indicates the problematic unquestioned notion of the artist as critic. In other words, ‘critique’ is an excuse to fetishize the truncated use-value of given objects. When Dion distorts the objects he acquires through critique, their material conditions are disfigured to provoke fantasized ideas of nature, which only abstracts them further. In brief, ‘critique’ of objects doesn’t clarify them, but further obscures them and participates in the exchange value economy because the use-value is fetishized and imagined through critique. ‘Nature critique’ is an excuse to fixate on the misunderstood object, divorced from totality. Artists like Dion are especially good at this fetishization, and are invaluable glimpses into this process which everyone participates in without offering solutions.

Found objects have stretched beyond mere objecthood to assimilate intellectualism and found ideas in the dematerialized contemporary world. Little has changed from Dada’s reification-exposing collage, excepting that found objects to be assimilated into the category ‘art’ have expanded. Misconceptual art, or synthetic art, is unavoidably a collective response to a civilization producing objects not merely for practical function, but additionally for its own mesmerization and deception. Critique is subsumed in, and reinforces this mesmerization. Artificially combining these new materials is a search for meaning – or more specifically, a method of echoing the arbitrary qualities of our industrialized material world – especially including the ephemeral, relational social orders. Misconceptual art looks meaninglessly arbitrary only because it successfully mimics the banal exchange of products in the everyday, if only in fractured form from artist to artist. Rather than quashing the dominant order of capitalist production, and ‘deterritorializing’ commodity signifiers, as David Joselit suggests, Dada and new misconceptual practices express the commodity form in a more comprehensive and acute way by showing the marred psychology which masquerades as positivist critique[4]. Artists in an unprecedented, hyper-productive cultural industry inarguably animate odd instances of reification and the commodity form in the fundamental misunderstanding and abstraction of new products to be partaking in something they are not, or are very iconically so, both material and immaterial. That artists fixate on the iconic aspects of objecthood doesn’t critique them, but reinforces such a crude understanding. As such, new ‘synthetic’ art practices have much more in common with Dada than conceptual art – and I’m thinking here of Francis Picabia’s Ane (Ass) as a cornerstone which grapples with new material production by forcibly new ways of labeling things resulting from perhaps an epistemological shortcoming in thought and collective intellectual inability to keep up with the segregating intrinsics of industrial production. Picabia’s Ass is diagrammatically representative, in hyper-condensed form, of the confused relations between material and criticism today. Where production is interminable, critical discourse and language is forced into a position of artificial plasticity. In such a world the unmitigated promulgation of objects is disproportionate to the ability for understanding those objects.

The True Artist…
Conceptual art has infected the minds of today’s generation in similar ways that Dada infected the minds of conceptual artists. Just as the historical implications of Dada had not entirely manifested in its time, and thus needed to be reconsidered in conceptual art to be properly understood, conceptual art is perhaps only now being understood retroactively today and points to considerable problems of a certain trajectory of the intellectual artist. Art in the mid-century had reached a crucial point where certain fundamental assumptions of its original character could no longer be valid in the rapidly changing contemporary world. Just as Walter Benjamin had noticed that what made Kafka poignant was his use of outmoded parable in a modernity which had moved rapidly beyond such devices, artists in the 60’s realized that certain historically developed aesthetic devices no longer seemed salient material for transforming society[5]. In other words, painting in the 1960’s seemed as outdated and noncontemporary as parable did in Kafka’s time. Such discontents manifest in the awkward synthetic unity of Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths, which pairs an outmoded premodern form (the spiral) and romantically archaic idea (the phrase itself) with the most crude information products of a contemporary civilization quashing such antiquated notions in its trailblaze. Amongst other constructions denied them, one of the ‘myths’ was a unity of material and non-material, which began to come under critical siege in works like these and also in painting. Philip Guston recognized that the antiquated notions of painting had lessened effect on new topical political problems such as racism. To a certain extent the foundation of contemporary art was tempered by what society in the 1960’s seemed politically charged (or iconically reified) enough to measure itself against. Art in the 1960’s polarized towards either side, and conceptual art became more or less associated with the immaterial. Boris Groys argues that it is not just the concepts which matter in conceptual art, but how such immaterial comes into material existence[6]. This is doubtlessly true, but it is also a truth that we can only recently observe by projecting backwards. Early artists working in this canon were perhaps buckling under too much historical pressure to smoothly unify the material-intellectual split in this manner, and polarized into ideological positions on either side (ie minimalism/conceptual art) as a way to expose the problem from within.


