Zona MACO and Material, the fairs that ran more or less concurrently the first week of February here in Mexico City, helped synthesize a number of threads floating around in my mind since arriving here. Those threads: Boris Groys’s essay “On Art Activism,” published in e-flux shortly before I moved, a talk by Donna Haraway that a friend e-mailed to me, and the thought, in general: why do I give a shit about art? Do I even?
We arrived at Zona MACO an hour before it shut. I was surprised that I was there: a few days earlier, in an impassioned speech to Andrew Choate, I had said something like, you know, this fair is in this posh neighborhood that you have to own a car or a chauffeur or have a chauffeur who’s driving your car or whatever to get to, it’s only accessible to the very rich, fuck the rich and fuck their art, they can keep it. So anyway, there we were, at MACO, the phenomenal lighting making the average MACO-goer’s Lacoste polo shit look gorgeous and my oil-stained clothes look ratty as hell. We moved fast, visiting only galleries where one of us knew somebody. I didn’t think about anything or really look at anything: Maurício Ianês at Y Gallery was visually striking but maybe a little hamhanded, but then again given the subject matter maybe it’s ok to be hamhanded, maybe nothing else will ever work; Debora Delmar Corp at DUVE Berlin was actually kind of beautiful in person, although I guess I can see why some jackass gave it “worst of MACO,” because, I don’t know, no marble? no expressionist lines? who cares, I’m sure that guy would prefer a show of staircase pineapples thickly streaked with paint or blood in a really emotional way; at Chert, Petrit Kalilaj was a little scattered, but also maybe hilarious and heartbreaking; I heard a funny story at Gaga and wondered how Labor won the 1800 Tequila prize and what that meant—how it would affect my life. Then we left past an army of art handlers ready to pounce.
A few hours earlier I had been at Material, the satellite fair that first happened last year. I had no thoughts at Material, either, I was too hung over and tired. I didn’t have the coffee I needed until after I left. I talked to people, which I usually don’t. I talked to Aaron Harbour and Jackie Im and liked how weird and gross but also really appealing Chris Hood’s paintings were; I talked to Steve Kado at Kunstverein Toronto and was totally freaked out by how similar his speech pattern is to another Canadian I know; I talked to Travis Fitzgerald and Josh Pavlacky at American Medium, who were extremely congratulatory and very friendly about a performance I had done at Bikini Wax the night before, two stories above a great video by Skip Arnold—not the one below. It was also the only show/booth/experience I spent more than ten minutes in during the entire week. Anyway, I didn’t talk to anyone at Queer Thoughts, but I wondered if their desk was intentionally positioned in their booth such that you couldn’t really look at David Rappeneau’s drawings without putting your ass in someone’s face. Everybody I talked to, well not everybody but a sizeable sample, mentioned that both sales and attendance had been slow, and either Travis or Josh said something like, “I don’t know why they even call this an art fair, they should call it something else.” For this sizeable sample, it seemed like the opportunity and experience to meet other people interested in similar art, to talk and hang out and party or decide not to party, was as or more important than actually selling anything. Then again, everybody needed to sell things.
I guess it’s kind of like how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than go to your mind-numbing day job. Or how it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends than stab yourself in the eye. How it’s more fun to have a drink with your friends and talk with them like they’re people you want to talk to than it is to have a drink with your friends and talk to them like you want them to buy something from you. People who I either knew or had established a friendly-level acquaintanceship with apologized for “giving me the spiel,” which I identified with, having worked for a year selling wine, which involves a similar kind of activity.
Wine is vastly more enjoyable, or more able to be enjoyed, if you know what the hell is going on with it: where it came from, what grape(s) it’s made out of, what year it’s from, what things taste like from that place, from that grape, from that year. It helps also to know how it was made, using what process, where the winemaker used to work. You have to spend time reading, learning, tasting, feeling like an asshole for not knowing, feeling like an asshole for knowing, that kind of thing. It’s certainly possible to have a good time with a glass of wine knowing nothing at all, but in order to have a great time, to have an interesting perceptual experience or a moment where you feel like you are suddenly the fucking king of everything, a feeling which wine is uniquely qualified to deliver, you have to know stuff. Sometimes it’s also nice to know little narrative bits, too, you know, how these winemakers make a big deal out of paying their grape-pickers fairly, or how this is the only woman wine-maker in her region, so on and so forth, but this sort of narrative is usually reserved for the selling of wine, by winesellers like I used to be, and is usually delivered in the same tone of voice, with the same cadence, as the art spiel.
