State of the Art

Siegfried Hansen, photography.

Siegfried Hansen, photography.

“As a preamble to their performances, traditional storytellers in Majorca would say, ‘It was and it was not so'”.
David Shields

“The first apprentice we took was an old skateboarding friend of mine who was working as a garbageman. He just loved hanging around the shop so we offered him a spot, and now, a year and a half of training really hard later, he’s working as a full-time barber. Because of all the photos we post on the internet, we think we’re making it look more attractive to become a barber, and now we get a lot of guys asking for apprenticeships.”
Bertus, Schorem Haarsnijder en Barbie

“Artists’ long-faltering, sporadic, but not inconsiderable identification with the working class was largely forgotten, and mainstream criteria of success—identifying with your collectors, or at least their bankrolls — were adopted just in time for the emergence of punk and club culture to provide an outlet for unruly excess, with large doses of cynicism and irony.”
Martha Rosler
‘Artist as Debtor’

“An apparent confusion, if lived with long enough, may become orderly . . . A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness, cannot be explained at noon. Yet it is part of the day’s unity.”
Charles Ives
Essay 22/23

The discussion of art today seems to take one of two directions. Or perhaps three, but I will come to that. The first is the dismissive. The dismissive posture is cynical about contemporary art, or post modern art, and cynically suggests it’s all a lot of junk, and there are too many bad galleries and Biennales, and too much money in it. This is the sort of easy and obvious posture that is appealing because it contains a lot of truth. There is an astounding amount of really bad work out there, but then there is an astounding number of artists out there. The ratio of citizen to ‘professional artist’ has never been this high I don’t think. I find the dismissive attitude bothersome, though. There can be nothing easier than making fun of bad contemporary art. The dismissive has a toxic effect too, for there are huge amounts of excellent contemporary art. The dismissive tone feels self congratulatory, it is comfortable.

“Rather the existence of trash expresses inanely and undisguisedly the fact that men have succeeded in reproducing from within themselves a piece of what otherwise imprisons them in toil, and in symbolically breaking the compulsion of adaptation by themselves creating what they feared; and an echo of the same triumph resounds in the mightiest works, though they seek to forego it, imagining themselves pure self unrelated to any model”
Minima Moralia

Of course Adorno was writing about bric a brac mementos and kitsch paper weights and miniture Eiffel Towers. But it is worth noting that he suggests all great works carry within themselves the echoes of those Eiffel Tower refrigerator magnets. As for the second direction, it is the critical (sic) writing of post modernity. E-Flux publishes a lot of this stuff, much of which makes little sense, to be honest. I stumbled across an essay recently that began with a quote from HBO’s Girls. I continued reading anyway, for a while.

That said, E-Flux also publishes a good deal of excellent stuff, as does Cabinet, or even Brooklyn Rail. The problem resides, really, in a culture betrayed by and blanketed with finance.

“The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Post modernism, if anyone can even begin to define it, is probably that to which Marx’s quote does not apply.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde

I want to talk about a piece at E-Flux, by McKenzie Wark, who writes;

“The sort of things that get called “art” these days exist on a continuum which, if it keeps stretching, will probably break. On one end, art becomes a kind of financial instrument based on singularizing money into an “object” that can have provenance. It can be any kind of object—conceptual, imaginary—all that matters is that there is a document stating who bought it from who. Mind you, pictures work particularly well as such instruments, particularly if they look good in the .jpeg sent to potential buyer’s iPhone. What we might designate as the “art world” is this subsidiary financial market, one with side effects such as dissipating boredom, fostering art-fair tourism, and giving today’s rentier class conversation pieces and home decoration. is this version of an art world perfected.”

And there is little to disagree with in that paragraph. But the second paragraph cuts to the problem I want to talk about.

“At the other end of the art continuum, there’s the attempt to inhabit those spaces of production that the art world requires as its hinterlands—to do something else. Usually, it takes the form of experimenting in those spaces with practices of everyday life that could either have a negative, critical function or an affirmative, constructive function. Some old-fashioned art theorists insist on the negative role of art, as if still hankering for that industrial solvent smell of high modernism.”

This I am less sure about, because it feels like a lot of the misreading of Adorno I come across. It is also guilty, to some degree, of a cliched one dimensional and ahistorical take on modernism. What is it in the cyber enthusiast that wants to believe an insurmountable rift has appeared between the past and the present?

