The many deaths of art

Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz,
Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee

Untitled.
Image: The “tombstone” of Kazimir Malevich,
buried beneath The Black Square (1935)

untitled2

Originally posted over at the Platypus Review. Last spring, in response to Paul Mason’s article “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?,” the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted an event on the “death of art.”[1] Speakers included Julieta Aranda who was represented by Anton Vidokle, Gregg Horowitz, Paul Mattick, and Yates McKee. The discussion was moderated by Chris Mansour and was held at the New School in New York on February 23, 2013. Complete video of the event can be found online by clicking here. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Opening remarks

Anton Vidokle: These are Julieta Aranda’s opening remarks: It was with a strange sense of déjà vu that I accepted the invitation to attend yet another funeral for art. Of course I have heard about all the previous ones, but this is the first time I have been invited to attend one. As an artist it is hard to understand the compulsion to establish our sense of art history through the recurrent announcements of “the death or art.” Art seems to be constantly dying, but we never talk much about its birth. It must have been stubbornly reborn on countless occasions, since we are here again, trying to measure its vital signs. I tried to do a bit of a research into the many deaths of art — but I was quickly overwhelmed: In one way or another, we have been trying to put art in a coffin and nail it shut for the past 2,000 years.

In the 1980s — during the art market boom — there were plenty of death calls: the death of painting, the death of modernism, and also the death of postmodernism. Meanwhile, the New York art market was very much alive, fueled by the usual suspects: speculators, investors, real estate developers, social climbers, and so forth. Of course as with everything that is artificially inflated, there was an eventual market crash, and this crash had many casualties. Many galleries disappeared, and many artists’ careers dried out. But this wasn’t understood to be the death of art as it had been previously announced.

I am skeptical about the Peter and the Wolf announcements of an imminent death of art — this time in its “contemporary” incarnation. For me, it is more interesting to question the favorable disposition — almost a wish — that we have towards the demise of art. The death sentence on contemporary art comes not only because the current operative model for contemporary art is deficient. (Under the current model, meaning is often quickly emptied out from objects and images, and market artists are a renewable resource.) But this wish also comes partly because we want a new big thing, we want the new thing to come now, and we want to be the new thing while the market is booming. As Hito Steyerl, a German video artist and writer, points out in her Kracauer Lecture, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” “To declare something over or dead is a form of production, that purposefully kills off something in order to launch new commodities or attract attention.”[2]

To assume a one-to-one equivalence between contemporary art and the art-market for contemporary art — so that we can pass a summary judgment and quickly condemn it to death as an evil that needs to be eradicated — would be like holding a perfunctory trial, the outcome of which we know in advance.

What happens, in this case, to artistic practices that have no market value? And, what happens to art that is currently produced in situations where there is no market? Is this art not contemporary? Is this art also dying?

If we choose to talk about the art of the past 50 years only in the ways in which it has been coded by capital, we may be simplifying the body we are trying to find, and giving it an outline we can reject. Paul Mason’s recent article for the BBC refers exclusively to a contemporary art that is full of obscenely rich “concept artists,” whose work is executed by “minions” and subsequently, that artists involved in Occupy are pitted against a world described as “the white-walled gallery: with its air of non-committal, its preference for meaningless gesture, its reliance on interpretation by the viewer, and its extreme focus on commercialization.”[3]

The problem is that, if we accept the above definition of contemporary art’s body, we are (again) defining this body; we are ready to bury it as that of a white male. In the interest of the art that I care for, I feel compelled to challenge that definition. While the structure of the gallery system is indeed troublesome, to use it as a synonym for all of the contemporary artistic practices outside of the work of the artists affiliated with Occupy would be a gross misrepresentation; more so, it would be one that persists in depicting the West, and specifically New York, as the center of the world. While this is true for New Yorkers, it is not necessarily true for everybody else.

We could go ahead and declare that contemporary art, as we know it, is dead or dying, and replace it with the next new black: today, Occupy; tomorrow, something else. But to be ready to broadly dismiss contemporary art in a summary gesture, replacing it entirely with a “new” understanding of art that is advocating an obligatory commitment to explicit leftist political ideologies and a sense of social purpose, doesn’t actually sound so new to me. Hasn’t this conversation been going on continuously since the 1920s?

