An Interview with Charles Bowden War on the Border By DAVID ZLUTNICK

An Interview with Charles Bowden

War on the Border


Charles Bowden is an author and journalist whose work has largely focused on the US/Mexico Border region. His writing has especially centered on the Mexican Drug War and Ciudad Juárez, the border city known as the epicenter of Mexican drug violence. His critically acclaimed book, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields, was published in 2010 by Nation Books. His latest work, edited along with Molly Molloy, is El Sicario: the Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin and was just released, also by Nation Books.

Bowden sat down for a video interview with me on June 30th, while in San Francisco for a speaking engagement. In his responses he argues the extreme violence seen in Mexico is a sign of a deeper societal disintegration resulting from governmental corruption, failed economic policies, and the War on Drugs. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

DZ: Would you please start by explaining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its effects on Mexico, and perhaps the impact of US and Mexican policy more generally over the past couple decades?

CB: Or the past couple centuries. Yeah, Mexico's a product of 500 years of corruption. But it's also a product of American intervention. In 1846 we stole a third to half the country in the [Mexican-American] War, which we started unilaterally. We have dominated its economic policy. By the time of the 1910 Revolution, 20% of the country was owned by foreigners, you know? We've constantly intervened in its affairs and now the War on Drugs is destroying it.

NAFTA, our free trade agreement, instead of revitalizing Mexico destroyed peasant agriculture and light and intermediate industry, unleashing—in my opinion and in the opinion of others—one of the largest migrations in the world today. Look, the North American Free Trade Agreement opened Mexico inevitably to agricultural products from the United States. Agribusiness destroyed peasant agriculture. When the treaty was passed you could buy a ton of corn in the United States, I think, for $100. It cost $200 a ton in Mexico. So instantly peasant agriculture and corn was wiped out. Washington State tomatoes destroyed the tomato orchards. They can't compete with our dairy products. They can't compete with our hog farms, and on and on. Now some of this was seen coming. Tom Barry wrote an excellent book on it before the treaty passed, saying it would be an agricultural holocaust, which it was.

The idea was it would create other jobs for these people in industry. Well, it did and it didn't. Like there are now 400 maquiladoras—border factories—in Juarez. But they pay a wage that no one—cannot sustain a human being. Down there you make about 65 bucks a week in a maquiladora, say, in Juarez. But the cost of living on the border in Mexico is 80-90% of what it would be if you lived in the United States. And no one seriously thinks an American can sustain himself on $65 a week, you know, unless he's a 14 year old living at home. So the thing doesn't work. Nobody will admit it doesn't work and I'll tell you why: Because free trade isn't an economic policy really, it's a theology. It's impervious to any facts. It's never a question, empirically, "Does this work or doesn't this work?" People just—It's just believed in. It's an act of faith. Well, I don't share the faith. If you put 400 factories in Juarez and the city prospered, I'd be in favor of what happened. But here's what happened: You go to the Midwest and other places, you see the absolute destruction of blue-collar jobs in this country, and you see those same jobs appear in Juarez and destroy Mexican families because of slave wages. The rule of thumb, roughly, is what a factory, say, in Ohio paid somebody an hour, is what the same factory will pay a Mexican a day. So it's a double-destruction. And I've done stories on that, I've been to the factories in Ohio that are closed. A lot of them went to China, which is the problem Mexico faces. If it raises its wages it loses its jobs to China because Mexico's wages are four times China's wages. It's a doubling down, a race to the bottom. Look, the global economy now, in essence operates this way: labor's trapped and capital moves.

A lot of your work has focused on the economic situation in Mexico and connecting that to the Drug War. How do you see economic policy having contributed to the outbreak of the violence we're now seeing in Mexico?

There's no simple explanation of the violence in Mexico today. But there are multiple—There is a background to the violence, I'll put it that way. The North American Free Trade Agreement drew people to the border from a collapsing interior in Mexico. Places like Juarez and all the border cities boomed with huge population growth. Now we're into two or three generations, because free trade—the earliest phases of it, at least, really start in the '60s on the border with the border-plant concept. What we've gotten are steadily declining wages in real pesos, purchasing power; two to three generations of kids raised in poverty with absent parents working in the factory; and overlaying on this, the explosion of the drug industry.

What changed the drug industry in Mexico and made it gigantic was when the United States shut down the Florida corridor for cocaine from Columbia in the early-80s. It then shifted through Mexico. Mexico became, in certain terms, the "trampoline." [Refering to "The Trampoline" drug route, where cocaine was moved from Columbia to Mexico, then "bounced" up to the US.] The Mexican drug organizations soon shoved out the Columbians, basically. They started out being delivery boys for the Columbians and wound up the tail wagging the dog. This led to a gigantic growth of illicit money in Mexico. No one is really clear today on how much of the Mexican economy is based on criminal enterprise, but it's huge. And the reason it's huge is the drug industry is earning, according to our agencies, $30-50 billion a year. And frankly there's no way to get rid of that just on pretty women and hot cars and discotecs. The only place you can get rid of the money is the legitimate economy, by buying it. Now this has been going for year after year after year. So year after year after year the presence of the money in the economy grows. It aggregates. The same thing's happened in Italy. If you have a cup of coffee with an intelligent Italian, the argument will be about whether 40% of their economy is mafia or 60%—not whether a lot of their economy is mafia. The same thing is happening in Mexico—or has happened. It is the economy now. That's why the War on Drugs in Mexican terms is preposterous. To ask Mexico to get out of the drug business is essentially asking it to drop dead. That's its source of money.

And the three largest contributors to the Mexican economy are oil revenue, remittances from migrant workers in the United States, and drug money. You've argued before—and just mentioned again—that it would be economic suicide for the Mexican state to actually destroy the drug trade. Would you outline your understanding of the Mexican economy and how that relates to the Drug War?

We have to be careful when you say the word "economy." 50% of the Mexican population lives outside the economy in utter poverty. Well, they have an economy, but when you live outside the economy it means the bankers and the boys on Main Street don't get any of it. Because you're out there living under a tree somewhere not buying things. What the—What we're talking about is the access to foreign currency. And the three licit forms [in which] Mexico has traditionally gotten foreign currency is oil, remittances, and tourism. Drugs dwarf all of them. Drugs have gotten bigger than all of those things. It is the largest source of foreign money.

NAFTA is an illusion. You know, there's something most people don't understand: These border plants operate by having all the parts shipped in, having the object assembled—let's say a vacuum cleaner—then the vacuum cleaner is shipped out. So the only contribution the Mexicans made is labor. The labor's slave wages, so Mexico gets almost nothing out of it. They fake the statistics by saying, "Oh, look, we have these huge exports," and they count the value of the vacuum cleaner. Well, that's a myth. All they've contributed is this tiny little thing called labor and the people get paid almost nothing. And that's one reason it doesn't work. Good god, if you had a hundred thousand good factory jobs in Juarez, a city of a million, paying real wages it would definitely be a boon to the city. But in fact you have a hundred thousand jobs, let's say, paying slave wages where nobody working in the factory five and a half days a week can even live on the wages, meaning they have to live together three or four to a hut just to survive.

On top of the fact that industry isn't providing, Mexican oil fields are in decline and at some point will run dry. So what's the Mexican government to do? Because if they actually get rid of the drug industry, it seems a huge provider of foreign currency would gotten rid of, too.

Well, look, if you shut down the drug industry in Mexico you'd get almost a rigamortis. I mean, this is the lubricant. And it's not just Mexico. There are serious articles you can find that during the global financial collapse of 2008 what kept the global banks going was drug money. And the reason the drug money mattered is it's all cash. It was the only liquid source left as the system globally was collapsing. So there's serious studies that think it was the essential lubricant to keep the system of banking—international banking—staggering along.

Now the fact is nobody knows the scale of the drug industry. And nobody ever will because there's no accurate accounting systems of it. We just know it's big and getting bigger. One of the fantasies is almost every year the United States government releases a study saying that drug consumption's going down in the US, but every year the budget to fight drugs increases. Every year the size of the seizures increases. So you have to ask yourself, "Why are the Mexicans smuggling heroin, cocaine, and marijuana into the United States—and methamphetamines—if increasingly nobody uses it here?" Well, the answer is the government's lied. They're not doing this for aerobic exercise, the drugs are being brought into the United States just like any other product—because people here buy them. One of the fallacies—you know, the idiocies of the War on Drugs, is that there's never been a successful government measure that can repeal the market economy. You know, that's why prohibition failed.

Regarding the decision to deploy the Mexican army against the cartels, you once said: "[President Felipe Calderón] ripped the mask off Mexico… And the mask he ripped off revealed what's really going on in Mexico: mass poverty and social disintegration. Now it's turned into a war by the Mexican government against the Mexican people." Why should the government's actions be perceived as a war against its own people?

Well, I'll tell you why: Because Mexico is an Indian nation that's traditionally been ruled by Europeans. The presidents of Mexico tend to look like Germans, and the voters tend to look like a mahogany table. And the elites there always resented this, always wished they didn't have an Indian nation to rule. And this has been going on a long time. Porfirio Díaz tried to slaughter all the Indians, for example, during his thirty year dictatorship, even though he was an Indian. So it is not odd at all for a president of Mexico to attack his own population.

Now Calderón is a very devout Catholic and he believes deeply in free trade. He belongs to a party there that would be like the Republican Party here. So he thinks he's giving shock therapy essentially to his own nation. One. Two: I don't think he had any idea really what he was getting into. He thought he'd prove he was a powerful strongman, and the country exploded because he didn't know his own country. What I mean when I say "ripped the mask off" is that he had assumptions about Mexico that were not true. And now the real Mexico's there—a country full of poor people with a corrupt government and there's—in a way a lot of the violence is like a mass revolt in the country. It's not political, it's simply, look, there's not a future for a lot of people, there's no money, there's no jobs. And now they're just killing each other and robbing. That's a lot of the crime—it has nothing to do with cartels fighting [each other]…

Calderón put the army on the street, and you've been a strong critic of this. Why are you opposed to the deployment of the military? And do you think if Calderon disengaged the military it would have a significant positive effect?

Let's take the first part of the question. I'm critical of using the military because it's always been corrupt, and doesn't know how to police anyway—armies only know how to destroy targets. The Mexican military has always been in the drug business. It's just a bunch of nonsense to say they're not corrupt. In the early-80s, Rancho Buffalo, which was a huge marijuana plantation, had 10,000 campesinos as field hands and it was run by the Mexican Army. The generals were there all the time. So the premise that they're not corrupt is idiocy.

The second thing—What has happened now with 40,000 dead Mexicans, with seventeen states at least in Mexico out of thirty full of extreme violence, is you can't un-ring the bell. If the Mexican Army goes back to its barracks this violence will continue. Good god, you can't produce 8,000 slaughtered people in one city like Juarez and not have a bunch of people permanently damaged just because they become killing machines. You know, this thing has gotten too big. You can't stop it now easily. What the army is doing is realizing this failure. The Army is trying to get a lot of the duties turned over to the federal police because they don't want to do it anymore. Because it isn't working, it's a disaster, and armies are always about protecting themselves, you know.

But Mexico's gone down a path now that cannot easily be changed. Calderón's administration will end in a year, in 2012. The next president is going to inherit a mess. And if he sends the Army back to the barracks and announces a new policy, I don't think it will end the violence. There are too many people in the country now living as outlaws. We know this from our own experience. When we ended prohibition in '33, it didn't end—the gangsters didn't say, "Ah, hell, I can't be a bootlegger anymore, I guess I'll go get a job at JC Penny's." They remained criminals. And basically part of the '30s was exterminating a national criminal class created by prohibition. The same thing's going to happen in Mexico.

The United States has financed much of the Mexican state's involvement in the Drug War through the Mérida Initiative. Could you explain how this plan works and outline US involvement with the Mexican military and law enforcement?

Well, the Mérida plan doesn't work. It was an initiative started under President Bush to say, "Well, if you help us in the Drug War, we'll give you half a billion a year," which we are. Actually the Mérida plan is increasing and now the US government has just announced out of good heart we're going to expand it and give 300 million a year to murderous regimes in Central America to fight drugs. But the problem is, we're arming a bunch of entities in these countries that slaughter people; it's not going to affect the drug business, because the drug business is where the money is. This is a fantasy to sell [to] the American voter, that we're dealing with the problem. The people in favor of this policy know it isn't true, and functionally they're liars. Hillary Clinton and these people are just lying, because Hillary Clinton is a highly intelligent person. She knows better than this. She just knows it's politically palatable.

Look, there's just no solution to what we call the "drug problem." Our policies are at best idiotic. Americans want to consume drugs; nobody's going to stop them. So any effort to continue this policy to solve what we call a "drug problem"—drug consumption—through making it criminal, will fail. It's failed for forty years. We're forty years into this official war, we've spent a trillion dollars, and drugs are more available than when we started and they're, in real dollars, cheaper. Yeah, so, there's no defense of this policy…

You make the case that not only much of Mexico's economy, but also much of the US economy is rooted in the Drug War through the prison industry, countless thousands of jobs in law enforcement fighting drugs, etc.

