Welcome to Pay Here. On Participation
Manuel Saiz. OCT Shenzhen May 2014
I am too ambitious, so normally I fail. I always try too hard. So I suspect this lecture is going to be too long, too abstract, too speculative, and probably irrelevant regarding the current discussion about “participatory art”. If it is, as I expect, a failure, I hope it is a good failure.
The basic thesis of the lecture is that art and participation are exclusive: when there is art, there is no participation; when there is participation, there is no art.
This statement might be true or false depending on what one calls “participation” and what one calls “art”.
I am unusually all-embracing regarding the term “participation”. As much as I think there is no such thing as “participatory art”, I believe that “all artworks are participatory”. An artwork necessarily requires participants. Artworks are primarily made by language, which is a participative enterprise. Even if in the realisation of an artwork there is only a “language producer”, and nobody is there to “receive language”, it is still a participatory matter (in absence).
People relate in many different ways to art projects, but I do not think that one kind of participation has qualitative differences in respect to others, as far as art is concerned. In most cases, the differences are only in the role participants think they are playing in the project.
On the other hand, I am very restrictive with the term “art”: Art is not what football players do, even if they are very “good” (at football); it is not what fashion designers, architects, chefs are engaged in; it is not what “bad” artists do either; and it is not even what “good” artists do. Because art is what is not done. Nobody does art.
One tries repeatedly to do it, and if one is lucky, art is often about to exist. But one never gets there, because the moment art becomes something one can hold, or define, or consume, it is already gone. While artworks are made of language, art is always somewhere outside of language. When art enters the domain of language, then it stops being art and becomes “artwork”. Art is the artwork seen sub specie aeternitatis, the artwork seen from the point of view of eternity, the artwork “without the circumstances”.
This conception of art of course implies the absurdity of the concepts “good artist” and “bad artist”.
The idea of “near-death experiences” can be a useful metaphor to talk about art: if art is death, artworks are near-death experiences. They are not “death” but something that approaches death, just to end by being a celebration of life, something that encourages life. Those who have had near-death experiences seem to be more alive than anyone else. When the artist is having an art experience, he is about to capture something that is completely missed in the artworks resulting from that experience. Art is there only in negative: if the artwork is what we call “a good artwork” it is because it portraits everything around art except the art.
It could be argued that by using the terms in this extreme way I am twisting them at my whim in order to make the opening statement true, but I believe this way of seeing the matter helps me to understand art better than any other. Besides, to twist the terms is a privilege of the lecturer.
2.- Participatory art
I would like to take the term “Participatory Art” seriously, in order to see how it dissolves. Perhaps it can be said that any term whatsoever will dissolve when taken seriously, but that’s another matter.
As far as I understand, the definition of “Participatory Art” is conveyed by those projects that are executed by more people than the artist alone, in which the focus, or the material, is other than just the speculation of the artist about his own interests. This includes also the case of several artists willing to speculate about the same things. The term “Participatory Art” could be depicted also by those projects in which those who used to be the “public” are in peer to peer relationship with the artist, somehow.
When I was a young painter, and then a sculptor, preoccupied by mystical and philosophical matters and not very interested in political or social issues, my generation in Spain used to call “political art” everything that was concerned with something other than what at the time were considered “artistic problems”. “Artistic problems” were primarily about form and language, about the way in which form and content related.
Later while living in London, I learn to differentiate “community art” from “political art”, probably due to the insistence of British art institutions that artists pursue projects that help others. This was encouraged through the way application forms where designed. The popularity of the term came also, to a large extent, from the progressive withdrawal from the public offer of grants for speculative art projects, in favour of grants for projects that contributed to the wellbeing of the community.
Since then many other terms have appeared (at least, on my horizon) to name practises that relate art to other people apart from the artist himself: “collaborative art”, “socially engaged”, the most used in the United States, “social practice”, and this one we are using here “Participative Art”. In my experience, the nuances on the meaning of the terms do not reflect the slight differences of the intentions or execution of the artworks, but they are chosen in each case because they reveal slight differences in the desires of the users of the terms in portraying the whole of the phenomenon (the majority of the works involved) in one way or another.
