Just finished reading: Where Art Belongs by Chris Kraus, 2011.
For once, I found myself comforted by the words of a fellow art writer. Instead of coming off as pretentious or intimidating, Kraus’s writing is real—accessible, conversational. It’s poetic and simple, lacking all the convoluted language of art historians and critics. Although she mentions the greats—Debord, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari—she doesn’t namedrop them; she makes them exoteric, exciting again.
In one chapter, she voices a subtle lament against the current situation of art writers. The setting is September 2009 at Greene Naftali gallery in Chelsea. An artist collective, Bernadette Corporation, has produced an exhibition entitled The Complete Poem. It includes a series of black and white fashion photographs advertising an unidentified project and a 130-plus page epic poem entitled A Billion and Change that caused a bit of a stir in the poet community.
“Displayed in a series of 13 custom-built vitrines, Bernadette Corporation’s epic poem filled the gallery. […] But as it turned out, the insertion of poetry, displayed like a work of visual art in a gallery space, was deeply disturbing to most. For years writers have played a circumscribed role in the visual art world. Our job is to write about art; to give it a language that translates into value. Perhaps the only paid, nonteaching job now for poets and nonmainstream American writers is churning out art reviews and catalogue essays for high-profile museum and gallery shows. In the 21st century, art writing plays the same role as magazine fiction did for mid-20th century writers like Philip K. Dick and Chester Himes. It offers a badly paid livelihood. As [poet] Eileen Myles said, ‘The old exchange has always been poets writing about artists. And that was always contingent on the poet being interested in the artist’s production, and the marketplace bringing them together.’
“Audaciously, Bernadette Corporation insisted on treating the 130-plus pages of A Billion and Change as an original artwork. No press copies, no posting online, no Xeroxed handouts. As [one of the members of the collective] John Kesley recalls, ‘Some of our most politically correct friends were outraged that we weren’t passing the poem out for free or putting it online. And artist friends basically say, ‘art should be for sale, writing should be for free.’ It’s crazy how this conventional distribution of labor and value persists, even among smart people. As a sometime art writer who gets paid shit for labor, this may be a sore point for me, that text backs up and explains the art, but should not share the value of art. Not that the poem was all about this… but it was a real point of contention that arose during our show… poetry should be free.’ [pp53-55]
In another chapter, Indelible Video, Kraus discusses the effects of the prevalence of video art:
“The complete ubiquity of video and other digital forms within contemporary art has rendered discussion about it, as a medium, obsolete. There is no longer anything singular about video. Images are everywhere. To attempt any one definition of video would be as meaningless as asking ‘what is contemporary art?’ All art now is conceptual, defined by its stance in relation to other art and its place in the market. It would be more fruitful and interesting at this point to ask how an image transcends other images, or even more to the point: How can the market be used to do what art used to do? Baudrillard describes the incursion of images into every sector of life. Striving for emptiness when it is already empty, visual art has become transaesthetic. Like pornography, art no longer exists because it is virtually everywhere. Naïve to complain that the market has vanquished contemporary art, rather, it’s the ‘DEGREE XEROX OF CULTURE,’ the transcription of everything into visual signs, that has voided art practice. The only aim of the image is the image, Baudrillard writes. Endlessly solipsistic, an image can no longer imagine the real because it is the real.” [pp119-120]
In the last little nugget I’ll leave you with, she discusses the general condition of boredom in art:
“It is possible for for someone to be highly intelligent, and yet have no information. This condition—usually associated with youth or prolonged adolescence—results often in boredom, the existential progenitor of nearly every significant art and cultural movement. […] Boredom, a brililiant and brazen stupidity, is dazzlingly preemptive. When the bored youth is no longer young, he/she generally enacts his/her own early demise, or devotes him/her-self to acquiring information. Specificity preempts boredom. Like the incandescence of pop, boredom cannot be sustained indefinitely. The seduction of pop is to render everything nascent, just on the verge of becoming. […] Boredom is pop’s weighted corollary, but it can’t be sustained once someone acquires an interest in details. […] Taglines of critical thought float in the vacuous space of the gallery, a passive-aggressive performance whose viewers define themselves through their responses.” [pp155-156]
I received Kraus’s book as a gift, and I doubt the giver knew what the text entailed. Its plain orange cover and bold assertion of a title made it seem like a manifesto, and perhaps it is… But unlike a manifesto, Kraus’s book does not give the answer its title alludes to, it simply relates a handful of anecdotes about the specific artistic atmosphere the writer found herself in during the late 2000s: Los Angeles artist collectives, musician/artists, poet/artists, and galleries in flux. One has to wonder, then, about the title. Where does art belong?
A meditative volume like this seems to suggest that although a particular work or show has come and gone from the gallery, it can live on in anecdotes, in the consciousness of those who bore witness to it. It can, and should. Perhaps we should stop “reviewing” art in the traditional sense, to cease assessing its value in relation to other art. I’ve always thought this to be a counterproductive task. Maybe it’s the art historian in me, but I feel sometimes that current art writing lacks perspective: it is caught up in the details, too unremoved from the conditions of the present to be able to make meaningful reflections. In my professional art writing I avoid injecting too much opinion into a review. The thought behind that is not so much to allow the art to speak for itself—in this case, writing at all would be redundant—but rather to observe and report, to allow readers who did not attend the exhibition in person to see the works and form their own opinion. But in my personal art writing, I find myself much more inquisitive, open-ended, anecdotal, atmospheric. How to inject this into my professional writing… I found Kraus’s descriptive, considered approach to be a fine model, and hope to read more of it.