ART WORLD, OR… ART HOME?

BY SŁAWOMIR MARZEC 

It is my firm belief that we are about to reach a point where art has to be reconsidered. Art as a whole, rather than its particular aspects, facets, functions, determinants, uses or criteria. Not art institutions and forms of exhibition, mechanisms for promotion, selection or museal inclusion. The time has come to redefine art; to ask whether art is still possible nowadays. Or are we to make do with substitutes and simulacra? Might it be that performative marketing and aesthetically refined advertisements suffice? Only internal fluctuations of the art world?

Art has become radically pluralistic; specific concepts, interpretations, styles and trends are not the only ones that have acquired autonomous status, as have particular isolated features and components of art. We have seen the concept of art expanding to include picture frames with no pictures, bare spaces where paintings used to hang, titles without artworks, or empty galleries. These separate fragments lead their own existence; they evolve and undergo… further radicalization. Admittedly, they may produce an intriguing outcome, providing a fresh stimulus to our reflection and our senses, but most often they are misused as alibis legitimizing trite, shoddy and frequently crude works whose message is nothing but mercenary arrogance. We may, of course, agree that this is the price, which has to be paid for artistic freedom, the highest value in art. Still, these unwanted side effects of our modernizations (Ulrich Beck[1]) dramatically increase in numbers and become… dominant. As a result, variety is boosted but almost immediately neutralized, and isolated extremes are given a free hand. The reason for this is that, confronted with a massive accumulation of issues, we are only capable of perceiving the most schematic and aggressive phenomena. This state of affairs prevents or, at least, substantially deforms any reflection, and namely judgement, symbolism, etc. Is this still art that we are dealing with? Let us view this situation from a distant perspective, adding only a little colour to it.[2]

In the Modernist period, the task of solving enormous problems about defining art was assigned to professionals: curators, art critics, artists and gallery owners etc., who constituted a magma-like phenomenon called the.[3] It was to act as a go-between for the society and creators in the process of democratizing the access to artistic goods and values. The exchange of expert opinions in a spirit of freedom and independence brought hope that all the contradictions and paradoxes of art could be overcome; that they could be “happily functionalized” by means of transformation into an ongoing debate.

This hope tends to be forlorn. Nothing but deleterious fiction! A cocoon of self-sufficiency has developed, a micro-environment – the art world. A close and hermetic community with a monopoly on the social redistribution of art – its public functioning, hierarchies and presentation; a community promoting and shaping the subject matter of art (the terror of political correctness) and specific creative strategies. The present art world has become highly institutionalized, ritualized and personalized. There are very clear divisions in this world, into the leading and mediocre institutions, into influential and marginal people, into major and local events. And censorship is still there; only this time it is pragmatic, “technical” – in the form of failing to mention certain things. How does the declared openness and creativity of the art world turn into rigid hierarchies of works and creators? What is the logic of this? No one wonders any more how it is possible to be competent in giving an ultimate assessment of art that is currently taking shape.

The art world generates tendencies, trends and stars that are tailored to our needs but it increasingly follows the logic of its internal fluctuations simply to stimulate the economy. Artefacts are created which have no connection with our existential experience, our hopes and dreams. Instead, they are entangled in risky abstract interpretations or conspicuously trivial fraternizing with everyday life and mass culture. Such absolutization of physiology and informality practically excludes all facets of experience and existence. Moreover, a suspicion appears that this never-ending carnival of transformations and multiplying ambiguities is meant to maintain the monopoly of the art world and the lack of an alternative – would any outsider dare define or judge new art in an unorthodox fashion? I sometimes think that the art world relies on the transformations and the indefinite nature of art, rather than art itself.

After all, variety is never absolutely pure; it is always of some kind. Therefore, as Paul Virilio claims, the limits of art are set by both political and optical correctness.[4] Art develops its own internal normativeness but also mediocrity. This conformist mimicry is displayed to the outside world as rebellious and alternative. It is no longer a secret that the art world is dominated by the new left rhetoric, which openly declares that art is to be transformed into direct political involvement. Of course, we live in a pluralist democracy and we do not all have to be (post-) Marxists. Schematisms and stereotypes of some people cannot be the remedy for schematisms of others. Replacing one’s fetters with the latest model does not exactly denote freedom. Moreover, we should ask who is going to liberate and emancipate the art world from its new left schemata and slogans. Besides, why do we impose the imperative of openness and tolerance upon others, while demanding nothing but freedom of speech from ourselves? How does this relate to democracy and creativity? …

We are currently witnessing the process of increasing unification and centralization of the art world. Global standards and formulas of dealing with art are being developed. Large centers, festivals and art fairs enforce a specific language, a set of metaphors, mental leaps, strategies, “significant” problems and subjects of art. Whoever refuses to conform is automatically considered to be a benighted dilettante.