The term can also be defined by cluster: “Participatory Art” is the ensemble of all works of which Nicolas Bourriaud talks about in his books plus those about which Claire Bishop talks in hers. These represent an amount of objects that can reach a critical conceptual mass from which to decide which of all artworks in the world are “participative art” and which are not.
When observing the works covered by these definitions, the patterns that emerge more clearly state that participatory art is an act of generosity, it is democratic, it is creative, it is an elevated means of communication, it is non-violent, and it is funny, entertaining, or shocking. Most of the works also imply that “artists are good people”. Even, or especially, when they behave badly.
And at the deepest level, they imply that art is a good thing. Joseph Beuys’ catchy motto “everybody is an artist”, which is a reference to participatory art, also implies all these.
I do not agree with the idea of these attributes being defining characteristics of art and I am going to talk about my reservations in this respect. Nor am I keen on thinking of “participation” as a key component of art, even if Public Display of Affection, the work I am presenting in the show might make one think otherwise. I am so little into participation that I found myself strangely disappointed today when so many people showed up to attend this lecture.
The concept of “generosity” is important in this realm because misunderstandings about “art” and “participation” are based on the preconceptions we have of who is giving and who is taking in art transactions, and in all social exchanges, for that matter. Of course the parameters in which generosity takes place are important in a system of relationships like the one we are living in, in which so much is based on profit.
I have always been influenced by Georges Bataille and his conceptions of the nature of economic exchanges, and of the studies of Marcel Mauss, on which Bataille’s ideas are based. Bataille and Mauss describe a type of exchange very different from the ones we understand as common sense according to the logical rational and capitalistic economy in which most of the world transactions seem to take place. Symbolic, ritual exchanges are considered by these two authors as the drivers of economy and social relationships, of which the more utilitarian transactions are subsidiary, and not vice versa.
The summarised version goes like this: a common idea held by most economists (and by the general population, in developed countries at least) is that we human beings are in need of things to feed and protect ourselves, and we trade for them with other things that, if we are lucky, we have. We are always trying to bargain with our neighbours to acquire those things, by giving them something in exchange.
For the sacrificial or symbolic economy instead, the starting point is the need to get rid of things one has accumulated to secure survival, because this accumulation makes one feel ignoble. The exchange is triggered by the need to give something valuable one possesses to somebody else just to show off, to prove to that person, and the community, that the giver is not attached to earthly goods, that he does not fear anything (like dying from lack of food, for example). The act of giving is more a threat than a present, and it prompts a counteraction: the one who receives the gift has to reciprocate, on pain of otherwise appearing to be cowardly, miserable or stingy.
This type of exchange seems to be naturally motivated by some kind of human intrinsic impulse (Bataille has his own explanations about why this happens, I might have mine) as it can be found with few variations in many isolated cultures that have been studied in depth and in person by modern anthropologists, but also due to the fact that traces of the importance of these practises can be identified in most cultures. Of course here in China, and in Japan, but also in Europe, where when one looks at economic exchanges a littler more sharply, one can easily identify more powerful drives than those of necessity.
The sequence of the sacrificial exchange repeats and feeds back in all places where it appears, it becomes a custom and so, it establishes itself as an institution for noble exchanges, for transactions in which one, by giving goods, symbolically exchanges his nobility or his cowardice with that of another person. When this happens, when it is already established as a ritual, then the sense of the operation reverses: instead of one giving and therefore proving his nobility, one becomes obliged to give, on pain of otherwise looking like a miserly person. People, the whole community, already expect one to give things away because it is customary. At the same time, the action also obliges the other party to act similarly. They have to accept receiving, on pain of otherwise looking like cowards who are not able to live up to the challenge that any gift implies. And then, after that, they will have to reciprocate, in order not to look (not to feel) stingy.
By this obligation to reciprocate, the one who gives can immediately feel secure, as he knows as a fact that whatever he gives, he will eventually receive back. And this perverts the initial intention of the giving, it annuls the nobility that is supposed to be proven by the operation, and the action no longer shows the fact that one is not afraid to die. In a way, one might say, this is as far from generosity as it can be.
