In the context of current theories of aesthetics, art theorists miss the urgency of discussing the art market and its deleterious power on art and art reception.
My thesis is that the art market can be compared to the natural science idea of depleted environment.
By "depletion" I mean a reduction in the art sphere, to adequately express aesthetic, social and political needs.
What is the point of discussing "specificity" as a curatorial point (whether transgression or spectacle or early modernism or whatnot) if deleterious forces behind the art being presented and talked about remain absolutely intact? What's the point of hammering Schiller, Hegel, Adorno and Peter Bürger if the aesthetic discussions gloss over the very issues of these discourses address?
For example, within the bigger discussion of environment, what's the good of taking recycling for granted if,
... To offset the greenhouse impact of one passenger’s round-trip flight between New York and London, you’d have to recycle roughly 40,000 plastic bottles, assuming you fly coach. If you sit in business- or first-class, where each passenger takes up more space, it could be more like 100,000.In the best of possible worlds, a good citizen "recycles," and yet she's doing nothing for the environment. Of course, she'll keep recycling out of self-discipline, but she is not ready to see bad faith in the face. On the other hand, the discussion in the NYTimes shouldn't be dismissed as being "against recycling" (notwithstanding the cloying feeling of helping the planet).
This is the paradoxical nature of our CULTURE. We believe the cultural consensus because it comes down the pipe.
But what if something we take for granted is a scam?
Art defined as (re)presentation
From here on, representation will not be the old received Platonic/Aristotelian mimesis. Representation doesn't mean likeness anymore. Now it means cause/effect.
Bernheimer's now forgotten 1960s The Nature of Representation gets it right:
The function of representation is most akin to the much neglected and little known one of substitution.1Substitution! One thing presented in the place of another. What you see is not what's really there.
When you see a contemporary artwork in a white box, you see a different thing than what the artist made. When it's sold to a collector or auctioned, or purchased by a museum the artwork changes.
The difference between the first and the last in the series is its aggregate value.
Let's defer to the Gombrich/Danto definition of representation, and modify it a little bit:
Representation is a making present (again) of what is absent; or more formally, A is a representation of B when it can take B’s place, can function as B’s substitute or as B’s replacement in its absence.2From the making to the presenting to the buying, each one is causing the other, each one is re-pre-sen-ting.
Let's revisit these three:
1- Making: the Romantic idea of the starving artist, the autarchic poet involved in the act of creation.
2- Presenting: The arthoodication of the whitebox.
3- Representing: The buying and collecting defined as futurity.
Why is it that the making is always made to look more crucial than the other two?
The difference between the represented 14-foot tiger shark in Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death In the Mind of Someone Living and your ordinary jaws majestically swimming in the subtropical Florida Straits is that the latter is not inside a vitrine filled with formaldehyde in a white box.
There is a bit of magic here: Aesthetically speaking The Physical Impossibility of Death is not better —or worse— than the Carcharodon Carcharias, it's just different.3
Ξ The difference is aggregate value, i.e., a differential value defined in the future.
The magic consists in (the market) taking Ξ and substituting it as aesthetic value.
The Physical Impossibility of Death is now —automatically— art ("represented" as art).
Again, the causal function of representing is hidden from the artwork.
You see the art, you don't see the $futurity$.
How did it happen? Let's do a little bit of history:
First, in the political realm, substitution operates as a standard of fairness.Take Madison's Federalist #57:
Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, or religious faith, of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgment or disappoint the inclination of the people.We know article #57 doesn't —generally— happen. It doesn't matter. We keep using it. We have faith in it.
Are we blind? No. We're cultured. Here is Hume explaining the power and sustenance of social conventions:
And thus justice establishes itself by a kind of convention or agreement; that is, by a sense of interest, supposed to be common to all, and where every single act is performed in expectation that others are to perform the like. Without such a convention, no one would ever have dreamed, that there was such a virtue as justice, or have been induced to conform his actions to it.Acculturation breeds authority. (check Weber's dictum).
In the economic realm, substitution takes the status of trust. I leave you with Adam Smith:
We trust our health to the physician . . . . our fortune, and sometimes our life and reputation, to the lawyer and attorney. Such confidence could not safely be reposed in people of a very mean or low condition. Their reward must be such therefore as may give them that rank in the society which so important a trust requires.4Though our trust is beaten time and again, we keep paying our mutual funds fees.
In the aesthetic realm, substitution operates as a bridge between aesthetics and morality. Which is why Schiller renders "beauty" as moral excellence (Über Anmut und Würde).
What is true of the aesthetic applies also to the moral: as, in the one case, it is only a person’s morally excellent character that puts the stamp of moral quality on one of his actions, so, in the other, it is only the mature and perfect spirit from whom maturity and perfection can flow.5Bataille, a marxist, marveled at how fascism could be uncivilized and yet aesthetically appealing.
I think it's time to bring these substitutions for a provisional corollary:
Contemporary art is an apparatus designed and sustained by the circulation of capital.
Of course, we should end this post with a little bit of Culture. Ready for some entertainment?
These are random comments about Hirst's piece in this website:
Sometimes I think the titles are what makes something art. This could have been called "Shark Tank" or "Thing I killed" or "Big angry thing with lots of teeth," and people would nod and walk by. But call it "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," and it's very deep and you pause and consider it way more than if the title was boring. Is it the title that makes it art, or would it still be art if Hirst had named it "Shark Tank?"
Hirst, is this the same guy who created the butterfly exhibit that caused a great deal of controversy recently? It certainly seems like the same style.
How do you think the decay of the shark meaningful in and of itself?
Did anyone else find it funny and a tiny bit disturbing that we can call a corpse art?
Does anybody know how old the shark is?See? The shark discussion goes on oblivious of the "magic."
Is the environment depleted or not?
1Richard Bernheimer, The Nature of Representation (New York: New York University Press, 1961), p. 24. 2 Ananta Sukla, Art and Representation: Contributions to Contemporary Aesthetics p. 70 3See how aesthetics is about value? Something "ugly" or "menacing" (taste attributions to a common jaws) is not what the shark really is. 4Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, p. 86 5David Pug, Dialectic of Love: Platonism in Schiller Aesthetics, (McGill-Queen University Press) p. 134.