Monday, February 6, 2012

Buying The Art Game

Hasbro's Twister (1966); Damien Hirst's Spot Challenge (2012)
(Return to Part II)
Like "commodity", "consumerism" is not a word usually associated with art in any positive ways, but unlike commodity, that is exactly what contemporary art is: it is the art of consumerism. It is the product of consumerist societies; art made by consumers, for consumers. Because consumerism is a term that evokes alienation, complacency, passivity, obesity, malls, parking lots, sweat shops, big block stores, and wastelands of ocean-born plastic effluvia twice the size of Texas, its not surprising that artists and their supporters are shy to make any such connection. Its not a pretty mental picture - but it is also a false one. Every indicator of U.S. social dysfunction can be (and is) marched out as evidence of consumerism's failings, but this ignores the robust health of Japanese and Norwegian consumer society, and looks right past the bizar non-consumerist society the North Koreans have made for themselves.

Part of the problem of seeing consumerism for what it is rather than what it is supposed to be, is that within the artworld especially, beyond these well worn negative traits, consumerism is never defined. There is no need to define it. Like "fascist" or "asshole," functionally, it is nothing more than a meaningless slur; a "floating signifier of denunciation." Because like assholes, everyone knows exactly why its bad, there isn't any serious thought given to what consumerism is. Consumer ism is simply the thing that art stand apart from or above - it gives value to art because art is supposedly its negative, so it has to be bad. I would like to make a modest proposal, that rather than the hyper-capitalism marked by hyper-alienation of spectacle and simulacra that early theorists claimed it would be, that consumerism has turned out to be different; not just different from what it was predicted to be, but different than all the horrible things we use it as shorthand to mean.
Gluttony: Monty Python's Mr. Creosote; Damian Hirst making a #sharkface

Adding to the problem are consumers' notoriously bad self image. Madison Avenue is able to sell us everything from acne cream to gasoline based on the knowledge that we are, as a people, comically insecure about what other people think of us. But compared to other ideological frames, it is a very limited insecurity. Think of how many millions of men willingly marched to their deaths because they thought of themselves as proletariats. Consumers, be they American, Japanese, or Norwegians, are not know for their heroic sense of self-sacrifice or honor. We could add cowardice to the list of consumerist sins, but it may be that this is an aspect of our seemingly terrible self image; that we are skeptics on the deepest level. Who wants to kill or die for a cause that thrives on self doubt?

Making the link between consumerism and contemporary art is more than just chronological coincidence, after all religious fundamentalism and reactionary conservatism are contemporary phenomena that have nothing to do with contemporary art. Consumerism and the contemporary artworld are twained, they share a common historical origin. Both emerged at a particular time and place, neither "just happened" - they were both actively theorized in the face of existing pressures, with the intention of solving vexing societal challenges. Consumerism and Contemporary art are the products of Postwar New Yorkers (to be clear: not Americans, New Yorkers), seeking to counter the existential threat posed by the American/Soviet stand off. Unlike the Prewar nightmare of Nationalism, and the ideological battles of the Cold Warriors which the players intended to win absolutely, both art and consumerism were infinite games; games intended to be played, but never won.
Duchamp Playing Chess (ca1959); Damien Hirst, Mental Escapology, (2003)

The moment both emerged is what the critical theorist Hal Foster calls The Crux. In his book, The Return of the Real, Foster points out that "Postwar culture in North America and Western Europe are swamped by neos and posts." And Fosters asks, "How do we tell the difference between a return to an archaic form o art that bolsters conservative tendencies in the present, and a return to a lost model of art made to displace customary ways of working?" Although contemporary art and consumerism both came together during and at The Crux of Postwar New York, the parts were assembled from the past, and taken from all around the world. New Yorkers conceived both contemporary art and consumerism, neither as ideologies or as nationalist (that alone represents a big shift in thinking).

"Other old models are combined in apparent contradiction" Foster observes, "as when in the early 1960s artists like Dan Flavin and Carl Andre draw on such diverse precedents as Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Rodchenko and Kurt Schwitterss, or when Donald Judd contrives an almost Borgesian array of precursors..." It was at this time and place that Marcel Duchamp's notion of art, as "a game between all people of all periods" went from an esoteric notion to a core concept of what it meant to make art. This is not the sort of mutually exclusive games the Italian Futurists were playing with the historical conventions of painting, sculpture and poetry, and the Russian Constructivists were playing with the folk art devices of Orthodox peasants. This was not a game for Nationalists, no mater who trans-historical their games might be. It was a game that could only be fully played by consumerists. It was a very new way to play art; a game we started playing only very recently.
Undertitled vs overtitled: Donald Judd, Untitled (1989); Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991)

Very few premodern cultures had any notion of art or of artists as something separate, much-less a trans-historic/national game. The modern sense of the word - a realm of intellectual activity that simultaneously calls to mind everything from cave painting, to oil paintings, to ballet, to meaningful staring and Pad Thai - is ex post facto: it is a game Duchamp and Judd might play with anyone from the past, or the future, but it is a game that few premoderns would have been conceptually able to play."At this crux of the postwar period, ambitious art" Foster tells us, "often invokes different incommensurate models."

Although Duchamp is not normally associated with the concept of progress, that is a crucial precondition for his game. Otherwise "to work through to a reflexive practice" as Foster describes Judd doing, would have been impossible. Judd had to have had a faith in accumulating historical gain "to turn the very limitations of these models into a critical consciousness of history, artistic and otherwise." The game according to Foster was not arbitrary pastiche: "For Judd seeks not only to extract a new practice from these positions but to trump them as he goes." Because, by now,  we are so accustom to playing the game, so comfortable "in it's juxtaposition of the opposed positions," it is difficult to image that this is an extraordinary and peculiar way to approach the world. 
Return of The Lets Make A Deal: Hal Foster; Damien Hirst and Valentine Uhvaski (the Spot Challenge "winner")

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