IF ONLY CONTEMPORARY ART LIFTED THE VEIL ONCE AND FOR ALL. BUT IT DOESN’T…
For the reader of the journal Reartikulacija, Julian Stallabrass’s book Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction (originally published in 2006 and the Slovenian translation in 2007) is a mere repetition and summary of an already extensive discussion on contemporary art. For the general public, meanwhile, it provides an insight into the field of contemporary art and the position it occupies within neoliberalism. Instead of defining contemporary art and focusing on different art practices, Julian Stallabrass (writer, photographer and Senior Lecturer at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London) analyses the structure of the contemporary art system and its position in the sphere of politics and the economy. The author demonstrates that the art world is not as innocent as it might seem at first glance. On the contrary, like other systems, it is also an integral part of a greedy capitalist structure. His analysis is based on Marx, Adorno, Hardt, Negri and Guattari who, in his opinion, lay bare the systematic elements of the operation of the social structure we inhabit.
Julian Stallabrass detects and analyzes the changes occurring inside the art system, making direct connections with historical changes. According to the author, the structural changes of contemporary art are due to the advent of neoliberalism in the 1970s and its spreading throughout the 1980s which can be linked to the process of globalisation. With precise criticism, the author attacks the US influence on the global art system and draws attention to connections triggered and veiled by the art world which are at times illogical. According to Stallabrass, contemporary art is still described with high-flown phrases. Through accentuated mystification and freedom, the art world is seen as excluded from bureaucratic, instrumentalised life and mass culture (Stallabrass, 2007: 10, all references are from the Slovenian translation of the book) in order to avoid the real state of things, while being slavishly subordinated to the political will of the authorities and to the laws of the market.
Stallabrass argues that art is blinded by an idealistic notion of what it is or what it would like to be. It is not critical enough to be able to notice that it is intrinsically dependent on the wider social environment in which it originates. Like other spheres of activity, art too is subject to changes in the forms and orientations of the general world. Today, art represents a new force in spreading the values of neoliberalism (money, power, apparent freedom). In contrast to the old cosmopolitanism, nowadays the stress lies in art’s hybrid nature and diversity, at times even in its attitude of resistance; the elements being no longer identifiable with the principles of art to which we were to adhere faithfully. The masking of the situation with apparent openness, interculturality and the search for innovation has become the general situation which is seen through rose-tinted spectacles to soften the reality of new forms of totalitarianism (e.g. regulation of the movement of migrants or a rigid control of the movement of people in general). It soon becomes clear that the contemporary art we have become used to is as likely as not the opposite of what it is declared to be, in other words the principles and norms that have been ascribed to art are only a façade; art has become a brand, which is why its message has no possibility of reaching the user. Instead of “freedom,” “creativity,” critical views and self-criticism, art has come to denote self-interest, war for hegemony and power, and to represent yet another model for producing surplus value. Other “phrases” relating to art are paralysed and as such are embedded in the fundamental values of contemporary society. As a result, each contemporary individual can be regarded as an artist, as Baudrillard alludes (an individual is obliged to be free, creative and achieve self-actualisation), however only seemingly, in order to prevent any form of resistance. Therefore, I also read Julian Stallabrass, with Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation in mind (translated into English in 1994).
Stallabrass tackles the analysis of contemporary art (and its structure) through six chapters or six thematic groups which complement and upgrade each other. With critical insight, he expresses his view on problematic issues, which are being avoided by contemporary art. Namely, the question of freedom, new world order, the consumption of culture, the uses and value of art, rules defining contemporary art and contradictions arising within the field of contemporary art. It is from within these contexts and notions that he opens up and discusses the phenomenon of biennials, art trends, the merging of contemporary art and mass culture, seclusion of art from political processes, the development of star culture and trademarks, characteristics of art and literature on art, problems of financing and dependence on private enterprises and lobbies that support and establish the system of visual arts. Thus contemporary art reveals itself as a complex and often contradictory field which is full of contrasts: on the one hand it strives for freedom, and on the other it submits itself to the pressure of lobbies. But is not the whole world like that? According to Baudrillard, apparent contradiction is the fundamental characteristic of contemporary society. Control and freedom are somehow intertwined and interconnected. Freedom is compulsory yet control remains. And this control is absolute, argues Baudrillard. Control is interiorised by the individual. The master has been absorbed by the contemporary individual and we have become our own slaves – and to a greater extent than in the past. The contemporary individual is subordinated to the simulated Will, to the will of the ruling Ideology. The individual must be free, must achieve self-actualisation and self-realisation, as this is precisely what is required by the neoliberal economy, in which business corporations provide all the consumer needs. Today, the free world displays itself as being the most effective, since it allows everything to be realised, produced, sold and consumed. It is upon this supposition of the individual’s freedom (are we not living in a free world already, so why fight for it?) that resistance to the system is prevented (Rutar, 2007: 109). Stallabrass’s doubt regarding the possibilities of “good”, radical, ethical and “non-consumerist” art is based on Baudrillard’s pessimistic announcement. Stallabrass’s ideas about the lack of opinion within art projects, the self-censorship of writers (critics) and the “ineffectiveness” of contemporary art, which irrespective of its aim becomes too rapidly an object of the capitalistic system, are worthy of being discussed further.
