May 26, 2006

Commodity Cult: Cloak of Mediocrity

The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.
- Douglas Huebler, 1969

When he wrote the above statement in the catalogue for the January 5-31 exhibition at Seth Siegelaub’s gallery, Douglas Huebler was a young man seeking a way out of the dilemma of art production based on commodity and capitalism. The heady theories of conceptualism were already in the air, in Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968) and Joseph Kosuth’s Art After Philosophy (1969), and one possible answer, or a response, to the “art market” would be a moratorium on the production of art objects. Under the conceptualist credo, to avoid placing one’s works among the many other innumerable objects destined for art world “consumption” was a primary motivation NOT to produce art.

This possible “dematerialization” of the object was more than a threat. Complete theoretical discourses were being mounted to support the idea that words and the realm of linguistics were equivalent to “art objects.” The discourse about art soon became the “work” itself, i.e. Art & Language, October, The Fox, as the printed word in magazines and quarterly art journals replaced the art objects, eventually becoming the cherished icons themselves. But, as Mel Bochner ironically noted in 1970, “Outside the spoken word, no thought can exist without a sustaining support.”

[Parenthetically, there is now the possibility of rendering art objects, or any other object, practically invisible with this cloaking device.]

To cease making “things” and focus instead on the temporal and/or spatial aspects of the “existence of things” shifted the emphasis from production to documentation. This defining moment for Douglas Huebler could serve as well for a renewed and potentially cathartic moment for art in the 21st Century, for we are making far too many “things.” There is a glut of mute object production, cluttered installations and mind-numbing hours-worth of digital film imagery being made. Global in scope, this overabundance of “useless” stuff is churned out daily. If Huebler’s original warning had been heeded we would be in a far less postmodern position of the negation of objects through the dominance of “the image” and fiscal solvency. That said, it is surely ironic that Huebler’s and other original conceptualist’s documents have become marketable objects in and of themselves, possibly revealing the insidious consumerist nature of the “art world.”

Regardless, what are the motivating factors for the production of art? “Art objects” are either “useful” or not, in the sense of whether or not they provide a function. Some of the things that we make do fulfill a “need” and also may be visually appealing, as utilitarian objects can still be well-designed. The “privileging of use” has been previously discussed on this site but we will circumvent that debate at present to propose that art is not purely an individually conceived “creative” endeavor, that is to say that one's individualized “creativity” should not be the sole motivating factor for the production of art.

We will grant only a cursory view of vanitas here. Without sufficient individual psychoanalysis of test case artists we have no conclusive evidence that vanity is the “chief motivation” for production of art, except to suggest that perhaps the idea that one makes things purely for the boost of “producer-ship” is latent in all art making.

Still, critical positions must be assumed with regard to the continuation of art object production. I hold that each and every discipline of art making must properly educate the novice practitioner in the history and chronology of their specific field, for no other reason than an establishment of a clear understanding of previous accomplishments, directions and conceptions with which to continue the discourse of art. Moreover, before each artist begins their own production of objects, they should sufficiently research, through the use of prototypes, studies and trials, the feasibility and authentic uniqueness of their proposed concepts and art objects.

I believe that the creation of objects strictly as production for capitalist consumption is antithetical to the precepts of art making. Transforming fine artworks, theoretically “useless” and purely contemplative objects, into commodities to be lined up on the shelves in the “White Cubes” like so many supermarket items is a premise destined for mediocrity. To place one’s artworks in the realm of consumptive production is to function under the reign of the mercantile art world. As Ursula Meyer wrote in 1972:

The shift from object to concept denotes disdain for the notion of commodities – the sacred cow of this society. Conceptual artists propose a professional commitment that restores art to artist, rather than “money vendors.”

We ought to clearly distinguish now between art that is being made in the pursuit of artistic goals that marks a positive continuance of earlier concepts and visions, and this other art made merely to provide “inventory” for the “culture industry.” Let us promote ideas that significantly “carry on” previous concepts or theories of art, be they in painting, sculpture or film. Let artists “make” only when they have developed a unique conception in their fields of art. Of course, the final sobering option for "fine" artists who hunger only for money is to merge one’s ideas with the world of design, thus acquiescing to capitalism in full comprehension of all of its pitfalls and provenance.

("99 Cent" photograph by Andreas Gursky.)

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