THE HELD ESSAYS ON VISUAL ART
The Gold Standard
What do we see when we look at a painting? Is it the eye of the artist, his or her milieu, or the process that we follow like Ariadne’s thread to some promised destination? Or is it, perhaps, some fragment of affection that its creator felt for the object of making? Although such romantic conceits still pervade many practices, today it might be something else, like a calculated indifference that moves us in discerning the artist’s attitude. Cool is the value we most frequently attribute to this demeanor, whether we see it in the detached painterly gestures of Lucien Smith’s fire-extinguisher-made abstractions, or in the ironic content of Rob Pruitt and Jeff Koons. And, assuming the same posture, we eagerly consume this act of dissimulation, believing that it is perhaps better to avoid feeling more than the artist’s investment in the work so as not to seem the fool. Both work and viewer end at a standoff; a detente is reached. But who ultimately wins in this scenario?
Moreover, triumph in this calculus of affect may be beside the point, as any strong response to a work may be too great a hindrance to its ultimate purpose. In this light, Ben Davis has speculated that what contemporary art excels at and ultimately produces is social space itself.1 Our art fairs and biennial circuits bear perfect testimony to this fact, as do the tomb-like white boxes in which we customarily gather to celebrate the latest in artistic production. The social has increasingly become the goal of art, and the glue of art commerce, now mirrored in our social networking and sales platforms like Art.sy, Saatchi Art, and Paddle 8. Indeed, virtual and actual art consumption frequently merge as distracted browsing, ocular fatigue, and convenient if reductive categorization define new norms of spectatorship.2 So, what kind of artwork prospers in this new networked sphere?
While some, like Claire Bishop, would point to the relational works that mirror the dialogic paradigms of the Web, I would argue that the formal corollary in object-based works—especially in process—displays a different character.3 Stripped down and often quickly made, or else outsourced to many fabricators or assistants, these works privilege promotion and circulation rather than time-consuming individual labor. And labor is still a key term when it comes to the art commodity—particularly painting—that, unlike other commodities, promises individual labor as a transcendental value. Today, in the absence of firm aesthetic and historical criteria, this labor translates into a kind of investment that justifies our own financial and psychological investment in the work. Yet the slippery meaning of investment, as affective, conceptual, technical, or financial, also generates a particular field of objects.4
We might only look at the dirt-stained canvases of Oscar Murillo, or at the outsourced, high-shine idols of Jeff Koons, to grasp this continuum. As extreme instances of market investment and invested labor (affective on the one hand and technical/monetary on the other), they highlight the Duchampian case that the aesthetic character of the object becomes arbitrary—a mere alibi for a byzantine system of capital, power, and prestige. Conversely, the artist who risks investing an inordinate amount of personal labor on the object—once the guarantor of value measured in precious materials, skill, and time—now risks disengaging from a field defined by scarcity yet rapidly expanding into a global map of art fairs and exhibition opportunities.
Pressed by this dilemma, or aspiring toward this market, today’s artwork frequently splits the difference and retreats to the familiar part-object that now merely alludes to individual labor rather than contains it. It leaves us, in other words, with increasingly “provisional” creations, or else, with fabricated productions of mental labor cleaved into an ostensibly higher form of creativity.5
Reflecting on this field of objects and our distracted absorption within it, might we not see an echo of our other, divided lives—the tweeting, liking, posting, Instagramming that now immerses us in a surrogate world? In this new visual regime, artworks pour over us in bulk. Image takes precedence over process. And the image’s power, as David Joselit and some “post-internet” champions suggest, no longer lies in its affective ability to move us in some resolute, lasting way, but rather in its circulation through the system as a whole.6
While some may simply recognize here the vagaries of a Structuralist-cum-digital paradigm, where the meaning (and value) of a work derives from a field of differences, surrender to this abyss marks its own kind of fatalism. For one, it can impoverish the object, conceding that its work is never finished and, correctly, never wholly exhausted by its form. But in never venturing toward coherence, complexity of content, form, or political aspiration, such an object impoverishes us too.7
Moreover, work yielded by this mindset also mirrors the speculation of finance capital that has grown around it. A recent Bloomberg article, for instance, details how a new frenzy of buying and flipping work by young, mostly male abstract artists has attracted a new breed of collector-traders who are “pushing these artists like IPOs.”8 Though such investment in art as an asset is nothing new, the aesthetically blinkered mentality of this recent trend is conspicuous in its parallel to the trading of derivatives and other financial instruments that traffic in side-bets rather than the productive capacity of companies or the abstracted labor power congealed in the traditional commodity form.
