PRINT December 2012


Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Magenta), 1994–2006, high chromium stainless steel with transparent colored coating. Installation view, Château de Versailles, France, 2008–2009.

FROM THE PERSPECTIVE of the hegemonic reality principle­ that has defined modernity—i.e., the subject position we have traditionally identified as bourgeois—all forms and practices of artistic and political contestation, transgression, and critique appeared at least initially as suspicious, if not deviant or outright antagonistic to that model of subjectivity.

This dialectic of a fully internalized reality principle and a seemingly compulsive desire for a different order, even disorder, was in fact one of the constitutive conditions of modernity and avant-garde culture from the 1860s until the mid-1960s: Artists had throughout that period created imaginary subjects, models of alternative social relations, languages and spaces of difference, concepts of critique and countermemory and of oppositional transgression. These practices pointed toward profoundly different, and often actually possible, alternative models for the cognitive, perceptual, and linguistic structuring of social, sensual, and psychosexual experience. As countermodels, such propositions and strategies were often defined either by taking recourse to subjective or collective negations of existing orders—in primitivizing discourses, for example (from those that privileged the alterity of different geopolitical spaces to those that championed the alterity of unconscious desires)—or by mobilizing techno-scientistic counterdiscourses, emphatically insisting on the fulfillment of the promises of Enlightenment culture, which in the actualities of everyday life were being withheld in an order of instrumentalized proto-totalitarian rationality. Or, in a third model, under the conditions of extreme political duress in the late 1920s, for example, artists claimed direct political agency. They explicitly associated themselves with politically transgressive utopian propositions of nonhierarchically ordered social relations or else engaged in outright oppositional struggles against ideological domination and state control.

In keeping with this dialectic, all of the strategies that had been initiated by different avant-garde cultures in various geopolitical contexts were met throughout the history of modernity with a whole arsenal of means by which to ignore them or defy them, to control them or defer them, to dismiss them if not liquidate them altogether: Indifference, quarantine, exclusion, marginalization, pathologization, and, finally, co-optation were the most successful operations in response to the political and social challenges of the historical avant-garde. And under certain extreme political conditions of authoritarian state power, if none of these strategies could complete the project of containment, stringent state control and brutal oppression would inevitably ensure the continuity of a fully uncontested hegemony and proto-totalitarian social order.

The longer we have studied the history of avant-garde culture, the more compelling the insight has become that the horizons and spaces of utopian thought, and the practices of political and artistic transgression, were tolerated within the bourgeois capitalist order only so long as they did not cross these boundaries of discursive and institutional containment (i.e., so long as they ultimately complied with the artistic culture and the conventions of the museum). And what the artists of the late 1960s and early ’70s finally formulated more clearly than anybody before was the fact that the museum had to be recognized as the site where, and the social institution wherein, these forms of acceptance through affirmation, of control through cultural canonization, of tolerance through quarantine, of inversion of meaning through the process of acculturation, had been most successfully implemented.

It was shortly after the emergence of the institutional critiques articulated by artists such as Michael Asher and Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke—and nearly contemporaneous with the burgeoning critiques of ideological hegemonies in the artistic practices of Louise Lawler, Martha Rosler, Jenny Holzer, Allan Sekula, and Dara Birnbaum—that we also encountered Andy Warhol’s entry “Art Business vs. Business Art” in his Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), in 1975. Armed with an Enlightenment belief in the unstoppable progress of institutional critique and artistic critiques of the discourse of power, I, for one, considered Warhol’s notion of Business Art to be a brilliantly conceived parody of the side effects of an ever-expanding art world—a travesty in the manner of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal.” Little did I imagine that, a quarter century later, it would have become impossible for Warhol’s prognostic vision to be mistaken for travesty anymore. Rather, we had to recognize—with belated hindsight—that Warhol had in fact prophesied what we finally came to experience: the total permeation of the cultural sphere by the economic operations of finance capital and its attendant ethos and social structures. Only a Cassandra whose ethics and aesthetics were as exceptionally evacuated as Warhol’s (other artists at the time still associated their practices with moral, critical, and political aspirations) could have enunciated this vision. A comparable diagnosis of the explicitly and inevitably affirmative character of modern culture had been formulated by Herbert Marcuse in the early ’60s. Marcuse’s tendency to accept if not to exaggerate the inextricably affirmative dimensions of cultural production and to recode them as potentially transgressive operations had appeared to us as a symptom of the philosopher’s increasing Americanization. In other words, it was not until the early ’80s, or even later, that it dawned on some of us that the cultural apparatus had in fact already undergone precisely those transformations whose full spectrum only Warhol had predicted, and that his prognostics were about to attain the status of all-encompassing and seemingly insurmountable new realities.

