…Capitalism grants art a perpetual privileged concession: that of pure creative activity – an isolated creativity which serves as an alibi for the alienation of all other activities (and which thus also makes it the most expensive and prestigious status symbol). But at the same time, this sphere reserved for “free creative activity” is the only one in which the question of what we do with life and the question of communication are posed fully and practically. In this sense art can reflect the basic antagonisms between partisans and adversaries of the officially dictated reasons for living.1
-Pierre Canjeurs and Guy Debord
Abstract Finance, Abstract Art
“Contemporary, or post-Conceptual art has lost the concept and its trajectory,” writes Andreas Burckhardt in the comments to my previous post. “As Brassier writes, experience itself is commodified, as arts persist in their empty gestures, based on tactics of subversion against a system – Capital – that has become impossible to subvert.” Is this gridlock the final victory of the Control Society, an interior state of apathy that reflects the external impossible hypercomplexity that neuters all that it sees, rendering them little more than baseless signs that circulate above a void? Baudrillard saw it too, that art was rendered obsolete in the moments that it became commodity, but even under the hood of his crushing pessimism he tried to throw it back in control’s face, cheerfully playing with the rubble of what had formally been a world of meaning.
Burckhardt holds that the “only way out of this impasse for the arts is to plunge further towards a molecularization of reality.” But how, when the system is itself distributed molecularly, making its subject the very biopower reality that we move through? Freudian castration has reemerged, despite all the polemics against it, but this time its triumph rides the crest of a constant and delirious fulfillment of desire.
We can observe this ongoing obsolescence of art as a medium of ‘something else’ by its trajectory atop the trajectory of capitalist accumulations models themselves. When Baudrillard speaks of the bankruptcy of the arts, he’s speaking of the proliferation of the art market itself in the 1980s in New York City. It was a unique moment, for his entry into this geographical space came through attempts to foster a micropolitical revolution in America by importing European post-structuralist thought into the continent’s own turbulent and artistically inclined counterculture. The platform had been Semiotext(e), launched in 1974 by Sylvere Lotringer and a group of graduate students at Columbia; aligned with them was Autonomedia, a radical publishing outfit that became the locus of American Autonomist theory and post-left anarchism. Through the conjunction, Lotringer and the students trickled the writings of Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Baudrillard and Lyotard into an ongoing collaborative discourse on “Schizo-Culture” that intertwined with the margin of New York’s punk and avant-garde scenes. The small blasts of theory, published in aesthetically-minded pocket-sized books, quickly became fetish items, tiny counter-commodities intended for ‘dipping into’ during the frantic pace of everyday life in the world’s financial center. “Semiotext(e) started with nothing, and mostly managed to stay clear from the art machine,” Lotringer later recalled.2
This would rapidly change. The writings of Baudrillard quickly caught on in the ‘art machine’, which saw it not as a radical theory of reality under the (non)constraints of contemporary post-Fordism, but a template for new aesthetic paradigms. The irony was that Baudrillard’s work on the new reality described a situation that was analogous with Deleuze and Guattari’s proposal of capitalism as a schizophrenic character, deterritorializing all previously territorialized flows (with the corresponding reterritorializations, of course). Baudrillard took this to a point where the reterritorializations of these flows was unreal, that what could be conceived as territory was actually a free-form mutation and multiplication of abstractions. This is the logic of financial capital as it shook off the Fordist-Keynesian contract that fixed money to standards, reinforced borders and hierarchies, and made manufacturing the mode of production in the developed world. At the dawn of financial capitalism, the manufacturing mode was shuffled off to the undeveloped and developing worlds, and for the dominant countries it became a linguistic affair of communicative action, immaterial and affective registers, and the chase of constant fluctuation. Yet art took it as a token of its own expression, somehow ignorant that they too were caught up in post-Fordist production. Like the deregulated financial sector accelerating to heights that have since been proven to be catastrophic, art had become a complex system subjected to speculation, shifting prices, and a mad scrambled for the moneyed carrots that wealthy patrons dangled before the public. Here, the art artifact in the market is like the nature of capital itself – a void, a hollow image that represents nothing aside the circulation of finance.
