We Are All Cultural Producers: Institutionalized Criticism and Agonistic Frame-works
by Lizzie Hurst
In the world of cultural production, there is work: art-works and frame-works. My main interest here is the frame-work: the receiving of a work of art—an action we all are capable of doing—as it relates to commercial criticism and what might be termed an overall societal “crisis” of valuation. If value and judgment are indeed the troubled objectives of criticism, my interest is in questioning the ways in which one might begin to sidestep explicit or hegemonic determinants of quality and value, sidestep determinants that in essence nullify other non-commodifiable values of the art-work. By emphasizing the ‘work’ in both art-works and frame-works, my interest is two fold: to open up the art-work itself onto all the labor that goes into it in order to make it a salable commodity, and to open ourselves up to a labor of both receiving and creating that exists outside of capital and instead engages with a set of relationships and motivations that go beyond the constraints of the market to contain a different kind of value altogether.
The production of art-works can involve participation by an audience, the labor of art workers, and outsourced or exploitative labor relations. Yet the success or failure of an art-work is read through its institutional framing with little attention given to its specific operation or affect outside of what is literally referred to as the art world, a veiled sphere of constructed meaning, value, and self-perpetuating, monopolized production. Such institutional framing commodifies any kind of participation. For decades even ‘anti-institutional’ artists have tried to escape the confines of the pedestal, the gallery, and even of art itself, but nonetheless are regularly institutionalized and remain dependent on these institutions to generate or attribute value. But a frame-work of agonistic pluralism could aid in the undermining of that imaginary environment, which generates modes of articulation that neutralize more pluralistic qualities of an art-work and their different material histories. It’s a frame-work that recuperates elements of the work that exist outside of the confines of art world and the capitalistic microcosm often associated with market-driven criticism.
The art critic plays a critical role in determining the way in which an art-work gains commercial value through accumulated social capital, negative stigma, or public attention. Curators and collectors in essence work collaboratively with critics to produce and accelerate the commercial value of art-works, a value built up through a stacking of print space, blockbuster shows, and positive re-enforcement, which in turn leads to inflated auction prices and art-as-investment. All three act as mechanisms to create impressions of hyper-importance. Consider the work of the victorious artist Jeff Koons, who’s affect almost never reaches beyond the institutions of the art world, but who has in many ways revolutionized the meaning of success within it. We could investigate the value placed upon works like Koons’ Made in Heaven series or his Rabbit by considering the labor and materials that went into it, uncovering perhaps some of the mystique surrounding, for example, a stainless steel oversized mammal. But we would not discover it’s complete value that way.
The function of the commercial critic can serve as a popular viewing apparatus, where belletristic ways of writing work in service of private interests or encourage passive acceptance and celebration of (material) culture. Contemporary criticism tends to operate through the building of consensus rather than the embrace of agonism, a frame-work that more often than not neglects the potential for intervention or trickery within a context of empowerment. In the case of Koons’ Made in Heaven, the critics function is, in a sense, to allow the work to be subsumed by capitalist relations: no matter what a person’s moral stance or what or who they promote in their everyday life, they can now buy without guilt—thanks to the critics’ discourse—an image of the artist on top of his porn-star wife, with their act becoming not much more than an investment.
But by acknowledging the institutionalized role of the critic as a promoter and participant in the invisible construction of commercial value, one might begin to consider alternate ways in which value accumulates and judgment forms. For example, how can we begin to conceptualize the success of artists creating ephemeral, collaborative, or participatory works without continually receiving them through a critical paradigm that ultimately works to maintain the (art) world’s given order of things, especially when an artist’s work is itself an attempt to undermine those very relations? If our concept of success becomes tied to market forces, it may be that existing frame-works are complicit. My intention is to begin creating a new frame-work of encountering art that no longer binds us to the limitations and complicity of an art criticism that is in many ways canonical and further commercializes art-affects: to consider the wider spectrum of interactions and affects involved with(in) an artist’s work.
Consider as two examples the artists Ai Weiwei and Christoph Schlingensief. In one well-known video work, Ai Weiwei smashes a Han Dynasty urn. In three images, the urn drops from his hands and shatters immediately into a several pieces. How can we begin to sketch out a frame-work that acknowledges Ai Weiwei’s symbolic and literal smashing of the urn in China? What about his employing of Chinese laborers to aid in the creation of other, large-scale productions, his relationship with the current Chinese government, with people in China who consider him “God-like”, with a (traditional) Chinese value system, and with international art institutions that engage with corporations that exploit labor or commit ecocide? Or what could Ai Weiwei’s role be as a truth-teller within an international atmosphere of torture and incarceration? Within an agonistic frame-work, this work exists outside the limits of the art world, creating a plethora of small gifts rather than pointing only toward the production of a final commodity or the ticket to an exhibition.