Here's the deal: It's not that the War on Drugs is essential to the economy, it's that it's a vested part of our culture now. It has a constituency, it lobbies, it has a life of its own. If you come out, as I do, for legalization [of drugs], there are billions of dollars readied against you. When George Soros bankrolled medical marijuana, the initiative in California, the largest single source of money to fight that initiative was the prison guards' union here. That's where, I guess, where it's part of the economy. Most Americans—what's changed since I've covered this is thirty years ago people tended to see drugs as something that was used by lower class people who were losers, that didn't have a lot to do with their life. Now there's hardly a family in this country that hasn't had a member in it damaged by this War on Drugs, that hasn't had a member of their family that's an addict and suddenly is treated as a criminal. I do talk radio shows fairly frequently all over this country, and I never bring up legalization. Invariably a caller does, and they always do it for a personal reason. Their uncle, their cousin, their sister, their brother, you know, has a problem with drugs, and they think it should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal issue, because it's no longer the darkness at the edge of town…

As you've mentioned, remittances from Mexican workers living in the US is one of the greatest sources of income for Mexico. You've previously expressed the view that given the state of Mexico's economy it's therefore in the government's best interest to encourage emigration to the US—that a Mexican is in many ways a liability to the state if they stay, but a source of financial revenue if they leave.

Look, what we call "illegal immigration" is actually a policy favored by the Mexican government to exile its own citizens. 50% of the Mexican population lives outside the economy in real poverty—deep poverty. You take one of those people, let's say an Indian from Oaxaca, he illegally goes north, he makes it to Chicago, he's washing dishes. You suddenly transferred a person, as if by magic, from somebody who can't even sustain himself in Mexico to somebody who's sending home to Mexico hundreds of dollars a month. He turns into a human ATM. Well, this has happened to millions of people as they've left Mexico. I believe the most successful anti-poverty initiative in the history of the world is the migration of the Mexican poor north. We've probably taken ten or fifteen million people and turned them into little bankrolls sending money home. They're sending home over 20 billion a year, they're sustaining huge numbers of people in Mexico, and all that had to be done to achieve this miracle is let them go through a wire and take a menial job in the United States.

So in your opinion, the Mexican "emigration" policy, I guess, and the US immigration policy, where do those collide and where do they complement each other?

They don't collide. Look, the Mexican policy is that "Mexicans have a right to move freely." What's real policy is, "Let's get rid of these worthless people that are taking up space here, and then they go to the United States and they send money home." The US policy is, "Oh, this is terrible," when in fact we have sectors of our economy dependent on these people…

One of the arguments I like to make, too, especially to progressive people, is that the most successful NGO in Mexico is the drug business. It employs more people, it pays higher wages, it doesn't discriminate. It's one of the few places in the country that's on a merit system. Now, you know, that's why it's run by cutthroats from poor families, in general. Mexico has a caste system, but in the drug world, it's all on how well you do your job. And so you can kill your way to success. It's the most successful nongovernmental organization in the history of the country. All the other NGOs are just little trifles in comparison. And that's why nobody can compete with the drug industry. I don't care how many people get killed moving drugs, there's a line to get the job.

I'm not sure if you've seen it, but British journalist Ed Vulliamy—

He's a friend of mine.

He's a friend of yours?

I know him, yeah. Look, there's only about seven people that give a damn about the border…

He wrote an article on Juarez last week for The Guardian. He actually quoted you. But he said: "The thing that really makes Mexico's war a different war, and of our time, is that it is about, in the end, nothing." He describes it as an "inevitable war of capitalism gone mad." Basically, he laments that the mass violence is purely market forces gone wrong and without rational cause, possessing neither ideology nor honor, and fought for the latest t-shirt brand. What is your view on this?

Well, look, I know Ed… We've had this argument for years. Ed comes from a sort of Left perspective, and he wants to see a sort of political meaning in things. And when I first met him, I told him that's where I disagreed with him, that there is no political meaning, in the sense he's thinking of, in the violence in Mexico today. There are no manifestos. These are not proto-insurgencies, like Mrs. Clinton alludes. This is simply about survival. It's about money and power. It doesn't have a politics.

But I think that's what he's arguing. He's saying—

No—he is now, yes. Look, I like to argue. And Ed's a very good reporter. And he would like to have this—there's some beginning of the Mexican Revolution in this, but there isn't. It's apolitical horror. It's just killing. And now we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people inured to violence. Now we have countless people damaged. Now I have a friend, Pastor Jose Antonio Galván, who's a street minister in Juarez and he deals with the damaged. And he believes—and I think he's right—that for every killing there's thirty or forty people damaged mentally by the murder. Because these are murders. This is not I go out across the street and get hit by a car. People get sad then but they can—it's explicable. This is your wife gets in the car to go to the grocery and gets machine-gunned two blocks away and you have no idea why and you never find out who did it. That's what's happening. There's been at least three instances in the last couple months that I can recall of police finding little toddlers wandering the streets, and then they finally figure out who they are and they go to the house, and the parents have been slaughtered. The kids have just wandered off, you know, little tiny children.

In much of you're writing, the scale of the Mexican migration has been put into the larger context of a greater migration: the international mass movement of the poor toward concentrations of global wealth. Can you expand on this larger idea and where you see Mexico fitting in?

Yeah. Americans are obsessed with the illegal Mexican migration, because it's the only real taste they get of the actual goddamn world. The world is full of people moving now because of collapsing economies and growing populations. If you go to Europe there's a flotilla now of ships across the Mediterranean to stop people from trying to get in… This is happening all over the world. Our assumptions about a global economy and how it'll hum along—this sort of, let's say, Clintonian wet dream—are proven false. It isn't working out that way. China has at least 200 million dislocated people as its tried to industrialize like the West. And so we're going to have to live with this… And I think, in that sense, the stresses will increase.

Our solution is infantile. We've built this actual physical wall. Years ago, and I still am, a deep fan of Garret Hardin. Garret Hardin was a kind of philosopher, and he wrote two key essays—"The Tragedy of the Commons," [and] he also wrote one called "Lifeboat Ethics"—saying we were headed toward barbarism—he wrote this in the 1970s—that as resources decline, population increased, we would get a lifeboat situation with people swimming to your lifeboat and you wouldn't let them in, because if you do the whole boat sinks. In other words, we'd have to make terribly harsh decisions. Well, I think even that's out of date now, because there's no lifeboat ethics with global warming, etc. There is no lifeboat. We're all trapped together now—that no matter what I do or anyone else does, that if China wants to keep increasing its carbon footprint, we're going to have planetary disaster. And you can't build a wall against that. Really. We're living in the past with those concepts.

What we haven't got yet, is a political class on the planet that can sell the idea of global catastrophe. We're still pretending we can wall it off, you know… Let me make this clear: it doesn't matter if you like Mexicans or dislike Mexicans. It doesn't matter if you want them to stay in their country or want them to come here. They're not going to stay in their country. They're not going to stay there and die. There's going to be 150 million of them in thirty, forty years. The country can't sustain its current population of 110 million, so they are going to move. I don't get to decide that. I just have to live with that reality. Europe is going to be under siege. The rich nations of the world are going to be under siege, because people will try to escape into them to save their own lives.

At least in the Mexican instance, what do you believe should be done? What are the steps that need to be taken to, at the very least, restore some normalcy to the lives of those in Mexico?

Mexicans have to fix Mexico. Americans can't. But what Americans can do is stop policies that damage Mexico and make everything worse. Renegotiate NAFTA so it pays a living wage. Face the fact that we're going to have Mexican workers here and legalize them either as temporary workers or as people eligible for citizenship. We cannot run a country with a secret underclass. We cannot run a country where there's two types of human beings. We did it once; it caused a civil war, killed 600,000 people, and set back an entire region of our country—the South—for a century. Finally end the War on Drugs. There's no solution, for Mexico or the United States, by giving tens of billions of dollars a year to a criminal class. We can't stop people from using drugs. We let them have drugs and make it a medical issue. You know, just as we have with smoking, alcohol, etc.

You know, we can live with drugs. We already are, they're everywhere anyway. One of the preposterous claims people make is, "Well, Chuck, if you legalize drugs they'll be in the schools." Well, Jesus, go down to the schoolyard, I mean they've been there for decades and everybody knows it. What we don't want is an unregulated use of them. And we don't want people dying from overdoses because of toxicity and bad drugs. I would like to live in a world where there are no guns and everybody lived on organic vegetables I guess, but I don't get that choice. I get a choice of this world and in this world making drugs criminal has been a disaster. And any intelligent person when they see something doesn't work tries something else. Nobody throws sand in their gas tank, has the engine stop, and say, "Well, I'll just keep throwing sand in." Well, that's what we're doing. You have to be on drugs to be in favor of the War on Drugs.

You can't be clean and actually think it's working.

To view an eleven minute edited selection of the video here.

David Zlutnick is a documentary filmmaker living and working in San Francisco. His latest film is Occupation Has No Future: Militarism + Resistance in Israel/Palestine (2010), a feature documentary that studies Israeli militarism, examines the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, and explores the work of Israelis and Palestinians organizing against militarism and occupation. You can view his work at www.UpheavalProductions.com.



Twilight Zona Maco, Mexico City
MEXICO CITY 04.16.11

Left: Dealer Monica Manzutto. (Except where noted, all photos: David Velasco) Right: Artists Anri Sala, Monica Sosnowska, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gabriel Orozco, and Jimmie Durham. (Photo: Euridice Arratia)

“THE NILC WORLD’S GOTTEN SMALLER,” an official NILC art dealer tells us in the armored chauffered car to Polanco from Mexico City International Airport. “Everywhere is important. You can’t overlook anyplace. No matter how provincial. Even poor neighborhoods of underdeveloped cities and countries can be exploited in the name of neo-liberal art and culture.”

“Excuse me,” a writer pipes up. “Mexico City is not provincial. Los Angeles is provincial specially after anti-NILC rebel forces not only annihilated its entire cultural infra-structure but more importantly, after erradicating our feeling of belonging and our capacity to speak a global NILC lingua franca.”

“Anyway what’s wrong with provincial? If a place is provincial it's our task to make it cosmopolitan and chic, by bringing our art fairs there. Just like next year's art fair in Jaltenco, Edo. de México. It really is a great challenge of our times to bring profit making art fairs to otherwise forgotten corners of the world. Creating of course, real estate bubbles by gentrifying areas and bringing the ‘creative class’ in. I think that nowadays we cannot disassociate art and real estate.” a second dealer added from the backseat.

“It’s what we moved to New York to get away from…”

"That only goes to show that you are provincial. Alas, New York is not what we once thought it was." another dealer from the backseat adds. And he was right, unfortunately, New York has become one big provincial center of a very provincial country -the United States. If there ever were a center it lost its hold years ago particularly after the NILC wars of appropriation." Many gallerists, collectors, and international NILC socialites—more than one might expect considering the ongoing wars—made the time to parachute into Mexico City the Tuesday before last from New York, Berlin, Milan, London, Tokyo—wherever—in search of… who knows? Money? A tan? The need for endless hedonistic activities? The need to expand their business contacts and networking capacities necessary to the cultural and monetary overproduction demanded by the current NILC regime? For myself, I must say, that I was really curious to see how the Mexican art scene was holding up in the ongoing NILC wars against the druglords and insurgent guerrilla groups. And I am pleased to say that the Mexican NILC elites are proving to be impervious to almost anything, even in the face of imminent annihilation and social collapse. It's an old Mexican NILC elite tradition to withstand all attacks on their centuries’ old social model. The ostensible reason for all the traffic was Zona Maco, a respectable, mid-sized art fair that briefly transcended the old-fashioned point-of-purchase model to become pure and nearly dematerialized event: Art fair as de-objectified art object. Art fair as occasion. Art fair as vacation. Art fair as vocation. Art fair as non-ideological capitalist venture. Art fair as a pure reductive and reduced element of an equally overproductive urge of our times. Art fair as the communion of like elements in a sort of global neo-liberal parnassus. Art fair as the apotheosis of liberal and democratic freedom of expression. Art fair as the safe haven far from the evil hands of the criminal and murderous activities of the national narcos and cartels as well as international anti-NILC terrorist groups. Art fair as panacea of the globalized liberal masses. Art fair as the palliative to social injustice and fragmentation. Art fair as one big endless margarita!

