The Context

Continuing with John Kelsey’s article in the September Artforum, as thoughtful and well written as it is, it does adopt the conventional tone of apocalyptic hyperbole:

“How can we proceed from the feeling that our works already dispossess and excommunicate us as artists and as persons? And what comes after the realization that contemporary artists no longer hold a monopoly on creativity? Everything seems to suggest that the only way for artists to survive their own precarity is by taking it to the limit, risking their own definition.”

I guess I would say that to be dispossessed by one’s own work is mainstream modernism, and to risk one’s definition as an artist is the normal strategy of the avant-garde. The other point, about creativity as the new norm in all kinds of work opens up a perspective beyond art. I used to believe it was true, but a closer look at where the idea comes from changed my mind. Art’s loss of its “monopoly” is an epiphenomenon of a society that has willingly given up its manufacturing and hence lost its ability to innovate. A recent piece in the NYT declares that “hardware is the new software,” and goes on to extol a recent turn toward manufacturing in Silicon Valley, enabled by rapid prototyping. But the examples of products given are pathetic in my view, little more than toys and gadgets.  The case could easily be made that there has been no significant inventions in the digital realm since the fifties—the laser and transistor being the basis of it all to this day. Innovation has been just refinement, and more recently limited entirely to marketing—Facebook, for example. The anxieties of artists are small compared to the general, and justified, anxiety in the economy, and the rhetoric coming from Silicon Valley and Thomas Friedman about the need to move up the value chain just to survive is an expression of the panic—not to be taken literally, but understood critically, as a symptom. The so-called “creative” industries seem to me so much wishful thinking, a fantasy that America can continue to lead the global economy without the factory, or the working class for that matter.

But then perhaps Kelsey is talking about how the internet has given the amateur a platform, on sites like Pinterest for example. Recently one hears the claim that the “democratizing” influence of the internet, and the fact that technologies to produce books, films, animations and so on are now so cheap that anyone can take them up threatens to eliminate the professional artist. When he asks if “art is possible after Facebook” I would answer that it is possible for anyone to be a curator, so if one’s practice is to stay high up on the value chain in a managerial/curatorial role, then sure, universal “creativity” is a kind of crisis. But it is as difficult as it ever was to make an image or an object worth curating—or to make any object—and still requires special skill.

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