MODEST PROPOSALS

Industry, commercialism and the bourgeois are very much with us. The whole notion of trying to form a cult that transcends all this strikes me as a kind of religion-in-drag, you might say. I’m just bored with it, frankly. (1)

—Robert Smithson

As the Lawrence Weiner retrospective at the Whitney Museum fades to white under multiple coats of Kilz and latex paint, and his various exuberant ephemera take up residence at LA MOCA before wending their way back to their rightful property owners; as the Tate Modern and the ICA London emerge from momentary spells of whispered headlines, random queuing, streams of consciousness, and face slapping; as New York’s New Museum concludes its vestigial assault on the Work of Art, not to mention the etiquette of proper spacing, and as visitors to the new building experience the worst case of buyer’s remorse since the reopening of the Museum of Cotemporary Art, Chicago; as the bulk of the Metropolitan Museum’s Dutch paintings readjust to the staid organizing principles of artist’s name, date, and genre rather than hanging according to who bought what from whom (on whose advice) and resold it to so and so, who then donated it to the Met; and as the scent of modesty—prosaic, charcoal-filtered, crystalline modesty—emanates from the 2008 Whitney Biennial; now is as good a time as any to talk about money.

Not money in the massive, toxic sense that characterizes most mentions of it in the context of art, but money in the modest, expansive, nurturing sense that allows artists to pursue their work in its variegated forms. Any discussion of the United States economy as a whole would be practically useless if it started from the assumption that General Electric and Sony and Microsoft were the only entities worth talking about, so one has to wonder how illuminating discussions of artists and money can be when they are almost always limited to superlative cases like Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, that is to whatever artworks accrue the most zeros in the pre-production, post-auction universe. These artists, like Microsoft, are what an economist would call mature companies in established markets, meaning that everything that might be dynamic about them, or about the effect that dynamism had on the market, has already happened. The bulk of their efforts are now dedicated to protecting their brand and inserting it into all available markets, from keychains to plaza sculptures. As in art, in economics the perpetual discovery and implementation of new materials, new technologies, new business strategies, and new historical circumstances—the sum effect of which Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter termed Creative Destruction (2)—has a ruthless, catalytic effect on all businesses regardless of their age and size. In Schumpeter’s characterization, young, nimble, and eccentric enterprises present greater growth opportunities than do older, established firms because they are better positioned to adapt to the changes that their very existence brings forth. Key to Schumpeter’s vision of annihilating progress, though, is his observation that the race does not always go to the biggest or most capitalized competitor; rather, exclusive businesses like corner grocers or custom snowboard manufacturers can thrive no matter their size or technical prowess, simply because their operations are too small and incremental to bear the brunt of Creative Destruction’s perennial force. Schumpeter writes: “A system—any system, economic or other—that at every given point of time fully utilizes its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that does so at no given point of time, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition of the level or speed of long-term performance.”(3) This notion of long-term, inefficient, but ultimately superior performance applies exactly to the kind of artists I want to discuss. Not artists that, at every moment, maximize their capitalization and production and exposure, but artists who manage to make a living by minimizing those things, therebyexpanding the value system of art and, by extension, the aesthetic of what “making money” looks like—the kinds of actions it might embody and the forms it might take.

In the course of doing so, however, I need to loosen up several myths that have stunted many recent discussions of art and money: one, that art produced in factories is more explicitly (and critically) about money because it expends materials and labor in more obvious ways than art produced in a studio or on a laptop; two, that money is only interesting in large sums; and three, that if production only happens in factories and money is only interesting in large sums, then any less than spectacular pursuit of money by artists must be a kind of death (not worthwhile, a self-imposed drudgery, etc.) or pornography (a willingness to do anything for a little money, no matter how degrading) or both, clearly distasteful and beneath the nobler pursuits of beauty and politics and thought.

Obviously we can attribute the first myth to Warhol. Now, I admire Andy Warhol, but there is little about his oeuvre or his approach to making art that I think is of use to profit-minded artists now. The idea of art being made in a factory might have been a radical concept in the 1960s, but we would do well to remember that corporations at that time were already in the process of making Warhol-type factories obsolete as labor pressures, environmental regulations, and supply chain logistics rendered archetypical factory production untenable. Factories require pre-planning, capitalization, operation, security, and maintenance. In a word, overhead: costs to be borne by the factory owner, be it General Motors or Takashi Murakami. Minimizing overhead costs is essential to creating the physical and mental spaces—the margins—from which an artist’s delightful, unforeseen profits can spring. Conceptual art exemplifies this break away from factory production in that, wittingly or not, its various approaches entailed such radical (and profitable!) new business strategies as mass customization, data mining, value adding, and inventory velocity. Conceptual art traded the efficiency of making as many identical things as possible up front, and then transporting, displaying, storing, and insuring them until people could be convinced to buy them, for the efficiency of not making anything until somebody wants it and, better yet, will assume production costs. There is no better example of this than the wall drawings of Sol Lewitt.

