We are living in a period of unprecedented destruction of languages and cultures, of nations, under the assault of highly bureaucratic states. These exert, both internally and externally, a steady pressure, reducing culture to a series of technical functions. Put another way, culture, the creation of shared meanings, symbolic interactions, is dissolving into a mere mechanism guided by signals.
When we discuss a work of art or an art tradition, we are discussing a phenomenon which exists in an integral relationship with the entire complex of human social and historical forces defining the development of that work or tradition. This same complex of social and historical forces in turn inevitably defines the context in which that work or tradition claims significance, and ultimately functions as a force or agent in the ongoing evolution of that culture. Thus we are at once the products and the producers of the culture in which we participate. This seems so obvious, yet we often fail to recognize that while options may be limited, the value and function of our work may be defined by the social and economic context in which we operate; we are ourselves, individually and collectively, the constitutive agents of the social complex that defines the value and significance of our work. In the same way that we as artists are responsible for the notion of art, by the formulation of art works or concepts, we are in turn responsible to the culture itself in the formulation of the notion and function of art.
In speaking of a social and historical context in which any art work or tradition evolves and is transmitted, it is difficult to differentiate between the political and economic order which prevails at any particular time and place, and the ideological or intellectual traditions which have developed concomitantly; these latter more often than not serve to reinforce and sustain the political and economic order. Institutions tend to claim authority over the individuals and their activity in society regardless of whatever subjective meaning they may attach to their situation and endeavour. The ideological structure of society integrates and legitimizes the institutional order by explaining and legitimizing its objectivated meanings.
If we speak specifically about art in modern European and American culture, we see that its meaning, function, and value within society are clearly institutionally mediated; and that not only artistic values, but the intellectual and ideological forces which explain, interpret and legitimize art practice have their origins in the very same traditions that presuppose that institutional order. Thus the structural system of the art-world, which provides a context for the social signification of art, is itself contextually situated in a social system, the structure of which it in turn reflects. At this point, attempts to question or transform the nature of art beyond formalistic considerations must inevitably begin to involve a consideration not only of the presuppositions inherent in the internal structure of art models, but also a critical awareness of the social system which preconditions and drastically confines the possibility of transformation.
If we recognize the institutional structure of a complex society to be (culturally) all-embracive, then we may begin to see that in attempting to redefine, alter or redirect the social definition or function of art—the manner and channels through which we can effectively work—we are encountering a firmly entrenched and highly developed institutional order: not just when confronting the obvious bureaucratic structure of the New York art world, but encountering the force of that order on every level, from such specific factors as the persistence of socially convenient (marketable) formal models of art (i.e. painting and sculpture) to more abstract socially convenient (noncontroversial) theoretical models (formalism, art for art’s sake), to the most blatant sociological fact that cultural power is clearly allied with economic power, and that to a large extent the internalizations of the dictates of the productive system regarding patterns of legitimation and consumption are the very means by which individuals surrender their critical faculties to that system.
A certain ideological inversion or mystification which Marx calls false consciousness is apparent in the very fact that in discussing art, we commonly describe the sphere of influence in the following manner: as one moving outward from the individual artist, who, acting out of personal feelings or convictions, expresses himself/herself by way of a statement, traditionally in the form of a discrete work or art product, the social recognition and validation of which is dependent on some internal properties, termed “quality,” which bear upon its visual or historical characteristics, outward through a system of institutions responsive to its self-evident merit; which in turn circulate and promote the work accordingly, to the benefit of all those culturally refined and sensitive enough to partake of its virtues. Hence the artist, as well as his product and the abstract sphere of his influence, are assumed “transcendent,” that is, somehow responsive to and effective of abstract psychic and social conditions somewhat removed from the mundane conditions of “everyday life.” The historical, social, and psychological factors which bear upon the artist are viewed from the perspective of predominantly after-the-fact analysis, the domain of various somewhat less “transcendent” (presumably more “objective”) specialists who interpret and speculate on the myriad social and historical influences and implications manifest in the personal history, life style and oeuvre of the particular subject under study—those factors which bear upon and are implicit in the process of validation or interpretation seldom being taken into account. The art work as a symbolic token of the struggle of the individual artist and the spiritual and social dilemmas which that individual struggle in turn reflects, becomes in a sense a sanctified cultural relic, presumably embodying in itself some elusive, imaginative spirit.
