Forget the Art World

In order to create new positions of critique and collectivity we must abandon the fantasy of the global art world’s historical necessity, Pamela M. Lee claims in her new book.

Andreas Gursky, Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999.
Andreas Gursky, Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999.

We are forgetting how and why the art world earned its name as an independent community and a platform for exercising one’s critical judgment. The ranks of people occupied by “contemporary art” swell fast, but what does this signify? According to Pamela M. Lee’s new book, Forgetting the Art World, globalized capital has swallowed the distance between market and public space. There is no place outside capitalism for art-workers to share views and work. In a prose as smooth as sharp, Lee illustrates the exasperation she feels at this collapse with her decision to throw away decades’ worth of art magazines and information. What is the use of keeping up with this art world, if it does not give us anything that is not also circulated in life-style ads?

The art world is at once the agent and object of globalization. Verbal interpretations both precede and overtake exhibitions. Hundreds of artists, critics, and curators, flow across the five continents fitted with press releases, theoretical seminars, catalogues, and other publications. Lee remarks: “the art world naturalizes the condition for 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.” (p. 5) I could not agree more: Lee’s critical project is urgent.

Pamela M Lee, Forgetting the Art World, MIT Press, 2012.
Pamela M. Lee, Forgetting the Art World, MIT Press, 2012.

The rich and dense argument of Lee’s book sets the art world in the frame of late (global) capitalism; an all-encompassing Empire powered by immanent drives. The non-teleological Empire is pregnant with the powers of Counter-empire, a promising ambivalence since there is no outside. This is of course the crux. In an all-over world, who represents what? Anything that lacks relevance to the mechanisms of Empire disappears from its representational index.

The case-study based structure of the book saves the author from being trapped in a predictable narrative, and claims and conclusions are earned by diligent interpretations. Lee’s introduction is as heavy as Coltan, the super-conductive mineral that plays a leading part in Steve McQueen’s film-work Gravesend (2007). McQueen follows its development, from the extraction in the conflicted Democratic Republic of Congo to the manufacturing of digital appliances in the UK. By analogy, Lee carefully attends to the division of art-work as well as materials involved in her book.

Lee sets out her argument in four pithy chapters structured around several works of art and the work that brought them forth. The summary joins them together almost like a cosmology with the chapters allegorically related to the four elements – if we allow the spark of the trope of creative commons to stand in for the element of fire.

Takashi Murakami, design för Louis Vuitton, Omotesando, Tokyo, 2009.
Takashi Murakami, design for Louis Vuitton store, Omotesando, Tokyo, 2009.

Takashi Murakami’s conceptual Superflat aesthetic provides a foundational outline of a late capitalist art world. An excellent case of nation branding and just-in-time-production, Murakami only needs to be physically present in the production for the few moments of the signing. The artist’s scalable figure-sketches both actualise and represent the software they are made from, cool and viscous like water. In the second chapter, Andreas Gursky’s hyper-detailed composite photographs, that depict the post-industrial world with a deceptive clarity, represent air or ether. Thirdly, Thomas Hirschhorn’s monuments (made from consumer society’s left-overs) represent the soil, reminding us of the mountains of garbage that not least the art world leaves behind.

But in my mind, it is in the fourth and last chapter that Lee really excels in showing how closely modes of production in the globalized art world adhere to those in less exclusive distribution circles. This fiery section rethinks collective action for capitalism, what Lee sees as the “pseudo-collectivism” of e.g. the Atlas Group (Walid Raad) and the Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta). In the art world, these fictional and real collective signatures are necessary for sounding critical and complicated subject positions. Here, art can make critical use of its platform even under strict capitalist conditions.

Raqs Media Collective, fotografi: Jatinder Marwaha.
Raqs Media Collective. Photo: Jatinder Marwaha.

Lee’s thesis, that globalization has closed the gap between representation and presentation, makes analysis immanent to any position within the globalized world of late capitalism. Functionality is complicity, including that of the writer. Knowing there are no privileged spaces or languages on offer for imagining a common world, Lee nevertheless sets out to find them within the art world. I wouldn’t put it past a brilliant writer like Lee to have deliberately slipped this allegorical world image into the book. A narrative craft, history writing is as material and rich in metaphors as digital technology in the art world. Perhaps this systemic poetic is also a counter-strategy that reveals its self-generated coherence.

However, I wish that Forgetting the Art World extended beyond the globalised art world that thrives within the orbit of late capitalism. Surely, Lee sniffs the borders of capitalism in her analysis of Raqs Media Collective and the Atlas Group. But is Raqs really to be seen as “the art world agent of its members’ media-based inquiries” (p. 177)? Lee refers to the media project Sarai, co-founded by the Raqs members, that operates e.g. educational and publication activities. Their parallel modes of existence demonstrate why a concept like “art world” still is in use. My point is that art (or any relational conceptual world) is not dependent on capitalism until it aspires to global circulation. It may be a point of theoretical interest only, but art is not made of money whereas its distribution is. It coincides with one, but only one, art world output, as Lee points out with reference to Lawrence Alloway. (p. 20-21) A professional who is in it all the time cannot afford to forget the art world. Yet local and media or internet distributed art that does not aim for global representation remain a possible outside, as long as it is dysfunctional and thus flies under the radar of capitalism. Critical immanence admits it has limits. Thus, this art worldview reproduces late capitalism, consciously and critically.

Stillbild från Steve McQueen, Gravesend, 2007.
Still from Steve McQueen, Gravesend, 2007.