Painting was never a salient option for Nauman. He saw it as an expired art form which couldn’t keep up with industrialized material like neon signage. Such notions had precendents in Duchamp, who marveled over the new beautiful forms of industrial objects (such as airplane propellers) which rendered the past obsolete. There is a naivete in Duchamp and Nauman, an earnest fascination with industrial society’s vulgar potential for transformation. The polemic on art aspect of Duchamp that contemporary critics like to fixate on has masked his important curiosity in industrial products and glossed over a certain truth in Duchamp’s genuine anxiety over art’s immediate obsolescence. Certainly, Duchamp was no Futurist and had a trepidation about the terrifying aspects of modernity. The point being that the new world which rendered art profane and ‘everyday’ was a primary concern above polemicizing against art; he was considerably less ironic than we have projected him as. Similarly, Nauman credits the reason for his art being a frustration with social conditions. Nauman and Duchamp are artists of the confused nexus of mesmerization at industrial forms, and sickness with the alienating society that produces those forms. They are artists who irresolve a modern aporia and rather let contradictions arise acutely.

The neon signs for which Nauman has become so famous were originally intended to be assimilated into the urban-storefront-scape that inspired them. Conceptual artists of the 1960’s realized that the category of an avant-garde, which they were intentionally or inadvertently bearing, was moot unless it could branch out into the everyday, which it quite literally attempted to do, in tacit aims of absolving its own internal problems. Much of what we identify as ‘contemporary’ or ‘postmodern’ has been conditioned by this heterogeneous expansion and a pains to keep up with modernization by liquidating into it. Boris Groys sums it up, “an individual artist could no longer compete effectively with the commercial apparatuses of image production”. Nor does the unity of the artistic-everyday stop at the image. Artist-ideal transformations were also the result of knee-jerk reactions to Greenbergian formalism which also seemed outdated. But rather than do as Kafka did, and use the outmoded parable anyway to articulate modern problems of historical uprooting and groundlessness, conceptual artists eschewed the old altogether in favor of the culture industry. In some ways, and very subtly, post-conceptual art’s convergence with the culture industry is nearly Futurist, if not for its saving grace of self-ambivalence about that move. But at the same time Nauman located the inverse space of such discursive hopes and proposed what might happen if these projects failed to touch ground, as they had previously. One result was him bouncing a ball in his studio, looking more like a prisoner than an artist liberated by diversified not-entirely-artistic action. He was rhetorically distanced from the literal effects of placing the artist’s version of the neon sign back out into the everyday. Whether accidentally or intentionally, these neon signs receded back into the white cube and segregated museological context which they undermined. Concerning the avant-garde’s “move from intrinsic concerns around art to the discursive problems of art”, something about the notion was doomed from the outset[7].

Process became important too in this reaching beyond itself, whereas previously it was not needed, or perhaps not identified as a potential tool for art to overcome itself through . Yes, as a means of expression, but also increasingly as a didactic qualifying factor to de-mystify and explain the creative process which seemed to no longer have any purchase – process was incepted to put creativity on trial; an odd form of positivism. Instead of art being “the lie which reveals the truth”, art transformed into the truth which reveals the lie. Process art reveals how culture happens and demystifies it. Process is used as an inclusive explanation which reveals everything and makes transparent the fallacy of a historically determined artistic intention. Process today has increasing value as support system for recent art, as non-process art has no ability to stand on its own. Looking through the extensive survey of art that VVork curates provides an example of how process occurs around art today and not exclusively within it formally as in earlier conceptual art. Though discursive in material, the manifold projects presented on VVork are only appreciated when there is an explicative factor and supplementary information which qualifies its right to exist, and suggests a lineage from the conceptual art idea that ‘there are already too many objects in the world’. Additionally there is an extreme caution here, suggesting that creating something as historically overloaded as an art work is important in some way. New art is framed by a calculated pretense that it is doing something important, and artists today echo this by laboring extensively over ideas and not materials. Rarely is there something on VVork (as an acute portfolio for broader artistic trends) which doesn’t support its image or material by language, whether in the title or in the material list or in a supplementary text. The prototypical form of this aesthetic diaspora is an attempt at synthetically unifying a material sensation with immaterial information, both being complicated through their excessive germinating and recycling.