Which I guess is why I’ve been wondering: what differentiates a photograph from a bottle of wine? A painting from an antique chair? Why do I think that an artwork is different, exists on a “higher” plane, than a humidor? A year ago, I badmouthed an LA gallerist for having a side business selling antique furniture. I perceived the proximity of the antique furniture practice and the gallery practice as some kind of affront, some kind of insult to art. Like art belongs in a different moral/ethical universe than chairs, or wine, and treating it as if it were the same kind of lifestyle commodity is somehow dirty. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s a good dirty.
In “On Art Activism,” Boris Groys draws a distinction between the aestheticization art performs versus the aestheticization design performs. For him, design takes the tools—a hammer, a speech, whatever—of the status quo and makes them more attractive, more usable. Now you, too, can get rich making videos on YouTube advertising our products! That kind of thing. Art, on the other hand, takes the status quo and presents it as a relic, as something already dead, useless. For Groys, this lends art a degree of political agency insofar as it treats the status quo, which is always impossible to imagine ending, as already over, a fossil. In Donna Haraway’s conception of our current epoch, the “capitalocene,” ruled and primarily defined by the processes and logics of capitalism, the production and exhaustion of fossils is paramount. What for Groys is the possibility of political action for art against the status quo, is for Haraway is the very fuel for the status quo. I’m tempted to believe them both: while art has the potential to cause problems within the status quo, it is ultimately an integral part of it, consumed, traded by, conferring status upon a small superrich class that controls the vast majority of the globe’s wealth, right alongside furniture (also a part of Zona MACO), boutique alcohols (also a part of Material), and so on.
I’m wondering, actually, if maybe this idea that art has some kind of actual political efficacy, that it can “change the world,” is maybe the last vestige of the sort of 18th/19th century romanticism that moved art somewhere—up, definitely—different than, say, furniture or wine, that it delivers something different, something more, something to do with morality, something to do with ethics in a conception of “the world” that assumes it to be homogenous, somehow able to benefit uniformly from a single given action or idea that moves—ineffably, certainly—from the particular to the universal, a movement governed by a set of rules, standards of taste, beauty, and judgment, that it was assumed every “good” work of art, or “good” person, could be shown to follow.
At the outset of “On Art Activism,” Groys dismisses claims that activist art is bad because it is “bad art” — that is, it looks bad or doesn’t exhibit technical mastery. “In the twentieth century,” he writes, “all criteria of quality and taste were abolished by different artistic avant-gardes—so, today, it makes no sense to appeal to them again.” If MACO and Material made me feel anything, it is that I hope that the avant-gardes of the twenty-first century can make equally obsolete the idea that an artwork can or should have some kind of ability to move itself and/or its viewers into some kind of universal realm of political agency, because there is no “universal” any more than there is “the world,” and any politics that depends on the universal—”the world”—is necessarily self-defeating. I hope that we can forget the Enlightenment and become total fucking idiots or squids or cyborgs or really anything non-Enlightenment-human, and try something else, because that shit did not work at all.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn
Every Sternberg/Semiotext(e)/Verso volume with Yale Design School layout is an impenetrable brick of ostensible magic that’s going to save the human race. I really think this for a range of 10 minutes to 10 years per book. Yet even though I have been reading October every day for three years on every NYC Transit route there was only one time I was ever confronted about it & the guy was laughing! Â Still, the mystery of the text is irresistible, though after chatting with other arts writers, there seems to be a concern about the future of art criticism; that it’s not as integral a part of the structure & motivational force of the art world as it used to be, & furthermore, there is confusion in identifying an audience. The source of this anxiety is varied & not everyone subscribes to it. Still, through my personal experience with theory I can understand why a frustration exists, both for authors & audience.
