Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Contemporary Art Has No Future

Basquiat's Untitled, sold for 57 million in 2016

Any valuable object, in order to appeal to our sense of beauty must conform to the requirements of beauty and expensiveness both. This cannon of expensiveness also affects our tastes in such a way as inextricably to blend the mark of expensiveness… with the beautiful features of the object and to subsume the resultant effect under the head of an appreciation of beauty simply. — Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. 

My piece for The Miami Rail here. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

How "craft" fights back "not making"

NĂ´tre-Dame, Paris (central entrance door)

The right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoymentwas the carver happy while he was about it?– John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Art hypnosis," and how craft becomes subservient to the art of "not making"

Damien Hirst's Demon With Bowl, 2017 (59 feet tall)

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1. Art as socio-aesthetic hypnosis

Above, see Damien Hirst's grand Demon with Bowl (2017) at the inner patio of the Palazzo Grassi for the Venice Biennale (click here for the assembling of the headless behemoth inside the patio). One is impressed by the work's majesty. The 59 feet tall bronze sculpture is a grandiose spectacle. Keep in mind that Demon is six meters taller than Phidias' masterpiece, Statute of Zeus at Olympia. Standing next to Hirst's colossus should elicit aesthetic awe  what some scholars refer to as the "symbolic."

In The Psychological Structure of Fascism Georges Bataille presents a similar idea: "the heterogeneous," a deep psychological response, quite resistant to assimilation, which is caused by the "presentation", "formation," "elements":
... heterogeneous elements will provoke affective reactions of varying intensity (...) There is sometimes attraction, sometimes repulsion, and in certain circumstance, any object of repulsion can become an object of attraction and vice versa... (p. 69)
Can this "impossible to assimilate" force be processed within society?
Heterogeneous ... is that of a force or shock. It presents itself as a charge, as a value, passing from one object to another in a more or less abstract fashion, almost as if the change were taking place not in the world of objects but only in the judgments of the subject. (p. 70)
Bataille suggests a causal chain-reaction guiding the heterogeneous. As "symbolic," the heterogeneous has a potential for mass-brainwashing, as "sacred," it assumes uncontrollable and potentially catastrophic forms. A surplus energy, once unleashed, it's often spent externally, producing shock, leading to imperialistic wars and destructive violence.


Mass hypnosis at Nuremberg, 1936 

From the symbolic to the political:
Opposed to democratic politicians (...) Mussolini and Hitler immediately stand out as something other (...) Considered not with regard to its external action but with regard to its source, the force of a leader is analogous to that exerted in hypnosis. (p. 70)
Think of "hypnosis" as socio/aesthetic phenomenon a side show of our political impasse. Being hypnotized by symbols is not out of the question. However, if one yields to aesthetic fondness while in the presence of Demon, self-indulgence fizzles as soon as one is hit with the truth:

Demon With Bowl is not made by Demian Hirst.

2. The art of "not making"

In The Art of Not Making, artist/curator Michael Petry makes the following observation:
In recent years there has been a return to a highly drafted aesthetic in art (...) But when the artist does not make his or her own work, what does it mean for the nature of art, and for the status of the artist? How can we distinguish between the artist and the artisan? Do we even need to?  (Intro, p. 6)
Petry is not equating "craft" with "fine arts." He has a different agenda.
If the intentions of context of the actual maker are irrelevant to a work's meaning, then why get your hands dirty with the making? Anyone can produce the work for you; its authorship lies elsewhere. Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami clearly fit this category, with their hundreds of assistants producing the work of "the artist" in factory-like conditions. (Intro, p. 11)
Petry seems so enthused with the prospect of "hundreds of assistants." As if "not making" was some kind of culmination of Renaissance and Baroque's arts and crafts relations of production, a come back of a movement. But we're not in the Baroque era. This is a Post Fordist assembly-line production with a star artist producing artworks made by hundreds of (anonymous) assistants in glorified artsy sweatshops. Here comes Petry's conclusion:

Art lies not in the making of an object, but in the naming of it as art.

Naming what?  One presumes that Petry is making an emergency exit through a poststructuralist secret door.1 He selectively forgets that authorship is a form of reference, as in: "Demon With Bowl is a Hirst masterpiece," which is false. The name "Hirst" does not refer to Demon With Bowl, not in the sense of art "making." Petry doesn't understand that reference (contra his watered down version of Poststructuralism) can not be arbitrary before it stops referring altogether. Thus, for the purposes of our discussion, Petry's "naming" becomes a purposeful omission, a suppression of the unnamed (those whose names have been crossed out in the name of the signature).

 Any historic development within the avantgarde (Futurism, dada, Surrealism, etc.) presupposed a battle of ideas, a winning of hearts and minds. Petry's "naming" has the glow of a solipsistic decree produced in a social vacuum. The character of corporate take over.  