If the person giving has an eye on what he is going to receive a little later, if he has this expectation of a revenue (from Latin re-venire, “to come back”), then there is no generosity. What this repetition of transactions has instituted is “credit”. If one gives something knowing that he will receive it back with interest, he is “lending” instead of giving. This also means that by this repetition “time” has been introduced in the operation: the action of giving used to be completed in its own realisation, and only then that of reciprocation, which in fact was only a new “giving” action, started and finished. On the institutional stage, the action continues during the span of time in which the reciprocation is still pending, a time that can be measured and computed. Clocks start ticking. Most important of all, it institutes “institution”, which is this contract, or set of contracts, that binds both parts.
There is a way of understanding the act of giving as a violent action, but as long as the exchange is regulated, peace is kept. Still there is some tension in a pending restitution, and to the extent this tension is felt as dangerous, the more institutionalisation will be applied.
Generosity only takes place if the gift is not returned, so it is not conveyed by these regulated exchanges. The fact of the gift not being returned is only guaranteed by making a gift which cannot be returned. The most efficient way to prevent a gift from being returned, as religions have studied and proved for centuries, is to make the act of giving secret. Giving secretly is a subjective action, the base of many mystical and ascetic practises and, on occasions and partly, also of art practises. If there are artists who do their work secretly, we cannot know, and anyway it is not very relevant to the speculations of this lecture.
The other possibility of preventing a restitution, which is present in all art experiences, is to give too much. Giving too much defies all exchange, and then annuls credit and time.
It is difficult to know how much is “too much”. One has to avoid calculation, because it implies time, it allows the institution “time”, among others, to stay. The artist, as William Blake puts it in Proverbs of Hell, “never knows what is enough unless he knows what is more than enough”. This is the only way one can be certain of the gift being enough: by being too much.
Here the metaphor of the near-death experience is again fitting: you never know how near you are to death unless you die, unless you go further than death, to the other side, and then you do not know anymore, nor are you able to tell anyone. I might have fainted this morning and thought that I had a near-death experience just to have a stroke later today, for example, which made me realise that this morning death wasn’t in the vicinity at all.
If art is generous and it is only “that gift which cannot be returned”, then when there is restitution/institution, there is no art.
What I am saying is the opposite of the Institutional Theory of Art. For the authors who invented and promoted this theory, “art” is so just because there is an institution around it that legitimates it as “art”. One must remember that the realm in which those authors grow, the beliefs they are nourished by and the power they harness have their foundations in the very idea of “institution”, so they have reasons to be keen on supporting that theory.
Art is always struggling to get rid of the institution. It is difficult to see how art happens because it is always wrapped in institution. One has to make a hole through the institutional layers to see art. Only by being an artist can one discern what is there which is not institution, distinguish the art from its embodiment. This can be done by everybody to the extent they are artists. Or it can also be said that “everybody is an artist to the extent that his intention when approaching art is to perforate these layers”. Anyway, art can be seen without certainty of any kind, and only for a brief moment. Every time one manages to perforate a deeper layer, one believes one has had a near-art experience.
Participation cannot exist without the institutional set of contracts. Participation necessarily needs the embodiment, in objects, in actions or in ideas, if it is not just that it is constituted by this embodiment. Art is what refuses to materialise.
5.- Art versus artworks
I would like to point out at this moment the fact that, according to what I have said, participatory art is not possible, but it is indeed possible to have “participatory artworks”.
There is a constant tendency among curators, theorists, critics, the public and even among artists, to see all matters related to art subordinate to the artwork. It looks as if the conversation is going to be about art but instead, everybody starts talking about artworks right away. The reason for this is that talking about art is very difficult, because as it never is, and only manifests through works, it is always more convenient and tempting to talk about the works instead. The particular condition of art voids all statements referring to it: as soon as one manages to say something relevant about it, the idea is already obsolete, because what you have just said has changed art. And then, inadvertently, one is already talking about artworks.
There are several books on the market entitled “what is art?” that only talk about which objects can be considered to be part of art history or can be bought for an art collection. There is a lot of material about what the art-world is, or art-critique, the art-market, the art/fair or the art-weekend… but they do not say much about art.
After so much talk about things related to art, in which the aim of discussing art itself has been removed, artworks have assumed a life of their own. In the current literature about art, something can be a legit artwork without having anything to do with art, not even remotely. I guess this emancipation of the object from its referent, or this metastatic self-referential fabric of quotations the art world is producing, is what was haunting the nights of the late Jean Baudrillard. The “Institutional Theory of Art” and the trend of “participatory artworks” find their place to exist in this divorce between art and artworks.
