April 9, 2006

As is generally known, the figure of the art critic...


As is generally known, the figure of the art critic emerges at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, alongside the gradual rise of a broad, democratic public. At that time, he was certainly not regarded as a representative of the art world but strictly as an outside observer whose function was to judge and criticize works of art in the name of the public exactly as would any other well-educated observer with the time and literary facility: good taste was seen as the expression of an aesthetic “common sense.” The art critic’s judgement should be incorruptible, i.e. bear no obligation to the artist. For a critic to give up his distance meant being corrupted by the art world and neglecting his professional responsibilities: this demand for disinterested art criticism in the name of the public sphere is the assertion of Kant’s third critique, the first aesthetic treatise of modernity.

The judicial ideal, however, was betrayed by the art criticism of the historical avant-garde. The art of the avant-garde consciously withdrew itself from the judgement of the public. It did not address the public as it was but instead spoke to a new humanity as it should – or at least could – be. The art of the avant-garde presupposed a different, new humanity for its reception – one that would be able to grasp the hidden meaning of pure colour and form (Kandinsky), to subject its imagination and even its daily life to the strict laws of geometry (Malevich, Mondrian, the Constructivists, Bauhaus), to recognize a urinal as a work of art (Duchamp). The avant-garde thus introduced a rupture in society not reducible to any previously existing social differences.

The new, artificial difference is the true artwork of the avant-garde. Now it is not the observer who judges the artwork, but the artwork that judges – and often condemns – it’s public. This strategy has often been called elitist, but it suggests an elite equally open to anyone in so far as it excludes everyone to the same degree. To be chosen doesn’t automatically mean dominance, even mastery. Every individual is free to place himself, against the rest of the public, on the side of the artwork – to number himself among those constituting the new humanity. Several art critics of the historical avant-garde did just that. In place of the critic in the name of society arose social critique in the name of art: the artwork doesn’t form the object of judgement but is instead taken as the point of departure for a critique aimed at society and the world.

The art critic of today inherited the older public office along with the avant-garde betrayal of this office. The paradoxical task of judging art in the name of the public while criticizing society in the name of art opens a deep rift within the discourse of contemporary criticism. And one can read today’s discourse as an attempt to bridge, or at least conceal, this divide. For example, there is the critic’s demand that art thematize existing social differences and position itself against the illusion of cultural homogeneity. That certainly sounds very avant-garde, but what one forgets is that the avant-garde didn’t thematize already-existing differences but introduced previously nonexistent ones. The public was equally bewildered in the face of Malevich’s Suprematism or that of Duchamp’s Dadaism, and it is this generalized nonunderstanding – bewilderment regardless of class, race, or gender – that is actually the democratic moment of the various avant-garde projects.

– Boris Groys


April 2, 2006

I am currently reading Secret Publicity by Netherlands art critic Sven Lutticken...


I am currently reading Secret Publicity by Netherlands art critic Sven Lutticken. There are many relevant quotes but here are one or two from his essay on performance:

"The conclusion from this can only be that performance art has never been a real threat to the spectacle: its integration into spectacle as media performance comes as no surprise. Yet if performance artists were to radicalize the anti-production tradition, if they were to really roll up their sleeves and take the fight against reproduction seriously - couldn't this result in a form of performance that was incompatible with capitalism? This line of reasoning rests on the assumption that 'the media' are virtually identical with advanced capitalism. Yet following Guy Debord, one can argue that the spectacular character of the capitalist economy is not primarily located in media like film, photography and video, but in commodity fetishism: commodities seem to maintain whimsical 'social' relations due to their exchange value. In the process the commodities become images, hieroglyphic representations of the relations in human society. This primary spectacle of commodities-become-images is thus the prevailing social condition, which is reflected in 'the media' in the form of a secondary spectacle of images-become-commodities, which reinforces the primary spectacle. To get rid of the society of the spectacle, it is hence not enough to get rid of 'the media'; the whole of society must be revolutionized."


"In recent years it has become more and more obvious that the spectacle has taken a 'performative turn'. Typical of the neo-liberal performance culture is the TV programme in which a mediagenic entrepreneur like Donald Trump selects a new appointee from candidates who must perform themselves in a way that will win them a highly-paid job. The spectacle of the Situationists, which involved a distinction between a dreamlike theatre of commodities and the passive consumer, has been succeeded by a participatory, performative spectacle. Thus we have entered a phase that the Situationists themselves failed to forsee: in spite of the fact that commodities need not be objects, immaterial commodities such as services were somewhat neglected by Marxist theory, including that of SI, and the transformation of anonymous services into personalized performances is a development that was not seen or forseen by the Situationists.

The primary immaterial commodity in Marxist theory was labour power: a statistical average of the amount of labour needed to produce a certain industrial commodity, which is responsible for the exchange value of goods (contrary to the fetishist illusion that they obtain value through mutual relations). In principle, this theory of labour power can also be applied to many services that do not depend on a performer. Services too are commoodities in which labour has been invested, and in most cases the worker will be paid a wage that represents an abstraction - the amount of labour normally needed to do the job. Today, however, it seems increasingly difficult to base the value of goods on this statistical average - plus the surplus value, which the employer pockets. In the contemporary economy, value has spun completely out of control. A trendy cup of coffee may cost a small fortune because it represents an 'experience', a top manager can take home an absurdly inflated bonus because he is a unique performer: he sells a habitus with capabilities and personal qualities that are supposedly unique. The value of such performers and their performances can no longer be measured in abstract labour power. If object-commodities become images in classical spectacle, in the performative spectacle the service too turns into an image. Of course, this does not mean that the other, anonymous service jobs no longer exist, but increasingly the performative colonizes labour: even in jobs where wages are standardized (and low), the worker is expected to put his or her unique charms and qualities into the job if he or she wants to keep it. As anonymous services become performances, even abstract labour power has to be enacted in a personalized way by individual performers. This turns not only performance into a commodity, but ultimately the performer as well."


"The loose way in which contemporary critics and theorists use the notion of the performative owes much of its charm to the magical, animistic suggestion it imparts. In a culture of the performative imperative, the notion of performativity (or at least its sound-bite version) suggests a world that is infinitely malleable. If everything is performative, everything is open to influence and transformation. Performative language becomes the thinking person's magic: if contemporary society often seems to correspond to the grim picture Adorno painted of modernity as irrational and constraining as the most primitive stages of civilization, the performative alleviates this by reenacting the over-estimation of the mind's power which authors such as Tylor, Frazer and Freud considered to be typical for the earliest stages of civilization: magic as an oneric attempt at controlling a hostile environment. The transformation of the performative into magic is signalled by the refusal to investigate the conditions under which an action or speech act may be truly performative; it is nicer to dream of being a heroic performer like Beuys, than to acknowledge that one is an actor is someone else's spectacle. The first step towards preventing the further degeneration of performativity discourse into sham progressiveness is to acknowledge the conditions of the performative spectacle, which also means acknowledging that Tino Sehgal is not that radically different from Matthew Barney, or Donald Trump."