Last year, in the months of dismay and recovery that followed news of LeWitt’s death, an amazing thing happened: brand new works by the artist sprang up all around the world, beautiful, vast, delicate images pulled from manila folders and executed to plan as if part of a vast open source, file-sharing festival. Thus, where the value of a typical artist’s work lies in the sensibility and rarity of his or her personal output, the value of Lewitt’s wall drawings is that they can be made by many people in different places, simultaneously and repeatedly, without Lewitt needing to be present and with no appreciable loss of quality. For a long time and still, artists make money from their art by having its value understood as an object to be possessed, usually in exchange for money. Thereafter, both the cash and the artwork are subject to their respective markets, the vagaries of history, and either increase or decrease in value. Lewitt’s wall drawings forestall this linear fate by shattering its irreversible moment of exchange, thereby never really having to surrender his product and never really ever being paid in full. In any wall drawing, the network of idea, institution, local draftsmen, and Lewitt (if not in body then in spirit) determines the value of the work, a value that does not rest on any one substantiation but gets remade and recalibrated over time. Which is not to say that distribution and profit margin were guiding principles to Lewitt’s thinking, but that his instinct for how an artwork might “be” in the world embodies a fundamental shift in how and where we assign value. Like the best aspects of the internet economy, Lewitt’s Wall Drawing #273 collects and makes sense of diverse points in space without privileging any of them, creating value (and income) out of the relations between things rather than the things themselves.

I think all artists choose to work the way they do because they believe it presents their best chance at achieving the level of income that will allow their art to become an all-encompassing way of life. This does not mean getting rich so much as simply selling enough work so that the prospect of making new work becomes a self-fulfilling cycle of affirmation, a kind of fiduciary peace of mind, like being the only baker in Thorstein Veblen’s hometown.(4) For such artists, money does not instill the want of more money but rather the desire to make new work, which, in time, generates more money. It is a simple distinction that usually bears itself out in the art that a particular desire generates: Artists who want to get rich want money for what its accumulation represents to others; artists who want peace of mind want money for what it makes possible for themselves. Make no mistake—all artists want money, even if they already have piles of it, because nothing is more affirming than the approval of a market, the market, any market. Artists who claim otherwise either have not yet realized what they want to do; have not yet found the right market for their work (and university art departments, nonprofit institutions, and government granting agencies are markets as well); or, most likely, have not yet convinced any market, commercial or otherwise, to expand the definition of what it buys and sells.

When you grow up working class in a remote place and have ambitions of becoming an artist—despite the fact that the nearest art museum is an hour away, the nearest contemporary art venue three hours, and you’ve never actually seen a work of art in person—knowing how to “be” an artist, let alone how to make a living as one, is a daunting enigma. As a college student, then, discovering artists like LeWitt, Wiener, Michael Asher, Adrian Piper, Hamish Fulton, and Laurie Anderson is a revelation because they demonstrate ways of being an artist other than making paintings or the sculptures that go in front of buildings, which you could never get your head around practically, could never visualize yourself doing, and were never really interested in doing in the first place, but that was the job description as it presented itself in Kansas City, Missouri, and it sure beat farming or factory work. Discovering Anderson’s Big Science LP was what changed everything: Art for $7.99 plus tax! And not only that, the whole record sounded as if it had been conceived, written, and produced in a well-equipped studio apartment. That idea—of how and where and at what expense art could be produced—was just as meaningful as the record itself. Then, as now, choosing six or seven exact words to be painted on the wall, or going for a walk, or playing the violin in public while standing on a block of ice until it melts, all sounded like admirable occupations, lovely trades. Why not celebrate that about them in addition to their critical and conceptual accomplishments? In fact, why not celebrate that tradesman’s genius as a critical accomplishment in itself?

Because doing so would mean confronting art’s final taboo, class, a subject that no one, regardless of his or her background, wants to unpack, least of all artists, who never dare broach the subject out of fear that exposing the one mortal truth about their work—how much money they make from it—would annul whatever else they like to think their work is about. Likewise, art historians, curators, and critics—who as a group seem more invested in protecting art from the corruption of finance—are reluctant to discuss the possibility that the modern progenitors of the kind of contemplative, nonproductive view of art that they prefer (Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Benjamin) were able to behave accordingly in part because their industrious ancestors had already amassed enough of capital to guarantee their unencumbered ruminations. And so, unable to imagine an alternative, we tacitly acknowledge the vitality of money in public on the condition that it remain suppressed, like blood in the veins, constantly circulating but only to be hinted at by the death of an ancestor or the occasional blush.