Instead of "naming," we wish to defend proper description, deserved recognition and fair compensation.

"Not making" is an art of name usurpation.

3. A brief but necessary digression into the demotion of craft

Petry implodes arts and craft as a plausible explanation of his "return to craft." But he doesn't offer a convincing argument. The historic consensus is that fine art emerges from craft. According to social historian Arnold Hauser, in ancient Greece, there is little difference between the craftsperson and the artist/artisan.
Art was still looked upon as a mere handicraft, and the artist as an ordinary artisan with no part or lot in the spiritual value of knowledge or education. He was still ill-paid, without secure abode, and led a wandering life, and so was a stranger and foreigner in the city that employed him. (SHA, Vol. I, p. 55)
The difference between a commentator like Petry and Hauser is that the latter is careful to present a socio-economic backdrop against which structural developments occur. One cannot properly address the fine art/craft split during the Renaissance without understanding the economic innovations in banking, architecture, commerce and the agrarian revolution, which drives Humanism and the fine arts. For example, Giorgio Vasari no longer considers the acceptance of handicraft work compatible with the self-respect of an artist. This stage coincides with the end of the economic dependence of artists on the guilds. (SHA, Vol. II, p 49).

According to Hauser, the emancipation of the fine arts from the spirit of pure craftsmanship has to do with a new conception of fine arts as a science, which Leon Battista Alberti defends as a program of instruction for the art academies. The already pronounced fine arts/craft split becomes insoluble during the Baroque era, with the "genius" artist embodied by the figure of Michelangelo.
This is more than the artist's inborn pride, more than the consciousness of being superior to the craftsman, the mere mechanic, the philistine (...) Michelangelo is the first example of the modern, lonely, demonically impelled artist —the first to be completely possessed by his idea and for whom nothing exists but his idea— who feels a deep sense of responsibility towards his gifts and sees a higher and superhuman power in his own artistic genius. (SHA, Volume II, p. 56).
Toward the end of mid-Nineteenth Century fine art & craft converge again, during the Arts and Crafts revolution in England. But by now it's too late. The down-top push for a return to Quattrocento ideals of craftsmanship espoused by Ruskin and Morris cannot counter the top-down productive forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Hauser puts it elegantly:
In other words, those elements which might have transferred the tradition of craftsmanship to mechanical production, the independent masters and their apprentices, were eliminated from economic life before they had had any chance of adapting themselves and the traditions of their craft to the new methods of production. (SHA, Volume III, p.68)
When the industrial machine takes over so much of the function of manufacture, the craftsperson is reduced to a part of a totally mechanized culture. Technological changes contribute to a transition from home-based craft production of goods to mass manufacture in urban factories, and as a result, trade replaces craft. This is why William Morris took the Middle Ages as the crafts' model era: The craftsperson produces beauty because he/she is the master of his/her material, tools, and time.

This brief Hauserian history shows the bad faith & narcissism on behalf of the fine arts. Bad faith because while coveting the excellence, idealism and practicality of craft, fine arts pretends self-sufficiency and aesthetic disdain; narcissism because without the excellence of craft, the fine arts are empty.

_______

Fast forward to the present. Contemporary art's soaring prices and the constant demand for contemporary artworks has changed the relations of production, spurring the use of apprentices by more artists. "The Art Assembly Line" in The Wall Street Journal takes the contemporary-art-market side of the argument:
At the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Koons, who runs his vast, high-ceilinged studio with an efficiency that discourages personal interactions. Everyone has an assigned task, from painting a section of a canvas by following elaborate diagrams to mixing dozens of paints to produce exactly the right color. Large paintings are lifted up a wall by electric hoists; in one room on a recent afternoon, two painters worked silently on a canvas at floor level while two others painted the upper part from a scaffold. There's a hierarchy of supervisors, including a studio manager, a painting supervisor and several assistant managers. It brings to mind an assembly line.  
As per the division of labor:
Mr. Koons says he has 150 people on his payroll and that he himself never wields a paintbrush. "If I had to be doing this myself, I wouldn't even be able to finish one painting a year," he says. Every year his studio averages 10 paintings and 10 sculptures. In the last four years, six of his works offered at auction have sold for prices between $11 million and $25 million each.
At this point we need to make a distinction: Koons' is not an "assembly line" in the traditional Fordist sense. Koons keeps a Fordist skeleton with Post-Fordist tissue and nerves.

4. A second digression from assembly-line Fordism to Post-Fordism

Fordism refers to the economy paradigm under modern industrial Capitalism during 1930s-1960s, which brought a sustained cycle of economic growth based on mass production and consumption along with raising income and labor rights. Though far from perfect, Fordism was being constantly tweaked and ensured a stable wage relation (with the organization of labor markets and wage-effort bargaining). Since the 1970s on, a new phase of financial Capitalism has emerged. Post Fordism amounts to the Walmartization of the economy, i.e., better consumer prices, increased flexibility, along with the vanishing of mom-and-pop businesses, unemployment, reduction in wages, dissolution of the working day and de-unionization of labor. The shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism has brought a profound change in the social experience of labor.

