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#1- 25: What is the use of art?

David Riff /// When art once again becomes useful

1. When we ask “what is the use of art?” today, it immediately sounds like an admission of ontological guilt. Aesthetic enjoyment, still the use of art par excellence, is nowhere to be found, at least not in its messianic form. Art is generalized into production and now works on a much more modest scale; sometimes it makes people think, sometimes it makes them smile, sometimes it makes them ask the right questions, and that’s all we should aim for, right? Wrong. Because it gets much worse.

1.

When we ask “what is the use of art?” today, it immediately sounds like an admission of ontological guilt. Aesthetic enjoyment, still the use of art par excellence, is nowhere to be found, at least not in its messianic form. Art is generalized into production and now works on a much more modest scale; sometimes it makes people think, sometimes it makes them smile, sometimes it makes them ask the right questions, and that’s all we should aim for, right? Wrong. Because it gets much worse. Since the early 20th century, it has been clear that the commodity really is in the process of subsuming everyday life, and this was generally understood as a challenge to the use of art from two different sides. On the one hand, you had the radical leveling of all art through the commodity form. Money, the great matchmaker, is indifferent to art’s many uses. In the mute world of commodities, where all human labor is equal, the singularity of aesthetic experience makes no particular difference; all artworks mirror one another. This is why it becomes possible to use a Rembrandt as an ironing board. Art is something you bump into while you’re thinking about money. That produced the strange non-objectivity or emptiness at the very heart of all the things we perversely love. Art becomes a foreign entity that leaves us—its producers—non-objective, bereft of the very skin on our backs. All we can do is mime this non-objectivity, reproducing an aura of wry disengagement and haughty uselessness.

On the other hand, the rationalization of industrial production—be it in order to reestablish and heighten revenue in an age of imperial crisis or to modernize and lethally disambiguate unevenly developed mixed economies—created an economic and social demand for new experimental uses of mimetic and aesthetic functions that art traditionally limited to the studio and the salon. Art was to generalize aesthetic enjoyment, making itself truly useful in all fields, and redefining the very terms of use in the process.

The point was not to turn a Rembrandt into an ironing board, but to create an ironing board that could be just as aesthetically meaningful as a Rembrandt, thus redefining ironing as an aesthetic activity, freeing it from the drudgery of reproduction, and unleashing the productive force of the universalized creativity of human species-being. That would be a factographic creativity: it would tell its own story as a concrete reality, reconstituting a new objectivity with plenty of room for contradiction.

But the messianism of this idea backfired; it became an accomplice to the cataclysmic implementation of Fordism, and created the sites of its post-Fordist reload. And by now, it is fetishized as the peculiar (and often highly contradictory) “consciousness” or “spirit” of the avant-garde, as far from us as the art of ancient Greece.There is another problem. Actually, contemporary art has not killed but heightened all the avant-grade’s contradictions. Art is more useful than ever, though not to us.

The culture industry produces unprecedented amounts of fast-moving ideological commodities, in part by co-opting armies of critical-minded, quasi-politicized amateurs, and introducing them to an endless workday of the professional audience. Audiences flood biennials to gain new subjectivity-sensuality-responsibility (these are the key services we provide) that they then reproduce on a lower level. This is the new Proletkult, but one biopolitically advantageous to the elite. It re-subsumes any political resistance and forges a new experimental ethic or spirit for white-collar workers.

Strangely enough, aesthetic enjoyment—as I said, the use of art par excellence—is key to this “creative” neo-Stakhanovite identity because it insists that there is, in the endless workday, still a space for contemplation and that this contemplation is somehow productive (perhaps precisely because it is the last bastion of political being). This space for contemplation within the endless workday is then frozen, taken out of use, and marked up as an object for the elite, to be recycled as a glamorous backdrop for the VIP lounge. And that is contemporary art, always a small catastrophe. This hopefully still makes us ask: what is going on here? How did it come to this? How can we fight against this negativity? Which useful definition of art could we design? Must we abandon the idea of aesthetic enjoyment once and for all, or must we, on the contrary reclaim it?

2.

One way to resist the idea of art’s uselessness is to understand that WE are all productivists, factographers, muralists, biographers of things, and worker-correspondents. We are living in an age of the total internalization of the production line, its domestication in the home-office, where we work day and night without stopping. And that does not just mean that we are working with instruments captured from communists in a bourgeois factory (that is always the case), but that we have at our disposal a toolbox that we can reclaim with a minimum of effort.

Take, for example, the theory of the “comrade thing,” any art student’s ideal companion. The theory of the comrade thing, as articulated in the period immediately following laboratory Constructivism, projected a subject-object whose use is not self-cannibalism (as Marx describes consumption under the regime of private property in his early texts), but mutual use, non-alienated utility that produces only one thing, namely truth. Today’s comrade-thing, at least potentially, is the personal computer, a multifunctional object that goes well beyond anything the boldest communist futurists ever imagined (including Khlebnikov’s “world radio”).

It is not techno-messianism to realize that the computer is a gateway to any number of texts, textures, and forms, reproductions that we must enjoy in search of their lost original, and not just a production site in the post-Fordist panopticum. Our comrade-thing allows us to have phone sex with lovers even if they are very far away. It allows us to reproduce endlessly, and, when we are done, to consume lo-fi copies of Hollywood movies and sitcoms. The world of Google, Skype, and Wikipedia is not just a tool, but actually allows us to inhale massive doses of culture, providing unprecedented levels of access to classics that were previously guarded jealously as part of the ruling class’s victory parade.

The paradox is that the elite is busy with contemporary art, for which it reclaims a status of auratic singularity, a secular cult status fixed to one place and one time. Even for professionals, access to this generalized, never-changing “new” is always limited. But the classics are just out there online, requiring a minimum effort to be found and cracked. This extends far beyond the avant-garde, and includes the entire history of art, including the disputed legacy of realism. Usually, the availability of this legacy represents that possibility of contemplation and genuine aesthetic enjoyment in the midst of the endless workday. It expresses the idea that Rembrandt need not be an ironing board, but can simply be Rembrandt, even in the age of digital reproduction.

But there is nothing contemplative about teaching ourselves how to look at such paintings; we inevitably use the optics of the reciprocal readymade to brush history against the grain. It is here that we discover an “aesthetic of resistance” beyond contemplation; we see that all art tells not only the heroic story of money and power, but always also contains an unconscious communism, a self-idenity of the senses, an emancipative experience that carries down through its conflicted folds.

We see this weak messianism as a material force because we realize that mimesis, even in a state of slavery, cannot help but tell the truth about itself and the contradictions of its time, and that this helpless urge to tell the truth can be brought to consciousness. It is this coming to consciousness that seems so politically important today; the object of our critique comes back into focus, and the political mimesis of criticality—otherwise generalized, blurred, and romantic— moves from the abstract to the concrete. This is the moment when art once again becomes useful, no longer just a mimetic resonator, but as a medium for truth in its sensual form.

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