The two can be further correlated, as the art market explosion of the 1980s was fueled primarily by those that were made newly-rich from the financial as well as real estate; the scene also caught the eye of international patrons that emerged on the stage as a result from transnationalization. At certain moments, the dissolving lines between the two were completely erased – lets take for example Jeff Koons, who in 1980 was working as a commodity broker on Wall Street, trading the abstractions of capital on the market despite having art degrees and studio experience under his belt. His return to the art world came with the opening of a loft studio in Soho modeled on Wahrol’s Factory. For Warhol, the Factory and his Pop Art operated in symbiosis with one another, indivisible; like Baudrillard’s decision to play capital’s game, the Factory/Pop Art was designed to produce the commodity itself as an art form while simultaneously allowing all those left on the margins of capital a chance for the proverbial “fifteen minutes” of fame. Yet for Koons, this self-conscious play on consumer culture seems to have been lost. His own Factory cranks out superficial objects, running the gamut from sculptures of inflatable toys to designs for BMW’s series of “art cars.” If Warhol’s work is to play with the idea of the commodity-as-reality, then Koons’ is the expression of reality-as-commodity – by his own own volition, there is nothing in the art that could make it take on meaning or be viewed as a critique. To augment this, Koons subsequently reworked his persona as an artist into a persona modeled on a businessman, perhaps a high level commodity broker as he had formerly been: image consultants, advertisements, spectacles of success and excess all became appendages to his artist output. To drive this point home, financial analyst Felix Salmon wrote a critique of the art market that depicted a scene of Koons at the World Economic Forum, the meeting ground of the transnational business elite, “palling around with a Ukrainian oligarch, and generally solidifying his reputation among the people who really matter.”3
At a symposium on art and immaterial labor held at Tate Britain in 2008, Antonio Negri laid out his theory on the relationship between artist expression and the capitalist modes of production. In his schema he finds correlation, for example, between the widespread explosion of the working class following the Industrial Revolution as an identity and ‘realism’ in art, where subject matter is treated both truthfully and with solidity; a rejection of Romanticism for its aesthetic exoticism and exaggerations, the subject matter is most often everyday life and frequently labor itself. But with the deepening divisions of labor in the late 1800s and early 1900s, he begins to detect themes of emancipation in major art movements. The early to mid 1900s would also prove to hold another major shift: the shift from the skilled proletariat method of labor to the factory-ized proletariat of the Fordist method of labor, a shift that can be scene through art movements such as Bauhaus, perhaps the ‘stereotypical’ model for modernist aesthetics. Bauahus, first conceived by Walter Gropius, was an approach to design that was to be totalizing, encapsulating each distinctive vision of the art with its own codes. It could be felt primarily, however, in the realm of architecture; functionality and symmetry were the codewords of Bauhaus, much like the design of the factory, hospital, and prison that Foucault uncovered through his work on the disciplinary society. The correlation goes further into this plane, as Gropius himself found Bauhaus to be, in its logical culmination, a social model of production: “Talk of egalitarian cooperation between classes was replaced by advocacy of a new hierarchical order in which architects and engineers benevolently ruled deskilled proletarians.”4 Similarly, Baudrillard also took time to analyze the developments in Bauhaus, concluding that it was an aesthetically-oriented mode of production operating along a closed system of objects and their correlated functions – the emanation of the factory’s assembly line, crossing the whole of the social.
If there is one aesthetic principle to gleamed from a factory designed around the assembly line, it is the noise of repetition, the pattern of machinic parts operating in standardized set, a series of dots… In 1954 a seminar held on the urban form saw Gyorgy Kepes, a teacher of architecture and planning at MIT steeped in the Bauhaus tradition, argued for the implementation of this principle in the city itself. The cityscape’s sonic palette, he claimed, needed a rigorous standardization, an “ordered pattern” with a generalized code of reference that would operate “in contrast to the chaotic flow of random sounds.”5 Providing a counterpoint to Kepes was John Cage, an American experimental composer and music theorist. He disagreed vehemently with this proposition: “What would be the intention of an imposed order?”