Only the artist has an interest in pointing out the importance of the artistic experience. It might be due to a complex he has, or a malfunctioning, which forces him to look for truth, or to prove that he is not stingy. This doesn’t apply to nominal artists, but to curators, gallery owners, collectors, even the public, everybody to the extent they are artists, that they are concerned about art and not only about the artworks. For the rest, it is better to count artworks, to nimbly move through the layers, and to perfect the institution.
6.- Institutional Critique
“Everyone is an artist” if he is about to become one. To be an artist is to have the tendency to become an artist. This can also be said in a negative form: to be an artist is to have this tendency to not be anything but an artist. Which perhaps also means “to have this tendency of not being anything”. One is an artist to the extent he is putting all his effort into abolishing institutions, into making institutions collapse, especially the institutions that the artist contains within himself, the institutions that constitute him as an artist (and as a human being).
The primordial institution that constitutes us is “language”, and artists are always struggling with it. Language devours the art experience. Therefore the task and purpose of the artist is to abolish it, and to reveal those things, like art experiences, that institutions “save” us from. If one can say that “a conversation starts with a lie” as the poet Adrienne Rich put it in her Cartographies of Silence, it is because the main function of language is to cover a simple truth, that of death, the fact that the person who is possessed by language is going to die. The attraction artworks exert is based on this fetishist quality they have of portraying everything related to death but not death itself. All art is radical “institutional critique”, as it calls into question “reality”, all things we know for sure, all the established facts that support our institutional existence.
An artwork is still in contact with art when it is faithful to all its possible outcomes, when it doesn’t hide one in favour of others, when it is still to be.
“I don’t make things. I make things happen.” This statement of artist Jeremy Deller is often quoted in participatory art writings.
The artist realises his art by deciding on a set of parameters within which the artwork will develop in the interaction with the participants, and so he makes the thing happen. As has been said in regards to generosity, art is being made because there is no clear expectation about what the outcome is going to be, there is no expectation of revenue, and no regulated exchange.
But in many participatory projects the very setting of parameters is “the artwork”, and it is finished before all random, personal intervention begins. The public participates in it as much as the shark in the work of Damien Hirst, or the stonemasons in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids. They are a ready-made audience for ready-made decisions. The participants never manage to get out of the formula set by the artist.
The controversy about the quality of the artworks made by the public while attending these projects in which the “gift of creation is offered to members of the audience” is nonsense: it comes from the assumption that those objects made by the participants are the result of the art project. In fact, at any time for any given factor, the result will always be “correct”, because success or failure at the audience level is irrelevant, as long as there is success on the higher level of the artist’s work.
The role of the participant in art projects makes me think of the design of arcade video games I used to play when I was a kid. One put a coin in the machine to drive a tank and to try to destroy many enemy tanks, moving always forward, as far as possible, in order to extend the game, and thus get maximum entertainment out of the money spent. But if you were in an artistic mood, you might have been wasting a fistful of coins just to go to the sides of the screen, or backwards, to see what is there, how far the designers have expected clumsy players to get lost, or if there was a parallel reality out of the customary marked path. The artistic mood is a mix of rebelliousness and the death drive, because the revolutionary frisson of those adventures was soon extinguished by the sign “game over”.
Indeed, for the audience there is a way to get out of the formula, which is to leave the gallery. This can be seen, according to what I said before, as not accepting the gift. But the audience normally is actively and passively compelled to play their role: they are relentlessly reminded of what they might miss. If the spectators accept the terms of the work, they do not participate in the art, they comply with the artwork’s rules. Ultimately, “rejection to be” is the last resort of revolutionary practise: by leaving the gallery the public might provoke their own art experience somewhere else, but this has nothing to do with participation.
The best public, the public that becomes “real participants”, would be those able to reciprocate, to top up the artwork, by returning too much, by doing something with the work that is not expected, not by the artist, but not even by the very viewers at the moment they are getting into that new situation. As Roland Barthes wrote “a poem cannot be commented on but by another poem”. If an artwork is inaugurating something, in order to be faithful to it while contributing to its unveiling, one needs to inaugurate something else. So in order to participate faithfully in an artwork, one has to force the rules (of the artwork, or oneself).