Sarah Charlesworth

Sarah Charlesworth

Martha Rosler’s essay at Artist as Debtor is quite good(ish). It was linked in the comments thread of my previous post. One of the things she said was;

“From the late 1970s on, students were rapidly being disciplined by debt—indeed, the whole society was persuaded that credit card debt was the rational way to finance one’s desires, a pillar of neoliberalism. As Andy Ross has explained, your categorization by banks is that you are a deadbeat if you pay off your debts and a repeater, the best kind of person, if you never manage to do that. Whereas students— and certainly artists—had long understood that those without family wealth would have to live frugally, entering freshmen, and even high school students, were peppered with credit card offers, often on school premises, such as with each bookstore purchase.
The repeated attacks on working-class people’s access to education has meant that increasingly it is the children of the upper middle class who are admitted to higher education without crippling burdens, while many fewer students of color from less financially advantaged circumstances can be offered sufficient scholarships.”

Add to this the quote from Rosler at the very top of this posting, and one can see a tectonic shift in how culture is viewed by, or at least sold to and encouraged to be viewed by the public. One is not an artist if one doesn’t make a living at it.

Amelia Bauer, mixed media, photography.

Amelia Bauer, mixed media, photography.

There is a sense that from the 1970s on, and particularly from the mid 80s on, the affluent upper classes, and certainly the very wealthy white ownership class, had begun a process of appropriation of art. Of all culture, in fact. The working class sense of identity, fragile enough in the U.S., was eviscerated further. But none of this fell out of the sky. This was and is the logic of capital, the start of a financialized capitalism. The post modern posture and theory was only accommodating itself and shaping its opinions to the forces of advanced capital.

Let me return to McKenzie Wark’s piece. He goes on to write about artist as hacker. The entire essay is here.

Now, Adorno’s name is raised a number of times in these sorts of essays, almost uniformly as an outdated champion of modernism, and modernism, as we all know, is so five minutes ago. Most writers on art and aesthetics (both words are treated as corrupted) are entrenched in various post structuralist branches of thought. Which is odd in a way, because structuralism itself had never enjoyed any great popularity in the U.S. And I feel that focusing more on the U.S., partly because I know my native country better, makes sense here. As Hullot-Kentor points out, academic journals from the 1980s onward, in the U.S., simply did not publish articles on Adorno. The difficulty in writing about culture today, then, has to do with an assumption about post modern or post structuralist thought. The various branches occupied by everyone from Agamben to Badiou, to Baudrillard, Lyotard, Derrida, and Ranciere (who, though, is also a critic of it in places) created new vocabularies and methods, exiling older vocabularies and methods. And logically, alongside the dismissing of Adorno came the dismissing of Freud. What has been lost, at least the most glaringly obvious loss, is found in the assumption that the arrival of post modernism more or less came about spontaneously. The forces of history are ignored.

Keith Carter, photography.

Keith Carter, photography.

Now Wark, who I agree with more than I disagree, perceptively writes…(it’s a long quote, but important);

“Perhaps what we’re dealing with now isn’t actually capitalism any more—but something worse. Companies like Google are in the business of surplus information, not surplus labor power. The goal is to build and own an infrastructure that enforces an asymmetry of information, where for whatever information the user gets, much, much more is harvested. It no longer even matters whether this information is culled from work. It can also be extracted from everyday life. And lest one think Google is something of an outlier: take a look at the Fortune 500 companies and it turns out that most of them are now, in part or in whole, in the information business. Even the biggest of them, Walmart. Those big-box stores are just a physical manifestation of a financial and logistical data system. They are money and information congealed into a thing in the landscape. In that regard they are rather like art world works of art.
The ruling class itself has changed form. That’s part of the reason the art world changed form. Art has a new kind of patron. One much less interested in the making of things than in the reaping of surplus from information. Its goal is the commodification of information flows. As such it undermines all of the old gift exchanges via which information used to flow, in the family, the community, via schooling, and so forth. What the capitalists did for the production of things, the new ruling class is doing for the production of information. I call them the vectoralist class. They rule through the ownership and control of the vectors of information, its stocks, its flows, its design.
The “dematerialization of art” was homologous with this transformation of capitalism into something else, something even more abstracted. Conceptual art is a side effect of the rise of conceptual business. But it was more a shift in the relation between information and its material form than a dematerialization. What transpired was an abstracting of information from any particular material expression, but not from materiality in general.”

But let me point to one sentence in the above, that conceptual art is a side effect of the rise of the concept business. This is exactly so. And this is why Adorno remains crucially important in any cultural analysis.

Giovanni Bellini, "Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan ", 1501.

Giovanni Bellini, “Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan “, 1501.

