|Work is the Obscene and Shameful Secret of Art
Essay for ‘Futurology’ project
Curated by Hewitt and Jordan
|Work is the Obscene and Shameful Secret of Art
It is all very well for commentators to enjoin artists to understand their own struggle within the ideological and productive apparatuses, but without an explicit attempt to grasp the materials (including the conceptual materials) with which a technical transformation may be at least dimly thought, we are left with no more than conviction and sentiment.
For any artist who suspects that the routine and dominant terms of contemporary art perpetuate closures and silences in the practices and interpretation of art, it is going to be a necessary and urgent task to analyse the structures that govern meaning. However, to become aware of the ways in which meaning is constructed and perpetuated in art and to become articulate about one’s own position in relation to these structures is not enough. The point is not only to understand the absences, divisions and silences in the ways in which art functions but also to have some idea of how change might occur. An analysis and critique of what is wrong within contemporary art only goes so far; art must address the potential transformation of art.
These demands are nothing new. The historical avant-garde, in various forms and at various times, struggled against the dominance of established institutions in art, with their concomitant discourses, conventions and so on. The avant-garde sought not only to understand and contest its own position within art but also to transform the social relations of art within which it was constituted. Refusals to conform in practice to accepted methodologies and technologies for art making were allied to demands for the merging of art and everyday life. Nowadays, these two projects of the avant-garde are routinely caricatured and separated as, on the one hand, a simplistic and nihilistic rebelliousness within art and, on the other, a naïve utopian longing outside the proper sphere of art altogether. In contrast to such dismissive accounts, it needs to be maintained that the radicality of the avant-garde was precisely in the insistence of the necessary conjunction of the two projects: the struggle to negate the absences perpetuated by the then current institutions of art together with the transformation of the social relations of art. Indeed, these could be seen not as two distinct projects but as two aspects of the same project. Anti-art practices of destruction, negation, refusal, confrontation and the like were not signs of nihilistic revolt: rather, these things were aimed (on the whole) precisely at undermining specific, constraining, orthodoxies within art. And these constraining orthodoxies were taken to be the specific expression within art of the general divisions of a divided society.
The idea of the readymade is a prime example of the negating practice of the avant-garde: the absenting of absences. Contemporaneous accounts of artistic subjectivity held the artist to be an intuitive and expressive vessel: an account which absences a good deal of the artist’s self, including, for example, intelligence and criticality. THese absences not only despoil those things they leave out; they lead to a limited and flase view of what they purport to value: intuition and expression, for example. The readymade does not add on positive characteristics to the intuitive and expressive individual but absents the absences of that model. In so doing, the readymade demands a transformation, not adaptation, in the ways in which we can think about and make art. This radicality in the idea of the readymade is routinely passed over. The traditions of art which the readymade aimed to negate, judge it to be merely a provocative and illicit move: the readymade is cast as an inversion, which implicity confirms established divisions and distinctions. The readymade is seen as a temporary exception to which side of the division is valued. Such a reading is only made with a good deal of inattention.
For example, Tristan Tzara’s infamous recipe for a poem is routinely taken to be a first order account of his practice: a nihilistic embracing of chance. The text runs as follows:
Take a newspaper.
It is at this point that most accounts leave off. But it finishes:
The poem will resemble you.
These last lines make it clear that this is not to be read as a first order account. Indeed, the irony of this writing is a precise negation of the habitual and entrenched contemporaneous modes of attention to poetry. In the face of an interpretation that is going to take whatever words a poet presents as a sign of individual sensitivity and expression, one might as well draw random words out of a bag. What is being negated from within the then prevalent cultural orthodoxy, is the negation of the poet as a self-conscious and critical being. This negation of a negation (in Tzara’s work) is the attempt to transform not the structure and form of the words that a poets writes but rather what it is that a poet is (and is not). Nowadays, the readymade has been thoroughly absorbed into the positive lexicon of art. To describe the readymade in positive terms (as an innovative methodology, for example, or the assertion of the power of the artist) is to obscure the radicality in negating negations.
