Recessional Aesthetics

The following piece was published in the Spring 2009 (No. 128) issue of October, in which readers were invited to submit responses to seven questions on the subject of art and the financial crisis.

1) What will the effects of the recession be on the social role of the artist?

Our contemporary vernacular of recessions and temporary crashes implies a normal state of activity somehow visited by momentary disturbances. Yet nothing is further from the reality of capitalism, whose difficult secret is the self-moving commotion of permanent crisis. A collective politics could never take the form of an emergency response to a particular crisis of capital accumulation. Artists are not generated by the difficulties of profit-making. The artist becomes active, rather, through a subjective decision. Such a decision is not an occurrence along the way, but an act in spite of the world; not a symptomatic prompting by the world, but a decision against its automaticity. Militant decisions are always subtracted from objective determinants: reality, economy, incorporated situations. The social role of the artist is grounded in the decision to work on a new possibility inexistent within the coordinates of the contemporary world, no less the art world.

2) Is the art museum of the neoliberal era sustainable?

Today, the neoliberal art museum is sustained by its very unsustainability, much like the museum’s larger economic milieu. Faced with ever-increasing cuts to funding, combined with the exorbitant cost of exhibiting, art museums are driven to find funding, and art itself, elsewhere. In this environment, financial instability operates as the pretext for collective collusion with all unstable agents (psychologically and otherwise): banks, corporations and philanthropists. For us, it is not a question of finding an alternative model of funding to the current neoliberal model, or even making presentation more ‘sustainable’ within late capitalism. Instead it is a matter of discovering an inoperative model vis-a-vis the neoliberal museum. Our task is similar to the one once outlined by Walter Benjamin: in addition to discovering an art that would be useless to fascism, we must produce an art utterly useless to neoliberalism and its capitalist relatives.

If what comes of unflinching decisions is the endangering of existing spaces, it should be clarified that collective artist spaces should and must thrive. This is a fundamental point to hold on to – studios and other communal art spaces should be nurtured, supported and squatted if necessary. Public institutions should not be justified or defended through the antique distinction of “public” vs. “private,” but rather re-articulated in the fundamental tension between the “public” (co-dependent with the “private”) and the common. For us, the question today is how to turn a public museum into an artistic space for the common.

3) Might art biennials (and related exhibitions) wither away?

Should art biennials wither away? – Yes. Will they now? – Not necessarily, but remain hopeful, they will soon! The survival or extinction of our global biennials is in the hands a radical decision: Should art remain bound and confined to cultural tourism, private sponsorship, brand promotion; or should it seek out alternative forms of presentation that force such modes into a state of inoperativity?

4) How will art schools adapt?

Today, the question we should ask ourselves is not how to continue teaching as such – adaptation is the logic of survivalists. The challenge is to altogether re-evaluate our pedagogy so as to effectuate the common. The most profound challenge to the thoughtless professional vitalism promoted in our art schools is the commitment to an idea. Only through our collective strength can we contest the unmoving victory of ‘interests’ that has somehow overtaken the force of the Idea.

Our collective revision of pedagogy should be centered on three fundamental questions. First and foremost, how can we change the classroom so that it will produce subjects (artistic, political, scientific)? Secondly, how can we initiate novel aesthetic possibilities for the sensible? And lastly, how can we produce new innovative spaces of artistic potential at a distance from the structured dominance of the situation (university, global art market, gallery system)? Responses to these questions could never rest on a blueprint for their realization. Only within the situation, through struggle, will the means be realized. With that said, it must be stressed that any particular strategy must be guided by the axiomatic presupposition, without the guarantee of ‘proof’ or experiential data, of intellectual equality of all students (and professors), an equality that preserves the commitment to the elevation of ideas over opinions, including the hierarchical evaluation of received opinions in favor of emergent ideas and practices.

5) How might art criticism become relevant again?

By default, criticism is itself a corrupted practice, requiring all sorts of arbitrary masters, slaves, and powerless individuals for its sustenance. The critic is like a comfortable doctor for the terminally ill, simply administering patients on life support. The patient, of course, is the exceptionless enclosure of the contemporary art world.

To conceptualize an exceptional artistic practice, criticism must instead subtract itself from the status quo, a task not identical to critique. Art criticism should not be preoccupied with navigating the obscenities of this-or-that corrupted practice, this-or-that idiotic curator; on the contrary, it should break away from all intellectual servility through a subjective decision. Of course we still require a rigorous analysis of what there is, but we should also remain open to the compossibility of truths, the possibility of innovation, and the thinking of collective emancipation. Here the writer serves an indispensible role as a map-maker of innovation, investigator of novel experience, as well as a positive affirmationist – all forms of writing that can support notions of justice, emancipation, equality, and especially, profanation.

6) Does the art world bear any responsibility for the economic downturn?

Yes. Insider trading, money laundering, hyper-consumerism, professionalization, predatory practices of all kinds – these are not strictly characteristics of the ‘great rip off’, i.e. the crisis, but are also the naturalized practices of the contemporary art world. But while the art world best symptomizes and expresses the contemporary victory and conquest of capitalist ideology, this does not mean that an exceptional mode of life does not exist. If we remain vigilant, we will become incorruptible.

7) Whether the Obama stimulus package represents a break in the neoliberal regime, or simply a neo-Keynesian moment of public spending, might it reawaken a sense of common stake that might be extended, indeed insisted on, in other spheres like the artistic and the cultural?

A collective politics is the sharing of a common stake, today incommensurable to all State actions. The ineffective attempts by the Obama administration to rescue this system of thoughtless domination and extreme privilege should not be celebrated. By contrast, what is produced in collective action, at a distance from the State, is the very fabric of the common. To uphold an existence that thrives at a distance from stifling bureaucracy, beyond servility, besides professionalism, is the very texture of a form-of-life of the common. A meeting of artist, activist, intellectuals, workers of all ethnicities and social classes is infinitely more productive than any emergency re-distribution of funds by the Treasury. If the state’s circuit management is its means of survival, its productivity is only opposed to the production of the commons.

8 ) Are there historical examples of socioeconomic crisis that might guide art world responses to the current one?

Every moment of exceptional innovation arises when the logic of capital is thwarted; where aesthetic and sensible experience becomes maximal; where emancipation transforms from an inexistent impossibility to an existent possibility. It is not a matter of historicizing the present, but of foreseeing it. Not a matter of re-enacting revolutionary historical sequences, but redeeming their potential. For us, hope is not hidden in history, but in the eternal present of creation. At the level of artistic practice, there are collective examples in the mould of 16beaver, Raqs Media Collective, colourschool; individual practices such as that of Martha Rosler, Coco Fusco, and Paul Chan; and most importantly, a whole range of unknown practices that we are unaware of, preludes of a community to-come. There are reasons for collective hope because we are living in times of great experimentation.

Nathan Crompton,
Andrew Witt,


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