The many deaths of art

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

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


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] Continue reading

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square (1915)

The many deaths of art

IMAGE: Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square (1915)

A moderated panel discussion held by the Platypus Affiliated Society on Sat, 2.23.13 at the New School.

Video from the event

The “death of art” has been a recurring theme within aesthetic and philosophical discourse for over two centuries. At times, this “death” has been proclaimed as an accomplished fact; at others, artists themselves have taken the “death of art” as a goal to be accomplished. So while this widely perceived “death” is lamented by many as a loss, it is celebrated by others as a moment of life renewed. For them, art is all the better for having disburdened itself of the baggage of outmoded modernist ideologies. Insofar as the “death” of longstanding cultural traditions has in the past typically been understood to signal a deeper crisis in society at large, however, the meaning of death necessarily takes on a different aspect today — especially when the tradition in question is modernism, the so-called the “tradition of the new” (Harold Rosenberg). Because the notions of “death” and “crisis” appear to belong to the very edifice of modernity that has just been rejected, these too are are to be jettisoned as part of its conventional yoke. Modernity itself having become passé, even the notion of art’s “death” would seem to have died along with modernism.

We thus ask our panelists not merely whether art is at present “dead,” but also if traditions are even permitted the right to perish in conservative times. If some once held that the persistence of philosophy indicated the persistence of obsolete social conditions, does the persistence of art signal ongoing social conditions that ought to have long ago withered away? If so, what forms of political and artistic practice would be sufficient to realize art, and in what ways would realizing art signal something beyond art? Marx felt that the increasing worldliness of philosophy in his time — heralded by the culmination of philosophy in Hegel — demanded not only the end of philosophy, but also that the world itself become philosophical. If avant-garde movements once declared uncompromising war on art (Aleksei Gan) in order to tear down the barrier between art and life, would the end or overcoming of art not similarly require that the world itself become artistic? Continue reading