One wonders, of course, why it is the tokens of struggle toward meaning and not the struggle itself to which we respond (or how much spirit we can touch upon when these tokens become the stock in trade of a sophisticated cultural elite). That this conception is naive and idyllic and totally out of keeping with the rather more complex situation in which cultural phenomena emerge, develop, and function ought to be readily apparent; however, attempts to construct a more accurate basis for understanding are not without problems. One obvious alternative model to this ideological Disneyland is of course a (very broadly speaking) materialist schema, in which material processes, specifically the mode of production and distribution of goods, services and capital within and amongst societies is the primary and overriding factor of which all mental and spiritual attitudes and formulations are (consciously or unconsciously) in large part the product. “All parts of the ideological superstructure, art being one of these, are crucially determined both in content and style by the behaviour of a more basic structure which is economic in nature.”2 But it would be deterministic, in this case, to suppose that the mere economic dependence of the artist, a certain external tie which links producer to consumer (and vice versa), is the full extent of that relationship, that the economic and social conditions of production are explicit and can be dealt with as such; but rather they are implicit and internalized to such a degree that they inform every aspect of our self and social consciousness upon which all praxis is founded. The artist may then be unwittingly supportive of ideals or conditions in relation to which he sees himself neutral or even opposed.
While a materialist critique and the dialectical method it implies is eminently useful as a tool by which to reorient our inquiries, to attempt to situate our self-presumptions, to gauge the implications and ramifications of our critical or practical stance, we should at the same time recognize the historical (and ideological) nature of this tradition/model, as well as the one from and to which we bring it to bear. A dialectical or immanent critique, however, takes seriously the principle that it is not ideology itself which is untrue but rather its pretention to correspond to reality. There can be no method of escape, no science, no dialectic, no objective criteria which are not in turn subjectively assumed. The issue then becomes not so much a question of how we can achieve a “value-free” or “objective” model or theory of art practice as it is a question of what values and conditions of learning we in fact promote and provide through our practice of art.
I can no more reduce the “spirit of art,” to which I am still responsive, to an entirely materialistic function than I can conversely assume it to be neutral or independent of material conditions. I am wary of the individualism and subjectivism which pervades our self and social consciousness which I believe (when assumed uncritically) is actually a factor which perpetuates the oppression of individuals in our society. Concurrently I would argue that it is only when individuals begin to accept a responsibility for the social implications of their actions that a collective spirit or consciousness conducive to social change can occur. While being critical of the idealistic and presumptive notion of freedom and transcendence which informs the modernist paradigm, I myself work within the context of that art, that tradition; in part because I am responsive to certain ideals which that endeavour represents and recognize therein a certain emancipatory and self-reflexive capacity lacking to varying degrees in other disciplines. My own work is tempered with realism only to the extent to which I feel continually compelled to re-examine or redirect my course in relation to such ideals.
Throughout this essay I use the pronoun “we,” and thereby incorporate myself and others into some abstract community, and assume a certain sympathy amongst the members so included. This is in part a function of the fact that I see myself as a participant in a real community which in my case might be centered around my involvement with The Fox and my working relationship with other participants; but I also address and appeal to a larger community which is made up of other individuals with whom I share a common tradition, a similar historical and cultural locus, who see themselves and/or have come to be recognized variously as artists, critics, dealers, curators, professors, students and so on. All are at least potentially in a position to make critical choices which will effect not only the internal character but also the social dynamic of contemporary and future art activity. To a large extent, we learn what our purposes are through the systems which we use, just as we learn what is required for survival through the interaction of those systems and our experience in trying to do things. For each of us there is a certain element of contradiction involved in the majority of personal and professional choices that we make, a certain tension between self survival/self interest and social interest/species survival. Some of us feel this conflict more intensely than others and we have varying interests and values at stake. It is important, however, that we begin to recognize and elucidate the criteria and implications of choice rather than continue to apologize, rationalize, and obfuscate. None of us, neither artist, critic, dealer, curator, nor “patron of the arts,” can be said to be free of conflict of interest when it comes to the making of the cultural phenomena “art.”
