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The Weak Universalism


In these times, we know that everything can be an artwork. Or rather, everything can be turned into an artwork by an artist. There is no chance of a spectator distinguishing between an artwork and a “simple thing” on the basis of the spectator’s visual experience alone. The spectator must first know a particular object to be used by an artist in the context of his or her artistic practice in order to identify it as an artwork or as a part of an artwork.

But who is this artist, and how can he or she be distinguished from a non-artist—if such a distinction is even possible? To me, this seems a far more interesting question than that of how we can differentiate between an artwork and a “simple thing.”

Meanwhile, we have a long tradition of institutional critique. During the last few decades, the role of collectors, curators, trustees, museum directors, gallerists, art critics, and so forth has been extensively analyzed and criticized by artists. But what about the artists themselves? The contemporary artist is clearly an institutional figure as well. And contemporary artists are mostly ready to accept the fact that their critique of art institutions is a critique from within. Today, the artist could be defined simply as a professional fulfilling a certain role in the general framework of the art world, a world that is based—as any other bureaucratic organization or capitalist corporation—on the division of labor. One can also argue that part of this role is to criticize the art world with a goal to make it more open, more inclusive, and better informed, and because of that also more efficient and more profitable. This answer is certainly plausible—but at the same time not really persuasive.

Let us remember Joseph Beuys’ well-known maxim: “Everybody is an artist.” This maxim has a long tradition, going back to early Marxism and the Russian avant-garde, and is therefore almost always characterized today—and was already characterized in Beuys’ time—as utopian. This maxim is usually understood as an expression of a utopian hope that, in the future, the mankind that currently consists predominantly of non-artists becomes a mankind consisting of artists. Not only can we now agree that such a hope is implausible, but I would never suggest that it is utopian if the figure of the artist is defined this way. A vision of the world completely turned into the art world, in which every human being has to produce artworks and compete for the chance to exhibit them at this or that biennial, is by no means a utopian vision, but quite dystopian—in fact, a complete nightmare.

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