Forgetting the Art World

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Overview

It may be time to forget the art world--or at least to recognize that a certain historical notion of the art world is in eclipse. Today, the art world spins on its axis so quickly that its maps can no longer be read; its borders blur. In
Forgetting the Art World, Pamela Lee connects the current state of this world to globalization and its attendant controversies. Contemporary art has responded to globalization with images of movement and migration, borders and multitudes, but Lee looks beyond iconography to view globalization as a world process. Rather than think about the "global art world" as a socioeconomic phenomenon, or in terms of the imagery it stages and sponsors, Lee considers
"the work of art's world" as a medium through which globalization takes place. She argues that the work of art is itself both object and agent of globalization. Lee explores the ways that art actualizes, iterates, or enables the processes of globalization, offering close readings of works by artists who have come to prominence in the last two decades. She examines the "just in time" managerial ethos of Takahashi Murakami; the production of ethereal spaces in Andreas Gursky's images of contemporary markets and manufacture; the logic of immanent cause dramatized in Thomas Hirschhorn's mixed-media displays; and the
"pseudo-collectivism" in the contemporary practice of the Atlas Group, the
Raqs Media Collective, and others. To speak of "the work of art's world," Lee says, is to point to both the work of art's mattering and its materialization, to understand the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates.

The MIT Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

The insightful essays in Lee's latest (after Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s) argue that the art world must be understood not as existing above realities such as globalization and world capitalism, but rather as an active participant in constructing those realities, raising the question of "how to confront the relation between globalization and contemporary art when we are both object of, and agent for, such processes." Lee, a professor of art history at Stanford, takes on four explicatory topics to construct her argument, looking at Takashi Murakami's work and Post-Fordism, Andreas Gursky and the concept of ether, Thomas Hirschhorn largely in relation to the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and the rise of "pseudo-collectives" in contemporary art practices. Each essay is rich with contemporary connections and able to stand alone, and together they form a nuanced take on the art world and some of its biggest failings, bringing diverse theories to bear on the art works and the processes of the artists themselves. While Lee is spectacularly informed, she navigates the complexity of her topic with ease, creating a clear argument that avoids polemic in favor of deeper insight, even as she stresses that "the art world's penchant for the frivolous and its coziness with an ascendant oligarchy can only confound-or even offend." For this insistence on a revised understanding of contemporary art practice, Lee's text is as invaluable as it is engaging. Color illustrations.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262017732
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2012
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 402,660
  • Product dimensions: 8.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Pamela M. Lee is Professor of Art History at Stanford University and the author of
Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark and
Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, both published by the MIT Press.
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Read an Excerpt

Forgetting the Art World


By Pamela M. Lee

The MIT Press

Copyright © 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-262-01773-2


Introduction

Forgetting the Art World

My name is someone and no one. I have borne witness to the world: I have confessed the strangeness of the world. —Jorge Luis Borges

I am forgetting the art world. It's going now—and fast. With a strange sense of purpose (or is it resignation?) I have shelved the magazines and the announcement cards. Given up on the galleries and their established and emerging artists. No longer can I retain the names, details, gossip around this new phenomenon or that; this new current in theory or in art criticism; the fever dream around auctions, art fairs, biennials, MFA programs; the movement of curators, collectives, collectors, and dealers, the cultural emissaries du jour. I am forgetting the art world because the art world, at least as it has been theorized for nearly fifty years now, is subject to conditions that may soon cease to sustain it.

This is not to say that the art world is disappearing, diminishing in size, or slowing down in its capacity to generate capital and hype. The opposite is the case. The art world, as it is generically understood, is both escalating and accelerating, appearing to turn so fast—always on the brink of its next obsolescence—that its maps can no longer be read as fixed or stable, its borders blurred at best. For this reason, forgetting the art world is not the same as ignoring or standing outside it, as if one could lay claim to a space beyond its imperial reach by wandering just far enough afield. I mean nothing so naïve as this outside or distance, the fabled Archimedean point from which to survey the workings of the art world as they take place down below.