Labor isn’t immaterial, it remains alienated and exploited. There remains a very neglected realm of discussion in most critical writing on the arts today. And that is the changes in perception that have occurred in the audience. The lack of depth, then, becomes a sort of psychoanalytic metaphor. Adorno’s collaboration on The Authoritarian Personality defined the authoritarian as one who (among other things) was allergic to introspection or ambiguity. Mass culture today, the entertainment business, produces work made by people who abhor the introspective, and anything not clearly defined, for people who abhor the introspective and anything not clearly defined. Robert Hullot-Kentor writes of Adorno’s philosophy…“But to present what is at stake here in the most general terms, the critique of domination necessarily remains another form of domination — hardly rare in that gesture of emancipation as domination comprises the whole of ideology — unless there is the possibility in domination itself of recuperating it from its own destructiveness.”

“And we {the Academy} need to collaborate more widely, to be in dialog with very different domains of both technical and aesthetic counter-production.”
Mckenzie Wark

Wark’s demand for abandoning the specialized realms of the Academy couldn’t be more right. Hullot-Kentor could also have turned around his equation; with the gesture of domination as emancipation, with equal truth. And this brings me to Adorno in one of his late lectures, circa the mid sixties.
The dialectic of freedom and conformity. “If the process of societalization continues to advance, and if therefore the elements of freedom that I have told you about are progressively swallowed up by the elements of adjustment, then freedom and what we might call the impulses of freedom, spontaneous actions, will come to appear increasingly old fashioned, or even archaic.” For Adorno saw that a certain archaic impulse, a element of the Id, was necessary as a pre-condition for spontaneity. He saw it as connected directly to mimesis.

“The more the ego obtains control over itself and over nature, then the more it learns to master itself and the more questionable it finds its own freedom.”

David Wadelton

David Wadelton

This is relevant on two fronts; one it is an element of pre-history, or pre-ego. And two, it is linked to that extra mental mimetic behavior that always contains some trace of bodily impulse. Adorno later, in an aside almost, says that the exaltation of the ego, in contemporary society goes hand in hand with the “abyss of the self”. Now he suggests this idea or vision of inwardness finds expression in Marx. It does so in the sense of revolutionary immediacy. And it seems to me that therein lies an aspect of what is reactionary in post modern/post structuralist thought and its embrace of depthlessness. There is also in this something to be pondered in how spontaneity has migrated from or distanced itself conceptually almost in those of us opposed to the relationships of domination today.

“…the concept of spontaneity, which might be described as the organ or medium of freedom, refuses to obey the logic of non-contradiction, and is instead a unity of mutually contradictory elements.”

In other words the idea of freedom was an invention, in the imagination, of a narcissistic ego. The bourgeois individual is loathe to admit his dependency or complicity in the irrational. And that implies, in turn, a conflicted relationship between the self and the group. This is even more true today than sixty years ago, in that the contemporary Western psyche is even more defended, more insistent on keeping the animalic aspect of itself at arm’s length. The pathologies, or obsessions of everyone living under Capitalism are designated as sickness only when they prevent one from doing one’s job. Or fulfilling their slot in the great machine. The rise of branding, of self branding, in a culture of shopping has meant that this elaborately constructed *self* must assign blame for those flaws one recognizes in oneself. That blame is usually directed outward, but if not, if it seen as a problem *inside* you, then that part that is problematic must be treated. But not just treated, for that is pretty illusory, but confessed and atoned for at the therapeutic alter. The residue of Puritanism, and Calvinism. The acceptance of a model in which one can accept that we are both free and unfree, and more, that we are both some form of individual and some form of group, is a delicate edge and one that connects with cultural matters and with art.

Karen Knorr, photography.

Karen Knorr, photography.

The new University produces something very malleable and abstract, and it has little to do anymore with traditional notions of learning. It turns out mostly obedient information producers. Or, information technicians. My problem with much of Rosler’s other writing, like my problem with Virno (who has written some excellent stuff, but not usually) or Hardt and Negri is that the new connectivity, the new matrix of immaterial information, is all true, but it has not replaced the old model(s) of proletarian wage slavery. It is only superimposed atop it, and often serves more as a veil than anything else. Rosler also is herself, paradoxically, trivializing cultural history with a tone of cyncism that tends to be dismissive of earlier movements. She also regularly speaks at events such as the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, and is on the board of the Whitney, and MOMA, and is associated with Columbia and The New School, and remains firmly entrenched in the world of Biennales and major museum shows. That is not inherently corrupt, or I don’t think so anyway, but the academics today must take some responsibility for their participation in this system of intellectual peonage. In Rosler’s case she takes none, and her writing, even when admirable, is tainted with that feeling of insularity so common to the world of million dollar art commodities, and those brie and chablis conferences.