Not that this is new – Picabia articulated such a diremption in the expanded material field of industrial production when he juxtaposed the image of a propeller with the word ‘ASS’ on the cover of his 1917 Dada publication 391. Broodthaers and Nauman’s visual puns were similar to this split, where words and visuals were forced together in such a crude manner that it showed how incongruous linguistic information and sensory data are, despite how desperately they clung to eachother. In a violently creative world, where culture is an excuse for unchecked production which uproots everything preceding it, how can we possibly understand such a diverse and arbitrary inventory of things which appear to have no relation? The heterogeneous paradigm of contemporary art exposes the continuing diaspora of culture, but uncritically (and this makes all the difference). Though one side is that material has more prominence and less meaning, the concealed intangible rationale for this material existence is likewise both moot and proliferating. In conceptual art it is not simply the mass object that is desired, but rather the explanation for that object. In varying ways, recent projects are an attempt to not widen this gap between production and critique, but to collapse it. This is supported by the manic growth in visual studies, recent obsessions with diagramming and mapping, and fascinations with archiving – all digressions of conceptual art’s index fascination.

Endless Permutation

Due to the stress for the artist to be a contributing member to society in the culture industry by way of legitimizing their work through iconic social critique and spectacle, conceptual art has transfigured from basic empirical experimentations into the current exploitation of easily-assimilable ideas for their entertainment value – withdrawing (perhaps desperately overdrafting) anything from the bottomless bank of visual culture. Artists regularly peruse websites like VVork to calculatedly research what has already been done, weighing the conceptual manifestations of other artists’ completed projects against their own latent ideas. The purpose of websites like VVork is to inform the viewer of what has been done, so that they do not repeat a permutation, and so that they may research constituent material elements. Original permutations of the preexisting are the only semblances of originality left and are beaten mercilessly into the submission of paltry intent. To nobody’s true surprise, the same ideas are struck upon by a multitude of different people. VVork curates this anxiously creative consciousness. The website functions as a database. Even though we interact with it as an online escape from the grey drudgery of everyday life, its sole function is to provide visual proof of what has been done. That rote information becomes a valued escape in everyday life is problematic. Likewise, that creativity is conditioned by calculating procedures of not-so-studious visual research is also a crisis. In this paradigm of creativity, artists mobilize not so much to create, which is an outmoded idea, but to simply permute through the available combinations that the expanded field of art supplies. When that store is up, what next? As a result artists today are more shoppers and arrangers than makers. Even if they aren’t shopping for material, they still shop for ideas.

Expansion Into The Culture Industry

The expanded field of art’s success has become its greatest vice. Art in the expanded field (no longer limited to sculpture) arises as a response to industrializing society which opens up access to new materials at a rapid pace. In a society divided by labor, a cohesive plan within art to unify and absorb the fractured divisions and their manifold products became important. Rosalind Krauss’s essay Sculpture In The Expanded Field, was a symptom of a crisis in production between art and the rest of society, where the new is more and more conditioned by capitalist production for its own sake. A great example of this grappling with new material is shown in Harald Szeeman’s proposal for Documenta 5. In addition to photography, monuments, pop art, surrealism, and realistic painting, to name a few artistic forms, he calls for new fields of production to open into the art domain. Szeeman supplies a list ranging from children’s paintings, sports, games, theatrical sets, light shows, caricatures, traffic signs, pornography, comics, and science fiction, to name a few. Expanding the field of art is not limited to spatial concerns, but has turned out to be more concerned with new industries opened up by post-war America. What all of these items listed have in common is that they are new divisions of industry, all culturally oriented. Art in the expanded field has turned into an encompassing entangling and disentangling with new cultural production. Art in the expanded field inarguably opens into the new fields of cultural production and becomes an obsession to mine, and exploit any given detail of visual culture. On the one hand, no aspect of the visual world can go unturned. On the other, the homogenous unturning which transpires lies somewhat ambiguously (and often ambivalently) between critique and unquestioning mesmerization.

