Notes on Groys’ Art Power

“The only thing that saves us from bureaucratic subjugation, is the inertia of the bureaucracy itself.” – Donald Brittain Paperland: The Bureaucrat Observed

imagesSince Duchamp, the old distinction between artist and curator has collapsed. The creative has given way to the selective. The artist is the authorizer of a selection. What makes it art is that it is exhibited, and this status in time is what makes it contemporary. Contemporary art is the space of exhibition, one which places subjective, even arbitrary selection, into a public space. But the authority is more diffuse. Contemporary art is one of multiple authors, of institutions, curators, committees etc. It is a product of the bureaucratization of selection. Artists become identified with their CVs, not works of art. They produce less than they participate. Unexhibited works are reduced to documentation rather than works of art. “And that is the crucial aspect: the artwork today does not manifest art; it merely promises art. Art is manifested only in the exhibition, as in fact the title Manifesta already states.” (98) Museums no longer display seemingly eternal collections but temporary, transient and bureaucratically re-evaluated ones. They become, functionally, like almost any other part of the state apparatus. Their function as documentary performed makes them identical to the cultural bureaucracy that they are funded by. Effectively, budgets for doomed utopian projects are what is produced by contemporary art.

tumblr_p0pg4eysQZ1r4vadxo3_540Contemporary art is the art of the city, more specifically, the cosmopolitan city. Cities were an attempt to escape into the future. They were utopian, in a state of trying to permanently surpass themselves. This also meant constant destruction. They become dystopian and modernist art cherishes this. But even this seems to have been surpassed in the age of globalism, where surpassing becomes meaningless when you can just move. The movement of people or goods become functionally indistinguishable. The local is no longer grounded. “Today the utopian impulse has shifted direction—acknowledgment is no longer sought in time, but in space: Globalization has replaced the future as the site of utopia. So, rather than practicing avant-garde politics based on the future, we now embrace the politics of travel, migration, and nomadic life, paradoxically rekindling the utopian dimension that had ostensibly died out in the era of romantic tourism.” (106-107) As a result, art becomes less context specific and more formally specific. It becomes tourist art for tourists about tourists. (107) The avant-garde previously sought to transcend the local to the universal through purification. Now, the inverse occurs. Since the media is universal and homogeneous, local forms can be reproduced anywhere. Homogeneity and localism become extensions of one another. Everything becomes a mobile utopia, like the Starship Enterprise. (109) Tourism and migration replace modernist utopia and things become romantic again. The tourist looks for the different and so the conservative. “Romantic tourism is a machine designed to transform temporariness into permanence, fleetingness into timelessness, ephemerality into monumentality.” (103) This makes everything in cities, even poverty and crime, seem monumental. Everything is gentrified all the time: A slum, or the mall or coffee shop that replaces it. Everything will be eternally banal ‘insipid, ugly’. (104) Once this is realized, you get beyond romanticism.

tumblr_olot2c9JjG1rrqskho1_540Reality is what is not collected. (23) Modern artists know that they are working primarily to be collected and this substantially affects how and what they produce. Museums only collect from ‘real life’, what is outside their walls, so art has to look like real life to attract them. The artists’ protest to break free and be ‘in life’ is their way of seducing the collector, of seeking their own place among the dead. To push this further, the discursive packaging of art (politics, life, identity etc) – its branding as the new – are the lingerie worn to presage desirable mummification. It is the new that becomes instantly historical, transformed into a representation. [this is just like Baudelaire] Cultures didn’t previously have museums, they had traditions, which repeated the past to preserve it. But with the modern, the museum became taboo. The past had to be destroyed to open up the future. But museums came to keep the past, to show what could no longer be repeated – they provided the negative sameness that the contemporary had to displace by manufacturing otherness.

“The modern artwork is collected before it is even produced. The art of the avantgarde is the art of an elitist-thinking minority not because it expresses some specific bourgeois taste (as, for example, Bourdieu asserts), because, in a way, avant-garde art expresses no taste at all—no public taste, no personal taste, not even the taste of the artists themselves. Avant-garde art is elitist simply because it originates under a constraint to which the general public is not subjected. For the general public, all things—or at least most things—could be new because they are unknown, even if they are already collected in museums. This observation opens the way to making the central distinction necessary to achieve a better understanding of the phenomenon of the new— that between new and other, or between the new and the different.” (28)

