PRINT November 2009



László Moholy-Nagy, From the Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928, black-and-white photograph, 13 3/4 x 10 1/4". © 2009 Estate of Moholy-Nagy/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

NOT MORE THAN FORTY-EIGHT HOURS after Artforum’s October issue hit the stands did I receive an e-mail from a friend and colleague expressing some ambivalence about the magazine’s inclusion of excerpts from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth. Absolutely, he said, it’s great to find the political philosophers’ ideas in these pages—but can we in all seriousness share their enthusiastic belief, suggested in a preamble to those excerpts, that the art world today might offer us a reservoir of experimentation “revealing the limits of our imagination and at other times fueling it”? The reality, my correspondent continued, is much bleaker than that. And while Hardt and Negri shouldn’t be taken to task for their optimism with respect to contemporary art practices (since they don’t pretend to have any expertise in this realm), it is nevertheless crucial to recognize that the art world as it stands hardly lives up to the historical standard—of setting the stage for social change—they desire of it. (Indeed, one should note that historical standards themselves are to some degree constructs.) Far removed even from the robust debates of postmodern times, the protagonists of contemporary art most often reside at a safe and cool distance from the machinations of the greater culture, even as they are totally immersed in them; moreover, these protagonists too often manage to be critically aloof when it comes to uncomfortable problems embedded in various artistic, curatorial, and art-historical projects circulating through art’s institutional veins. What is the mentality of the art world we actually know, the one we experience day to day, as opposed to the one proposed by Hardt and Negri? My colleague lamentingly summed it up thus: “Theory is bad, political thought in art is wrong, activism is jejune, the free market is good, individualism is great, the amoral artist is genius.”

In many ways, I admit, it is hard to disagree with this bleak assessment, however sweeping. Even in these fragile days, the institution of art can be a highly legislated and regimented sphere, regulated by subtle codes of behavior and hierarchies of value that are perpetually reinscribed—among artists, critics, scholars, curators, and collectors—instead of being examined anew, openly and in earnest. And yet acknowledging such obstacles is, in a sense, precisely the point of Hardt and Negri’s text: to prompt serious reflection in the face of faltering social systems and conventions, from which the art world’s own instances cannot be exempt. In short, every aspect of art—its premises, its manifestations, and its implications, as well as the audience it anticipates and projects—must be continually revisited and, if proved inadequate, reimagined in order for art to have any persisting salience (to say nothing of relevance). Mere commentary in this regard does not suffice. But it is only by wanting a different language for art—or by recognizing that the times demand such altered grammars—that one can begin. In this way (and perhaps inadvertently), the same gauntlet that is thrown down by Hardt and Negri for the constituents of society can also be said to be thrown down for those who would be constituents of art, in whatever form it takes.

Of course, this leaves wide open the question of where to go from there. As part of an effort to sketch out possibilities for any such different syntax, the current issue features a follow-up exchange between the authors of Commonwealth and political theorist David Harvey. The latter pointedly concludes his analysis of Hardt and Negri’s book, with its abstract considerations of singularities and dispositifs, by surveying our real-world landscape of housing foreclosures, increasing unemployment, and popular struggle to grasp the grand fictions of the past decade’s financialization in all its ramifications—exclaiming, finally, “Enough of relationalities and immaterialities! How about concrete proposals, actual political organization, and real actions?” In reply, Hardt and Negri say that by studying our current circumstances closely they are seeking to “inspire . . . readers to invent the future”—which, one imagines, only brings us once more to the realm of art, where the challenge of cultural invention specifically falls. And yet is there any indication that the art world—if we can even consider it a coherent entity—is up to such a task?

If concrete detail in contemporary art might be lacking in this regard, there is certainly no shortage of precedent. In these pages, in fact, K. Michael Hays makes a case for the continuing relevance of the Bauhaus (in language the reader may find remarkably similar in tone to the imperative speculations of Hardt and Negri): “If the designer could just recognize [the signature of modernity] and seize on the structure of that signature, clarify, sharpen, and accelerate it,” Hays writes of the Bauhaus ethos, “then perhaps design could help usher in the future through the presentation of new forms.” Then as now, with such forms, he adds, there is the possibility of “producing difference—different objects, different ways of thinking, different ways of living.” Without a doubt, the scene for art has changed radically since the inception of the Bauhaus ninety years ago; but regardless of that distance, the reality of the example remains, showing its theses to be something other than merely abstract.