The Aesthetic Problem Posed by Digital Capitalism
story © Michael Betancourt, July 24, 2021 all rights reserved.
Here is a preview from my new book, Research Art: glitches, poetics, typography and the aura of the digital available soon:
Composer John Cage noted the ‘problem of history’ in the 1950s; it is an issue that has grown more important, rather than less, in the decades since. Artists adopting a self-conscious positioning in relation to a specific history (tradition)—whether in a sense of continuing it, or in the sense of escaping from it—unifies the positivistic dimensions of Modernism and Post-Modernist alike. To the extent that the Contemporary embrace of relativism is “ahistorical,” it is not an escape from this avant-guardiste positivism, but a response to the post-structural critique that introduced a plurality of directions that now dominate discourse within the gallery-fair-museum network. This expansion of aesthetic opportunity has not minimized the need for self-conscious positioning, it has starkly highlighted it. The issue in confronting the Contemporary is to separate emotional, dialectical, traditional conceptions of “opposition” and “resistance” (the heritage of the avant-garde) to consider a tactical relaction that demonstrates Cage’s koan-like observation:
One does not then just any experiment, but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to arrive at money, but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to arrive at fame (success), but one does what must be done; but does what must be done; one does not seek by his actions to provide pleasure to the senses (beauty), but one does what must be done; one doe not seek by his actions to arrive at the establishment of a school (truth), but one does what must be done. One does something else. What else?
Cage, J. Silence (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2011) p. 68.
The ‘new move’ is the problem: it is a contingency defined by the immanent and immediate situation confronting the artist working. ‘New’ is not a given, but a relational construct—new on what terms? Addressing this question changes over time because it is a discursive problem, (a descriptive apparatus that establishes the limina enabling Contemporary actions), and in the process identifies potentially unrecognizable potentials: what the “correct” action is emerges as a feature of analysis—it can only be determined in relation to the ‘pieces in play’—from the ‘aesthetic field’ being addressed, as Arthur Danto has observed about the development of art addressing its assumed boundaries in the 1950s and 1960s:
The philosophical question of the nature of art, rather, was something that arose within art [following the 1960s] when artists pressed against boundary after boundary, and found that all the boundaries gave way.
Danto, A. Beyond the Brillo Box (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) p. 15.
Danto’s analysis assumes a fixed, stable definition for “art,” one that no longer applied in the Contemporary. However, his concern with limina, margins, and boundaries is another way of identifying challenges to what the dominant conceptions of “art” were. His analysis describes a foundational shift from the unitary and fixed conception of the “aesthetic” (which was subject to debate during Modernism) to an expansion whose initial recognition derives from rupture of those limitations typical of the historical avant-gardes (the Post-Modern). Clement Greenberg’s attempt at constructing an opposition between Modernism and the avant-garde was doomed from the start precisely due to his picking sides in this debate: thus his rejection in the Post-Modern arises from his having picked the losing side in what is now clearly a disagreement over approach. The Contemporary which emerges in the aftermath of this debate is at the same time the success of the avant-garde’s attack on established institutional power and authority over who provides the definition of “art”—which is the substance of Danto’s argument. As Paul Virilio asked about the historical avant-gardes, “in advance of what?”—the answer arrives with the Contemporary gallery-fair-museum network and its opening of aesthetic boundaries to an ‘expanded field’ of potentials. The unqualified dominance of the avant-garde’s expansive definition also matches the demands for an expansive valorization in globalized capitalism by embracing all those works that might be considered “aesthetic” whatever their form, basis or status historically; this account of aesthetic development begins during the 1970s and 1980s, but also corresponds to the dominance of post-structuralism—what has come after is neither an “end to art” nor a degeneration into an “anything goes.” This aesthetic domain shapes the paysage that determines heuristics—the choices (mobilization) of which constitute the actions taken within that metaphoric space. Cage’s comments return within this domain (which they helped propose) as an understanding that posits ‘historical processes’ as undirectional: neither positivist nor relativist, ‘aesthetics’ become contingent positions adopted within a shifting field of allowances and refusals (as on the Go board) whose importance shifts over time, yet unlike that game which gradually fills and holds the all available positions, once filled spaces are continually being cleared away as the “game” progresses. The superficially “retrograde” and repetitive nature of the Contemporary reflects this process of valorization/renovation that masks itself as both ‘critical’ and ‘innovation’ or ‘new.’