Is it too much to conjecture, then, that a work conditioned by or anticipating this context devolves into a kind of placeholder or formal proxy of a work rather than something tasked with producing a plentitude of affect?9 No longer able to transfix or disrupt, captivate or transgress, the artwork becomes a mere husk of its former ambitions—a hollowed out vehicle adapted to the differential circuits of exchange.
Lest this be construed as an argument for spectacle or craft registered in laborious detail, it is neither. However, when the artwork relinquishes its effort to grasp the viewer, it falls into the background, and so casts a different spectacle to the fore. If for Michael Fried this was the operation performed by Minimalist works, today it is the many works that are content to foreground our social and economic theater as mere backdrops. Acting as props for what Davis calls our “theme parties,” their ambition is to not get in the way, to lubricate rather than detour conversation. In this familiar staring contest no one blinks, but who again is the winner?
Yet, what would it mean to argue for a different contest? Does it mean, naively, that a work’s internal attributes can overcome our social-aesthetic network thereby outshining its spectacle? Such may be the romantic dream of a work piercing the image stream—a hope against hope that the object can transcend the very context that supplies it with meaning. Or, as in finance, might an appeal to intrinsic value distinguish a work via a kind of criterion: a standard? If, as the editor of this series Jonathan T.D. Neil writes, the asset that art most resembles is gold, what would it mean to appeal to a gold standard in art?10 To be sure, such an appeal to criteria free of differential determination is nothing new. We see it in any number of works that index their value by imitating jewels or precious metals (e.g., Rudolf Stingel, Rashaad Newsome, or Jacob Kassay), in traditional artists of the “atelier movement,” who uphold classical, “timeless values,” and ultimately, in Damien Hirst’s “For the Love of God” (2007), a $100 million, diamond-encrusted skull that confuses aesthetic values with materialist ones.
In all of these cases we are assured the art is worth our attention. Its worth, after all, is guaranteed by the artist’s investment, and thus the asset is free of risk.11 Yet such an attitude, shared equally by financiers and “new old masters,” isolates only the narrowest meaning of investment (technical and material), and in so doing, evacuates all artistic risk from the work as well.
The arguments that the traditionalist may put to us here are indeed persuasive. “We at least seek some inherent merit to the artwork,” he may say, “whereas you have constructed a new academicism based on rhetoric, a domain of costly, intellectual privilege, and on an equally standardized international style populated with so many deskilled conceptual and relational artworks. You have simply displaced artistic labor into the fashioning of press releases, and made it available for purchase in expensive programs proffered under the false advertising of democratization, and now you suffer the price. Who among you is not an artist? The same logic that once functioned to unshackle aesthetic value from its historical moorings in courtly art has now produced the tributary currency of a nomadic global court.” He may even grow apocalyptic: “Isn’t it inevitable that as this system succumbs to whatever financial crisis still awaits us, that we will witness a resurgence of long suppressed traditional attributes as guarantors of value? Artists run to the statues; your time has come!”