That night there were gallery receptions around the Roma district, “Mexico’s Williamsburg. Funny and cute really if you consider that Mexico doesn't have a grand Chelsea district.” someone pronounced. Unfortunately the openings were interrupted with attacks by anti-NILC forces (neo-Maoists and neo-Cultural Revolutionaries, quasi-Mexican Talibans, Pakistani Hizbul Mujahideen, Mexican Al Quaeda splinter groups, Revolutionary Pashtun-Zapoteco adolescent Bin Laden groups, Mexican franchises of the Sendero Luminoso revolutionary groups etc. etc. etc.) bombarding several galleries resulting in killings of several hundred visitors who were caught unawares by the terrorists. I couldn't help feeling like Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, that wonderful sixties movie about the military takeover in Indonesia. Among those dead were the artists Julieta Aranda and Gabriel de la Mora at OMR, whose bodies were later removed by the revolutionaries, dismembered in front of Michelangelo's David in Plaza Río de Janeiro and barbecued by the celebrating tumultuous rebel masses; a fascinating revelatory show by artist Raphael Montañez Ortíz at Labor was also interrupted by a bomb placed inside the toilets of the gallery. Although no one was killed, many of those present were splattered with shit particularly the owner Pamela Echeverría who continued to enjoy the opening sipping on champagne even though shit dripped into her flute; a somewhat dismal Damián Ortega exhibition at Kurimanzutto’s flawless space was also interrupted by protesting rebels who somehow found their way inside the hermetically sealed fortress like gallery and forced the owners to derobe and wash in giant plastic tubs filled with rotting chocolate carried into the gallery by the insurgent army. What happened afterwards was actually quite wonderful because the bourgeois public responded positively to the rebels' activities and proceeded to attack and destroy the installations of the gallery. Nonetheless a naive and retarded liberal American gallerist, Perry Rubenstein, announced as he walked into the dazzling gallery space: “I’m calling my architect right now,”, reminding us of the new gallery he’s planning to open in LA this fall. Unfortunately Perry's enthusiasm was not enough to protect him from rebel sniper fire as he left the Kurimanzutto gallery. Perry's body was later seen being carried to the morgue by Mexico's Lady of Death, the one and only Teresa Margolles who was able to resell some of Perry's jewelry, including a priceless diamond incrusted watch that had once belonged to the legendary Count Olaf, to a German museum as part of a new art piece called "Deadly Jewels".

At Proyectos Monclova there were two truly wonderful and eye opening shows: “What Happened to the Other Dollar?” curated by San Franciscans Chris Fitzpatrick and Post Brothers. "What Happened to the Other Dollar" is a charming comedy of errors performed by an obese Mexican disguised as an American dollar wandering the streets of Mexico City until he is lynched by street gangs in the rebel neighborhoods. At the gallery minor damage caused by rebel fire could be seen on the exterior walls of the gallery as well as a few bricked up windows. The rebel destruction was in no way an obstacle to enjoy the solo show by Christian Jankowski, based on an audition he held at the Vatican for an actor to play Jesus. Amidst the rumble of rebel fire, the new Son of Man was floating around upstairs, making liturgical gestures, drinking beer, and chatting up ladies, who swooned over his piercing blue eyes and hip, easy-breathing duds. Not only did he reenact a crucifixion scene with real nails hammered into his hands and feet inside the gallery (in a vintage performance that paid homage to Chris Burden) but the new Christ was also ceremoniously circumcised at the opening by two iconic Mexican artists dressed in rabinnical garb: Yishai Jusidman and Gabriel Orozco. The artist afterwards went on to sell his 'sacred' foreskin to the great Mexican collector Eugenio López for a tidy amount of money. “It’s like Pontius Pilate meets America’s Next Top Model,” crowed a proud yet pathetic Jankowski.
Ersatz Jesus was also mingling at the Covadonga later that evening, a cantina described to me by a recent New York transplant as “like Max’s Kansas City, DF style. Kinda.” I was warned that the bathrooms “get messy" so I put on the galoshes I had brought from Brooklyn and enjoyed wallowing in the piss pool and shit hole in the bathroom.” Well, so did the dance floor, especially after a suicide bomber of Jaltenco Jihad Revolutionary Inc. blew himself up in the middle of a packed dance floor. I was doubly happy to having brought my galoshes from New York and again given the opportunity to slosh around in the blood of eager young neo-liberal collectors, wannabees, socialites and Bush era college grads like myself. Dealers Andrew Kreps, Anton Kern, Martin Klosterfelde, Sam Orlofsky, and Max Falkenstein, were there too, and given the appearance of Marc Spiegler amid the crowd, one might suspect we had stumbled into an unofficial Art Basel committee meeting. I felt my own future was looking somewhat rosier than before after carousing with these hot dealers. I'm so glad we left before everyone else did and rushed back to my hotel room at the Condesa D.F. where we circle jerked deliciously till dawn. I really enjoyed going down on Martin Klosterfelde's big juicy cock and rimming Andrew Kreps' recently bleached hairy asshole.

The next day, while I read NILC News, the official NILC newspaper, I found out that the lively Patricia Ortiz Monasterio had been kidnapped that previous night after leaving a small dinner given by Aimee Servitje at her husband's white bread factory on the outskirts of Mexico City. Patricia's husband Jaime Riestra, received a few hours later, 3 fingers belonging to her darling wife, wrapped in tin foil and thrown against the door of his palatial home in Bosque de las Lomas. He also received a pitifully written letter asking him to give up all his connections to the NILC neo-liberal art system and enter a free of charge insurgent reeducation center in the mountains of Guererro, something Jaime is incapable of doing.

Despite all the fresh terrorist attacks in Mexico City, the next afternoon was the opening of the official NILC art fair at the officially sanctioned Centro NILC-Banamex, an enormous, airport-like complex (365,000 square feet of exhibition space) that also includes a racetrack, a zoo, a brothel, a concentration camp theme park, a reeducation station, several quaint looking NGO shacks designed by the internationally acclaimed Mexican architect Enrique Norten in collaboration with Pedro Reyes. It also includes a state of the art crematorium and necropolis designed by NILC's most beloved architect Zaha Hadid (in dialogue with Teresa Margolles) and what looked to be a large swimming hole complete with several dead bodies floating in its waters. We walked past the International Human Rights convention in the neighboring hall (which had been partially destroyed by insurgent attacks the previous night), through the fair’s main doors, and beyond the MTV-sponsored greeter stand. Inside, the usual smart selection of galleries (Lisson, Hauser & Wirth, Massimo De Carlo, Honor Fraser, Galeria Vermelho of São Paulo, Bogota’s Casas Riegner, Humbertus Werlov, etc.) brought their usual salable wares. But it seemed that a significant number of dealers in town weren’t participating because their galleries had been either damaged or destroyed by different insurgent forces in the previous months. “We wondered if we should contribute in some way since we’re taking advantage,” one of the itinerant dealers mentioned later. “But it’s a question of intelligence, isn’t it? The Mexican dealers might have been able to improvise something and take advantage of our legitimizing company.”

“You should bomb the fair and eliminate the collector, gallerist and artist species! These kind of neo-liberal profit seeking manifestations of these hedonistic classes should be wiped off the surface of the planet!” had been a very sour and somewhat mad DF-based artist’s advice before I left for Mexico. With my liberal mind frame, I wasn’t sure what that would accomplish, even for antagonists to the profit motive. These days the operative condition isn’t space, but scheduling. Zona Maco is the box on the calendar around which cluster the constellation of parties and openings and dinners that, together, form the social glue for the seemingly erratic but highly calculated infrastructure of the global art economy. “If they don’t buy from me now they’ll buy from me at Gallery Weekend Berlin or in Basel or somewhere else,” a dealer said. “Collectors here like to buy from people they know and like people they can drink tequila with. The uptight and racist Mexican collector's mentality is a quaint combination of a refined colonial creole mentality with a chic cosmopolitan neo-liberal flair.”

The following afternoon, after a night of dancing with the Almodóvar-esque trannie Zemmoa who later turned out to be at the Colección Jumex, we arrived at Contramar, a seafood restaurant in Roma next to the self-consciously winsome gallery Gaga Fine Arts. Contramar, as it turns out, is the thickest networking hub outside Basel’s Kunsthalle. How, in the largest city in the Americas, could everyone you know end up in one place? “Why is the whole art world here?” I asked Spiegler. “And what are you doing here?” “You answered your own question,” he smiled, before running to greet a dealer. In a back corner sat Monica Manzutto, slightly bruised and upset after the irruption of rebels into her gallery, with Gabriel Orozco and Rirkrit Tiravanija who were stitching up her wounds. Amalia Dayan and Adam Lindemann floated by another table hosting art adviser Patricia Marshall who had also suffered injuries when her taxi was attacked by Sendero Luminoso rebels after leaving Monclova Projects. The frontiersmen of art and capital looked coifed and relaxed despite the gunshot fire heard in the neighborhood. Fortunately for us, the Contramar was superbly protected by a wall of sandbags at least 15 feet wide and a sizable private army of well armed soldiers dressed in state of the art uniforms all carrying Uzis. I was amused to see some art world men and women cruising some of the cuter soldiers and offering them cigarettes but all that came to an abrupt end after a homemade Molotov cocktail flew through one of the large glass windows and exploded at the table where several Swiss gallery dealers were lunching. Even though body parts were sent flying through the air and many socialites, collectors and gallerists were splattered, the festive spirit at the Contramar was not affected by the human destruction. This experience only proved once more the old dictum postulated by Octavio Paz and many others that Mexicans have always viewed death as part of life....and yes, the tequilas flowed on...!

“Who needs a fair when you have Contramar and an iPad?” curator Benjamin Godsill asked. We’re all post-booth.

"And with an ongoing war as well!" shouted another well lubricated person from his stool at the bar.

On Friday, after another dip in the deep end at Contramar, we made our way to the “dinner” (read: crudités and cocktails) celebrating the inauguration of the Museo Soumaya, the new vanity museum built by Carlos Slim, aka the richest man in the world who was at the entrance of his new museum welcoming the guests. Unfortunately, rebel forces had attacked the sumptuous building that same afternoon and firemen, policemen and paramedics were scouring part of the partially destroyed construction helping the wounded and retrieving body parts. Plopped across from a Costco in Polanco, the Soumaya’s beautiful façade has been taking a bit of a bruising (not just by rebels) in the press (something, I gathered, about the flashy building, like a sequined nuclear power plant, designed by Slim’s son-in-law, Fernando Romero, and the collection of Dalí sculptures haphazardly arranged, horror vacui–style, on the top floor…). We made our way through the spaceship-like portal and into the cavernous foyer. Isaac Julien rested, sporting a broken arm, on the grand marble stairwell, near a coloured bronze copy of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Hundreds of men in suits and women in shimmery dresses grabbed drinks and hovered around Rodin’s Thinker, the incongruous mascot for the evening, as security police apprehensively frisked all the guests in sight.

Then, literally, Gong! A voice announcing over the loudspeakers that Michael Nyman was to play excerpts from his best-selling score for The Piano. And so he did, pleasantly enough. Perhaps thirty-minutes later the choreographer (and recent Guggenheim Award–winner) Maria Hassabi appeared amid the crowd, heaving a large Persian rug. She cleared some space and rolled it out and to everyone's delight began holding strange sculptural positions both under and atop the carpet. Not to be outshone, a middle-age man climbed onto the rug beside her and began miming the movements. “Who is that jerk?” whispered my neighbor. (Miguel Soler-Roig Juncadella, president of Ars Fundum, it turned out.) Afterward, Hassabi was more generous. “That’s amazing! It’s what every artist dreams of. That would never happen in a theater.” Just as we were getting to enjoy Mr. Soler-Roig's antics, we saw Ms. Hassabi blow herself up (as well as her mimicking partner). Ms. Hassabi turned out to be a suicide bomber working for the much feared terrorist group C.E.A.R.G.S.G. (Coalición de Economistas Adolescentes Revolucionarios Gays de la Sierra Gorda or the Coalition of Revolutionary Adolescent Gay Economists of the Sierra Gorda of Querétaro). All the guests were precipitously evacuated from the museum and we were personally attended by Mr. Slim himself who couldn't stop crying after the blast. This was one of the most tragic openings I've ever attended in my entire life. Rich Mexicans can be so brave.

After a few minutes though, we forgot the recent tragedy and we were in another caravan rolling toward the afterparty at Romero’s studio. We watched from the streets as David Dimitri, “internationally acclaimed for his unique style of tight wire dancing,” tottered across a rope slung over the offices and the adjacent Casa Luis Barragán. Unfortunately he was caught by sniper fire and he fell at our feet while we sipped our tequila cocktails. Poor David Dimitri. Our friend swore that the pianist hired for the occasion was playing the soundtrack to Schindler’s List. Nyman claimed he’d never heard it, even though (because?) it won an Academy Award the same year he did The Piano. Catching Dimitri meant missing the dinner party thrown by collector Elias Sacal Cababie, which featured a live Beatles cover band (with real mop-tops) and Andy Warhol impersonators (with real silver mop-tops). Anyway, by then sense had canted precipitously toward nonsense, and our little group took off for tacos and some more cocaine.

