Monday, March 18, 2013

in defense of an alternative artists economy


i just read a piece by anton vidokle for e-flux (thanks to amanda san filippo). this is part of his thesis:

What I mean is that if one is really looking to produce a different kind of art, it is necessary to step through the standardization and professionalization it promises, and discover a way to access whatever may be on the other side—even if what one finds does not resemble art as we currently understand it.

how does it get here is another thing. i'd like to contrast two paragraphs from the opening (1):
(...) some of the most influential modernist artists, from Paul Gauguin to Mondrian and Rodchenko, died in abject poverty, not because their work was unpopular but because the economy produced by the circulation and distribution of their work was entirely controlled by others, whether under capitalist or communist regimes.
which is out of marx's critique of political economy 101. then we get this (2): 
I am not particularly interested in the power relations between artists and the art market, a cyclical conversation that seems to dominate much of art writing today. Historically, art and artists have existed both with and without a market. Important art was produced in socialist countries for most of the twentieth century, in the absence of an art market. true. 
ok, suppose that (1) is true. how can vidokle argue [in (2)] that such-and-such artists "died in abject poverty..." because the economy produced by the circulation and distribution of their work was entirely controlled by others, and not be "particularly interested" [as he states in (2)] by the very dynamic that causes it? there are many uninfluential artists who died well off and well-off famous artists who later died in abject poverty (as -not surprisingly- did hundreds of unknown uninfluential artists).

"circulation" and "distribution" are well-known terms of classical economy, going back to cantillon & petty (one could make the case that marx's own critique of capitalist political economy is a close kin of the former). that is to say, the reason "power relations" are such a topic of discussion in much of art writing today is -precisely: artblicity reigns!

which explains vidokle's own ambiguity:
Art can clearly exist without a market, but artists fundamentally rely upon a certain economy in order to live and make art in the first place. Furthermore, it’s important to note that “economy” and “market” are not synonymous terms: a market is just one facet of the economic sphere, coexisting with many other forms of exchange, from barter, debt, and favors to a gift economy.
what does he means by "market"? a public gathering for selling merchandise -as in the guilds of 16th century europe? the mercantile protectionist markets of the renaissance, the monopolistic industrial market of 19th century england and early 20th century america, or the wall-street financial markets of today?

then, the artists and founder of e-flux brings up ruskin's essay on political economy (the given date wrong: ruskin essay wasn't published in 1857, but 1860 in the cornhill magazine, as unto this last, a treatise as grandiloquent as ruskin's personality).

keep in mind that ruskin intended to change the discipline as defended by the likes of smith, ricardo, malthus, even j. s. mill (whom he misinterprets in his essay). here are ruskin's bombastic essay titles: "The Roots of Honour,""The Veins of Wealth," "Qui judiratis Terram," & "Ad Valorem." the first sentence opens in ruskinian
Among the delusions which at different periods have possessed themselves of the minds of large masses of the human race, perhaps the most curious -- certainly the least creditable -- is the modern soi-disant science of political economy, based on the idea that an advantageous code of social action may be determined irrespectively of the influence of social affection.
which doesn't take away ruskin's good points in it. by his own admission, ruskin was redefining the scope of classical economy. a good part of what he seems to be saying is that there is no economy without the bigger picture of sociology --something comte & even mill had been saying for some time, but ruskin didn't know.

vidokle's conclusion is that,
Ruskin laments the confusion regarding the interpretation of the word “economy,” emphasizing that economy does not automatically imply money, frugality, or expenditures, but rather taking care of a household and managing labor.
so, one gets the impression that ruskin is doing microeconomics when in fact he is doing exactly the opposite! only then vidokle can find warhol's entrepreneurial spirit as a model:
Andy Warhol’s Factory is fascinating in this respect: both a murky, magical corner for misfits and eccentrics, and simultaneously the workplace of the first self-proclaimed Business Artist. Warhol’s artistic position is very interesting insofar as it combined stances that were thought to be diametrically opposed: he was at once a dandy, a bohemian, but also someone who did not disguise his interest in business and commerce
what is vidokle after? artist's independence!
But since his time, Warhol’s economic independence seems to have been misunderstood. The independence that came from his bridging of the bohemian sphere and the sphere of day-to-day commerce has been converted into a vast proliferation of so-called artistic practices that treat art as a profession. But art is not a profession.
"profession" is treated here as if it could be separated from its economic embeddedness (i don't think ruskin own social bent would've agreed with that). 
Warhol’s position was much more honest and productive than that of artists who pretend that the artist can or should stay innocent by delegating (or appearing to delegate) business-related activity to gallerists or other agents, and who maintain that this is the only condition in which critical or culturally significant art can be produced. 
warhol honest? why is that even relevant? how can vidokle miss leo castelli's brobdingnagian shadow?  having said that, none of this is so damaging to vidokle's more interesting sort of preraphaelite thesis:
By breaking from older artistic formations such as medieval artisan guilds, bohemian artists of the nineteenth century distanced themselves from the vulgar sphere of day-to-day commerce in favor of an idealized conception of art and authorship. While on the one hand this allowed for a certain rejection of normative bourgeois life, it also required that artists entrust their livelihoods to middlemen—to private agents or state organizations.
not that artists had too much choice. but this is better:
I think it’s perfectly acceptable to work in some other capacity in the arts, or in an entirely different field, and also to make art: sometimes this situation actually produces much more significant work than the “professional art” we see at art fairs and biennials. Ilya Kabakov supported himself for decades by being a children’s book illustrator. Marcel Duchamp worked as a librarian and later sold Brancusi’s work to make a living, while refusing to be dependent on sales of his own work.
this is a point that goes to the bottom of what "art," "artwork" & "professional" means. the problem is how to redefine art practice as such? don't expect vidokle to tackle that issue. at least to question actual relations of production is a start.
These days it’s becoming more and more difficult to imagine the production of significant art without a training system that educates future producers of art, its administrators and, to some extent, its consumers. However, until only a few decades ago, many if not most artists, curators, and critics, never attended masters programs or studied curatorship and critical writing in specialized training programs. The field of art is becoming professionalized in a very, very narrow way. There’s still the old problem that professionalization is really about a division of labor, and a division of labor produces alienation.
and this:
(...) MFA programs have become a tool of indoctrination that has had an unprecedented homogenizing effect on artistic practices worldwide, an effect that is now being replicated with curatorial and critical writing programs. At the center of the problem is the black plastic folder: at the school I attended, the folder itself became the goal of the program—both the framing and the ultimate content of graduate studies in art.
towards the end, vidokle even shifts his earlier stipulation a bit. i like its forwardness: 
The market of art is not merely a bunch of dealers and cigar-smoking connoisseurs trading exquisite objects for money behind closed doors. Rather, it is a vast and complex international industry of overlapping institutions which jointly produce artworks’ economic value and support a wide range of activities and occupations including training, research, development, production, display, documentation, criticism, marketing, promotion, financing, historicizing, publishing, and so forth. The standardization of art greatly simplifies all of these transactions.