Over the last eight or ten months, I have been taking advantage of the opportunity this space provides by interviewing people whose work I admire or whose organizations I am curious about. I have not had an explicit plan or frame for these interviews: for their structure, for the people I talked to, etc. I have been interviewing people who I like, people whose work I like, people who work for organizations I am interested in—often all three at once. Nonetheless, we often ended up talking about the same things: art’s supportive position in a brutally dehumanizing financial system, and the arbitrary nature of validating art as art.
It should not be surprising that art occupies a supportive position in today’s neoliberal market—art, particularly “fine” art, has always been made for or by those in power. The art market is sustained by financiers, venture capitalists, CEOs, etc. Art is either produced directly for this market or produced in some imagined resistance to it. Those who produce art or who engage in local or global art worlds are, by and large—including myself—born into some kind of wealth and afforded some kind of privilege. As Renzo Martens put it in my conversation with him, “half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what.” To be an artist or even an art enthusiast, you must be able to afford to work unpaid jobs, buy cappuccinos, and so on. This has always been true. Bach wrote for the Austrian royal court, Koons makes sculpture for the ultra-rich. The difference is negligible. When I talked to Keith J Varadi about my nagging suspicion that punk simply serves as the appropriate entropy for sustaining late capitalism, he mentioned awareness of one’s own position in the world as a key part of what, for him, defines punk. When you buy a used car and convert it to bio-diesel, he mentioned, you are still participating in the larger, exploitative economy: either mass deforestation due to the planting of GMO biodiesel corn or the international industrial-scale production and distribution of vegetable oil. When you become a freegan, you are still taking and using things that were likely made in horrific labor environments (most things are) or that were distributed along an international freight network, which itself is outrageously polluting and violent. Whether or not you pay for your shrimp is arbitrary: it has already been farmed in Laos or Thailand using slave labor and shipped in an airplane halfway across the world.
We make art, we think about art, we recognize the existence of art because we are rich, because we can afford to be interested in something, because we are not so exhausted from working in a mine or cleaning shit and vomit in a hotel or zigzagging across four part-time jobs that all we can do is pass out. Again, this has always been true. It is not interesting. What might actually be interesting is the validation of art: what makes art art. I have asked almost everyone I’ve interviewed what makes art art, and have received a surprisingly similar array of answers. When I interviewed Adam Overton in Januray, he recalled a quote by Allan Kaprow: “what if I were to think art was just paying attention?” Overton replaced think with believe: “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” It reminded me of a feeling I have regarding Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” namely that there appears to be no reason why the Van Gogh he is looking at gets to be art and not the hat or the rifle. Although Heidegger spends the whole essay explaining why the Van Gogh is art and the hat/rifle are not, the explanation does not actually have to do with qualities inherent to the work of art; rather, the idea is that what art does that other things do not do—the artness of art—is make the viewer aware of her own consciousness. For Heidegger, the shoes of the peasant girl in the Van Gogh (was it it even a Van Gogh? my books are in limbo, I have nothing to reference), caused him to realize that his opinion of peasantry, which he had never considered, was man-made, and that it existed in contradistinction to some kind of deeper truth about peasantry or humanity, that, further, truths in general exist in relation to some kind of deeper Truth, and that this Truth is neither moral nor singular—it is not explicit—but operates in a relation to other truths the way umami operates in relation to other tastes. In any case, there is no reason why the hat or the rifle couldn’t also be art, had Heidegger had a different sort of day or lived in a different sort of era. There is no reason why anything is or is not art, except for what we believe and how that thing—or experience, aural space, whatever—operates in relation to what we believe.
Similarly, when I sat down with Aandrea Stang, formerly of the MOCA, where she coordinated, among other things, a massive re-happening of much of Alan Kaprow’s work and Engagement Party, a four-year series of socially- or otherwise publicly-engaged work. She now runs OxyArts, an arts programming initiative at Occidental College, also in LA. I talked to her shorty after We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, conceived by Finishing School with Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher, had been installed in front of the school’s auditorium. WWSYFHD is a full-scale mockup of a Predator drone, covered in adobe in a simultaneously familial and antagonistic gesture over the course of three days by the artists and a smattering of the general public—the artists’ friends, some students, some people who happened to be there. I was curious a number of things: about the horizontal organizing structure of Engagement Party, which I knew nothing about and which seemed—and still seems—to be to be as exciting an artwork as any that happened as part of the series; about the drone; about what the hell OxyArts was supposed to be. Mostly I was curious about what drew Aandrea to this kind of work. “I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of one’s situation,” she said. “Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork.” Again, the aesthetics of one’s situation, as she succinctly put it, have to do not with inherent qualities but with validating systems, and encountering the former often includes recognizing the latter. A Donald Judd is a Donald Judd because it is a Donald Judd, and for no other reason. If it were not a Donald Judd it would be ductwork, or a box.
