How have artists’ attitudes to authorship, criticality and commercialism changed?
How have artists’ attitudes to authorship, criticality and commercialism changed?
In concluding his review of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), A. O. Scott, a film critic for The New York Times, addressed the film’s polarizing effect on audiences. Ultimately, Scott contended, it doesn’t take a stance on its protagonist’s lifestyle or outlook: ‘does The Wolf of Wall Street condemn or celebrate? Is it meant to provoke disgust or envy?’1 Having thus identified an essential aspect of the film’s procedure, Scott then offered the following observation without explanation: ‘these may be, in the present phase of American civilization, distinctions without a meaningful difference between them.’ Viewers might pick up on some vague sense of criticality on the filmmaker’s part, or they might fault him for edging too close to the false glory of the financial investment world; either way, Scott concludes (quoting Scorsese’s Raging Bull, from 1980), ‘that’s entertainment.’ Still, we’re left to wonder what it is about ‘the present phase of civilization’ that’s brought about this remarkable relativity in judgment.
For the same reasons that cheers could be heard in movie theatres in New York’s Financial District when the protagonist, Jordan Belfort, gratuitously abuses drugs or knowingly obstructs justice,2 The Wolf of Wall Street faced legitimate criticism. The film’s stance toward its subject matter is ambiguous. Its critique is implicit, if at all existent. In some ways, the discussion around The Wolf of Wall Street is a rare case, because popular culture isn’t necessarily accompanied by the tacit assumption of criticality that has permeated the art world, ostensibly at least, since the codification of Institutional Critique. Though audiences continue to take contemporary art’s criticality as given – artists’ desire to voice critique; the widespread belief in the value of criticality – the reality is sometimes drastically different. For one thing, the apparatuses that boost attention in the art world and the market often seem to respond well to artists who shake off criticality, who exploit its givenness. And some work critiquing institutions has been poorly received – a prime example being the 7th Berlin Biennale in 2012, and Occupy’s involvement, seen by some as a reduction to symbolic politics. So some artists, for strategic reasons, might blur the conditions of their critique: rather than explicitly celebrating or condemning their subject matter, they might leave the question open. Building on critical distance – gaining perspective on one’s subject matter, but taken further, to distance oneself from one’s authority – has proven to be a comfortable position for artists. Although this strategy has promise as a gesture of authorial self-awareness and an attempt at self-preservation, it’s riddled with communicative problems.
Already with its title, a 2003 video by the New York collective Bernadette Corporation (BC) encapsulates the logic of an author undermining his or her (or their) subjective position: Get Rid of Yourself. (It’s also significant in this context that BC chooses not to identify as an individual subject or an artistic collective – with all its Romantic implications – but as a corporation: a thoroughly inhuman organizational structure, which nevertheless desires to be perceived as humane.) Work on Get Rid of Yourself began at the time of the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, and it questions, in part, the relation of cultural production to politics through the inclusion of footage from the black bloc riots that engulfed the Italian city. The work also undermines its own expression through actress Chloë Sevigny. She moves around in a domestic setting and rehearses lines. She stumbles in her speech, loses her thread, and repeats her lines – lines apparently spoken by one of the rioters, in an interview that plays in voiceover in other sections of the video. By juxtaposing clips – of Sevigny at home, of masked rioters throwing stones at police officers amid clouds of tear gas – Get Rid of Yourself could be said to glorify activism by condescending to art. And still, the video is most often shown in an art context, which BC once avoided. While that might evince their newfound insistence on the necessity of art, it could instead exemplify the groundswell among cultural producers contending that outright critique is impractical: though BC once framed cultural production in contexts other than art to highlight the problems of the subjective position, that wouldn’t protect it. One can only postulate a situation where subjectivity and expression aren’t usurped by institutions; it doesn’t exist – at least not now, and might well never have.
Three years before Get Rid of Yourself, Berlin-based artist Nina Könnemann made a video that also experiments with authorship. M.U.D. (2000) is a montage of handheld footage taken in a German public park the morning after Walpurgis Night. (Walpurgis Night, which falls six months before Halloween, is popular for partying and prank-pulling. It also happens to be the night before International Workers’ Day on 1 May, which Germany observes with widespread political protests and occasional rioting.) In M.U.D., anonymous individuals wander among trash, empty bottles and smouldering fires. Someone shrouded in a poncho and blanket flails a stick at plastic bags, apparently in search of something. At one point the shrouded figure is approached by three young men wearing sports gear, still drinking. They close in provocatively and even pursue the shrouded figure when it turns to walk away. But the cameraperson filming this mini-drama (we assume it’s Könnemann, though we can’t be sure) quickly zooms out at the first confrontation, as if in an awkward, perhaps unconscious, attempt to put distance between the unfolding events and his or her authorial involvement.
