[Maybe this is the title.] Art said what couldn't be thought in words, but what do we do when art can't say anything?
Introduction, to set the mood:
That angst you feel about art, that's the same angst everyone's felt about art for over 150 years. It's probably the same angst everyone feels about life, everyone except those who cover their ears and yell “blah blah blah blah” (and everyone covers their ears at some point). That is the angst you should feel, as much as you can, as much as you can take.
Do you eschew institutional validation, or is your work just not that interesting? Are cutting-edge galleries showing your work? Are blue chip galleries selling out your shows? Is your work in all the right biennials? Or are you simply producing bling for rich wankers who couldn't find their ass with both hands when it comes to art? Is your young career taking off? Or are you the next one-hit-wonder of mid-level galleries? Do you embrace the neo-neo-neo-avant-garde? Or are you so avant-garde you embrace pop culture? …selfies with Leo DiCaprio, date both Kendall and Kylie Jenner (I just lost a minute of my life watching a video trying to figure out who these two were, and I felt it), make work using Vogue magazine, inserting a few porn images here and there…? Or are you so over that, reembracing the neo-neo-neo-avant-garde, but ironically? Or non-ironically, because your work is creating a space for a new ontology? Are you down with the underprivileged? Or has the angst forced you into reproducing bureaucratic structures that flush away any chance for interesting art because you can't justify making the banal work you otherwise would in a world of inequity where you have effortlessly, and arbitrarily, floated to the top? Or do you just work very part-time for a nonprofit gallery that doesn't get much local support (really original story, there), making work slowly, occasionally taking part in shows when you are asked, applying for teaching positions that you almost never get interviews for, organizing tiny institutions continuously on the brink of failure? (In this case you can console yourself with the fact that you know you are nothing, of no consequence, at least when you are not wallowing in the resentment-filled thoughts of those corrupt, incompetent a-holes that you are so much more qualified than.) Does realizing any of this make you think that in some small way you have your shit together? (It doesn’t mean that, FYI.) Have you found a meaningful life? Have you made a meaningful life? Or has one been foisted upon you?
These are all the same questions everyone asks, has asked, will ask, should ask, must have asked, should have asked, once could have asked, will once have asked. Maybe these are the only questions available to us. And they are not very interesting. Taken in the right way they can be fascinating, invigorating. But don't let that get your hopes up.
Art’s imperialism backfiring
Shouldn't we have seen it coming? (We!?) Really. When you push something, it pushes back. When you blow into a balloon to inflate it, you have to breath in to inflate your lungs first, and you have to breath in to catch your breath afterwards. How did anyone think art could colonize other disciplines, other spheres, without catching their cold?
Mingling with science got us nowhere, or almost nowhere. It just made mostly boring art from boring or interesting science. Mixing with politics possibly fared better. Most “political” art is just as boring as most art. Maybe the difference is art that takes politics as its subject can be interesting art, whereas art mingling with science almost always tried to “do science”, and that is almost always ridiculous. (Do you see the asymmetry here?: art that becomes politics suffers a similar, though not inevitable, fate.)
When art turned “post-studio”, artists set up offices. But who wants to work in an office? Maybe it's just better than working in a factory. Maybe it seemed exciting to have a "real" job, or a real-looking job, to have an “art practice” that not only justified itself by taking on the pre-established form of the office, but also was a job where we could do “whatever we want”. It is another testament to artists' profound sense of insecurity and lack of insight (lack of “creativity”, even) that we then decided what we wanted to do was have meetings and set up bureaucracies. [I can say here that there are many reasons for this, different forms of existential crisis among them.] It looks like we caught the corporate cold. Before we knew it, our practice used metrics to evaluate our project's effectiveness—and… now it's more like the plague (but at least you die from the plague).
This is not to say that this never leads to good art… But what ended up happening, what always ends up happening, is that art takes the form of already existing Western capitalist institutions as critique. Art occupied the office as an imperialist gesture—taking on a sort of double form, that of imperialism—occupying another institution (political, scientific, legal)—and business. The more well-trodden institution that art has attempted to occupy is politics. The problems here took mostly the same forms. But when art mixed the forms of corporate culture and politics, the trouble multiplied.
Instead of "political art" or relational aesthetics (now rebranded under the incredibly problematic and commonly used label, “social practice”, which indeed, is often just this instance of politics in corporate form) we get art practices that follow corporate culture uncritically, using all the tools of branding and social media (as practiced by any sophisticated company, art center, nonprofit, or collective) to do exactly what corporations in capitalist societies do: carve out a niche, defend it well, snuff out the competition, sell as little as they can for as much as they can while saying as little as they can, and bend (or try to create) rules to their advantage. Social practice now demands overt political content and an extroverted personality.
Why would you turn art into politics, trying to do something politics is made to do? “Because politics is bankrupt!” Unfortunately, this is the same argument made by the right wing/libertarians, only they would replace politics with business instead of art. [And, of course, it is more complicated than this; many advocates of “social practice” see art as a bankrupt form. This critique has a long history, preceding “social practice” by 40-50 years, at least. I'd advocate taking these critiques seriously. Not doing so would be the best corroboration of these critiques. Doing so, of course, does nothing necessarily to disprove them.] Again, we find art institutions/artists only able to reproduce (usually very problematic) Western capitalist institutions, instead of inventing new ones. Maybe this is too much to ask.
Maybe this is too much to ask. [Yes, I repeated myself.] Can we actually invent institutions? Can we make art in ways that don't model economic systems? Maybe not. Or maybe only rarely, or in the most feeble way. Artists are part of the economy, and thus our “production” fits into existing economies. If there is a chance to employ a new model (and there might not be), it would probably be exceedingly uncommon. And maybe this is the wrong place to focus any energy on.
In 2012 I was very lucky to teach a workshop at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I taught science students at one of Japan's best science universities. The professor who organized the workshops (economist Noboru HIDANO) was interested in expanding students thinking with other disciplines like art and music. There was implicit in this the question of what differences exist and what similarities are shared between art and science. My take at the time was they tended to use the same paths of “creativity” and critical thinking, but the conclusions ended up going in different directions: science being “reductivist” [I'm not intending any negative value judgements here], finding the simple in the complex, etc., art being something that makes simple things complicated, being less disciplined and finding understanding provisional (before the fact).
I'm exploring different thoughts now. This may not be the best way to explain it, and it is oversimplified (because art and science do both of these things) but maybe we can think of science trying to understand the world and art trying to make a world. When I say making of a world (really, worlds), this doesn't necessarily mean making objects (though obviously… ) but more like making ideas, or putting things into play. [Here think of Draxler's essay on Krebber.]
This talk of science and art is all to make a plea. I'm interested in science and I think it is useful to compare art and science. These two disciplines are very different, but it is precisely these differences, along with their (sometime surprising) similarities, that is important to think about. Science has many disciplines within it, and within those disciplines, many motivations. To demand science be practical, or that it be measured by its usefulness, seems incredibly short-sighted to me. But this is what so often happens in art. Art must be this way or that. If it isn't political (and this will be my main example here) it isn't worth doing. It's just twiddling around with paint, not helping anyone, clipping your toenails while the house burns down.
Not revealing something (research-based work not revealing something?)
Art’s conservatism and the “one variable” problem
Art as, not a discovery of the world (science), but a making of the world (making of ideas?)
— Aaron Van Dyke
This texts were written for summer school at the Poor Farm. It was intended to be read there in 2016, but wasn't finished… it remains unfinished. This version (or something very close to it) was read at summer school at the Poor Farm in 2018 by Sara Suppan, in the middle of the night, in the middle of Wisconsin. Thanks Sara!