Exceptional Position of Photography within the (Art) World | Walead Beshty | Monday, 07.05.2012

Aesthetics and Distribution Case (1): Preliminary Notes on Art’s Ability to Radicalize Academia

“…each encounter produces a new position of assemblages, even as it simultaneously defines a new use for these assemblages” -Gilles Deleuze

In this posting, I would like to pursue an earlier tangent, and redirect it. If we start with the idea that a medium is constituted by a dialectic of applied use and technological development, and that it is further defined by the conventionalization of the relationship between the two (a process that occurs over time and is in a state of constant revision) it follows that a medium is never freed from its use, nor is it freed from its position between some agents in a transaction, meaning that it can never stand apart from these conditions. It also follows that it is always steeped in the inertia of its conventions, for this is how, by comparison, each new relation between shifting technologies and new applications is self-historicizing and legible, i.e. able to be understood an expression of that medium. The rhetorical transformation of a series of disconnected relations between technology and use into a singular entity is the becoming of a “medium.” In short, the institutionalization of these instances of negotiation is completed by the use of a name in an abstract trans-historical sense, as in when a name is invoked in and of itself as a stable entity. The identification of a medium is an act of institutional reification par excellence, in fact, it is the institutional act, that which makes the institution concrete, like air made solid.

This institutionalization is the medium’s “memory.” Just as the collective understanding of a medium (not to mention its practice) is transformed by how it is recorded (if we think of various institutions as a kind of material tracing of the history of a medium), we should likewise remember that the medium also changes the institution, altering its methodologies, and transforming its conditions as they are molded around one another. A comparable example is the development of recording devices and music: music adapted to the conditions available for its recording as much as recording technology was adapted to the conditions of music; it would be pointless to discuss the development of one, without concerning oneself with the development of the other. Thus each inform the other dialectically, while the seeming stability of the terms we use for each (the topic which has occupied my postings up until this point the most, i.e. the problem of the term photography) conceals these transformations, and makes the term seem transhistorical, or akin to the fallacy of Jerry Fodor’s radical nativism, the notion that concepts preexist the terms which refer to them. This applies as much to the term “photography,” as it does “art,” as it does to the “museum,” or for that matter “art history.” The solidity of the terms conceals the active negotiations that arise around their borders and the constant ongoing renegotiations of these borders. Regardless, we could say that one form of institutionalization is the museum (we could think of what Rosalind Krauss called “exhibitionality” as a quality of the art object formed in response to the museum), and another is the educational complex, or academia, which is another extremely powerful vehicle for the distribution and maintenance of aesthetic discourse (whether it be via practical/vocational, meta-critical/disciplinary means, or both). I might offer that the term “critique,” as it is applied to art objects as a quality that they contain rather than something external to them, occurred as a result of the academy.

In the case of art, high level education has taken the form, at least in the U.S., of the Master of Fine Arts degree. Within the University, the MFA is what one would call a “professional” degree. What this usually means is that the majority of those with these degrees are destined for work outside of academia (i.e. in the for-profit world), and that the degree qualifies the recipient for the demands of that system. Business degrees, medical degrees, architecture degrees, law degrees, etc. are the best examples of professional degrees. Into this mix, art is a particularly strange addition, specifically because the MFA is a required degree to become a teacher, and that many art students cite teaching as their reason for obtaining the degree. But this is beside the point. Art qualifies as a professional degree because it has direct points of sale to which the general public might participate. Like law or medicine, individuals can get access to art directly. This is unlike science, mathematics, or the humanities, where the market products are several steps removed from the discipline itself. Each of these fields require intermediary producers (say book publishers, or pharmaceutical firms, or car manufacturers etc.) to bring them to market.

Yet the inclusion of art in the umbrella term “professional degree” isn’t a natural fit either. Art objects, unlike other disciplines for which professional degrees are granted, are separate from the world of instrumental use. In other words, they are a discourse about aesthetics through aesthetics, and thus are more like a philosophical discourse (a discourse on language through language), than they are like law (a discourse on social interaction through language, which is tested by its ability to be applied to social interaction). In the case of professional degrees, the criteria of success or failure is not abstract. This is not the case for art, where the criteria of success or failure is constantly being disputed on a fundamental level, and is wholly abstract. Even more so, art is meant to stand apart from the direct function of aesthetics. If one doubts this, one only need to think of the meaning a stop sign has on the street, versus the meaning it might have in the museum or gallery. On the street we ask, “what does it mean?” and act accordingly, in the museum or gallery, we ask “how does it create meaning?” Of course, this is for good reason, because if we stopped to ask this question on the street, we would likely injure ourselves or others. In most instances, in daily life, aesthetics function habitually, and without thought, and that is a necessity. The political implications of art lie in the second question (the “how does it create meaning?” question), for art creates a transparency about how aesthetics elicit meaning, which can, after examination, be extrapolated and applied to daily life. This possibility to make the habitual function of aesthetics transparent, not only holds the potential to upend power relationships, but also makes art wholly separate from daily life, for it requires this separation in order to ask how aesthetics produce meaning (meaning being less a message, and more so the production of subject relations, i.e. that of dominance and subordination, or communality etc.).

This questioning of meaning is inextricable from a concrete material object. So unlike philosophical discourse, where the mode and form of distribution is treated as being “outside” of the content of the discourse, the form of the discourse (medium), is inextricable from art’s meaning, and moreover, that form of discourse is always object based, or accountable to objecthood, and objects are never freed from exchange. Art thus offers a way to comprehend the transactive elements of intellectual thought, a reality of all modes of discourse (for economic transaction is a ubiquitous form of simple communication), which art is uniquely capable of drawing forward.

Rather than be too exhaustive here, I’ll state plainly a few ideas:

1) There is no such thing as an art which is untainted by the market economy and that in no way means that art either supports or rejects the notion of a market transaction but is simply, by definition, based in market transaction.

2) This does not mean that art is incapable of progressive political change despite its dependence on the marketplace for there is no place “outside” of economic transaction. Yet, the radical proposition is art’s greater capacity for transparency (as transparency is a core artistic value).

3) This proximity or “coming to terms with the exchange rate of objects” is in essence one of art’s most radical potentials. It contains the possibility to leverage the world of progressive philosophical, intellectual, and political thought into the sphere of daily life, and collapse the idea of “meta” discourse, or critique, to make all discourse continuous with the world it is meant to describe. It is the destruction of the fantasy of an outside. When, in New Spirit of Capitalism, Ève Chiapello and Luc Boltanski offer that, “Artistic critique is currently paralysed by what, depending on one’s viewpoint, may be regarded as its success or its failure.” I believe they are referring to this collapsing. The untenable position of critique as that which stands to the side of its chosen object is fully realized in the art object.

To conclude, theoretical discourse always avoids confronting its own monetization, its own instrumentality, and in those rare moments when it does, it fails to fully comprehend the stakes of conflict. Art cannot avoid this confrontation, and must, in order to operate as art (i.e. as a reflexive discourse about aesthetics through aesthetics) comprehend its own monetization, or exchange value, as inextricable from its meaning or message. Art, after all, has thankfully abandoned the content/form divide, whereas other disciplines have been unable to do so, and because of this inability, they cannot fully embrace their own material condition, and their role in the monetization of thought.