It’s not a joke to suggest that they just don’t make things as well as they used to. Perhaps the megaliths and the pyramids were the last truly permanent works. Everything is perishable today, and modern progress seems to be toward greater lightness and fragility. In all the most important man made products relations between the physical parts are extremely delicate and precise and depend on a host of minutely calculated particulars. Naturally breakdowns are common and so repairs and maintenance are necessary aspects of the overall economy. Connections can always break, and yet their breakability is a consequence of their formation by assembly – they have to be made separately before they can be attached. The most complex and ingenious contraptions are competely disposable, but couldn’t be any other way, simply because of the way they are manufactured. The functioning parts of the most idiotic and unnecessary toy have to be designed and calculated to some degree of tolerance in three dimensions, and four dimensions on the factory line, before it is sold and then thrown away. Someone’s mind has been inside everything, yet nothing has much durability. What we call visual art should be called substantial art – integral and whole as opposed to designed and assembled – and if it’s also deliberately flimsy and makeshift then it is an elegy for all the disintegrating things.
The important part of art, music, literature, theatre and film has always been immaterial, so it’s inevitable that the smart artist today would work with a medium in which the details of the final work are left up to circumstance. The same video played on three monitors will have three different colour schemes, but the specifics of any work are not what matter in the end. One point of refuge is the institution. If the work reflects on the structure it inhabits it can be contingent, devoid of concrete details and still cared for and looked after. The dematerialization of art is just an adaptation to contemporary conditions of production, which do not need to be seen as characterizing some millenial shift to the digital, but just normal and typical flimsiness. In distinction, there is work that is a real particular thing, that wants to be concrete and therefore specific and therefore unique. For this kind of work details do matter – a lot.