Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2012. 248 pp., £27.95 hb., 978 0 26201 773 2.
Contemporary art from its inception has been framed by two mutually constitutive crises: an identity crisis and a legitimacy crisis. The implicit periodization of contemporary art commences roughly in 1970; that is, when Adorno posited that nothing about art could any longer be considered self-evident, not least its continuing right to exist. The dateline of contemporary art, then, seems to coincide with established accounts of ‘neoliberalism’; itself often traced back to legitimacy crises in state control over labour, energy resources and the movements of finance. If in the early 1970s global instability generated challenges within and to the institution of art such as those mobilized by Adorno, Bürger, Werckmeister, Nochlin, and many others, not to mention organizing efforts like the Artworkers’ Coalition, the current crisis has also generated a critical literature striving to delineate the internal links (and relevant repercussions) between the ‘art world’ and the totality of capitalist social relations. Debates around relational aesthetics, participation and socially engaged practice could be said to fall within this domain. However, more to our purpose here are recent attempts at comprehensive theoretical inquiries such as Lane Relyea’s Your Everyday Art World, Peter Osborne’s Anywhere or Not At All (reviewed in RP 183, January/February 2014), or David Joselit’s After Art (reviewed in RP 180, July/August 2013). It is perhaps the last, both in its scope and in its omissions, which is the most proximate toForgetting the Art World.
Lee has published extensively on the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and on the role of time in the 1960s avant-garde in two previous books. In this volume, she sets her focus on the co-determination of art and globalization by developing an analysis of the continuity between the agents and objects of contemporary art and the social, political and economic conditions with which they are in structural complicity, and which it thus behoves them to ‘forget’. This is, however, only one level of a multi-tiered or (perhaps in better keeping with the author’s methodology) polycentric argument in which the objective subsumption of art institutions and practices by the forces of global capital investment in, tendentially, the creative industries and ‘total design’ makes obsolete Arthur Danto’s and Lawrence Alloway’s conception of the art world as distant and self-contained with regard to the so-called ‘real world’. For Lee, we cannot help but ‘forget’ such a model of the art world to the degree that it fails to be reflected in our experience. Indeed, such a model becomes, paradoxically, a self-contained historical episode whose supposed relative autonomy cannot help but remind us of that famously enjoyed by the state in Althusser’s work. At the same time, forgetting is also something the art world itself performs, merging both thematically and operatively with the labour processes and signifiers of globalized capital. In this light, Lee wants to propose another conception of the relation between art and world, one in which world is transformed into a verb (with an affinity to Heidegger) and the artwork is a fully immanent process of ‘worlding’, both reflecting and determining the specificity of its embeddedness in the larger processes enumerated above. In other words, we must remember that we are forgetting; the forgetting must be marked, recognized in the lessons it can impart about this socio-historical moment in a globalized artworld both determined by and acutely oblivious to its loss of distinction from an increasingly deregulated continuum of production. The ontology of the artwork is to be reconceptualized as a world, or worlding, in order to more adequately convey the plenum of art’s context, still precariously bounded by specialized institutional markers but no longer, in an important sense, special. Art can no longer be afforded the pathos of distance that critical taxonomies of art practice continue to maintain to the present day, and thus it is up to the sympathetic analyst to carve its specificity out of its constitutive indistinction and not against it.
This hypothesis encounters several obstacles in the course of its elaboration, however, which are compounded as the book progresses. It never becomes clear whether (and, if so, how) the artwork and the artworld are distinctive phenomena in this scenario – the artwork may ‘world’, but the artworld also works. Are they in collaboration or in disjunctive synthesis? Do they have borders, or are they programmatically indistinguishable, each artwork embodying an artworld, like some erratic amalgam of Leibnizian monadology and an Andrea Fraser-style libidinized institutional theory of art? The problem of making such distinctions can be understood, in large part, as the stakes of the argument at hand, but it is unclear to what extent this is a problem projected onto the referents of the argument and to what degree it inheres in the way the argument is constructed. This aporia is reproduced in Lee’s choice of ‘globalization’ as the backdrop to her story, a term whose purposeful multivalence and jargonistic promiscuity very nearly forecloses any chance of specificity, even the strictly minimal specificity attendant on a ubiquitous term like ‘neoliberalism’. One is reminded, no doubt unjustly, of a Cold War reticence about using politically charged vocabulary (think ‘market society’ for ‘capitalism’). The framework of ‘globalization’, however, does not end up as a politically overdetermined choice in Lee’s book so much as an index of a frustrating gap between the work’s stated ambitions and the diffuse, conventional quality of its claims as soon as they wander afield from close readings of specific oeuvres. The latter include ones that Lee proposes are emblematic of the aforesaid continuity between artistic production and social production: Takashi Murakami, Thomas Hirschhorn, Andreas Gursky, the Atlas Group and Raqs Media Collective. While the case studies are informative, each stages the central weakness of Lee’s project: the setting up of intriguing propositions – such as the one about ‘worlding’ – which are never developed in the detail it would take to flesh out their heavily telegraphed implications, either for a philosophy of contemporary art or for an analysis of contemporary capital.
