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Designs for a New World


The sort of things that get called “art” these days exist on a continuum which, if it keeps stretching, will probably break. On one end, art becomes a kind of financial instrument based on singularizing money into an “object” that can have provenance. It can be any kind of object—conceptual, imaginary—all that matters is that there is a document stating who bought it from who. Mind you, pictures work particularly well as such instruments, particularly if they look good in the .jpeg sent to potential buyer’s iPhone. What we might designate as the “art world” is this subsidiary financial market, one with side effects such as dissipating boredom, fostering art-fair tourism, and giving today’s rentier class conversation pieces and home decoration. is this version of an art world perfected.

At the other end of the art continuum, there’s the attempt to inhabit those spaces of production that the art world requires as its hinterlands—to do something else. Usually, it takes the form of experimenting in those spaces with practices of everyday life that could either have a negative, critical function or an affirmative, constructive function. Some old-fashioned art theorists insist on the negative role of art, as if still hankering for that industrial solvent smell of high modernism. But the jig is up. It’s probably time to start focusing on the affirmative, constructive side, as Chris Kraus does in her brief but illuminating text Lost Properties. The design component is no sideshow. Once one starts looking afresh at the art-historical past, it is actually the main event. “Fine art” was an historical dead end, no longer of much interest. The avant-gardes really aimed to “change life!”—and did.

For Asger Jorn, the artist’s role is as proposer of forms. He saw fine art as a temporary aberration, not least in its modernist incarnation. Capitalism split production into two separate domains: the production of form and the production of content. Labor gets reduced to the production of content, to the filling in of pre-given forms. Artists belong to another class, the class of form makers, makers of symbolic form, ritual form, social form, and so on. Art is a subset of design. But it is a marginalized kind of design. The strategy then is firstly to assert the role of art as design, and secondly to overcome the separation of form and content in production.

Jorn’s image of that production was the tin of soup, which is the separation between form and content taken to the limit. It doesn’t matter what content fills the can, it is just goop. He wrote about this before Warhol stepped off the path of trying to make new forms and started representing what the complete separation of form from content looked like. Art world versions of “contemporary art” stem from this retreat from the challenge of being experimenters and proposers of form. From Warhol comes art as financial instrument, art completely separated from anything but a container function.

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