In “participatory art”, as this term is commonly understood, and in “political participation”, the formula that coerces people into acting in a certain way, or the formula that makes irrelevant any action they might take, is enforced by the ubiquity of disciplinary power. Art projects are furnished with an apparatus made of lots of safety devices working conjointly for the art to go as it should, and there is little interest in most of the agents taking part in the operation for it to go any other way. The farce of participation is exemplary in Marina Abramovic’s work, in which the artist is ubiquitous.
In order to have participatory art, a “radical participatory art”, every member of the audience would have to top up the artwork. This situation already exists with the name of “orgy”.
For in the orgy
– there is no formula
– all people are equal
– institution is annulled
– time is abolished
No reality, no facts. No money to be made.
The orgy would be “participatory art” if not for the fact that an orgy is defined by “not having parts”. It is understood that in orgies all participants fuse into one, that the whole body of society becomes unity, that there is no individual will, or gain, or vested interest. There is also “radical generosity”, more-than-enough generosity, and nothing which implies “time” is retained.
An orgy doesn’t happen naturally. It is always induced (and here might be where the importance given to an artist’s mastery of an art technique lies). But those who induce it should also be lost in the mist of the orgy, or otherwise it would be a “party rally”, rather than an “orgy”. The conditions in which destruction can start must be planned, but how the orgy will finish, the extent the destruction will reach and the profit or the losses it will bring, are necessarily left open to the logic of their own development.
9.- Everybody is an artist
Now it is possible to modulate Beuys’ statement: “Everybody is an artist” as long as he or she is undermining institutions. Within the orgy, all institutions are abolished and therefore, everybody is an artist. While in the orgy everybody is participating in the bliss of art, sharing a beautiful world, exercising direct democracy, and making one single sculpture from the entire body of society, a unity of will and of relinquishment of the will.
But as will be remembered by anyone who has participated in an orgy, at some point one becomes hungry. All food was given by this radical generosity, and everything has been consumed. There is nothing left to eat.
While some people are in the orgy, many other people are still producing, supplying the orgy with the goods needed for the orgy to continue. Or more likely, some of the people regain their individuality and step out of the orgy, pressed by their bodily needs. One cannot be in an orgy permanently, because one has to take care of the bills. Or pay the other price of dying in the intent.
Indeed, art is what is not production. And to the extent that one is an artist, one is destroying, wasting, trashing some surplus of the production machinery. Still the statement can be pushed further: all art is surplus in the Marxist sense, the product of a labour time that has not been paid for. All artworks are made by money snatched from the production system, and from the effort of the producers. Art as sacrifice is possible by unpaid work, and if it starts giving something in return, it does so to the extent that it is not art anymore.
One of the issues often raised by participatory art theorists is that of the complexity of social relationships in participation due to the fact that “as soon as one starts using people in the works, this starts raising ethical questions.” But if one has strict ethical standards one should be wary of all forms of art. The left wing as much as the right are to be against art, because they are supported by that “reality” art is undermining.
“Everybody who is in the orgy is an artist”. But it would be more accurate to say it in this other way: “Everybody who decides to enter the orgy, is an artist”. And even better: “everyone who has the determination and the strength to stay in the orgy, is an artist”.
The result of the orgy being permanent, of one staying indefinitely in the orgy, is that one bleeds to death. One is an artist as long as one is bleeding. So, despite Beuys’ conscious, probably bona fide, intentions, “everybody is an artist”, is more a threat, a challenge, a curse and, in these times in which production and profit reign, almost an insult. One can imagine a profiteer saying that while meaning “everybody is a sucker” or “there’s a sucker born every minute”.
There is another tendency in art theory one can easily pick up just by opening some books: to talk about the art experience as something related to the action of contemplating artworks, instead of that of making art. There is a clear difference between the artist and the viewer which is based on the responsibility the artist bears of maintaining the work open to all its possibilities as long as possible, which is, in a certain way, to keep the artwork unfinished, to stay in the orgy as long as he can handle it. There is no way for the spectator to open or to close the artwork, because he receives it already finished. As if being in an orgy would be the same as watching it on TV or, as we say in Spain, to look at the bulls from behind the barrier.