This is not a judgment. When I interviewed Conrad Freiburg—artist, musician, carpenter, man of the hour—he brought up the saying “art is as serious as your life.” Is your life serious right now? Will it be serious in five minutes, when you go to the vending machine? One’s life becomes serious because one decides to get serious or because something happens that one recognizes that something is serious. Seriousness is performed; so is art. We wondered—I still wonder, actually, and probably Conrad does, too, although we haven’t talked since he went to Ohio and I went to Mexico—if practicing not giving a fuck would be a way to catch oneself getting serious and have a chance to decide whether things were actually serious or not.
Maybe what is exciting or useful about art, if there is anything exciting or useful about art at all, is its ability to give a chance to decide if things are actually serious or not. Maybe looking at a Donald Judd makes us wonder why this piece of ductwork is art while that piece of ductwork is not, and maybe in our wondering we will wonder who or what decides that art is art and what their motivations might be. In March, after failing or forgetting to interview somebody in February, I met Renzo Martens at a cafe. I think Renzo thought I wanted to talk about Enjoy Poverty, because everybody does, but I actually wanted to talk to him about the Institute for Human Activities, a venture that rides some kind of line between being incredibly straightforward and incredibly surreal. The previous summer had seen the first summer of the IHA, an arts residency and “gentrification program” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had ended in the surprisingly violent suppression and removal of the Institute by a Canadian palm oil interest. Thinking of Adam, maybe, and myself, certainly, I asked Renzo if he considered the Institute art, and whether it mattered if the Institute was art or not. He answered, emphatically, yes, that it mattered that it was art because he likes art, because art is the rare form of expression that shows—or can show—its “suspending apparatus,” as Martens put it, that this dome above your head that you know is not a dome is not magic, but trompe l’oeil, a technique that is known and can be used, a machine for making a flat ceiling a dome or a wall an apple tree. For Martens, the Institute is an opportunity to be the machine, so to speak:
I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? What I need to do is own the machine. That’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. That’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution.
That is to say, Martens is hoping that, by sincerely an unabashedly using the language and mechanisms of the larger economic system—in this case, the kind of art NGO that has been popping up all of the world in the last five or ten years—he can gain access to and leverage within that system and redirect some of the money that usually just circles around the system towards, for instance, paying exploited Congolese palm oil workers to do something besides work in a fucked up palm oil plantation. This is surely what the Canadian firm that pushed the IHA out of its original position was literally in arms over.
Lane Relyea has written extensively about artists becoming institutions and the economic forces derived from these institutions. The everyday, hailed as a sort of quotidian utopia by art discourse for the past century, is not so everyday at all. The everyday is structured, often dictated, by abstract forms of control: from implicit understandings and unspoken agreements of how to act in a given space to a labor system that reduces human life to automated workforce management. In Your Everyday Art World, Relyea picks apart institutions, artists, and artists who have become institutions to highlight the webs of finance and control that support them and point out that, regardless of whether or not an artist or institution or artist-institution hails itself as resistant or revolutionary, the artist/institution/artist-institution still operates in full support of and fully supported by the market it rails against. In our interview, I tried very hard to get Relyea to make a judgment about this. Is it bad that art is naive? Yes, Lane said, it is. But it is more than judging this or that painting or this or that social practice intervention, Relyea, pointed out, it is that
the artworld imaginary right now sees artists making work not in society but in things that are more local and performative, more temporally local as well as spatially local—cliques, friends, hangouts—in the zone of everyday life, which relieves people of having to think of high and low, or about privilege and elitism. Which, in parallel, feeds the romanticizing that happens in social practice with the déclassé, with these pockets of dispossession that artists will come in and somehow alleviate or enlighten.