Another problem to which the author draws attention are the concerns regarding the seclusion of art from other social systems, above all from political processes, the result of which is that art is not able to realise its own ideals (if it has any at all or if we speak about activist works of art) (Stallabrass, 2007: 22). To put it differently, “art as a separated sphere (the so-called autonomy of art) simply means keeping art separate from resistance powers, limiting it to a role as a mere source of (surplus) value, with which the pimp – capital – easily reproduces itself” (Gržinić, 2005: 116). Moreover, neoliberalism cannibalistically devours even its own critics and sets them up so they can suit the system best. Herbert Marcuse describes the sphere of neoliberalism as being “the market which absorbs equally well art, anti-art and non-art, all possible conflicting styles, schools, forms, provides ‘a comfortable receptacle, a friendly abyss,’ which swallows up the radical impact of art, its protest against the established reality” (Marcuse, 1964: 101). I can quote what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri say in their book Empire: “The ideology of the world market has always been the anti-foundational and anti-essentialist discourse par excellence. Circulation, mobility, diversity, and mixture are its very conditions of possibility. Trade brings differences together and the more the merrier! Differences (of commodities, populations, cultures, and so forth) seem to multiply infinitely in the world market, which attacks nothing more violently than fixed boundaries: it overwhelms any binary divisions with its infinite multiplicity” (Hardt and Negri, English original: 150).
''Postmodern theory itself, as it moved from an account of a potential utopia or dystopia to a flat description of an existing reality, lost its critical and ethical force. In its reduced state, consumerism and the supposed empowerment of the shopper were central to postmodernism’s disquisitions” (Stallabrass, 2007: 130). Stallabrass shows that the cause of such an about-turn is of a material nature (changes in the production system) and is fostered by the free market, technological development alongside the development of information technology as well as the incidence of different forms of mass communication. Globalisation involves the establishment of a new ideology that seemingly opens up, and at the same time further restricts and primitivises its own views.
Besides a structural analysis of contemporary art, Stallabrass’s book also includes photographs and descriptions of art projects, which confirm the author’s findings and instructions for further reading and understanding of contemporary art. With an impressive characterization of contemporary art and its contextualisation within neoliberalist terms of economic inequalities, the politics of deregulation, wild privatisation and consumerism, the book changes the viewer into a critical consumer who is able to identify characteristics and stereotypical images, and to assume a critical attitude to works of art
''Radical art must transcend merely talking about politics; it must change its own way of production, distribution and presentation.” Contemporary art must free itself from representation, for ‘representation is understood to be the means of control,’ a process that traverses different methods and models associated with state systems. Representation provides ‘procedures of capitalist accumulation’ and surplus value for capital” (Gržinić; 2005: 131). What goals does art serve? It is high time for aesthetics to be replaced by a clear ethics, not appertaining only to its content, but also to its form.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulaker in simulacija, Študentska založba, Ljubljana 1999.
Marina Gržinić Mauhler, “O repolitizaciji umetnosti skozi kontaminacijo,” in Filozofski vestnik, vol. XXVI, no. 3, FI ZRC SAZU, Ljubljana 2005.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Imperij, Študentska založba, Ljubljana 2003.
Herbert Marcuse, “Represivna toleranca,” in Časopis za kritiko in znanost, no. 164–165, Ljubljana 1994.
Dušan Rutar, “Osvoboditev od osvobojenosti,” in EMZIN, vol. XVII, no. 1-2, Ljubljana 2007.
Julian Stallabrass, Sodobna umetnost: zelo kratek uvod, Krtina, Ljubljana 2007.
Jasmina Založnik holds a B.A. in sociology of culture and pedagogy. She is a postgraduate student at the Intercultural studies – Comparative studies of ideas and cultures, University of Nova Gorica.
Translated from Slovenian by Tanja Passoni.