By Christian Viveros-Fauné
“Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” Andy Warhol
About a hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp took a urinal, put it on a pedestal in a museum, and called it art. Two years ago, inside a cramped Ecuadorean café in Queens, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera repeated in conversation a remarkably invigorating idea that should prove just as memorable—It’s time to return Duchamp’s urinal to the bathroom.
Delivered in the context of a coffee colloquy, Bruguera’s phrase struck me with the force of the newly obvious. The clincher for a statement she called her “Introduction on Useful Art,” delivered in April, 2011, at the headquarters of her evolving political-movement-cum-artwork— Immigrant Movement International—Bruguera’s words should serve as a rallying cry for thousands of a socially engaged artists and like-minded allies around the world.
Immigrant Movement International supporters rally on International Migrants Day, December 18, 2012. (Photo: Creative Time)
Instead, her ideal of “useful art” and that of other artists with similarly social aims remains mired in an astoundingly academic set of disquisitions that bring to mind less Jacques Rancière and Jean Baudrillard, than the Scholasticism of Don Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. How many socially engaged artists can dance on the head of pin? Can the Western-centric “aesthetic regime of art,” as inaugurated by Friedrich Schiller and the Romantics, make room for a socially engaged art with real world goals? Are such efforts truly art, or do they instead constitute—in the snooty terms used by Claire Bishop—merely “well-intentioned homilies that today pass for critical discourse on social collaboration”? And finally, to quote Ben Davis, is the idea of art as social practice “a starting point for addressing social problems, or a distraction that keeps us from seeing their true extent”?
A great deal could be said here about the “paranoid consensus” that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick rightly identified as dominating contemporary critical theory, especially the kind that relies on structuralism, psychoanalysis, and neo-Marxism for its worldview. To paraphrase Harold Rosenberg, a great deal of postmodern criticism, like postmodern art, calcified into reactionary convention long ago—constituted as it is by professions whose central aspect is the pretense of overthrowing themselves.
But the idea of this essay isn’t just to point out the self-serving suspicions that characterize the increasingly totalizing nature of approaches like Marxist critique and criticality—one typically cries out for activist engagement of a vintage nature, while the other absurdly still demands the detachment of deconstruction—but mainly to call attention to what’s missing from current discussions about socially engaged art. Five years after the start of the global economic crisis, much of the recent theoretical throat-clearing—enacted in the shadow of the most brazenly speculative art market in history—critically avoids one of the most fundamental advances in the art of this century: namely, the return of the idea of “business art” to avant-garde practice. This is not, mind you, the familiar art-as-an-asset-class version of “business art,” but another beast entirely. This time it’s for service.
A phrase first made popular by Andy Warhol’s 1975 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and later abridged to just two words, “business art” has arguably come to be the dominant form of art in our time. Today, this juggernaut of commodity-based art drives not only the way art is made, but also the way it’s promoted, marketed, sold, and, ultimately, understood both by experts and the vast public (Michael Findlay, in his 2012 book The Value of Art, refers to the phenomenon as “commercialism,” the last art movement after Pop and postmodernism).
Just one telling example of its most public face: the Tate Modern’s 2009 show “Pop Life: Art in a Material World.” According to exhibition’s wall text, Warhol’s business art philosophy “is reflected in the work of artists of subsequent generations who have infiltrated the publicity machine and the marketplace as a deliberate strategy.” That show, along with a number of others (such as the Met’s “Regarding Warhol”) recounted the story of how figures like Richard Prince, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, and other business artists achieved blue chip status (a condition far more important than fame or critical standing) by co-opting Warhol’s tactics and improving upon them vastly. These tactics include the referencing of consumer products, practicing corporate-style branding and self-promotion, engaging in factory-like production, creating economic consortiums with like-minded investors, and, finally, treating art like an especially fungible instrument of high-finance—or, more to the point, like modern-day hedge funds and alternate currencies.
In a word, the 21st century has seen the rise of business art as a species of meta-art—a new form of contemporary art whose primary purpose is to shape the marketplace for its own commercial purposes (consider in this light Hirst’s diamond-studded skull For the Love of God, as well as the November auction sale of Koons’ Balloon Dog, set not-so-accidentally by Christie’s and one of the artist’s biggest collectors to hype his upcoming Whitney Museum retrospective). The net effect of this phenomenon is nothing less than a revolution in artistic values: an assault that finally jettisons traditional humanistic and postmodern aesthetics to nakedly embrace the idea of art as an asset (now without the aid of passé irony); that univocally accepts the market as the ultimate arbiter of worth (both economic and symbolic); and that, finally, banks on the auction houses as a stock exchange to be readily manipulated by powerfully opaque interests (with virtually no oversight).
Today big money shapes and dominates the art world like at no time previously in history. In fact, the paradigm of 20th century Warholian business art is so dominant as to have enunciated its own bald-faced 2006 corollary. Enter Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s platinum rule: “The best art is the most expensive because the art market is so smart.” The sentiment is so institutionally classist, so smarmily unfair and self-fulfilling, it’s a wonder progressive artists and their supporters have not marched up to Sotheby’s York Avenue offices brandishing torches and pitchforks.