It’s difficult to read art theory & criticism. It’s impossible for me to know how other people interpret text, but as an a person of average intelligence I can describe a sensation of mental aimlessness & meandering when trying to parse an uphill paragraph. Putting on blinders & focusing intently on the words the I gradually collect rewarding instances of realization & perspective. This is enough of a carrot to keep me reading. Still, the going is slow. Theory is slow, the contemporary is fast: it’s entirely possible that this is the final conclusion. Like most professional fields, the barrier of slowness is a mental hazing method but the rewards here don’t seem to pay off enough for large-scale generation-defying fraternities. However, if it’s true that it’s losing connection or usefulness to its own field, the effort can start to seem myopic.
Barnett Newman famously said that “aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” Birds are not only not interested in ornithology but they are incapable of being interested in it. Such a terse reading of that quote might be a little unforgiving, but it’s interesting to revisit this notion from late-Modernist times today in regards to the perceived identity crisis of art writing. All artists are certainly not unaware of it, but it is easier today to be an artist without a knowledge or involvement in traditional art theoretical discourse. Faster modes of communication than text (images) are more conducive to conversation today. Â The image response, as the most expedient & accurate modes of communicating quickly, is a much more handy tool. ASCII, Unicode, & Emoji: day to day communication is condensed (& the phrase “hard to follow” now refers to twitter), alienating the dry over-enunciated walls of text that make up theoretical contributions.
As Hal Foster points out, during ArtForum’s heyday in the 60s & 70s,”late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to dependâ€”the difference, say, between a ‘deductive structure’ by Frank Stella and a â€œspecific objectâ€ by Donald Juddâ€”and often it presented these differences as absolute.” This necessity for theoretical discussion is not totally absent today- but art dependent on by critical analysis has become a genre of sorts. Boris Groys says that
“A work of art is traditionally understood as something that wholly embodies art[â€¦]When we go to an art exhibition we generally assume that whatever is there on display–paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations, must be art. The individual artworks can of course in one way or another make reference to things that they are not, maybe to real-world objects or to certain political issues, but they are not thought to refer to art itself, because they themselves are art. However, this traditional assumption has proven to be increasingly misleading. Besides finding works of art, present-day art spaces also confront us with the documentation of art.” 
Although Groys is referring to the position of the artwork in the exhibition space as the documentation of the art itself, the statement is haunted by the situation of an exhibition space with placeholder artworks that function solely as referents to outside documentation & unstable explanations to be determined by later analysis. Movement away from aesthetic to conceptual merit is now common practice, though certainly more in some cases than others. Aesthetic attractiveness is more often seen now as a measure or capability of capitalist valuation of the object rather than an agent for a deeper social commentary or revolution. Thus, birds interested in ornithology & birds uninterested.
Lately I have found art theory exhaustingly cynical. I suppose the word “criticism” has a lot to do with this, however much of it seems to only a self-serving end. Often as a reader I approach the text with wonder & leave it feeling like a fluorescent light has been turned on to reveal all pleasant things have poisonous blemishes. A person can only take so much of this before becoming fed up or hopeless or annoyed that something prescient about how to live life is being ignored because the art community is busy circle-jerking to their exclusive & privileged (negative) perspectives on the world. That said, art theory ensconces beautiful ideas within its heavy labyrinthine walls of referential grandiloquent & excessively punctuated & footnoted jargon (“International Art English”?), & somehow this keeps me (us?) going. However, more & more, it has been exceedingly reassuring to go to the exhibition & realize that art has been growing & still grows around you when you & intellectuals aren’t looking.
H. FAYE KAHNÂ is a freelance animator in NYC & Â a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsoredÂ WFMUÂ in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.Â
1.Â Â Foster,Â Hal. “Critical Condition,”Â Artforum International, Sep2012, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p147-148
2.Â Groys,Â Boris. e-flux, December 2009, Issue 11, p1-11