Instead, to forget the art world is to acknowledge that what made its activities, operations, and communities so distinct or memorable in the past—a kind of figure to a social ground upon which it was historically fixed and dialectically established—has now given way to a pervasive routinization of its norms and procedures. When contemporary experience is ever rationalized through the logic of design; when the word "creativity" is taken as a cognate to the "market"; and when social relations are relentlessly mediated by a formidable visual culture—a culture of the image writ large through the peregrinations of global media—the art world as we once knew it begins to lose its singularity and focus, to say little of its exclusivity. From Benjamin to Adorno, Debord to Jameson, we've been told of both the promise and the threat of this culture for a very long time indeed. This culture is such that whatever grasp we thought we had on the relative autonomy of works of art becomes increasingly tenuous, a condition exploited for reasons both progressive and reactionary. To update this by now familiar set of critical tropes, contemporary art has been increasingly recruited in the service of politics, economics, and civil society, a condition that George Yúdice theorizes when he writes of culture as being an expedient "resource" to the incessantly managerial ethos of the global age. What this condition suggests for these present reflections, among many important things, is a certain eclipse of a historical notion of the art world.

No doubt one forgets the art world because the competing logics of "globalization"—a word as banal as it is ugly—do not permit us to remember. The longstanding controversies around that term have everything to do with the current state of the art world and its forgetting. A typical shorthand on the topic describes a historical compression in time-space relations—the social acceleration of time and a virtual eclipse of distance—continuous with the liberalization of markets and the rise of the network society. Historians debate the periodization of the term; anthropologists its impact on indigenous cultures; activists haunt cities flush with capital or crowded with the poor, from Davos to Brussels, Porto Alegre to Bamako. Still, little consensus exists regarding globalization's consequences for the work of art; and still, the relay between contemporary art and globalization, by far the most important curatorial rubric of the last two decades, remains stalled in something like a critical holding pattern. Provisionally, one might take a cue from the phrasing of Immanuel Wallerstein, who in a formative analysis of world systems theory described the period between 1945 and 1990 as "The Age of Transition," a title that usefully captures a sense of the phenomenon's duration, restlessness, and motility. That globalization is an "act," a "process," or is "happening"—the ready-to-hand definition furnished by the OED—does indeed suggest a fitful relation to category that curators, critics, and art historians alike have earmarked as a historical "crisis." Whether or not this process is itself singular or directed to a unique objective is the source of what thinkers from Arjun Appadurai to Ulrich Beck identify as globalization's principal questions: whether its motivations are univocal or, conversely, what is the reach of its differentiation on both economic and cultural grounds. This book takes as its project to interrupt, or at least to slow down, our view of such processes through charting what I call the work of art's world.

Globalization, to follow this brief, issues a challenge to representation equal if opposite to the colonizing impulse ascribed to it. It is a kind of informe: a new "allover" which seemingly trumps our collective efforts to give shape to its multivalent interests, let alone contain its deterritorializing mandate. Indeed the word "globalization" and its linked phenomena ("globality," "glocality," and even "globalism," the "ism" here connoting either an ethos or a period style) bear the distinction of being both ubiquitous and amorphous: ubiquitous because inescapable to any world citizen and yet amorphous because subject to infinite shape-shifting in both mainstream and alternative media. No doubt the student of globalization knows full well that the term does mean many things, at once bound up in the rhetoric of galloping free markets and the lingering specter of Marx; the homogenizing of culture on the one hand and radical hybridity on the other. Is it the Battle in Seattle or the so-called war on terror? Jihad or McWorld? The multitude or the Nike army? The controversy around the term is arguably what endows it with both its acute frisson and the capacity to be generalized ad infinitum. As with the art world's treatment of postmodernism two decades earlier, the semantic stalemate around globalization is typically resolved by conceding to the plurality of its representations.

And that's part of the problem as well. In the weakest iterations of the topic within the art world, it all seems like so much old-school pluralism, the bad dream of the postmodern that Hal Foster presciently warned against in observing that "the pluralist position plays right into the ideology of the 'free market.'" Globalization, to follow this model, translates into the far-flung from all over, sponsoring an anything-goes approach to recent art in which terms such as "conflict," "tension," and "contradiction" inadvertently license this pluralistic approach without recourse to the conditions enabling it. Tracking the implications of such conditions for the work of art is indeed central to what follows. But what need to be stressed at the outset are the equally critical implications of the work of art in the very enabling of these global conditions. The concrete processes motivating this dynamic of reciprocity—the way globalization is materialized within and by contemporary art—are at the crux of this book.