Why is all this relevant? Because "not making" art has morphed into full fledged Post-Fordist venture capitalism. Petry and others' defense of "not making" as a historic practice in the ateliers of Renaissance and Baroque masters naively ignores the fundamental economic differences between pre-industrial and industrial Capitalism. 2

5. How "not making" exploits craft: Koons' Cracked Egg (1995)

Jeff Koons' Cracked Egg, 1995

Koons' Cracked Egg sold for $501,933 in 2003, but he never touched the painting. What you see above is the painting of an anonymous craftsperson. And yet, Cracked Egg has Koons' signature.

"I Was Jeff Koon's Studio Serf," tells John Powers' (the anonymous craftsperson) side of the story:
I was assigned a new work, a painting called “Cracked Egg.” (...) My job was simple: Paint by numbers. The most intricate sections required miniature brushes, sizes 0 and 00, their bristles no longer than an eyelash. The goal was to hand-fashion a flat, seamless surface that appeared to have been manufactured by machine, which meant there could be no visible brush strokes, no blending, no mistakes. After five long months, the painting —my painting— was nearly complete. 
Here is a true sentence: "Cracked Egg was painted by an anonymous craftsperson, not by Jeff Koons."

You bet the actual owner of Cracked Egg could care less about the sentence above being true. They would gladly use Petry's market friendly argument to add that though Koons didn't paint it, the painting is still his. Ownership? Granted, but authorship? How come? "All I care is that it has Koons' signature." Let the market do the talking: Koons has been the top selling American artist for years.

Yes, the market can favor and foster a falsehood.

Contractually speaking, Powers entered the studio agreeing to Koons' you paint, I own terms (a contract doesn't have to be fair to still compel fulfillment). "I own" means the usurpation of Powers' name (which will not appear anywhere). Koons' bargain is more than unfair: First, the contract presupposes a deceitful maneuver whereby a principal aesthetic property of the art work (that is to say, the craft) becomes now subservient to brand/name spectacle. Predictably, the wages earned by the anonymous craftsperson reflect his subservient aesthetic role.

According to his account, Powers got paid $14 an hour. He worked three nights a week and every Saturday for five months. Suppose he did 4 hrs per night and 8 hrs on Saturdays. In five months Powers worked 400 hours of work for $5,600. "Cracked Egg" sold for $501,933, which is 100 times what Powers got paid for painting it. Petry may retort that without Koons' signature Powers is lucky to sell his painting for $5,600. And by "signature" one understands enterprise, promotional ability, know-how and more importantly Koons' brand name.

Let's revise this contemporary art "return to craft,"

"not making" is the brand name spectacle: it owns the show. 

"making" amounts to merely craft and the anonymous (underpaid) craftsperson.   


Takashi Murakami, Of Chinese Lions, Ponies, Skulls and Fountains (2011)

Why is the signature so important?

Because with the scaffolding of craft, art spectacle becomes an accessible form of aesthetic hypnosis.

Meanwhile, "not making" perpetuates the oppression of craft.

When will people realize that there is no art spectacle without craft's scaffolding of the signature?3

Is there a social climate for a bottom/up craft-driven Luddite insurgency to counter the travesty of "not making"?  

(to be continued)

____________________________
1 Precisely because they conflate "signature" with authorship, Koons and Hirst make authorship the absolute standard. 2 Artists like Verrocchio, and later Rubens followed a "fathering" gilded, preindustrial division of labor. To the emergent demand of artworks by the church, the court and the nascent bourgeoisie, the master artist provided training & lodging in exchange for studio work. The apprentice started as a young man who was provided with food, clothing, shelter, and an education by the master (without payment). After completing a term of service (from five to nine years), the apprentice became a journeyman and moved on to sell his services, now with the reputation of having graduated from his master's studio. 3 The scaffolding sustains the structure, but it is not (structurally) considered a part of it. Generally what sustains is relegated to a demoted, secondary, subsidiary, role. A social comparison that comes to our mind is the southern gentleman's energic protest against abolition during early 19th Century, while maintaining that the prosperity of the antebellum South was independent of the South's white class structure based on slavery:
In our description of the Southern Gentleman, his family and friends, his negroes, horses, dogs and estates, his manners, speech, opinions, excellencies, and faults, all indeed that appertains to him, we wish the reader to understand from the beginning, that we intend to confine ourselves to such a gentleman as is peculiarly the outgrowth of the institutions of the South."-- See, Social Relations in Our Southern States, Daniel Robinson Hundley (p. 20).