Saturday, October 13, 2018

Banksy's self-shredding painting; the commodity of anti-commodification art; and Adorno's old observation that it is not self-evident art has any right to exist

For a moment of didactic reflection on the arts we should avoid getting to the letter `B' until we have started at the letter `A'.  Before we can get to the latest headlines about Banksy we might as well pass to that topic through the writings of Adorno.

Theodor Adorno 
Aesthetic Theory
translated, edited by Robert Hullot-Kentor
edited by Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedermann
copyright (c) 1997 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota
ISBN 0-8264-6757-1

page 1
It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist. ...

page 2
As a result of its inevitable withdrawal from theology, from the unqualified claim to the truth of salvation, a secularization without which art would never have developed, art is condemned to provide the world as it exists with a consolation that—shorn of any hope of a world beyond—strengthens the spell of that from which the autonomy of art wants to free itself. [emphases added] ...

page 21
... Baudelaire neither railed against nor portrayed reification; he protested against it in the experience of its archetypes, and the medium of this experience is the poetic form. This raises him supremely above late romantic sentimentality. The power of his work is that it syncopates the overwhelming objectivity of the commodity character—which wipes out any human trace—with the objectivity of the work in itself, anterior to the living subject: The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity. [emphasis added] The modern pays tribute to this in the vestige of the abstract in its concept. If in monopoly capitalism it is primarily exchange value, not use value, that is consumed, in the modern artwork it is its abstractness, that irritating indeterminateness of what it is and to what purpose it is, that becomes a cipher of what the work [page 22] is.  ...

page 340
... The absence of theological meaning, however modified, culminates in art as the crisis of its own meaning. The more ruthlessly artworks draw the consequences from the contemporary condition of consciousness, the more closely they themselves approximate meaninglessness. [emphasis added] The more ruthlessly artworks draw the consequences from the contemporary condition of consciousness, the more closely they themselves approximate meaninglessness. They thereby achieve a historically requisite truth, which, if art disowned it, would condemn art to doling out powerless consolation and to complicity with the status quo. At the same time, however, meaningless art has begun to forfeit its right to exist; in any case, there is no longer any art that has remained inviolable. ...

Of course it isn't self-evident that nothing about art is self-evident to a great many people. The inner life of art and the unquestionable nature of its relationship to the world and most of all its right to exist are, if anything, more axiomatic in our age than they have probably been in some time.  In the wake of Richard Wagner's declaration that it is for Art to take up the truths that are obscured in the dogmas of religion art in the West, as Adorno noted himself, has become a religion to a comfortable and striving class of people.  Nevertheless, let's suppose for a moment that Adorno was right.

We can attempt to translate what Adorno was saying by putting things this way: the shackles that chained art to promulgating the ideals of throne and altar might have been broken, but having social and cultic norms and functions by its very nature art was going to serve something and someone.  Art, liberated from fealty to throne and altar, found a more pitiless and inescapable master, the market.  Held up as being able to speak truth to power, to reveal the real self and the immortal in humanity, art didn't exactly do any of these things consistently.

In Adorno's taxonomy of the social functions and means for art, the origin of art is fuzzy and if people were to propose that art had roots in some ancient sympathetic magic it's not clear that the art of today has really been separated from that impulse.

page 13
... If according to its own concept art has become what it is, this is no less the case with its classification as a source of pleasure; indeed, as components of ritual praxis the magical and animistic predecessors of art were not autonomous; yet precisely because they were sacred they were not objects of enjoyment. The spiritualization of art incited the rancor of the excluded and spawned consumer art as a genre, while conversely antipathy toward consumer art compelled artists to ever more reckless spiritualization. ...

page 127
Art is what remains after the loss of what was supposed to exercise a magical, and later a cultic, function.

Art can be thought of, in this highly polemical range of definitions, as the vestigial spell that is recognized to have and wield no magic powers at all but which can be appreciated for its own sake as art.  That is art as a relic of cultic norms and functions.  Art for "itself" has only its forms and range of norms , a bag of tricks that are used to enchant even if the world itself has been supposedly disenchanted.

But the world has not really been disenchanted.  The concept of enchantment has been commuted from nature to technique and technology.  This isn't just something someone like Adorno could point out, it's something Jacques Ellul has written about and Ellul regarded Adorno's obsevations about the aporia of contemporary art as the most persuasive summary he'd read.

In lieu of having anything or anyone to enchant in a disenchanted world, a dogma of art for the sake of art emerged in the West during the Romantic era.  If art could not enchant in a disenchanted world what was left for art to enchant or exercise power over as if a magic spell was ... itself.

