Toward the end of the 1990s, Zagreb conceptualist Mladen Stilinovic wrote an open letter to art -- not so much a love letter as some words of solace for an old friend in a pinch. The decade had been rough. Yet Stilinovic avoids the question of art's political content altogether. He commiserates about the different forms of capture to which art has increasingly fallen prey -- ideological capture, to be sure, and mercantile capture, in an attention economy where attention-getting is already emerging as the dominant form of capital accumulation. Yet to have the market pay attention at all requires submitting art to institutional capture, since to accept that art's value is merely what the market says its value is, requires accepting that art be what the institution says it is. To distinguish art from the mere real thing, as the champions of institutional theory cleverly put it, to have those objects and actions, all and sundry, appear under the auspices of art, is to submit them to a form of performative capture, through which they are performed as art. And for this reason, Stilinovic suggests, art ultimately finds itself in the grips of ontological capture -- the price exacted for it to be art at all is that it be... just art. It is not so much that art has exhausted the repertory of decoys and feints with which it has been allowed to play, as that all its ploys and sleights of hand have now been mapped out, made predictable.
And, true friend that he is, Stilinovic implies that art has been an unwitting accomplice in the logistics of its own capture. "Art is art," he reminds art, flatly and suddenly without irony, locking art into an ontological predicament that it had always preferred to consider only ironically. "This form of tautology satisfies many people and you are happy in this paralysis."
A difficult operation, and a very risky one
It's hard to imagine how art took that letter. The overall thrust seems ever truer in hindsight. One piece of advice seems particularly prescient -- one wonders, in fact, if art wasn't literally of two minds about following up on it: "I think that the time has come for you to hide yourself and keep a low profile for a while, just tell me where, so that people will no longer be able to find you so easily. This is a difficult operation, and a very risky one, but it might be worthwhile to try. Perhaps they'll even forget you. Then you'll be free, completely." This call to the shadows seems increasingly urgent today. And if indeed art at first failed to heed a friend's advice that it deliberately impair its artistic visibility, there may still be time to act now. But it may well be that art did exactly as Stilinovic suggested, so successfully completing that "difficult" and "risky" operation that no one even noticed that it had made good on its escape. This is a highly speculative reading of an artist's correspondence with art, and a counterintuitive interpretation of the event-strewn field of contemporary art. It looks for all the world as if art has done anything but retreat. But of course, escapes are never supposed to be possible; and yet they occur, and when they do, they often go initially unnoticed. Escape happens. In fact, it can be argued that escape precedes capture, which remains logically subordinate to it. Only a history written from the perspective of power could suggest otherwise, ie., that capture is primary, and determines escape. By any other account, the escapee is already elsewhere, leaving only a cape in the place of the absent body. A whole line of escapological enquiry has developed from this perspective. As Dimitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephenson and Vassilis Tsianos have argued in Escape Routes - Control and Subversion in the Twenty-First Century (2008), "only after control tries to recapture escape routes can we speak of ‘escape from’. Prior to its regulation, escape is primarily imperceptible."
This insight has broad consequences -- for practices in all those fields of human endeavour that remain one step ahead of logistical capture, and more locally for Stilinovic's paradoxical suggestion that art "keep a low profile" or even disappear from those modes of being to which it has been assigned. To be clear: this has nothing whatsoever to do with some (Hegelian or other) variant of the "art is over" argument. In escape, art is very much alive. The question is this: what could it mean for art to escape performative and ontological capture? How could art -- apparently premised on foregrounding its exceptional ontological status and maximizing its coefficient of visibility -- escape notice, yet still make its presence felt? Whatever it does, and wherever it goes, if it eludes performative capture, how can it be described as art? Are we not at risk of losing art altogether?
