At the turn of the twentieth century, art entered a new era of artistic mass production. Whereas the previous age was an era of artistic mass consumption, in our present timethe situation has changed, and there are two primary developments that have led to this change. The first is the emergence of new technical means for producingand distributing images, and the second is a shift in our understanding of art, a change in the rules we use for identifying what is and what is not art.
Let us begin with the second development. Today, we do not identify an artwork primarily as an object produced by the manual work of an individual artist in such a way that the traces of this work remain visible or, at least, identifiable in the body of the artwork itself. During the nineteenth century, painting and sculpture were seen as extensions of the artist’s body, as evoking the presence of this body even following the artist’s death. In this sense, artist’s work was not regarded as “alienated” work—in contrast to the alienated, industrial labor that does not presuppose any traceable connection between the producer’s body and the industrial product. Since at least Duchamp and his use of the readymade, this situation has changed drastically. And the main change lies not so much in the presentation of industrially produced objects as artworks, as in a new possibility that opened for the artist, to not only produce artworks in an alienated, quasi-industrial manner, but also to allow these artworks to maintain an appearance of being industrially produced. And it is here that artists as different as Andy Warhol and Donald Judd can serve as examples of post-Duchampian art. The direct connection between the body of the artist and the body of the artworks was severed. The artworks were no longer considered to maintain the warmth of the artist’s body, even when the artist’s own corpse became cold. On the contrary, the author (artist) was already proclaimed dead during his or her lifetime, and the “organic” character of the artwork was interpreted as an ideological illusion. As a consequence, while we assume the violent dismemberment of a living, organic body to be a crime, the fragmentation of an artwork that is already a corpse—or, even better, an industrially produced object or machine—does not constitute a crime; rather, it is welcome.
And that is precisely what hundreds of millions of people around the world do every day in the context of contemporary media. As masses of people have become well informed about advanced art production through biennials, triennials, Documentas, and related coverage, they have come to use media in the same way as artists. Contemporary means of communication and social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter offer global populations the ability to present their photos, videos, and texts in ways that cannot be distinguished from any post-Conceptualist artwork. And contemporary design offers the same populations a means of shaping and experiencing their apartments or workplaces as artistic installations. At the same time, the digital “content” or “products” that these millions of people present each day has no direct relation to their bodies; it is as “alienated” from them as any other contemporary artwork, and this means that it can be easily fragmented and reused in different contexts. And indeed, sampling by way of “copy and paste” is the most standard, most widespread practice on the internet. And it is here that one finds a direct connection between the quasi-industrial practices of post-Duchampian art and contemporary practices used on the internet—a place where even those who do not know or appreciate contemporary artistic installations, performances, or environments will employ the same forms of sampling on which those art practices are based. (And here we find an analogy to Benjamin’s interpretation of the public’s readiness to accept montage in cinema as having been expressed by a rejection of the same approach in painting).
Now, many have considered this erasure of work in and through contemporary artistic practice to have been a liberation from work in general. The artist becomes a bearer and protagonist of “ideas,” “concepts,” or “projects,” rather than a subject of hard work, whether alienated or non-alienated work. Accordingly, the digitalized, virtual space of the internet has produced phantom concepts of “immaterial work” and “immaterial workers” that have allegedly opened the way to a “post-Fordist” society of universal creativity free from hard work and exploitation. In addition to this, the Duchampian readymade strategy seems to undermine the rights of intellectual private property—abolishing the privilege of authorship and delivering art and culture to unrestricted public use. Duchamp’s use of readymades can be understood as a revolution in art that is analogous to a communist revolution in politics. Both revolutions aim at the confiscation and collectivization of private property, whether “real” or symbolic. And in this sense one can say that certain contemporary art and internet practices now play the role of (symbolic) communist collectivizations in the midst of a capitalist economy. One finds a situation reminiscent of Romantic art at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Europe, when ideological reactions and political restorations dominated political life. Following the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, Europe arrived at a period of relative stability and peace in which the age of political transformation and ideological conflict seemed to have finally been overcome. The homogeneous political and economic order based on economic growth, technological progress, and political stagnation seemed to announce the end of history, and the Romantic artistic movement that emerged throughout the European continent became one in which utopias were dreamed, revolutionary traumas were remembered, and alternative ways of living were proposed. Today, the art scene has become a place of emancipatory projects, participatory practices, and radical political attitudes, but also a place in which the social catastrophes and disappointments of the revolutionary twentieth century are remembered. And the specific neo-Romantic and neo-communist makeup of contemporary culture is, as is often the case, especially well diagnosed by its enemies. Thus Jaron Lanier’s influential book You Are Not a Gadget speaks about the “digital Maoism” and “hive mind” that dominate contemporary virtual space, ruining the principle of intellectual private property and ultimately lowering the standards and leading to the potential demise of culture as such.
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