Of course, this expanded field has transpired before. The expanded field was not as new in the 1960’s as we have been led to believe. Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau manifest all of this material opening from the years 1921 – 1937 in a slightly more pathological way. With a list ranging from pencils worn to stubs, to votive candles, to a mutilated corpse, paintings by Michelangelo being viewed by a leashed dog, and much more stolen personal items from friends, Schwitters allowed new anthropological and modernist material to flood his living space in ways which preceded Szeeman (this also threatens the idea of apartment gallery as a new phenomenon as well, but that another time)[8].

One of the significant problems of the unprecedented success of art expanding into diverse fields is that in this motion away from high art, artists have liquidated freely into the culture industry. In itself this isn’t the problem, as the goal of such subtle ideology was and continues to be aimed at transforming culture, which to a certain extent has happened and has opened up considerably more freedoms outside of the institution and conventionality. For instance, new art practices that don’t get bogged down in linear political problem solving, are able to synthesize the manifold forms that the culture industry has opened up, somewhat like Picabia admixing an industrial propeller and seemingly arbitrary words. The difference lies in the change of industrial material, not change of production itself, which is always concerned with sustaining its own means. For instance, just because artists are not concerned with factory made items like propellers or urinals, does mean that they are not navigating an industrial economy. On the contrary, the situation is such that production has been expressed more so in the service and cultural industries – as evidenced by Szeeman’s inclusions of sports, games, caricatures, etc. Due to the mobilization from factory labor to less material service labor, a lot of art today has questionable immaterial dimensions. Art in the 1960’s, or the dematerialization of art has turned out to be just as oppressive as material art. In other words, the dematerialization ideology posited as absolute a world where alienated labor is freeflowing, intangible, and more mobile. Intellectual discourse, as well as subjectivity in general, is treated as any another material for exploitation without barrier. Expanded art in the culture industry permits manipulating history as if it were any other material for exchange. Art practices which are reliant upon secondary discourse merely give the ruse of criticism; Pablo Helguera situating academic criticism as theater is a strong example of this mobilization of criticism into entertainment and how those two things are bound up in each other. The immaterial aspects don’t suggest that art is not material anymore. What it suggests is that there is a polarization between material and immaterial. Certain artists today either bring this diremption closer together, or further rupture it. Either way, it is the major implicit focus of art today and its manifold styles of address only point to its significance.

What does demarcate this success as somewhat nightmarish in its banality is that it hasn’t permitted critique – the mobilization of art into its more discursive problems has left criticism, and perhaps intellectualism more generally speaking, in a wake entirely reminiscent of the modernism it sought to distance from. Curiously enough one of the originating formulations of such an expansive endeavor – Krauss’s text – happens within the field of criticism. This presents a very strange occurrence of two unexpected things: first, that critique somehow ironically discredited itself as a socially necessary means, and secondly, that criticism, far from being the rhetorical character severed from practicality it is often dogmatized as, had a considerably powerful effect on shaping future artistic practices. Whether or not it was intended to do so, the idea of expanding art beyond itself has made room for the unabated fragmentation of visual studies. As it is now, ‘visual studies’ takes up a position wherein a guilt over esoteric art is reason to wander into popular culture domains, which has by and large been suppressed as a valid area of study until recently. The release of high art has permitted an entire generation of artists to erect a false mystification of pop culture and excused them from understanding that high art and mainstream culture emerge at the same moment as different facets of the same industrial apparatus.

The issue here is not a failure of an avant-garde, but an avant-garde which has proven all too successful and persists on having a purchase on a present that no longer seems harmonious with its beginnings. When Broodthaers suggests that high art will inevitably be liquidated into the culture industry, it is not merely an objective statement, but a forecasting. In other words, it both is and ought to be. Such a statement brings up problems in capitalist reification, for the objective, matter-of-fact quality of such a statement already concedes a certain passivity of subjectivity in the face of binding cultural industry. On the other hand, the forecasting quality of this statement suggests that Broodthaers had some autonomy in deciding how society ought to be, and was not merely a submission to the passive reified stance that society ‘is’ a certain way. That Broodthaers did submit to the culture industry by way of some semblance of autonomy is curious. Submission here is problematized by this guise of autonomous choice, and it seems fair to say that such a scenario seemed the proper synthesis at the impasse of the avant-garde in the 1960’s. If Broodthaers saw the oncoming of culture industry as both positive and negative, then why the ambivalence? Naturally, this ambivalence seems an appropriate response, almost ubiquitously symbolic for any avant-garde that acutely bears these tensions between the historical rhetoric of bourgeois art and a vulgar art for the people. In this sense, much of the art of the 1960’s was not resistant to mainstream culture, but affirmative of this compromised tendency of society, which is not to say its finalized reality. Dada and new synthetic art never offer a utopia, but rather allow the detritus of the utopia that is capitalism to surface in order to understand it.