You got away, didn't you babe
You just turned your back on the crowd
You got away, I never once heard you say
I need you, I don't need you
I need you, I don't need you
And all of that jiving around
Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel No. 2
You are always somewhere
Let us suppose for a moment that art did not immediately heed Stilinovic's advice; that his suggestion has only become audible over time (subsequently we will shift perspectives and consider the hypothesis that the escape has already taken place and art is now elsewhere). If one were to sum up in a single turn of phrase what characterizes the art-historical present, one might describe it as a "de-ontologizing" moment. That may be a philosophically dubious notion, but it has the heuristic advantage of helping us grasp a highly paradoxical situation. Everywhere, art can be seen attempting to sunder itself from itself, seeking to embed itself in the real without recourse to the usual frames of art. It seems as if artistic energies are seeking to self-extract from that ontological edifice known as "art". This escapological moment may be explained by the fact that the conceptual architecture of the artworld, or at least its hegemonic variant, is a leftover inheritance from modernity, and as such poorly adapted to today's intuitions, which it can accommodate only at the price of considerable distortion. By conceptual architecture, one can understand not merely the white cubes and attention-focusing devices of the galleries and museums, where art still continues to be performed, but the entire performative apparatus, including our conceptual vocabulary itself, which determines the advent -- and event -- of art. What are the features of this conceptual architecture, where did it come from, and how did it shift from facilitating art's appearing in the world to policing its very being?
From one perspective, the conceptual architecture of contemporary art remains structured around a kind of holy trinity comprised of objecthood, authorship and spectatorship. Objecthood, not in the restrictive sense of mere objects -- because most contemporary art is only tangentially object based -- but in the broader and apparently self-evident sense whereby art is understood as a growing yet restricted set of objects (symbolic actions and configurations) in counter-distinction to the far larger set of objects that are not art. Art, in other words, is assumed to be a subset of objects within the set of all objects. Authorship, too, must be understood in a sense that has been loosened by decades of experimentation with co-authorship. Nevertheless, what Michel Foucault called the author-function remains a key component of what we might term the "art-function," and one of the underpinnings of the reputational economy and the policing of meaning in the art field. Spectatorship, on the other hand, remains the mainstay of the conceptual edifice of art, inasmuch as it is bound up with how art is performed as such: it is not so much spectators who perform art, as it is spectatorship that is activated by the presence of something, anything, framed as art. It has been said that art history is punctuated by adverbs; two in particular come to mind with respect to spectatorship. When some event or object is framed as art, then art it is, just art. But when something is not framed as art, it may be seen, heard, enjoyed, but not sub specie artis -- only afterward, when some framing device is introduced, is it acknowledged that we didn't even know it was art. This framing is often accomplished by the now omnipresent mode of performative documentation -- a kind of catch-all device for belatedly capturing those practices which at first eluded capture. Although the distanced form of relationality to which spectatorship refers is everywhere challenged by a deeper usological shift in art-related practice, it remains virtually unchallenged as the foundation of art-institutional architecture. Which is why artworld ideologues now speak of "participation," but very rarely of usership.
Great show. Great show. Great show.
There is a deep-seated reason for that. If one were to single out one name as "the" architect of the conceptual architecture of the mainstream artworld, it would have to be that of Emmanuel Kant. Through two exceedingly powerful, and paradoxical, concepts, Kant defined the capture mechanisms of autonomous art, some two centuries ago. Art, Kant argued, was characterized by its "purposeless purpose" -- that is, it is not useless or without purpose; its usefulness is its uselessness, its purpose is to have none. In a world hell-bent on cost-benefit analysis and utilitarian rationality, this circularity is not without virtue. But it comes at an exceedingly high cost: it deprives art of any traction, any use-value in the real. And since it precludes usership, it dovetails perfectly with Kant's other architectural brainchild: "disinterested spectatorship," through which he introduced the disinterested spectator as the new heroic figure of aesthetic experience.
