First published in Spanish in 2010, Art beyond Itself is Néstor García Canclini's deft assessment of contemporary art. The renowned cultural critic suggests that, ideally, art is the place of imminence, the place where we glimpse something just about to happen. Yet, as he demonstrates, defining contemporary art and its role in society is an ever more complicated endeavor. Museums, auction houses, artists, and major actors in economics, politics, and the media are increasingly chummy and interdependent. Art is expanding into urban development and the design and tourism industries. Art practices based on objects are displaced by practices based on contexts. Aesthetic distinctions dissolve as artworks are inserted into the media, urban spaces, digital networks, and social forums. Oppositional artists are adrift in a society without a clear story line. What, after all, counts as transgression in a world of diverse and fragmentary narratives? Seeking a new analytic framework for understanding contemporary art, García Canclini is attentive to particular artworks; to artists including Francis Alÿs, León Ferrari, Teresa Margolles, Antoni Muntadas, and Gabriel Orozco; and to efforts to preserve, for art and artists, some degree of independence from religion, politics, the media, and the market.
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About the Author
Néstor García Canclini is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana in Mexico City. Born in Argentina, he has lived in Mexico for many years. He is an anthropologist and cultural critic originally trained as a philosopher. Among the many books that he has written, those available in English are Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity, Consumers and Citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflict, Transforming Modernity: Popular Culture in Mexico, and Imagined Globalization, which is published by Duke University Press.
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Art Beyond Itself
Anthropology for a Society without a Story Line
By Néstor García Canclini, David Frye
Duke University PressCopyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
AESTHETICS AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
The arts have been acquiring more economic, social, and political functions than ever before in modern times, while also stimulating the renewal of the social sciences and philosophy, yet artists themselves continue to harbor doubts about their existence and their place in society. It seems paradoxical: while artists leave the museums and insert themselves into social networks (sociological art, ethnographic art, postpolitical actions), actors in other fields live and breathe thanks to art and are committed to its contributions. (Philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists rely on artistic innovations and curating exhibitions to think about their fields; political actors and social movements use performance in social spaces.)
These movements rarely meet, and it is not even clear how they could. Artists throw a ball of modeling clay into the street (Gabriel Orozco) or create "collectors," toys made from tin cans, industrial discards, and magnets (Francis Alÿs), to pick up the loose scraps of urban life. Alÿs walked his collectors through the streets like dogs on a leash, gathering nails, pieces of wire, metal debris; on his strolls he was compiling a random record of the city. What stuck to the collectors ceased to be trash and became a document in his research into what is used and discarded.
Similarly his photographic series Ambulantes records the many kinds of carts that used to transport all sorts of merchandise through the historic center of Mexico City, identifying the peddlers and travelers who form fragments of the narratives about daily foot traffic there. Not just a creator of unique works, Alÿs conceives of his task as an artist as that of an observer of everyday characters, a discoverer of the "seven levels of trash," someone who tries to compile simple reports about the way dogs make their own use of one part of the street or about the way a block of ice melts as it is dragged through the downtown streets of Mexico's capital for nine hours. What place in the ranks of occupations can you assign to someone who defines himself as a spectator devoted to "waiting for an accident" to happen? He might let his sweater unravel as he walks, letting the thread get lost and the garment become completely undone along the way, as if his job were, in the words of Cuauhtémoc Medina, to lose "the 'thread' of the narrative" (Alÿs and Medina 2006: 34).
Meanwhile institutions and markets speak from the viewpoint of structures and programs, though we know that these social forms do not have the same coherence or certainty they had in other eras. How can we imagine, in this world without a center and without paradigms, among the wreckage of globalization, a conversation between the artists who turn trash into documents and the professionals disillusioned by structures and their modes of representation?
It is no small problem to speak of the situation of the arts—inconceivable if we don't view it on a global scale—when we lack universally valid theories of both art and globalization. Let us quickly review what has been happening in theories of art that have tried constructing a universally valid way of knowing.
