Recent Thoughts

by Anton Vidokle*

On a certain level I think that art is primarily a public, social thing; something that moves between people.

I am not very interested in exhibitions of art these days. In part this may be caused simply by an exhaustion brought about by over-proliferation of shows. We are living in a time of unprecedented expansion in the amount of exhibitions of contemporary art. On a more intimate level, I feel that art needs other contexts to enter the lives of people beyond being displayed in an exhibition.

This could be because much of artistic practice has become largely identical with everyday life activity and objects. Exhibitions today are almost an exclusive context in which something can be recognized as art, making it seem that it is the exhibition that actually produces art. But this is not true: art is produced by artists. And for me, as an artist, the current conditions feel very alienating, so I have been trying to find other ways in which art can enter social space beyond exhibitions.

Martha Rosler wrote in the ‘80s that she felt that the public was being replaced by audiences. I feel that by now its more or less a fait accompli; while the audiences for art have become absolutely enormous, there is hardly any public among them.

This is very important because if a critical art practice is to have agency, it seems to me that it requires a public subject, meaning that as an artist you do something that has some kind of an effect on members of the public, who have the agency for social transformation. You work through the public. I think that art audiences, in Rosler’s definition, are something rather different. They consume art as leisure or commodity and have no interest or desire to transform anything. So if transformation is what we are after, then it’s a very awkward situation for the artist today— you can still produce the most fantastic art object, but there is no public out there that can complete its transformative function.

Probably in a response to this new situation, my practice shifted gradually towards production of conditions rather than objects or images, and perhaps a production of a certain kind of public. It seems to me that in order to be an artist today within the tradition of a critical art practice, one needs to produce or resurrect the public subject. Because this subject seems to be becoming extinct, replaced with audiences for whom an encounter with art is a more superficial experience. This is a nearly impossible proposal. I am not completely sure that such a subject can be produced solely by art, but I try to work as though this is possible.

I don’t mean anything metaphysical by this. For me, this public subject is basically a person for whom there is something important at stake in an encounter with art that goes beyond leisure, sophisticated entertainment, consumption, narrow professional interests and other such things; someone who sees art as an integral part of human social life and who can discover or renounce a social identity in his or her encounter with art.

Another approach could be to check out of the present and work for a future public, which is also something traditional in art and literature. But I do not have so much faith in the public of the future, or maybe I think that in the future, the art of our time may very well become pretty much incomprehensible because of how incredibly historically contingent contemporary art seems to be. In order to understand it you may have to reproduce the very specific context of our time in all its minutia: TV shows, fashion magazines, Hollywood movies, popular music, comics, supermarket circulars, and so forth, which is something far beyond what a didactic museum wall text does for Renaissance paintings, for example.

There is also the question of artistic agency. Agency basically means a capacity to act, but what does it mean to act as an artist? Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of artistic sovereignty, which basically means to me that as an artist I should be able to determine the content and form of my work, the methodology I use to make it and so forth. This seems rather commonsensical now, yet artists did not have such possibilities until only a couple of hundred years ago, prior to which they were largely hired labor for the church, the aristocracy and so forth. Of course, historically there have always been a few extraordinary personalities that managed to transcend such conditions, but they were the exceptions. I think that our contemporary conception of what is an artist is now changing again. I sense a real danger of things reverting to a much more prescribed role vis-a-vis institutions of art, governmental and NGO funders, the market and other forces, for whom we are becoming mere content providers. This is why artistic sovereignty is something very important to consider— how it was gained, how it can be recuperated, and so forth. I suspect that without artistic sovereignty there is not much possibility for artistic agency for most artists.

This brings me back to exhibitions: how is it possible for an artist to have agency when their production only registers as art when it is exhibited by dealers, curators, institutions or historians, when it is reduced to being content to fill someone else’s framework? I suspect that artistic sovereignty is key to reactivating the agency of art in social space, and maybe this agency can in turn resurrect the public.

To my mind, the key to all this can be the area of circulation and distribution, something which is often overlooked in the way that sanitation or street cleaning can sometimes be invisible. In this way, most of e-flux projects – whether it is a newsletter, a journal, a school, a video rental shop, a library, etc. – can be understood as attempts at a re-distribution of artistic production, texts, ideas, discourse, education and so forth, amplified by the emergence of powerful and free tools for communication, production, and dissemination, such as the Internet, which creates a possibility of relative autonomy from capital.

  • For Arendt, labor corresponds to a basic need for human life to sustain itself, such as farming, preparation of food, etc. Work goes beyond satisfaction of immediate needs and corresponds to human ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use, while action is “the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, [and] corresponds to the human condition of plurality.”

* Anton Vidokle is an artist, curator, and co-founder of e-flux, based in Berlin and New York.