In a recent survey, Frieze magazine asked thirty-three artists, critics, curators, and other art world culture workers the question: “How has art changed ... over the last forty or so years?”
Artist John Armleder’s response finishes with the following reflections: “I am personally quite grateful to have been around long enough to now experience eternity limited to a couple of weeks. The significant changes are: more people, more venues, more publications, more artists, more words — and less duration. If only — and sorry for being such a retarded hippy — we could stop war, disease, and poverty.”
How to take seriously both Armleder’s wish and his apology for having it? Has the contention that art might and ought to be concerned with these grandiose objectives been subject to sophisticates’ derision for long enough that, now, nobody is laughing?
Certainly the message to be gleaned from the Frieze survey is that the art world, like the world in which it is nestled, has gone to the dogs, that there is no longer any scope for real criticality, no way around the capture by market forces of any mode of artistic production of meaningful social change. The final words of artist Andrea Fraser’s statement put a sharp point on this:
“The threat of instrumentalization by corporate interests has been met by a wholesale internalization of corporate values, methods and models, which can be seen everywhere from art schools to museums and galleries to the studios of artists who rely on big-money backers for large-scale — and often outsourced — production. We are living through an historical tragedy: the extinguishing of the field of art as a site of resistance to the logic, values and power of the market.”
But does this characterization of an all-powerful market swallowing up any critical gesture not become the most limiting lens with which to view both art’s histories and its possibilities? Indeed, far from being genuinely resistant to the market, from its very inception the avant-garde has been completely bound up in it; there has never been a decisive capture of art by the market—such that we could now, as Fraser has it, find ourselves living through the final victory of capital over the critical—but rather a mutual exploitation of each by the other that is as old as the avant-garde itself. To consider the avant-garde’s history in this way is in this respect more farcical than tragic.
In his response to Frieze’s survey, artist and Bates College professor William Pope.L pushes Fraser’s indictment a bit further, suggesting that there is a pitfall in imagining that market forces have really succeeded in co-opting resistance as such. “Something has shifted. No one can deny this,” he says. “But what’s more interesting is how capable the art world is of absorbing these shifts and, if not nullifying them, then ignoring or altering them such that their one time criticality and difference seems softened or disappeared. But perhaps this disappearing act is an ideological illusion. Perhaps the criticality of these shifts has changed something. Maybe these shifts have been veiled to appear as nothing and the changes they caused made to look insignificant. Isn’t it easier to believe that it just doesn’t fucking matter? Isn’t it easier to believe that, if everything is fucked, then we don’t have to give a fuck?”