another art world by nika dubrovsky and david graeber (sept 2019)
David Wengrow (@davidwengrow) tweeted at 0:31 PM on Thu, Sep 05, 2019:
“The art world remains overwhelmingly a world of heroic individuals, even when it claims to echo the logic of movements and collectives” – sharp thinking by @nikadubrovsky and @davidgraeber
Another Art World, Part I: Art Communism and Artificial Scarcity
We would like to offer some initial thoughts on exactly how the art world can operate simultaneously as a dream of liberation, and a structure of exclusion; how its guiding principle is both that everyone should really be an artist, and that this is absolutely and irrevocably not the case.
dream of being/doing/sharing your art..
let’s do this first: free art-ists.
The seriousness! It seemed important to establish that something of great consequence was happening here. It was not clear why. Just as there was no obvious reason to proliferate multiple degrees of advanced access in the first place, there was no reason for everyone else to feel so invested in the consequences. It only really made sense if exclusion was itself one of the main objects being produced: it was not just that everyone was playing a game whose rules were shifting and opaque, it seemed important that all players, even the haughtiest oligarch or most consummate broker, stood at least occasionally in danger of being foiled and humiliated. Or at the very least flustered and annoyed.
2. While co-opted by the rich, as well as public and private managers and bureaucrats, contemporary art still embodies, or is even the primary embodiment, of alternative conceptions of value that have the potential to explode that larger structure of social relations, and that are either unavailable, or not nearly so readily available, anywhere else.
It might even be said that the revolutionary potential of art is a large part of what makes it so effective as a principle of control..t
The world’s cities are full of young people who do see a life of expression as the ultimate form of freedom, and even those who dream of becoming soap opera stars or hip-hop video producers recognize that as things are currently organized, the “art world” is the crowning height of that larger domain of “arts,” and as such, its regulatory principle, that which holds the elaborate ranks and hierarchies of genres and forms of art—so strangely reminiscent of earlier ranks and hierarchies of angels—in their proper place.
Any market of course must necessarily operate on a principle of scarcity. In a way, the art market and the music industry face similar problems: materials are mostly cheap and talent is widespread; therefore, for profits to be made, scarcity has to be produced. In the art world, this is of course what the critical apparatus is largely about: the production of scarcity; which is, in turn, why even the most sincerely radical anti-capitalist critics, curators, and gallerists will tend to draw the line at the possibility that everyone really could be an artist,even in the most diffuse possible sense. The art world remains overwhelmingly a world of heroic individuals, even when it claims to echo the logic of movements and collectives—even when the ostensible aim of those collectives is to annihilate the distinction between art and life.
It is also noteworthy that the only time a significant number of people believed that structures of exclusion really were dissolving, that a society where everyone could become an artist was actually conceivable, occurred in the midst of social revolutions when it was genuinely believed that capitalism was in its death spirals, and markets themselves were about to become a thing of the past. Many of these trends, unsurprisingly, emerge directly from Russia, where the period from the revolution of 1905 to the avant-garde heyday of the 1920s saw an almost brutal efflorescence of new ideas of what artistic communism might be like.
In a Commune everyone is a creator. Every Man should be an artist, everything can become fine art.
For Malevich—and he was hardly alone—artists were not only the prophets of this new world, but they were to become the foundation of it, its model. As we all know, such ideas were largely stifled with the suppression of the avant-garde under Stalin. Though as Tzvetan Todorov and Boris Groys have both recently pointed out, what happened is a little more complicated. The main reason avant-garde painters, designers, and sculptors had to be killed or brought under heel was because the political avant-garde, ultimately adopted a version of the most radically exclusionary form of that exact same tradition, where Stalin himself—much like Mussolini and Hitler—became the individual heroic genius reshaping life itself according to a single aesthetic vision.
Todorov argues that in the twentieth century at least, this is what always happens in revolutionary moments. Artists start to demand not just new rights to create and distribute their artworks; above all they demand to preside over a transformation of social reality and the ways culture reproduces itself. But in the end they invariably fail.To achieve their dreams they are obliged to rely on politicians, who have no intention of sharing power with them;.. t therefore, after a short creative surge, ..a deep and harsh reaction ensues, and the politicians, ..end up doing absolutely terrible things.
..It was also a vision where the “pursuit of happiness” would mean that everyone was able to pursue some sort of artistic or scientific project. This of course was founded on the assumption that people had both the capacity and the inclination, even if it just meant puttering about trying to create a perpetual motion device or perfecting a stand-up comedy routine. Malevich’s vision implied that curiosity and a desire for self-expression are essential components of whatever it is we are defining as “humanity”—or perhaps all life (some Russian avant-gardists were also interested in the liberation of cows)—and that therefore freedom is more a matter of removing impediments than fundamentally reshaping human nature..t
This is why Malevich could argue that the basis of a new artistic world would have to be economic—though like so many other revolutionaries, he was also interested in the creation of a new universal aesthetic language.
..the Russian avant-garde project was also educational, designed not to create the “new man”..but to include those previously most excluded—the poor and provincials, the inhabitants of the national suburbs—to give them the minimal tools they would need to join in the collective project of creating a new society, in which they would, in turn, create absolutely anything they liked.
..there was a side of Soviet society—and state socialist society more generally—that we rarely acknowledge. It was almost impossible to get fired from one’s job. As a result it was quite possible to work three or four hours a day, or even two or three days a week, and thus to concentrate one’s energies on other projects, or, for that matter, not much of anything at all. There was plenty of time to “think and walk,” and since capitalist-style consumer pleasures were not widely available, and cultural resources like libraries, free lectures and lessons, and so forth, were, the Brezhnev years in particular saw whole generations of “watchmen and street-sweepers,” as they were called—people who intentionally found undemanding jobs, managed to live whole lives on the small bits of money guaranteed by the state, and used their free time to write poetry, make pictures, and argue about the meaning of life.
We are taught to dismiss the revolutionary avant-gardists as romantics. It’s not clear if all of them would have refused the designation. The revolutionary tradition—Marx included—in many ways traces back directly to Romanticism, and while nowadays this is generally seen to be precisely what was wrong with it, it seems to us that the real history is decidedly more complicated.
“an exemplification and intensification of what human beings always do.”
The problem, Romantics insisted, was that bourgeois society had created social pressures and expectations so stifling and atrocious that very few make it to adulthood with their humanity and freedom intact. Bourgeois education had the effect of murdering the imagination. What children and unschooled “primitives” were really thought to have in common, then, was simply that they had not (or not yet) been crushed..t
..Still, one of the most radical Romantic idea was simply that, if everyone is born a free and ingenious child, then the lack of freedom and genius, or the spread of stupidity, malice, and hypocrisy in that society can only be the product of social conditions..t This was considered shocking at the time. French revolutionaries were often so determined to prove it that they sometimes placed aristocratic children with the families of drunks—just to prove that they would turn out to be drunks themselves.
By the twentieth century, many of the best-known avant-garde artists were no longer even producing much in the way of immortal works of art, but instead largely plans on how to share their power and freedom with others. As a result, the supreme twentieth-century avant-garde genre, or at least the most accomplished and original, was not even the collage but the manifesto.
..Communism would be a world no longer divided into mad geniuses and dull, obedient, fools—spectators, either uncomprehending or adulatory. Everyone would become both at the same time.
crazywise et al
To be continued in “Another Art World, Part II: Utopia of Freedom as a Market Value”