Good-Bye To All That

Chris Kraus
Where Art Belongs
(Semiotext(e), 2011)

Chris Kraus’s new essay collection is entitled Where Art Belongs. It is not a question, as in, “Where Does Art Belong?”;it is a categorical statement. This, added to the fact that it is released on Semiotext(e)’s recent InterventionSeries, which also includes the anarchist manifesto The Coming Insurrection, gives the reader the expectation that he is about to hear an updated cry for art to return to the barricades. But Where Art Belongs is not a declaration of principles or a guidebook for revolutionary praxis: it is too clever, too savvy to do something as direct, as sincere, as20th centuryas all that. Instead, Where Art Belongs is a rather narcotic drift through some sections of the past decade’s art world that the author thinks are particularly hip and worth chronicling. And, rather than a revision of the last century’s spirit, we ultimately receive a lifeless repetition of its platitudes, disguised by references to postmodern thought.

Despite its general opacity and its tendency to endorse the putatively trendy, there are a few main points made about contemporary art that one can extract from the book: 1) “All art is now conceptual, defined by its stance in relation to other art and its place in the market.” 2) It is naive to try to stake a position for or against “global capitalism”; it is just an unavoidable matrix we all live in. 3) Underground collectives and scenes, although fragile and ephemeral, are somehow still desirable, if not as anti-capitalist cells, then as refuges for all those who just can’t be down with the square community. 4) “Like pornography, art no longer exists because it is virtually everywhere.” (Note that 1 and 4 appear on the same page.)

An investigation of these ideas might have made a very stimulating book, if Kraus’s writing did not combine the desperate laziness of a graduate student trying to finish up his dissertation with the plodding narration of an airport novel and a puerile fascination with synonyms for the word penis. Some sentences sound like Woody Allen’s send-ups of high intellectual pomp, but without any detectable humor. Entire essays are summaries of rather banal subcultural happenings. The theoretical slogans that dot the book are largely slavish repetitions of Jean Baudrillard that manage to be at once sensationalist and pedestrian: Kraus proposes that art has ceased to exist because of the market-driven proliferation of images today; everyday life has become so saturated with artistic media that there is no autonomous realm for aesthetic production.

Some performances, some artists, and some scenes do in fact seem to excite Kraus, or at least suggest interesting possibilities to her—for example, L.A. collective Tiny Creatures, art supergroup Bernadette Corporation, artists Moyra Davey and Elke Krystufek—but nothing is described evocatively. Kraus appears to relish her experience traveling the country with the Sex Workers’ Art Show and invoking the ire of a Christian group in Virginia. Provoking the religious right to absurd heights of hysteria can be a funny and worthwhile endeavor, but it is as difficult as upsetting a grandmother’s dinner party with a juicy expletive, and about as revolutionary to boot. And, despite these giddy interludes, on the whole Kraus flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence.

In a few parts the merely boring gives way to the actually objectionable. For instance, the author rather glibly notes the endless cycle of violence engulfing northern Mexico before quickly transitioning to remarks about the overall pleasant climate on her leisurely trip to that country to work on a novel and do research on trends in psychoanalysis. This episode typifies the attitude to the outside world in Kraus’s criticism: It is characterized as a disturbing and chaotic place, but those qualities are described in such a detached way that it reduces them to the status of spectacle, before the focus retreats to a more comfortable, cerebral redoubt.

The fatigue, jadedness, and cynicism that constitute the atmosphere of the book are punctuated by an incongruous credulity toward shallow and fading trends. While reading “Indelible Video,” I alarmed my fellow strap-hangers by exclaiming, “You have got to be fucking kidding me!” After describing American Apparel’s repeated rip-offs of artists for its marketing campaigns and admiringly quoting its loutish founder’s enlightening dictum “We can do whatever the fuck we want!,” Kraus writes:

Like Whole Foods, American Apparel polemicizes dreary consumption.... Using conceptual art’s self-reflexivity, it could be that antibrands like American Apparel, achieving much of their psychic power from the real-time lives of their employees, are able to reach more deeply into the culture than art ever can.

Surely this is an absurdist joke or a sly provocation that I’ve fallen for. This kind of writing may give us a clue into Kraus’s theoretical musings while she’s picking out a new T-shirt or an organic Belgian endive, but it does not result in anything remotely approaching an interesting cultural observation; it belongs in a marketing book that’s trying too hard and wants to hang out in the critical theory section of the bookstore. It is also surprising that an author who is so keen on promoting her own street cred would entirely damn her own pretensions to coolness in a few short sentences by giving this tired old story even the most perfunctory of nods.

Although she uses the first person constantly, Kraus insists in interviews that her work is not memoir and not confessional, and that she is trying to access an a-personal, literary “I.” (Kraus is fond of quoting philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s statement “life is not personal.”) Let’s take the author’s word for it and try to view the book as generated by the conventions of a genre instead of from the author’s personal experience, with the “I” being more like a hard-boiled detective’s than Rousseau’s. That genre would certainly not be “traditional” art criticism. Leo Steinberg wrote that the best criticism could only hope to generate tomorrow’s clichés—to say first what everyone would soon repeat—but Where Art Belongs simply dresses up yesterday’s in more dour garb: It is yet another variation on the well-worn Marxist “late capitalism” trope, without the concomitant moral force or critical insight. At the same time it is a type of exhausted, potboiler-variety gonzo journalism that tries with every breath to conceal the fact that it drips with nostalgic sentiment for modernism, for movements, for avant-gardes, for punk, for May ’68, for the lost ability to “shock the bourgeoisie.”

Behind its cool and distant facade, this book suggests that art—stripped of its cultural meaning and maybe even of its very existence—belongs in a prefab bohemia, packaged together with all the myths and bromides of 20th-century art, but without any of its courage or originality. Contained in it is the belief that it is not really so important that one actually make, perform, or conceive art, but that one live according to a certain notion of how an artist should live. The sheer number of artists working today, seemingly unconcerned with the aesthetic apocalypse that we have supposedly lived through, quickly belies her hollow declarations about art’s dissolution. I don’t think anybody really believes that art no longer exists, but when it is reduced to a lifestyle, to a kind of specialized consumption—like self-regarding shopping at Whole Foods—then we might worry.

Contributor

John Ganz

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