Schorem Haarsnijder en Barbie, Rotterdam.

Schorem Haarsnijder en Barbie, Rotterdam.

Now, both Rosler and Wark, and in fact the majority of writers I read at E-Flux this week, and a good many post modern commentators, are highly critical, if not just snarky, about the idea “authenticity”. Now there is good reason for this, of course. It is most often a marketing tool. It is a branding concept, and its vagueness and abstract quality make it perfect as such. But, when the elite practitioners of the art world employ this term, they are exhibiting, I fear, a distinct class elitism. The underclass is constantly strip mined for its creative projects. This is established, but it is also subject on the level of community craft to wholesale appropriation. In black urban centers, and to only a slightly lesser degree in Latino neighborhoods, the *barbershop* was a center for social connectivity, and for support. It was also a place where respect was developed from the passing on of craft knowledge. Many barbers I knew were ex-cons. Today, there has been a small resurgent growth in neighborhood barbershops. Some of it annexed already by white hipsterdom, but not all, and that’s not the point anyway. The personal style, the maschismo (in a progressive sense), honor, and the dedication to craft is all too easy to ridicule from the perches of elite MFA programs, or from trembling branches of ruling class insecurities. It is not to be dismissed, a tutorial in a hot towel and shave, hand poured pomades, or varieties of shaving cream. The story of the *Scumbag* barbers in blue collar Rotterdam is a sort of fascinating example. And really, tattooing has shown great resilience in this regard, too. I have always said, only poor kids shine their shoes. If you see an adult man shine his own leather shoes, you can be pretty sure he grew up poor, or did time in prison. I never met many messy ex-cons, in fact. Some, but those were the broken men.

“What gives knowledge the stamp of authenticity is the reflection of possibility.”
Adorno (in a conversation with Horkheimer)

The charges of pessimism, when leveled against almost anyone, are always suspect. Reminds me of being told to smile when getting your photo taken in Junior High School for the yearbook. And the snark attached to discussions of authenticity often feel the same. Rosler also enacts a sort of subtle sleight of hand, too. Here she writes:

“Forms, rather than being empty shapes, carry centuries of Platonic baggage, most clearly seen in architecture; formal innovation in twentieth-century high modernism, based on both Kant and Hegel, was interpreted as a search for another human dimension.”

This was in an essay discussing Romanticism, and contemporary art. First, that’s just not correct. Another human dimension? It is these subtle (or not so) summations that dot a lot of her critical writing, and it’s done from her preferred position of sort of mildly putting down everything. Except herself, presumably.

And this returns us to the dialectics of freedom and conformity. And also to questions of aesthetics vis a vis Rosler and post modernism.

Dorothea Tanning, multi media, "Hotel De Pavor, 1970.

Dorothea Tanning, multi media, “Hotel De Pavor, 1970.

Freedom became a topic only with the liberation of the bourgeoisie. It was an external material definition related to the loosening of feudal restrictions. The emancipated bourgeoisie then sought to discover an ur-freedom, or essential sense of human freedom connected to man’s nature. This then became a topic for Locke and others, in varying ways. This is only worth pointing out because of the later mystifications of the topic. And because such philosophical debates are related to an investigation of post modern aesthetics. And post modern aesthetics (and the term post modern is suddenly quite unpopular I’ve noticed) is linked to, so I believe, a failure to fully appreciate the erasing of mimesis from contemporary artistic production. Depthlessness or this attachment to and valorizing of surface, contains within it, as a concept, a denial of inwardness as a valid topic. No wonder then that Freud is dismissed. One of the roles of mimesis in artworks is as a factor of awakening to the coercive character of the ego. The re-narrating of artworks, meaning the mimetic engagement with artworks, entails of necessity almost a glimpse of the trauma that is always involved in the development of our personality, or idea of self. Without the space to allow that to happen, and I would argue an aesthetic strategy that privileges surface disallows just that space, then the self is validated. The counter argument to this is to suggest there is another road to the ‘inward’. However, though admitting the possibility, partially, that road (to stretch and abuse this metaphor) entails a high toll, and Lambert Zuidervaart touches on this when he writes; “Just as consumer capitalism is the purest stage of capitalism, so post modernism is the virtual apotheosis of reification in culture.” The current conditions, ones Wark writes about, ones that Jonathan Beller has written about, and Lazzarato, if accepted on their own theoretical terms, suggest culture is dying a slow sleepwalking death.

