BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 14 NOV 14
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Issue 17

What Are You Making?

Calling capital’s bluff

BY Jan Verwoert in Opinion | 14 NOV 14

Let’s call it the new honesty. It has spread fast. It’s based on the belief that mastering two rules equates to being initiated into the secrets of the art world. Rule one: know that art is about money. Rule two: let others know that you know that they know this.

Rule one is relatively simple. Spend plenty of time in places where everyone you meet makes clear that there are two kinds of people: those with money, and those with angst. In Berlin, this can only be experienced on exceptional occasions. There’s just too little capital in the city. In New York, on the other hand, you understand it within seconds. Physically. Because the price of a good night’s sleep is so high only a few can afford it. And the sleepless ask you the $64,000 question upfront: ‘tell us, what’s your take on the market? You’ve already made a name for yourself, so you must know the trick for paying the rent from art. Out with it!’ And if you answer: ‘I love art, and I sleep badly’ – no one believes you. A hippie from the ’90s! Bound to be a liar!

Rule two is the tough one. How to generate a group identity when ‘we’, the ones talking about ‘us’ here, know that we’re only still around because we survived the process of competition and selection? Sympathy comes across as fake, enthusiasm as hypocritical. After all, on entering the arena it was clear: if you want to survive, abandon hope! No tears for the creatures of art. No moaning. Grouchiness isolates. That’s no way to get ahead in business. Other tricks are required. Chief among them the double bluff, which works like this: in your art and in your statements, develop secret signals so in tune with the moment that in conceptual and fashionable terms they reveal the now in its endless desirability. Make these signals sparkle. But also include an ironic disclaimer: ‘all this is smoke and mirrors. Money rules the world. This is bad. But there’s no alter­native. And I know that you know that I know this. And that I want it! Yes, I want this world – and admit it: you want it too.’

Who would deny this claim? Only a hypocrite. How much more liberating it is to acquiesce! Semio-capitalism? Yeah! Come and feed me with signs. What is wealth, power and love but one huge Tumblr? Let it spin. Turn, turn, turn. Accelerationism? Floor it, baby, until digital capital blows up in your face. Semio-capitalism, acce­lerationism: buzzwords for today. The 1980s reloaded. Remember when Jean Baudrillard wrote that we live in a world of simulacra and it’s about to implode? Prompting New York’s SoHo, led by Jeff Koons, to joyfully exclaim: Honestly, my friend, let rip!

Except today Koons appears almost avuncular. The computers are faster, the greyhounds more nimble. And the bridge-builders of the millennium are almost obsolete. Anselm Reyle? The double bluff for art-collecting investment bankers: ‘The ’50s, reissued in neon, an art of gruesome taste, a zero-sum game. Ha! I get it. I’ve got no taste either. I juggle zeros every day. Honestly, this man’s my friend. I’ll buy it.’ But what else can you do with a Reyle, unless you can actually purchase one? Pierre Huyghe has a more consumer-led approach. At the entrance to his mammoth retrospective (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2013; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 2014), a member of staff asked your name and then shouted it out like a master of ceremonies. Say my name, say my name. Doesn’t every visitor want to be the star of the show? You too? I knew it! Although, doesn’t Huyghe’s visual world – the skater circling on black ice; the dog limping through the exhibition with a fuchsia-coloured leg – still contain too much of the conceptual sentimentalism of the late ’90s?

Sentiment is ballast. Drop it! And scroll forward to the now. If your stomach doesn’t rumble loudly as you click through DIS Magazine, then you’re just not hungry anymore. Fashion, art and criticism reflected back into the present at top speed, knowing full well how literalness, crass one-to-one reproduction, turns the commodity bluff into the truth and gives us the opportunity to confess: yes, I want it too! So let’s invite DIS to curate the next Berlin Biennale and make it shine!

But if this accelerationism speculates on implosion, where can I hear the bang? I heard it briefly in Marseille last autumn, at an opening at a private collection. On her way to the exit, a disorientated wife of a millionaire collided head-on with the acrylic glass case containing a sword piercing bottles of Axe shower gel by Timur Si-Qin (Axe Effect, 2011). Crash!! Excalibur trembled and the besuited lady staggered back, dazed and bemused. Is this what we’re waiting for?

Counter-question: what was I even doing at this opening when world-class crab claws can be had for a few euros on Marseille’s fish market? Honestly, there are alternatives to big money. And anyone who says we have no choice is lying. Why seek sustenance for art and thinking in the feeding troughs of capital when all around there is no shortage of sources of inspiration? The other evening I was on the ferry crossing the fjord to Oslo (a city weighed down by money). Overhead a sunset in the most sublime shades. A pudgy little girl came up on deck. She had a bright pink fart cushion, and she used it to send a sonata heavenwards. Virtuoso playing. Full of variation: sounds short and sharp to wet and fluttery. An unbridled will to art, site-specific, expressed in compact form. Not an end. A beginning. Who knows where she’ll be in few years if she carries this on! Call me a hippie. But with concerts like this, who needs the bluff of capital?
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Jan Verwoert is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He is based in Oslo, Norway. Cookie! (2014), a selection of his writings, is published by Sternberg Press.