‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’
Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Published in 1996, Thierry de Duve’s Kant After Duchamp is still one of the best books for anyone interested in unpacking the riddle of art. The central conceit of its much-cited introduction is that we are asked to imagine ourselves anthropologists from outer space: ‘You descend to Earth. Knowing nothing about it, you are unprejudiced […] You start observing humans – their customs, their rituals and, above all, their myths – in the hope of deriving a pattern that will make Earth-thought and its underlying social order intelligible. You quickly notice, among other things, that in most human tongues there is a word whose meaning escapes you and whose usage varies considerably among humans, but which, in all their societies, seems to refer to an activity that is either integrative or compensatory, lying midway between their myths and their sciences. This word is art.’
De Duve goes on to describe the extraterrestrials’ attempt to inventorize the various things that are designated ‘art’ in human society: ‘images, but not all images; sounds, but only some; written or printed texts, but only certain ones; two- and three-dimensional objects, some made in the image of humans, but also others that are unrecognizable; gestures, cries and speeches, but performed or uttered only under certain, extremely variable, conditions.’ He concludes that ‘these symbols that humans exchange in the name of art must have […] the undeniable function of marking one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying’. In other, more elegant words still, art appears to have ‘no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible’ (my italics).
Kant After Duchamp was published more than a prodigiously productive decade-and-a-half ago, when one currently dominant trend – art-about-art and/or art-about-the-art-world – was still very much a marginal practice, not in the least because the art world was a lot smaller back then. The effects of globalization have been especially significant in this regard: the oft-deplored proliferation, in recent years, of both art fairs and biennials around the world is one highly visible function of this process. And with this proliferation has inevitably also come an explosive growth of art-about-art and art-about-the-art-world. Sixteen years on, so much of this kind of art is being made today – art that requires a wholly new, highly specialized and ever-changing type of cultural literacy – that an updated introduction to Kant After Duchamp would probably have to start with a telling variation upon De Duve’s original narrative ploy: one asking the reader to imagine his or herself as a Martian who has descended upon Earth to learn about the art world rather than about art. Here, the tribally inflected notions of myth, custom and ritual begin to make even more sense; more so than art itself, it is the art world that is propped up by myths, held in place by rituals, ruled by customs and habits. None of them are laws in the strict sense, because none exist in writing – which is exactly why the claims made on behalf of some of these myths often appear so divisive and polemical, or why the art world can occasionally resemble the bloodstained site of theological debate. Quite a few of these arguments boil down to the interpretation of one of the tribe’s foundational myths – one that states that art can (and therefore must) change the world, and that art’s impact upon the general culture is both a substantial and substantively positive one. As myths go, this one – whose claims to truth may vary from the ridiculously tenuous to the, well, solid – has over the years, for reasons that need not detain us now, proven to be especially powerful and appealing.
Of course, to most people who don’t know much about contemporary art, or whose experience of it is generally limited to a visit to Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, these claims must sound as outlandish and preposterous as comparable claims made on behalf of say, fashion or snooker. This should not necessarily worry us (they’re wrong anyway); what’s more worrisome, however, is that the claims themselves are indeed becoming more outlandish and preposterous, as ‘art’, in the above equation, is increasingly being equalled with, or replaced by, ‘the art world’. The claim then becomes that the ‘art world’ can change the world, and that its impact upon the general culture is both a substantial and substantively positive one – and those are questionable assertions, to say the least.
As the art world has got bigger, art itself has somehow become smaller – and, conversely, as the art world’s claims to real influence in the world at large have grown more grandiose, art’s real impact upon the general culture has decreased. An important factor in this crippling development has been the dramatically increased dependence, in much art practice, on an elaborate system of intra-artistic and art-historical references, and a growing reliance onever more specialized types of cultural literacy on the part of the beholder – the kind of literacy or meta-linguistic fluency that allows one to really only make oneself fully understood by an alarmingly shrinking audience, in a depressingly small corner of the world (that is to say, the art world). Scrutinizing the shrivelling concerns of some of the art being made today by a younger generation of artists in particular, I am reminded of the following passage in Richard Sennett’s ode to ‘doing a job well for its own sake’ in The Craftsman (2008): ‘what you may know may be so familiar to you that you might take for granted its touchstone references, assuming that others have identical touchstones. Thus you might write of an architect, “McGuppy’s slick mall resembles a Bon Jovi song.” A reader in Borneo might not be able to summon up the image of a slick shopping mall and I have never heard a Bon Jovi tune. Much contemporary writing is stuffed with casual references to consumer products; in two generations, this writing will be incomprehensible.’ ‘Writing’, in this last sentence, could just as well have been replaced by ‘art’: a comparable problem can be discerned in the myriad wall texts and gallery press releases that start with the ominous admonition that the art we’re about to see ‘is based on’ something else – more often than not other, older art, or other, older sub-cultural epiphenomena, the more obscure the better. (Interesting observation: where it is currently something of a taboo to ask an artist what his or her work is about, it appears to be much more acceptable to ask what is based upon.) Looking at Gustave Courbet’s The Stone Breakers (1849), Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974–5) or General Idea’s Imagevirus (1987–94) we can at least still understand where the claims about art’s power to intervene in the real world come from, regardless of their validity or credibility. Although the same claims pretty much continue to be made today, credibility is the last thing we will attach to them when they are made on behalf of art works that are only comprehensible to those inhabitants of an art world whose tribal structures, folk tales and reigning ideologies are the only things ‘referred’ – or worse still, alluded – to by the works in question. The key question is whether, like Sennett and Bon Jovi, it will take two generations for this incomprehension to annul them completely, and render them illegible even to us, art-world cryptologists.
‘To see something as art requires something the eye cannot decry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.’ Thus wrote Arthur C. Danto in his essay ‘The Artworld’, now almost 50 years ago. This ‘atmosphere’ has since been expanded considerably: besides theory and history, its main components are now gossip and anecdote. And, of course, memories – reminders of art’s glorious past, when dreams about art’s impact upon the world had not yet become ethereal founding myths.