In fact, it makes me think of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and of Cambodia’s Year Zeroor of Plato’s position towards poets in the Republic:

But, for our own good, we ourselves should employ a more austere and less pleasure-giving poet and story-teller, one who would imitate the speech of a more decent person and who would tell his stories in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers.[4]

Good intentions aside: isn’t this model slightly prescriptive?

As far as it goes to meaning in contemporary art, when I see the work of artists like Walid Raad or Jimmie Durham or Katerina Seda, what I see is the ways in which they successfully smuggle into the dominant narrative of histories and images what would otherwise would not be accessible. I do not consider their practice less meaningful just because they enjoy a considerable degree of success, and I certainly appreciate the histories and images that they smuggle in that retain all of their original political complexity and their uncomfortable qualities, without being flattened or prepackaged into ready-to-eat morsels.

It is extremely problematic that there is a financial apparatus currently rigged around contemporary art — since it may be the biggest instance of an art market that has ever been in operation. On top of this, the concomitant professionalization of the art system, which aims at feeding this market through a proliferation of expensive art schools and training programs put in place to train domesticable and reliable artists that can produce viable commodities, only adds fuels to the fire.

However, it is possible to understand to a certain degree the willingness of certain artists, but not all, to enter this problematic situation. It has been tacitly agreed that artists shouldn’t concern themselves with money. And while the idea of making a living from art is interpreted as being morally corrupt, there is no alternative system in operation to guarantee the welfare of artists. Artists who “sell out” are bad. But if they refuse to do that, then what happens to them? How are they supposed to make a living? It has always been unclear to me how are artists supposed to take care of mundane needs such as paying rent, going to the dentist, having dinner, and taking a child to the doctor.

The current conditions of production of art are dire. There has been a shrinking of unpredictable spaces, an erosion of relationships that are not professional, and a disappearance of a bohemian and non-domesticated world. This may be a temporary condition, only applicable “while the market lasts”, but it is a damaging condition nonetheless, a condition that could render the soul homeless.

As I look at the shape-shifting body of art on its contemporary inception — a body that doesn’t seem to fit its coffin or even its own definition — it has become clear to me that contemporary art may not be as simple as the single thread constructed that we try to collect as a digestible unit. Art produced today has many paradigms, some of them depleted, others full of potential. Art will transform, as it always has historically, and become something other than contemporary; an art that we don’t know yet — and which we will only know when it has arrived. Instead of a coffin, with all of its irreversible solemnity, it may be better to make sure that there are fertile conditions in place for the new art to come.

The patient will live! Let’s build a better world for her.

Paul Mattick: I will begin with Paul Mason’s suggestion that “Occupy signaled the death of contemporary art.” Since Occupy’s wonderful but short life has been over for some time, while contemporary art is rolling on, with its full panoply of artists, dealers, writers, auctions, museums, and collectors, the obvious response to this is, “No.” Mason’s own article confirms this, as it focuses on an Occupy activist turning, once the movement has been dispersed, to market her agitprop effort as contemporary art. On the other hand, one should beware of the obvious answer, and I will take another look at this question at the end.

It will be useful to define the chief term under discussion, or at least give my definition, so that we can know if and when we are talking about the same thing. “Art,” since it evolved in Europe in the late 18th century, has been the name for a social practice of valuing — and of collecting, making, attending to, and displaying — objects and performances capable of signifying the discernment of those who appreciate them. In a smaller mouthful, art gives body to taste and so makes it visible. The exercise of taste for artworks, like the exercise of choice, attests to the chooser’s freedom from necessity, or at least to a willingness to disregard it. “Necessity,” in the commercial culture that came into existence with modern society, means above all a concern with money — making it and spending it. Art developed its enormous importance within capitalism, the first culture in history to be dominated by the use of money, because it provides a social space for demonstrating freedom from commercial necessity. Art, the opposite of wage labor and capitalist entrepreneurship alike, is work done for love, not money; its collection and enjoyment signify a spiritual set of interests, raising the art-lover above the material concerns of “everyday life.” It is this that makes art so valuable and expensive.

Thus, in the 19th century, art allowed the newly ascendant bourgeoisie to claim the mantle of social superiority formerly worn by the landed aristocracy for whom paintings, architecture, music, dance, etc. had been not art but part of the paraphernalia of daily life. In the 20th century, “modern” art spoke for the claims of bourgeois society to have established values of its own, with, for instance, the motorcar sometimes supplementing and sometimes re-embodying the classic grace of the Parthenon.

