Art is an industry. Fuck it.

I have had said to me that art is very little about inspiration and instead much more about hard work. This idea appeals to me for reasons unrelated to the American Dream because it helps me to correctly and realistically arrange myself within our industry. The artist is a worker in a model that has an uncanny resemblance to dominant economic models. Understanding my profession in this way has helped me to find out in more accurate senses what it is I am doing when I make art.

Art is an industry. The business is not always and not necessarily for monetary profit (I’m talking about the artist here, rather than the monied directors, programmers, curators, gallerists, academics, administrators, corporate philanthropists etc.), but generally for the accumulation of social and cultural capital. Through marketing, self-promotion, and, via class and education, privileged access to the elite codes of art’s operation, the artist carves out a niche for herself in the [guarded] walls of the art industry – this is called artistic innovation, an original idea.

I have heard all these terms – market, profit, niche, innovation, profession, promotion – spoken elsewhere. Defining words for our time. I am unsure whether they first appeared in the art industry and then were appropriated into other for-profit industries, or whether art actually did indeed turn straight to Silicon Valley for its driving rhetoric. Either way it seems to me that art is the vanguard for so much that disappoints me. After all, it is the same rhetoric that is involved in turning mountains into real estate, communities into consumers, and friends into networks. And I’m not sure how comfortable I am with this, that the art industry so often assumes the form of commercial business and how for the sake of sustainability (another business term) or simply participation in its conversations, you’re forced into these forms as well. Ever talked of being “productive” in the studio? Really, it makes me very uncomfortable.

Tino Sehgal provides a clear case in point of “art becomes business”. In Sehgal’s work, the business of the art is the “art”. When I saw his work at Martin Gropius Bau in July, I was genuinely struck at how close he had got to turning live, ephemeral performance into object. Impressive. This innovation seems to me to be a case of having simple but strict parameters in place for the performance of the works: the performance pieces, exactly choreographed, run continuously for the opening hours of the museum, in the same way a sculpture or other art object remains on the floor or wall available to be observed until the last member of the public leaves. The write-up in the exhibition’s programme doesn’t dwell too much on the content of his individual works (quite rightly, they’re neither here nor there) but rather the mechanisms by which he operates his practice. Sehgal’s innovation of objectifying ephemeral performance and positioning it with a museum context has allowed him to apply well-wrought commercial business models to his artistic practice, to lucrative success. In this particular exhibition there are 5 works and, as the exhibition notes inform us, there are 5 editions of every work and each are sold by Sehgal to an institution for ca.160,000€, a pretty sum and a fine manipulation of modern economic and commercial technologies. The success of his innovation demands a treatment of his performers as objects, an accurate representation of the practice and lie in which people are objectified into Labour, a commodity, as the most efficient means of securing (mostly financial) capital profit for the boss (Tino Sehgal) and his shareholders (Martin Gropius Bau, etc.).

The result of Sehgal’s innovation is this: through applying real and proven business technologies to his artistic practice, Sehgal has made himself and his art an institution that is able to successfully participate in capitalist exchange. Thus Sehgal has elevated himself as the artist to a position equal to that of the institution. (Of course the “innovation” stops at body-based work; object art has been involved in this behaviour of commodification and commercialisation for much longer). However he has not achieved this by an elevation of the cause of the artist as a member of the class that loses out in a biased system, but instead by meeting the institution on their own terms, terms derived from capitalist and commercial modes of operation. Sehgal’s work critiques not the fundamental elements of the commercial, financial and capitalist structures of our world, but instead focuses on non-object art’s previous absence within those structures. For this reason Sehgal’s innovation fails to warm my heart. Tino Sehgal has chosen to work within the system not to change it, but to secure a piece of the pie for himself. It is self-serving, cynical and unambitious work.

To avoid a hypothermic heart I must shift my focus elsewhere to people who tell it like it is and then have the skills, knowledge and doggedness to do something meaningful about it.

“By itself, literature just helps self-promotion within a charmed circle getting smaller and smaller”. Gayatri Spivak said that in her talk at the International Literaturfestival in Berlin. I extend her description to the broader Art World. The “charmed circle” that Spivak talks of is the “World” in Art World.

What this truth demonstrates for me is that there is a disconnect between the idealised artist, who’s goal it is to proliferate an artistic idea as a contribution to culture, possibly in spite of herself, and a reality of the artist who is required to engage in the promotion of the self as an industry [of artistic production]. The art is a means to end, in the same way that producing toilet paper (or slaughtering cows, or dealing in home loans or harvesting data or buying high and selling low) is a means to make money for the business man – he cares little for toilet paper, but rather what it can do for his wallet.  In the artist’s instance, she has to ask how can my toilet-paper art and my behaviour around it increase my social and cultural capital in order to allow me to make more art? The answer of course is to imitate the practices found in the commercial world. In this way art becomes as complicit in or even as enabling for capitalism as much of Design and Fashion has and dilutes its own power in the same way that street demonstrations and protests have now been reduced to simply expressions of “free-speech”.

In the same talk, as in a great many other talks she has given across the world to a plethora of audiences, Gayatri Spivak then spoke of her term “affirmative sabotage”, explained as the practice of taking the tools produced by the hegemony for use against the powerless, and turning the focus of their use 180° against the powerful in acts of sabotage. In Spivak’s work she uses ideas from European philosophy against the colonial and imperial behaviour enabled by the very same European philosophy. It becomes a task perhaps of not working within the system, but instead working the system towards a certain change.

I have read a similar idea in Spangbergianism, by Mårten Spångberg. In his book he calls the idea Piracy and compares it to breaking free of a system, which he cites as an impossibility for capitalism and, even if it was achieved, no one is looking so it won’t change a thing. It simply gets you to “a lonely place”. Piracy on the other hand uses continual betrayal of a system to break it apart so as to make room for alternatives.

And I encounter these techniques among many of my friends, so called “radical” or worse, “experimental” artists, who are among the most integral people I’m aware of. Their participation in these art forms which are infected with the values of the sociopathic powerful offers an antidote, un-patented.

The title I have given this text can be given a number of different intonations which I think reflect nicely the various approaches one might take to this quagmire:

– Art is an industry. Fuck it = express disappointment
– Art is an industry. Fuck it = give up
– Art is an industry. Fuck it = fuck it up

I shouldn’t suppose that art should be anything other than what it is in our current moment. Of course no one, least of all me, own the idea of what form art should assume or what it should stand for. Especially, I shouldn’t delude myself that art can avoid participating in “The Way the World Works” today. That’s hubristic. Nevertheless, life has meaning in a struggle.