Lee’s close readings are mainly astute, traversing production methods, ideological slants and critical reception. In several cases they are the results of ongoing dialogue between the author and her case studies, and adeptly integrate the artists’ self-narratives into the critical accounts. Each discussion outlines one or several relevant au courant theoretical categories (post-Fordism, immateriality, the collective), and zooms back and forth between glosses on these and insights into the practice in question. We thus understand Murakami’s notion of the ‘Superflat’ to be indebted equally to the global strategies of outsourcing and flexibilization which are the current face of ‘Factory’-style production in and out of art, the ultra-scalability of vector graphics, and Bill Gates business manuals. Andreas Gursky is the post-Fordist descendant of his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial typologies, with his panoptiscapes of unpeopled sites of production and consumption, the ‘ether’ of digital compositing pervading every colour-saturated reality effect. His vast-format images are positioned as both a registration and a rehearsal of the abstraction of value that Lee contrasts with the concrete labour re-vindicated in the critical realism of the late Allan Sekula. This refrain concerning works that both register and reproduce a tendency of globalization points to an equivocation about the critical potential of the practices under scrutiny that pervades Lee’s discussion throughout. In her chapter on Hirschhorn, this is negotiated via the Spinozism advocated by the artist himself and via the category of ‘immanent causality’, primarily as it is elaborated in the work of Antonio Negri. The material elements of Hirschhorn’s protean assemblages may exhibit the accelerated de-valorization of the commodity cycle, as Benjamin Buchloh suggests; they may also re-capitulate the abject juxtapositions of the Internet. Ultimately, however, they are about the ‘cumulative and affective capacity of information’ which is traced back to the artist’s abiding fascination with Spinoza as the master philosopher of immanence. Immanence, however, appears to require the supplement of communication, presenting Lee with another opportunity to make an analogy between Hirschhorn’s practice and the Internet. Mediation is posed as a contradictory extension of immanence. This interest in mediation, as seen in the artist’s extended event structures in public housing projects, such as Spinoza Monument or last summer’s Gramsci Monument in New York, cannot, on this account (mainly the artist’s), be conflated with social work or, even more balefully, ‘interactivity’. (This positioning is one whose structural blind spots have recently been shrewdly unpacked by Kari Rittenbach.) The disavowal of extrinsic factors to the autonomy of the artwork uses the filter of Spinozian ‘immanent causality’ to discuss the particularity of Hirschhorn’s social effects. Immanent causality, then, licenses not only Hirschhorn’s claim to the political but also Lee’s own methodology of establishing the continuity between artistic strategies and the social totality: a non-systematic totality where distinctions are eradicated at the level of the object as they are in the application of the critical method.
It is perhaps in the final section that the analytic purchase of Lee’s approach stumbles most evidently. The ‘pseudo-collective’ is the rubric Lee adopts to describe the constitution of ambiguous artistic entities such as the Atlas Group and Raqs Media Collective. The appropriation of debates around collectivism in twentieth- and twenty-first-century politics and aesthetics fuels strategies of anonymity, opacity and refusal of authorship called upon by them and other post-collectives (including pseudo-corporations, such as the Bernadette Corporation and Reena Spaulings). This also underscores the increasing porosity between cultural practice and activism. In order to ground her analysis, Lee calls upon two singular and reified instances of what she calls, after Stimson and Sholette, ‘collectivism’. These are the Soviet Union and the World Social Forum; understood as the exemplary moments of modernist and post-modern collectivism, respectively. It is, however, the Invisible Committee that ties it all together, in their theorization of the systemically disruptive potential of refusing singular identity. Yet, besides the paradoxes entailed by casting anonymity as pivotal to projects consistently attracting a high degree of institutional recognition, Lee encounters problems in relating the analytic levels of her claims about collectivity in general to the specific issues surrounding collectivity as an artistic strategy. She positions collectivity unmistakeably in the sphere of consumption, as a counter to the consumer sovereign self whose tyrannical sway has biopolitically reshaped our conditions of existence; in this she is in accord with the Invisible Committee, albeit not in a position to confront some of the more normative implications of such a lifestyle politics. More worryingly, the issue of the collective would seem to afford an ideal opportunity to introduce class analysis into a narrative that has up until then come across as a sequence of decontextualized summaries of world-system shifts. The discussion of the Atlas Group especially flags a missed opportunity to engage an interlocutor who has consistently written on their work and also the condition of contemporary art as a mover and an index of globalized capital, Peter Osborne. Osborne’s account of the Atlas Group aligns with Lee’s in its emphasis on collectivization and fictionalization; yet his reading has the distinct advantage of enabling us to follow the social contradictions of globalization as an effective fiction via a subject position materialized by the work itself, rather than the kind of simple opening of history to contingency which the work is literally performing, and where Lee’s analysis is content to remain.
Overall, it is in the very sweep of Lee’s formulations, couched as they are in the potted reconstructions of theoretical trends and periodizations, that one truly begins to feel something like an emulation of Lee’s diagnosis of ‘forgetting’ in the architecture of the diagnosis itself. If the artworld forgets its conditionedness by ‘real-world’ factors such as hot money and super-exploited labour, then it is the terminology of globalization that partly licenses this forgetting, posing the expansion of the bourgeoisie over the whole globe (Marx) as the spread of progress in both time and space, while the global division of labour that makes this possible is cast into the shadows. Gestures to this divergence are made in a discussion, early on in the book, about biennales as both manifesting the entrance of peripheral actors onto the stage of globalized art industries and ensuring new kinds of marginalization. But in the absence of class analysis, or even an account of the kind of ‘work’ art ostensibly does, Lee’s critical vision of globalization, as it manifests in particular art practices, reproduces these material conditions as ideological figments in line with the non-committal juxtaposition of aesthetics and politics so institutionalized by now in the artworld itself (while, at the same time, repeating its propensity for the scattergun inflation of philosophical vocabularies). In this light we can conjecture that forgetting the art world in favour of the real can only be a formal demand and a formal constraint which acts to optimize the pursuit of business as usual: as Harun Farocki wrote, echoing the provisional character of all prior history for Marx, it is not a matter of ‘touching the real’ but of changing it: ‘reality will have to begin’