The belief that commercials or marketing delve into the deeper recesses of our consciousness (or unconscious) is simply not the case. For the principle of advertising is manipulation, and manipulation is predicated upon a reduction of the model of the world and reality. For the very same reason, sentimental kitsch is predicated upon a reductive world view. The Spectacle, as Debord repeatedly pointed out was the reflected image of the social relations in a society of unfreedom. The rise of a neo-camp aesthetics has come to be the province of hipsterism, of white University educated and relatively affluent consumers. Embedded in this is the really pernicious resurgent and regressive new definition of populism. That somehow The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad are simply the cultural bon bons given over for privileged consumption. Not nutritious, but entertaining and fun. Such products do many things, but chief among the things they do is mask the absence of those narrative qualities that engaged allegory, sacrifice, and mimesis.

Police archive photo, with Tina Modotti, recreating possible version of Mella assassination.

Police archive photo, with Tina Modotti, recreating possible version of Mella assassination.

A connoisseurship of kitsch cannot but be linked to this new defensive definition of populism. I was thinking this week, and I digress, of Tina Modotti. Modotti embodied something of a modernist aesthetic that was never, or rarely, overtly didactic, and her best photography was purely modernist, influenced by Edward Weston among others. But her work retains on all levels a quality of radicalism. The photo above however is among my favorite photographs ever as a sort of found-art example of multiple narratives and accidental mimetic depth and complexity. The primal crime is off stage, and hence the photo is almost unbearably uncanny. The emancipation of the bourgeoisie, and the questions of freedom are also linked to post industrial capital, today. Adorno used the example of Hamlet, in discussing the idea of consciousness and freedom, and indeed Hamlet as both character and as Shakespeare’s play, is another example of the inescapable inwardness triggered by certain narratives. The Prince cannot act, even when he believes in the action, and as Adorno writes: “This problem becomes entangled with the question of insanity because he finds himself cut off from reality in a way that really does possess structural similarities with madness. For it involves the same withdrawl of libidinal energy from external reality that is one of the typical symptoms of schizophrenia.” This is a play about the dialectic of inward and outward, and of freedom and conformity. The medieval mind would not understood this play very well. And I wonder if post modern America understands it very well either. This posting began with discussions of the artist as panderer, today. And with the art student as abject court supplicant. Perhaps it is that reminded me of Tina Modotti and her friend Diego Rivera, and other friends and intimates such as Pablo Neruda, Weston, Xavier Guerrero, and even Dr. Bethune. I think, often, the radical left artists of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, and even 50s, are reduced in the cultural rear view mirror to one dimensional crude social realists. Even many on the left do them this injustice.

The Exterminating Angel (1962). Luis Bunuel,. dr.

The Exterminating Angel (1962). Luis Bunuel,. dr.

There is a through line from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoyevsky and Kafka and Melville. From Hamlet to The Confidence Man to Brothers Karamozov. Hamlet’s feigned madness is also his real madness (per Adorno), and Bartelby the Scrivner is also so mad, and Joseph K. Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel is an expression, too, of this indictment of the age of reflection. The interior lives of hidden madness, and the relativity of that definition. And of the narcissism that is the self. It is easy in comparison, to note the disappearing of the inward in much current cultural product today. In fact it is about keeping thought focused on the surface. And if that is seen as a confusion on my part between registers of metaphor, I submit that it’s not. For that IS metaphor, and it is today exactly as Debord and Vaneigem suggested.
Tina Modotti, photography. Mexico 1926.

Tina Modotti, photography. Mexico 1926.

The illusory nature of social institutions in the Bunuel, a film that is really an anti-Franco metaphor, and anti fascist, never loses sight of this historical materiality. The dialectic at its heart is also, in its way, a sign of collective madness in the age of reflection. They cannot act, just as Hamlet cannot. The attacks on modernism are simply so much ad copy, because the topic isn’t defined anyway. The logic of Google and Microsoft and that of all the giant information leviathans is one in which maximum exploitation is the end result and desire. And yet, the world continues to become ever more proletarianized. The role of art is not social transformation, but it is interior emancipation and awakening. The Buneul, like Hamlet, ends in violence, and so does much Conrad and so does Melville, for the truth of our selves is that we must unknot the enigmas of our own trauma, our own birth into violence before we can alter the system of mass violence.