The ascendancy of the United States, a self-made country without a feudal past, after World War II produced a new twist in the modernist version of art. While a turn-of-the-century magnate like J.P. Morgan still looked to Europe for the artworks required to show that America had arrived, post-war art-lovers, and indeed the American government itself, found the highest stage of artistic development in the new American art. This bourgeoisie, an American one, lacked the bad conscience of its forebears; now the most avant-garde art — originally produced to mark the distance between the artist and the bourgeois — became the official art of business society.

At various points in this long trajectory, the idea has arisen that art could come to an end. In the early 1800s, famously, when art was just beginning, Hegel believed art would, like religion, cede its cultural significance to philosophy; alas, I speak from the perspective of a professional philosopher: Philosophy has turned out to be of negligible cultural significance compared to art. The radical upheavals following World War I gave rise to various forms of the idea that the revolutionary transformation of daily life might lead to the absorption of art, in the form of industrial design, into life. Such ideas were encouraged by the habit of looking at art as pursuing an autonomous, unified history, with one “school” succeeded another “school”: a history directed, following the Hegelian model, towards the realization of a goal can be imagined to reach some sort of end when the goal is attained.

The success of “advanced” art in the post-war period gave rise to the related idea of the “death of the avant-garde.” An idea with much truth to it, since after 1960 the avant-garde system, with critics and other cultural intermediaries alerting maverick collectors to the masterpieces of the future, did in fact break down. The critics almost uniformly hated Pop art, but collectors bought it anyway, and soon the critics had to like it. With avant-gardism’s demise, the pluralism of the art world gradually became unmistakable, though attempts were made to hold it at bay by defining new avant-gardes, especially by academic writers and art historians like the members of the October circle. But, whatever the success of this attempt in academia, the art world saw the death of the critic, as control over taste was exercised by curators, auctioneers, and collectors themselves.

This process cannot be fully understood without reference to the development of capitalism itself in the same period. The crisis of the mid-1970s announced the end of the great post-war economic boom. Henceforth capitalism’s dynamism shifted increasingly away from productive investment towards financial speculation. We all know the results: the globalization of capital, on the one hand, and growing inequality in the distribution of wealth, on the other. With a new international elite concentrating a hitherto unknown share of the world’s wealth in its hands. Art — museum and gallery art, at any rate (the situation is rather different for art music) — became basically a possession of the global one percent, albeit a luxury good whose value still requires general visibility and appreciation.

What might be said above all to have met its death as this state of affairs developed is the role of educated people, whom Pierre Bourdieu called “the dominated fraction of the dominating class,” as the arbiters of cultural value. This is part of a general devaluation of the thing once celebrated as “culture,” manifested in such phenomena as the decline of liberal arts education and growing un- and under-employment of the educated, now condemned by the new terms of a credit-enabled capitalism to lifelong debt peonage. This has had effects directly for artists, and one of the interesting things, which was mentioned in Aranda’s comments, is the material disappearance of bohemian life: cheap rent, affordable studios, and so forth.

Occupy was above all the protest of this social fraction: the devalued educated. As such it was, as a friend observed to me, a symptom of the same condition which has given rise to talk of the death of art: the end of art as a cultural possession of the educated middle class. This neither means that art is over, as the social practice that has been with us for the last three centuries, nor that people will stop making things and performances for a wide variety of purposes, inside and outside the art world proper. It does mean that the conditions of art making and appreciation have altered in important ways that it would be well worth taking some time to try to understand.

Yates Mckee: Since there’s a tone of morbidity and death and loss in the air, I wanted to read from Tidal 4, a piece called “On Love, Loss, and Movement”:

We came to the park in mourning.
We had lost so much. We turned mourning
into militancy and felt awakened. We
discovered that all was not past, that there
was a present in which we might live. We
cracked history open, and time seemed full.
Everything was happening in the Now.

Then came the eviction, and we were
dispersed. In the aftermath of the park, we
mourn what was lost. We know that we can
never fully separate from it. It is inside us,
it haunts us, it speaks to us. We are bound
by it. But it does not tie us down to the past.
The beloved whispers: “you must learn to
live. Now.”

This means letting go of that perfect
future where all the wrongs will be right.
That future will always be postponed, not
yet open, unavailable — and thus an object
of melancholic sadness in advance. We do
not wait and lament.