But we live in a world in which there is fractional reserve banking and adjustable interest rates for fiat currency.  Arguably anything that was even vestigially magical about the arts has left the arts, which now have theoretical and technocratic intra-guild manifestos and disputations about technique, and the magical has transferred over to finance.  The spells with which the world is guided have little to do with art, though fealty to a residual art religion still guides the art worlds in the West, and a whole lot more to do with data mining, information cultivation, mass computation and theories of currency.

In such a world what art can do, that Adorno at times described as "the spell", is bereft of anything beyond itself to point to yet unable to divest itself of the power to cast a spell to gain and keep our attention.  Untethered from social and cultic contexts art, art can only become a commodity.

As Adorno put it, the absolute work of art converges with the absolute commodity.  This is a double bind that can't be escaped.  If you attempt to make explicitly political points your work devolves to being nothing more than simple propaganda (and therefore has stopped really being art) but if you attempt to make art for the sake of art there's no longer a purpose to that art beyond its exchange value, lacking any kind of cultic context in which it would have meaning. Art is either forced back into becoming something like a magic spell to influence people or it devolves into a self-encouraging pep talk in which the glow of hoped-for salvation is self-conferred.

I've been playing with this idea for a while that Wagnerian style art religion has metastasized into a meta-art religion of arts criticism.  As I wrote in a little haiku a few years back

every arts critic
must consecrate consumption
to live with their craft

If art has nothing inherently sacred about it an arts critic has to confer some kind of sacred quality to it in order to regard the art as worth talking about.  Everything else, and particularly any and all forms of creative activity that an arts critics opts to neither praise nor condemn, is common.  Praising a god or cursing a demon is to concede some form of the divine, however benevolent or malign.  

That the market defines for better or much worse what the art canon is or has been or will become has so many detractors it suffices to pick any lament about this.

But in a way this is to affirm what Adorno wrote half a century ago, that art shorn of attachments to throne and altar, anything and anyone that could in some way sacralize it as having a social purpose, is more pure a commodity the more purely it is an art object.  The prophet Isaiah lampooned not just the idea but the acts through which people carved gods out of wood and worshipped them as if the process of carving the god conferred some power to wood that, independent of the carving and shaping, was just literal kindling for a fire they warmed themselves by.

The aforementioned link has a comment about how cultural hegemony shifted geographically from Europe to America.  Sure, I suppose that's true and one of the signal offenses of Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music for some in the UK is that he unapologetically regards Western European art as mainly nothing hugely worth talking about compared to American and Soviet developments.  High art and hegemony are pretty close to impossible to separate.  Whether you can even use the tools and systems of the art world to meaningfully critique the art world is a question we may never have a fixed, satisfying answer for.

What is the art world, anyway?  I am less sure that what Banksy has done is necessarily about art than about arts journalism.  The painting was only in the headlines this last week because of a stunt, because it was something that warranted journalistic coverage. Would it even "be" art if the art journalistic scene didn't cover it?  Had the painting not self-shredded with a shredder built into the thick canvas the thing wouldn't even be news.  Instead, it did self-destruct, partly and went viral.

One of the things in our era regarded as some kind of divine seems to be the event that has gone or been "viral".  Why this might have what Adorno called "the spell" has been talked about.  If currencies are the magic of our era rather than art then the magic question has been whether Banksy's self-destructing painting its worth more now after the stunt than it was before.

While Banksy’s prank has become the talk of the artworld, there’s no consensus about what to make of it. People’s interpretations of the deeper significance (or lack thereof) of Banksy’s provocation are colored by how they regard the perpetrator (serious artist, agitator or PR stuntman?), the art market in general (a purveyor of genuine value or a hype-inflated bubble?) and the auction market in particular (a gauge of fair market value or a pre-orchestrated charade?).
My own iconoclastic take is colored by my reverence for artistic creation and my skepticism about auction-house machination: I see Banksy’s subversive act as a clever metaphor for the self-sabotaging auction houses, which, through opaque side deals, secret pre-arrangements and favored treatment for those who enter into such compacts have damaged their credibility as a transparent public marketplace where buyers can feel reasonably confident that they are paying fair market value, equitably arrived at, on a level playing field.

I'm going to float the more iconoclastic idea that no one ensconced in the art world, whether as artist (Banksy), auction (Sotheby), or arts journalism is even capable of being iconoclastic about art.