Protest art and social practice, as Davis has properly pointed out, “grows out of a dispirited reaction to the commercial art industry’s complicity with capital, and a corresponding, and altogether wholesome, hunger for an art that actually makes a difference.” Not only are the questions it raises “very real,” I would argue that the dilemmas pointed up by current social practice remain the most urgent issues affecting the “art industry” today. Not only are speculative actors much more open about their real economic interests than in the past—one writer referred to the current state of the art as “a vapid hellhole of investment-crazed pretentiousness”—but those who champion the connection between ethics and aesthetics in contemporary art appear to have found a stronger voice. Like the historical periods that engendered Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire and Joseph Beuys’ idea of “social sculpture,” the time is ripe for the kind of artistic and critical innovation that at once crystallizes and breaks with the current order of things. Despite the fact that some critics of socially engaged art have taken little notice, that is exactly what has taken place recently in the field of contemporary art.
Consider Bruguera’s idea of “Useful Art” in light of the discussion of business art. An evolving experiment in which she and other artist volunteers actively founded a brick and mortar center for art and civil rights, Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International has not merely protested the status quo, it has also managed to conceive of the idea of collaborative art as a long-term project with an expansive social vision. Among other practical activities, it has served to help immigrants regularize their legal status, bring the issues of new arrivals to the U.S. into the public sphere, meet regularly with local politicians, aid newcomers in constructing a sense of cross-national community—and, just as importantly, provide artists with an enhanced sense of ethical purpose. By harnessing art world institutional power (the center was funded by Creative Time for a period and continues to be supported by the Queens Museum) Bruguera and Co. have managed to both imbue critical aesthetics with an ethical mission, as well as articulate an inspired response to art’s ongoing commodification. Rather than using art as a convenient tool to service business, Immigrant Movement International has instead turned the business of art toward service.
One of several emblematic examples of artists moving toward direct “insertions” into what Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles would have termed “ideological circuits,” this and other newfangled real world art interventions also put a premium on mobilizing actual political and financial power. To use Bruguera’s parlance, such experiments no longer define art as “a space for signaling problems, but the place from which to create the proposal and implementation of possible solutions.”
That is certainly one way to consider Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects, an artist-led block improvement effort started in Chicago’s South Side in 2007 that has rapidly evolved into a $20 million redevelopment scheme. A growing art project that includes turning an abandoned bank into a cultural center, the creation of an artist housing collaborative, and a brand new 20,000 square foot “Arts Incubator,” Gates’ efforts amount to a wholesale revitalization scheme for the city of Chicago. A site for culture where before there was a boarded up Walgreen’s, Gates’ latest effort—developed in partnership with the University of Chicago—makes a powerful argument for taking advantage of market conditions, as well as private, municipal, and federal housing grants—not to mention the art world’s guilt toward racially charged encounters—to trump the conventional capitalist calculus of risk and return.
“I have personal ambitions, as do a lot of people, to see this neighborhood alive,”Gates told the Chicago Tribune at the March inauguration of the “Arts Incubator” joint venture (it constitutes only part of a growing partnership between Gates and the university called the “Arts and Public Life Initiative”). “But what does the neighborhood want this block to look like? What does it want it to feel like? The thing I want to do is focus on getting this space as legible to the world as possible, to having this building act as a creative catalyst, both as a home to things happening inside and things radiating outward from it.”
The success of Gates’ projects, even missing impact statements—these would truly demonstrate effectiveness, identify target audiences, quantify numbers of people served, provide accurate demographics, justify programs in relation to wealth creation, etc.—make certain conclusions abundantly clear. Namely, that the efforts of this artist and those allied with him represent a paradigm shift for an art world used to seeing money deployed chiefly as a marker of financial and (now) symbolic value. His example may be emulated—to a lesser or greater degree, or perhaps even not at all—by other artists throughout the country, but it remains a ground breaking innovation. Like a Keynesian capitalist with a redistributive mission, Gates has learned how to use—with a nod to the cultural critic Shannon Jackson—money as material.
So it is with what is undoubtedly the oldest and most developed service-oriented business art scheme in the country, Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses. Founded in 1993 by Lowe and six other artists in an effort to do something that was not just symbolic, but that had “a practical application,” Project Row Houses has long had a marked real world impact upon its immediate community in Houston’s Third Ward, while providing a stark example of art’s transformative potential for forward-thinking artists around the world. As of its founding two decades ago, Project Row Houses comprised 22 houses spanning a block and a half. Today it occupies six blocks that are home to 40 properties, including exhibition and residency spaces for artists, administrative offices, a community gallery, a park, low-income residential and commercial spaces, and houses that provide homes and support for single mothers trying to get their lives back on track.
Rick Lowe and artist Jesse Lott during renovation of the houses in 1993. (Photo: David Robinson)
Developed largely in contrast to the commercial art world, Project Row Houses nonetheless participates not just of the for-profit world, but also of other much larger and more powerful business environments (among them, architecture, urban planning, real estate development and banking)—a fact that also distinguishes this and other similar ventures from previous examples of social practice. An official community development corporation with a $1 million annual budget, Project Row Houses has not only pioneered urban revitalization through the arts in this country, it has also helped incubate new businesses in a neighborhood that desperately needs the stability and social fabric these provide.
The commercial art world may be booming so much that, in the words Reuters blogger Felix Salmon, “it has stopped being a source of fascination and crazy numbers, and has started to become a source of sheer disgust,” but a handful of artists have upended Andy Warhol’s famous dictum about business art in the process. At a precisely the time when the art business perfectly reflects the values of the 1%, artists like Lowe, Gates and Bruguera have learned to use business art to uphold a set of opposing values: critical thinking, social and cultural usefulness, and an expansion of art’s possibilities in relation to real life, and a profoundly adaptive humanism.
If that’s not returning Duchamp’s urinal to the men’s room—as well as providing art’s best example of a genuinely dialectical turn during this money-besotted era—I don’t know what is.