Artists like to role-play scenarios in order to max-out concepts to their logical ends. Art is the space where practices that cannot function within generic constraints run up against the walls and expose fissures in the structures they are working in. Think of documentary or narrative films that don’t quite cut it in a mainstream film context, or technologies that fail as commodities but succeed as concepts. When understood as art, these are allowed to exist in all of their complexity.
As an art student in the late aughts, my professors propagated the fantasy that alterity provided access to an otherwise of multinational capitalism. Armed with identities shaped when an “outside” or “another world” was possible, they maintained that the other is always outside, and always subversive to “dominant” culture. With practices emerging in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, punk negation, slacker refusal, institutional critique, and art-as-activism were put forth as viable tactics for resistance. But to my cohort, the proposal of simple opposition over immanence did not feel appropriate or effective in resisting the conditions of our moment; it felt romantic. A strategic sense of imbrication seemed to better address the layered complexities of the reality at hand. By 2008, institutional critique was being taught as a historical practice. What had once been radical—even, with Buren and Haacke, to the point of censorship—had now been wholly recuperated. As Hal Foster pointed out a decade earlier, the “quasi-anthropological artist today may seek to work with sited communities with the best motives of political engagement and institutional transgression, only in part to have this work recoded by its sponsors as social outreach, economic development, public relations … or art.”
My sculpture class gathered weekly to collectively cook meals. This exercise, led by an exemplary relational aesthetics artist, quickly devolved into performative class warfare, with students bringing everything from Balthazar bread to discount produce, resulting in mixed feelings of guilt, shame, ambivalence, and inadequacy. This was at Columbia. At neighboring institutions, there was a painter known for his Beuysian performance paintings made with heritage pork fat from the Berkshire pigs he raised upstate. In Frankfurt, there was a German painter who apparently ate glass. This education championed the model of “artist as x,” or artist as performing a role—whether it be artist as cook, artist as bad boy, artist as gentleman farmer, or artist as sociopath—from a position of critical distance. Similar to homo economicus, the primary function of “artist as x” is to utilize and leverage all possible identities, situations, and social relations for their own benefit. From this accumulative imperative emerged practices where every bender was a durational performance and every broken bottle an artifact of critical engagement. Out of this educational model came Times Bar and New Theater in Berlin, the vitriolic blog Jerry Magoo, and, in my own case, a trend-forecasting group named K-HOLE. Relational aesthetics began to look a lot more like aspirational aesthetics, through the aestheticization of trolling, waste, usage, consumption, and the role played by “artist as consumer.”
To some, art is also an excuse to do things poorly. If an experiment fails, calling the process and its ruins “art” becomes a contingency plan. If an experiment in a structure traditionally considered as being outside of the boundaries of art succeeds, as functional business enterprises in entertainment, tech, food, or fashion, or the murkier realms of logistics or import/export operations, it is acceptable for the experiment to exist as the thing itself. In the case of the failed, or dis-functional, commercial venture as art, the failure can be understood as performed criticality; it reveals delineations otherwise invisible and shows how the mechanisms of commerce function behind the curtain. But, regardless of success or failure, it has become expected practice to leverage the context of art for the purposes of cultural legitimacy and capital. Many successful business ventures were born this way, from restaurants and fashion labels to BuzzFeed and Kickstarter.
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