The storms of Wall Street are unrelenting.
It is what they call progress. There is no
shelter, no park, where we can ride this
out. We have to learn to live in the open.
There comes a moment when we know
that we can’t go on. But we go on. It’s easy
to break up. To continue with love is hard.
Don’t be afraid. Don’t look back.[5]

I do think there is a crisis surrounding the death and definition of contemporary art and its identity. I am intrigued by this question of ends, deaths, and finalities, but it does seem to risk making that into a grand tradition — the negative dialectic of death and rebirth. On the one hand, we want to avoid any apocalyptic declarations, since we know that is naïve. On the other hand, it should still be possible to try to describe and account for a break. Recently in the U.S., Occupy opened up space to rethink the nature of cultural practice, of the relationship between art and politics, in ways that were anticipated by the most exciting currents in contemporary art. At the moment, some of the taken-for-granted protocols of contemporary art have fallen apart, but that doesn’t mean there is no more art.

Here is a little dialectic image: “the people’s library” at Zucotti Park in October of 2011. The librarian created an arts and culture section, where you could read a copy of October magazine devoted to “the contemporary” from 2010. On the right is a copy of the Occupy Wall St Journal that is being displayed on the wall at MoMA, with the special poster edition, with designs by Josh MacPhee, Paul Chan, and other contemporary artists. What does it mean for the history of the avant-garde to pop up in an avant-garde political practice, and vice versa, what does it mean for cultural products of that movement to end up back in MoMA — even after MoMA had been a site of struggle for Occupy with the struggle and lockout of the Sotheby’s workers.

Much of Occupy was anticipated, consciously and unconsciously, in a lot of the most interesting contemporary art of the past ten years: Thomas Hirschhorn, Sharon Hayes, and the whole field of social practices. It is not as if Occupy came about as a movement and then artists came along and got involved. In fact, artists were deeply involved from the very beginning of Occupy in August 2011, and their involvement has to do with opening a space of imagination, something absent from the Left in the US for a long time.

The magazine Tidal provided the impetus for post-May Day organization. A series of assemblies emerged that started discussing the possibility of making debt the focus of our political movement. Like Occupy, people having conversations in public space, with the crucial feature that people psychologically and emotionally were able to “come out” and to have a testimonial experience. This was a groundbreaking moment in getting “strike debt” in motion. Student debt was a key focus, but we also addressed the housing and mortgage crisis, which were central to the concerns of Occupy.

Tidal is also an example of a practice that artists started in which the visual, aesthetic, and graphic elements are really crucial. But it doesn’t define itself in terms of art. It takes advantage of artistic platforms, cultivates an ongoing dialogue with the art world, and mobilizes its resources. It is not like art is dead, and now we have a new avant-garde with Occupy, but it is a spectrum. It was a tactical choice to engage with art, which can be very critical and productive, and breaks us out of a frame when it becomes one of the primary platforms for the intellectual discourse of the movement.

How do we visualize something as abstract as debt, as something that is embodied and very immediate? How do debtors respond to one another in an image, experience, assembly, slogan? How does that become a new kind of political identity? An important development in the iconography of strike debt was borrowing the red square from the Québec students. The red square was taken as an emblem of us all being in the “red,” that is, subjugated to debt. It was a uniform symbol that took the form of a wearable piece of felt, so that it was actually very bodily, intimate, tactile, but also irregular and unifying, as it links the bodies of the debtors to others.

We know we are not going to be able to pay off our debts; and we are scared and isolated. What does it mean to embrace that as a common condition, and turn it into a militant refusal of the debt system? The actual gesture of burning the debt symbol becomes a performative ritual on the part of the debtors. Over the summer there were debt burning rituals that were incorporated into the assembly at the one-year anniversary of Occupy.

All the aesthetic, artistic, and symbolic dimensions of strike debt are interwoven with analysis, publishing efforts, actions, and assemblies and that is what is qualitatively new, in terms of the contemporary artistic field. The elaboration of non-expert amateur props, these are aesthetic experiments, which, with the support of the institutional and formalized art world, such as the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, the Creative Time Summit, and artists like Martha Rosler, help secure resources and plug in more people. The point is that these are practices and ideas grounded in the experimental laboratory that is contemporary art.