The past decade has witnessed the emergence of an increasing number of art-related practices in the absence of objecthood, authorship and spectatorship, which seem to break with the Kantian paradigm altogether. Practices which are on a 1:1 scale, actually being what they are -- house-painting outfits, online archives, libraries, restaurants, whatever -- and at the same time artistic propositions of what they are. They deliberately foreground their use-value and their relationality is premised on some form of usership. They are redundant, in a sense, inasmuch as they fulfil a function, as art, which they themselves already fulfil as whatever it is they are. They could be said to have a double ontology: a primary ontology as whatever they are, and a secondary ontology as artistic propositions of that same thing. The sorts of things Marcel Duchamp once punningly referred to as "reciprocal readymades," which he defined through an ironic example: "use a Rembrandt as an ironing board," thereby giving art a renewed use-value. It was as if the very Kantian Duchamp saw the perils and limitations of the "assisted readymade" as it became increasingly synonymous with contemporary art itself, and speculatively entertained the idea of somehow reinjecting art back into the real.
Not infrequently, in these situations, you were really art
Could this be what Stilinovic had in mind when he called upon art to disappear? It's true that such practices with "double ontologies" do not immediately appear as art, though that is where their self-understanding is grounded. To that degree, at least, they do indeed break with the basic tenets of autonomous art. Whatever its descriptive power, however, the notion of a double ontology has two downsides. Firstly, it is not entirely sure that two ontologies are better than one, even if a double-take of this kind allows for usological and escapological play. In fact, in some ways, it may be twice as cumbersome, and an enormous concession to institutional theory, reinforcing as it does the idea that art has an ontology. Secondly, to describe practices in these terms is to make them inherently reliant on performative capture to repatriate them into the art frame -- otherwise, their secondary (artistic) ontology remains inert, and not so much disappears as fails to appear. From the perspective of institutional theory, this is intolerable: what is not performed as art, is not art, and so is lost to posterity.
But isn't that precisely the point? To disappear from that ontological landscape altogether? Isn't that exactly what Stilinovic suggested art attempt? But, if art were to escape performative and ontological capture, how would it then continue to have any role in the life of the community? What alternative does art have than to be performed? There are many ways one might answer this apparently legitimate -- or at least power-legitimated -- question. Let us consider two ways, and see if, coupled together, they don't go some way to pointing to art's possible escape route. From this perspective, disappearance is not art's horizon, but its modus operandi.
It's just that no one noticed
Let us risk an analogy with linguistics. Noam Chomsky famously argued that any speech act may be understood under two different aspects that stand in a binary relationship: as competence or as performance. According to Chomsky, competence is that inherent capacity possessed by every native speaker of a natural language to distinguish between a grammatically comprehensible speech act and an incomprehensible one, and to produce and understand an infinite number of speech acts in that language. A speech act need not be performed, he suggests, in order to be informed by linguisitic competence, and a speaker need never perform a specific competence in order for it to exist. One need not adopt Chomsky's somewhat idealist perspective (that has trouble accounting for language change, which can only be understood as changes in performance flowing back into competence), because competence can also be understood as something user-informed and historically determined. So, what if we think of art in similar terms -- as something that need not be performed, but which might well exist as a latent competence, an active yeast or undercurrent beneath the visible field of events, all the more potent in that it remains unperformed? Can we not think of art as capable of a self-conscious, Bartelby-like decision to prefer not to (inject competence into the art frame) but instead to bide its time and, perhaps, redirect that competence elsewhere?