Michael Asher, installation, 1970. Installation view, Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, CA. Photo: Frank J. Thomas Archives.

What were the symptoms of these new conditions of the “common culture” that had emerged perhaps most vehemently in the United States but also abroad during the so-called Reagan-Thatcher era? And what structural transformations had taken hold in the sphere of artistic production and reception, which we had until that moment naively associated with those other institutions of the public sphere where the production of knowledge and the memory of experience had been socially sustained and collected: the library, the university, and the museum? A number of multifaceted transformations, at first developing slowly yet steadily, soon picked up a precipitous pace and expanded globally. I will enumerate some of these perceived changes, in the manner of a paranoiac whose list of enemies and threats has only increased continuously ever since the initial diagnosis of the condition.

THE FIRST—and perhaps most startling—symptom was the emergence of a hitherto totally unknown social species, the blindly producing purveyors and the blindly ingesting consumers of culture (blindness, for the time being, simply defined here as absolute diffidence and total indifference with respect to any remotely rigorous criteria of evaluation). Under the conditions of affluence reigning among the newly emerging subclass of Wall Street financiers, real estate speculators, and state-sponsored plutocrats in Western societies, a new generation of artists—Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and Richard Prince, to name only a few—and their respective collectors, speculators, and spectators positioned themselves as the chosen representatives of the culture of these social strata. Their perceptions and consciousness had been partially formed by the politically administered cynicism toward, if not the outright defamation of, the legacies of utopian and critical political thought of the twentieth century—a cynicism all the more triumphant after the fall of the Communist regimes. As the new spectatorial subjects voluntarily accepted the annulment of social and political utopian thinking, artistic production sutured itself to the universal reign of spectacularized consumption. Embracing the new technologies and market formations, the new audiences seemed to seriously believe that an expansion of artistic practices into the registers of the culture industry would compensate for the destruction of the emancipatory promises of the avant-garde cultures of the twentieth century.

Those artists whom one could best identify by their parasitical pose of simulating the grotesques of totalitarian commodity culture are reminiscent of the eponymous protagonist of Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, who gesticulates melodramatically in supposed outrage at the calamitous destruction of the greengrocer’s market that he and his gang, the cauliflower merchants, have just brought about. For Koons, Hirst, Murakami, Prince, and their ilk cannot in truth be said to “address” the total fetishization of object relations and the collective cult of marketing and branding; rather, they perform, if anything, parasitic assimilation to the very codes that enforce universal fetishization. They enact an homage to precisely those subjects and corporations that sustain their regimes by enforcing the dictates of a collectively operative pathology, the narcissistic systems of compulsive distinction.

We cannot really call this new social stratum of cultural producers a class, yet its members (if much better dressed and perhaps more polished in their simulated manners) bear astonishing similarities to what Marx had long before identified as the Lumpenproletariat. In his essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” (1852), Marx refers to the lumpens as the “refuse of all classes,” including “swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel keepers, rag and bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society,” a class fraction that constituted the political power base for Louis Bonaparte of France in 1848. Marx argues that Bonaparte only succeeded in positioning himself above the two main classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, by seemingly aligning himself with the lumpens, an apparently independent base of power. In truth, Louis was deeply committed to advancing the material interests of the “finance aristocracy,” which, exactly like the lumpen proletariat, did not have any direct interest in any actual productive enterprises. The similarities to the people presently populating the various spheres of contemporary cultural production and distribution, the so-called art world, are striking, in spite of the semblances of distinction and optical differentiation provided by the apparatus of the fashion industry.