Case Study

As I look at VVork, there are varying images today; Magic Beans, by Botis Razvan is just above a similarly shiny metallic sculpture by Joel Holmberg titled Trash Can Lid and just below an installation by Carlos Motta called Gigantic Intervention. I am not familiar with any of these artists, which draws my attention. I feel secure that any day I go to VVork I will see 5-10 artists who I’ve not heard of, yet who have collectively, unbeknownst to them, exhausted a certain idea. VVork heavy-handedly likes to propose this lack of creativity, ironically brought about by an illusion of delimited creativity, liberated from the restraints of conventionality. VVork is a result of the rapid proliferation of artistic production, and provides an indexical catalog for the excessive amount of artists.

Magic Beans is an image of 3 beans, placed close together naturally. They look gold, and to ensure that the viewer understands this, it is stated in the accompanying text “life size in 14 karat gold”. There is no ambiguity of understanding between the viewer and the artist’s intention. The artist has taken every precaution to make sure that we are not misled into thinking that these beans are copper, or any other metal, and nothing more than life size. We are restricted access to interpretation as the answers to the puzzle are given upfront. The answers being given argues that art should be clarifying and not obscurantist, and also suggest that viewing is not an exploratory endeavor, but rote, and information based. This lack of interpretation is an attempt to bring the viewer in closer to the initial empirical qualities of the work. Collapsing the immaterial intention and the material facts is the synthetic unity in the work. Magic Beans is perhaps an ambiguous name, but the title obviously refers to jack and the beanstalk, and if one lives in Chicago the visual association is made between these magic beans and the Cloudgate monument by Anish Kapoor to such an extent that it seems like a bad attempt at a populist joke.

Trash Can Lid permits itself a bit more ambiguity, though there is that tension between immaterial expectation, as we are informed that this shiny piece of twisted metal probably the size of trashcan though much more mangled, actually is a trashcan lid. This begs the question, just because we say we are something, does this mean we are that something? This is echoed in the artists about page on his website where he has artifact from a Yahoo question he posted ‘How is it possible to convince people you are an artist?’ Again, we are in that nexus between immaterial hopes and material appearances.

Carlos Motta’s image of a rectangle-layered-pedestal bespeckled with hundreds of crumpled pieces of paper is not sufficient enough as an appearance; “presents a stack of paper. Each sheet of the stack holds a different photograph from top news stories”. Part of this explanation can be attributed to the photo-documentary function of the website. But lets assume that whatever the exhibition context was, it likewise had an explanatory text accompanying it, if not an entirely more thorough one. No misunderstanding is permitted. We cannot be allowed to think that the crumpled paper on the floor is of a different origin than newspaper headlines. There are related issues around this which make it interesting, specifically that the artist is in a position where the materials he chooses are so niche and obscure that they are no longer self-evident upon mere looking. This leads directly into a scenario where a didactic function is not only permitted, but necessary for the artwork to function. As opposed to Robert Storr’s dismissal (which ironically ended up uncritically supporting blue-chip artists who are prey to the same function), this didactic function is an indexical necessity in a production-based economy that doesn’t permit material to be understood. The artist-critic inevitably collides with its antithesis, the uncritical producer in the culture industry. The functionality of art – and this didacticism is ubiquitous – is somewhat similar to Benjamin’s analysis of August Sander’s photographs of workers. According to Benjamin, the function of the photographs is to provide an index of the new, modern personality conditioned by labor. What one does for work is what they are in modernity, and Sander’s photography is a reference manual and map for a new world. Likewise in the didactic misconceptual world of recent art, production material needs a manual. Cabinet magazine for example, has perfected the form of users manual for strange new material in a rapidly industrialized society.