The inflationary spread of performativity and performance studies in academia over the past decade has had the unfortunate side effect of occluding the study and even the mention of competence, virtually blinding us to the fact that what is performed is inevitably a competence, and that performance by no means exhausts competence. Certainly, after a century of artistic practice premised on ever more radical deskilling, any talk of competence can be made to sound downright reactionary. But of course we are not talking here about competence in the fine-arts tradition, as métier, craftsmanship or technical skill, but as thoroughly deskilled competence. We might see the relationship between performance and competence in art in terms of Robert Filliou's famous "equivalency principle," which asserts a fundamental equivalency between the well-done, the poorly-done, and the not-done. Not a principle likely to be integrated into management rationality any time soon… The capacity to recognize the equivalency between those possibilities is, in and of itself, an example of artistic competence as well as a clear example of competence's autonomy from performative capture. To think of art in terms of competence is to go some way toward freeing it from the mild but stable depression in which performativity holds it hostage. To speak of art as competence appears somehow premodern, but it is primarily a way to think of art as hanging low for a while, below the performative radar. It is also a way to imagine art in a moment of conceptual migration and epistemic cross-pollination between the fields of linguistics and art-related practice. Instead of seeing art as lacking something until such time as it is performed, it enables us to see it in an entirely different, more consequence-laden mode, enjoying a more fruitful relationship with the other walks of human endeavour with which it collaborates.
Everybody has a right to your name, even if you aren't there
But if competence is not performed, where is it located? In the bodies and minds of artists alone? Though these questions deserve answers, they also disclose a hidden bias, and reveal the spontaneous ideology of art-historical discourse, which has accustomed us to seeing art in terms of events: artworks, exhibitions, publications, movements... construing art as an irruptive event, penetrating stable appearance with novelty and all the attendant fireworks. But this is a strangely masculinist understanding of art-historical process. To focus on the epiphany of "events" -- and to see art itself as event -- rather than on fugitive occurrences is to foreground particular moments when a set of material, social and imaginary ruptures come together and produce a break in the flow of history. An escapological perspective is inherently different, as Papadopoulos et al point out:
"An event is never in the present; it can only be designated as an event in retrospect or anticipated as a future possibility. To pin our hopes on events is a nominalist move which draws on the masculinist luxury of having the power both to name things and to wait about for salvation. Because events are never in the present, if we highlight their role in social change we do so at the expense of considering the potence of the present that is made of people’s everyday practices: the practices employed to navigate daily life and to sustain relations, the practices which are at the heart of social transformation long before we are able to name it as such."
Though Marcel Duchamp was a nominalist, as well as a masculinist, it just may be that he also provided an escape route from the event horizon of just the kind we're looking for. In a famous eight-minute talk called "The Creative Act," Duchamp put forth the idea of a "coefficient of art," by which he referred to the discrepancy, inherent in any artistic proposition, between intention and actual realization, setting out to define this gap by a sort of "arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed." It is of course this gap that prevents art from being exhausted in the moment of its emergence, conferring on it the potential to evolve in the public time of interpretation. Coefficients of art... It is a nice term, but a strange one too, as if there were something "unintentionally expressed" in those words -- as if "coefficient of art" itself had a coefficient of art which was not immediately audible to Duchamp himself. For the intuition that there might be variable coefficients of art may enable us to understand how art has already escaped ontological capture. To speak of "coefficients of art" is to suggest that art is not a set of objects or events, distinct from the larger set of objects and events that are not art, but rather a degree of intensity liable to be present in any number of things -- indeed, in any number of symbolic configurations, activities or passivities. Could it be that art is no longer (or perhaps never was) a minority practice, but rather something practised by a majority, appearing with varying coefficients in different contexts? What coefficient of art have we here? Or there? What is the coefficient of art of such and such a gesture, object or practice?
I hear you are trying to find a new name
To the extent that art is functioning at variable coefficients of artistic competence and incompetence, in the shadow of its foresworn performance, it has already eluded institutional and ontological capture. It can even keep its name -- indeed, why yield the monopoly on that three-letter word to those whose use of it is so restrictive? Performing escape is not to escape. Indeed, it is to not escape. To take Stilinovic's advice seriously, art had to forego performing its escape, shifting towards an exit from a given organization of social life without ever intending to create an event. Like users, escapees never play on home ice. They don't choose the terms of engagement, but nor do they obey the rules. They change the game. And they do so in imperceptible ways that appear impossible from the perspective of the merely existent. Such that you never really know when an escape is underway.