By Nika Dubrovsky and David Graeber
This blog seems like a good place to dump more casual thoughts on articles I read that aren't ready for a more formal "piece" of writing, I think. Anyways, I was excited to dig into these articles by Nika Dubrovsky and David Graeber (who, unfortunately, passed away earlier this year). Graeber's work especially heavily informed one of my favorite books on art of all time: Art After Money, Money After Art by Max Haiven, and his work on debt, financialization and gift economies from an anarchist perspective help me to understand things that so strongly shape the physical and social mechanisms of this world, but also always point to the fact that these institutions are not necessary or eternal, that I don't have to adjust myself or my goals to "adapt" to them. I was interested to see, particularly, what these authors would identify as issues with the contemporary art world and alternatives to it.
I think these essays are provocative and very worth reading, even if I don't agree with every line and would kind of want to go for deeper, more complex reads in many places. There are some aspects of this that are more outright political, I don't think it discredits protest movements even if they involve looting, for example, so I don't really get the point of that digression. But I do generally agree that the art world as it exists relies on creating a huge amount of artificial scarcity. There has to be hundreds or thousands of "losers" making "worthless art" for every "genius" to have the level of prestige and value surrounding "important art" to be justified. As Hito Steyerl famously said, in an interview quip that truly altered my perspective permanently: "The more unpaid interns, the more expensive the art."
The two main aspects of it that give me pause are moreso areas for productive disagreement rather than things I outright reject:
1. A lack of critique of social reproduction: A lot of the piece seems invested in the idea that rather than being a hierarchical institution, a museum or arts centre could instead be a caring institution. I don't think these things are necessarily opposites, and this turn also brings to mind Melinda Cooper's point about how simply valorizing an alternate form of social reproduction-- she cites, specifically "a kind of reproductive maternalism that presents itself as anti-patriarchal but positions women as the guardians of nature or the earth or something" --is a sort of trap of reverse or alternate hierarchies (or simply making space for them to survive within capitalism) left activism often falls into. In my day-to-day, I bristle at the idea that I should see the social assumption that I, as a woman, should have more access to "being caring" whether this is something that is seen as trivial or free labor under capitalism, or something that is abstractly glorified under a more communal system, as some sort of positive thing. This was why the position of Wages for Housework was so startling, even to other feminists at the time, because their claims did not simply stop at "women's work is under-valued," but went on to say "and we don't even necessarily like or have a natural affinity for this!"
It's also bothersome that, as women and people of color, who are often the ones forced into poorly valued care and service roles, paid and unpaid, within capitalism, are the ones demanding an art world for them, the art world must now become more caring. It feels similar to the phenomena where a profession becomes poorly paid or poorly valued when women do it, or increases in value when it becomes associated with men. Which is to say, I think the ability to make obscure, fussy, grandiose, etc works of singular vision has been stolen from the vast majority of us for thousands of years & I don't want to settle for some last-minute substitution! lol.
2. The future is... theatre?: Maybe I just have a vendetta against theatre, but I also get a bit tired of it being used as a sort of at-hand analog for an artistic practice that is "communal" or "more immediate" or "more engaging" or whatever you're going for. My experiences of theatre in my life have been working tech for high school productions, and (more begrudgingly) through church youth groups. This is not to argue that any medium has universal special qualities of its production or its effects on the audience, but I also think it's not nothing that these things are so useful to these ends. Actually, I'm arguing the opposite, I guess; there's nothing about monumental sculpture or novel-writing or whatever other form of production that is currently more aligned to "the contemporary" that is inherently impossible to do in a context where everyone would have access to art and culture. I think Claire Bishop's Artificial Hells is a really interesting work that also skillfully takes some of the air out of theatre production fetishism (lol) and she also does a good job covering overlooked experimental practices in the USSR that were eventually repressed, as they note in these articles. Similarly, John Berger's Art and Revolution is thinking about many of these same themes and questions, but revolve around a sculptor working in the USSR.
But basically it seems like an extreme idealization, given how stratified and inaccessible theatre is right now, and also how the way theatre creates roles inherently ends up reproducing a certain hierarchy of production, that theatre can just snap in as the post-Art art. And I don't even want it! I kind of want to bring in Hamja Ahsan's brilliant work in Shy Radicals here as well, where the world of theatre is just as much a manifestation of capitalism's fetishization of personality and extroversion as fine art is of it's fetishization of financial speculation.
Plus I think, as a person I am just very particular and like working independently... Plus I really love the patience and sustenance of a totally asynchronous type of art, like zines, where they're there for you as a personal experience whenever you need them. Many art thiefs who have stolen extremely valuable works of art just keep it under their bed or hang it in their kitchen. And maybe that is what is to be done with the Louvre. ;)
Overall though, I think it's a good & timely strategy to build on the existing abolitionist demands that currently exist about policing and student debt, and spread this way of thinking to all other parts of our lives that systematically reinforce the concerns of capitalism. But, we've also seen how quickly these demands can be diverted into reformism that simply extends the existing hierarchy or swaps in a different one. So I think it's important to not just say "abolish the art world," but to be very careful about how we conceptualize alternative worlds for something as expansive and hard to pin down as human creativity!
Some of my own writing on the topic:
- Considering your Non-Options
- Videogames and Arts Funding
- Be Realistic!
- On maintaining a Zine Space at an arts event
Jesus! I'll try to write something shorter next time, I promise... ha ha.