Whether anyone will pay for Banksy’s painting of a girl and a balloon, which began shredding itself moments after it sold at auction, for $1.4 million, in London on Friday night, remains to be seen. Sotheby’s hasn’t disclosed the buyer’s identity. (Such opacity is business as usual in the art market.) If this person was shelling out for love of the image alone, I would suggest picking up a replacement at Target, where a print version is currently on sale for $36.79, down from forty-six dollars. But, if the painting was purchased as an investment, the buyer might as well follow through. The picture’s destruction, like that of Tinguely’s machine, was halted before the job was complete, and there is already speculation that the work in damaged form will become even more valuable than it was before. If the stunt was intended to mock the spectacle of art being reduced to a price tag, the joke might be on Banksy. But since it was clearly also a bid for more notoriety—for an artist bent on maintaining anonymity, Banksy does not shy away from the limelight—a cynic might call this is his best art work yet. Since Sunday, the spectacle has been viewed nearly nine million times, in a video that Banksy posted to Instagram. The clip, which also purports to show Banksy concealing a shredder inside the painting’s thick frame “a few years ago,” is captioned with a quote misattributed to Picasso (the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin is the man who said it): “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” So much for the outlaw who used to reject the label “artist” in favor of “quality vandal.” Now Banksy joins the ranks of Jay-Z, name-checking the Spanish painter in a bid for masterpiece cred. [emphasis added]

Was someone at Sotheby’s in on the prank? The company denies it, but conspiracy theorists point to the convenient timing of the lot hitting the auction block at the very end of the sale. Grand finales aren’t part of auction theatrics, but sound bites are, and “It appears we just got Banksy-ed”—as Alex Branczik, the auction house’s head of contemporary art in Europe, told reporters at the post-sale news conference—has already launched countless headlines. The last work of Banksy’s to perform this well at auction was a collaboration with Damien Hirst, who, too, is no stranger to gaming the system. In 2008, Hirst staged an unprecedented sale of his own work, also at Sotheby’s, consigning more than two hundred pieces directly from his studio, rather than in the pre-owned condition that is customary at auction. The two-day event raked in a hundred and eleven million pounds, or about two hundred million dollars, just as Lehman Brothers was collapsing, making Hirst a symbol of art-as-excess. Here’s a theory: Hirst was the seller of “Girl with Balloon” and was in on the prank. Of course, the identity of the consigner is as shrouded in mystery as the buyer’s is. What is a matter of public record is that the seller acquired the picture directly from the artist, in 2006, the same year that Banksy agreed to participate in a show that Hirst curated of his art collection, at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Early last week, Hirst announced, through a spokeswoman, that he is scaling back his operation “to cut the corporate elements of the business.” Here’s hoping he has better luck than Banksy, whose stunt cutting fails to rise above the level of empty gesture.

Well, what is the gesture?  It's because I never ended up working in journalism despite having gotten a journalism degree that I think we might want to step back and ask whether the art object is the thing to consider here.  As modern art gets ever more abstract and esoteric, it's possible that the self-destructing painting was merely the catalyst for something else.  It was just some painting until it self-destructed.  To be absurd about it, the art isn't the painting but the journalistic cycle of coverage that designated it as an art object in the wake of the Sotheby incident.  Yes, the painting was sold on the market but the extra "spell" of the journalistic coverage is what completes the art object.  It was metaphorically nothing to write home about or think about until journalistic coverage made it a painting to be talked about.

I don't know if I'd say that what happened is we were shown an art work that critiques its own commodification.  That bromide is easy to find and it's presented over at Vox.
Essentially, Banksy likes to produce works that critique their own commodification. But he also seems to be increasingly critiquing the public’s attitudes toward art, and its complicity within the system of that commodification. [emphasis added] The Dismaland project implicated the “tourists” for their enjoyment of the experience as much as it implicated Disney itself. With the Central Park experiment, the entire experience — the pop-up art stand and the art sold within it, as well as the night-and-day opposing responses from the public both before and after the reveal that Banksy was the perpetrator — became a piece of art.

With these exhibitions, Banksy is also increasingly using his work to explore and critique the idea of virality, and how it influences the perceived value of a work in the minds of both the public and the artistic establishment.

To understand more about this, I turned to Zardulu, the anonymous street artist who’s gained a cult following for staging viral moments, often involving animals. Zardulu is known for espousing a belief that pranks, hoaxes, and the manufacturing of virality are all part of the creation of modern-day mythology. Her current debut art show presents several of these moments through the framework of mythos in order to explore what myth-making means in a contemporary context.