The new isn’t necessarily different or Other because newness “is not related to any pregiven social code.” (29) Instead, it is the difference beyond difference, the Same, the readymade, Kierkegaard’s Christ – God as man amidst the anthropomorphic pagan gods. The new then appears by placing the finite and ordinary in an alien realm, making it seem infinite – it sacralizes the profane, making it hyperreal by stranding it in time [this stranding is the functional effect of the museum or gallery]. (36) This is as ephemeral as it is romantic, taking its power from both its new sanctity and the suspicion that this context inspires for it. (38) It fades fast and the artwork becomes merely different as the finite world changes and the new rapidly dates. “Again, life today looks alive, and is alive, only when seen from the perspective of the archive, museum, library. In reality itself we are confronted only with dead differences—like the difference between a new and an old car.” (31 [doesn’t this also make the world just a desacralized museum?] This is why context becomes so crucial and why the mechanisms of the museum protect the artwork from the profane world it seems to be displaced from. The museum makes the artwork perceptible but also less experiential. tumblr_om8n1mtxjS1rckw3lo1_540The avant-garde then serves the material to the museum, who takes the role of guarantor, securing the banal and the commodification of the concept. The new is given by the context, not content, the context providing – or seeming to provide – an other quality to the form. Outside of the museum, art could only appear by breaking with everyday life and turning to things like religion and traditionalism. (33) Pop culture generally provides myth; the museum and contemporary art providing the soothing balm of normative banality, especially when pretending to do otherwise. “The materiality of the museum is a guarantee that the production of the new in art can transcend all ends of history, precisely because it demonstrates that the modern ideal of universal and transparent museum space (as a representation of universal art history) is unrealizable and purely ideological.” (35)
“The choice of the objects for musealization is interesting and relevant for us only if it does not merely recognize and restate existing differences, but presents itself as unfounded, unexplainable, illegitimate.” (42) [But after nearly a century of this, it seems unlikely that this is really what’s happening]

In the nineteenth century, the curator created art within the museum by appropriating objects, recontextualizing them and giving them status as art for contemplation, devaluing the previously sacred (religious etc) and making it profane. In the twentieth century, artists do the inverse, transforming the profane into the sacred through romanticism.

“What was originally iconoclasm has turned into iconophilia.” (44) This set up a rivalry between them, usually disguised as institutional critique, wherein artists attacked the curators for relativizing their work and placing them in narratives that subverted their romantic aspirations. The icon maker and the iconoclast came in conflict: “The museum’s iconoclastic gesture consists precisely of transforming “living” idols into “dead” illustrations of art history.” (51)

The artist, like the general public, desires immediate access to the artwork and want the curator to do close to nothing. The white cube is a way to intensify the potential for immersion. “Artworks seem to be genuinely sick and helpless—the spectator has to be led to the artwork, as hospital workers might take a visitor to see a bedridden patient. It is in fact no coincidence that the word “curator” is etymologically related to “cure.” Curating is curing. The process of curating cures the image’s powerlessness, its incapacity to present itself.” (46) The other contrasting tendency has been an iconoclasm by the artist, a shift away from the art object and to art documentation, to art as a kind of curating or historicism, as the use of objects for illustration. With the rise of independent curators, the distinction between curation and contemporary art becomes increasingly moot. Curators, traditional or contemporary, thrive on the iconoclastic degrading of art to manufacture narrative, one which, through their usually incomprehensible catalogues, only extend the abuse of art. Contra Heidegger then, it is the abuse of art that allows it to appear, not really entering into Being so much as a realm of living deadness. [curatorship then has the capacity to subvert the bias of the living]

tumblr_nuxwbrSWru1tvroe5o1_540“Images without text are embarrassing, like a naked person in a public space. At the very least they need a textual bikini in the form of an inscription with the name of the artist and the title (in the worst case this can read “Untitled”). Only the domestic intimacy of a private collection allows for the full nakedness of a work of art.” (111) The critic or commentator is there to dress the art. They produce texts that aren’t really there to be read. They are PR or admen. The more unreadable, the more they serve as clothing: opaque or sheer. This is even more so the case when the text is by the artist. They dress it in vagueness to attract and not to offend. As a means of marketing and as a preventative against criticism from others. (116) The more ‘personal’ an artist ‘makes’ their work, the more they protect themselves from criticism, turning the critic or viewer into a social worker.