Gregg Horowitz: It is unclear to me why the concept of the death of art even matters. Does anybody organize their practice, in light of this concept, any longer? Yates’s presentation affirmed that, for me, there is almost nothing going on there, you have a break, an end, but the idea of death has sort of vanished. If the death of art is not all that useful in the self-understanding of contemporary art practice, what about the “art” concept? Let’s just suppose, art is dead, and what that means is that we cannot understand our practices in light of that concept. Why is it so hard to give up a concept, the passing of which has been noted in various ways?

Giving up the concept turns out to be hard, and we do not give up the concept by holding on to another concept, which is that of the death of art. That is the way in which we hold on to the concept of art. Although I have written probably too much on the death of art, I find the concept increasingly inscrutable. I know what it means for a cultural practice to cease being meaningful, either because it falls out of the cultural repertoire, as is happening to the practice of striking film prints of movies, which will make a difference in how we experience movies, or because it becomes mere routine, like saying “Have a good day” at the end of a conversation.

If you listen to that set of words these days, they are at a state of involution. It is the sound of routinization of what was a meaningful cultural practice. But that can’t be the meaning of art being dead, since art has become practically inescapable in recent years and, while the interpretation and consumption of it can’t keep up with the flow of product, the increasing volume of interpretation and consumption indicates that the practice of art has not become merely one of routine.

The near ubiquity of art and its products in our everyday worlds must be what is behind the peculiar thought expressed in Paul Mason’s article that the aesthetic and artistic dimensions of Occupy somehow signal the death of contemporary art. Although the significance of Occupy has yet to play itself out enough for anyone to draw a conclusion about its consequences, one would think that, with its openly political ambitions, what it would represent the end of would be, say, the hegemony of neoliberalism. How one could come to care instead about the impact of Occupy on the gallery system is, on the face of it, risible. But art is not simply ubiquitous. It is like kudzu: where anything grows now, art grows, too, and faster. But this is a sign that art is not a dead practice but rather a fervidly, strappingly healthy one. Such was also the sentiment expressed by the Dadaists when they declared, for instance, “Die Kunst is tot! Es lebe die neue Maschinenkunst Tatlins!” The practice in the name of which art is declared dead, the practice liberated by the death of art, is machine-art. “Art is dead! Long live art!”

Art is unkillable.

But what I find most inscrutable about the sentiment is not the superficial thought that art is dead but the underlying thought that art ever was alive. Although Hegel never said that art had died, but rather that it was and remained on the side of its highest destiny a thing of the past, which is a much different thought, he nonetheless revealed that the myth of living works of art was an essential part of the way the practice of art lives on in its post-classical “after-life,” in the age, that is, of its self-awareness as a practice with its own, autonomous values and ambitions. It is a mythic fate that art throws on to its past. From this point of view, it becomes thinkable that the supposed life of art is a backward formation that enables art to die again and again, to remain, in other words, perpetually undead, so that post-artistic practices can remain vital in evading the same fate. The death of art is, we might say, a meme of contemporary artistic consciousness in which is distortedly expressed a discontent with the increasing artistic encrustation of the contemporary world. Better: not just as a meme, it is a zombie idea and, since the content of the idea is zombiehood itself, it is a meta-zombie idea whose importance lies not in its truth-value as such but in its special place in zombie self-reflection.

Because zombies have become ubiquitous in contemporary culture — nearly as ubiquitous as art, but not quite — there is something both cheap and meta-meta in my recruiting them into the project of making the death of art intelligible, of metabolizing it, and digesting it. But the contemporary zombie figure is actually a pretty good image for the undeadness of art. The zombie was a figure of Vodun magic, a dead person reanimated by witchcraft; scary, but really nothing more than an embodiment of Benjamin’s idea that we live in an age when not even the dead are safe. But the contemporary zombie is not just reanimated. It is back for blood. To the return of the dead we have added undying hunger.

Death is the radical outside of hegemonic systems that pretend to close off all alternatives. As radical outsideness, death offers the prospect of nothing but hope. But the figure of the zombie undermines even this source of hope, for where death is, there old needs gather and swarm. For us, not even death represents hope.

There is another way to understand the contemporary flesh-eating zombie precisely as a figure of hope. The zombie is embodied need when need’s fateful entry into the web of social norms is taken off the table.