If art is viewed as one aspect of culture or one form of “symbolic action,” then the logic embodied in this particular system and the meanings which we attribute to our actions must be considered in relation to, or more precisely as evolving within and contributing to, a larger context of social meaning. But characteristic of our liberal tradition, both on an intellectual or ideological level (political liberalism, empiricism, logical positivism) as well as on an intuitive or common sense level, is a tendency toward an emphasis on the individual fact or item at the expense of an awareness of the relational or contextual aspects in which such a seemingly discrete fact or item occurs. This tendency has been manifest in contemporary art both in our conceptualization of art as an autonomous and self regulatory discipline, an assembly of static objects of contemplation, as well as in our inclination to interpret the symbolic or gestural content of our actions in a dissociated and superficial manner.
Viewed from one perspective, the history of modern art has been a long revolution against the complacency, sentimentality and tedium of bourgeois culture, a rebellion against the self-assuming and rhetorical aspects of traditional forms, against the threat of subsumption or diversion of political or social non-art concerns—a veritable march of progress in the name of freedom, of individuality, of art. On a symbolic level, this is apparently so; on a theoretical level as well. But is not the very logic through which we hail the theoretical and symbolic tokens of “revolutionary spirit” while embracing those very tokens in an attitude of blind acceptance and self-complacence a tribute to the failure of that art—and the logic it embodies—to adequately comprehend and respond to the exigencies of a very real social and ideological predicament that, none the less, transcends and subsumes that art? Freedom and independence is not something you can posit and proceed to assume, but a condition fought for and seldom won.
Implicit in our understanding of modernist art is the assumption that art values and objectives might somehow be viewed as dissociated or neutral in relation to the social sphere in which they operate. Andre Malraux pointed out that “the middle ages had no more idea of what we mean by fine art than Greece or Egypt. In order that this idea could be born it was necessary for works to be separated from their function … the most profound metamorphosis began when art has no other end than itself.”3 In keeping with this tradition, when we speak of function or meaning when discussing art work we refer to the function or meaning of that work not so much in relation to a larger sphere of social praxis, but rather within the isolated and abstracted province “art.” The struggle of modernism in the West has been, above all else, a struggle to establish an independent and autonomous context of meaning at once in opposition to and in disregard of the existent social order. Thus when Ad Reinhardt was to proclaim the one permanent revolution in art is always a negation of the use of art for some purpose other than its own, and that all progress and change in art is toward the one end of art as art-as-art, he was, as he claims, echoing an ideal which has characterized the writings of a majority of artists and theorists of the modern era. In 1834, Theophile Gautier in his preface to Mademoiselle De Maupin (frequently considered the first real manifesto of the art for art’s sake movement), likewise argued for the elimination of all utilitarian and moral purpose for art, in favour of anarchistic individualism, which he regarded as the reflection of unique romantic genius; he was in turn responding to an idealistic conception of disinterested and pure beauty, formulated earlier still by Kant.