There is a need, I think, if social transformation is to take place, for extra institutional art and criticial writing to recuperate what has been lost over the last eighty years. Today the working class finds expression in forms that are both marginalized by the ruling class, but often are more linked to craft and often, in turn, to legacies of servility. Graffiti, or car culture; low riders and custom cars, or even tattoo art, various comic book illustrating trends, are all in varying ways balanced on a thin ledge of resistance and submission. The Latino low rider culture occupies the resistance end of aesthetic representation. It is also born in the southwest and in Southern California where space was delineated by automobile travel. The low rider was and is an expression of cultural defiance, but however sophisticated, is still locked in a dialectic of service and social immobility. It was an incorporation of and reinventing of social restrictions and power dynamics with an oppressive racist police infrastructure as personal and ethnographic style. The aesthetics are complex but shallow. And perhaps in a sense, the asethetics are not exactly that, for they are ceremonial projects. Low riding was socialization and maschismo. They ingest the legacies of Religious pilgrimage and a Catholic iconography of sacrifice. Low riding is also, of course, a way of pushing back at the fortress city, at the bantustan demarcation of class.

Girault de Prangey, photography. Rue Guillemin, Paris 1865. Later torn down.

Girault de Prangey, photography. Rue Guillemin, Paris 1865. Later torn down.

The community displaces creative or Utopian impulses (mimetic) into either co-opted sociological bureaucracies or into relatively narrow aesthetics of folk culture practices. Graffiti of course had some cross over success, but that only served as alibi for liberal reflexes and guilt.

I’d like to conclude this with some open ended observations about contemporary mass culture, and about the psychological, or rather psychoanalytic tensions of today’s audience for art. One point of interest is in seeing just how rationalized mass culture has become. The loss of spontaneity, or perhaps only it’s criminalization, is linked to the denial of the regressive or archaic part of human behavior. Acting out of impulses incompatible with an ever more repressive society of surveillance and police authority and impunity has meant that all archaic trace elements in ourselves are designated as pathological. The degree of oppressive restrictions has had the effect, I think, of eliminating those trace elements altogether. Adorno and Horkheimer in conversation said: “…in the framework of total planning characteristic of the culture industry human beings regress to the reactions of amphibians.” What they meant was that under a system that so effectively dominates daily life the action of regression takes on, or is replaced by, reflex actions that are de-linked to individual will. They are libidinal dead ends, or cul de sacs. If regression was always reactive in a sense, the change has been to render the secondary implications inert or static. And there are no doubt psychic costs to this mental bludgeoning. And one of those costs is the atrophying of the imagination. And here one might argue that contemporary or post modern aesthetics are reflections of this atrophy and loss of willpower. It is almost a mental double tap, to use the vernacular of drone assassination. The super-ego has expanded its jurisdiction.

Richard Diebenkorn

Richard Diebenkorn

The subject today is faced with the intensification of demands on his or her attention. The parameters of the subject, in fact, are expressed by the rise in screen images and sounds, in the non stop stream of information. What Jonathan Crary calls *reality maintenance*. Now, the question of mimesis is just unavoidable here, and it is because attention is itself mimetic. The contemporary subject is elastic and adaptive, in terms of perception, for the flow of image and data changes so rapidly. There has been, I suspect, a shift in the foundational character of perception; where it is presumed that most everything looked at or heard is easily replaced with something nearly just like it. Heidegger saw the Greeks as having a self disclosing ‘look’. And that this became, and more intensely now, a predatory look. Putting aside the idea of a primordial clarity, I suspect that predatory look is better described as the wise-shopper-look. The fact remains though that however one imagines this shift, the forces of Capital are technologically deploying a strategy to fragment community.The individual subject however, regressing amphibian-like, is also implanted in a vortex of hyper planning and organization. That one cannot even get car insurance without a cell phone number is only the tip of the iceberg of identity control under way in the West today.

Foucault introduced the idea of ‘diffuse’ forms of power, which tacitly demanded a certain mental upkeep to track or follow. The subject can never fully engage mimetically for fear of wasting time, and loss of valuable attention. The mental bookeeping is constantly refreshed. The internal ledger though elicits an acute anxiety. Artwork today, if we for the moment limit this to painting and video and gallery art in general, is instinctively going to reward that which can be processed and noted in the mental ledger quickly. The mimetic behavior of one focusing attention on an object is durational — it takes time, too much time. Time is money.

Que Viva Mexico (1932) Sergei Eisenstein, dr.

Que Viva Mexico (1932) Sergei Eisenstein, dr.