The critic emerged in the age of democratization, as an outsider to the art world, criticizing that world for the sake of the outside. Judicious detachment fell away with the emergence of the avant-garde, shifting its audience from the existent to the ideal. The critic, and the artwork, became critiques of society because the avant-garde artwork is directed outside of or beyond it. Art was radical because it produced a difference other than an existing social difference, one irreconcilable to anyone in the public. Contemporary art is communicative, or seems to be, desirintumblr_p0oj50BBCj1td81kyo1_540g recognition of or by the other. The old avant-garde was excommunicative – using the means of communication as a form of exile (the autonomization of art). This is an escape from the world, a way of replacing it with a more artificial one. Fashion and technology now do this where artists once did. Artists aware of this, capitalize on it. This, not social pluralism, is where artistic pluralism comes from. “A single modern work of art is a huge contemporary differentiation machine.” (115) Critical distinction made from such fonts of newness are what allow for plurality.

The basic claim of modernist and contemporary art is to radical pluralism. This means each work denies generalization to the field; each work shows a specific commitment to manufacturing difference. Being contemporary is cliquey. Practically, it becomes the art of contradiction. “Modern art operated not only as a machine of inclusion of everything that was not regarded as art before its emergence but also as a machine of exclusion of everything that imitated already existing art patterns in a naive, unreflective, unsophisticated—nonpolemical—manner, and also of everything that was not somehow controversial, provocative, challenging. But this means: The field of modern art is not a pluralistic field but a field strictly structured according to the logic of contradiction.” (2) This Hegelian structure of thesis-antithesis serves to balance power, mitigating its distortions: a zero point that could open onto infinity. Art represents power (natural, divine or political), pretending to represent the infinite or possible, while mirroring the state. In modernism, the work of art is a ‘paradox-object’ embodying thesis and anti-thesis. “If there is no image that could function as a representation of an infinite power, then all images are equal. And, indeed, contemporary art has the equality of all the images as its telos.” (3) Though apparently plural or paradoxical, the paradox is that this is an illusion, that there is only one imposed interpretation or experience – a paradoxical and contradictory one. “The desire to get rid of any image can be realized only through a new image—the image of a critique of the image.” (9)

“This seems to me to be the crucial question: Does art hold any power of its own, or it is only able to decorate external powers— whether these are powers of oppression or liberation?” (12) His answer is affirmative – art has autonomy and space of resistance, though the art world certainly has neither of these things. “Art and politics are initially connected in one fundamental respect: both are realms in which a struggle for recognition is being waged.” (13) This is recognition for the sake of social legitimation. This extends beyond competing social groups seeking rights to the rights of objects, from primitivism to abstraction, readymades, kitsch and images of banality, all equalized along with the art of the past.

“For if, as it is argued, all images are already acknowledged as being of equal value, this would seemingly deprive the artist of the possibility to break taboos, provoke, shock, or extend boundaries of the acceptable. Instead, by the time history has come to an end, each artist begins to be suspected of producing just one further arbitrary image among many. Were this indeed the case, the regime of equal rights for all images would have to be regarded not only as the telos of the logic followed by the history of modern art, but also as its terminal negation.” (15)

tumblr_o43ym0kSON1uadz9uo1_500The contemporary artwork is good in its affirmation of the equality of images, an affirmation which is a negative critique of hierarchy. This affirmation then is an affirmation of art’s autonomy [But is it autonomous if it’s been entered into a circuit of communication?]. Rather than being oriented to the verticality of the divine and the autonomous image as summation of truth, they are oriented on the horizon to the infinity of equalized images. This places the art world in competition with the mass media, but the art world has a vaster store of images. These are often placed in museums, which have become houses not only of images but of calls to the deconstruction and abolishing of museums themselves. Formerly (19th & early 20th c), attacks on museum culture were attacks on normative conceptions of art but this is no longer the case. “When people today speak of ‘real life,’ what they usually mean is the global media market. And that means: The current protest against the museum is no longer part of a struggle being waged against normative taste in the name of aesthetic equality but is, inversely, aimed at stabilizing and entrenching currently prevailing tastes.” (19) “So the call to break loose from the museum amounts de facto to a call to package and commercialize art by accommodating it to the aesthetic norms generated by today’s mass media.” (20) Only the museum creates the space for the new to appear since other media spaces, or ‘real life’, work through constant fluctuation, amnesia and proliferating ignorance. “The same, incidentally, applies to the assertions of cultural difference or cultural identity that persistently bombard us in the media. In order to challenge these claims critically, we again require some form of comparative framework. Where no such comparison is possible all claims of difference and identity remain unfounded and hollow.” (21) “The new is here not something merely different but, rather, a reaffirmation of the fundamental aesthetic equality of all the images in a historically given context.” (22) [This is naïve given changes in curatorial practice that have tended to contemporize the past, morally decontaminating it.]