As long as the artist keeps the work in that limboish state, he is responsible and therefore he is bleeding. The end towards which bleeding leads is death. The responsibility of the artist, compared with that of the public, is that he is going relentlessly towards his own destruction. As I feel a bit embarrassed saying what I have just said, I would like to ask for the assistance of Jean-François Lyotard, who wrote: “the artist is someone who, in the desire to see death, even at the price of his own death, lends it the upper hand over the desire to produce”.
Everybody can walk away from an art project except the artist. All this is very abstract, so I will give a little mundane example, taken from my personal daily experience.
I start a project and I invite people to participate. I want them to be seriously engaged in it, to have a worthwhile experience. We start thinking of all the exciting possibilities the project has, and all the rewarding outcomes, on how to make the collaboration more fruitful and fluid. Everybody involved writes to me about how to make the best of “our” project. A few months later we are discussing several problems “the” project has. At some point in the process I receive a message saying: I will need more money if you want me to continue working on “your” project. The moment I read “your project”, is the moment I become an artist.
How many (and to what extent) participants in “participative art” would like to see death? Their own death, not that of the artist. But if they want to see their own death, they are also artists, they are not public anymore, not even participants, because one’s own death is something personal. They will not be accepting the rules of the artist, because they will have their own artistic experience with their own rules (with their own death).
11.- Poetry versus sociology
The artist, as has been said, is bleeding. The artist has also to stop being an artist or otherwise he will die (and that is where all those artists who were giving secretly might be). One can be a fully-realised artist only for a brief moment, and then one is also absorbed by the production world. At the moment the artist is regained for production, when he stops being an artist, he often entertains a perverted thought: he needs to earn a lot of money because he wants to be more and more generous. I like to see the figure of the artist as a bleeding vampire, going towards his own destruction but then, when the end is perceived to be close, urged to suck the blood out of anyone within reach.
In order to get the resources to be generous, to give, to waste, he starts eyeing the results of the orgy. There is no categorical ethical valuation of this action: it might be carried out equally in good or bad faith, without noticeable differences in the outcome. However, the attitude contains already the institutionalisation that puts an end to the orgy. The artist starts looking for ways to seduce and then, soon, is the one who has been seduced, and the meaning of his actions has changed. This possibility constantly threatens art endeavours, and being an artist is, as well, to resist this tendency of inviting such a thing to happen.
The artist, when trapped by his own seduction strategies, is not making art, but sociology. William Yeats, the poet, said that we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.
The shift that takes place in the artist’s activity from poetry to sociology has parallels with what happens when a sacrificial economy becomes one based on necessity. The meaning of a ritual gift is found in the giver, while in necessity exchanges the focus on is on the goods that are craved for and those who possess them.
The appeal that the role of the spectator within the art experience has in recent art theory might come from a misreading of a line by Marcel Duchamp.
This is the last paragraph of the Session on the Creative Act, held in Houston, Texas, in April 1957, and it is often brought up in conversations in order to liken the importance of the public with that of the artist, and to help democratic ideas to soak into the art world:
All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act. This becomes even more obvious when posterity gives a final verdict and sometimes rehabilitates forgotten artists.
I like to give Marcel Duchamp a vote of confidence by suggesting that this line means something different if one reads the whole article. But anyway he must have had a bad day when he wrote this paper, if one were only to judge it by looking at the value he places on posterity. One might argue that those were different, more innocent, times, ignorant of what now seems to be an evident fact: that history is written by best sellers. But the comment was even then, nevertheless, naive, especially after the thousands of artists of all kinds who had been killed in concentration camps a few years earlier. What has posterity to say about them?
There are other details that are dubious, or that can be interpreted in dubious ways, like when Duchamp says that the spectator “brings the work in contact with the external world”, which implies somehow that the work already exists, and the spectator is only “deciphering and bringing it in contact with the external world” later on. But who needs the spectator to decipher the works anyway? Who needs the work to be in contact with the external world? The public does, not the artist. Or the artist to the extent he is not bleeding, but vampiring.
All in all, I do not think Duchamp himself believes what he is saying in this paper. The public didn’t have a clue at that time about what the works meant, especially Duchamp’s, and one may still say that they don’t.