Yet few, if any, of these new spectators could position themselves in the privileged places of the collectors and producers who succeeded in entering the ascendant celebrity culture. At best, the rapidly expanding class of gallery- and museumgoers would define themselves as competent consumers of contemporary art, as the spectatorial strata disseminating the new culture of total affirmation, operating in the institutional and commercial intersections where advertising and the circulation of the commodities of art take place (frenetically active at the openings of gallery and museum exhibitions, as well as within the traveling circuits of biennials, auctions, art fairs, and so on). In short, what had emerged in the 1980s was a new public and a new apparatus of cultural-industrial production heretofore unknown to, and unthinkable at any earlier moment in, the history of modernity. Museum directors such as Glenn Lowry at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Nicholas Serota at Tate Modern in London had the genius to identify the desires and demands of these new publics early on, and they would cater to this new class of cultural consumer and spectacle tourist, whose perceptual sensorium cohered almost magnetically around those artists who created economic surplus value at near-mythical rates and with a velocity unheard of in any previous era of cultural production, including even that which underwrote Warhol’s own meteoric ascent.

Daniel Buren, You are invited to read this as a guide to what can be seen—Affiches Sauvages [Part 1] (detail), 1970, vertically striped paper. Photo documentation of a work in situ, Bleecker Street, New York, October 1970.

This was the moment when artists such as Marina Abramović recognized that the time had come for them to fully and finally identify with the seemingly inescapable order of spectacularization as the foundational modus of their practice. Thus not only could they triumphantly efface the last residual differences between spectacle and the sphere of cultural production that the neo-avant-garde in its more complex postwar figures and moments had still desperately attempted to maintain; they could also extend the legitimation of spectacle’s regime deeper into the registers of subject formation, making their audiences masochistically celebrate their own proper subjection to spectacle as the universally valid and incontestable condition of experience.

In this way, contemporary artistic practices have become totally dependent on a neoliberal subjectivity for which the entire spectrum of once-radical avant-garde legacies is now available as gratuitously exchangeable devices if not gadgets. Under the current cultural dispensation, affirmation of corporate culture can be fused with remnants of a critical subversion of discursive and institutional formations in any imaginable manner. Even formal regressions that had initially been deployed to induce the labor of historical memory can now be turned into more or less instantaneous spectacularization (as evident in the recent work of Christian Boltanski and Anselm Kiefer, to cite only the most prominent exemplars). Just as architects, since the very beginning of the twentieth century, have inevitably succumbed (with rare exceptions) to conflating and eventually integrating into their projects both the ideological and the economic structures they were bidden to serve, artists have been increasingly integrated into an ever-expanding structure of cultural control by mirroring in their work the apparatus of industrialized culture itself. And their production is incorporated immediately within those systems of representation such as advertising and commodity design that stand in constant need of expanding the audiences and consumers of what are now the professionalized and standardized domains of premeditated excess, regress, and transgress—the very parameters that once defined the aesthetic sphere.

Once the radical, utopian sociopolitical horizons that had previously licensed avant-garde practices as agencies of actual transformation of cognition and perception had been foreclosed, all criteria of the judgment of artistic objects were inevitably erased as well. After all, according to what criterion should artistic production be judged, if not by its dialectical capacities of critical negativity and utopian anticipation? What had previously been the rarest of conditions—namely, the exceptional credibility of artistic propositions, wherein a partial and temporary relapse into quasi-mythical forms of experience, called aesthetic, could be reluctantly accepted—had now been turned into pseudodemocratic claims for universally accessible artistic competence in the sphere of production, buttressed by the matching myth of a universally available competence in the sphere of artistic reception. What had been singularized in the avant-gardes’ acts of artistic production, precisely by the radicality of their critiques or the plenitude of their anticipatory visions, or by their perpetual redefinition of what might still qualify credibly as aesthetic experience under the conditions of late-capitalist totalitarian consumption, was now effaced in the universal deception of artistically disguised sham operations. A new generation of artists claimed the legacies of Duchamp and Warhol without so much as an atom of the transgressive and subversive intelligence that these two putative forebears had historically initiated. From Olafur Eliasson’s apparatus of technocratic deception to the remedial and conciliatory pseudocritiques of Allora & Calzadilla and Francis Alÿs, from the parasitical practices of Francesco Vezzoli to the spectacularized social sadism of Santiago Sierra (now extending even to the recent work of Thomas Hirschhorn), contemporary artists embrace spectacle in its totality, making it the very basis of their projects, without a shred of evidence that they have so much as attempted the necessary and increasingly difficult steps of devising projects of countermemory and counterspectacle of the sort manifestly articulated in the work of artists such as Sekula and Harun Farocki.

