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Plausible (Art) Worlds

One has to be pretty mean-spirited to find much wrong with dreaming. But what I like best about dreams is that they put the lie to the increasingly prevalent idea that we all live in the same world - the very quintessence of contemporary ideology. Clad in the decidedly dad-reminiscent rhetorical garments of “common sense,” the one-world argument is regularly trotted out by our neoliberal realists to encourage us to fall into line, wake up to reality, singular, and give up our insistence on alternatives to the merely existent. In the name of the efficient governance of the existent order, they trivialise the fictionalising imagination – that is, the imagination that splinters and multiplies the real – as utopian dreaming, claiming that the real is one. But in making such a claim, they let the cat out of the bag – if only because everyone has that extraordinary and yet perfectly ordinary experience of dreaming.

Everyone experiences the fission, fusion and overlapping of ontological landscapes that is the stuff of dreams. Dreams – however stereotyped, reassuring or troubling – are the most basic and intimate form of that world-fictionalising function that adds an “s” to the notion of a world. The possible and impossible worlds of dreams, their very plurality, should be enough for us to intuitively refuse the injunction to align our dream worlds with the so-called “real world.” And an injunction it invariably is, because the very mention of the “real world” is intrinsically congenial to the powers-that-be.

A generation ago, Herbert Marcuse sought to defend dreamspace as a placeholder if not indeed a crowbar of the imagination in the established order. “Today it is perhaps less irresponsible to develop a grounded utopia than to write off as utopian the idea of conditions and possibilities which have for a long time been perfectly attainable.” His point, I take it, is not just that other worlds are possible, but that they are this one. However, I am prepared to make a brief concession to the realists in the form of a thought experiment (realists can’t possibly like thought experiments – they fly in the face of their whole mindset, so it isn’t much of a concession anyway). Rather than talking about possible worlds, let us consider plausible ones – and not just of the conjectural variety but worlds which have actually found some inchoate form of embodiment. And let us consider those particular worlds known as artworlds – plausible artworlds.

Plausible Artworlds is the name of a collaborative project that Scott Rigby (of Basekamp in Philadelphia) and I initiated several years ago (see http://plausibleartworlds.org/). The idea is to support alternative modes of artworld / lifeworld integration by bringing together, and hopefully engineering plausible reconfigurations of the artworld – its economy, its infrastructure, its inter-cerebral network. We welcome input from and discussion with anyone who feels affinity with this kind of endeavor. A number of practitioners are now involved in this forum which ultimately hopes to give visibility to artists’ collectives’ experiments with alternative artworlds through a community web platform, email discussion list, and archive of selected projects exemplifying “plausible artworlds.” It is that somewhat tautological formulation that I want to some extent to unravel here.

One signal advantage of choosing artworlds is that art is – or is supposed to be – one of the more sophisticated symbolic activities for world multiplication. It may not always play host to the subversive imagination, but it does tend to overtake and redouble – that is to fictionalise and multiply – the world we currently happen to be worlding in. Artworlds are amongst other things places for experimenting with different worlds, testing their plausibility. And because in art there is a necessarily reflexive dimension, whereby the form (the artworld) is in synch with the content (the imagined world), it strikes me as fitting terrain for our thought experiment.

Of course, one-world theory has made some headway into art as well and the mainstream artworld tends to assert a sort of axiological and ontological superiority over its contenders and counterparts. It doesn’t so much deny their existence – art tends to know intuitively and by definition that other worlds are plausible – as their value: that is, other worlds may be plausible, they’re just not much good. So this reflection on plural artistic environments comes in the context of ever growing numbers of art and art-related practices both requiring artworld settings different from those currently on offer, and proactively involved in bringing them into existence.

Never since the Renaissance has art found itself in the grips of such insuperable internal contradictions; never has its value crisis appeared more acute. Yet art production is thriving, both as a laboratory of cognitive and cultural capitalism and as a potential force of resistance to the dominant semiotic order. It would seem that the crisis lies outside of art itself but within the specific environment that makes art possible: an artworld. In his book Art Worlds (1982), American sociologist Howard Becker offers a plausible definition of that concept: “Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art. Members of the art world co-ordinate the activities by which work is produced by referring to a body of conventional understandings embodied in common practice and in frequently used artefacts.”

