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Creative Disruption in the Age of Soft Revolutions
from Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820
(Bampton Lectures in America), New York, Columbia University Press, 2016.
The first of three film versions of the book Of Human Bondage was produced in 1934.1 At the opening, we join the doomed hero of the movie, Philip Carey—played by Leslie Howard—as he seeks the opinion of his French art teacher on the merits of his paintings after some years of study in Paris. A short exchange ends with a simple condemnation. Carey’s work shows industry and intelligence, nothing more. And therefore he should abandon all hopes of becoming an artist and choose another direction in life. Cutting to London, the narrative develops into a story of loss and lack—of tragically unrequited passion redirected onto the ungrateful character of waitress Mildred Rogers—a role played by Bette Davis with withering indifference. In common with most romantic yet inverted portrayals of art and artists in cinema, the teacher’s condemnation asserts a lack in Carey’s art that cannot be described—a certain something—a certain quality. In lieu of the realization of something indescribable and unobtainable, the two protagonists embark on a life of mutually ensured suffering and ultimate destruction.
Eighty years later, art in its current forms is the product of a complex of events, constructed personas, and critical tendencies. It is fragmentary and increasingly subjective. Contemporary art is a repository for various recognitions and desires; at the same time, it may be defined by its self-conscious stand for and against other art. Contemporary art is a record of material facts derived from art intentions, and it often remains just out of reach of the artist and viewers while at the same time remaining lucid, simple, and easy to read. This is the heart of contemporary art’s challenge: a louche combination of clarity, resistance, reference, and subjectivity. And at the heart of contemporary art is the very combination of industry and intelligence that the hammily played art teacher in Of Human Bondage complains about. Neither industry nor intelligence implies or suggests anything about quality or aesthetics; these are philosophical concerns. Industry and intelligence can result in a conscious or unaffected clumsiness yet result in an intellectually complex web of references. From Andy Warhol to Andrea Fraser to Hito Steyerl, from Jackson Pollock to Felix Gonzalez-Torres to R. H. Quaytman, the one thread connecting these artists is their industry and intelligence in the face of what eludes representation and remains just out of reach. Industry and intelligence are not synonyms for hard work and skill—they are conditions of production under which contemporary art emerges, thrives, and resists.
Contemporary art endures. It survives because it is neither the product of a true academy nor an artist-critic-generated description of choice but rather a term that has for some time been a tolerable description for an increasingly wide range of art and artlike activity that cannot be completely captured by modernist or postmodernist accounts of visual art. Contemporary art is a leaky container that can accommodate many contradictory structures and desires.
This book is centered on a series of lectures delivered at Columbia University in 2013.2 The edited lecture material is punctuated by some of my other writing from around the same time in order to address issues that could not be accommodated in the series and to focus on certain supporting ideas in more depth than was possible in a lecture form. The lectures focused on four dates: 1820 and three more between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin Wall—1948, 1963, and 1974. The dates were not chosen because they are central—the paradox of contemporary art means that there are no special years; all years are special when considering the multiple strands of its accommodating structure. In the classic manner of the contemporary artist, I chose these years for a subjective reason. They are used to indicate how a specific subjective history of events, technologies, and desires contributes toward the fabrication of the contemporary artist as a constructed persona. Other dates could have been chosen, but these are specific as moments I have focused on in four main bodies of work since the early 1990s.3 These are the dates I know the most about, and they have functioned for me as research dumps of knowledge.
But this does not mean that these dates are random. In the work I have done over the last twenty-five years, there are reasons why I circled around these dates. They reveal hidden turning points and cached moments of shift and transition. These are dates where we find compromise, negotiation, revision, projection, and delay—shifts of exchange technologies and new approaches to behavior and desire. The original title of the lectures was Creative Disruption in the Age of Soft Revolutions. This book examines soft revolutions in science, politics, and technology and suggests that the figure of the contemporary artists we encounter today is a result of their industry and intelligence in the face of shifts and transitions. This interplay between soft revolutions and industry and intelligence developed long before art fairs or symposia on the curatorial turn. The persona of the contemporary artist was made possible at the moment a new amateur emerged in response to the Enlightenment during the gap between the American and French republican revolutions and the European federalist upheavals of 1848. It was at this point that new figures and technologies merged to produce speculative visions combined with a new conception of time made available to pursue individual lines of research in parallel to the academy and patronage. In short, 1820 is my suggestion for a starting point where interests can be developed, tolerated, and encouraged in a semiautonomous way. Contemporary Art Since 1820 does not mean that this book is an account of art made since that time. But the story must begin at that point in order to convey the origins of the industry and intelligence that produce the conditions for the production of contemporary art. As we will see, this ultimately leads us to the problematic appropriation of creativity and individual motivation as the cognitive capital that is at the heart of neoliberal capital’s hold on developed modes of organization today, a hold that produces stress and anxiety about contemporary art’s complicity, success, and limits as it attempts to operate as neoliberalism’s critical double.
Art since the challenge to the academies has taken its most dynamic forms in opposition to, in advance of, and in response to moments of rupture and change rather than operating at the heart of the catastrophic or heady moments of the last 150 years. It is the soft revolutions in parallel to the main events where we can find a trace of contemporary art’s genealogy and focus—moments identified by artists and played with in deliberate opposition to dominant narratives and in league with the production of new subjectivities.