It is a curious and romantic notion that somehow by ignoring that which is repugnant within the existing order, we might quite logically be immune to its effect. But more curious still is the fact that this profoundly romantic and idealistic attitude, in which the problems of the apprehension of beauty, pure and independent of moral or utilitarian concerns, a primarily aesthetic and metaphysical preoccupation descended from the enlightenment, should survive in an age when the creation of beauty and aesthetic enjoyment are no longer the self-proclaimed ends of art. Although the notion of l’art pour l’art now appears an outdated and naive preoccupation, a romantic struggle against bourgeois ideals of social utility, we must begin to question the degree to which this idealistic 19th century construct has been internalized—in not only early modern, but even the most current art-model. As Arnold Hauser points out, “What was once a revolt against classical rules has become a revolt against all external ties … from the standpoint of the direct aesthetic experience, autonomy and self-sufficiency appear to be the essence of the work of art, for only by putting itself completely in the place of reality, only by forming a total self-contained cosmos, is it able to produce a perfect illusion. But this illusion is in no way the whole content of art and often has no share in the effect it produces. The greatest works of art forego the deceptive illusion of a self-contained aesthetic world and point beyond themselves.”4
Leaving aside the question of “great works,” is it not true that in forwarding an ideal self-image of autonomy (both in our concept of discrete self-contained art works and art values in general—in the face of all manner of evidence to the contrary), we are in effect now perpetuating those same bourgeois values such self confinement was originally deemed to escape? Even the question of bourgeois values is growing increasingly moot. There is a great deal more to be frightened of at this point than the taint of an impure art. When the power of validation and legitimization of human enterprise occurs more and more within an institutionalized system, where corporate power and investment potential are becoming increasingly the social consensus by which we signify meaning, it is clear that no private vision, no personal iconoclastic gesture can withstand.
Much “theoretical” or “analytical” work in the past few years has served to focus our attention on the conventional or conceptual underpinnings of our contemporary art practice. So-called conceptual art represents, amongst other things, an attempt to redefine art value or significance in terms of its ideational rather than physical (“experiential”) attributes, but, as has been apparent for some time, to the extent that conceptual art is dependent upon the very same mechanisms for presentation, dissemination, and interpretation of art works, it functions in society in a manner not unlike previously more morphologically oriented work. Thus the extent to which its significance as art (or as idea) is dependent upon or inferred by its existence within the traditional context, its value or function within the culture is conditioned primarily by patterns of response traditionally associated with that context. This is a world in which honour is ritually bestowed, values assumed and rarely created. “Art as idea” was once a good idea, but art as idea as art product, alas, moves in the world of commodity-products and hardly the realm of “idea.” The significance that early conceptual work bore in relation to previously held assumptions regarding formal requisites of traditional art practice is not to be denied, but formalistic innovation in and of itself is of questionable value. Since it is assumed that the intentional aspects of an artist’s endeavour extend only to the making of a work or a proposition, and its placement or “documentation” within the prescribed context, the use or function of that work (aside from its existence as art history) is no longer an aspect of art. The artist is thus severed, except on a symbolic level, from his culture. He responds to and assumes responsibility for an art in isolation.
If art “lives” primarily by affecting other art (as is often claimed), then there is no mechanism by which such in art can reorient or redefine itself except out of a logic internal to the closure “art.” Thus we are confined to a large extent to the progressive reduction and expansion of inherent formal relations; such “conceptual innovations” as may occur are subsumed within the system to which they refer. A tradition keyed to the demands of the competitive market, responding to the stylistic or formal elements of innovation, sees no use or value in the implications of change beyond the historical progressivity which it denotes. This is the ultimate consumership: Ideas become the property of the inventor, and as such are no further use to the community once claimed.
We move away from the tyranny of the picture frame only to discover that of the gallery, the market, and so on, and as it begins to become apparent that the privileging of the art object cannot be dissociated from the privileging of the context and tradition in which the object appears; we begin to wonder whether the very sense of that history or sociality, which is the shape and dynamic of our discipline, is not so much the momentum of a free and critical consciousness as the order of a definitive social and economic reality, the pervasiveness of which we have scarcely begun to grasp.
Inversely, we might begin to inquire whether the retreat from the objectification, commodification and institutionalization of traditional art models, which has characterized the tactics of certain more (theoretically) radical segments of the art community, is not so much a function of the realization of inherently noxious qualities which those models possess, as the instinctive recoil against that which they represent: the commodification and institutionalization of human history and endeavour.