Dada and New a-political Art

There is something politically valuable in the continuation of Dada into the 1960’s, and its revisitation today by many artists. Hal Foster, by summoning Roger Caillos’s ideas of environmental similarity, suggests that Dada had no intent to overturn society, and was not bent on revolution, but rather was a relief of fascist politics, or at least its distorted echo[9]. If this is the case, then such a project was singular when compared to the overtly political aspects of most of the modernist movements which surrounded it. Impressionism, as T.J. Clark notes, was intertwined with anarchism, Constructivism was able to exist only because it was permitted by Lenin as a form of propaganda, and Trotsky had a very heavy hand in molding the collective of Surrealism. That Dada was able to resist such totalizing political projects, which by the 1960’s were considered outmoded, was perhaps the biggest draw for artists in this era. This isn’t to say that Dada, or Conceptual art et al were not political in any way and somehow existed in a free-floating aside, but rather that Dada was perceived as the only viable historical continuation of politics within art exclusively due to its profound ambivalence. This isn’t to say that Dada was a success either. On the contrary, it only persists today because of its profound inability to incorporate politics into art. Evasion, or inversion of politics in Dada and beyond, does not mean it is not conditioned by social and political situations. In many ways the pronouncement of Dada saying what it was not is perhaps the most profound indicator of the social and political conditions surrounding it.

What conceptualism in the 1960’s and to some extents today, suggest is a curious return to the empirical art and positivism of certain modernist projects. Some of this can be attributed to the photodocumentative nature of new websites that merely describe. But in some regards that is exactly the issue; we have made room for this specific scenario of viewing. In other words, the document is not just a result of the art, but the art is made to be documented and viewed in this didactic manner. And why not, when much of the bodily sensation of art is perceived as exhausted? However, the bodily does still exist in art and likewise its contingent discourse. Each coexists in a unique attempt to provoke an idea of harmony with the other. This is where these practices have a quality about them which revisits both as if their unity was a given, but at the same time positions such an endeavor as a ruse. Whether it is a ruse or not, such practices have a balancing quality which set them apart. In Magic Beans for example, there is a labeling of the obvious, we are looking at beans. At the same time a contingently impossible ‘magic’ is projected onto the what we obviously recognize as beans. It is what it most obviously is and isn’t. Calling a spade a spade is an interesting maneuver, it’s incredibly banal, even hyperbolically so. Hyperbolizing the banal is a recurring motif in modern and especially the conceptual rubric of contemporary art. Recently this hyperbole has reached exhaustion. What some of these blatantly obvious and incredibly literal art works do is dramatize empiricism to call it into question. Essentially, what marks these works is an illusion of understanding, similar to the way Beckett describes the basic functions of mundane life. Much of the work is heavily coded in jargon, half-completed scientific research, esoteric philosophy, and so on. When the secondary intellectual information is added on, whether it be in title or otherwise, it is likewise coded and poetically mobilized to complicate the entire package.

What makes a lot of this new art interesting (and new) is an intentional lack of didactic political pretense. Especially when compared with the prominence of socially engaged art concerns, the politically spectacular (Paul Chan, Nina Berman come to mind), and the multicultural identity art. New ‘synthetic’ art is more intellectually complicated and has more dimension than the linearly determinist political art which surround them. Just as Dada demarcated its bubble of experimentation from such blatant politics in Surrealism, Constructivism, and so forth, new synthetic art segregates itself from one-dimensional politically spectacular work. New synthetic art secures the important Dada-Conceptualism lineage of intellectualism that is being crowded out by institutionally supported facile political art and shallow social critique.

An example from Daniel Baird will suffice here to show the wide discrepancy between inflated intellectual discourse and banal material, and how these two elements come into an associative play reminiscent, but not derivative of, Dada. Hamartia is an example of an incredible gap between intellectual content and new material. Hamartia is a Greek word describing the tragic decline of a hero in theater, or an error committed in ignorance that results in unintended disaster. First and foremost, historical information like this is open to utility by artists in ways it was not prior to the 1960’s. Greek drama is dealt with in the most up-to-date contemporary manner – that is to say, with plexiglass, mirrored adhesive (for cars), dessicant, potting soil, and other plastics. Like Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths, Baird articulates a violent disharmony between historical intellectualism and contemporary industrial production. Banality and the heavy weight of intellectual history sit awkwardly incongruous with each other, and incite a very wide breadth of free-association. All the materials used to render the immaterial are profanely contemporary and incredibly distanced from the sacred theoretical impulse.