There is a new zombie movie called Warm Bodies in which apparently zombies can fall in love. The zombie is the figure that embodies our horror at human need, that it may not be adequately mediated by social norms. But one might turn that right around and say that that’s precisely what’s hopeful about the figure of the zombie, for in it we imagine a moment of hunger utterly outside of social appropriation. The zombie, in this sense, represents the conjunction of social death and undying human need, the conjunction that, for the Marxist left, has been expressed in the thought that the proletariat is simultaneously the inside and outside of capitalism; the conjunction of social death and that dying need. The zombie will not lay down its need in exchange for a bag of food. It wants life, which is the one thing it cannot have. The zombie, in this light, is a figure which both embodies the limit of a social order and the imagination of its recommencement.

And so with art: the undeadness of art rests not on an earlier life, but rather on our need to imagine the outside of what we have now, to hope for it, in the form of what cannot die.

Q&A

What about practices that reference past political movements — what the posters looked like in the Bolshevik Revolution, for example, or the aesthetic of the 1960s New Left? It seems like there are deliberate attempts to reference the past even though, as Yates put it, “we are not [invested in] looking back,” and called saw Occupy as a break, as something fundamentally new. But what is the importance in this refusal to look back, especially because we still live in capitalism, and there are no revolutionary politics to speak of right now.

YM: The importance of historical memory and intergenerational dialogue can be overstated and that is clear inTidal and in Occupy. What my generation drew as lessons from the past came from movements like ACT-UP, the Black Panthers, and radical labor struggles. When I say that we must resist looking back, that is really about resisting melancholy, of recognizing where things are now: the occupation in the parks was a crack, a rupture, and created a new kind of space. But now we no longer have the park and it is not a moment that we can ever really recreate. We want to talk about it in terms of the principle of direct action, of living and caring for one another without the mediation of the state, without the mediation of capital, as something that really intervened in the taken-for-grantedness of capitalism, of people being alone and isolated, and generating an opening up of the imagination of about how to live differently. It is pre-figurative politics. People will say that Occupy changed the conversation, it changed the horizon of inequality, but it is not just about that. Occupy is also about practicing an alternative form of living relative to one another. That is were the resistance comes in. It is also about the actual practice: how you do it.

The point about not looking back is to not be nostalgic for the park, for that moment of everyone being physically present. But it is also about the Left’s melancholy for the whole Left. The whole Left is also attached to lost ideals. Its identity is often parasitically dependent on the fact that things don’t dramatically change. That’s something Occupy really disrupted. Not looking back does not mean, don’t be historical, don’t remember, but rather, don’t be dominated by the past, whether the past of Occupy, or the past of the Left, because the Left tends toward melancholy fixation.

GH: Then the question “If art will be possible in the absence of the Left?” becomes, I think, really pressing. Which itself seems to beg a sort of interesting question, which is not what we mean by art, by the death of art, but what do we mean by the Left? And I want to ask this in a non-melancholic spirit. If nostalgia for the park is already on the horizon — how long ago was this? The fact is that Occupy, which is admirable in all sorts of ways, is not yet a political movement. If a year is a space on which nostalgia can perch, then we don’t have a politics here. I want to make this point broadly: what it means to say that the Left is attached to melancholy. The problem is not that we lack revolutionary politics. We should be so lucky to lack that. What we lack is politics, period. It is that simple. And we don’t know how to make sense of the way in which the political spectrum has collapsed around us. This may be a break, this may be something new, naked capitalism, but it is capitalism without a political emphasis. But if there is no contradiction being given form, then the prospect of giving form, that I take many of us care about, is not even on the table. So we are going to get really great posters and banners, but that next development in which there is a kind of outer politics, that still seems to me un-approached. I hope Occupy becomes nostalgia. Let that nostalgia flower at this moment.

In regards to how what appears as new is actually old, how might we understand that dynamic, in light of the domination of capital in a society that repeatedly subsumes the appearance of the new as it flares up? How can we understand this dynamic of old and new in terms of the possibility of political organization or the actual new?

PM: This is the big problem of human history. To paraphrase Marx: the past hangs like a millstone around our necks. People made the French Revolution; they imagined that they were ancient Greeks and Romans. People try to act politically in the 21st century; they think about Lenin and the storming of the Winter Palace. This is the value in the disappearance of historical memory. In a way, the extinction of the Left of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century brings its own loss, because something can be learned from historical inheritance, but it also clears the way for people to think in new ways. One of the fabulous things about Occupy was the total irrelevance of the past left, of the history of the Left, from its discussions and actions. No one was trying to form a new revolutionary party or argue about reformism verses revolutionary activity.