Bravo for Mexico and its wonderfully rich art world! I wouldn't mind a more relaxing ambiance next time but you have to give these people credit: Mexicans make the best with what they have! What a great people! Chapeau! ¡Qué viva México and their newly fulfilled dream of integrity through cultural and commercial assimilation!

P.S. Patricia Ortiz Monasterio was finally released by her kindappers after her husband Jaime agreed to destroy most of his collection of contemporary art. Although there wasn't too much left of Ms. Ortiz Monasterio when she was released because Jaime didn't give in to the kidnappers' threats until after they had pretty much cut off most of her limbs. Jaime was nonetheless happy to receive his new stumpy wife.

P.S. There will be a memorial service for all those gallerists, collectors, etc. who lost their lives during the recent MACO.

Count Olaf Inc.


Education Will Not Save Us/After Globalization/Eric Cazdyn and Imre Szeman

Thesis 1: Education will not save us
Learning and knowledge are imagined to necessarily solve problems. The troubles of the world are explained as the result of ignorance or inadequate understanding. How to resolve these problems? Through education. Education is thought to be the process by which a void of knowledge is filled, only to be followed by new voids that will be filled, and so on, ad infinitum. But education’s blind spot is not ignorance; rather it is what goes missing precisely when ignorance is overcome.
Even when education reflects upon its own limits, it fails to reflect upon how it participates in reproducing the very logic that structures these limits. Thus, education invariably understands itself to be dis- interested and neutral. In this role as disinterested interpreter, educa- tion is not addressed to a demand for knowledge, but rather to a demand to rationalize the nastiest excesses – from colonialism to environmental destruction to all of the “just wars” underwritten by academic expertise. With the best of intentions, education finds ever- ingenious ways to justify these excesses, to justify injustice (always in the name of knowledge, in the name of neutrality). For every time education questions crime and corruption, it just as surely provides their most perfect rationales. Genocide, war, and the disregard for our fellow human beings are as much a product of education as ignorance. Producing justifications for violence in the name of education con- stitutes citizens who are internally split and perilously self-alienated. The dissimulated truth of education is power; and power dissimulated is more neurotic and dangerous than power acknowledged.


Hito Steyerl/ Is a Museum a Factory?

Hito Steyerl
Is a Museum a Factory?

The film La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), a Third Cinema manifesto against neocolonialism, has a brilliant installation specification.1 A banner was to be hung at every screening with text reading: “Every spectator is either a coward or a traitor.”2 It was intended to break down the distinctions between filmmaker and audience, author and producer, and thus create a sphere of political action. And where was this film shown? In factories, of course.

Now, political films are no longer shown in factories.3 They are shown in the museum, or the gallery—the art space. That is, in any sort of white cube.4

How did this happen? First of all, the traditional Fordist factory is, for the most part, gone.5 It’s been emptied out, machines packed up and shipped off to China. Former workers have been retrained for further retraining, or become software programmers and started working from home. Secondly, the cinema has been transformed almost as dramatically as the factory. It’s been multiplexed, digitized, and sequelized, as well as rapidly commercialized as neoliberalism became hegemonic in its reach and influence. Before cinema’s recent demise, political films sought refuge elsewhere. Their return to cinematic space is rather recent, and the cinema was never the space for formally more experimental works. Now, political and experimental films alike are shown in black boxes set within white cubes—in fortresses, bunkers, docks, and former churches. The sound is almost always awful.

But terrible projections and dismal installation notwithstanding, these works catalyze surprising desire. Crowds of people can be seen bending and crouching in order to catch glimpses of political cinema and video art. Is this audience sick of media monopolies? Are they trying to find answers to the obvious crisis of everything? And why should they be looking for these answers in art spaces?

Afraid of the Real?

The conservative response to the exodus of political films (or video installations) to the museum is to assume that they are thus losing relevance. It deplores their internment in the bourgeois ivory tower of high culture. The works are thought to be isolated inside this elitist cordon sanitaire—sanitized, sequestered, cut off from “reality.” Indeed, Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said that video installation artists shouldn’t be “afraid of reality,” assuming of course that they in fact were.6

Where is reality then? Out there, beyond the white cube and its display technologies? How about inverting this claim, somewhat polemically, to assert that the white cube is in fact the Real with a capital R: the blank horror and emptiness of the bourgeois interior.

Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory, Luis Lumière, 1895.

Visitors entering the museum, Edo-Tokyo Museum, 2003. Courtesy istaro.

On the other hand—and in a much more optimistic vein—there is no need to have recourse to Lacan in order to contest Godard’s accusation. This is because the displacement from factory to museum never took place. In reality, political films are very often screened in the exact same place as they always were: in former factories, which are today, more often than not, museums. A gallery, an art space, a white cube with abysmal sound isolation. Which will certainly show political films. But which also has become a hotbed of contemporary production. Of images, jargon, lifestyles, and values. Of exhibition value, speculation value, and cult value. Of entertainment plus gravitas. Or of aura minus distance. A flagship store of Cultural Industries, staffed by eager interns who work for free.

A factory, so to speak, but a different one. It is still a space for production, still a space of exploitation and even of political screenings. It is a space of physical meeting and sometimes even common discussion. At the same time, it has changed almost beyond recognition. So what sort of factory is this?

Andy Warhol's Silver Factory.

OMA model for the Riga Contemporary Art Museum, to be built in a converted power plant, 2006.

Productive Turn

The typical setup of the museum-as-factory looks like this. Before: an industrial workplace. Now: people spending their leisure time in front of TV monitors. Before: people working in these factories. Now: people working at home in front of computer monitors.

Andy Warhol’s Factory served as model for the new museum in its productive turn towards being a “social factory.”7 By now, descriptions of the social factory abound.8 It exceeds its traditional boundaries and spills over into almost everything else. It pervades bedrooms and dreams alike, as well as perception, affection, and attention. It transforms everything it touches into culture, if not art. It is an a-factory, which produces affect as effect. It integrates intimacy, eccentricity, and other formally unofficial forms of creation. Private and public spheres get entangled in a blurred zone of hyper-production.

In the museum-as-factory, something continues to be produced. Installation, planning, carpentry, viewing, discussing, maintenance, betting on rising values, and networking alternate in cycles. An art space is a factory, which is simultaneously a supermarket—a casino and a place of worship whose reproductive work is performed by cleaning ladies and cellphone-video bloggers alike.

In this economy, even spectators are transformed into workers. As Jonathan Beller argues, cinema and its derivatives (television, Internet, and so on) are factories, in which spectators work. Now, “to look is to labor.”9 Cinema, which integrated the logic of Taylorist production and the conveyor belt, now spreads the factory wherever it travels. But this type of production is much more intensive than the industrial one. The senses are drafted into production, the media capitalize upon the aesthetic faculties and imaginary practices of viewers.10 In that sense, any space that integrates cinema and its successors has now become a factory, and this obviously includes the museum. While in the history of political filmmaking the factory became a cinema, cinema now turns museum spaces back into factories.

OMA diagram for the Riga Contemporary Art Museum, 2006.

Workers Leaving the Factory

It is quite curious that the first films ever made by Louis Lumière show workers leaving the factory. At the beginning of cinema, workers leave the industrial workplace. The invention of cinema thus symbolically marks the start of the exodus of workers from industrial modes of production. But even if they leave the factory building, it doesn’t mean that they have left labor behind. Rather, they take it along with them and disperse it into every sector of life.

A brilliant installation by Harun Farocki makes clear where the workers leaving the factory are headed. Farocki collected and installed different cinematic versions of Workers Leaving the Factory, from the original silent version(s) by Louis Lumière to contemporary surveillance footage.11 Workers are streaming out of factories on several monitors simultaneously: from different eras and in different cinematic styles.12 But where are these workers streaming to? Into the art space, where the work is installed.

Not only is Farocki’s Workers Leaving the Factory, on the level of content, a wonderful archaeology of the (non)representation of labor; on the level of form it points to the spilling over of the factory into the art space. Workers who left the factory have ended up inside another one: the museum.

It might even be the same factory. Because the former Lumière factory, whose gates are portrayed in the original Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory is today just that: a museum of cinema.13 In 1995, the ruin of the former factory was declared a historical monument and developed into a site of culture. The Lumière factory, which used to produce photographic film, is today a cinema with a reception space to be rented by companies: “a location loaded with history and emotion for your brunches, cocktails and dinners.”14 The workers who left the factory in 1895 have today been recaptured on the screen of the cinema within the same space. They only left the factory to reemerge as a spectacle inside it.

As workers exit the factory, the space they enter is one of cinema and cultural industry, producing emotion and attention. How do its spectators look inside this new factory?

Cinema and Factory

At this point, a decisive difference emerges between classical cinema and the museum. While the classical space of cinema resembles the space of the industrial factory, the museum corresponds to the dispersed space of the social factory. Both cinema and Fordist factory are organized as locations of confinement, arrest, and temporal control. Imagine: Workers leaving the factory. Spectators leaving the cinema—a similar mass, disciplined and controlled in time, assembled and released at regular intervals. As the traditional factory arrests its workers, the cinema arrests the spectator. Both are disciplinary spaces and spaces of confinement.15

But now imagine: Workers leaving the factory. Spectators trickling out of the museum (or even queuing to get in). An entirely different constellation of time and space. This second crowd is not a mass, but a multitude.16 The museum doesn’t organize a coherent crowd of people. People are dispersed in time and space—a silent crowd, immersed and atomized, struggling between passivity and overstimulation.

This spatial transformation is reflected by the format of many newer cinematic works. Whereas traditional cinematic works are single-channel, focusing the gaze and organizing time, many of the newer works explode into space. While the traditional cinema setup works from a single central perspective, multi-screen projections create a multifocal space. While cinema is a mass medium, multi-screen installations address a multitude spread out in space, connected only by distraction, separation, and difference.17

The difference between mass and multitude arises on the line between confinement and dispersion, between homogeneity and multiplicity, between cinema space and museum installation space. This is a very important distinction, because it will also affect the question of the museum as public space.

Public Space

It is obvious that the space of the factory is traditionally more or less invisible in public. Its visibility is policed, and surveillance produces a one-way gaze. Paradoxically, a museum is not so different. In a lucid 1972 interview Godard pointed out that, because filming is prohibited in factories, museums, and airports, effectively 80% of productive activity in France is rendered invisible: “The exploiter doesn’t show the exploitation to the exploited.”18 This still applies today, if for different reasons. Museums prohibit filming or charge exorbitant shooting fees.19 Just as the work performed in the factory cannot be shown outside it, most of the works on display in a museum cannot be shown outside its walls. A paradoxical situation arises: a museum predicated on producing and marketing visibility can itself not be shown—the labor performed there is just as publicly invisible as that of any sausage factory.

This extreme control over visibility sits rather uncomfortably alongside the perception of the museum as a public space. What does this invisibility then say about the contemporary museum as a public space? And how does the inclusion of cinematic works complicate this picture?

The current discussion of cinema and the museum as public sphere is an animated one. Thomas Elsaesser, for example, asks whether cinema in the museum might constitute the last remaining bourgeois public sphere.20 Jürgen Habermas outlined the conditions in this arena in which people speak in turn and others respond, all participating together in the same rational, equal, and transparent discourse surrounding public matters.21 In actuality, the contemporary museum is more like a cacophony—installations blare simultaneously while nobody listens. To make matters worse, the time-based mode of many cinematic installation works precludes a truly shared discourse around them; if works are too long, spectators will simply desert them. What would be seen as an act of betrayal in a cinema—leaving the projection while it lasts—becomes standard behavior in any spatial installation situation. In the installation space of the museum, spectators indeed become traitors—traitors of cinematic duration itself. In circulating through the space, spectators are actively montaging, zapping, combining fragments—effectively co-curating the show. Rationally conversing about shared impressions then becomes next to impossible. A bourgeois public sphere? Instead of its ideal manifestation, the contemporary museum rather represents its unfulfilled reality.

OMA diagram for the Riga Contemporary Art Museum, 2006.

Harun Farocki, Workers Leaving the Factory in Eleven Decades, 2006. Video still. Courtesy of the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery.

Mercedes-Benz Museum, Stuttgart.

Sovereign Subjects

In his choice of words, Elsaesser also addresses a less democratic dimension of this space. By, as he dramatically phrases it, arresting cinema—suspending it, suspending its license, or even holding it under a suspended sentence—cinema is preserved at its own expense when it is taken into “protective custody.”22 Protective custody is no simple arrest. It refers to a state of exception or (at least) a temporal suspension of legality that allows the suspension of the law itself. This state of exception is also addressed in Boris Groys’ essay “Politics of Installation.”23 Harking back to Carl Schmitt, Groys assigns the role of sovereign to the artist who—in a state of exception—violently establishes his own law by “arresting” a space in the form of an installation. The artist then assumes a role as sovereign founder of the exhibition’s public sphere.