Contemporary art resists and embraces its own interrogation—that’s what makes it contemporary art. Anything posed toward it is absorbed by contemporary art’s contingencies. Rather than assert a route through this in an attempt to produce an inventory of good works or special cases, it might instead be more useful to find out how contemporary art has developed its current forms and denials. I am reduced to this task via the use of genealogy rather than archeology—genealogy here following the line of Foucault:
“The constitution of the subject across history which has led us to the modern conception of the self.” Further,
"Three domains of genealogy are possible. First, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to truth through which we constitute ourselves as subjects of knowledge; second, a historical ontology of ourselves in relation to a field of power through which we constitute ourselves as subjects acting on others; third, a historical ontology in relation to ethics through which we constitute ourselves as moral agents."4
The original lectures that constitute the heart of this book lay out a history of soft revolutions that have contributed to the conditions for contemporary art’s development, existence, and survival. This is not an account of shattering moments of political upheaval or aesthetic breakthrough—it is an artist’s attempt to look at specific moments. For it is clear that a reading of the genealogy of contemporary art filtered through catastrophic revolution, collapse, and breakthrough cannot effectively account for what is taking place now—such moments have excessive significance. I would argue that we only find traces of them amplified, diminished, and infinitely reflected in the theoretical frameworks that both underscore and overwrite art today. Art today meanders in direct contradiction or apparently blind to the very significance of the key events that take place around it. As such it is critical even when it is apparently disengaged.
Each lecture had three parts. The first of each outlined the temporal stresses that led to new conceptions of agency or repression within contemporary art. The second part outlined the bounding ideas that were either the result of or an exception to these temporal stresses. The final part of each lecture attempted to explain the application effect of these temporal stresses and bounding ideas in a framework of contemporary art. So while the lectures appeared to circle around four specific dates, they really pointed forward from these dates toward a notional present—flying over one another as a series of parallel narratives, all of which might be required to construct a particular understanding of how we got to this point and therefore maybe indicate a border zone—or at least what might happen next. The structure of each lecture allowed me to explain how certain situations and effects have been carried through time as embedded memories—whether governmental (educational, bureaucratic, infrastructural), social (power relations, sense of inclusion/exclusion/agency), or technological (tools, trajectories, control devices, and limits/extensions to expression).
The first lecture sprung forward from 1820 and addressed the emergence of autonomy as a desire and the problems of its realization. The second lecture, starting in 1948, looked at the emergence of new structures in the wake of war, upheaval, and breakdown in the reconstitution of empires. The third lecture made use of 1963 as the moment when we sensed the arrival of the conscious agent—both cached and in the open. And the final lecture—pivoting around 1974—addressed the collective and the problem of increasing ennui on the verge of new technologies and infinite redundancy.
And in contradiction of my earlier putting aside of philosophy, I will allow myself a couple of short quotations that might at least signal my approach. I trust they are useful:
There are works which common opinion designates as works of art and they are what one must interrogate in order to decipher in them the essence of art. But by what does one recognize, commonly, that these are works of art if one does not have in advance a sort of pre-comprehension of the essence of art? This hermeneutic circle has only the (logical, formal, derived) appearance of a vicious circle. It is not a question of escaping from it but on the contrary of engaging in it and going all round it: “We must therefore complete the circle.”5
Genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality; it must seek them in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history—in sentiments, love, conscience, instincts. . . . Genealogy must define even those instances when they are absent, the moment they remained unrealized. . . . It [genealogy] opposes itself to the search for “origins.”6
In the gap between Derrida and Foucault we can find tools to recognize and decode the contemporary artwork and the techniques that govern its presence and power. Most other recent attempts to examine the status of the artwork end with platitudes or truisms, ontological games, or existential forms of nominalism. Art resides in power relations, speech acts, points of view, and extremely complicated semiotic games. Everything else is luster, hubris, or expressions of pious good taste.
1. Of Human Bondage, dir. John Cromwell, RKO Radio Pictures, 1934; W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (London: George H. Doran Company, 1915).
2. These lectures were: “1820: Erasmus and Upheaval,: February 26, 2013; “1948: Skinner and Counter-Revolution,” February 28, 2013; “1963: Herman Kahn and Projection,” March 5, 2013; and “1974: Volvo and the Mise-en-scène,” March 7, 2013, all at the Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York.
3. These works include various artworks and texts: Liam Gillick, McNamara, 1992; Erasmus Is Late, 1995; Discussion Island/Big Conference Center, 1997; Literally No Place, 2002; and Construction of One, 2005.
4. Michel Foucault, “About the Beginning of the Hermeneutics of the Self: Two Lectures at Dartmouth,” Political Theory 21, no. 2 (May 1993): 198–227; Foucault, On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Work in Progress, in The Foucault Reader, trans. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1991).
5. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
6. Michel Foucault, Hommage á Jean Hyppolite (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1971), 145–172. English translation by Paul Rabinow, in The Foucault Reader, 76–100.