Philosophical aesthetics sought to universalize its reflections, but it was associated with the development of European modernity, the rational Enlightenment, or Romanticism. Aesthetic thought became the interpreter of the autonomization of art when capitalism and secularization generated specific public institutions designed to connect with art, which they assessed using criteria different from those once used by religious or political powers. The predominant feature of modern aesthetics was what Kant termed objects constructed in the pursuit of finality without an end, in the words of Umberto Eco, experiences in which forms prevail over function.
Sociology showed that the autonomy of art and literature was not just a movement of mentalities. Beginning in the eighteenth century, the members of the bourgeoisie—who had become the artists' clients—together with the newly created museums, galleries, and literary salons, autonomized their practices by establishing strictly aesthetic authorities for evaluating art and literature. Bourdieu wasn't the first to note that one of the features of the modern age was the creation of autonomous fields in which art creators were linked with those who dealt specifically with their works, but he constructed the most sophisticated and rigorous theory in sociology about the ways art separated itself from its external determinants.
Together with sociological studies of art and literature, we could understand how other autonomous fields came to be formed in the modern age: science carried out in universities and laboratories independently of anything beyond the rules of empirical research and rational argumentation; the political field as a secular struggle for power in a social order that did not spring from divine mandates.
In both the sciences and the arts, Bourdieu's "field" concept put an end to the romantic, individualistic notion of the genius who discovers unexpected forms of knowledge or creates exceptional works. All this without falling into social determinism either. By sticking to the internal structure of each field and its specific rules for producing art, literature, or science, sociological research surpassed all other attempts to explain creativity and knowledge on the basis of such macrosocial constraints as mode of production or class. Artists' works and practices are determined, but not by the social totality, rather by the set of relations in which the agents and institutions that specialize in producing art, exhibiting it, selling it, assessing it, and appropriating it interact. Thanks to Bourdieu we overcame the unbridgeable and abstract opposition between the creative individual and capitalist society and are able to understand the tensions between artistic projects and their concrete determinants in the form of galleries, museums, critics, collectors, and audiences.
Howard S. Becker, writing from a more anthropological, or rather ethnographic point of view, emphasized that making art is a cooperative activity; being a musician as well as an anthropologist, it was obvious to him that a concert calls for group effort—the combined labor of the band, the composer, the technicians, the schools where each of them learned their crafts, the advertisers, and the instrument makers. Studying art, and knowing when art is present, means understanding the work in the context of its production, circulation, and appropriation. But what is that context today? Bourdieu spoke of "fields" and Becker of "art worlds." Both considered that the definition, evaluation, and comprehension of art took place within autonomous spaces and circuits. This independence and self-containment of artistic practices, which once delimited who had the legitimacy to say what was art, has vanished.
Is it possible to extend this notion of art to nonmodern, non-Western societies? Anthropology has shown, for example in the works of Clifford Geertz (1983, 1988) and Sally Price (1989), that other peoples have been concerned with the forms of objects and the modes of working the senses, but that these cannot be understood via the Eurocentric aesthetic criteria of beauty or the priority of form over function.
Even in the West, avant-garde artists have cultivated distinct types of beauty, and also of ugliness, the abject, the sinister, and other disturbances of experience and the senses. It has been suggested that we should give the name "theories of art" rather than aesthetics to the conceptual propositions that guide the various artistic practices. But speaking of them in the plural, which has the advantage of allowing for many ways of making art, raises doubts when we award them the name of "theories." Can we really call them "theories," a term applied to scientific concepts that are internally coherent, proceed from a logical chain of propositions, and aspire to universality?
When twentieth-century avant-garde movements relativized aesthetic values and the foundations of taste, they accepted the existence of multiple poetics. When they placed experimentation above representation in the modes of representing or alluding to the real, they disturbed the classical order, and the museum as temple for consecrating it and exhibiting it. They ended up deconstructing the autonomous sense of art and the story, which had organized their ties with politics, the market, and the media.
A Conversation between the Sociologist and the Artist: Bourdieu and Haacke
The first difficulty in understanding the breakdown of the modern order is, as I have noted, a reluctance to recognize that it has never really prevailed outside the West and that it is unsustainable in an era of global interactions. The second problem is epistemological: seeking explanations only in terms of actors and processes to which modern theory attributed tasks that they did not actually perform.