At first glance, this repeats the old myth of artist as crazy genius, or more precisely, as petty-bourgeois dictator. But the point is: if this works well as an artistic mode of production, it becomes standard practice in any social factory. So then, how about the idea that inside the museum, almost everybody tries to behave like a sovereign (or petty-bourgeois dictator)? After all, the multitude inside museums is composed of competing sovereigns: curators, spectators, artists, critics.

Let’s have a closer look at the spectator-as-sovereign. In judging an exhibition, many attempt to assume the compromised sovereignty of the traditional bourgeois subject, who aims to (re)master the show, to tame the unruly multiplicity of its meanings, to pronounce a verdict, and to assign value. But, unfortunately, cinematic duration makes this subject position unavailable. It reduces all parties involved to the role of workers—unable to gain an overview of the whole process of production. Many—primarily critics—are thus frustrated by archival shows and their abundance of cinematic time. Remember the vitriolic attacks on the length of films and video in Documenta 11? To multiply cinematic duration means to blow apart the vantage point of sovereign judgment. It also makes it impossible to reconfigure yourself as its subject. Cinema in the museum renders overview, review, and survey impossible. Partial impressions dominate the picture. The true labor of spectatorship can no longer be ignored by casting oneself as master of judgment. Under these circumstances, a transparent, informed, inclusive discourse becomes difficult, if not impossible.

The question of cinema makes clear that the museum is not a public sphere, but rather places its consistent lack on display—it makes this lack public, so to speak. Instead of filling this space, it conserves its absence. But it also simultaneously displays its potential and the desire for something to be realized in its place.

As a multitude, the public operates under the condition of partial invisibility, incomplete access, fragmented realities—of commodification within clandestinity. Transparency, overview, and the sovereign gaze cloud over to become opaque. Cinema itself explodes into multiplicity—into spatially dispersed multi-screen arrangements that cannot be contained by a single point of view. The full picture, so to speak, remains unavailable. There is always something missing—people miss parts of the screening, the sound doesn’t work, the screen itself or any vantage point from which it could be seen are missing.


Without notice, the question of political cinema has been inverted. What began as a discussion of political cinema in the museum has turned into a question of cinematic politics in a factory. Traditionally, political cinema was meant to educate—it was an instrumental effort at “representation” in order to achieve its effects in “reality.” It was measured in terms of efficiency, of revolutionary revelation, of gains in consciousness, or as potential triggers of action.

Today, cinematic politics are post-representational. They do not educate the crowd, but produce it. They articulate the crowd in space and in time. They submerge it in partial invisibility and then orchestrate their dispersion, movement, and reconfiguration. They organize the crowd without preaching to it. They replace the gaze of the bourgeois sovereign spectator of the white cube with the incomplete, obscured, fractured, and overwhelmed vision of the spectator-as-laborer.

But there is one aspect that goes well beyond this. What else is missing from these cinematic installations?24 Let’s return to the liminal case of Documenta 11, which was said to contain more cinematic material than could be seen by a single person in the 100 days that the exhibition was open to the public. No single spectator could even claim to have even seen everything, much less to have exhausted the meanings in this volume of work. It is obvious what is missing from this arrangement: since no single spectator can possibly make sense of such a volume of work, it calls for a multiplicity of spectators. In fact, the exhibition could only be seen by a multiplicity of gazes and points of view, which then supplements the impressions of others. Only if the night guards and various spectators worked together in shifts could the cinematic material of d11 be viewed. But in order to understand what (and how) they are watching, they must meet to make sense of it. This shared activity is completely different from that of spectators narcissistically gazing at themselves and each other inside exhibitions—it does not simply ignore the artwork (or treat it as mere pretext), but takes it to another level.

Cinema inside the museum thus calls for a multiple gaze, which is no longer collective, but common, which is incomplete, but in process, which is distracted and singular, but can be edited into various sequences and combinations. This gaze is no longer the gaze of the individual sovereign master, nor, more precisely, of the self-deluded sovereign (even if “just for one day,” as David Bowie sang). It isn’t even a product of common labor, but focuses its point of rupture on the paradigm of productivity. The museum-as-factory and its cinematic politics interpellate this missing, multiple subject. But by displaying its absence and its lack, they simultaneously activate a desire for this subject.

Cinematic Politics

But does this now mean that all cinematic works have become political? Or, rather, is there still any difference between different forms of cinematic politics? The answer is simple. Any conventional cinematic work will try to reproduce the existing setup: a projection of a public, which is not public after all, and in which participation and exploitation become indistinguishable. But a political cinematic articulation might try to come up with something completely different.

What else is desperately missing from the museum-as-factory? An exit. If the factory is everywhere, then there is no longer a gate by which to leave it—there is no way to escape relentless productivity. Political cinema could then become the screen through which people could leave the museum-as-social-factory. But on which screen could this exit take place? On the one that is currently missing, of course.

1 Grupo Cine Liberación (Fernando E. Solanas, Octavio Getino), Argentina, 1968. The work is one of the most important films of Third Cinema.
2 A quote from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. The film was of course banned and had to be shown clandestinely.
3 Or videos or video/film installations. To properly make the distinctions (which exist and are important) would require another text.
4 I am aware of the problem of treating all these spaces as similar.
5 At least in Western countries.
6 The context of Godard’s comment is a conversation—a monologue, apparently—with young installation artists, whom he reprimands for their use of what he calls technological dispositifs in exhibitions. See “Debrief de conversations avec Jean-Luc Godard,” the Sans casser des briques blog, March 10, 2009, →.
7 See Brian Holmes, “Warhol in the Rising Sun: Art, Subcultures and Semiotic Production,” 16 Beaver ARTicles, August 8, 2004, →.
8 Sabeth Buchmann quotes Hardt and Negri: “The ‘social factory’ is a form of production which touches on and penetrates every sphere and aspect of public and private life, of knowledge production and communication,” in “From Systems-Oriented Art to Biopolitical Art Practice,” NODE.London, →.
9 Jonathan L. Beller, “Kino-I, Kino-World,” in The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 61.
10 Ibid., 67.
11 For a great essay about this work see Harun Farocki, “Workers Leaving the Factory,” in Nachdruck/Imprint: Texte/Writings, trans. Laurent Faasch-Ibrahim (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2001), reprinted on the Senses of Cinema Web site, →.
12 My description refers to the Generali Foundation show‚“Kino wie noch nie” (2005). See →.
13 “Aujourd’hui le décor du premier film est sauvé et abrite une salle de cinéma de 270 fauteuils. Là où sortirent les ouvriers et les ouvrières de l’usine, les spectateurs vont au cinéma, sur le lieu de son invention,” Institut Lumière, →.
14 “La partie Hangar, spacieux hall de réception chargé d’histoire et d’émotion pour tous vos déjeuners, cocktail, dîners…[Formule assise 250 personnes ou formule debout jusqu’à 300 personnes],” Institut Lumière, →.
15 There is however one interesting difference between cinema and factory: in the rebuilt scenery of the Lumière museum, the opening of the former gate is now blocked by a transparent glass pane to indicate the framing of the early film. Leaving spectators have to go around this obstacle, and leave through the former location of the gate itself, which no longer exists. Thus, the current situation is like a negative of the former one: people are blocked by the former opening, which has now turned into a glass screen; they have to exit through the former walls of the factory, which have now partly vanished. See photographs at ibid.
16 For a more sober description of the generally quite idealized condition of multitude, see Paolo Virno A Grammar of the Multitude, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (New York and Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2004).
17 As do multiple single screen arrangements.
18 “Godard on Tout va bien (1972),” →.
19 “Photography and video filming are not normally allowed at Tate” (→). However, filming there is welcomed on a commercial basis, with location fees starting at £200 an hour (→). Policy at the Centre Pompidou is more confusing: “You may film or photograph works from permanent collections (which you will find on levels 4 and 5 and in the Atelier Brancusi) for your own personal use. You may not, however, photograph or film works that have a red dot, and you may not use a flash or stand.” (→).
20 Thomas Elsaesser, “The Cinema in the Museum: Our Last Bourgeois Public Sphere?“ (paper presented at the International Film Studies Conference, “Perspectives on the Public Sphere: Cinematic Configurations of ‘I’ and ‘We,’" Berlin, Germany, April 23–25, 2009.
21 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, [1962] 1991).
22 Elsaesser, “The Cinema in the Museum.”
23 Boris Groys, “Politics of Installation,” e-flux journal, no. 2 (January 2009), →.
24 A good example would be “Democracies” by Artur Żmijewski, an un-synchronized multi-screen installation with trillions of possibilities of screen-content combinations.
Hito Steyerl is a filmmaker and writer. She teaches New Media Art at University of Arts Berlin and has recently participated in Documenta 12, Shanghai Biennial, and Rotterdam Film Festival.


Martha Rosler/Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?

Martha Rosler
Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?

The Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) demonstration in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at MoMA in 1970.

Just a few months before the real estate market brought down much of the world economy, taking the art market with it, I was asked to respond to the question whether “political and socio-critical art” can survive in an overheated market environment. Two years on, this may be a good moment to revisit the parameters of such work (now that the fascination with large-scale, bravura, high wow-factor work, primarily in painting and sculpture, has cooled—if only temporarily).

Categories of criticality have evolved over time, but their taxonomic history is short. The naming process is itself frequently a method of recuperation, importing expressions of critique into the system being criticized, freezing into academic formulas things that were put together off the cuff. In considering the long history of artistic production in human societies, the question of “political” or “critical” art seems almost bizarre; how shall we characterize the ancient Greek plays, for example? Why did Plato wish to ban music and poetry from his Republic? What was to be understood from English nursery rhymes, which we now see as benign jingles? A strange look in the eye of a character in a Renaissance scene? A portrait of a duke with a vacant expression? A popular print with a caricature of the king? The buzz around works of art is surely less now than when art was not competing with other forms of representation and with a wide array of public narratives; calling some art “political” reveals the role of particular forms of thematic enunciation.1 Art, we may now hear, is meant to speak past particular understandings or narratives, and all the more so across national borders or creedal lines. Criticality that manifests as a subtle thread in iconographic details is unlikely to be apprehended by wide audiences across national borders. The veiled criticality of art under repressive regimes, generally manifesting as allegory or symbolism, needs no explanation for those who share that repression, but audiences outside that policed universe will need a study guide. In either case, it is not the general audience but the educated castes and professional artists or writers who are most attuned to such hermeneutics. I expand a bit on this below. But attending to the present moment, the following question from an intelligent young scenester may be taken as a tongue-in-cheek provocation rooted in the zeitgeist, reminding us that political and socio-critical art is at best a niche production:

We were talking about whether choosing to be an artist means aspiring to serve the rich. . . . that seems to be the dominating economic model for artists in this country. The most visible artists are very good at serving the rich. . . . the ones who go to Cologne to do business seem to do the best. . . . She told me this is where Europe's richest people go . . . .
Let us pause to think about how art first became characterized by a critical dimension. The history of such work is often presented in a fragmented, distorted fashion; art that exhibits an imperfect allegiance to the ideological structures of social elites has often been poorly received.2 Stepping outside the ambit of patronage or received opinion without losing one’s livelihood or, in extreme situations, one’s life, became possible for painters and sculptors only a couple of hundred years ago, as the old political order crumbled under the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and direct patronage and commissions from the Church and aristocrats declined.3

◂ Vittore Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies, c. 1490. Oil on Panel, 37" × 25".

Members of the ascendant new class, the bourgeoisie, as they gained economic and political advantage over previous elites, also sought to adopt their elevated cultural pursuits; but these new adherents were more likely to be customers than patrons.4 Artists working in a variety of media and cultural registers, from high to low, expressed positions on the political ferment of the early Industrial Revolution. One might find European artists exhibiting robust support for revolutionary ideals or displaying identification with provincial localism, with the peasantry or with the urban working classes, especially using fairly ephemeral forms (such as the low-cost prints available in great numbers); smiling bourgeois subjects were depicted as disporting and bettering themselves while decked out in the newest brushstrokes and modes of visual representation. New forms of subjectivity and sensibility were defined and addressed in different modalities (the nineteenth century saw the development of popular novels, mass-market newspapers, popular prints, theater, and art), even as censorship, sometimes with severe penalties for transgression, was sporadically imposed from above.