In the twentieth century, the art world rejected consecutive identifications of art in its aspiration for freedom of creation. Rather than turning into an unlimited field of artistic creation, it metamorphosed into total submissiveness to the dominant narrations of late modernity, that is, the market, the mass media and ideologies, which promote the idea of art as a commodity (Baudrillard’s “perfect purchase”). Or novelty – anything as long as it is new. Sooner or later, “novelty” comes to describe only mediocre, negative or banal things. In this fashion, impudence eventually becomes the new sensitivity and obtuseness the new imagination. The mass media reduce art to an event, an attractive anomaly. They treat artists as idols (ideologization of art) and the experience of art has grown to be an empty, ritual ceremony. One should also mention the increasing ideologization of art, which tends to be used as a mere tool in the fight for cultural hegemony. Unfortunately, in these circumstances we are all losers, the activists and the re/educated masses. It is art we are losing! Not even the maximum efficiency of indoctrination can compensate for the effects of the loss and deformation of art.

Deprived of internal identifications, the art world is helpless in the face of the discussed determinants and its pragmatics can be expressed with a few simple questions: how can the idiomaticity of particular artists be reduced to a mass media event and a commodity? And, first of all: how is the mainstream to be generated and fixed?

As a consequence, the work of art becomes its own substitute: the work as a price, the work as a place in a museum or in an exhibition catalogue, the work as an exponent of a tendency or a generation, the work as a subject of interpretation or a debate. All these “the work as”-phenomena forms the work-without-work; they all accentuate its absence. They change art galleries and museums into streets; they change us into a faceless crowd. Not only metaphorically, as the point of reference is the huge scale of the street, including motion, drone, passing by, visual aggressiveness, temporariness, anonymity and crowdedness. Logistics, the ability to organize major events and media communicativeness are valued more highly than the creative act. An eminent artist is someone proficient at office, media and institutional games. Not to mention marketing ones.

The art world creates the aura of no alternatives mainly by keeping “the rest” of society consternated, embarrassing it with obscenities, banalities or the naivety of adolescence problems now and then. Some people perceive crudeness as a synonym of authenticity or even democracy! Bare physiology becomes a substitute of truth, while provocation (even most stupid and futile) or biased determination is expression of social involvement. It is frequently suspected that the main objective of the art world is to incapacitate the audience. This is evident from the fetishizing of art and the work of art, which is equated with only one interpretation, price, position, renown and the place in a prestigious collection. And all these appear at once, along with the creation of a new artefact, to make it impossible for anybody else to participate in the constitution of a work of art, in its “identification order” (Jacques Ranciere). Besides this, the dominance of psycho/sociologism reduces the flexibility, symbolism or expressiveness of art to a sign, or a symptom. All an artist does is to express general social processes or personality models. The simpler, the more banal this is, the better their work because it is… more legible. The more brutal, the better… the more pointed and convincing.

Moreover, in some countries, for instance in Poland, there are people who play a variety of roles in the art world, simultaneously being curators, art critics, jurors and merchants etc. This means that they promote a particular product in the press and on TV, they award it as jurors, purchase it for national collections as members of a committee, they send it to international festivals, and so on. Something like a policeman, a solicitor, a defender, a judge and a prison guard in one person. Performing a number of functions is a very efficient way of applying the principle of “nationalizing costs and privatizing benefits”. Self-degeneration of the art world reverses the perspective by shifting the center of gravity from the creative act to procedures of developing hierarchies (or fetishizing, perhaps?), or successful participation in the games of the art world.

It is high time we asked ourselves the question of what the topicalities generated by the art world, all these tendencies, rankings and stars, have to do with us? And what about art? It is only functionaries of the art world that want post-art liberated from aesthetics, artistic values, symbolism and expressiveness etc., one that is only topical and only different. Produced to satisfy their needs alone, post-art tends to be expensive and celebrated, reduced to political correctness and simplified didactics, slogans and teenage problems. Unfortunately, this fuels fears, which are commonplace anyway, that new art merely legitimizes banality and insolence. Therefore, we need art that is free not only from the ignorance of the masses but also from the usurpation of the “omniscient” specialists and virulent activists. If the dispute concerning art is dying down, this is not because it has been resolved but because it seems pointless. It is possibly never to be settled, and so we ought to make sure to improve its quality rather than focus on efficacious persuasion.