This state of affairs was at least to some degree the immediate result of a much larger process of de-skilling and of aesthetic desublimation, the two strategies that had, paradoxically, been defined as integral to the avant-gardes since the first decade of the twentieth century, if not already in the nineteenth-century modernist subversions of the academy and the Beaux-Arts traditions. Thus, in one of the great paradoxes of the inversion of utopian radicality into its opposite, a condition of universal aesthetic entropy, we have seen how two of the most important artistic epistemes of the twentieth century—the principle of a total de-skilling, as embodied in Duchamp’s work, and the principle of a universally accessible artistic authorial identity, as embodied in the Romantic lineage from Lautréamont to Joseph Beuys’s proclamation that “everyone is an artist”—have in fact resulted in the most catastrophic assimilation of artistic production to the principles of advanced capitalist consumer culture.

View of Carsten Höller’s “The Unilever Series: Carsten Höller: Test Site,” 2006–2007, Tate Modern, London, 2006. Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Concomitant with this process of de-skilling and the consequent effacement of criteria of evaluation and distinction came the deprofessionalization of the critic: deprofessionalization in terms of both the delegitimation of the critical functions within a system of divided powers (i.e., the division between the discursive orders of the museum, the market, the media, the collectors, and, formerly, the historian and the critic) and the dissolution of actual criteria according to which the antinomic hierarchy of artistic production could be evaluated. (By antinomic hierarchy I mean the violence of aesthetic differentiation and exclusion as being constitutive of the very definition of aesthetic experience. It is the condition that Adorno once famously described as the fact that every work of art is the fatal and deadly enemy of every other.)

Precisely to sustain this extraordinary paradox of the aesthetic experience—namely, that art offers one last instantiation of mythical experience in order to sublate myth once and for all and thereby to emancipate art’s spectators from myth’s reign—was the very ambition of the anti-aesthetic from the beginning. And this defining objective of polarized opposition necessitates the most rigorous distinction and finally disqualification of hierarchical order. Yet such a challenge to hierarchy is the exact opposite of a seemingly liberal-democratic reign of a laissez-faire aesthetic pluralism serving as the handmaiden of a laissez-faire neoliberal capitalism.

It is not implausible at all, then, that under these historical conditions the industrially produced self and the artistically and politically constituted subject of spectacularized alterity have been increasingly assimilated and eventually collapsed into each other. Or rather, they have been programmatically effaced in order to resemble each other and find a forced reconciliation between artistic principles and the experiential patterns of the fashion and culture industries. When boundaries have been increasingly eliminated, by historical and economic erosion as much as by ideological planning, it is hardly surprising that the attraction is mutual: The rapidly changing cycles of the fashion and culture industries increasingly depend for their mythical reproductions on some allegedly foundational referent, serving to simulate the status of a value-retaining and value-increasing fetish object, which is, of course, the actual function of the visual artistic object today, given its complete and final removal from precisely that sphere that once opened onto a realm of political possibility and the probability of social agency.