The development of these mass audiences compelled certain artists to separate themselves from mass taste, as Pierre Bourdieu has suggested,5 or to waffle across the line. Artistic autonomy, framed as a form of insurgency, came to be identified by a military term, the avant-garde, or its derivative, the vanguard.6 In times of revanchism and repression, of course, artists assert independence from political ideologies and political masters through ambiguous or allegorical structures—critique by indirection. Even manifestoes for the freeing of the poetical Imagination, a potent element of the burgeoning Romantic movements, might be traced to the transformations within entrenched ideology and of sensibility itself as an attribute of the “cultivated” person. The expectation that “advanced” or vanguard art would be autonomous—independent of direct ideological ties to patrons—created a predisposition toward the privileging of its formal qualities. Drawing on the traditions of Romanticism, it also underlined its insistence on subjects both more personal and more universal—but rooted in the experiential world, not in churchly dogmas of salvation.7 The poetic imagination was posited as a form of knowing that vied with materialist, rationalist, and “scientific” epistemologies—one superior, moreover, in negotiating the utopian reconception and reorganization of human life.8 The Impressionist painters, advancing the professionalization of art beyond the bounds of simple craft, developed stylistic approaches based on interpretations of advanced optical theory, while other routes to inspiration, such as psychotropic drugs, remained common enough. Artistic avant-gardes even at their most formal retained a utopian horizon that kept their work from being simply exercises in decor and arrangement; disengagement from recognizable narratives, in fact, was critical in advancing the claims of art to speak of higher things from its own vantage point or, more specifically, from the original and unique point of view of individual, named producers. Following John Fekete, we may interpret the positive reception of extreme aestheticism or “art for art’s sake” as a panicked late-nineteenth-century bourgeois response to a largely imaginary siege from the political left.9 But even such aestheticism, in its demand for absolute disengagement, offered a possible opening to an implied political critique, through the abstract, Hegel-derived, social negativity that was later a central element of the Frankfurt School, as exemplified by Adorno’s insistence, against Brecht and Walter Benjamin, that art in order to be appropriately negative must remain autonomous, above partisan political struggles.

The turn of the twentieth century, a time of prodigious industrialization and capital formation, witnessed population flows from the impoverished European countryside to sites of production and inspired millenarian conceits that impelled artists and social critics of every stripe to imagine the future. We may as well call this modernism. And we might observe, briefly, that modernism (inextricably linked, needless to say, to modernity) incorporates technological optimism and its belief in progress, while antimodernism sees the narrative of technological change as a tale of broad civilizational decline, and thus tends toward a romantic view of nature.

Art history allows that in revolutionary Russia many artists mobilized their skills to work toward the socially transformative goals of socialist revolution, adopting new art forms (film) and adapting older ones (theater, poetry, popular fiction, and traditional crafts such as sewing and china decorating, but in mechanized production), while others outside the Soviet Union expressed solidarity with worldwide revolution. In the United States and Europe, in perhaps a less lauded—though increasingly documented—history, there were proletarian and communist painters, writers, philosophers, poets, photographers . . .

▴ Paul Strand, Portrait - New York, 1916. Platinum print.
Photographic modernism in the United States (stemming largely from Paul Strand, but with something of a trailing English legacy), married a documentary impulse to formal innovation. It inevitably strayed into the territory of Soviet and German photographic innovators, many of whom had utopian socialist or communist allegiances, although few of the American photographic modernists aside from Strand shared these political viewpoints. Pro-ruralist sentiments were transformed from backward-looking, romantic, pastoral longing to a focus on labor (perhaps with a different sort of romanticism) and on workers’ milieux, both urban and rural.10

The turn of the century brought developments in photography and printing (such as the new photolithographic printing technology of 1890 and the new small cameras, notably the Leica in 1924) that gave birth to photojournalism and facilitated political agitation. The “social documentary” impulse is not, of course, traceable to technology, and other camera technologies, although more cumbersome, were also employed.11 Many photographers were eager to use photographs to inform and mobilize political movements—primarily by publishing their work in the form of journal and newspaper articles and photo essays. In the early part of the century, until the end of the 1930s, photography was used to reveal the processes of State behind closed doors (Erich Salomon); to offer public exposés of urban poverty and degradation (Lewis Hine, Paul Strand; German photographers like Alfred Eisenstaedt or Felix Mann who were working for the popular photo press); to provide a dispassionate visual “anatomization” of social structure (August Sander’s interpretation of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity); to serve as a call to arms, both literally (the newly possible war photography, such as that by Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, David Seymour) and figuratively (the activist photo and newsreel groups in various countries, such as the Workers Film and Photo leagues in various U.S. cities); and to support government reforms (in the United States, Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration). Photography, for these and other reasons, is generally excluded from standard art histories, which thoroughly skews the question of political commitment or critique.12 In the contemporary moment, however, the history of photography is far more respectable, since photography has become a favored contemporary commodity and needs a historical tail (which itself constitutes a new market); but the proscription of politically engaged topicality is still widespread.13

▴ Erich Salomon, Haya Conference, 1930.

European-style avant-gardism made a fairly late appearance in the United States, but its formally inscribed social critique offered, approximately from the 1930s through the late 1940s, an updated, legible version of the antimaterialist, and eventually anticonsumerist, critique previously offered by turn-of-the-twentieth-century antimodernism. Modernism is, inter alia, a conversation about progress, the prospects of utopia, and the fear, doubt, and horror over its costs, especially as seen from the vantage point of the members of the intellectual class. One strand of modernism led to Futurism’s catastrophic worship of the machine and war (and eventually to political fascism) but also to utopian urbanism and International Style architecture.14

Modernism notoriously exhibited a kind of ambiguity or existential angst—typical problems of intellectuals, one imagines, whose identification, if any, with workers, peasants, and proletarianized farm workers is maintained almost wholly by sheer force of conviction in the midst of a very different way of life—perhaps linked experientially by related, though very different, forms of alienation. Such hesitancy, suspicion, or indifference is a fair approximation of independence—albeit “blessedly” well-behaved in not screaming for revolution—but modernism, as suggested earlier, was suffused with a belief in the transformative power of (high) art. What do (most) modern intellectual elites do if not distance themselves from power and express suspicion, sometimes bordering on despair, of the entire sphere of life and mass cultural production (the ideological apparatuses, to borrow a term from Althusser)?15

Enlightenment beliefs in the transformative power of culture, having recovered from disillusionment with the French Revolution, which had led to the Terror, were again shattered by the monstrosity of trench warfare and aerial bombing in the First World War (as with the millenarianism of the present century, that of the turn of the twentieth century was smashed by war). Utopian hopes for human progress were revived along with the left-leaning universalism of interwar Europe but were soon to be ground under by the Second World War. The successive “extra-institutional” European avant-garde movements that had challenged dominant culture and industrial exploitation between the wars, notably Dada and Surrealism, with their very different routes to resisting social domination and bourgeois aestheticism, had dissipated before the war began. Such dynamic gestures and outbursts are perhaps unsustainable as long-term movements, but they have had continued resonance in modern moments of criticality.

Germany had seen itself as the pinnacle of Enlightenment culture; its wartime barbarism, including the Nazis’ perverse, cruel, totalitarian re-imaginings of German history and culture, was an especial blow to the belief in the transcendent powers of culture. Postwar Europe had plenty to be critical about, but it was also staring into the abyss of existentialist angst and the loneliness of Being and Nothingness (and Year Zero). In Western(ized) cultures during the postwar period, a world-historical moment centering on nuclear catastrophism, communist Armageddon, and postcoloniality (empire shift), the art that seemed best equipped to carry the modernist burden was abstract painting, with its avoidance of incident in favor of formal investigations and a continued search for the sublime. In a word, it was painting by professionals, communicating in codes known only to the select few, in a conscious echo of other professional elites, such as research scientists (a favorite analogy among its admirers). Abstract painting was both serious and impeccably uninflected with political imagery, unlike the social realism of much of American interwar painting. As cultural hegemony was passing from France to the United States, critical culture was muted, taking place mostly at the margins, among poets, musicians, novelists, and a few photographers and social philosophers, including the New York School poets and painters, among them those who came to be called Abstract Expressionists.

The moment was brief: the double-barreled shotgun of popular recognition and financial success brought Abstract Expressionism low. Any art that depends on critical distance from social elites—but especially an art associated rhetorically with transcendence, which presupposes, one should think, a search for authenticity and the expectations of approaching it—has trouble defending itself from charges of capitulation to the prejudices of a clientele. For Abstract Expressionism, with its necessary trappings of authenticity, grand success was untenable. Suddenly well capitalized, as well as lionized, as a high-class export by sophisticated government internationalists, and increasingly “appreciated” by mass-culture outlets, the Abstract Expressionist enclave, a bohemian mixture of native-born and émigré artists, fizzled into irrelevance, with many of its participants prematurely dead.

Abstract Expressionism, like all modernist high culture, was understood to be a critical art, yet it appeared, against the backdrop of ebullient democratic/consumer culture, as detached from the concerns of the everyday. How can there be poetry after Auschwitz, or, indeed, pace Adorno, after television? Bohemia itself (that semi-artistic, semi-intellectual subculture, voluntarily impoverished, disaffected, and anti-bourgeois) could not long survive the changed conditions of cultural production and, indeed, the pattern of daily life in the postwar West. Peter Bürger’s canonical thesis on the failure of the European avant-gardes in prewar Europe has exercised a powerful grip on subsequent narratives of the always-already-dead avant-gardes.16 As I have written elsewhere, expressionism, Dada, and Surrealism were intended to reach beyond the art world to disrupt conventional social reality and thereby become instruments of liberation. As Bürger suggests, the avant-garde intended to replace individualized production with a more collectivized and anonymous practice and simultaneously to evade the individualized address and restricted reception of art.17 The art world was not destroyed as a consequence—far from it: as Bürger notes, the art world, in a maneuver that has become familiar, swelled to encompass the avant-gardes, and their techniques of shock and transgression were absorbed as the production of the new.18 Anti-art became Art, to use the terms set in opposition by Allan Kaprow in the early 1970s, in his (similarly canonical) articles in ArtNews and Art in America on “the education of the un-artist.”19

In the United States, at least, after the war the search for authenticity was reinterpreted as a search for privatized, personal self-realization, and there was general impatience with aestheticism and the sublime. By the end of the 1950s, dissatisfaction with life in McCarthyist, “conformist” America—in segregated, male-dominated America—rose from a whisper, cloistered in little magazines and journals, to a hubbub. More was demanded of criticality—and a lot less.

Its fetishized concerns fallen by the wayside, Abstract Expressionism was superseded by Pop art, which—unlike its predecessor—stepped onto the world stage as a commercially viable mode of artistic endeavor, unburdened by the need to be anything but flamboyantly inauthentic, eschewing nature for human-made (or, more properly, corporate) “second nature.” Pop, as figured in the brilliant persona of Andy Warhol—the Michael Jackson of the 1960s—gained adulation from the masses by appearing to flatter them while spurning them. For buyers of Campbell Soup trash cans, posters of Marilyn or Jackie multiples, and banana decals, no insult was apprehended nor criticism taken, just as the absurdist costumes of Britain’s mods and rockers, or even, later, the clothing fetishes of punks or hip-hop artists, or of surfers or teen skateboarders, were soon enough taken as cool fashion cues by many adult observers—even those far from the capitals of fashion, in small towns and suburban malls.20

The 1960s were a robust moment, if not of outspoken criticality in art, then of artists’ unrest, while the culture at large, especially the “civil rights / youth culture / counterculture / antiwar movement,” was more than restive, attempting to re-envision and remake the cultural and political landscape. Whether they abjured or expressed the critical attitudes that were still powerfully dominant in intellectual culture, artists were chafing against what they perceived as a lack of autonomy, made plain by the grip of the market, the tightening noose of success (though still nothing in comparison to the powerful market forces and institutional professionalization at work in the current art world). In the face of institutional and market ebullience, the 1960s saw several forms of revolt by artists against commodification, including deflationary tactics against glorification. One may argue about each of these efforts, but they nevertheless asserted artistic autonomy from dealers, museums, and markets, rather than, say, producing fungible items in a signature brand of object production. So-called “dematerialization”: the production of low-priced, often self-distributed multiples; collaborations with scientists (a continued insistence on the experimentalism of unfettered artistic imagination); the development of multimedia or intermedia and other ephemeral forms such as smoke art or performances that defied documentation; dance based on ordinary movements; the intrusion or foregrounding of language, violating a foundational modernist taboo, and even the displacement of the image by words in Wittgensteinian language games and conceptual art; the use of mass-market photography; sculpture made of industrial elements; earth art; architectural deconstructions and fascinations; the adoption of cheap video formats; ecological explorations; and, quite prominently, feminists’ overarching critique . . . all these resisted the special material valuation of the work of art above all other elements of culture, while simultaneously disregarding its critical voice and the ability of artists to think rationally without the aid of interpreters. These market-resistant forms (which were also of course casting aside the genre boundaries of Greenbergian high modernism), an evasive relation to commodity and professionalization (careers), carried forward the questioning of craft. The insistence on seeing culture (and, perhaps more widely, human civilization) as primarily characterized by rational choice—see under conceptualism—challenged isolated genius as an essential characteristic of artists and furthered the (imaginary) alignment with workers in other fields. These were not arts of profoundly direct criticality of the social order.