“Banksy is in a unique position that he can simply release a piece of work and it goes viral,” Zardulu said, “the same way Kim Kardashian can tweet a selfie and it gets more attention than the overthrow of a foreign government.”

“But this piece is different,” she adds, referring to the Balloon Girl auction. “He wanted to create a viral moment, a viral video, and he obviously wanted us to ask whether the piece is now worth more or less now that it’s been part of a viral moment.”

Zardulu sees Banksy as extending a tradition of pranks as an art form that began in the 1960s with Situationism, a small but highly influential movement of avant-garde political reactionaries and artists that sprang up in Paris in the 1960s. Situationists held a complicated interplay of beliefs about art, culture, and capitalism, but their main thesis was the idea that human behavior isn’t natural, but rather defined by one’s situation — and that a “situation” could be carefully crafted and manipulated.
Situationist artists believed that creating “situations” was itself art, and this found resonance in everything from politics to punk music to the development of postmodernism — and now, in situations like the one Banksy has just created.

“For whatever reason, [Situationists] didn’t ever do anything to physically substantiate their performances,” Zardulu said. “So when I started to do my work, I always thought it was important to have a component represent the performances. It’s part of the declaration I made in my manifesto. My manifesto also specifically refers to the environment we’re in today, that we can create these fabricated viral moments, and that there’s something unique and special about that. So, Banksy has really done exactly that. Created a viral moment, and the object that physically substantiates it is the frame and the shredded painting.”  

Why don't we take a step further back from the arts world axioms.  What if Banksy has tried to do something going beyond a stunt about art and commodification to create a painting that can't go viral unless the arts journalistic machinery makes it viral?  After all, if in the news cycle the painting became a "new" work by dint of getting shredded and thus garnered yet another headline ... 

It may be the reason arts journalists don't understand that the joke is on them would be because it's literally and figuratively their job to consecrate which art objects merit attention for praise or blame.  Journalists can decide the stunt is an empty gesture without realizing that without their writing about it it wouldn't even be a gesture, in journalistic or historical terms.  Does that mean I'm a Banksy fan?  No.  All too many artists delude themselves into thinking their art matters on the basis of theoretical musings presented alongside their work or as a necessary supplement to their work having any discernible meaning.  

But I don't think the self-shredding painting is an empty gesture. It's a meaningful gesture if we stop looking at the painting as a commodity that resists commodification (since, clearly, it utterly failed to pull that probably impossible feat off) and start looking it as a "performance" that is only possible to the extent that a range of institutions from the auction system to the press make it the performance that it has been.  If there's a stunt in this painting the stunt could be "if you wrote about it in an art publication then it's about you."  The painting can be thought of as a catalyst for who the formal and informal priests of the art world are by dint of what they have to say about the self-shredding painting.  

There's a paradoxical necessity to reify reification, to distill into a commodity a stunt protest against commodification.  But as Adorno put it half a century ago, attempts to break "the spell" simply strengthen "the spell".  Nothing could be more emblematic of "the spell" of conversations and debates about whatever it is that Banksy does than the cycle of journalism and art theory that emerges in the wake of this or that stunt.  You might be able to jokingly suggest that nothing Banksy does is the art so much as those art objects are merely catalysts for the journalistic and theoretical discourse and public consumption that becomes the performance and that that is the art. But if that's the case we're back to Tom Wolfe's quip in The Painted Word about the  possibility that art theory ascended so far up its own fundamental aperture it comes down from the heavens as ... literature. There may actually be nothing Banksy has done that could match what Tom Wolfe simply wrote about the art world in the modern West.

This latest stunt from Banksy could be an opportunity to consider how what Adorno called "the spell" is cast in institutional and market terms.  The self-shredding stunt painting is, so to speak, the magic word, the question is who is saying the word to cast the spell?  Banksy, obviously, for having painted the painting and setting up the stunt, but also everyone along the way who helped make the self-shredding painting a headline.

If you want to see what advertising companies have done inspired by the Banksy painting, you can check out, for instance, a Macdonald's logo

Which may or may not be part of the Banksy plan.