In a conversation in 1991 between Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke—the former speaking from his work in the sociology of intellectual and political practices, the latter from his experiences as an artist—they tried to reason out their disappointments: intellectuals had switched from critical thinking to management; governments were giving less and less money while trying to impose more and more control; Europe was yielding to the U.S. model of putting the survival of museums, radio, television, schools, hospitals, and laboratories in the hands of private sponsors. Simple observation of the very actors among whom the programs of the Enlightenment and the nation-state had distributed responsibilities confirms the impossibility: we cannot expect that patronage by private corporations will promote independent actions in the public interest or critical of their voracity; everything will go downhill if the state shirks its job and thinks about things only through the logic of profitability and earnings.
Bourdieu and Haacke are sufficiently clearheaded to recognize that the cultural and scientific actions of the state are no guarantee that the public interest will always win out, that research and art will be of quality, that the best books will be published or only qualified artists promoted. Nevertheless "a comparison of the contemporary acquisitions of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (which depends, as a private institution, mostly on donations) with those of the Centre Pompidou" in Paris leads Haacke to conclude that state-financed civil servants can "allow themselves to put together, with public funds, a more impressive collection of 'risky' works (daring in terms of the market, 'morality,' and ideology)" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 75).
This statement is debatable, at least if we distinguish between the public and private (fluctuating) trends in the United States and France. We should also be concerned about the way Bourdieu interprets the disintegration of public systems and citizen voter approval: "A public system leaves a very large margin of freedom, but one must still make use of it" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 75). And again: "Unfortunately, citizens and intellectuals are not prepared for this freedom in relation to the state, doubtless because they expect too much from it, in personal terms: careers, commissions, decorations" (73). This critique, trapped inside its own logic, begins with structural accusations against the state and corporations and ends by casting moral suspicion on individuals.
At one point in the conversation, Bourdieu returns to an epistemological principle that he had insisted on since his earliest books, most famously in The Craft of Sociology: "A truly critical form of thought should begin with a critique of the more or less unconscious economic and social bases of critical thought itself" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 74). Indeed. This means questioning whether the state, corporations, and citizens are the only actors, or whether the only modality in which they exist is that which classical social science, art history, or the history of avant-garde movements has studied. Or whether, perhaps, other ways of doing research (under public-private agreements), of managing and communicating culture (where the audiovisual industries and digital networks play key roles) are remodeling the production, circulation, and reception of art, science, and culture into different circuits.
Bourdieu coins a good phrase to characterize the ineffectiveness of intellectuals, unions, and political parties under the current conditions of power struggle: "They are three or four symbolic wars behind" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 20). He is referring to their use of "archaic techniques of action and protest to use against corporations and their very sophisticated forms of public relations" (20). He therefore values the ability of artists to shock, surprise, and disconcert.
That was just what Hans Haacke did in 1991, when he responded to an invitation to produce artworks using photographic documentation of the history of the building that once housed Nazi headquarters in Munich and to exhibit them on the site itself. Using as his title the first line from a Nazi anthem about raising the flag, Haacke arranged pennants with a list of German corporations that had sold war matériel to Iraq, including Daimler-Benz, Ruhrgas, and Siemens. The journalist from Der Spiegel who had written the article that Haacke had used as the source for this information was surprised when companies that hadn't reacted to his written text had then sued the artist. "The problem," Haacke notes, "is not only to say something, to take a position, but also to create a productive provocation" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 21).
One of the differences between Bourdieu and Haacke lies in the fact that, while the sociologist analyzes structures and sees their failures as structural flaws or traps, the artist deploys a strategy of gaps: "It is always assumed that censorship and self-censorship exist wherever one turns—and, of course, they do. However, if one tests the limits, sometimes one discovers that there are holes in the wall, that one can get through" (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 77). We would be mistaken if we thought the artist is a more astute observer than the sociologist. In the course of the dialogue, Haacke demonstrates that, like the artists he mentions (Duchamp, Tatlin, Rodchenko), his skill at creating scandals derives from a careful consideration of the concepts and the slippages in meaning that happen when forms are made to perform unaccustomed functions.