tumblr_nshxi6Dg4E1uajvwdo2_540Cultural studies are still basically an enlightenment thing, examining the passage from the particular to the universal through local traditions, identities etc. This passage, if it lags, in progressive tradition had to be hurried along by one means or another: “And humankind cannot tolerate such slow movement because it wants to be free and democratic as soon as possible.” (149) Cultural studies claim to battle against this sort of coercion, to find a compromise between progressive uniformity and the baggage of the past. There is an aesthetic bias for heterogeneity in this, the generic bias of pomo and its rejection of everything it claims to oppose. Homogeneity, in Groys’ case that of Communist aesthetics, then functions as the Other to the ‘diversification’ practiced by market economics. (151) The choice between universal and diverse, between a homogeneous state and divergent ‘social realities’ is a false one. Instead, there are just two different universalities: the state and the market. Diverse identities are readymades in a universal market of diversity. This is basically anti-radical, opposed to the zero that is necessary for radicality. “One needs to have a certain aesthetic preference for the uniform—as opposed to the diverse—to be ready to accept and to endorse radical political and artistic projects. This kind of taste must be, obviously, very unpopular, very unappealing to the masses.” (153) This means they are open but seem elitist and are doomed to be isolated. They reject tradition and diversity for the sake of the common. They don’t move toward the future, they already live there. The post-communist then travels back in time, back into history like the object in a Warhol painting returning to the supermarket.

Political art is propaganda, taking part in the struggle rather than simply being representational. It tries to represent the balance of power of an ideology or vision of the world. Biennales etc, do the same thing, providing an ‘idealized’ vision of global contradictions. (9) The art of totalitarian nations tends to be excluded from art history and criticism on the grounds of its supposed ‘perversion’ of art or its moral complicity with oppression. But those who take such a stance, regardless of how critical they are of the art market’s place in a no-less morally questionable system of global capital, refuse to regard the work of this rival totalitarianism as such. This betrays a blindness to art functioning in anything other than market conditions. For such an attitude, the artwork is understood as the struggle to create a critical commodity, commodified by and as critique. “The (self-)critical artwork is a paradox-object that fits perfectly in the dominating paradigm of modern and contemporary art.” (6) The irony of this is that it removes art both from active critique (by doing it pre-emptively and making it passively synthesized beforehand) and from ‘truly political art’.


A new trend alleges the impossibility of the new, in practice liberating artists and art world from history, progress etc for the sake of “bringing art into life.” (22) History can then be treated as the dead and art as alive. This itself part of a long tradition of hating museums and being horrified by archives [is life then not so much ‘positive’ as resentful? – FN here and young Nietzsche of history against old Nietzsche of amor fati – this seems basic to Brassier]. “According to this tradition, the death of the museum—and of the art history embodied by the museum—must be interpreted as a resurrection of true, living art, as a turning toward true reality, life, toward the great Other: If the museum dies, it is death itself that dies.” (23) When does art appear ‘most alive’? ‘Being alive’ for him, means ‘being new’. (23) [Besides, if in the rival tradition, the museum lives, and it is the life of the museum that allows for the image of life outside of it – then life only exists to die to be become life.]