GH: The issue of how to save Western culture is not about saving what is on the table anymore but about asking what is on the table that might be worth destroying. That is, whether there is any orientation we can derive from it, that will allow is to see our way through the present, to give our politics a structure, to give our politics some normative force, or something like that. There is something very odd about the state of aesthetic discourse right now. Everyone is scrambling for a normative orientation. But I think we should step back for a moment and at least entertain the possibility that we cannot discern that and ask what a normative orientation would mean right now. So, as you say, you can declare art dead right now. Go ahead, do it, I give you permission. The problem is you get nothing from it. The juice in declaring it over has dried up.

YM: Imagine this: suddenly people in Occupy say, “That is beautiful.” You see some shit and say, “That is a beautiful action and that is a beautiful banner.” It is like militant beauty, militant Left, and it is a new thing. I want to redefine the notion of beauty. I am not scared that the aesthetic is going to fuck up the politics, because the politics are happening, and there is a new space for aesthetics.

AV: Isn’t the aestheticization of politics fascism? How is your proposal not the same thing?

YM: Well that was the Benjaminian argument. It totally makes sense with something like Triumph of the WillIt is the fact that aesthetics and politics are inseparable. It is not a fascist Gesamtkunstwerk, but the fact that there are moments we experience and feel that appear in a modern mode deeply embedded in our project. Benjamin would be the dialectical counterpart. That is the danger, to fall into the aestheticization of politics, in the old sense. The new sense of aesthetics and politics is not fascist and awful, but actually, “Oh my god that is a beautiful demonstration.” Is it fascist to say that?

PM: What people miss about the death of art is that utopian moment: The idea of the merging of art in everyday life, not the fact that art is not with us as an aspect of the disappearance of the Left. It seems to me that the counterpart to that is the treatment of Occupy as an aesthetic event, as a piece of performance art. It is a very striking idea. But not an accurate one. The American version is more prone to branding and aestheticization. But if you put Occupy into the international context, it seems to be part of a much larger social movement, like in Greece, which is in fact too large and too political to be contained by these aesthetic categories. But the fact that it so quickly turned into an aestheticized object is a sign of the present day weakness of the politics. This seems to be a call to deepen the political aspects of it.

GH: We are in a moment when our political weakness is being tested all over. But so too is the strength therefore of a kind of quasi-autonomous aestheticizing mechanism. Stuff gets turned into spectacle; it is not a deliberate tactic on anybody’s part because they are not apparently depoliticized. It just becomes spectacular so immediately. Tom Finkelpearl, the director of the Queens Museum, who works with all sorts of social practice art, asked me a question I never thought of asking myself, “Why does everyone want to know, is it art? Why does that question matter?” But it does matter; it’s kind of a driving question. It brought to mind a perspective of one of the originators of social practice art, Gordon Matta-Clark, although he did not have the concept for it at the time. Now I hate going to galleries because I am afraid I am going to be fed the art. I feel I am in some bizarre version of degenerative politics: here is the stuff itself, eat it. And the concept oddly becomes so robust, that it is almost hard to think about social practice without thinking about art, or political practice. |P

Transcribed by Chris Mansour and Bret Schneider


1. Paul Mason. “Does Occupy Signal the Death of Contemporary Art?” BBC News, 30 April 2012, available online here.
2. Hito Steyerl, “The New Flesh: Material Afterlives of Images,” available online at http://www.kracauer-lectures.de/en/sommer-2013/hito-steyerl/.
3. Mason, “Occupy.”
4. Plato, Republic, trans. C.V.C Reeves (New York: Hackett, 2004), §398b.
5. Anonymous, Tidal Occupy Theory, February 2012, 15. The issue is available online here.

3 thoughts on “The many deaths of art

  1. Pingback: http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/the-many-deaths-of-art-2/ | Research Material

  2. “Capitalism is killing us, Socialism can’t save us, and no one knows what happens next.”

    This is the indeterminancy that John Cage employed, but deployed across society. This is a time of rejection, of burial, of disintegration, of demolition, of destruction, without concern ~as we cannot control it~ for the avant-garde as harbinger of the future.

    The hurricane will come, the buildings will fall and the mistakes of the future await.

    Thanks for the excellent blog.

  3. Pingback: The many deaths of art | Research Material

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