“Emptying the board” is a metaphor that clarifies the linkage between aesthetic practice and capitalist economics that has become prominent in the Contemporary. It suggests an ‘aesthetic cycle’ comparable to the ‘business cycle’—where nothing remains over time and the earlier avant-gardes become revitalized as genres for valorization by the gallery-fair-museum network. Understanding this process depends on the recognition that when linked to aesthetics, capitalism is not a system of production, but a method of articulating social position. The traditional definition of capitalism as ‘an economic system where human labor becomes a commodity traded in itself’ obscures the use value of aesthetics and artistic production: a hierarchal organization of human society whose function is the management of commodity access and distribution. The price of art is not a reflection of importance, but a sorting mechanism that imposes class distinctions where the most rarified, expensive objects are tokens signifying social position in addition to (or in spite of) whatever their aesthetics and critical meanings may be. Oppositions between the parts of society that are directed (and thus beholden to perform actions for higher ranking members of society) and those parts of society that direct others is not a simple binary opposition, but a scale of increasing authority and control even within these superficially distinct groupings; aesthetics—embraced, rejected—help define membership and position by serving as stand-ins for this hierarchy.
These anthropological understandings of art and the art world identify an authoritarian dimension that is both essential and invisible to the social organization of capitalism, whether centralized, as in the command economies of the “communist” countries such as the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China, or dispersed in the “market” economies of the Unites States and Europe. They are twin poles within the same capitalist range. Business even identifies this productive space with the avant-gardist proposition of “creative destruction” where the mechanism of clearing-away is technological change that results in the continuous demand for change, as economist Joseph Schumpeter explained in the 1950s:
The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism.
Schumpeter, J. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008) p. 83.
Money makes the capitalist “world go ‘round” precisely because money is the mechanism determining social position within both the centralized and market varieties of capitalism; the difference between this development following industrialization and that of the pre-industrial world lies with how the limitations on commodity access becomes less a function of limited availability than an increasingly pure expression of social status within the gallery-fair-museum network that defines the Contemporary art world. The production/valorization processes of industrial capitalism are distinct from those of aesthetic production, yet their relationships and connections are clearly articulated by recognizing the isomorphic parity of “Creative Destruction” and the historical avant-garde’s nihilism and alienation that sought to liquidate the art world in favor of radically shifting definitions for what constituted “art.” The dominance of this ideation plays out during the twentieth century first as Modernism, then more specifically in the dominance of the avant-garde specifically.
Prior to industrialization, organizing production was the central problem for society since all production was limited by scarcity and the difficulty of manufacturing; the resulting tendency to overproduction made possible by industrialization created periodic panics where the mismatch of production and consumption resulted in bankrupt businesses. This cycle was driven in part by translations of disinterested (non-market-based) research into commercial applications. The instability that Schumpeter terms “creative destruction” derives from this process and mirrors artist Andy Warhol’s conception of “Business Art”:
Business art is the step that comes after art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business. They’d say “money is bad” and “working is bad.” But making money is art, and working is art—and good business is the best art.
Warhol, A. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (New York; Harvest, 1976) p. 92.