As with the struggle between entrenched power and grass roots change that epitomized last year’s presidential campaign in the United States, the violent emergence and stealth occlusion of class in art was also nascent in 1968. The various revolutions of that fateful year institutionalized a kind of critical contempt for any artist openly seeking to earn a living from their work. In the reification of that politic, many artists who, for economic reasons, work on small scales, use consumable materials, attempt alternative distribution strategies, or move to marginal locales have repeatedly fallen prey to an insidious strain of art criticism that can only see their production in negative terms, that is, as a critique of the mainstream commodity makers and of money in general—the pursuit of it, and the capitulations to both consumption and spectacle that invariably follow. From this point of view all portable, ephemeral, or otherwise modest artworks, by the likes of Rashawn Griffin and Mitzi Pederson or Trisha Donnelly and Tino Sehgal, are to be understood solely in relation to the big commodity makers and only as a reaction against them, as de rigeur dematerialization. Of the original generation of critical revolutionaries, only Lucy Lippard has recanted (and thirty years ago, at that), writing, “Some of the blame for this situation must fall on those who, like myself, had exaggerated illusions about the ability of a ’dematerialization of the art object’ to subvert the commodity status and political uses to which successful American art has been subjected since the late 1950s.(5) It has become obvious over the last few years that temporary, cheap, invisible or reproducible art has made little difference in the way art and artists are economically and ideologically exploited and that it can hardly be distinguished in that sense from Corten steel sculptures and twenty-foot canvases.”

Many critical artists (myself included) would agree. They understand that they could never exist outside or above the market but that their only viable option is to try to shape the kind of market they want to inhabit. Lawrence Weiner, for one, has never critiqued the market by refusing to make commodities, as the lenders’ names on his current retrospective’s wall labels make abundantly clear. Rather, he critiqued the market by making commodities in forms that it did not yet know how to evaluate. That we now do know the value—both financial and intellectual—of Weiner’s work is a testament to how much his participation in the market transformed the range of what it was willing to take seriously. Consequently, I understand artists’ motives quite differently from those usually imputed to them, and although I do not speak for everyone, I am confident I represent a large demographic when I say that two of the most specious motives ever attributed to artists are the critiques of authorship and of the artwork as a saleable commodity. Interesting concepts certainly, useful for papering over a lot of otherwise callow and mendacious art, but debilitating to any citizen of a liberal, capitalist democracy whose name recognition is essential to the reception and purchase of their work. Unfortunately, from 1968 until your reading of this sentence it has been very, very hard to change the subject from an irrelevant class struggle that condemns artists to a state of purity or poverty or both to an appreciation of agile, realist, freelance artists plying their skills in a project-based, network economy.

Twenty-five years ago this winter, David Hammons appeared on Cooper Square in New York with some snowballs for sale. However well-made they were, selling snowballs was not then, nor is it now, a lucrative enterprise. Nonetheless, Hammons has done just fine managing that and other sundry skills, the most profitable of which may be his ability to capture the attention of gadabout curators through the refined art of ignoring them. (Another lovely trade.) As competitive as he is economical, Hammons refuses to commit to any endeavor unless he believes he can be the best at it, and, like Agnes Martin or Lawrence Weiner, his genius lies in his ability to invent desire for skills no one else thought worthwhile to perform. For example, kicking the bucket. Hammons’s 1997 video Phat Free—a pun on both black culture’s love of largeness and white culture’s obsession with losing weight—is a protracted meditation on the fact that no matter what you choose to do in life you are in some way killing yourself, so you might as well be good at what you’re doing, enjoy it, and not give a damn what anyone else thinks. When you first encounter the video, the screen is dark and the audio plays alone. When an image finally does appear about halfway through the nine-minute loop, what sounded like a clothes dryer tumbling a crescent wrench turns out to be the sound of Hammons kicking a bucket down the street. It’s interesting. The sound of the metal bucket coming into contact with the uneven sidewalk is joyfully calamitous, and Hammons is quite adept at keeping the eccentrically shaped vessel on a fairly straight course. That passersby pay him no mind is only a testament to his skill. After crossing the street and heading back in the other direction, the camera zooms in, and Hammons ups the ante. Having allowed the bucket to loll to a dead stop, he places his foot on the rim, presses down firmly, and then flips the vessel into the air, where it turns over once before landing in his outstretched hand, like a top hat of Fred Astaire’s. Then the screen goes black; the audio comes back to the fore; and Hammons kicks the bucket all over again.