Kepes: Because the average sound environment is a random situation, small islands of ordered pattern within that randomness could help to catalyze an overall ordered pattern, e.g. a theme, such as Christmas, would provide a symbolic focus by means of which random patterns would be related. It is possible to conceive of such sound focuses of cityscape to enrich the whole environment.
Cage: Could you instead awaken people to possibilities of the random situation?
Cage’s interest in chance as a method for art speaks through Fluxus, a neo-dadaist school that preached anti-art, the subversion of everyday space in the name of aesthetic experience, and the collapse of medium boundaries and their subsequent integration with one another. With a philosophy inclined towards anarchism, Fluxus held up do-it-yourself methods for work and living, and the injection of the comedic and humorous as a social antidote to the rigid and puritanical guidelines for living that dominated its time and space, New York City of the 1950s and 60s. Just the name alone, Fluxus, is telling, for its Latin translation means “to flow” – provoking images of Deleuze and Guattari’s celebration of the flows of desire as a creative alternative to stifling imposed order and culture. There are other similarities between the two, for both owe a debt to the mad play-write Antonin Artaud. For Deleuze and Guattari, it was Artaud who provided the strange concept of the Body Without Organs; for Cage and the Fluxusists, Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” pointed the way directly to the experience of art in life itself, ephemerally living in the streets instead of being shut off in museums to collect dust before the eyes of consumer-spectators.6 And finally, Deleuze and Guattari raise a toast to Cage in A Thousand Plateaus:
Certain modern musicians oppose the transcend plan(e) of organization, which is said to have dominated all of Western classical music, to the immanent sound plane, which is always given along with that to which it gives rise, brings the imperceptible to perception, and carries only differential speeds and slownesses in a kind of molecular lapping: the work of art must mark seconds, tenths and hundredths of seconds. Or rather it is a question of freeing time, Aeon, a nonpulsed time for floating music, as Boulez says, an electronic music in which forms are replaced by pure modifications of speed. It is undoubtedly John Cage who first and most perfectly deployed this fixed sound plane, which affirms a process against all structure and genesis, a floating time against pulsed time or tempo, experimentation against any kind of interpretation, and in which silence is as sonorous rest also marks the absolute state of movement.7
Cage’s explorations with chance that led to this post-organizational music came with the use of the I-Ching, an ancient Chinese method for divination, as a guiding tool. Introduced into the West in part by Carl Jung (in a foreshadow of the chaotic schizoanalytic process described in Guattari’s late work, Jung used the I-Ching to create a chance-filled atmosphere to explore the strange byways of the unconscious mind), it promised to show a new lens to view the world, outside of linear scientism. “The axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations…” wrote Jung. “If we leave things to nature… every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much that by natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to to specific laws is almost an exception.”8 Telling, Jung’s thoughts would prove to be right: mathematicians like Ralph Abraham have shown that the ‘casting’ of the I-Ching, involving 64 hexagram composed of six lines that corresponded with series of divinely-inspired philosophical statements, operate on the principles of chaos theory, a field that in many was was sketched throughout the Deleuze and Guattari’s ultimate maze, A Thousand Plateaus. Shuffling this psuedo-history together, we can see clearly the gulf between the aesthetics of the Fordist production and the free-form creativity that opposed it.
Speaking of the transformation from an economy built on manufacturing (Fordism) to an economy built on linguistic exchange (post-Fordism), Bifo writes that “The history of this subsumption passes through the twentieth century, and poetry predicted and prefigured the separation of language from the affective sphere.”9 Switch “poetry” for any artform, and the statement stays the same; we find Negri saying much of the same thing when he points that the increasing abstraction of the economy is reflected in the increasing abstraction of art. Going wide with the complicated relationships between aesthetics and their non-aesthetic precipitating factors, Cage’s utilization of the I-Ching as something liberatory from cultural stasis can be viewed with a sort of irony now, given the fact that the oracle machine is now finding new uses by traders trying to sort through the turbulence of the stock market.10 But this remains marginal, too esoteric and mystical; the larger tendency is to put chaos theory to work on understanding market behavior. It’s an essential move for traders – Jung’s quote, which applies not so much to the I Ching but to chaos theory, rings so true for those seeking to master the fluxus of financial semiocapitalism.
