April 6, 2007

New Asia: Endgame of Late Capitalism

Administrator’s note: This week’s post by Patrick Donovan weighs in on the contested nature of “late capitalist culture” as epitomized in contemporary art in the “New Asia.”

Lee Weng Choy in Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle, Or, the Rise of New Asia is not the End of the World, posits Singapore, or more broadly a "New Asia," as representing the telos, or end point, of the culture of late capitalist history. This culture is characterized by vulgar, violent, and repetitive spectacle as evidenced, for example, on Singapore television. Lee suggests, based on writings by Walter Benjamin, that this late capitalist culture views history as not progressive, but merely a montage, or juxtaposition of moments in time. Thus, apparently, late capitalist culture is essentially a juxtaposition of otherwise disconnected images and ideas without any historical sense. Citing Arthur Danto, Lee states that late capitalist culture is reflected in contemporary art, which is characterized by a radical plurality in which anything can be, and does get cited and re-sited as art. This culture, we are told, may be the avant garde of the next stage of capitalism.

But, although ostensibly about New Asia, Lee is examining late capitalist culture and contemporary art in general. He states there is a crisis in contemporary art: it is difficult or impossible for art to provide a critique of, or theorize about, a culture of radically pluralistic spectacle; it is difficult for art to avoid becoming just another juxtaposed image. Lee seems to be asking: how can contemporary art transcend this plurality?

Unfortunately, Lee does not provide an answer. And, we might question possible assumptions underlying "late" capitalism. "Late" capitalism implies a possible end of capitalism, but for all we know capitalism may continue for quite some time. Also, the "end of history" may be misleading. Obviously, history will continue. But, the characterization of contemporary art as pluralistic seems accurate and Lee may be correct that there is a yearning for the old fashioned virtues of "progress" and "unity."

Reading for 11 April: Chapter 23: Notes on Surface: Toward a Genealogy of Flatness by David Joselit.

Image: China Sample 1, M. Cameron Boyd, Copyright 2007.


Weng Choy said...

Hello, this is Lee Weng Choy. As an artwriter who does not work in a major city in the West, or even in a major institution, one is always grateful to be read. Or perhaps what’s more interesting than being “read” is being “misread”. However, not all misreadings are as interesting as others. Far be it for the author to insist upon an interpretation of his text, but allow me a few comments in response to Patrick Donovan’s summary of my essay.

I’d like to emphasise the ironical tone of my essay. So when Donovan says, that I “posit Singapore, or more broadly a ‘New Asia’, as representing the telos, or end point, of the culture of late capitalist history”, that should be taken ironically. As I state in the essay: “To read Singapore as exemplary is a tendency I want to unpack, but at the same time indulge”. What I have tried is to complicate the process of representation. So “vulgar, violent and repetitive spectacle” is not an adequate representation of Singapore as New Asia; it’s only one aspect. If anything, “late capitalism” is full of contradictions, and I’ve attempted to play with its tensions: by speaking of the exemplary and the anecdotal.

As for how contemporary art is to engage late capitalism -- surely one doesn’t expect answers, as such, but only examples of attempts, or anecdotes of how some have tried. Again, let me emphasise that the picture I’ve endeavoured to present is a dynamic one: a complex field of “nows” and “ends”.

Lastly, my family name is Lee -- like the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew (no relation) -- not Choy.

M. Cameron Boyd said...

Mr. Lee: We were honored by your appearance and comment on Patrick's topic post. As instructor of my Corcoran College of Art + Design Theory Now course, I try to monitor these weekly discussions as bipartisan facilitator and will not offer a position in Patrick's defense. I will say that your view of anecdote in your essay is perhaps one enlightened entrance into further discussions by interested parties.

And your correct family name, as you respectfully noted, has been changed and I apologize for my administrative lapse.

Liana said...

I found the point that mr weng choy brought up about history not being a linear progression very interesting because i have always read and understood that history is a progression ( we learn from our mistakes etc.) but upon reading this other view i find it is much more accurate, just something which i never thought about,

Anonymous said...

mr weng choy, Pls to explain anecdote, and how to write history in terms of the exemplary is telological?

Antea Roberts said...

"As for how contemporary art is to engage late capitalism.." I think contemporary art promotes capitalism, Mr. Lee, with the notion that people's art deserves to be sold for extraordinary amounts, but only to certain people, and only if you're a certain artist with a name.

Weng Choy said...