“Art documentation is by definition not art; it merely refers to art, and in precisely this way it makes it clear that art, in this case, is no longer present and immediately visible but rather absent and hidden.” (53) The reasons for this shift in definition are both philosophic and often political: “For those who devote themselves to the production of art documentation rather than artworks, art is identical to life, because life is essentially a pure activity that has no end result. The presentation of any such end result—in the form of an artwork, say—would imply an understanding of life as a merely functional process whose own duration is negated and extinguished by the creation of the end product—which is equivalent to death.” (54) Instead, art seeks to become life. This is art’s new will to power (to use the phrase he prefers in his earlier writing but politely avoids here) that embraces biopolitics. By this, he means the shaping of life as activity in time (duration). The distinction between the organic and artificial becomes increasingly invisible. The only way it can appear is by narrative, through instruction and documentation, that demonstrates its origin, effectively naturalizing it through bio-politics. [deconstruction and social constructionism are in practice, and despite their protestations to the contrary, origin theories that perform god-like powers, according it to the supposedly dead author, singular or communal] Life is what can be documented but never shown or immediately experienced. (57) tumblr_oomfugyK1N1spnyg9o1_400“The placing of documentation in an installation as the act of inscription in a particular space is thus not a neutral act of showing but an act that achieves at the level of space what narrative achieves at the level of time: the inscription in life.” (61) This is, in a sense, a way of doing violence to the space. Generally, violence however, leaves traces and becomes integrated into life or destroys it. In document art, however, and Groys only intimates but doesn’t say this, the opposite starts to happen: “The deterritorialization of the original, its removal from its site by means of bringing it closer represents, by contrast, an invisible and thus all the more devastating employment of violence, because it leaves behind no material trace.” (63) He doesn’t make this point because he stops in the auratic dimension of the cube rather than noting that the primary place of contemporary art is elsewhere, in magazines, the internet etc. Document art then becomes a way of doing violence to art through the museum rather than against it. [This is appropriately involuted when you’ve shifted from Futurism to contemporarism.] The constant spreading of de- and re-territorialzation, of manufacturing the aura effect, becomes the basic scheme of biopolitics. Which is to say, it mobilizes bare life from concentration camps to spread it everywhere (Sameness again). Typically, Groys offers a friendlier interpretation: “…rather than fighting off modernity, they develop strategies of resisting and of inscription based on situation and context, which make it possible to transform the artificial into something living and the repetitive into something unique.” (64)

[The relational bias of the contemporary, ironically, makes it rely on a 19th c notion of things] “…pure suffering is, as we know, the most adequate experience of the Invisible.” (84)

Digital image as a strong image, (one which can ‘guarantee its own identity in time’ (84) vs a weak image that is context specific) one without a curator or institution and independent to flow through communications networks in anonymity, vulnerable to distortion, degradation, viruses and software malfunction – another instance of bare life. It may only be the image file that is strong, but this is not an image and is invisible. The digital image is the decoded copy of the file, like an icon showing the invisible God. The religious Invisible is ambiguous and appears not singularly but through all of the history of appearance. “The Invisible remains invisible precisely by the multiplication of its visualizations.” (85) This makes the Invisible, the original, even more uncertain and this is part of why the curator ends up becoming more important in contemporary art. Technology is not enough to guarantee reproduction. Making the Invisible visible is the most ‘radical profanation’, one that requires its own priest. Video seems to rob the viewer of their traditional sovereignty (governance of time) but fails because the space of the institution functions by moving people along. This forces the viewer into unease, making them compromise as they ponder staying or going. “This shows again: There is no such thing as a copy. In the world of digitalized images, we are dealing only with originals—only with original presentations of the absent, invisible digital original. The exhibition makes copying reversible: It transforms a copy into an original. But this original remains partially invisible and non-identical.” (91)

tumblr_o4v09jpYAT1vnry48o1_540“The same can be said of the videos representing beheadings, confessions of the terrorists, and the like: In all these cases we have consciously and artistically staged events with their own easily recognizable aesthetics. Here we have warriors who do not wait for an artist to represent their acts of war and terror: Instead, the act of war itself coincides with its documentation, with its representation. The function of art as a medium of representation and the role of the artist as a mediator between reality and memory are here completely eliminated.” (122) The traditional interpretation of this is wholly in keeping with the Hegelian embrace of the negative as creative or Nietzsche’s active nihilism. Artists may generically oppose the authoritarianism of the state, but only in the name of a rival authoritarianism, demanding recognition. The modern artist seems to be the rival of the terrorist. Groys suggests that terrorism however is not iconoclastic but iconophilic, that it relies almost wholly on the production of images: “These images are the icons of the contemporary political theology that dominates our collective imagination.” (125) Terrorism allows the image to become true again. This makes the terrorist not a rival, but an enemy to the modern artist. “Now we experience the return not of the real but of the political sublime—in the form of the repoliticization of the sublime. Contemporary politics no longer represents itself as beautiful—as even the totalitarian states of the twentieth century still did. Instead, contemporary politics represents itself as sublime again—that is, as ugly, repelling, unbearable, terrifying.” (127) If media seem more powerful than art, it is because of their claim on the real. However, the media only show the now, they lack the historical sense of the art museum and the difference that it allows.

“The heroic act transforms the hero’s body from a medium into a message. In that respect the hero’s body is distinct from that of the politician, scientist, entrepreneur, or philosopher, the bodies of whom are concealed behind the social function they exercise. When a body manifests itself directly, however, when it explodes the shell of the social roles it usually plays, the result is the hero’s body.” (130)







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