One of the questions to be asked, then, is whether any criteria of judgment whatsoever might be reinstituted, and, if so, to which registers of social and subjective experience and construction they could possibly refer. Yet simply by invoking the term criterion, it becomes instantly evident that the very concept is charged with a profoundly reactionary structuring of experience. After all, the criteria of distinction, of qualitative differentiation, have always been dictated from above, from the judgment seat of power. We only have to remember that it was always bourgeois white men such as T. S. Eliot and Gottfried Benn in the first half of the twentieth century who insisted on the laws of aesthetic quality when confronted for the first time with the possibility of emerging proletarian practices of cultural production. And, later, in the 1960s and ’70s, when feminist artistic practices emerged, it was once again the patriarchal authorities who attacked feminist and politicized practices most vociferously. More recently, as artistic practices have emerged increasingly from outside the European and North American orders, the call for criteria of quality has risen anew from the voice of white-male patriarchal power; as always, in the name of defending tradition. Under these historical circumstances, could it be worthwhile, or even possible, to reconsider the question of the criteria of judgment and evaluation—and, if so, what function could a renewed definition of criteria possibly serve?

The desublimation of criteria entailed by the anti-aesthetic impulses of the twentieth century had aimed at a broad spectrum of social effects, of which we can sketch out only the most obvious and important ones: the collectivization of access to cultural representation, the dismantling of the classist exclusivity of bourgeois culture, the disfigurement and eventual elimination of the residual yet powerful mythical implications of visual representations and their innate bond with the desire for prelinguistic and mythical forms of experience. And not even Warhol had succeeded in obliterating all traces of the anti-aesthetic’s emancipatory project of cultural desublimation, but he had pointed in the direction of things to come.

Indeed, the artistic practices that have evolved since the late ’80s, often by artists claiming Warhol’s mantle (yet again, Koons, Hirst, Murakami, and Prince, and, more recently, lesser figures such as Rob Pruitt), promulgate precisely the opposite of an emancipatory desublimation. Such practices have instead effected an actual desublimation in which the ruling conditions of totalitarian consumer culture have been affirmatively celebrated as utterly inexorable and as intrinsically connected to any and all forms of cultural representation. In other words, we have been confronted with a dual desublimation: The first one dismantles the practices of artistic production themselves, as it programmatically denies that artistic practices might be anything but cynical affirmation of the established order; the second declares outright that defiance of and distantiation from the totalitarian regime of consumption are by now positions altogether unavailable to the contemporary spectatorial subject. These artists, mere barnacles on the Duchamp and Warhol legacies, accept—and their work, wittingly or not, urges us to accept—this framework of a spectacularized culture of consumption that brooks neither contestation nor conflict, transgression nor opposition, and stands impervious to critical negativity or semiological deconstruction.

Santiago Sierra, Séptimo acto: 8 hombres de raza negra penetraron a 8 mujeres de raza blanca (Seventh act: 8 black race men penetrated 8 white race women), 2008, black-and-white photograph, 55 x 98". From Los Penetrados (The Penetrated), 2008, El Torax, Terrassa, Spain.

THE SEEMINGLY IRRESISTIBLE MAGNETISM of the extreme forms of spectacularized exchange value generated by objects of modernist and postmodernist artistic production has even left its impact on the more industrially advanced spheres of the culture industry. Thus we are witness to an increasingly frantic attraction among the hordes of Hollywood to whatever ruins of artistic practices and institutions they are able to invade and subject to their semiotic and economic takeover. Here the paradox functions as follows: Precisely because the artist’s role in opening utopian political and semiological perspectives to actual change has been utterly vacated, the former position of the artist and the new position of the full-time employee of the culture industry become not only more similar but also more mutually attractive. Eventually they can easily be collapsed into each other, as witnessed in the emergence of such comically grotesque hybrid and hubristic media creatures as the first real Hollywood Museum Man, Jeffrey Deitch, or James Franco, who, amid the applause of the art world’s minions, can claim both the movie industry and painting as his prime domains.

With these examples firmly in mind, we have finally to recognize that the spaces and practices of cultural production no longer provide any respite or refuge, no rescue or redemption, from the universal laws of production that have by now permeated every domain of social experience and every fiber of the constitution of the subject, in manners unimaginable only three decades ago, when artistic practices still could define themselves as originating in a sphere of oppositionality and critique. Therefore, one of the tasks with which critics and historians might still be entrusted is to define those criteria that are not intrinsically bound to the reconstitution of privileged forms of experience. I will delineate here, by way of multiple lines of inquiry, only the crudest outline of the discursive forms within which these criteria might be established.

