Someone’s Trod Dog Shit into the Classroom, Again.
The second-rate artist, of course, cannot afford to surrender himself to any common action; for his chief task is the assertion of all the trifling differences which are his distinction; only the artist who has so much to give that he can forget himself in his work can afford to collaborate, to exchange, to contribute.
Yet what else was there? Was life all this, and this only? Everywhere, everything was debased to the same service. Everything went to produce vulgar things, to encumber material life.
Previously responding to opportunities of exhibition, we have tried to counteract the inevitability of the art object functioning as distinct and ineffable, indicated instantly by its status as an art object. By various Brechtian means we sought to render the notion of the completed art object comparable to its environment. Reflecting something like what Brecht referred to as: show that you are showing. Although unintentionally this only added a further layer of obfuscation upon the art objects, which to an audience only ever perpetuates the ineffable quality associated with the status of the artwork generally. In circumstances such as these: what is an audience to do with an exhibition? What we intended was for the art object to be clearly understood and to function comparably to the way in which an audience understands an object, by the very nature of its indication, by the attempt to understand it. In attempting to undermine the ineffable status of the artwork by replacing it with a surrogate or by giving it away, the obfuscation only perpetuates a status of being conspicuously distinct. Perhaps the only way to undo this assumed status is through some form of accompanying rhetoric.
Can the two aspects of practice; stuff that isn’t art and stuff that is, be kept separate and for the stuff that is intended to be art, stay art when it is distributed somehow? Is it possible to get the audience to comprehend the works proper in the exhibition space as not exhibited works qua as mediated through the relations of distribution of art?
Opportunities of distribution governed by the institution as described above, should not risk precluding approaches made towards engagement in some form of distribution from below as opposed to the top down influence of the institution. It can only be in these separate critical moves into distribution that potential solutions can be worked on. It is due to arthood’s notions of success and careerism that the once useful and necessary bottom up outlets for distribution become surplus to requirements with engagement in the institution, as if they become no longer necessary with the onset of success as defined by the institution. In terms of art being something worth improving through criticism (something that is counterintuitive to the institution), it is here that they become completely necessary in terms of practices developing. And so success commonly correlates exactly with no understanding in any meaningful sense. Regarding any contemporary artistic output you can think of, disregard its usefulness, other than for the institution. These are the conditions of the characterisation of art as wholly autotelic. Exchanges in the form of distribution with the institution cannot result in any accepted notion of development, as in understanding free of institutional coercion.
How do we vacate the established system of art without being instantly subsumed back into its logic of self-observed reproduction at any cost, specifically at the cost of critical discussion and any objective search for a criteria of judgment?
In fact, what is our theory of what constitutes an art object?
What criteria for valid judgment of an art object can operate if anything can be considered an artwork?
Does attribution or just the fact that an artist has produced something, constitute validation?
How can a criteria for judging artworks be reclaimed and re-applied to artworks within the relations of production?
It is easy to consider art, as it is produced and distributed in the current conditions, in terms of being empty of significant meaning (significant in the sense of having an effect beyond the closed confines of the art system) and incapable of producing something other than pseudo-criticism. The evidence is readily available; it constitutes the entire content of the art system, comprising innumerable circulating units of self-producing variations.
The history of science is punctuated by revolutions brought about by circumstances that allowed its practitioners to be puzzled. A comparison would be difficult to make in arts current conditions. In contrast to art, notions such as critical and theoretical mean something in an operational sense for science. The comparison could be made for some manifestations of art historically, for example the invention of the depiction of perspectival space on a two-dimensional plane. In contradistinction, current art appears committed to a programme of evasion and obfuscation in order to obscure the situation of being puzzled as something shameful. In art education the notion of something like criticism tends in its introduction to be done retrospectively after the fact of a priori production. This encourages students towards a situation of trying to justify their artwork from the position of being its responsible authority. In reality the work may have come about through a feeling of obligation or confusion. This kind of introduction to so-called criticism is likely to negate any interest in being puzzled for the sake of it and only to reify the notion of the artist as a self-affirming centre of truth. The problem with this educational model (putting aside that it is dogmatic and authoritarian, and assumes a better knowledge being passed hierarchically down. From teacher to learner) is that although it conceals the reality of the relations of production as, at least in its initial stages, more or less arbitrary, it also renders production impenetrable from the inside out. From the studio of the past one could look out through the window into the world. From the studio of today the window is so filthy that only its own reflection is visible. The studio’s blacked out windows. The relations of production and distribution are abandoned to merge in a self-describing, operationally closed system.