I like thinking that Hammons stumbled onto his bucket-kicking skill while on the way to doing something else—making art by more usual methods, perhaps—since smart people allow themselves to be inspired by those inbetween moments when they are not making art at all. In such a state of mind, the avoidance of convention and the necessity of living can become a kind of rock and a hard place, a pressure point capable of squeezing out some pretty inventive work.

This past February, the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London revived nearly all of Jérôme Bel’s dances including Pichet Klunchun and Myself, 2005, an arch and entertaining parable in which the two choreographers act out an inquisitive kind of cultural anthropology. It is a trademark of Bel’s thinking that a given thing—a pop song, the stage, an “exotic” person—can be taken so literally as to be crushed under the weight of its own familiarity, and Bel makes as many diamonds as he does gravel with his exhilarating, pressure-packed approach. There is much about Pichet Klunchun and Myself that will raise your eyebrows. The entire scenario, in fact: The choreography starts with the stage empty except for two ordinary metal chairs facing each other, placed about thirty feet apart. Klunchun, from Thailand, is in the left chair. He is close cropped, barefoot, and dressed in loose, light clothes. His only props are two clear plastic bottles of water with the labels removed. Bel, from France, is in the right chair. He is scruffy and unkempt, dressed in shoes engineered well beyond any use he will have for them, baggy pants with many pockets of the same ilk, and a red pullover. His props are a white Macbook Pro, an iPod, a harddrive, and a power strip with all the sundry cables streaming offstage. East meets West? Bel’s character goes first, and proceeds to ask Klunchun’s character a few perfunctory, INS type questions before delving into the exactitude of classical Thai dance.

As the performance progresses, many grand assumptions are framed but left unstated, for example, that monarchy breeds virtuosity and democracy breeds amateurism. At one point, after Klunchun has demonstrated a fraction of what appears to be the infinite symbolic subtlety of Thai movement (Klunchun is absolutely mesmerizing, even in demonstration), he asks Bel to show off some of his own choreography. Bel proceeds to stand, walk to rear stage, and gape about for several minutes in silence, as if waiting for a bus. Stunned, Klunchun asks why anyone would pay to see such a thing. Bel shrugs. After making passing reference to The Society of the Spectacle and the panoply of available entertainment he would like to avoid, Bel avers (and here I am paraphrasing) that “in the West, it is the job of a contemporary artist to represent their lived reality as accurately as possible. And since reality is something to which we have no direct access but in fact, at every moment, are living, then spending money to see one of my productions is an investment in the future, in the continual substantiation of the unknown.” Soon after, in response to Klunchun’s wish for another example, Bel dies a slow, collapsing, very unswan-like death while lip-syncing Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly.” It brings down the house.

Bel is not shy about the market he inhabits, nor is he ashamed that he has to inhabit one at all, whether it be comprised of the French government, commissioning agencies, paying customers or some Venn Diagram of all three. Instead, he seems content (well, as content as a French poststructuralist choreographer can be) that there are two or three hundred people on a given night who want to be part of his demographic. And if someone looking for Showgirls or even Paul Taylor wanders in off the street and accidently surrenders £12.00, then so be it. Maybe they’ll realize they got their money’s worth anyway and will want to join Bel’s circle too. At that moment, Bel’s infuriating and cathartic responses to any artist’s two most basic questions—“What do I want to do?” and “Where will my money come from?”—bloom into a nonaggressive, homeopathic approach to market behavior that anyone could aspire to.

This text was first published as Modest Proposals in Artforum in April, 2008.


NOTES
(1) Moira Roth, “An Interview with Robert Smithson (1973),” Robert Smithson, exh. cat., (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2004): 85.

(2) Joseph Schumpeter, “Chapter VII: The Process of Creative Destruction,” in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democray (New York: Harper Brothers, 1942): 81–86.

(3) Schumpeter, 83.

(4) See “Part III: The Country Town,” in Veblen’s Absentee Ownership: in Business Enterprise in Recent Times: The Case of America, first published in 1923. Reprinted in What Veblen Taught: Selections from the Writings of Thorstein Veblen, New York: The Viking Press, 1936: 394–422. In this modest book Veblen focuses on the peculiar exceptions to typically capitalist market competition that exist in the isolated conditions of a country town, the most prevalent being that monopolistic practices are tolerated by all members of the community because each of them provides a good or service that no one else does. Lack of competition causes prices to be higher, but it also forces a broader range of essential products to be made available. For example, if the town is not large enough to support two bakers, then an aspiring businessperson might decide to open a yoga studio instead.

(5) Lucy Lippard, Sol Lewitt exh. cat., New York: MoMA, 1978: 27.