For the historical avant-garde, the divisions within art were continuous with the divisions elsewhere in society. The merging of art and everyday life was not about overcoming a putative division between art and everything else but about seeing the divisions within art as being the same as those in everyday life: divisions predicated upon, and reproducing, absences, lacks, ills, aporias, negations and so on. It was necessary to impugn the idea of art as something special and separate from everything else as a prerequisite for transforming the divisions and absences internal to art.
Transformation is neither an end, nor a good, in itself. Terry Eagleton reminds us that: “No way of life in history has been more in love with transgression and transformation, more enamoured of the hybrid and pluralistic, than capitalism.” Capitalism is both thoroughly egalitarian and instrumental in the way it makes everything subservient to the need to make a profit. It is the transforming practices of capitalism that themselves need to be transformed. The point is that capitalist transformation propagates division and absence in bringing everything under the spell of the commodity: of universalising exchange value. Radical transformation, in contrast, is the absenting of absences. Absences (such as those of freedom, equality and mutual self-determination) are real determinate factors in hindering the flourishing of all. It is these negations that need to be negated.
Without the radical idea of transformation we are left with the liberal idea of corruption and change. The liberal supports individual freedom without seeing the need for radical social transformation: without seeing the freedom of all as a condition of the freedom of each. This view leads to a doubling of reality. For the liberal, the misworkings of the present system can only be blamed on human failings: a lack of organisation or will; the wrong person in charge; the contingencies of evil. Thus, behind the reality that can be readily perceived - the global scale of suffering and poverty caused by the workings of capital - there is postulated another agent or agency responsible for the system going wrong. The concentration on isolated individuals and events deflects attention from the need of a critique of capitalism itself. Against the liberal, the marxist must insists that poverty is intrinsic and inevitable to the workings of capitalism itself.
A corollary of this liberal thinking is what Slavoj Zizek calls interpassivity: this is change in order that things stay exactly as they are. Zizek gives the example of humanitarian aid to the Third World. Whilst absolutely necessary in alleviating the immediate pain of others, such good deeds do nothing to alleviate the cause of the suffering: the cause is, in the last instance, the necessities of capitalism itself. Indeed, the provision of aid is necessary for the continuation of capitalist business as usual, which sees capital flowing from the poorest countries in the world into the richest, with crippling results. At a personal level, the liberal can invest time and money in good causes or doing good deeds: these actions both assuage guilt and at the same time prevent his or her privileged position from being jeopardised: a position dependent on the current relations of capitalism. It is telling that the liberal inevitably invests political action as being elsewhere: at a remove from his or her own places of work and living.
If it is thus vital for artists both to contest the meanings and interpretations of what it is that they do as well as to do things that might resist comfortable and contented interpretation, this is not all. To avoid interpassivity, artists must be engaged with their immediate conditions. Transformation must be critically self-aware: agency is the unity of theory and practice in practice. However, it is neither easy nor straightforward to see how this might be done. For conceptual art of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the very inclusion of self-reflexive, critical theory into practice was a political act against the Modernist hegemony of sensuous particularity. Conceptual art smashed to bits the Modernist idea of the artist as an emotive, universal-expressing subject. Radicality lay in the process of groups of artists talking about philosophy, language and art, not necessarily in the particular words said. It could be remarked that this does not sound like a very robust form of resistance - but what is it about resistance that might make us expect that it should be robust? Robust or not, this was not just a question of interpretation or what artists could say: it was to change what it was that artists could do.
The political gains of conceptualism have long since been recuperated. If the so-called “conceptual artist” is the mainstay of contemporary art, this is in an impoverished and tamed manner. The idea of the articulate artist can come to mean a kind of entrepreneur of meanings and techniques: the artist as someone who pitches ideas to curators, critics and the like. It is now expected that the artist has a lot to say about what it is that he or she does. However, the content of what is said is largely irrelevant in relation to the structural necessity that something is said. What is said is treated merely as a kind of circumstantial evidence in the pursuit of meaning. Art is now full of theoretical talk. The dominant ideological discourses of the interpretation of art encompass and embrace such talk: an artist’s theoretical talk goes to promote his or her art over and above what the particular content of that theory might be. The discourses of those responsible for the reception and distribution of art can accommodate contradictions and critique. Talk is a necessary accessory for art, where what is promoted as art is ideas. The dilemma for any artist wishing to articulate discontent with the current constitution of art and its discourses is that the words of the artist, however provocative, irreverent or oppositional, are liable to be taken as confirmation of the power of art as it is. Words are not enough.