Adorno may have been on to something suggesting, in so very many words, that the more powerful artists tried to make their art to be the more impotent they revealed themselves and their works to be.  Banksy's painting isn't the art work, the news cycle around it is the art work, for which the painting is simply the catalyst.  It's not that the sale of a self-shredding painting doesn't make history in some way, it's that the painting itself is a mere footnote, and nothing much to speak of.  Had the press not reported that the painting shredded itself there'd be nothing to talk about.  I'm tending to think that this is not about resisting commodification at all.  What kind of art world and arts press do we have that can make this Banksy stunt news or even "history"?  That seems like a more pertinent question.  Countless people shred things every day and it's neither news nor art.  That an auction could put up a painting for auction that, once bought, shreds itself and that it can be rebranded and presented as a new work, and the art world and the arts press talk about it as if it's news seems far more likely to be the real punchline than some old saw about a painting or an art object "resisting commodification".  I doubt the joke is on Banksy so much as that Banksy tried to find a way to show the entire art world and the arts press and historians of the arts that they're the joke but don't know it yet.  Just a guess, offered somewhat tentatively on a weekend.

If it were up to me what art I'd spend time with this weekend I'd probably watch an episode of Venture Bros season 7 again ... or an episode of Samurai Jack (episode XL, for instance).


Didn't spot this at The Baffler earlier but ...
I thought of the Warhol auction last week when someone working with the street artist Banksy remotely activated a shredder embedded in the back of the frame of his spray-painted work, “Girl with Balloon”—right at the moment it sold to an unnamed buyer for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s sale. The event was met, like the Sotheby’s auction in 1988, with a lot of talk about the art market, who the buyer was, whether the half-shredded work lost or gained value; only this time journalists and Twitter users also wondered if Sotheby’s colluded with Banksy in the stunt. My first thought was the same as Indiana’s when he arrived at the Warhol auction: “Get me out of here.” My second was that Sotheby’s must have colluded. But then I remembered that I don’t care. All auctions, even the spectacular, are short-lived moments of shopping.

Nevertheless, a wave of titillation, most prominently on the part of critic Jerry Saltz, who praised the prank as an intervention in the art market (though he doesn’t much care for Banksy’s work), gave way to the stern disapproval of The New Yorker. “If the stunt was intended to mock the spectacle of art being reduced to a price tag, the joke might be on Banksy,” wrote critic Andrea K. Scott. This is, from one way of looking at it, a fair complaint. If art is a form of shopping, Banksy’s prank was not just counterproductive, it was rude—imagine if Charles Simic remotely melted your new copy of Voice at 3:00 A.M. right after you swiped your credit card. From another angle, however, Scott’s criticism is a bit hasty. If Banksy’s aim was to draw attention to a work of art’s price tag, he succeeded. And, anyway, Banksy never claimed that the purpose of the performance was to devalue his own work by shredding it; his only statement on the act was to verify, by way of a popular video, that he installed the shredder in the painting’s frame years ago. On Instagram, the video’s epigraph, a quote curiously attributed to Pablo Picasso instead of Mikhail Bakunin, reads, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge

Maybe we should take Banksy at his word. Or, more generously, we could attribute to his motives the idea, very much implied by his wayward Picasso quotation, of Schumpeter’s gale. If the urge to destroy is creative, and if capitalism relies on creative destruction, perhaps Banksy is hinting that his intention was to increase the value of his work by destroying it. The proof, I think, can be found in his name, which brings to mind a small, one-man bank. If that doesn’t convince you, look to the latest news: the artist has just re-authenticated the trash-work and renamed it “Love is in the Bin,” to the satisfaction of the original buyer. Judged as an episode of extralegal short-term price-fixing, Banksy’s act of autoshredding was an accomplishment for all involved; in the long-term, its status as the supposed first work of art created at an auction means that it will likely appreciate wildly in value. In this respect, with all things being equal, Banksy is the Thomas Kinkade of his generation, inasmuch as both rely on opportunistic financial schemes and clashing effects: Kinkade’s sinister warmth, Banksy’s dark money do-gooderism. [emphasis added]

“Art, which once reflected values aloof from simple (or complicated) greed, has been insidiously absorbed into the economy of commercial products,” Gary Indiana wrote in 1986, “its cash worth determined by dicey variables unlike the ones fixed for ordinary commodities.” The difference now is that the variables that determine art’s monetary value are no longer seen as dicey. Instead, they’re understood as art itself.

Banksy as the Thomas Kinkade of his generation ... if that's what he is than what role is played by Jeff Koons? 

It seems Adorno was right when he wrote

... The absence of theological meaning, however modified, culminates in art as the crisis of its own meaning. The more ruthlessly artworks draw the consequences from the contemporary condition of consciousness, the more closely they themselves approximate meaninglessness. 

and the pure artwork converges with the pure commodity ... perhaps even more when art is allegedly resisting commodification than when artists embrace commodity.

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