And herein lies, perhaps, the fulcrum for aesthetic taste today. Warhol ushered in the actual commodity itself, so shopping time was reduced. Since then, much post modern work has been an ironic gloss on Warhol. The point for this posting is to argue that modernism never ended, and post modernism never began. What happened were technical alterations of the subject’s sense of self in relation to his or her culture. The role of culture today is differently defined. But that happened gradually, starting perhaps all the way back to the 1950s. The taste for surface oriented art, witty, ironic, but resistant to, or immune to, prolonged contemplation, was convenient, as take-out Chinese food is convenient. Jeff Koons is just MSG art. It lends itself to later cocktail party bon mots, or more importantly, to academic post grad theses.

“The issue of the automatic is crucial within the specifically modern problem of attention: it poses the notion of absorbed states that are no longer related to an interiorization of the subject, to an intensification of a sense of childhood. The inwardness of what Hegal called romanticism is not so much exceeded here as it is paradoxically turned inside out, into a condition of externalization: attention as a depthless interface simulates and displaces what once might have been autonomous states of self reflection or *sens intime*. The logic of the Spectacle prescribes the production of separate, isolated, but not introspective individuals.”
Jonathan Crary


  1. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    I find the essay you linked interesting, but more disquieting in general than maybe you took it. I think the flaws in there reflect a more fundamental fabric of thinking that’s wrong in general. For example, right before the call for abandoning the specialized realms of the Academy, as you call it, there’s this: “Let’s have done with fine art history and the history of continental high theory. No more Heidegger; no more Duchamp. We need a new archive of the present for a new kind of present time.”

    I find that to be the height of know-nothingism and it’s utterly defeatist. The tone of the article seems to be, essentially, ‘don’t fight it, just learn to enjoy it.’

    Neither do I understand the very fashionable switch-and-bait category error that’s manifested in a phrase such as ‘deeply conservative, even reactionary, adherence to specialized traditions’. I mean, what is there in common between intellectual strictness and authoritarianism in life and politics? Nothing — or rather no direct one-on-one correlation because they’re fundamentally two different categories. One has to do with ideas in themselves, the other is a concrete power relation. And yet this seems to be one of the classic postmodernist or poststructuralist feints, going as far back as Barthes in ‘Death of the Author’ — to somehow equate the breaking out of so-called ‘rigid’ intellectual categories as if rule-less-ness in intellectual matters in any way directly translates to political emancipation. It’s absurd.

  2. John Steppling says:

    This is what I find with a lot of techno media cyber post post industrial theorists. Now Wark says a number of really good things, but then says some really odd things. I think the Heidegger and Duchamp comment……well, I think it barely registered because its so familiar. its empty rhetoric. But I do disagree about the specialized traditions, not in theory, but in practice. Those sorts of statements are dangerous because they are very generalized, but……….but I dont read that as intellectual strictness, something I find very little of in the University these days. Here is the full quote
    ” Let’s experiment! Who knows which new forms will take off and take hold? If the continuum connecting real creation to the art world breaks, so be it. It needs us more than we need it. For those of us from the art and language academy, perhaps the key is getting out of our deeply conservative, even reactionary, adherence to specialized traditions. Let’s have done with fine art history and the history of continental high theory. No more Heidegger; no more Duchamp. We need a new archive of the present for a new kind of present time.”
    So he’s talking about the arts, really — that s how i took it. The University arts programs, MFA programs. And its true that it can almost impossible to work off a new model — but of course I have even deeper more acute issues with the University system. But… I think that the rigidity is real. What wark fails to see are things he would be able to see if he had read more Marx.

    But to answer your question; of course there can be authoritarian aspects to life and politics as well as certain intellectual disciplines. I grant you its a somewhat fatuous bit of rhetoric, but the point was about the academy I think, and the inflexibility of structural elements in it. And thats true I think. The specialized traditions appeal to the authority of a manufactured tradition based on, often, very elitist principles. Or on nothing.
    Take the olympics as an example……..just pops into my head…….the tradition is fascist., But its presented as some quaint bygone golden dawn that is being adhered to — not the white catholic purely fascist royalist tradition and founding that it was. But the marketing is….. “we continue to honor the tradition of blah blah blah…great Olympic heroes of the past”. And then the appeal in debates is to this near imaginary tradition.
    I mean I dont read it quite the way you do. But i also just think its rhetorical in a sense. But it seems you read HIM as a post modernist and Im not sure I do. The first piece I posted…… that. Or most of what appears in these arts journals. Mixed in is a lot of excellent stuff…well, some excellent stuff…….but amid a lot of that incredibly empty po mo *theory*. I think Wark is one of those slightly eccentric information techno nerds — in his case though, heavily influenced by the Situationists. He has a book on the SI, following after 68. So I think this is SI style more than it is to be taken narrowly as logical analysis. And Wark’s best stuff is where he channels Debord.