This introduction outlines the logic at work here. Our first task is to sketch the ways in which the art world has dealt with the global problematic described above, crystallizing around the doubled valence of representation. I suggest that a founding paradox animates the art world's collective efforts to confront this question. To start with, if the art world has necessarily taken on globalization as a curatorial or thematic rubric, the art world is itself both object and agent of globalization, both on structural grounds (its organization and distribution) and in workaday practice. Indeed, in responding to the geopolitical and transnational preoccupations of the work of many contemporary artists, the art world enlarges at once its geographically overdetermined borders and its conventionally Eurocentric self-definitions in the process.

Take, for example, the work of Bani Abidi, who lives and works in both Karachi and New Delhi, received her MFA in Chicago, and has held residencies in Japan and the United States. Her incisive Shan Pipe Band Learns Star-Spangled Banner (2004) is a two-channel video featuring traditional Pakistani musicians squawking out a painful rendition of the national anthem of the United States on the shan pipe. The split—or is it a convergence?—between identity and culture, as formalized through two simultaneous projections, appeals cogently to discussions of hybridity, nationalism, and what was once called cultural imperialism. And yet in seeming to do little but "document" this musical performance in an ambiguously parodic vein, this canny work actually iterates such conditions through its own itinerant display in Stuttgart, San Francisco, New York, or Singapore.

Or consider Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan's Monument of Sugar: How to Use Artistic Means to Elude Trade Barriers (2007) as it was encountered at the 2008 iteration of the Shanghai Biennale, "Translocomotion." In this mixed-media installation consisting of film, sugar, and documentation, the artists fashioned sugar into quasi-minimalist cubes in order to explore the protocols of international trade regulation, whereby exporting sugar as a "work of art" effectively thwarted payment of protectionist tariffs. The narrative intrinsic to this work cannot help but be read extrinsically against its reception on the ground in Shanghai, a port city with a long and fractious history of colonialism and the international trade relations standing behind it.

This is to say that the art world assumes the world-historical changes its objects or iconography projects, but effectively approaches the state of its historical forgetting in doing so. What it forgets is what made an art world such a distinct and singular "world" in the first place, held at some distance from the workings of something so banal as commodities in sugar. In the process of this forgetting, the art world naturalizes the condition of its apparent groundlessness as "global"—a sphere of influence generalized to the world at large—even as its penchant for the representation of global themes remains largely undertheorized.

These opening comments might seem rhetorical gamesmanship of a type; but I would insist that this circularity is both historically and historiographically instructive. In the following section I argue that what is lost with this forgetting is not merely a matter of identification with, or collective belonging to, that exclusive space called an "art world." My claim is that an older formulation of an art world is critical to retain if we are to treat the relation between globalization and contemporary art in the most conceptually workable terms, from its inaugural philosophical articulation by Arthur Danto in the 1960s to the notion of the art world as a network born of a cybernetic age. Not that I am suggesting we can go back to such a world, nor that we would want to if we could. Yet it is only after considering this notional art world as something past that I can properly situate the attenuated goals of this book, a deliberately partial approach to a topic that eschews the panoptic—or better put, global—responses the subject would seem to demand.

To such ends, toward the end of this introduction I introduce a phrase that dramatizes the book's stakes, followed by a reading of such interests through a single work of art. Rather than think about the "global art world," such as it is, as both a phenomenon of divisible sociological or economic import and through the imagery it stages and sponsors, I endeavor to treat the work of art's world as an intercessory or medium through which globalization takes place. This language gets at the work of art's mattering and materialization—a larger debate on the status of mediation and production—and the ways such processes lay bare that dynamic of reciprocity earlier described. A reading of Steve McQueen's 17-minute film Gravesend provides such an opening onto these worlds. For to speak of "the work of art's world" is to retain a sense of the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates: a world Möbius-like in its indivisibility and circularity, a seemingly endless horizon.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Forgetting the Art World by Pamela M. Lee Copyright © 2012 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission of The MIT Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments....................[ix] Introduction: Forgetting the Art World....................1
1 The World Is Flat/The End of the World: Takashi Murakami and the Aesthetics of Post-Fordism....................39
2 Gursky's Ether....................69
3 Perpetual Revolution: Thomas Hirschhorn's Sense of the World....................105
4 On Pseudo-Collectivism; or, How to Be a Collective in the Age of the Consumer Sovereign....................147
Conclusion: Numbers....................185
Notes....................[193] Index....................[221]
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