This repudiation of Romantic conceptions of artistic activity and production embraces capitalism, recapitulating Warhol’s’ other mirrorings of capitalist production throughout his praxis: the factory (his studio itself), silk-screen reproduction, and assembly-line labor employed in the production of his work. His translation of these capitalist economic relations makes the subordination of aesthetic actions by the artist to their market explicit as the “price” paid for entrance to the art world: artistic productions that circulate within the gallery-fair-museum network are economic productions. However, a different problem confronts industrial society, one the became apparent in the first industrial revolution as scarcity of resources and labor became secondary to the question of how to distribute production: who is allowed access to what amount, type and quality of commodity. Increases in productivity, efficiency, and quantity/quality establish the distribution problem as a distinct issue apart from production itself. Economics transforms the basis of this question about accessing production in the reification of caste and class hidden by questions of costs and allocation of wealth. The superficially “fluid” dynamics of social mobility and position in this capitalist system of distribution are expressed via the fixed structures of accumulated wealth and inherited position. This mechanism for organizing society—the amount of money controlled by an individual—was historically an expression of rights to distribute the products of labor already performed. The nature of that receipt for past production, whether gold, silver, paper, or anything else did not matter so long as it was socially accepted and its value unquestioned.
Digital capitalism neither replaces nor challenges the existing structures of capitalist social organization; instead, it attempts to render them resilient to challenge by transforming the dynamics and complexity of human action into a predetermined (and thus controlled) set of contingent privileges subject to revoke. The transfer of social position into the reifications of digital systems and their autonomous policing of rights access and activity. The renovation of aesthetics within this expanded field corresponds to the expansive aspects of capitalism, which as critics such as Terry Smith and C. B. Johnson have noted, now corresponds to the entirety of the “art world” that matches the transnational, borderless economic flows and circulations of globalization. Economic power is synonymous with cultural authority, as Smith observes:
Contemporary art, as a movement, has become the new Modern, or, what amounts to the same thing, the old Modern in new clothes. In its most institutionalized forms [...] it is the latest phase in the century-and-a-half-long story of Modern art in Europe and its cultural colonies, a continuation of the Modernist lineage, warily selected not least in at attempt to preserve this cultural balance of power.
Smith, Terry. “Contemporary Art and Contemporaneity” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2006), p. 688.
Contemporary cultural authority expands the reach of the twentieth century globally. Art and its affective role as a social practice, is readily identified as a material commodity; this discarding of Romanticism’s transcendent pretexts is Warhol’s “Business Art” as the entirely of artistic practice. These shifts are underway during the 1960s, apparent in movements such as Pop Art and Conceptual Art, that developed in parallel to the digital computer in the 1960s. Their convergence with computer technology becomes obvious during the 1990s as digital capitalism emerged into dominance. The ‘question’ that “Business Art” poses is readily apparent from its complicity with capitalist concerns: in being fully assimilated to the marketplace, this network of cultural and social forces compromises any proposition of an independent, critical media within the ‘art world’ by its necessary connections to marketing and popularity that constrain and elide the ‘degrees of freedom’ afforded to challenges. The assumption that the marketplace will embrace and assimilate any counter-production is an obvious tautology since works not assimilated are also “invisible” to its propositional/critical apparatus.
Aesthetics that valorize these relationships are familiar. They remain within a historically-assigned critical appearance, yet are at the same time unquestionably complicit with social demands for exclusivity and allure specific to art-products. The transformation of conceptual “happenings” into exclusionary events for wealthy patrons in Relational Art during the 1990s demonstrate the interlocking economic and aesthetic practices of the Contemporary. Nicolas Bourriaud, the curator closely associated with defining this shift explains its practical implementation:
[1990’s] art thus prompts us to envisage the relations between space and time in a different way. Essentially, moreover, it derives its main originality from the way this issue is handled. What, actually, is concretely produced by artists such as Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster and Vanessa Beecroft? What, in the final analysis, is the object of their work?
Bourriaud, N. Relational Aesthetics trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods, (Dijon-Quetigny: Les Presses du Reel, 2004) pp. 48.
