How has the development, with a language and formal structure culled from the values of research and academia, influenced an aesthetically based context such as art? On what level or levels should the new products associated with and created in the field of art be interpreted? Are not, for instance, many of the usual seminars deceptively similar to performances or happenings? Do not the archives that have started to pop up within various art institutions often resemble installations rather than actual records of documents?
When I was at art school in the mid-1990s, it became increasingly common to describe the artists work as a form of research. At the time, this was perceived as a new way of looking at artistic practices. Today, more than ten years later, this terminology could be regarded as fairly accepted as a description of the contemporary artists activity. The development towards using research as a reference point and theoretical model for art has also made a more general impact. A few years ago it became possible in Sweden to get a PhD as an artist. Many an art institution describes and pursues its activities in terms of research. Thus, today, terms and phenomena such as laboratories, seminars, symposia, publications and archives have come to be common features of contemporary art.
Although, on a plane of reference, this may appear to represent a movement away from a more distinctly aesthetically based language, contemporary art must surely still be seen as an essentially aesthetic activity. Therefore, it is interesting to attempt to discuss what the previously described development could mean from an aesthetic perspective. To provide a background to these aesthetic perspectives and the discussion as a whole, it may be wise to look back briefly at how everyday life was aestheticized, a subject that also arose increasingly in debates in the early 1990s.
The aesthetization of everyday life is often described summarily as a blurring of the boundaries between art and life in general, and a merging of so-called high-brow culture with popular culture. Simultaneously with this blurring of the boundary between art and life, art lost its aura and could be anything, anywhere. As a logical consequence, it also became possible to regard mass-produced objects as art. Another frequently noted symptom of this aestheticization of everyday life is the importance of realising oneself by shaping, or designing, a lifestyle, also described as turning life into art. The once so radical motto of the avant-garde, that life should be a work of art, has thus become mainstream and part of everyday life itself. Finally, this aestheticization of everyday life can also be seen as a devaluation of the functional value of objects, in favour of what is sometimes termed their secondary value. Originally, most objects were judged according to their practical use, their utility, whereas today, this judgement is said to focus infinitely more on how one object relates to another. This relationship is primarily of a symbolic nature, and thus relates more to what the various objects symbolise vis-à-vis one another. This shift from purely practical function to a function that encompasses what something represents or symbolises generated new values that are commonly referred to as secondary functional values.
The symptoms of this aestheticising of everyday life are probably familiar to most people nowadays, but, as I said, they can provide an interesting starting point in this context for interpreting the development within the field of art with a language and formal structure borrowed from the values of research and academia.
Despite, or perhaps thanks to, the fact that the work of art has lost much of its aura, and that the commodity has instead assumed many of the functions of the art object, the issue of the commercialization of art and the aestheticization of the commodity appears to remain, and is linked to the language and formal structure from research and academia. One blatant example of this is the recent debate on public funding of art, which, in short, focused on issues relating to the development of art either towards greater instrumentalisation or harsh commercialisation, or alternatively, towards exploration, critique and discourse and not necessarily complying with traditional exhibition activities. Moreover, it is within the latter of these contemporary genres that we most commonly find references to the values of research and academia.
Seen in that light, the act of emphasising art as research could be a strategy, in a context where everyday life has been aestheticised, and which in many ways is intent on asserting the commercialisation of art and aestheticisation of commodities, to create scope for an art that is critical, and not restricted to objects or specific exhibition spaces. There is an inherent risk, however, that the result would resemble that described by Helena Mattson in the essay Forms of Politics, where she discussed the transcendence of disciplinary boundaries between art and commodities (everyday objects):
In some instances, this is a conscious action, a transcending strategy, where we seek to operate within the economic and political field using art as an instrument; in other cases this is merely an involuntary and destructive consequence whose causes we are unable to identify. For the avant-garde, this transcendence was a political action that tore down the boundaries of contemplative art and opened up its spaces eliminating the sanctuary and confronted the spectator with reality. Art and life were thus one and the same: There is no sanctuary! In many cases, we can regard the claims of relational aesthetics to subscribe to the same artistic and political strategy, which may appear increasingly ineffectual as the removal of the boundary between art and life entails the incorporation of art into the aesthetic universe of the commodity.
Thus, there is a danger, in this perspective, that research-related art would not offer a sanctuary from the world of the aestheticised commodity. The traditional production of objects would simply merge into a creation of new products and services. Which, if the issue of utility is forgotten, would mostly resemble props for universities or libraries. Research-related activities that are generated in an art context, such as seminars, archives and publications, ought, in that case, to be judged first and foremost on the grounds of their secondary value, rather than their functional value. In other words, the focus should be greater on how things are said, and not merely on what is said literally.
The additional meanings that are engendered in this way make it possible, among other things, to perceive the seminar as a performance, the archive as an installation, and the publication as an art object. When the often too tacit aesthetic concerns are enhanced, this changes the meaning of the product, and thus, the potential to circumvent the matter of content by focusing on the design.
This does not necessarily mean, however, that research-related art is less reliable or that it has reached an intellectual dead end. Perhaps, paradoxically, it is in aesthetics that there is a possibility to avoid a further aestheticisation. In that case, greater attention and more importance should perhaps be devoted to the forms and implementations in which, say, seminars, archives or publications are expressed. This would create an opening for new meanings and functions. In the essay referred to above, Helena Mattson also describes a possible model for such a strategy:
An intriguing aspect here could be that it is the design, ornamentation and superfluity that provide the impetus for a reprogramming of space and function that most decidedly has both social and political implications.
So where could all this lead? First of all, we must acknowledge design and architecture as political activities in that they are configurations of space, site and object. This also means that the aesthetic sphere can be regarded as a purely political sphere where reorganisation, reprogramming and reconfiguration is acceptable that would not be allowed in our everyday reality. This, in turn, opens up for a strategy that is entirely contradictory to the avant-garde strategy, and frequently to that of relational art instead of breaking down the boundary between art and life, this boundary can be utilised and that which is usually regarded as commonplace can be transferred to an aesthetic playing-field to be reprogrammed and subsequently serve as art in a real situation.
In my own practice as an artist, I have often been involved in designing environments within various art institutions, and in producing publications, seminars or essays such as the one at hand. Therefore, I must admit that I have contributed to the aestheticization that I am writing about. I may even be contributing further towards that development with this essay. Perhaps I should have chosen to express myself in some different way, in a way that could hopefully, in and of itself, be resistant. But the question that arises then is: how far is it possible to depart from the accepted perspective on aesthetics in a certain context, before the things one is saying start to turn into incomprehensible gesticulating?