Art, in other words, is not the product of those professionals of expression known as artists alone; it can emerge, be sustained and gain value only within the framework of a specific artworld. Interestingly, Becker always speaks of artworlds plural – as if there were many of them, as if others were possible, as if still more were plausible. What is a plausible, as opposed to a merely possible or just plain existent, artworld? This project stems from the desire to unleash the potentiality of the plausible, as communities and collectivities around the world seek to redefine new, more plausible artworlds. For in a sense, what could be more implausible – that is, all too dismally plausible – than today’s mainstream institutional artworld? The project is thus premised on a desire for irreducibly different plausible artworlds, not merely contrived takeoffs on existent organizational forms; a desire born not of a perceived lack or impoverishment of current models, but stemming like all genuine desire from a sense of excess of collective energies which are proactively coalescing in new artworlds.

Artworldly economies are inevitably bound up with other, broader economies. But plausible artworlds need not be mimetic of the restricted economy of artificial scarcity, which sustains the exchange value of art today; they may be linked to a general, open-ended economy. A plausible artworld is an inherently critical proposition, in that it embodies a questioning of the apparent self-evidences of what an artworld entails: Does an artworld imply a reputational economy? Is an artworld premised on the struggle for recognition? Is an artworld necessarily founded upon the almost self-evident “holy trinity” of objecthood, authorship and spectatorship? That is, on the model that an artist produces objects for consumption by an audience?

Though artworks, artists and audiences have become naturalized features of some artworlds, they may be entirely foreign to other, equally plausible, artworlds. An example from fiction may help bring out the unforeseeable though plausible properties of competing or parallel world orders. In his fictional essay, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” Jorge Luis Borges describes “a certain Chinese Encyclopedia,” the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which it is written that animals are divided into: “1. those that belong to the Emperor, 2. embalmed ones, 3. those that are trained, 4. suckling pigs, 5. mermaids, 6. fabulous ones, 7. stray dogs, 8. those included in the present classification, 9. those that tremble as if they were mad, 10. innumerable ones, 11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, 12. others, 13. those that have just broken a flower vase, 14. those that from a long way off look like flies.” As Michel Foucault admits in his preface to The Order of Things, “This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other.” This sort of artworld-shattering laughter may well prove contagious freeing us from clutches of a single world, leading not to a “Noah’s Ark” of worlds but a broader spectrum of plausible, mutually irreducible artworlds.

An artworld is a relatively autonomous, art-sustaining environment or eco-system. Outside of an artworld, art – as it is currently construed – cannot be sustained over the long term. Art can, and of course does, make forays outside of its established circuits, but it invariably returns with the booty: repatriating into the confines of the artworld the artefacts and documents it has gleaned in its expedition into the lifeworld. This is art’s predatory logic, all too reminiscent of colonialism; and though it may push back the boundaries of the artworld, it can by no means reconfigure or imagine any plausible alternatives to the status quo.

On the other hand, contrary to what the spatially determined metaphor might misleadingly suggest, an artworld is not a discrete “world” unto itself, un-tethered to the lifeworld. Spatially, these “worlds” are overlapping; there is nowhere that the lifeworld is, that the artworld cannot go. Their distinction is systemic (or chemical, like oil and water) not geographic. As ought to be obvious to any critically minded, participant-observer, the current mainstream artworld – and the plethora of variants which, in our pluralist societies, thrive upon it and parasite its resources, providing it with a permanent pool of innovation – curtails art’s potential, impedes its unfettered development, defangs it.

Two serious challenges have fettered a reflexive understanding of how plausible artworlds can be brought into being. An underestimation of the mainstream artworld’s pluralism and the benevolence upon which its hegemony is founded. And the difficulty inherent in representing an artworld when one is immanent to it.

It must be clear that those would-be artworlds that are merely parasitical on the mainstream artworld’s resources – its money, its reputational economy, its conventions, its acceptability – are not plausible artworlds, but merely a by-product secreted by any intelligent system (and an artworld is an intelligent system) in its attempt to shore up its legitimacy and ensure its long-term hegemony. One is never more enslaved to a system than when one imagines oneself to be free from it – and given the blasé, been-there-done-that outlook of many critical artworlders, it is staggering to observer their epistemological naiveté in overlooking the extent to which they and their contrivances are the pure product of the mainstream artworld. To imagine a substantively different artworld necessarily entails deconstructing the conceptual norms and conventions (along with the devices through which they are expressed) in order to reconstruct a plausible alternative. Such apparently self-evident conceptual institutions as objecthood, authorship, spectatorship, visibility and a host of others need to be subjected to sustained and systematic scrutiny in order to reveal them as the product of history (an inheritance of the Renaissance) rather than the natural order of all things artistic.