The root of the mistake, the big mistake, is to think of art as “the creative act”, to consider “art” and “creativity” as almost synonyms. This is a widespread misconception about art. Creativity is something that concerns designers, entrepreneurs, tycoons and, this is where it has the strongest appeal, weapon developers.
Art is more about “destruction” than “creation”: destruction of meaning, of reality, of certainties, of institutions, of language and, in a subsidiary and less important way, of goods. The key idea that helps me to understand the nature of artworks is that, once reality has been destroyed, and nothing is left to hold onto, the artists cannot cope with the void, and a new reality is called urgently to substitute the previous one. As if the bleeding artist, at one point, gets into such a feeble state due to the blood loss, that he forgets his determination to see death, to bleed his way to it, and calls for whatever object that can save him.
The replacement has to be made by a new type of reality because by then nobody believes in the previous one, due to the fact that the art operation has shown it to be distinctively false. That’s why art seems to be creative, because it brings this new reality to the world, but it is creative at its worse moment, at the moment of the art’s hangover. In Spanish we have the word “resaca”, which means at the same time “hangover” and “backwash”. At most, if art is seen like the sea that beats the stones of a shore once and again, the artwork would be the foam formed out of each wave.
I would like to say with Beuys, that the silence of Duchamp should not be overrated. But following my analysis one might think that perhaps Marcel Duchamp talked too much. Of course Beuys himself assumed that creativity is the best thing we can have, when he claims for everybody the status of “artist”. He might actually have been meaning “everybody is (or can, or should be) creative”. From certain points of view indeed everybody might be, but that fact has nothing to do with art.
“Imagination” would be a better aim for an artist, a good tool to question reality in a way that effectively challenges it, to find the glitch which makes it collapse. Art needs “radical imagination” in order to displace the point of view and see that the decor is made out of cardboard, to choose something that is not on the menu.
14.- Society against art
Art requests items that are not on the menu. They are not there because they have been withdrawn, or certain conditions have prevented them from ever being there. Few individuals, those who are cursed by art, try to order those things, and that very intention already represents for some a threatening idea.
In order to neutralise the threat, society is always exhorting for art to be reabsorbed into utility. The high position “creativity” has won among the values held by the art world responds to the strategic deployment of this tendency. Art should be useful for:
– Earning money
– Helping the community
– Fighting those who are against the community (corporations)
– Helping the world
– Controlling the masses (through nationalism, for example)
– Producing critical thinking
These uses are pushed forward, actively and passively, openly or covertly, to divert attention from the disquieting qualities of art. Ultimately, the disquieting qualities of art can give all these uses as a result, but this is never in the intention of the artist (to the extent, again, that he is one).
However, this tendency is not directed by society, or the system, or abstract powers of institutionalisation, but by the institutional impulses that constitute each of us (humans), concurrently with our artistic (destructive) drives. Artists are the main threat to art, because they know it better, because they are closer to the core of it. Artists are as those who have had a religious experience, who are keener to become priests and therefore tempted to promote the church, which is an institutionalisation of the religious experience.
15.- On participation
Art is losing its capability to call media attention, to fascinate the public. The practice of art used to exert for a while a powerful attraction, because some of its natural characteristics were provocative, like the fact of artists rejecting certainties, the risks that this involves and the surprising outcomes produced by the artists putting themselves in those situations. People followed artists. In order to harness the power that art had, many substitutes for the impact these conditions produced have been released, always with narcotic (instead of disquieting) effect. The illusion has passed and the artist is lonely again.
Ideas about art being generous, democratic, creative, communicative, funny, entertaining, and shocking are a desperate attempt by the art world to recapture media attention, as it has been said, partly orchestrated by society (or the production forces), partly adopted by individuals who represent the art world. For instance, people like to hear about human rights, because human rights are good for people, and artists are inclined to welcome and promote them in the conception of the projects, in order to increase their public appeal. But all those options are on the menu, so they serve art only by betraying it.
Artworks produced by groups of people, by artists’ collectives or just by citizens, can be interesting in many aspects. They can be the result of an art experience or not. It might be that they are the result of many artists working, independently, on them. But the art experience is individual. It is a curse that one has to bear. When one sees other artists who are also bearing it, one salutes them.