This counterrevolution may be the hidden wish of many. Even those with more progressive temperaments may long for a restoration, realizing that to build an art world and an academy solely on the deconstructive act leaves us navigating rubble. But while we lament our field of fragments and our transformed cultural thoroughfares, we would do well to remember that this revenge of the object—already foreshadowed in so many neo-modernist works—will be far worse than our current predicament. It may, for instance, accompany a dramatic collapse or some tyrannical new Terror. Such a regime change would promise order, a return to immutable values that would ostensibly compensate us for our aesthetic impoverishment and the relativist decadence that led us to the brink. Yet who among us, reared equally on such impoverishment and the vanguard ideals that still sustain it, does not fear that day?
There is, however, an alternative, where painting and object-based art confront the viewer as a generosity—an investment in us. Although, for many, this ambition has migrated to social practice, which may brand studio work as market-bound, authorial, and so corrupted, this dismissal only cleaves the social from the object and deepens today’s stalemate. But must we follow? When the object can bridge this divide, not only by recollecting its utopian ambitions but also by displacing the burden of politics from formal operations to the sphere of progressive and even transformative distribution. (Were these not the lessons of Productivism, the Bauhaus?)
Absent some collective criteria, we might cautiously venture evaluating this object, too, not only in its commitment to our sensory acuity (not our stupefaction), to its promise of new forms of public address, and to its vision of a shared, more just future. This gift: of care for us analogously expressed through form, is what so many of us crave in artwork as we travel the pathways of our social-aesthetic networks. We see it on occasion in museums and galleries but wrongly project its grander ambitions to the past or set it as a rare exception. Its standards are our standards and they can still guide us. And, should this object stop us in mid-conversation, this will only be a testament to its value. Our companions may even forgive us, stop too, and join us in taking a longer, closer look.
- See Ben Davis, “Speculations on the Production of Social Space in Contemporary Art, with Reference to Art Fairs.” Artinfo (October 5, 2012).
- As Instagram and Tumblr remind us, the image—the Internet’s analogue of an artwork—is merely the occasion to socialize, comment, draw hierarchies and distinctions, even while these platforms promise democratization.
- See Claire Bishop, “The Digital Divide,” Artforum (April, 2012).
- As a brief catalog of investments that guarantee value for many contemporary practices consider: affective investment witnessed in expressionist and confessional work; material investment in highly produced, fabricated work; technical investment in highly detailed and laborious work; temporal investment in performative “endurance” work; and ethical/political investment in the sphere of social practice. I am indebted in these thoughts to Jonathan T. D. Neil’s 2008 paper “Aesthetics of Effort,” though here I am expanding on effort as a guarantee of value in order to signal a kind of affective, committed intent, or else something more passive and seemingly beyond question. This invisible standard that nevertheless impregnates the work is showcased most prominently in biographically anchored, confessional work and in social practice. For the legibility of effort as a guarantee of value see Jonathan T.D. Neil, “The Aesthetics of Effort,” unpublished manuscript, available at www.jonathantdneil.com/articles
- For more on provisional painting see Raphael Rubinstein’s “Provisional Painting Parts 1 and 2,” Art in America (May, 2009 & February, 2012).
- See David Joselit, After Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). Also see Brad Troemel “Athletic Aesthetics,” The New Inquiry (May 10, 2013), on quantitatively-based virality as a new aesthetic ambition.
- More broadly, if the work of the past—and modernism in particular—promised a plentitude to the spectator, it also labored to map this narrowly universalized subject ethically, cognitively, and sensually into his or her time. Today, however, such an ambition has been abandoned as artists compete to be symptoms of the contemporary, often pictured ironically, if not opportunistically, as a state of inexorable decline.
- Katya Kazakina, “Art Flippers Pursue Emerging Stars as Doodles Surge 5,600%,” Bloomberg.com (February 6, 2014).
- For more on contemporary art and the trading of derivatives see Melanie Gilligan, “Derivative Art,” It’s the Political Economy Stupid, ed. Gregory Sholette and Oliver Ressler (New York: Pluto Press, 2013).
- Jonathan T.D. Neil, “What is art? Nothing more than an asset, really. And what’s wrong with that?”Art Review (December 2013).
- Again, for more on risk management in art, see Neil, “Aesthetics of Effort.”