We assume, for instance, that art must engender expectation (see something, do something, be something) and that an artworld can be circumscribed by the horizon of expectation specific to it. But is expectation a necessary or merely an artworldly contingent feature of art? Any plausible artworld must provide for the sustenance of those who are in it. But does that necessarily entail an economy – that is, an internal order of monetary and reputational value where expenditure is ultimately commensurate with income, loss on par with profit?

Because of divergent value systems, it is comparatively easy for one artworld to observe another and objectify its workings. But to understand why there are artworlds, one requires empathetic, and thus to some extent participatory observation, which at the same time makes any fully integrated representation impossible – for how is one to account for one’s internal yet privileged observation point? To put it differently, no transcendent perspective is available on the artworld to which we are immanent. This paradox, which tends to further naturalise the status quo, cannot be wished away. It means that there is no outside perspective from which to observe and deconstruct the artworld.

In an incisive article, entitled “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” drawing heavily on the work of Pierre Bourdieu, institutional-critique artist Andrea Fraser writes: “Just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc. And what we do outside the field, to the extent that it remains outside, can have no effect within it. So if there is no outside for us, it is not because the institution is perfectly closed, or exists as an apparatus in a ‘totally administered society,’ or has grown all-encompassing in size and scope. It is because the institution is inside of us, and we can't get outside of ourselves.” Though there is something not only frustrating but logically scandalous about this kind of discursive self-limitation, which only just allows reflecting on one's own enclosure, Fraser’s position deserves to be taken very seriously. In the face of art’s enduring desire to break free from the by now quite implausible mainstream artworld, Fraser maintains that art is, and must by definition be autonomous. “With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.” This is a schoolbook-class instance of one-world theory at work in the artistic imagination, or what remains of it.

There is not single recipe for thinking out of and around this kind of logical closure, but again, we must be clear not to merely play at finding alternatives – tantamount to mere gaming in a slightly eccentric creative sandbox that the mainstream is only to happy to provide and maintain. One useful conceptual tool, to avoid the pitfalls of both closure and harmless play, is the As-If structure first formulated by the German neo-Kantian philosopher Hans Vaihinger. As-If expresses the basic logic of fiction, which he defines as a superflexible mechanism of the mind for the solving of problems. “What, then,” he asks, “is contained in the as if?”

“There must apparently be something else hidden in it apart from the unreality and impossibility of the assumption in the condition sentence. These particles clearly also imply a decision to maintain the assumption formally, in spite of these difficulties. Between the as and if, wie and wenn, als and ob, comme and si, qua-si, a whole sentence is implied. What, then, does it mean if we say that matter must be treated as if it consisted of atoms? It can only mean that empirically give matter must be treated as it would be treated if it consisted of atoms or that the curve must be treated as it would be treated if it consisted of infinitesimals. There is, then, a clear statement of the necessity (possibility or actuality), of an inclusion under an impossible or unreal assumption.”

Fiction, in other words, enables our understanding to be guided by the effort of subsuming the unknown under the known. Thus the As-If is a kind of relay, forcing the imaginative into a form in order to pry open a broader ranger of plausibilities. It is where the imagination and consciousness overlap, yet where practical purpose (tackling the existent artworld) requires that consciousness remain dominant, such that the imaginative is present in consciousness only as potential, as a still empty, plausible space. Perhaps then our best prospect is to imagine the artworld to which we are immanent, yet with which we are dissatisfied, as if it were freed from the normative structures that curb art’s potential. And rather than seeing that plausible space as empty – without authorship, without spectatorship, without visibility, without objecthood and so on – to see it as replete with plausible potential.

A note on the plausible, by way of a conclusion, since I see I’m pushing 3000 words. Unlike the possible, which implies an as yet unactualised variant on a presumed “real” world, the plausible almost inherently invokes the worlds in the plural. In Nelson Goodman’s words, “With false hopes of a firm foundation gone, with the world displaced by worlds that are but versions, with substance dissolved into function, and the given acknowledged as taken, we face the questions of how worlds are made, tested, and known.”

Stephen Wright


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