The creation of art/event-spectacles that leave no ‘art object’ afterwards in the way that even Conceptual Art left behind things that can be collected, exhibited, and examined as aesthetic production does not challenge the socially exclusive dimensions of globalized art-production, but makes them apparent. When there are no ‘objects’ to collection what is being produced is a bespoke performance for those patrons wealthy enough to afford it. The nature of the work is this less significant for this consideration than its audience since the cultural dimensions of “Business Art” as social positioning are literal. The proposition of this work as ‘critical’ is dubious—although there are no “objects” to collect—it emphasizes replaces aesthetics with social relationships (the same foundation as currency) that invite its critique as an especially nepotistic and elitist variety of art; the proposition of such work as a critical challenge is untenable: capitalism is often taken for a structural enframing in itself. The apparent mismatch between the abstracted social value is inversely correlated with the commercial value attached to that activity. This mismatch reifies ‘Baumol’s cost disease’ in the arts: greater productivity does not result in changed costs or values produced: the affective shift described by Nicholas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” valorizes economic relationships capitalism identifies as foundational, in the process masking underlying causa that render this superstructure simply a symptom of an underlying order: economic relations act as a proxy for class and social hierarchy, but are a response to a system of cultural value that differentiates between inventive and implementive roles for agency where the innovations of ‘artistic labor’ signifies cultural significance.
Identifying any alternative to these relationships, as posited by Cage’s comments in Silence, requires rejections of the typical operations of cultural realm. In the case of the “Business Art” that dominates the contemporary, a refusal of the types Cage enumerates risks a slippage into the Romantic conceit of “art for art” that Warhol’s proposal critiqued (before becoming dominant). Approaching this dispositive necessarily appears “academic,” a diagnosis, seeking to define the parameters of the “field” to allow a consideration of its potentials and which “moves” remain primarily independent of its economic demands.
Cultural capital, like cultural authority, is a limited resource whose allotment and extension is controlled by directly by gate keepers and indirectly by gate keeping organizations: whose works are valued, whose neglected? The irony of priviledge is not lost at the margins, even if it is tinted by obvious hypocrisy. To make any art of type begins from a place of privilege, wealth, and stability—however difficult creation may actually be. The revelation that what historically was not of interest to contending elites has now become a reflection of the same class distinctions that inform the art world as a whole should not come as a shock: the cinematic occupies a central place in art productions, so to see the preoccupations of the art world refracting through the realm of media appears perfectly natural.
However, from this concentration of cultural authority and its attendant exclusivity comes the familiar region: the marginalized. In the case of media it is a marginalization not primarily determined by content or form but by technology. In other words, it is not an issue of aesthetics. For example, the rejection of works for being “too digital” is a refusal of them for not announcing their photochemical-costliness as a criterion of significance. It is a perverse refusal since the rejection is precisely the Modernist demand for medium-specificity, but wielded as a weapon in a rejection of all works made with the “wrong” medium. Rather than being a historical curiosity, these concerns remain powerfully active even after the “end” of Modernism postulated decades earlier, but reified in the demands of “Business Art” for commercial viability understood as a symptom of aesthetic value or worth (the economic metaphor is explicit).
The dominance of these economic factors makes the complicity of earlier challenges to its hegemony apparent in their dependence on the marketplace, no matter what is being brought “to market.” The crucial factor in this relationship is “to sell” which brings the art produced under the domain of business concerns and thus “Business Art.” It places the artist in an untenable position—either accept the dominance of these relationships and their concomitant restrictions on action and possibility, or refuse them (and their economic, critical, and social supports) to become marginal. The issue is basic survival and continued possibilities for carrying on with what one does. Marginal is thus about displaced actions that continue with neither recognition nor official sanction. It is invisible.