As I have written at the beginning of this essay, we have to reconsider art. We have to decide whether there is an alternative to the present monopolization of the art world, in which art is equivalent with its public functioning, the logic of the market and the mass media as well as new left ideologization. Can ARTHOME be this alternative? The art home fighting for subjective singularity inscribed in the definite existential experience. The idea, however, is not to reinstate the romantic cult of individuality and escapist strategies. The dynamic and complex multidimensionality of our late modernity, in which our subjectivity constitutes an inalienable moment, but nothing else than a moment, must remain the point of reference. Therefore, singularity is a rather polemical concept here, constantly re/constructed in the dialogue with the general. This genuine and refreshing dialogue – between the general and the singular is the optimum.

The aesthetics of the arthome is one of individual consciousness and independence, consisting mainly of the creation and protection of differences and distinctions. Even the illusory and fictitious ones, so that their complexity necessitates the perception of every mature person as an exceptional configuration. Art can also be a domain of idioms (Mikel Dufrenne’s “Racinian world”), rather than a set of general and abstract classes, types and tendencies. That is because art is more than simply a social phenomenon, glamour or decorum; it is, first and foremost, an individual existential necessity.

Maintaining differences ought to also pertain to the various natures of differences, their multidimensionality, and mostly to the division into the public and the private sphere; we do not have to be specimens and representatives of generality. As a result, critical anti/fragmentariness appears, a search for wider dimensions of individual existence, some kinds of transversality. The need arises for resistance to the terror of topicality and situationality, a sort of ‘transtopicality’ – even by means of juxtaposing one’s own biography with random discourses and contexts. By juxtaposing self-narration (self-construction) with topicality, even if it was to assume the form of sagacious solitariness and provincialism. They are also what we contribute to what is common and general. The arthome should make use of deliberativeness, (self-)reflection as a form of inconclusive participation, to look for interdependencies and optimum configurations. This implies persevering in the state of vigilant non-fulfillment rather than searching for aesthetic or, at least, symbolic satisfaction. This also implies the complementary character of experience and contemplative self-reflection, rather than reducing the work of art to a verbal message or an ecstatic incident.

We are thus doomed to the hardship of never-ending specifying of ambiguities instead of an ultimate and explicit crystallization. The arthome understood in this way provides us with the chance to contrast globalization with personalization. Everyone should be able to have art tailored to their needs. Forcing everybody to accept a particular kind of art as the only right, topical, international one etc. constitutes nothing but blatant usurpation in the fight for social dominance. Even if it is fought under lofty slogans of emancipation or justice.

A model for the arthome is not so much Hölderlin’s tower of reclusion but rather the multitude of initiatives developed by artists, trying to regain independence, adulthood, to liberate themselves from the schematization and limits of the art world. I would like to mention one initiative, namely Gerard Blum-Kwiatkowski’s idea of an “art station”, formed as early as the 1970s. It was supposed to be run by one artist as a workshop, a gallery, a meeting place, as well as a place of exchange for invited artists and education for local people. Bloom managed to put his idea into practice, first in Kleinasassen, then in Hünfeld and Świeradów-Zdrój. With phenomenal success.

Striving to reject the art world would naturally be utopian. What should be done is this: its… functionalism should be functionalized, its pragmatism should be depragmatized – it should be considered a mere possibility, an opportunity rather than the ultimate source of judgement and meaning. Any hierarchies in art constitute nothing more than an invitation to discussion. As Pierre Bourdieu insisted, any arrangements and assessments in the art world are nothing but conspiracy.[5] Paradoxical though it seems, it is only through certain an/archism that we can gain the right to make art, understood as what is best, most lofty and beautiful about us in view of the increasing unification and dehumanization of the art world.

This essay is by no means to be interpreted as an attempt at total criticism of new art; on the contrary, it is an appeal for this art to be protected and its meaning to be disputed. An appeal directed at all mature people, not only activists and functionaries of the art world. Opportunities should be created to experience and produce art not only to fit the streets and the crowd, but also to suit the individual scale. Instead of the streets and monumental halls in new museums, we could imagine labyrinths of small rooms and nooks dedicated to particular artworks and a single viewer. Collective exposition tends to exert a neutralizing effect, exhibited objects are reduced to pure “aesthetics” or ideology.

Art ought to and has to be diverse. At various stages of development, everyone should have an opportunity to discover a concrete and topical form of art for themselves. A form that suits their imagination, experience, sensitivity and existential intuition. This is why art circulation has to be genuinely pluralistic, a challenge and a task we must face. We must maintain not only artistic variety but, first of all, the multidimensional character of this variety.

 

[1]           Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. by Mark Ritter, London 1992

[2]           For an in-depth discussion of this subject see my book Sztuka polska 1993-2014. Arthome versus artworld, Warsaw 2012

[3]           Arthur Danto’s contextual definition of art. George Dickie’s institutional one.

[4]           Paul Virilio interviewed by E. Bai, “Corriera della Sera”, 20.03.2001

[5]           Pierre Bourdieu, Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. by Susan Emanuel, Stanford, CA 1996