PRINT Summer 2009



AT ISSUE IN SO MANY SYSTEMIC DILEMMAS facing the United States today—whether in banking, health care, or energy infrastructure—is a fundamental economic question: How can one generate new sources of value and wealth? Our ability to skirt the long shadow of global warming, for instance, would seem inextricably linked to a broad transformation of industry—so that one kind of mass employment, revolving around the production of gas guzzlers, say, might give way to another, revolving around the production of electric, solar, and wind power and technology. From a certain perspective, to say as much is merely to restate conventional economic wisdom, whereby developments and design solutions that triumph on capitalism’s playing field of innovation are by and large amply rewarded; even the fact that value is a question not only of answering but also of creating demand is the stuff of Economics 101. Yet the reorientation of profit now being contemplated is perhaps on such a grand, infrastructural scale as to suggest another logic entirely. There is value, in other words, and then there are values—wherein the organization of the system is wrapped up not only in matters of supply and demand but also in the very substance of identity, both social and individual.

Wind turbine on display at the European Wind Energy Conference & Exhibition, Marseille, France, March 16, 2009. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier/Reuters.

While such “big” discussions might initially seem at a far remove from the immediate questions of art, a closer examination reveals them to be anything but. Indeed, if there is a single thread running through the current issue of Artforum, it pertains to the ways in which formulations of value deeply inflect different artistic practices—and, more pertinently, the ways in which even tactical attempts to subvert value often end up having the opposite effect, in turn forcing a more abstract consideration of the real tasks, or values, for contemporary art and criticism alike.

In his piece praising the work of Ryan Trecartin, for example, scholar and critic Wayne Koestenbaum, all too aware of the dynamics likely to attend the rise of any sophisticated new artist, concludes on a foreboding note: “Trecartin’s tales, like any shape-shifter’s, will need to keep floating evasively through the meshes of the market, if his flipped-out personae and hacked situations want to preserve their organlessness and their concentrated delirium.” The comment obtains a kind of historical depth and perspective when considered alongside another observation made some thirty years ago by Richard Serra in a video appropriated by artist Seth Price: “Economic facility actually inhibits work from growing the way it could grow,” Serra says. “Most of our young artists get ripped off at a very early age, because they get stuck knocking out the same products.” Yet the pairing of these two remarks today also raises the question of whether the “same products” could ever be, in fact, a shape-shifting thing—and whether, moreover, making an effort to elude the market is sometimes precisely to engage it, since to deviate from already accepted values might be to create another, perhaps even keener desire. After all, one could say it was difference—or a similarity in difference, a kind of shape-shifting in art—that got Trecartin noticed in the first place.

More than a year ago in these pages, artist Joe Scanlan penned a text arguing that creative types like Lawrence Weiner, by virtue of their conceptual innovations, had created markets for themselves that had not previously existed—and that such invention was, in fact, a critique of the market, but only by virtue of “making commodities in forms that it did not yet know how to evaluate.” In each instance, however, there is a subsequent question to be asked: For how long? If a new market is to exist at all, there has to be some hint or trail for those who would evaluate it to follow and, over time, a kind of gamesmanship allowing them to stay close at heel. Evasion, in this scenario, is in the end a matter of sustaining the state of play. And in the current issue, perhaps most remarkable is the degree to which the artists discussed at greatest length—Trecartin and Price—emulate these operations and even offer hyperarticulations of such logic in individual works. Not coincidentally, Scanlan observed that such artistic practices must have a homeopathic dimension to them, and Price, for his part, proposes something similar in his essay “Dispersion.” “New strategies are needed to keep up with commercial distribution, decentralization, and dispersion,” he asserts there. “You must fight something in order to understand it.” Or, to recast the sentiment just slightly, you must, paradoxically, come to resemble something in order to keep it at bay.

What makes both artists’ practices worth considering, then, is that they readily give a sense of the stakes for the subject inside the system—the person who must negotiate and navigate these larger conditions even while bearing their imprint. At what point is such an artistic endeavor mere gamesmanship? When is the artistic activity a symptom, and when is it a solution? And for that matter, when are the critic, the gallerist, the collector, and the curator merely playing their given roles, needing some “evasion” on the part of artists in order to have a raison d’être? Such systemic dilemmas in art—which possesses a whole intellectual and financial economy of its own—find a canny counterpoint among those of society at large, prompting us to wonder what analogous transformation in artistic conception might be wanted in turn.