Hi, this is Weng again. I’m sorry about not replying sooner, but I only just recently discovered the follow-up questions and comments. Here are some quick thoughts on the issues:

1) RE Liana on history and progression.
I’m not a historian, but I have a lot of admiration for those who write histories. It’s really hard stuff, to say the obvious. As we all very well know by now, it’s not just a matter of facts, but it’s about constructing narratives. It’s a vastly complicated and complex enterprise, this sifting and sorting, and trying to lay out the relations between all the facts. How does one, for instance, explain and analyse an “event” into facts?, and how does one event lead to another? It is through a narrative that one constructs these relations, and even in the relatively simpler task of telling the story of one’s own life, one realises how complicated the relations between events are, and that it’s always a simplification to think of one thing leading to another, as if in a progression. That’s not to say we should never explain our lives, singular or collective, in terms of causal connections or progressions of some sort, but a persuasive explanation is also an invitation to scrutinise alternative explanations. The best explanations open possibilities rather than drive toward single answers (W Bush being perhaps a good example of a tragically simplistic view of the world).

I just read a great review of JM Coetzee’s new novel, Diary of a Bad Year (I’m now looking forward to reading the book). William Deresiewicz, in The Nation (Feb 25, 2008), compares Coetzee with Philip Roth (Exit Ghost, The Ghost Writer, Portnoy’s Complaint), and makes some interesting distinctions, which I think offer insights into how we -- historians, novelists, or just plain old individuals -- construct the stories we tell.

Let me quote Deresiewicz at some length: “[Roth and Coetzee] are autobiographical novelists in the highest sense, writers who are interested in the condition of writing ... Roth is interested in the self as subject of fiction: how one’s life is turned into narrative. Coetzee is interested in the self as agent of fiction: how one turns life into narrative. Roth seeks to make contact witht he self one writes about. Coetzee seeks to make contact with the self that writes. Roth’s name for the relationship between the self that says ‘I’ and the fictionalized self is ‘counterlives’. Coetzee’s name for the relationship between the self that says ‘I’ and the fictionalizing self -- a term he used in his Nobel lecture and, in the singular, as the title of one of his greatest works -- is ‘foes’.”

2) RE Anonymous on the exemplary and the teleological.
When I use the term “the exemplary”, I don’t mean any old example, but an example that really stands out. It’s exemplary, it’s the example by which one explains the rule, that encapsulates the argument. If you chose examples to illustrate your point, to solidy your thesis, you chose examples with the purpose of driving towards your conclusions. There’s an endpoint in mind. The exemplary case is in service of this goal. It’s teleological, in that sense.

Anecdote, as I use the term, is meant as a story that does not necessarily add up. If I offer a series of anecdotes, I’m not interested in constructing a counter-narrative to a mainstream narrative. Rather, I’m interested in troubling the mainstream narrative with exceptions. Exceptions that, when all put together, don’t add up to another rule.

I’m not sure I really did that in the essay on Authenticity, Reflexivity, Spectacle, but at least that was the hope. To trouble the idea of telling a history of contemporary art, with the anecdotal case of looking at Singapore. To tell the exemplary story of contemporary art in the world, one would look instead to Europe, America, or even China, Latin America. But Singapore? What could this little speck on Earth have to say about something so vast, grand and complicated -- if we wanted to arrive at a great theory of global contemporary art. But as an anecdote, perhaps it may be of some interest.

3) RE Antea Roberts on capitalism and contemporary art.
Of course contemporary art is almost completely appropriated by capitalism -- if one wants to be rather bleak about the prospects of the world. Or even if one’s an optimist about art, one has to concede how thoroughly art has been capitalized. I went into art because I didn’t want to be part of a world that only cares about money, but guess what, I spend most of my time talking about money, worrying about it, listening to artists lament about the lack of it -- my day job is running an independent arts centre, The Substation (www.substation.org).

But I’m still a believer in art. Not in biennales, museums, maybe not even in universities. Not in the institutions, but in that remainder, small perhaps, but it’s still there, which isn’t totally insitutionalized, capitalized. I go to MoMA, I look at the Jackson Pollacks, the Andy Warhols, and while these works are now the exemplary cases (see above remarks), nevertheless, there is still something else about them. That’s why they are great artworks. Because they still have something else to say to us.

So much of contemporary art today is a symptom of late capitalism, so much of it is a sign of capitalism hard at work, a promotion of it, as you say. But even the best advertisements for capitalism reveal the contradictions of capitalism. The trick, I suppose for the artists I like the most, is in trying to make art that isn’t just a symptom of these contradictions, but something a little bit else.