First, we must query artistic practices with respect to their implicit or explicit reflection on the actually existing conditions of social representation and ideological affirmation. And we would demand of any artistic production that it specifically consider, in each of its instantiations, to whom it is addressed and with whom, if at all, it would intend to communicate. Inevitably, under such critical pressures, these practices would come to discover and recognize that under current conditions they have assumed as one of their primary tasks the effacement of any reflection on social class. And then we must further pressure artistic practices to reflect on this disavowal, one of the guarantors of an artist’s economic success in the present. After all, the enduring and comprehensive amnesia of class is a foundational condition for the culture of the neoliberal petite bourgeoisie.

Which leads us to our next question: What would it mean to sustain, let alone return to, any particular aesthetic value of the past? For example, could we effect a return to the specificity of an autonomous aesthetic experience, such as painting, and reclaim its unique and peculiar temporality? Could we salvage the particularity of any of the great painterly idioms of the past in the discussions of visual representations in the present, under the purview of the digital empires that rule our existence in forms hardly understood, without advocating an aesthetically—and, by implication, a sociopolitically—conservative position?

And if we were indeed to advocate such a return to the slowness of painterly perception, to attempt to redeem or at least to preserve any residually accessible forms of the differentiation of subjectivity and to sustain historical memory, how would such ambitions fare within the broader perspective of a collectively structured project of emancipatory cultural politics? Furthermore, how could such a project be enacted, even if only in its most elementary forms of an aesthetic pedagogy—since that is the one domain of praxis to which academics and critics generally have access—rather than within an actual politics, from which they are explicitly barred or from which they are pressured to refrain? Finally, what is left available to us that we could call criteria of distinction and judgment that would not immediately appear as resignation, melancholia, or a restoration of some lost aesthetic, toppled authority, or relinquished cultural privilege of the bourgeoisie of the past?

One possible strategy is to intensify the annihilating forces of the anti-aesthetic, undoubtedly one of the most precarious and the most difficult courses to sustain, as Andrea Fraser, John Knight, and Tino Sehgal can surely attest. To sustain the anti-aesthetic without fusing it with its own spectacularization is one of the greatest challenges that artists currently face, or so it seems to me, since the spectacularization of negation and the spectacularization of the anti-aesthetic themselves have by now become integral elements in the arsenal of spectacle.

James Franco at the opening of “Rebel,” 2012, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 12, 2012. Photo Credit: Russ Elliot/AP.

Inevitably, one then asks, Why not return to the more solid ground of artistic skills, mobilizing what seems to provide a warranty against these forces? After all, a resurrection of skills, a reskilling, has worked very well for reinstituting mythical forms of painterly identity. But the problem, of course, is that what is at stake in the desire for returns of any kind, be they artistic or art historical, is an implicit and explicit restoration of privileged forms of experience, a quest whose reactionary implications are instantly plausible. Shoring up what is being threatened with disappearance might be a perfectly fine private motivation, but I doubt that it could qualify as a strategy of cultural and critical politics. However, another force becomes apparent in the desire for returns, and it turns out to be the most important counterdiscourse to collective spectacularization—to wit, the mnemonic functions of culture, both individually and collectively practiced. But yet again, with the exception of the extraordinary work of James Coleman, hardly any artistic practice is known to me that has radically committed itself to making the enactment of historical reflection one of its fundamental strategies and hasn’t fallen prey, as did Kiefer and Boltanski, to the aesthetic instrumentalization and spectacularization of memory, against which memory had initially risen to retrieve alternate histories, different forms of existence, incommensurable models of constructing subjectivity and social relations. And this may well have been the lesson of Marcel Broodthaers, who perpetually posed the question of whether memory could ever be enacted aesthetically without contributing to an acceleration of the fetishization of culture and an expansion of spectacle itself. Thus the project of imparting visibility to the very classes and peoples, the very spaces and sites, where history has remained nameless and without image and for whom cultural representation would in fact lead to an initiating constitution of historical identity could be one of the remaining functions of radical cultural practices, rather than an affirmation of past values and privileges now resurrected to reassert the vanishing basis of cultural legitimation defining Western societies.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University.