BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 JAN 09
Featured in
Issue 120

How Soon is Now?

During economic crises, sobriety is not what art needs most

BY Jörg Heiser in Opinion | 01 JAN 09

In the 1930s the British economist John Maynard Keynes compared the stock market to a beauty contest. He had a particular one in mind: for a popular competition in early-20th-century American newspapers readers were asked to shortlist portrait photographs from a larger group of images, not according to their personal taste but by trying to guess which one represented the average choice. ‘We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be’, as Keynes put it. In economics this self-referential speculation inevitably leads to dilemmas in collective decision-making, which in turn can trigger hysteria or paralysis. But my point here is not to speculate about the extent to which these esoteric mechanisms of finance apply to the art market. Rather, I’m talking about the effect on art in general. Keynes’ comparison implies an aesthetic judgement (inane as the aesthetic judgement implied in a beauty contest might be). But the decisive irony is that this very aesthetic judgement is supposed to be one marked by a disregard for, rather than a reflection of, one’s individual response. This would mean, for both David Hume and Immanuel Kant (in very simplified terms), ignoring one side of the inevitable dialectic between subjective judgement and common sense.

In conversations I have had over the last few months with artists, critics, curators, collectors and gallerists, I keep hearing terms such as ‘return to sobriety’ or ‘new seriousness’ crop up, applauded as the way art should be made, conveyed and discussed after the end, for the time being, of a period of exuberant glitz and hype. ‘Sober up, get real’ is an imperative that may indeed apply to anyone who, over the last few years, has been continuously drunk on linear equations between the aesthetic and the monetary value of art works. But with Keynes’ beauty contest dilemma in mind, the restraint of subjective response paired with the return to some kind of shared standard could well be part of the problem rather than the solution. Will merely ‘getting real’ actually get us anywhere? I’d like to answer that question with the story of a noteworthy event that occurred eight decades ago.

Late in the afternoon of 30 November 1929 – a month after the great Wall Street crash – Sergei Eisenstein visited James Joyce in Paris to discuss the idea of making a film of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867–94). Eisenstein planned to use the narrative strategy of Joyce’s groundbreaking novel Ulysses (1922) to channel the polyphony of society and history through the micro-lens of one day in the life of one individual. Joyce never commented on the meeting in writing, perhaps because of the embarrassment of a near miss: he had possibly misunderstood Eisenstein’s purpose, thinking the meeting was about a film adaptation of Ulysses, not just the use of its technique. The disparity between the two modernist pioneers’ intentions must have felt like fast trains passing in a tunnel. It is perfectly summed up in the fact that Joyce had gone blind after several eye operations, while Eisenstein himself had lost his eyesight temporarily around the time that he first had the idea for the Das Kapital project, two years earlier, from eyestrain during the manic editing process of his gargantuan film October (1927). Unable to read aloud for his visitor, Joyce instead played a gramophone recording of himself reading Ulysses.

Disembodied voices, half-blind visionaries – as though nothing less was necessary to respond artistically to the structural, invisible qualities of the economic sphere. Eisenstein’s project never got off the ground, but his ambition to do the impossible, to approach Marx’s epic work of structural analysis with the radically subjective Joycean ‘stream of consciousness’ method, has finally come to fruition. With uncanny timing, 80 years on, the German filmmaker and television producer Alexander Kluge inherited the orphaned project with his nine-hour long, three-DVD project entitled Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (News from Ideological Antiquity, 2008). The title expresses ambivalence about Marx, claiming neither, naively, his up-to-dateness nor, prematurely, his obsolescence. Rather, it treats his writing like that of a Greek philosopher: as a set of ideas and methods that came about against the background of a substantially different society but which nevertheless still resonates today. Kluge locates Marx’s continuing importance in the idea that capitalism is not just an ‘external’ phenomenon but one that has effects on us, or rather, in us: on our psyche, on our conscious and unconscious decisions.

It’s a commonplace that some of the most innovative developments in contemporary art were instigated at times of crisis. This holds true, for example, for the beginning of the 1990s, when the collapse of the art market coincided with the looming Gulf War (and when, incidentally, frieze was first published). As Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead – which is to say that, rather than guessing at other people’s guesses, anxiously attempting to return to approved standards, or sobering up and ‘getting real’ until the arrival of better times, now is as good a time as any for ambitious ideas and visions. They just need to be good ones.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.