  3. John Steppling says:

    Also………I dont take the tone of the article as at all ‘dont fight it, just enjoy it’.
    quite the contrary, for better for worse.

  4. stunning piece. Thank you.
    So much to chew on, and I wouldn’t have time to ponder except for all these time-saving appliances and devices at my fingertips.
    Alas, I think one of the best things I’ve read recently about art, in this case poetry, mattering, is here::

  5. kevin barker says:

    I’m still trying to work out whether the ruling class is truly in decline, or if the obsessive ideological bleating about “pivoting” and “disrupting” is a cover for mere “glacial stasis”. It can’t be both, surely.

  6. John Steppling says:

    who said the ruling class was in decline?

  7. kevin barker says:

    2nd last paragraph of the essay Designs for a New World you referenced.

  8. kevin barker says:

    that quote kind of jumped out at me, and the longer i thought about it, the more i realized it was central to everything you discussed in your piece.

  9. John Steppling says:

    here is the paragraph……

    “Effort takes energy. The hack requires a surplus of energy. “Bataille was right.” It’s what a civilization does with its surplus that defines it, shapes it, prefigures its future. What our civilization chose to do with energy is make it measurable. And so we know that, going by the measure, this civilization can’t last. Its time is already up. It has lost all confidence in itself. We can measure exactly what’s gone wrong with what this civilization does with energy, but its ruling class can’t or won’t make the effort to do anything about it. The art they hoard shows it: this is a ruling class in decline. The obsessive ideological bleating about “pivoting” and “disrupting” is a cover for a glacial stasis.

    And so there’s nothing for it but to take their money, live as best we can, and try to build prototypes for another life in the margins.”

    I think he is speaking in a sense metaphorically…..because he also makes clear that they now have shifted focus to the attention economy (as I think Beller put it). Its not a decline in power or control. And I don’t think Wark thinks it is. So yeah, your right, he does say that, but its more in the context of western society and its decline, which isnt, again, a decline in power. The ruling class is more powerful now than ever probably, at least in a certain sense. Id not really agree per se with that comment even its metaphorical sense, but its part of the wider point he is making, and it does reflect on a lot of what I was trying to say here. Wrapping one’s mind around the deterritorialization of labor, the constant circulation of information, of image, is very hard and its hard because there is no vocabulary for it.

  10. kevin barker says:

    these margins he speaks of, do they exist within the attention economy? and if so, could something like kanye’s west’s nude online photos of kim kardashian be a kind of new Expressionism? I’m grasping here, you’re right there’s no vocabulary…

  11. Much of this penetrating analysis of our contemporary situation is dramatized is one of the finest and most probing novels of the last century — THE MAN WITHOUT QUALITIES (English title) by Robert Musil. It presents a European world where the real is rapidly disappearing, experienced by the central consciousness of Ulrich in his search for a new reality, composed of exactitude and passion, a reflection of Musil’s scientific/mathematical background along with his compulsion to let art speak what science could not. The creation of this narrator/character makes this a true
    masterpiece of fiction. Perhaps, finally, all we really have in this unequal contest
    is the flickering soul of human consciousness.

  12. Alex Henry says:

    It’s funny to see people talking only to make the point that words and vocabulary can’t do our current situation justice. The point we’ve reached in the present is a universally understood but unrecognized paradigm pitting sides against one another. Words themselves have been fractured into these same unrecognizable concepts so the only way to move forward is through introspectively putting the fractured pieces away and diving toward the unconscious depths of silence where all the concepts can symbiotically fuse together without our talk to puzzle them back up. Then will life evolve from posh ego sport where everyone has something “different ” to say, to something that speaks on the global human condition, which is a state of dejection and hate that stems from a lack of love (in case anyone missed that lecture by past spiritual leaders). When will we learn to stop dissecting things with our minds in a quest for knowledge and start seeing things with the wisdom of our heart? If we all made a piece of art instead of organizing thoughts we’d understand where our humanity has gone. It’s gotten all jumbled up in the heaps of words and pictures our egos are busy using to convince everyone around how smart we are. In order to find language to understand ourselves we must look to the heart rather than the mind.

  13. Nice post!

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