For the conceptual artist of the late 1960s, the battle to gain a voice was a radical move against the then current cultural division of labour, which rendered the artist mute. For the radical wing of conceptual art, becoming articulate was not about the promotion of ideas but part of the interrogation of the ontological status of the art object and the processes through which art came to acquire meaning. The pursuit of such questions was in itself a transformation of what it was that an artist did or might do. In the current, competitive, de-materialised environment of art as an economy of ideas, radical transformation must be not only about what artists say and think but about what it is that they might do.
Ideas are the latest form that the products of art have taken. Ideas can be just as much products as objects, videos and performances. Only a severely curtailed ontology would take arts products to be physical entities. Art is not products and their meanings, of whatever kind. Any adequate ontology of art must include the processes of the production of art and the social relations which maintain it.
Thinking of art in terms of the work and agency might offer a way to situate the artist in current social relations, whilst holding out some kind of promise of the transformation of those relationships. Work is, perhaps, one thing that contemporary capitalism cannot easily colonise or turn into consumption. Work, as a fundamental category of capitalism, is elided in its accounts of itself. Zizek notes how organised labour is only ever depicted in mainstream cinema as criminal activity, which must be destroyed: think of the master-criminal’s industrious lair in any number of James Bond films, for example. To think of art in terms of the work of the artist (and its possible transformation) might be one way to avoid both the contemporary dominance of ideas supported by objects and also the modernist paradigm of objects supported by ideas.
To talk of work is not necessarily to rehash ideas of the dignity of labour nor other romantic misrepresentations of oppressive toil. For Marx, work is the transformation of natural things by human agency: it is the fundamental category in the production and reproduction of society. Against the alienated work of capitalist necessity it is possible to put forward a marxist and utopian potential for work to be unalienated, collaborated and self-determined activity. This is an argument against the division of labour. The problem nowadays is not only the division but the denial of labour.
In a recent essay on the colonisation of utopia, Steve Edwards ends up with the speculation that art could stand as a utopian model for work. The task is to rethink work on the basis of the combination of the revolutionary tradition with the innovations of the avant-garde. According to Edwards, this is what William Morris did, although the extent to which he could re-imagine work was limited by his fixation on craft labour, with its conception of individually produced artefacts. In contrast, Edwards concludes:
The model of twentieth-century art provides a different conception on which to re-engage work - one that still combines the mental and manual, and which sees work as a project of self making - in that it also allows us to image such a vision combined with technology and technical specialism, capable of grasping contradiction and the energies of metropolitan life: film, video art or photography, not the handicrafts, provide our models.
What characterises “late capitalism” is the split between the production of cultural experiences as such and its (partially invisible) material base, between the Spectacle (of theatrical experience) and its secret staging mechanisms; far from disappearing, material production is still here, transfunctionalised into the supporting mechanism for the stage production. In today’s ideological perception, work itself (manual labour as opposed to the “symbolic” activity of cultural production), not sex, appears as the site of obscene indecency to be concealed from the public eye.
In the West, capitalism has colonised the idea of abundance through its ability to deliver vast quantities of consumer goods. It is fundamental that these goods and their consumption are divided off both from the conditions of production of the goods and the conditions of work under which the consumer earned the money to pay for the goods. Continual and excessive consumption is normalised and internalised. It is this picture of the abundance of goods in the West that global capital uses to ‘encourage’ free market economies and deregulation in the Third World. Of course, what this means in practice is both the removal of barriers to capital being taken out of poor countries by global corporations and the creation of an ‘ideal’ workforce: one free from such things as unions, health and safety laws and employment laws. And the fulfilment of the promise of a consumerist lifestyle to Third World workers is endlessly deferred.