This zoom out in Könnemann’s video might be understood best in light of the discussion on the morality of the tracking shot in film. In his famous review of Gillo Potecorvo’s film Kapò (1960) in Cahiers du cinéma, titled De l’abjection (On Abjection), Jacques Rivette considered the matter at some length. Focusing on one tracking shot in the film, which pans up to frame the hand of a character who has been electrocuted on a barbed-wire fence surrounding the concentration camp where she was imprisoned, Rivette concluded that the cinematographer ‘deserves nothing but the most profound contempt.’3 If so much can be deduced from a tracking shot, and by extension a camera zoom, then Könnemann’s zoom out – like BC’s deference, via an actress, to the words of anonymous political protestors – should be seen as a disengagment from the ethical responsibility of authorship while still addressing the chosen subject matter. What we might deduce, and what A. O. Scott seems to have been on the way to articulating in his critique of The Wolf of Wall Street, is that numerous cultural producers today see neither the right nor the necessity to assume the moral high ground. One commonly heard reason for this is ‘complicity’ – that cultural producers are aware of the extent to which they engage with the institutions (both physical and social) that wield power, perpetuate social norms and socio-economic inequality, consume subcultural vernaculars and assimilate dissenting voices.
Whereas these videos by BC and Nina Könnemann are apparent attempts to renegotiate the conditions of critical distance, some artists seem intent on integrating themselves within existing cultural institutions. Numerous examples of this are part of a trend in contemporary art borrowing from marketing’s visual vocabulary and initiatives. But this should come as no surprise, given an observation made by Thomas Frank in an essay of his included in the aptly titled Commodify Your Dissent (1997), an anthology of the literary magazine The Baffler, which he co-founded. Amidst increasing corporate domination in the mid-’90s, Frank argued, ‘we will be able to achieve no distance from business culture since we will no longer have a life, a history, a consciousness apart from it […] It has become our imagination, it has become our power to envision, and describe, and theorize, and resist.’4 Accordingly, for some artists, advertising (and commercialism) is an alternative mode for art to assume.
A recent video uploaded on YouTube by DIS, the collective that runs the online DIS Magazine, advertised their collaboration with Red Bull Studios: DISown, an ‘exhibition posing as a retail store.’5 One line in particular reveals what’s at stake in the project: ‘Finally, there’s a laboratory to test the current status of the art object.’ To achieve this, DIS – like BC before them – opt for collective authorship and perform an ostensible shift away from the context of art, toward ‘consumer products by contemporary artists.’ In this way, DISown breaks with DIS’s increasing self-contextualization within art,6 instead moving art into a manifestly integrated position within a corporation’s cultural outreach initiative. Still, the press release insists that DISown ‘presents a new model for cultural critique […] set as an examination of taste and consumerism,’ perhaps because the organizers prefer to think of it as an infiltration. But their activities aren’t subversive in any sustainable way; they merely make it easier for the corporate programme to assimilate.
What’s the Energy of Your Energy Drink? (published in a concurrent issue of DIS Magazine edited by Agatha Wara, co-curator of DISown) is an essay about energy drinks and contemporary culture written by Emily Segal who is included in the exhibition which was housed in a project space run by the world’s most popular energy drink company. Segal’s essay begins, ‘I work in branding. I work at a company called Wolff Olins doing big strategy projects for big corporate clients, and I’m a part of a group that produces K-HOLE, which is a trend forecasting report’ (and another of the exhibitors in DISown). K-HOLE, who have worked closely with corporations on branding and trend forecasting as well as working in art, mine a grey zone between art contexts and corporate ones. And unlike BC’s decades-long play with authorship and contexts, intended to prevent the easy commodification of its members’ subjectivities, K-HOLE and DIS seem eager to brand themselves to reap the benefits of commodification. At least in this case, DISown exhibits an indiscernible amount of critical distance between the production of art and the contemporary culture of consumption.
DISown’s supposed critique is most likely directed elsewhere: at the tacit assumption of criticality that has long been considered inherent to the art world. To that extent, DISown is an outright affirmation – of commercialism and consumption. If it leaves any space for dissent, it’s on the part of the viewer (or writer) who might want to reject that outlook. Still, we’re left with questions regarding our ability to fully discern DISown’s initiative. What’s more, who are we to judge, given our own complicity? By knowingly integrating itself into a mutually beneficial relationship with corporate structures and commodity culture, DISown doesn’t teeter on the edge between condemnation and celebration, but represents an outright belief in the impossibility of criticality in contemporary art. Yet criticality is a project that others still consider worth defending from instrumentalization. Not by getting caught up short-sightedly on the status of the art object but by realizing that questioning authorship and context can lead to a renewed sense of agency.
1 A.O. Scott, When Greed Was Good (and Fun), in New York Times, 25 December 2013
2 Steven Perlberg, We Saw ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ with a Bunch of Wall Street Dudes and It Was Disturbing, published 19 December 2013, online at Business Insider http://tinyurl.com/k6rrzma
3 Online at http://jacques-rivette.com
4 Thomas Frank, Dark Age, in Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, eds. Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), p. 274
5 From the Red Bull press release
6 DIS has been represented by New Galerie, Paris since 2013