An exception is art world feminism, which, beginning in the late 1960s, as part of a larger, vigorously critical and political movement, offered an overt critique of the received wisdom about the characteristics of art and artists and helped mount ultimately successful challenges to the reigning paradigm by which artists were ranked and interpretation controlled. Feminism’s far-reaching critique was quite effective in forcing all institutions, whether involved in education, publicity, or exhibition, to rethink what and who an artist is and might be, what materials art might be made of, and what art meant (whether that occurred by way of overt signification or through meaning sedimented into formal expectations), replacing this with far broader, more heterodox, and dynamic categories. Whether feminist work took the form of trenchant social observation or re-envisioned formal approaches such as pattern painting, no one failed to understand critiques posed by works still seen as embedded in their social matrix (thus rekindling, however temporarily, a wider apprehension of coded “subtexts” in even non-narrative work).

◂ Still from Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 1978.

Another exception to the prevailing reactive gambits in 1960s art was presented by two largely Paris-based neo-Dada, neo-Surrealist avant-garde movements, Lettrism and the Situationist International (SI), both of which mounted direct critiques of domination in everyday life. The SI eventually split, in good measure over whether to cease all participation in the art world, with founding member Guy Debord, a filmmaker and writer, among those who chose to abandon that milieu.21 Naturally, this group of rejectionists is the SI group whose appreciation in the art world was revived in the 1980s following a fresh look at Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967). The book proposes to explain, in an elegant series of numbered statements or propositions, how the commodity form has evolved into a spectacular world picture; in the postwar world, domination of the labor force (most of the world’s people) by capitalist and state capitalist societies is maintained by the constant construction and maintenance of an essentially false picture of the world retailed by all forms of media, but particularly by movies, television, and the like. The spectacle, he is at pains to explain, is a relationship among people, not among images, thus offering a materialist, Marxist interpretation. Interest in Debord was symptomatic of the general trend toward a new theoretical preoccupation with (in particular) media theory, in post-Beaux Arts, post-Bauhaus, postmodern art education in the United States beginning in the late 1970s. The new art academicism nurtured criticality in art and other forms of theory-driven production, since artists were being officially trained to teach art as a source of income to fund their production rather than simply to find markets.22

There had been a general presumption among postwar government elites and their organs (including the Ford Foundation) that nurturing “creativity” in whatever form was good for the national brand; predispositions toward original research in science and technology and art unencumbered by prescribed messages were potent symbols of American freedom (of thought, of choice . . .), further troubling artists’ rather frantic dance of disengagement from market and ideological mechanisms throughout the sixties. In the United States in the late 1960s, President Johnson’s Great Society included an expansive vision of public support for the arts. In addition to direct grants to institutions, to critics, and to artists, nonprofit, artist-initiated galleries and related venues received Federal money. This led to a great expansion of the seemingly uncapitalizable arts like performance, and video, whose main audience was other artists. Throughout the 1970s, the ideological apparatuses of media, museum, and commercial gallery were deployed in attempts to limit artists’ autonomy, bring them back inside the institutions, and recapitalize art.23 A small Euro-American group of dealers, at the end of the decade, successfully imposed a new market discipline by instituting a new regime of very large, highly salable neo-expressionist painting, just as Reaganism set out to cripple, if not destroy, public support for art. Art educators began slowly adopting the idea that they could sell their departments and schools as effective in helping their students find gallery representation by producing a fresh new line of work. The slow decline of “theoretical culture”—in art school, at least—had begun.

The Right-Republican assault on relatively autonomous symbolic expression that began in the mid-1980s and extended into the 1990s became known as the “culture wars”; it continues, although with far less prominent attacks on art than on other forms of cultural expression.24 Right-wing elites managed to stigmatize and to restrict public funding of certain types of art. Efforts to brand some work as “communist,” meaning politically engaged or subversive of public order, no longer worked by the 1980s. Instead, U.S. censorship campaigns have mostly taken the form of moral panics meant to mobilize authoritarian-minded religious fundamentalists in the service of destroying the narrative and the reality of the liberal welfare state, of “community,” echoing the “degenerate art” smear campaigns of the Nazis. Collectors and some collecting institutions perceived the éclat of such work—which thematized mostly sex and sexual inequality (in what came to be called “identity politics”) as opposed to, say, questions of labor and governance, which were the targets in earlier periods of cultural combat—as a plus, with notoriety no impediment to fortune.25 The most vilified artists in question have not suffered in the marketplace; on the contrary. But most public exhibiting institutions felt stung and reacted accordingly—by shunning criticality, since their funding and museum employment were tied to public funding. Subsequent generations of artists, divining that “difficult” content might restrict their entry into the success cycle, have engaged in self-censorship. Somewhat perversely, the public success of the censorship campaigns stems partly from the myth of a classless, unitary culture: the pretense that in the United States, art and culture belong to all and that very little specific knowledge or education is, or should be, necessary for understanding art. But legibility itself is generally a matter of education, which addresses a relatively small audience already equipped with appropriate tools of decipherment, as I have claimed throughout the present work and elsewhere.

But there is another dimension to this struggle over symbolic capital. The art world has expanded enormously over the past few decades and unified to a great degree, although there are still local markets. This market is “global” in scope and occupied with questions very far from whether its artistic practices are political or critical. But thirty years of theory-driven art production and critical reception—which brought part of the discursive matrix of art inside the academy, where it was both shielded from and could appear to be un-implicated in the market, thereby providing a cover for direct advocacy—helped produce artists whose practices were themselves swimming in a sea of criticality and apparently anti-commodity forms.26 The term “political art” reappeared after art world commentators used it to ghettoize work in the 1970s, with some hoping to grant such work a modicum of respectability while others wielded it dismissively, but for the most part its valence was drifting toward positive. Even better were other, better-behaved forms of “criticality,” such as the nicely bureaucratic-sounding “institutional critique” and the slightly more ominous “interventionism.” I will leave it to others to explore the nuances of these (certainly meaningful) distinctions, remarking only that the former posits a location within the very institutions that artists were attempting to outwit in the 1960/70s, whereas the latter posits its opposite, a motion outside the institution—but also staged from within. These, then, are not abandonments of art world participation but acceptance that these institutions are the proper—perhaps the only—platform for artists.27 A further sign of such institutionality is the emergence of a curatorial subgenre called “new institutionalism” (borrowing a term from a wholly unrelated branch of sociology) that encompasses the work of sympathetic young curators wishing to make these “engaged” practices intramural.

This suggests a broad consensus that the art world, as it expands, is a special kind of sub-universe (or parallel universe) of discourses and practices whose walls may seem transparent but which floats in a sea of larger cultures. That may be the means of coming to terms with the overtaking of high-cultural meaning by mass culture and its structures of celebrity, which had sent 1960s artists into panic. Perhaps artists are now self-described art workers, but they also hope to be privileged members within their particular sphere of culture, actually “working”—like financial speculators—relatively little, while depending on brain power and salesmanship to score big gains. Seen in this context, categories like political art, critical art, institutional critique, and interventionism are ways of slicing and dicing the offspring of art under the broad rubric of conceptualism—some approaches favor analyses and symbolic “interventions” into the institutions in question, others more externalized, publicly visible actions.

Perhaps a more general consideration of the nature of work itself and of education is in order. I have suggested that we are witnessing the abandonment of the model of art education as a search for meaning (and of the liberal model of higher education in general) in favor of what has come to be called the success model . . . “Down with critical studies!” Many observers have commented on the changing characteristics of the international work force, with especial attention to the “new flexible personality,” an ideal worker type for a life without job security, one who is able to construct a marketable personality and to persuade employers of one’s adaptability to the changing needs of the job market. Commentators like Brian Holmes (many of them based in Europe) have noted the applicability of this model to art and intellectuals.28 Bill Readings, until his death a Canadian professor of comparative literature at the Université de Montréal, in his posthumously published book, The University in Ruins (1997), observes that universities are no longer “guardians of the national culture” but effectively empty institutions that sell an abstract notion of excellence.29 The university, Readings writes, is “an autonomous bureaucratic corporation” aimed at educating for “economic management” rather than “cultural conflict.” The Anglo-American urban geographer David Harvey, reviewing Readings’ book in the Atlantic Monthly, noted that the modern university “no longer cares about values, specific ideologies, or even such mundane matters as learning how to think. It is simply a market for the production, exchange, and consumption of useful information—useful, that is, to corporations, governments, and their prospective employees.”30 In considering the “production of subjectivity” in this context, Readings writes—citing the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben—that it is no longer a matter of either shop-floor obedience or managerial rationality but rather the much touted “flexibility,” “personal responsibility,” “communication skills,” and other similarly “abstract images of affliction.”31

Agamben has provocatively argued that most of the world’s educated classes are now part of the new planetary petite bourgeoisie, which has dissolved all social classes, displacing or joining the old petite bourgeoisie and the urban proletariat and inheriting their economic vulnerability. In this end to recognizable national culture, Agamben sees a confrontation with death out of which a new self-definition may be born—or not. Another Italian philosopher, Paolo Virno, is also concerned with the character of the new global workforce in the present post-Fordist moment, but his position takes a different tack in works like The Grammar of the Multitude, a slim book based on his lectures.32

The affinity between a pianist and a waiter, which Marx had foreseen, finds an unexpected confirmation in the epoch in which all wage labor has something in common with the “performing artist.” The salient traits of post-Fordist experience (servile virtuosity, exploitation of the very faculty of language, unfailing relation to the “presence of others,” etc.) postulate, as a form of conflictual retaliation, nothing less than a radically new form of democracy.33
Virno argues that the new forms of globalized “flexible labor” allow for the creation of new forms of democracy. The long-established dyads of public/private and collective/individual no longer have meaning, and collectivity is enacted in other ways. The multitude and immaterial labor produce subjects who occupy “a middle region between ‘individual and collective’” and so have the possibility of engineering a different relationship to society, state, and capital. It is tempting to assign the new forms of communication to this work of the creation of “a radically new form of democracy.”

Let us tease out of these accounts of the nature of modern labor—in an era in which business types (like Richard Florida) describe the desired work force, typically urban residents, as “creatives”—some observations about artists-in-training: art students have by now learned to focus not on an object-centered brand signature so much as on a personality-centered one. The cultivation of this personality is evidently seen by some anxious school administrators—feeling pressure to define “art” less by the adherence of an artist’s practice to a highly restricted discourse and more in the terms used for other cultural objects—as hindered by critical studies and only to be found behind a wall of craft. (Craft here is not to be understood in the medieval sense, as bound up in guild organization and the protection of knowledge that thereby holds down the number of practitioners, but as reinserted into the context of individualized, bravura production—commodity production in particular.) Class and study time give way to studio preparation and exposure to a train of invited, and paid, reviewers/critics (with the former smacking of boot camp, and the latter sending up whiffs of corruption).

It might be assumed that we art world denizens, too, have become neoliberals, finding validation only within the commodity-driven system of galleries, museums, foundations, and magazines, and in effect competing across borders (though some of us are equipped with advantages apart from our artistic talents), a position evoked at the start of this essay in the question posed by an artist in his twenties concerning whether it is standard practice for ambitious artists to seek to sell themselves to the rich in overseas venues.

But now consider the art world as a community—in Benedict Anderson’s terms, an imagined community—of the most powerful kind, a postnational one kept in ever-closer contact by emerging systems of publicity and communication alongside other, more traditional print journals, publicity releases, and informal organs (although it does not quite achieve imaginary nationhood, which is Anderson’s true concern).34

The international art world (I am treating it here as a system) is entering into the globalizing moment of “flexible accumulation”—a term preferred by some on the left to “(economic) postmodernism” as a historical periodization. After hesitating over the new global image game (in which the main competition is mass culture), the art world has responded by developing several systems for regularizing standards and markets. Let me now take a minute to look at this newly evolving system itself.35

The art world had an earlier moment of internationalization, especially in the interwar period, in which International Style architecture, design, and art helped unify the look of elite cultural products and the built environment of cities around the globe. Emergent nationalisms modified this only somewhat, but International Style lost favor in the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent times, under the new “global” imperative, three systemic developments have raised art world visibility and power. First, localities have sought to capitalize on their art world holdings by commissioning buildings designed by celebrity architects. But high-profile architecture is a minor, small-scale maneuver, attracting tourists, to be sure, but functioning primarily as a symbolic assertion that that particular urban locale is serious about being viewed as a “player” in the world economic system. The Bilbao effect is not always as powerful as hoped. The era of blockbuster shows—invented in the 1970s to draw in crowds, some say by the recently deceased Thomas P. F. Hoving in his tenure at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—may be drawing to a close, saving museums from ever-rising expenditures on collateral costs such as insurance; it is the container more than the contents that is the attractant.