A corollary of all these consumable goods is the leisure time to purchase and enjoy them. This time of consumption equates to the utopian ideal of idleness. Idleness comes to mean the act of being consumed within the process of consumption, rather than a break from the oppression of meaningless toil.
Sexual freedom is also colonised by contemporary capitalism. What were once transgressions of perceived norms of sexual behaviour are now routinely discussed and promoted as potential cultural experiences. Last year Time Out recommended its readers try dogging (strangers gathering to watch other strangers having sex in public places) as something to try as a casual New Year treat. Sexual experience and identity become consumable events. Excess and indulgence are normalised by contemporary capitalism: the contemporary Western subject is saturated by the super-ego injunction “Enjoy!” Consumption is radically broken off from both it conditions of production and its consequences.
For Edwards, the transformation of work remains one area of revolutionary utopian thought that has not been colonised by capitalism and for good marxist reasons. Despite continually reinventing itself, capitalism fundamentally still relies on the extraction of surplus value from labour. And unlike abundance, idleness and sexual transgression, which are terms of consumption, work is agency.
Following Morris, Edwards looks to art to provide a model of utopian work. I want to argue that this relationship cuts both ways. Social and cultural divisions run equally and continuously through both the worlds of work and art, not between them. It is equally pertinent to look to work to provide a model for art in this precise sense: as a way to understand and position the artist within the relations of production.
Walter Benjamin theorised the idea of the author as a producer as a way of grounding the meaning of the author’s activity within its conditions of production. For Benjamin there was no point in analysing the author’s practice in terms of sovereignty over the meaning of objects; a critique of the author’s practice should look at the position of the author as a producer and not at the objects that he or she made. Thus:
The dialectical approach to this question [of form and content] has absolutely no use for such rigid, isolated things as work, novel, book. It has to insert them into the living social contexts.
Benjamin is concerned to shift attention away from the question of the attitude a work displays towards the relations of production of its time, towards the more radical question of what is its position within those relations of production. For Benjamin, this is to be concerned directly with what he calls the literary technique of works. And this, in turn, is to situate the writer as a producer who struggles and intervenes within his or her conditions of work. In contrast, the writer as author, who contents him- or herself with jurisdiction over meaning, can never contest the mechanism which generate and fix the possibilities and limitations of meaning.
Art & Language revisited the question of author and producer. They were concerned with the ways in which the artist qua producer is misrepresented in the discourses of the artist qua author.
To say that art is produced is not to reduce it to something entirely determined by the economic, nor to a mere expression of the economic. Furthermore, we assert its relative autonomy. Indeed, “basic” to certain formations will be certain practices. These will involve beliefs and so forth. And these in turn will involve representation of other practices and forms and so forth. We are not concerned to be seen to theorise the absolute priority of the economic. We are concerned to point out that the world of art produces contradictions (that is, misrepresentation of it basic structures), and that these are necessary for those basic structures, and furthermore that given the relativity of relative autonomy these may themselves be misrepresentation, or entail misrepresentations of structures basic to capitalism etc. These misrepresentations involve contradictions of a special sort. And they are to be understood causally.
So, the discourses of art, which habitually perpetuate the meanings of the author and the author as location of meaning, form a closed circle of interpretation. There is, of course, plenty of contestation and diversity of meaning here. But the terms of a discourse which focuses on works and meaning render certain questions and attitudes unthinkable. It is only by refiguring the artist as a producer that the terms of art discourse can be made corrigible. This must be a necessary element in any transformation of art.
Contemporary art would seem to offer many possible models of work. That is to say, at first glance, contemporary art seems to be characterised by an abundance of different methods and technologies for making art. It is a truism to reiterate that nowadays virtually anything can be appropriated for the purposes of making art. It was with conceptual art that ideas of the “dematerialisation of art” began to appear. In contrast to those conceptual artists who were engaged in a critique of the structures that generated and fixed meaning for modernist art, some took, for example, the sudden preponderance of words to mean that words were a new material out of which to fashion art. The shift to ideas could not be contained as a critical, second order practice. Instead, ideas became the new, dominant currency of art discourse and authorial practice.
