BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 OCT 12
Featured in
Issue 150

Warhol’s Canada

What constitutes ‘real work’ in the cultural sphere?

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 OCT 12

Although I’m writing these words in August, they won’t be published until October, by which time the brief, late-summer lull in art-world activity will be long forgotten, and the whole metastatic matrix of exhibitions, biennials, fairs, auctions, conferences and attendant social functions that fill the rest of the year will be back up and running. Here in the Dog Days, though, things are pretty quiet. Private-view announcements have slowed to a trickle, and on social network sites it seems that even the most enthusiastic of art-world users are posting little more than image macros demanding ‘free pussy riot’, and Instagrammed beach snaps that give the momentarily disquieting impression that they are holidaying in 1979. Time, then, to relax and – as a curator friend recently emailed me from her annual family break – ‘to get some real work done’.

In chapter ten of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) (1975), Warhol ponders the subject of ‘The Good Life in the Country and Why I Can’t Take It’. He is, he explains, somebody who likes: ‘… working better than relaxing. In the city, even the trees in the parks work hard because the number of people they have to make oxygen and chlorophyll for is staggering. If you lived in Canada you might have a million trees making oxygen for you alone, so each of those trees isn’t working that hard. Whereas a tree in a treepot in Times Square has to make oxygen for a million people. In New York you really do have to hustle, and the trees know this, too – just look at them.’

Aside, perhaps, from Warhol’s rather woozy vision of rural solitude (imagine the sublime beauty and terror of feeling your lungs fill with the respiratory by-product of your own personal, billion-leafed forest!), I would imagine that what would have struck his original readership was the way he so blithely conflates the making of art with its marketing and promotion. Significantly, this is a process that knows no end – if the city’s trees stop hustling, stop breathing, they die. Reading The Philosophy of Andy Warhol today, none of this raises an eyebrow. In our global Times Square, it’s simply what artists (and for that matter critics, curators and a whole host of what we might rather unsatisfactorily call ‘cultural workers’) do. For anybody who would like to connect with an audience, and for anybody not already in possession of established and impregnably future-proofed repute, Warhol’s notional ‘Canada’ is somewhere to visit, not to live in, and then only in August with an iPhone on full charge.

Questions about what constitutes ‘real work’ in the cultural sphere, and the conditions under which it may take place, have been much discussed in recent years. In his 2010 essay ‘Why Work?’, Liam Gillick articulates the not-uncommon anxiety that artists today are: ‘people who deploy a series of practices that coincide quite neatly with the requirements of neoliberal, predatory, continually mutating capitalism of the every moment […] who behave, communicate and innovate in the same manner as those who spend their days trying to capitalize every moment of exchange of daily life.’ Earlier this year, London’s ica hosted a panel discussion entitled ‘The Trouble with Productivity’ that sought to explore this problem, in which the critic Laura McLean-Ferris, the curator Paul Pieroni, and the philosopher and novelist Lars Iyer debated the possible merits of artists, and those who work in their orbit, doing more by doing less. Listening back to the discussion online, what’s most notable was that the models cited – from the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala’s performance The Trainee (2008), in which she sat ‘thinking’ at a corporate workstation for a month in the manner of Herman Melville’s refusenik clerk Bartleby the Scrivener (1853), to Iyer’s own practice of distractedly doodling cocks during conferences as a way of accessing the philosophical potential of ‘arsing about’ – overwhelmingly depended on a close proximity to the apparatus of ‘hustle’ for their impact. One possible exception was Iyer’s citation of the jazz musician Sonny Rollins’s three-year hiatus from public performance and recording between 1959–62, during which time he practiced his saxophone alone each day on the Williamsburg Bridge in New York – an act of self-exile that Iyer described in terms of the following lines from the French poet René Char’s Partage Formel (Formal Division, 1967): ‘A new mystery sings in your bones. Cultivate your legitimate strangeness.’ Sometimes ‘Canada’, it seems, can be found a short journey from Times Square.

It’s easy, of course, to fetishize a withdrawal into a productive wilderness space – at least some of the massive popular appeal of Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 novel Freedom and Bon Iver’s 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago surely depends on the sense of ‘authenticity’ vouchsafed by their authors’ respective, and well publicized, decisions to settle down to write wearing a blindfold and a pair of earmuffs (the better to keep the world at bay), and to record solo in a backwoods Wisconsin cabin. A less romantic model of retreat is offered up in Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. Here, the artist protagonist, Jed Martin, absents himself from the art world for years at a time, secreting himself between shows in an anonymous Parisian apartment, and later his suburban childhood home, emerging only when he’s absolutely ready with work that brings him vast critical and commercial success, due to what art historians later identify as his ability to calmly express the end of ‘the industrial age in Europe’ and ‘the generalized annihilation of the human species’. (Significantly, his one artistic failure is an attempt to capture the ‘insurmountable contradiction’ of Jeff Koons’s face.) Indifferent to money and fame, Martin politely plays along with his gallery’s sales and publicity staff, then escapes back into fruitful solitude, which he occasionally punctuates with rather shiftless attempts at being a good son, lover and friend.

In many ways, this is an enviable inversion of most contemporary artists’ experience (lots of hustle, lots of worldly worries, little chance of deep art-historical impact), but there is also something profoundly melancholy about Houellebecq’s vision of a creative individual who finds that since his ‘real work’ – his ‘legitimate strangeness’ – suits the times, the times can, after a fashion, be made to suit him. The Map and the Territory is a good book to read on an August beach holiday. It may be a great book to read amid October’s buzz and thrum.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.