Outside the Tent Wanking
The reduction of the artist to an appurtenance of the institution, a mythologised tool of production, might be overcome with an unfettered critical disposition, but not under the conditions of autocratic control of production by those who make the artist an instrument of the institution.
There is a distinction between what constitutes the system of art and the wider external environment. That arthood is insidiously pervasive and visibly distributed in the environment does not preclude the distinction caused by the indication of the art object. The distinction is the difference indicated by the production of arthood that constitutes the system. What draws the distinction? Arthood’s function as an operationally closed system produces a distinction between itself and the wider environment. The system draws its own boundaries by means of its own operations and distinguishes itself from the environment.
All action constitutes the system. Nothing can be touched beyond the boundaries of the system, or what is touched is assimilated to the system from the point of view of the system’s actions. From the point of view of beyond the system’s boundaries no action has occurred. The system cannot be exited beyond a cessation of participation. If one is to continue with an art practice then it can only be done in compliance with the system, which in the case of arthood comprises the institution reciprocally activated by the market, dropping scraps from above. A further implication for art practice and distribution is that if all action both constitutes and produces the system then any criticism of the system, or any form of its output also constitutes action and is conspicuously doubtful, with regard to functioning critically – if we take criticism to mean learning through errors contaminating the system, as it is taken in systems that maintain a criterion of judgement. If it is accepted amongst the community of art that anything can be art then there can be no criteria for judgement within current art practice. It is not possible to criticise an element of the system if all action critical or other is subsumed as a part of the system itself. Both criticism and passive contemplation constitute action, are equally significant and constitute the system.
Observation that is external is in no way causal in terms of reproduction within the system. If an external observation penetrates the system’s boundary, contributing to the reproduction of the system, it becomes internal action and therefore constitutes the system. One can view the system of art as defined by the distinction between its own observations and the wider environment beyond the system’s boundary. Every observation marks a distinction between the system and the wider world. In the system there is nothing at all other than the system’s own operation. It observes itself in the sense that it facilitates its own observations. Any observational act constitutes the system.
In contradistinction to Enlightenment painting, the only way to distinguish between a successful and an unsuccessful example of current art output is based on its relation to its distribution and its proximity to the institution. How far has it dragged itself upwards? Artists continue to remain committed to the significance of their wares, but is it possible that picturing could potentially offer, through its established conventions a functioning challenge, because of its formal limitations to current arthood? Practically this would be made more significant in terms of critical potential in reducing the scope for novelty by artists themselves demoting the significance of their wares.
The upshot of dismantling the presumed ineffable status of the individual artwork by demoting its significance to the level of an ordinary object would offer an opportunity for producers themselves to control the relations of production of artists’ output which for arthood resides in the relations of art’s distribution. Is there efficacy in the criticism used by artists as an integral part of the relations of their production? Can an artwork be produced that remains untouched by distribution? Can an artwork be produced that engages with distribution without being distributed? The framing of the notion of the artwork’s special status is enough to satisfy the requirement to be perceived as intellectually weightier than ordinary objects. The proliferation of alternative or expanded art forms as opposed to conventional forms such as painting on canvas towards widely diverse areas of life has proved for arthood a useful and more effective obfuscation. If only an object that has been untouched by exhibitionism and its relations to distribution can constitute a work of art, then how is an audience to engage with the work of art if that engagement immediately excludes it as a work of art? Or for that matter: why make artwork? There is nothing a more diverse range of forms achieves towards this evaded question. What diversity does achieve is further complexity and obfuscation and a greater sense of a deepening and generalised ineffable quality coinciding with environmental irrelevance. Who cares what artists think? Conspicuously when a particular art object is singled out in accordance with its brush with the relations of distribution there is no correlation between variation and flexibility in the application of forms to serve the purposes of the artwork, and more effective, provisionally proposed answers to the question of the purpose of producing an art work.
Two further facts that follow from the primary fact that anything can be art, renders the first fact problematic in wanting to maintain an art practice that pertains to some critical criteria. First, the criteria for judging the efficacy of artworks is controlled by the institution of art, all those whose careers depend on or are furthered by those who are not artists, second; that artists comply with these strictures of distribution by default, even examples of distribution that would figure well down the hierarchy of distribution, mimic those considered valid and critical. Criticality for the institutions of distribution of art consists of decisions between works that, due to the self-observing logic of the system, must be equal in terms of the question as to what constitutes an art object. Discrimination between individual examples of artworks within arthood is based on subjectivity and an efficacy based on relations of distribution and the institution. The individuals whose observations are wholly subjective constitute mere internal acts of the system. The validity of an observer’s observations is based on the same internal movement within the system. In other words, action is the system.
Should the problem be attempted to be dealt with at the level of the audience comprehending the work, as mediated by the relations of distribution? To repeat the problem, as we understand it: any form of distribution of art is really the distribution of art mediated by the relations of distribution (and that this mediation is wholly pervasive). A work only recently finished and comprehended by a visitor to the studio is just as mediated by the relations of distribution of art, in the sense that its production has been mediated by the prospect of some form of distribution. It is in this sense that in the past we have written of an artwork to be sequestered and cosseted; the plan-chest, the portfolio case, the canvas removed from its stretcher bars and rolled up tight, or the bin affords an object the status of being a laudable work of art. But, this doesn’t add much in terms of engaging with some form of distribution beyond distributing sentences that explain the restrictions placed on the work seeing the light of day.
In the absence of any meaningful criteria for judging artworks, the relations of distribution became the sole beneficiaries of the application of criteria of validation.
The criteria for judgment of artworks in the current conditions of art production consist of wholly subjective criteria; of the accumulation and maintenance of subjective knowledge. These criteria function simultaneously as being adequate from the perspective of the production of works and permissible from the perspective of the relations of distribution. How can objective criteria of judgment begin to operate within art practice? It is the notion of the artwork, as it currently manifests itself, as the product of a self-confirming, self-describing, self-observing system, which negates any potential for exploration aimed towards the accumulation of objective knowledge. Objective criteria for judgment could only be enacted in the absence of the artwork as it currently functions in the current conditions of an all-encompassing distribution of art as a self-describing system.
A more specific difficulty for us in recent years has been the problem of exhibitionism: if only an object that has been untouched by exhibitionism and its relations to distribution can constitute a work of art, then how is an audience to engage with the work of art if that engagement immediately excludes it as a work of art? Exhibitionism constrains the motive for producing because every art object appears to have been produced for its potential exhibition. Production increasingly fits the shape of some predestined commodity life.