Material: shiny plastic
Theoretical: Greek theater and narrative decrescendo.

Material: potting soil
Theoretical: character downfall through error.

Visual: glass
Theoretical: technological advances over the course of human civilization.

Baird’s success is that through a hyperbolic mix of up-to-the-minute materials and far-reaching historical thought, he allows the incongruency of material and intellectualism to surface in illuminating ways. The work is about relationships between incongruous and fractured cultural objects. In sum, there is an absurdly insurmountable gap between what is and what ought to be, theory and material, and so on. The interests of the artist – technology, Greek drama, science – are all plucked from the “toy store of history” as Donald Judd calls it, just as the materials are plucked form the stores of industrial society. Both coexist in a forced unity, or artificial synthesis reminiscent of Dada collage, in order to incite free associations and articulate the breadth of history which anti-climactically culminates in banal material. Intellectualism and production never rectify in the contemporary world, but sit uncritically adjacent to each other. Synthetic art like this is most successful when it understands the arbitrariness of such syntheses, ie. ‘hamartia’ and the materials used say little else other than that we are living in an industrial society where everything is available but nothing is meaningful. This is made all the more problematic when artists, (Cotter’s ‘artist statement’ rhetoric) project complex sacred philosophy (in its current form of social theory) atop profane industrial material in order to render it meaningful. These intentions subtextually use such earnestness and affect as any other material. Needless to say, this fails to manifest in the work, and that is precisely the interesting thing, insofar as it acutely shows the discrepancy between what we want intellectually and the ability to achieve it materially.

But why then project such secondary discourse onto the work in the first place? Of course part of it is the pressure for artists to talk about their work, but thats not the whole of it. The secondary information is a further coding, disguised as decoding and a desperate semblance of meaning in a society where freedom has gone awry. Just like Magic Beans we think we are being given clarifying information, when we are just being given excess information. The material is coded, and the information we are given is coded. Even though we expect such things to work together (the artist statement is a macro form of this collective expectation) they work against each other. We are allured by a theatrical interplay of mystique, but denied. A lot of art today is driven by a poignant irresolution of antitheses, and even a-antitheses – can antitheses exist in a non-ideological, homogenous world? One of the main distinctions between new misconceptual art today and old misconceptual art of the 1960’s is that the indexical mark of the artists conception is less present and more divided from the material in the former, by the synthetic interruption of meaning. Most importantly, early conceptual art had less ambition in its formal processes at that moment. It has taken decades for us to learn the true ambitious character of conceptual art and Dada as a struggle with alienating helplessness.



1 Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics

2 “Let’s just call it misconceptualism. You know it when you see it, and you see it everywhere in art exhibitions, at art fairs and – first alert! – in art academies, where it incubates like a low-grade infection in the hidden recesses of seminar rooms, nourishing itself on inarticulate obscurities fostered by the ‘strong’ misreading and/or helpless misunderstanding of critical discourse. It is idea art without an idea, identity art without an identity, the ‘Oh wow!’ school of 1960s’ philosophy and politics updated for the 2000s, the spawn of bone-headedness and the bon mot. Misconceptualism is the zone where narrow minds go to escape self-induced claustrophobia only to find the abyss.”

Robert Storr, Art and Text; Two Vindications of Conceptualism and Its Offshoots. (Frieze, issue 116, June – August 2008)

3 Holland Cotter, The Boom is Over, Long Live The Art!. (The New York Times, 2009)

4 David Joselit, Dada’s Diagrams. (The Dada Seminars)

5 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

6 Boris Groys, The Mimesis of Thinking. (Open Systems, Tate, 2005)

7 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real

8 Leah Dickerman, Merz and Memory, on Kurt Schwitters. (The Dada Seminars)

9 Hal Foster, How to Survive Civilization, Or What I have Learned from Dada. (Lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, March 2010)

above copied from: http://chicagoartcriticism.com/2010/03/22/the-malaise-of-the-critical-artist/

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