This dominance of the idea of ideas and the subservience of material production in art, fits in snugly with the general, dominant forms of contemporary capitalism. For contemporary art, work is just as much something to be denied and hidden away as it is for contemporary capitalism generally. Many of the ideas adopted and explored by contemporary art and their concomitant technological novelties, are trivial and distracting. As such, they conform to the logic of promotion of other consumer goods. Ideas compete against each other for attention and recognition.
When the Sun newspaper adopted a philistine sneer at the destruction of art in the Momart fire, it did so in terms of work. It paid a seamstress to recreate Tracy Emin’s tent. This, it claimed, was done in less than a day. The sneer was at the difference in the value of the tent in the art market and the value of the labour of the seamstress it took to reproduce it. In fact, the Sun’s implicit argument is that the tent is not really art at all because the labour that went into making it can so easily be reproduced. For the Sun, art is the name of a special and unreproducible kind of labour. The art world defence of Emin was that the work that had gone into making the art was not what mattered: it was irrelevant to meaning. What mattered, as far as those putting forward this argument were concerned, was the idea. These opposing views seem irreconcilable. But what both sides tacitly agreed upon, was that meaning should reside in the art object: for the Sun the art object is valuable as the accumulation of a special kind of labour; for Emin’s supporters the art object is valuable as the embodiment of an idea. For both sides the art object is made meaningful through the exceptional character of the artist qua author: meaning is imparted through a special kind of making in one case and a special kind of thinking, in the other. Neither side can situate the artist in a position to work within and upon the relations of production of art.
Opening up the possibilities of work for the artist qua producer is a way to start, dimly perhaps, thinking the possibility of the transformation of art. It is, amongst other things, a way of situating the work of the artist in relations to the work of others: as embedded in social relations. The making of art, as with everything else, is at base a collaborative and dialogical affair; a fact which is obscured and mystified by the ideological idea of the isolated artist working independently of others. The idea of independence is radically double edged here. On the one hand, the putative autonomy of the artist (and the freedom of the market) enables the artist to resist both the division of mental and manual labour and to have self-determination over what it is that he or she does. On the other hand, this autonomy cuts off the artist from other producers: separation is a condition of dependence, subtended to the market and the mechanisms for the reception and distribution of art. This contradictory pair of independence and dependence are not easily reconciled by, for example, treating independence as a condition of the artist as author and dependence as a condition of the artist as producer. It seems more productive to think of this contradiction as being an expression of a more general contradiction in the social constitution of art or culture as such.
Working in a critical and self-aware relationship to others is no guarantee of anything, of course. It is certainly not a way to escape from contradictions. However, it is in relation to others that we might conceive of an artist’s actions as embedded in social relations and practices. That is, there are different ways in which we might conceive of the artist’s work, when it is not seen as part of a private or self-contained practice.
The following are some ways in which an artist’s actions or work might be conceived. This list is not intended to be exhaustive. It’s schema does, however, follow a Bhaskarian dialectic.
It remains to be seen what the implication of analysing types of work, as in (i) - (iv) above, or other ways, might be. To follow the progression from (i) to (iv) is to imagine stages in the removal or absenting of constraints, absences, ills, prohibitions and so on, upon the practice of art. And the practices of art, as I have argued, can usefully be thought of in terms of work rather than objects, as part of an attempt to illuminate even the dimmest prospect of emancipatory potential.