The marginal position is the antithesis to what are variously acknowledged/identified positions (avant-garde, underground, experimental). It is emergent in their remainder (larger, less visible) created by any position that is recognized. The marginal is not, however, completely invisible—it is present, but to “see” it requires effort. Unlike the underground which requires a willful act of being hidden, oppositional—the marginal is simply ignored, unrecognized, because it does not match the demands being imposed by commerce and valorization.
Marginality is either and both a choice and/or thrust upon: it is the “default” position for all artists until and unless they are subjects of valorization—accepted and incorporated by the demands of “Business Art” that affirm the established order and hierarchy of the status quo. The “marginal” is without clearly defined status in this cultural continuum. The artist choosing marginality functions as a rejection of “Business Art”—but it imposes the costs that valorization would otherwise pay and support on the marginal. Therefore the choice of marginality is a privileged choice of struggle (it is a privilege to be able to select marginal status). The problem this privilege presents is it can be rendered “mythic” when it should not be: the willful selection of marginality (choice) is to avoid the challenges of engaging valorization and remaining independent. Marginality is not independence, it is struggle at the boundary between economic viability and artistic visibility. Thus, other forms of support are required, leading to my proposition of “Research Art” as the contrary of “Business Art”: an approach neither defined by patronage nor by marketplace exhibitions in the gallery-fair-museum network, but by the circulation through the horizontal planes of publication and documentation that exist independently of gallery and exhibition concerns.
The alternative, “Research Art,” thus occupies a specifically intellectual position in which the art object becomes a vehicle for considerations traditionally restricted to the critic or historian. It is a proposition that can only exist outside the gallery-fair-museum network since it is not responsive to the economic demand that directs and determines “Business Art.” Rather than being an academic art derived from adherence to a priori rules, its proposition as exploratory differentiates it from educational activity which must always strive to achieve immanent averageness in the propagation and internalization of criteria by students (necessarily fixed values). In this regard, it is an extension of proposals and potentials initially developed by Conceptual Art, but which were radically subsumed by the marketplace as “Business Art” emerged as the dominant mode within the art world. The apparent repetitions and genres of commercial art derive from the conversion of historical avant-gardes into commodity-markers. “Research Art” is not a negation of the marketplace, nor its denial, but rather a parallel mode whose concerns, operations, and procedures do not intersect with valorization. It describes the complementary to industrial application—the disinterested exploration and development apart from commercial concerns. For “Research Art,” the act of publication takes the place of exhibition. Aesthetic production thus has two potential functions: as-art and as-research framed by a ‘radically empirical’ approach following William James’ usage which assumes that reality is both continuous and non-dual, rejecting any separation between mind and body. (Even transcendence has a physical cue; this is what a “re-visionary aesthetic” means in practice.) This vehicle for cultural and critical exploration and theorization is discursive rather than programmatic. A self-consciously critical reflexivity demands careful attention to the distinction between intention and action, marking their separation as the ambiguous and ambivalent nature of the art work itself.
These theoretical concerns that guide this studio practice, and their articulation by the artist via publication, displace the aesthetic role of art criticism, establishing the Research Artist as a descendant of both the Conceptual Artists’ and Situationalists’ approach to art that cultivates a self-consciously theoretical relationship to studio practice, one in which aesthetics become history: an expression of contingent and arbitrary factors whose importance for working depends on the specific context invoked (cued) within/by the work itself. In place of the a priori fallacies of identity, intention, and biography, “Research Art” articulates experience and perception—the immanent encounter with the work. The art itself is the research, is the theory; however, this approach is radically empirical: it treats all subjectivities as interpreted products of specific, empirically present cues mediated by past experience. Knowledge derives from experience and encounter, but is mediated and informed by past experiences and the dispositive that contextualizes it. It creates distance between the expression and its expressiveness, allowing for more than a flat affect in the art itself. Investigation, modulation, and discourse become the intellectual concerns of studio-based research that may evoke a visceral response from its audience. It is not a matter of learning the discourse of others, but of critiquing all discourse directly through praxis.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt July 24, 2021 all rights reserved.
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