More important have been the two other temporary but recurrent, processual developments. First came the hypostatizing biennials of the 1990s. Their frantic proliferation has elicited derision, but these international exhibitions were a necessary moment in the integration of the art system, allowing local institutional players to put in their chips. The biennials have served to insert an urban locale, often of some national significance, into the international circuit, offering a new physical site attracting art and art world members, however temporarily. That the local audience is educated about new international style imperatives is a secondary effect to the elevation of the local venue itself to what might crudely be termed “world class” status; for the biennials to be truly effective, the important audience must arrive from elsewhere. The biennial model provides not only a physical circuit but also a regime of production and normalization. In “peripheral” venues it is not untypical for artists chosen to represent the local culture to have moved to artist enclaves in fully “metropolitan,” “first world” cities (London, New York, Berlin, Paris—regarded as portals to the global art market/system), before returning to their countries of origin to be “discovered.” The airplane allows a continued relationship with the homeland; expatriation can be prolonged, punctuated by time back home. This condition, of course, defines migrant and itinerant labor of all varieties under current conditions, as it follows the flow of capital.”36

◂ Resistanbul protesters demonstrating on September 5, 2009.

I recently received a lengthy, manifesto-style e-mail, part of an “open letter to the Istanbul Biennial,” that illustrates the critique of biennials with pretensions to political art (characteristic also of the past three iterations of documenta—a “pentennial” or “quinquennial” if you will, rather than a biennial—in Kassel, Germany).37 It is signed by a group calling itself the Resistanbul Commissariat of Culture:

We have to stop pretending that the popularity of politically engaged art within the museums and markets over the last few years has anything to do with really changing the world. We have to stop pretending that taking risks in the space of art, pushing boundaries of form, and disobeying the conventions of culture, making art about politics makes any difference. We have to stop pretending that art is a free space, autonomous from webs of capital and power. . . .

We have long understood that the Istanbul Biennial aims at being one of the most politically engaged transnational art events. . . . This year the Biennial is quoting comrade Brecht, dropping notions such as neoliberal hegemony, and riding high against global capitalism. We kindly appreciate the stance but we recognize that art should have never existed as a separate category from life. Therefore we are writing you to stop collaborating with arms dealers. . . .

The curators wonder whether Brecht’s question “What Keeps Mankind Alive” is equally urgent today for us living under the neoliberal hegemony. We add the question: “What Keeps Mankind Not-Alive?” We acknowledge the urgency in these times when we do not have the right to work, we do not get free healthcare and education, our right to our cities, our squares, and streets are taken by corporations, our land, our seeds and water are stolen, we are driven into precarity and a life without security, when we are killed crossing their borders and left alone to live an uncertain future with their potential crises. But we fight. And we resist in the streets not in corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique so as to help them clear their conscience. We fought when they wanted to kick us out of our neighborhoods …..
The message goes on to list specific struggles in Turkey for housing, safety, job protections, and so on, which space limitations constrain me to omit.38 I was interested in the implied return of the accusation that sociocritical/political work is boring and negative, addressed further in this e-mail:

The curators also point out that one of the crucial questions of this Biennial is “how to ‘set pleasure free,’ how to regain revolutionary role of enjoyment.” We set pleasure free in the streets, in our streets. We were in Prague, Hong Kong, Athens, Seattle, Heilegendamm [sic], Genoa, Chiapas and Oaxaca, Washington, Gaza and Istanbul!39 Revolutionary role of enjoyment is out there and we cherish it everywhere because we need to survive and we know that we are changing the world with our words, with our acts, with our laughter. And our life itself is the source of all sorts of pleasure.
The Resistanbul Commissariat of Culture message ends as follows:

Join the resistance and the insurgence of imagination! Evacuate corporate spaces, liberate your works. Let’s prepare works and visuals (poster, sticker, stencil etc.) for the streets of the resistance days. Let’s produce together, not within the white cube, but in the streets and squares during the resistance week! Creativity belongs to each and every one of us and can’t be sponsored.

Long live global insurrection!
This “open letter” underlines the criticism to which biennials or any highly visible exhibitions open themselves when they purport to take on political themes, even if participants and visitors are unlikely to receive such e-mailed messages.40 As the letter implies, dissent and dissidence that fall short of insurrection and unruliness are quite regularly incorporated into exhibitions, as they are into institutions such as universities in liberal societies; patronizing attitudes, along the lines of “Isn’t she pretty when she’s angry!” are effective—even President Bush smilingly called protesters’ shouts a proof of the robustness of “our” freedom of speech while they were being hustled out of the hall where he was speaking. But I suggest that the undeniable criticisms expressed by Resistanbul do not, finally, invalidate the efforts of institutional reform, however provisional. All movements against an institutional consensus are dynamic, and provisional. (And see below.)

Accusations of purely symbolic display, of hypocrisy, are easily evaded by turning to, finally, the third method of global discipline, the art fair, for fairs make no promises other than sales and parties; there is no shortage of appeals to pleasure. There has been a notable increase in the number and locations of art fairs in a short period, reflecting the art world’s rapid monetization; art investors, patrons, and clientele have shaken off the need for internal processes of quality control in favor of speeded-up multiplication of financial and prestige value. Some important fairs have set up satellite branches elsewhere.41 Other important fairs are satellites that outshine their original venues and have gone from the periphery of the art world’s vetting circuit to center stage. At art fairs, artworks are scrutinized for financial-portfolio suitability, while off-site fun (parties and dinners), fabulousness (conspicuous consumption), and non-art shopping are the selling points for the best-attended fairs—those in Miami, New York, and London (and of course the original, Basel). Dealers pay quite a lot to participate, however, and the success of the fair as a business venture depends on the dealers’ ability to make decent sales and thus to want to return in subsequent years.

◂ Jesse Jones, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany, 2009. video still.

No discursive matrix is required for successful investments by municipal and national hosts in this market. Yet art fairs have delicately tried to pull a blanket of respectability over the naked profit motive, by installing a smattering of curated exhibitions among the dealers’ booths and hosting on-site conferences with invited intellectual luminaries. But perhaps one should say that discursive matrices are always required, even if they take the form of books and magazines in publishers’ fair booths; but intellectuals talking in rooms and halls and stalking the floor—and being interviewed—can’t hurt.

Predictions about the road to artistic success in this scene are easy to make, because ultimately shoppers are in for a quick fix (those Russians!) and increasingly are unwilling to spend quality time in galleries learning about artists and their work: after all, why bother? The art content of these containers and markets should thus avoid being excessively arcane and hard to grasp, love, and own; and to store or lend. Many can literally be carried out under a collector’s arm. The work should be painting, if possible, for so many reasons, ranging from the symbolic artisanal value of the handmade to the continuity with traditional art historical discourse and the avoidance of overly particularistic political partisanship except if highly idiosyncratic or expressionist. The look of solemnity will trump depth and incisive commentary every time; this goes for any form, including museum-friendly video installations, film, animation, computer installations, and salable performance props (and conceptualism-lite). Young artists (read: recent art-school graduates) are a powerful attraction for buyers banking on rising prices.

◂ Art Basel Miami. Photo Bill Wisser.

The self-described Resistanbul Commissariat writes of “the popularity of politically engaged art within the museums and markets”—well, perhaps. The art world core of cognoscenti who validate work on the basis of criteria that set it apart from a broad audience may favor art with a critical edge, though not perhaps for the very best reasons. Work engaged with real-world issues or exhibiting other forms of criticality may offer a certain satisfaction and flatters the viewer, provided it does not too baldly implicate the class or subject position of the viewer. Criticality can take many forms, including highly abstract ones (what I have called “critique in general,” which often, by implicating large swathes of the world or of humankind, tends to let everyone off the hook), and can execute many artful dodges. Art history’s genealogical dimension often leads to the acceptance of “politico-critical” work from past eras, and even of some contemporary work descended from this, which cannot help but underscore its exchange value. Simply put, to some connoisseurs and collectors, and possibly one or two museum collections, criticality is a stringently attractive brand. Advising collectors or museums to acquire critical work can have a certain sadistic attraction, directed both toward the artist and the work and toward the advisee/collector.

A final common feature of this new global art is a readily graspable multiculturalism that creates a sort of United Nations of global voices on the menu of art production. Multiculturalism, born as an effort to bring difference out of the negative column into the positive with regard to qualities of citizens, long ago became also a bureaucratic tool for social control, attempting to render difference cosmetic. Difference was long ago pegged as a marketing tool in constructing taste classes; in a business book of the 1980s on global taste, the apparently universal desire for jeans and pizza (and later, Mexican food) was the signal example: the marketable is different but not too different. In this context, there is indeed a certain bias toward global corporate internationalism—that is, neoliberalism—but that of course has nothing to do with whether “content providers” identify as politically left, right, independent, or not at all. Political opinions, when they are manifested, can become mannerist tropes.

But often the function of biennials and contemporary art is also to make a geopolitical situation visible to the audience, which means that art continues to have a mapping and even critical function in regard to geopolitical realities. Artists have the capacity to condense, anatomize, and represent symbolically complex social and historical processes. In the context of internationalism, this is perhaps where political or critical art may have its best chance of being seen and actually understood, for the critique embodied in a work is not necessarily a critique of the actual locale in which one stands (if it describes a specific site, it may be a site “elsewhere”). Here I ought provisionally to suspend my criticism of “critique in general.” I am additionally willing to suspend my critique of work that might be classed under the rubric “long ago or far away,” which in such a context may also have useful educational and historical functions—never forgetting, nonetheless, the vulnerability to charges such as those made by the Resistanbul group.

▴ Mark Lombardi, World Finance Corporation, Miami, Florida, c. 1970-79 (6th Version), 1999, Graphite and Colored Pencil on Paper, 35.5 x 46.25", detail.

“Down with critical studies,” I wrote above, and the present has indeed been seen as a post-critical moment, as any market-driven moment must be . . . but criticality seems to be a modern phoenix: even before the market froze over, there had never been a greater demand on the part of young art students for an entrée into critical studies and concomitantly for an understanding of predecessors and traditions of critical and agitational work. I speculate that this is because they are chafing under the command to succeed, on market terms, and therefore to quit experimenting for the sake of pleasure or indefinable aims. Young people, as the hoary cliché has it, often have idealistic responses to received orthodoxy about humanity and wish to repair the world, while some artists too have direct experience of poverty and social negativity and may wish to elevate others—a matter of social justice. Young artists perennially reinvent the idea of collaborative projects, which are the norm in the rest of the world of work and community and only artificially discouraged, for the sake of artistic entrepreneurism and “signature control,” in the art-market world.42

I return to the question posed above, “whether choosing to be an artist means aspiring to serve the rich . . .” Time was when art school admonished students not to think this way, but how long can the success academy hang on while galleries are not to be had? (Perhaps the answer is that scarcity only increases desperation; the great pyramid of struggling artists underpinning the few at the pinnacle simply broadens at the base.) Nevertheless, artists are stubborn. The “Resistanbul” writers tell us they “resist in the streets not in corporate spaces reserved for tolerated institutional critique,” as some artists do in order to “help them clear their conscience.” For sure. There are always artworks, or art “actions,” that are situated outside the art world or that “cross-list” themselves in and outside the golden ghettos. I am still not persuaded that we need to choose. There is so far no end to art that adopts a critical stance—although perhaps not always in the market and success machine itself, where it is always in danger of being seriously rewritten, often in a process that just takes time. It is this gap between the work’s production and its absorption and neutralization that allows for its proper reading and ability to speak to present conditions.43 It is not the market alone, after all, with its hordes of hucksters and advisers, and bitter critics, that determines meaning and resonance: there is also the community of artists and the potential counterpublics they implicate.


This essay began as a talk at the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair in September of 2009, on the symposium’s assigned topic, “What is Contemporary Art?”—a perfectly impossible question, in my opinion (although I could imagine beginning, perhaps, by asking, “What makes contemporary art contemporary?”). Nevertheless, talk I did. My efforts in converting that talk, developed for a non-U.S. audience, with unknown understandings of my art world, into the present essay have led me to produce what strikes me as a work written by a committee of one—me—writing at various times and for various readers. I long ago decided to take to heart Brecht’s ego-puncturing suggestion—to recruit my own writing in the service of talking with other audiences, entering other universes of discourses, to cannibalize it if need be.

There are lines of argument in this essay that I have made use of at earlier conferences (one of which lent it the title “Take the Money and Run”), and there are other self-quotations or paraphrases. I also found myself reformulating some things I have written before, returning to the lineage and development of artistic autonomy, commitment, alienation, and resistance, and to the shape and conditions of artistic reception and education.

I thank Alan Gilbert, Stephen Squibb, and Stephen Wright for their excellent readerly help and insights as I tried to impose clarity, coherence, and some degree of historical adequacy on the work.