Conventional economic wisdom holds that the market’s quasi-organic meshwork will inevitably trend towards an equilibrium; the Arrow-Debreu model, the foundation for general equilibrium theory, proclaims this as the underlying logic of market action. But positive feedback, the cybernetic process through which a small disturbance in a given system will reverberate and accelerate the growth of the disturbance, makes of a mess of this model. Here’s a simple example of positive feedback:
When a financial crisis hits, panic proliferates in the market, which in turn amplifies the panic and exacerbates the crisis. And it spreads: bank runs, for example, operate through positive feedback. Likewise, good trends propagate good trends, but the overall trajectories make it borderline impossible to sort out any clear master-theory of how the market is actually operating. In the void, the lack of general equilibrium, there is only unpredictability, sudden change, amplified by the speed in which abstract capital, so far removed from its physical references and made coordinate-free, circulate and multiply. Hence the need for the ever-present watchful eye, the Control Society’s insistence on total access to global data flows concerning the minutia of each and every person, their traits, habits and desires: to be able to capture these things means that perhaps, just maybe, the creation that has been unleashed on the world can be corralled. Alexander Galloway’s Protocol looks to one form of Control’s monitoring, biometrics, and finds here yet again the positioning of the aesthetic:
The science of measuring the human body and deriving digital signatures from it is called biometrics. What used to stand for identity – external objects like an ID card or key, or social relations like a handshake or interpersonal relationship, or an intangible like a password that is memorized or digitized – has been replaced in recent decades by biometric examinations such as identity checks through eye scans, blood tests, fingerprinting, etc. Criticisms of biometrics has thus far focused largely on privacy, for physical traits are considered to be so intimately connected to one’s identity that the measuring and tracking of them is an infringement on privacy. However, I would like to point out instead that biometrics does something much more important. It considers living human bodies not in their immaterial essences, or souls, or what have you, but in terms of quantifiable, recordable, enumerable, and encoded characteristics. It considers life as an aesthetic object… Biometrics is important, therefore, not because it infringes on privacy, but because it has redefined what counts as proof of the true identity of material form.11
I’m reluctant to share with Galloway this strangely positive view of biometrics. At this stage, is it terribly important that “identity,” something that is constantly in flux in both relation to financial flux and beyond, can construed under the eyes of power as something aesthetic? In the end, that aesthetic model is either discarded, reduced again to data, or is used for modeling, such as the production of managed environments that work congruently with their exterior environments – the creation of, to use of phrase courtesy of Brian Holmes, control spaces. Of course, biometrics itself isn’t contributing directly to these, but other forms of surveillance that operate along the same logic of building quasi-aesthetic data avatars of people’s movements certainly are. The bigger question is the utilization of aesthetics directly for control and the subsumption of chaotic energy, once thought to be something revolutionary, into the system itself. Viewed this way, the problem of art’s devaluation through the art market, as identified by Baudrillard, is only symptomatic of the wider problem. This, in turn, leads us that most bleak of questions – can we find, here at the alleged End of History, a really-existing reason for artistic practice?
[To be continued in Part II…]
2“Intelligence Agency” Freize Magazine Issue 125, September 2009 http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/intelligence_agency/
3Felix Salmon “Occupy Art” Reuters, November 19th, 2012 http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2012/11/19/occupy-art/
4David Gartman From Autos to Architecture: Fordism and Architectural Aesthetics in the Twentieth Century Princeton Architectural Press, 2009, pg. 77
5Transcipt of Urban Form Seminar, September 10th, 1954
6Richard Kostelanetz Conversing with Cage Limelight Editions, 1988, pg. 111
7Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia University of Minnesota Press, 1986, pg. 267
8David W. Berstein and Christopher Hatch (ed.) Writings Through John Cage’s Music, Poetry, and Art University of Chicago Press, 2001, pg. 86
9Franco “Bifo” Berardi The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance Semiotext(e), 2011, pg. 18
10John Shinal “Tired of Bad Stock Advice? Here’s I Ching” Marketwatch, July 13th, 2012
11Alexander Galloway Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization MIT Press, 2004, pg. 113