It has long since been possible to produce any number of ideas, actions, events and objects as art. It seems possible to do absolutely anything under the guise of art and for absolutely anything to be considered an appropriate working method for the artist. This diversity may be, in some ways, exemplary of the possibilities for art practice: of arbitrary limits and closures in the discourses and practices of art having been transgressed. The problem seems to be, not so much any inhibition on things to do, but rather a question of choosing something to do out of almost infinite possibility. The idea of the readymade started out as a Dada negation of the negations of a dominant and hegemonic idea of art. The readymade was important for what it wasn’t: it actively avoided being seen as a product of skill, sensitivity, taste, or interest. The fate of the readymade is instructive. That is to say, the readymade cut against the idea of the artwork as an accumulation of a kind of enchanted, individual labour. It is now a normative tactic in contemporary art for appropriating some kind of interest or meaning. It is a way for artists to make choices, to act as consumers. As a way of making art, it conforms to contemporary capitalism’s model of consumption. In such circumstances, what the idea of transformation might help reiterate is that art is made under and out of material conditions. Cultural acts are never performed unattached but within hegemonic ideological co-ordinates.
There is a stark choice, here, for artist and commentators. Either art is seen to exist in the same world as everything else, and to be subject to the same social processes, mechanisms and determinants as everything else, or not. Art & Language sidled up to this by toying with the question of how much Degas paid his models.
Asking how Degas’ work was produced entails asking how the co-producer of his work exists or existed. If someone interprets Degas, then they are going to have to be seen as part of the same world as that in which he paid his models. If you can’t understand that world, then neither can you understand how someone interprets Degas’ work. You will still merely be present at the congregational constitution of ‘Art’.
The diverse, “de-materialised” and revolutionising practices of contemporary art perfectly fit the logic of contemporary capitalism and the global market. It is not just that conceptual practice has become hegemonic: within contemporary capitalism it is the commodity which supports the image and no longer the other way round. Conceptual artists are not the only ones who are adapt at de-materialisation: the largest corporations in the world today have no workforce and own no factories nor warehouses. Outsourcing production leaves these corporations free to concentrate on what really matters: promoting and selling ideas. The product is merely a necessary adjunct to these ideas. For consumption in the West, goods are not there so much to fulfil needs as to define lifestyle choices. It is within such a world that so-called conceptual art practice has come to have the hegemonic position it does. The question remains of what might be the limits (or how limits might be conceived) of the hegemonic ideological tolerance of art practice in its reception and interpretation. As Zizek says of contemporary capitalism, perhaps the question is: “how are we to revolutionise an order whose very principle is constant self-revolutionising?” Cannot the same question be asked in the local and particular case of art?
Art needs the New, its constant revolutionising, to keep itself going. New art with new styles, techniques, ideas and media competes for attention or recognition. But here is the problem. Having the need to be attended to, to be recognised, is to appeal to a subject in the position to do the attending. Within psychoanalytic terms, this is the “subject supposed to know.” With psychoanalytic practice, the analyst is the subject supposed to know. The treatment of a patient ends, not when the investment of the analysand in the analyst has been rewarded by the imparting of knowledge but, on the contrary, when the patient accepts that there is no subject who knows and that there will be no reward of knowledge. The analysand disabuses him-or-herself of an investment in a Master-figure that guantees meaning. The scandal of psychoanalysis is that there is no compensation for the investments of the patient, merely a disillusionment with the process of investment. It is in disinvestment that freedom lies.
The idea of art occupies the place of a Master-figure: art can be a site of investment and not just for artists. However, to be an artist, to make art, is always to risk being attached to the idea of art: to seek recognition and compensation from a pervasive and universal ‘Art’. Art can be one form of the Lacanian big Other. This is to allow the idea of ‘Art’ to act as a guarantor of meaning and purpose for artists.
The genuine, radical act must do without guarantees; it must transform its own conditions of possibility. This is to go into the unknown without the prospect of recognition, reward nor compensation. This is why anti-art is such a powerful and pervasive idea: not as a negation of the protocols and procedures of proper art but precisely as the attempt to manage without them at all. Anti-art is not against art; it is the attempt to manage without art: to manage without any guarantee at all. This is the truly revolutionary act: to transform oneself and one’s situation without a belief in a reimbursement by some guarantor of meaning (the Lacanian Big Other, whether History, Art, God or whatever). For the authentic act there can be no responsibility, accountability or so on. If work is the obscene secret of art, that which is currently hidden and disdained, then this is not something in which the artist can take refuge. The task of the artist is to make do without making investments. To act is to manage with nothing.