HH: I believe the public for what we call art is rarely homogeneous. There is always tension between people who are, above all, interested in what is "told" and those who focus primarily on the how. Neither of them can fully comprehend and appreciate a work of art. "Form" speaks, and "content" is inscribed in "form." The whole is inevitably imbued with ideological significations. That's also true for my work. There are those who are attracted by the subject and the information ...
PB: The message.
HH: ... explicit or implicit. They may find themselves reinforced in their opinions, recognizing that they are not alone in thinking what they think. It is pleasurable to come across things that help us better articulate vague notions we have and to give them a more precise form. Therefore, preaching to the converted, as one says, is not a total waste of time. A good deal of advertising and all political candidates do it, for good reason. Opposed to the sympathizers are, of course, the people who disagree. Some of them disagree to the point of trying to suppress my works—there have been several spectacular examples. The attempts to censor demonstrate, if nothing else, that the censors think an exhibition of my works could have consequences. Between these two extremes exists a sizable audience that is curious and without fixed opinions. It is in this group that one finds people who are prepared to reexamine the provisional positions they hold. Generally speaking, they match the target group of marketing and public relations experts whose job it is to expand the market for a product or for certain opinions. That's also where a good part of the press is situated. (Bourdieu and Haacke 1995: 85, 88)
The work of the artist does not appear in this dialogue as the priority of form over function or as the demythification of the hidden logic of each field. Haacke, like other conceptual and performance artists, understands the structure of political parties, churches, advertising, and audiences, and based on that understanding he moves objects and messages away from their accustomed places. His practice evades the autonomy of each field, counters it:
HH: It strikes me that insisting on the "form" or the "message" constitutes a sort of separatism. Both are politically charged. Speaking of the propaganda aspect of all art, I would like to add that the meaning and impact of a given object are not fixed for all eternity. They depend on the context in which one sees them. Fortunately, the majority of people are not particularly concerned about the presumed purity of art.... One can learn a lot from advertising. Among the mercenaries of the advertising world are very smart people, real experts in communication. It makes practical sense to learn techniques and strategies of communication. Without knowing them, it is impossible to subvert them.
Excerpted from Art Beyond Itself by Néstor García Canclini, David Frye. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents
PREFACE - Art beyond Itself,
1. Aesthetics and Social Sciences: Converging Doubts,
2. Visual Cultures: Between Art and Heritage,
3. Reappropriating Objects: Art, Marketing, or Culture?,
4. Putting a Value on Art: Between the Market and Politics,
5. Unsure Localizations,
6. The Death of Public Space: Survival Tactics,
7. How Society Makes Art,
What People are Saying About This
"No one profiled the paradoxes, the volatility and the limits of the Latin American experience of modernity with more precision and subtlety than Néstor Garcia Canclini. Few have matched his trenchant and poignant readings of the more recent impacts of economic and political globalization. It will delight the reader that the same qualities that infuse his engagement with contemporary art. As an anthropologist of contemporary cultures, he is exact in identifying art's current structures, and in exposing the art world's prevailing mystifications concerning autonomy, relationality, and critical correctness. A passionate observer of the work of artists such as León Ferrari, Antoni Muntadas, Santiago Sierra, Carlos Amorales, and Teresa Margolles, he describes, with elegance and precision, their capacity to grasp, show, and build 'immanence' within our contemporary conditions."
"Art beyond Itself offers one of the most potent accounts of art's reach into and interaction with other realms (media, fashion, social action, investment funds, urban revitalization, new technologies, security, recovery programs for at-risk youth, etc.), offering insights into that transit that neither Bourdeiu's reduction notion of autonomous spheres nor Rancière's politics of dissensus and 'distribution of the sensible' adequately theorize."
"Any book by Néstor García Canclini is a major publishing event. In Art beyond Itself, he takes on received wisdom about art from inside the art world and from the perspective of the social sciences, updating the sociological nostra of Becker and Bourdieu for the contemporary moment, invoking an array of artistic and philosophical works in the process. No one else could have written this book. It is brilliantly conceived and executed and well-translated. Absolutely superior."
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