In order for art to be revived as a sphere operating with a useful purpose it needs to be rebuilt from below and to begin to operate from a position of not knowing, to tentatively beginning to know.
Do humans come pre-programmed with an innate creative or culture making faculty? As it appears from arthood’s output that this faculty has reached its limits, it suggests we do. Arthood, considered in these terms is incapable of producing anything other than an internal equivalence of evermore superficially complex variations of essentially the same content. Children younger than one year show a preference for variety over unchanged stimulus which suggests a pre-programmed faculty for superficial alteration over consistency. If humans come hard-wired with an innate culture making faculty, a pre-programmed limit is necessary which when reached would trigger effectively repetition or a possibly regression to the innate sensorimotor stage preference for variety. This explains the heavy dressing of pseudo-criticism to contrive the appearance of full operational function. Artists do tend towards seriousness.
Although it is also perhaps all too easy to consider this mire in terms of innate limitations and arthood as characterised as an extended, ongoing maintenance job having previously reached its possible limits of advancement. The situation of arthood as described might be comparable with the notion of mysterianism, of limitations in our capacity to achieve, understand and comprehend certain things; that the world is often unintelligible to our common sense notions.
There is no contradiction in supposing that we might be able to question the limits of our culture forming capacity and understanding and try to define the boundary between problems and mysteries. If maintaining an art practice is going to contribute to improving art, it needs to be critical. Having a criteria for judging quality would be required. If the culture forming capacity had no limits there would never have been a measure previously, such as skill, just as if the genetic endowment imposed no constraints on growth and development of a biological organism or pre-programmed biological endowment, such as puberty. As criticism has been successfully rendered benign by the institution and its market orientated administrators, arthood looks to for its validation and internal strength in pseudo-criticism. This needs to be challenged and claimed back in some reasonably useful sense as a form of criticism that actually criticises the problem. The impact of the institution from above structures what occurs below at the level of education, that utilises the notion of criticism in the form of a collective opinion forming sphere that feeds and allows the institution to predominate, and criticises nothing.
For criticism to be critical and to initiate some tentative moves towards change within the art system, motivated towards a notion of advancement in art and against the maintenance and celebration of its current situation, a change needs to come from below. Some potential lies in students who have not yet trained in the institution’s image. In this sense, students know more than their tutors. And it is in this sense, of what we know or don’t know, that a genuine critical practice could emerge. What constitutes an artwork? What can art achieve? Students need to disregard the influence of their tutors and allow themselves to be puzzled in their own terms and to begin to construct a practice from a position of not knowing, rather than compliantly accepting a grounding in formulating eloquent excuses in retrospect of production, in anticipation of distribution.
We should resist allowing that which purports to be criticism in the current conditions of art production any trust in respect of its usefulness. Criticism currently only serves as a tool for lending authority, whether intentionally or not, to the affirmation and supply of content to the institution to justify its existence. The use of criticism in a genuine operational form, in the sense that it holds the system to task, as opposed to what currently passes for criticism, that what offers a layer of celebratory dressing to the system, is decisive. As stated, what purports to be criticism currently can in no way be critical in any usefully operational sense, as, in any self-describing system such as arthood any action whether it functions under the established conventions of an artwork or art criticism only constitutes an increase in the system. Criticism as it stands constitutes the system. What is required is the use of criticism deployed from below, by the producers of art. A useful form of criticism needs to be an integral part of practice, strongly distinct from the development of a career which by its nature is affirmative of the system, and not for the selling. Practice needs to be critical of the system of art itself and be aimed at dismantling that system in its function, at its every turn constituting practice and opposed to the system. There is nothing artworks can do to criticise the system they affirm.
The priority for any art practice that wants to resist affirmation and pursue a meaningfully critical mode of production is development at its richest. The institutions that bear upon the art system from above only constrain development. In no way can developing an artist’s career by orchestrating the exhibition of their work contribute to the advancement and development of art at its richest. Institutions that constrain development are illegitimate, unless they can show otherwise and should be dismantled. What is required is the provision of opportunities to cultivate development at its richest and this is only likely to be possible by criticism being reclaimed by artists themselves as part of a practice directed at the system of art itself and exerted from below.
The notion of a critical practice should emerge out of the shadows of what art unfortunately is, into the light of what it could be, of criticising in order to improve.
Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock
December /January 2017