Naive “radical” art blocks our ability to see the very things it is supposedly railing against. This is why it sells so well, why it is so well-supported by the global art world. This is, as Relyea put it, “an impoverishment,” a diminishing of the potential of art. If art has the potential to allow us a chance to recognize our options, as I would like to believe, then the legions of naive revolutionaries flying across the globe to make it to the next Creative Time Summit are drastically, violently reducing that potential. This is not to say that these people are bad people or that they are intentionally making bad art, although there are certainly assholes and bad art everywhere, but rather that the artworld imaginary is just that—imaginary—and should be recognized as such.
My last two interviews, conducted after I arrived in Mexico City, have elaborated on that point. As both Carla Herrera-Prats and Arturo Ortiz Struck pointed out, very nearly every single Mexican president—and most of the people that form the government of Mexico—come from wealthy families and have received graduate degrees from Ivy League schools in the US. These presidents, and their governments, apply the economic wet dreams of the neoliberal free market to an actual country—Mexico—with disastrous results. This is not necessarily because they are bad people, although some of them certainly are; it is because they are living in a reality that is abstracted from actual life in Mexico. For Herrera-Prats, this highlights that education is currency, that proof that one has attended a recognized institution increases one’s market value, and that, as such, the American Graduate Degree is one of the United States’s most powerful economic and ideological exports. For Ortiz Struck, the implementation of an economic strategy in Mexico that has very little to do with actual life in Mexico has resulted in a series of very real, very terrible structures being built for people who don’t exist, structures that ignore or obstruct human life.
In general, it is clear in Mexico that human life is not in the interest of the market, the government, or the narcotics cartels that the government colludes with. It is clear that recent reforms and public works are ploys to encourage further foreign investment which will likely never be enforced or built; it is clear that the government is ineffective and unaware—Ortiz Struck described the men and women of the government as not necessarily bad or evil people, just people who had no idea what was going on; it is clear that the police are corrupt, violent, and dangerous; it is clear that those born into poverty here will very lead lives of crushing that they will never be able to escape from. The clarity is refreshing. In the United States, as in Mexico, the government is ineffectual, the police are violent, and those born into poverty will never be able to escape poverty. The United States just has a better story, a better imaginary, a dream.
If you read about social practice or read about Silicon Valley, if you read the news or watch television, you will hear quite a bit about how you are part of some story: maybe your story, maybe the story. You will also hear about a game that you might be in, a game that is changing, because of this or that artist or because of this or that app. When you pick up your next bottle of Coca-Cola, your name or your friend’s name will be on the side of the bottle; when you request your next Über, you’ll be “evolving the way the world moves.” Indeed, Über’s corporate language is enlightening:
Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.
The language of Über, and increasingly the language of corporate marketing worldwide, matches the language of the contemporary artist statement. This is the language of meta-narratives, stories that have already begun sometime close to now and proceed into an ill-defined or permanently deferred future. By buying a Coca-Cola or buying the work of Theaster Gates, you are participating, changing, progressing, innovating, remembering, making, thinking, transgressing, transforming, evolving, -ing, -ing, -ing. You are a visionary, Coca-Cola is a visionary, you are a visionary for choosing to be part of the community of visionary persons who drink Coca-Cola. What such visionary projects do is enforce the idea that this or that imaginary is true, that it operates absolutely and without relation to any internal or external circumstances. In so doing, they impoverish or obstruct our ability to see, to recognize ourselves as participating in this or that system, that or the other imaginary.
These interviews have clarified something for me: I am against visionary art. What I like about art, what makes art worthwhile for me, is the opportunity it can afford to see myself, to hear myself, to catch myself or others. Visionary art makes it difficult to see, to hear, to catch myself or others; it sucks me into a story that I may not be able to get myself out of, a story that operates in total indifference to me, my particularity, what I think or believe or feel. As I’ve mentioned several times before, what struck me most about reading through the materials that eventually made it into the second edition of What We Want is Free was that, while almost all of the projects included had artist statements—meta-narratives—very few had descriptions of what actually happened: who came, what their names were, how they felt, what they wanted, how their face creased when they smiled or frowned. They operate and validate themselves using the same mechanism that Über or Cisco Systems uses to operate and validate themselves. Art must cease using this mechanism. Art is art because it says it is, and it must stop saying that it is visionary. If art is to be useful, if it is to have any effect on the calamitous state of the world, if it is to alter, in a real way, a city or a moment, it must stop being visionary. No more visionary art.