While such activities now appear naive and unsuccessful on the one hand, in mistaking for ethic or style that which is in fact part of a more profound social and economic reality, they do signify a positive and potentially liberating capacity; that is, the will to change, to re-examine, and, more importantly, to “call to arms” the tools that make radical and contextual critique conceivable. Suppose we imagine this capacity as a medium, a methodology, and not an end in itself. We can learn as much, in a sense, through the “failure” of concept art as we do through its partial success; while being critical of the (self) presumptive and reductionist aspects of formalist tradition, we exist as its inevitable heir.
Our dilemma at this point is profound and problematic in its circularity. If we assume any theoretical stance or critical viewpoint (by which we mean to assess a previous or other presumably “more naive” position), we must do so by use of a logic which justifies or lends authority to our current more “sophisticated” outlook. This new position claims precedence over antecedent or rival theories, and yet does so at the expense of obscuring its own presumptions. Thus we are always in a position of revealing the “false” foundations of one logic while claiming another similarly founded. This is, of course, where traditional Marxist social “science” as well as many sociological or anthropological models, particularly the structuralist models, break down. You cannot, on the one hand, claim that all knowledge is culturally determined, socially derived, and then in turn claim the objective validity of your own theory. In this sense the dialectic becomes immanently useful as an ideal working model but in practice something of an impossibility. So we proceed amidst contradiction.
Dialectical critique implies that one cannot view any object or subject at rest, for in the very act of viewing or depicting our object, we grasp self and subject as situated in the same historical moment from whence we depart. “Faced with the operative procedures of the nonreflective thinking mind (whether grappling with the philosophical or artistic, political or scientific problems and objects), dialectical thought tries not so much to complete and perfect the application of such procedures as to widen its own attention to include them in its awareness as well; it aims, in other words, not so much at solving the particular dilemmas in question, as converting those problems into their own solutions on a higher level, and making the fact and the existence of the problem itself the starting point of new research.”5
That this model does represent at any given moment a logical closure which is immensely problematic in application is readily apparent; but its emancipatory as well as normative potential in the ideal is compelling. What is called for is not the replacement of one authoritative model with another; but rather the gradual creation of a community, a discourse, an art, which is not so much the reflection of our competitive and antagonistic pursuits as it is a common vehicle through which we might continually examine not only our own values and assumptions, but those of the culture of and to which we ideally speak. We might seek therefore not so much to regulate our cultural praxis in relation to the existent norms, as to understand, elucidate, and evaluate the normative import of those activities in which we are historically, presently, as well as potentially engaged. Thus the philosophy, the theory, the strategy, and the ethics of practice become one with praxis itself. And yet this joinder of theory and practice in the ideal is always subject to and modified by conditions in relation to which we must continually re-evaluate our position. It is a dynamic and self-regulatory critical theory by which we attempt to understand and evaluate our own (art) practice in relation to social practice in general, and to evaluate social and historical conditions as they are effective of and become apparent in our practice of art.
If it is true that “the creation of a thing for the sake of a thing is itself an objective human relationship to itself and to man,”6 then it is on the level of this relationship which we must question our function, for it no longer has much meaning to speak of the thing (art) in itself.
At the dawn of the 19th century, Hegel predicted that art would no longer, as in the past, be connected with the central concerns of man. Hegel saw the role of art becoming increasingly marginal as science moved into a stronger and more central position within society. Art, according to Hegel, would cease to be serious, as it became increasingly pure and disengaged. By moving into a marginal position, art would not lose its quality as art, but it would nonetheless cease to have direct relevance to the existence of man.
We have lost touch—not only with ourselves and with each other but with the culture of which we are a part. It is only by confronting the problem of our alienation, making this the subject of our work, that our ideals take on new meaning. We move to become one again with culture in our sense of shared concern.
–Sarah Charlesworth, 1975
Originally published in The Fox vol. 1, no. 1 (1975): 1–7.