German artist Christoph Schlingensief died of cancer in 2010, following the publication of Heaven Could Not Be as Beautiful as Here: A Cancer Diary in 2009. Working in film, installation, and performance, amongst others, Schlingensief also built an opera house in Burkina Faso. His work Foreigners Out! took the form of a reality TV show staged within shipping containers in a public square in Vienna in 2000. The TV show, filmed in the containers housing refugees seeking asylum, used the format of the Big Brother television franchise to concentrate and explore xenophobia and ultimately, one by one, vote each candidate out of the country through the participation of hundreds of active viewers. The final remaining candidate was to be given asylum and a cash prize. How can we begin to qualify or quantify the value of a work that in many ways uses a form reminiscent of concentration camps to hold the people viewed by those in power as undesirable? What about dreams-come-true and deflated hopes? How many different kinds of value are there, and for whom? A frame-work of agonistic pluralism would place emphasis on the hundreds of protesters that showed up to voice their own values and take part in the work.
In political theory, agonistic pluralism exists when contestation and difference are the essential conditions of the democratic public sphere. The Greek root of the word, agon, refers to an athletic contest that is not oriented merely toward the victory of one participant but emphasizes the importance of the struggle itself. In my consideration of the ways in which the affect of an artist’s work reaches beyond the institutionalized successes of the art world, agonism connotes the generation of affects outside of any clear hierarchy and outside the linear trajectory of one artist’s career: the traditional “victories” we hold dear. For me, this reframing of how we constitute success within our creative work could also repaint criticism, and perhaps artists themselves,as Trickster-like, a boundary crosser and troublemaker whose role is not necessarily only to produce an immediately recognizable product—to achieve a victory—but to also set off a series of actions within human beings and throughout the order of society.
Within an agonistic frame-work, art and its discourse could foment dissensus, making visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure.It is constituted by manifold articulations and ultimately opens up to subjectivities which are silenced within a more hegemonic frame-work or those which are excluded from the elite language of professional art criticism. Regardless of any true will toward conflict or possibility of reconciliation, agonism primarily acknowledges the importance of subjectivities and structures often conceived to be outside institutionalized constructions of meaning, sometimes jumping between worlds.
An agonistic frame-work of articulation acknowledges the possibility that a process of subjective exchange itself could be generative and even transformative. It would allow for these aspects of an artist’s work to add “value” to the piece and encourage a general recognition that cultural activity is not only confined to the institutional spaces it most immediately inhabits. Through speech, cultural exchange, emotive or haptic experience, shared labor, juxtaposition, the proximity of bodies in space, or the crossing of boundaries, art has the ability to evoke alternate possibilities. An artist’s work might inspire revelations of hope or nihilism, the spawning of opposition, distrust, empathy or passion. And an agonistic frame-work would articulate these kinds of involvements of an art-work.
The concept of agonism and a radical democracy associated with it relies on a particular understanding of how we go about engaging with difference: if professional, commercial criticism frames the spaces between art-works and critics in a more or less single channel, mono-linguistic dialogue, a frame-work of agonistic pluralism might acknowledge the spaces between artist and subject matter, participant and art-work, or artist and context, with the possibility of generating a whole new set of implications and stimulating a multifaceted, multidimensional, or multi-lingual dialogue. It would also emphasize a social value which is widespread, outside of any hierarchy, and which disputes the commercial value generated by the institutions of art criticism. And perhaps most importantly, such a frame-work creates “values” that have no commercial value at all.
It’s important to acknowledge the significance of agonistic relations, nourished by an art-work, which exist outside the realm of an art criticism with predetermined notions of success, set terminologies, abstract determinants of value and complicity in capitalist relations. An agonistic frame-work of affect is an acknowledgement of the irreducible conflicting forces within art and society, and a giving voice to the irrational passions that inspire those conflicts and interests in a human world undergoing one crisis of valuation after the next. It would avoid the linearity and careerism of the critic’s artist and allows for a conceptual readjustment of power relations within and without the sphere of art. Agonism as a frame-work involves acknowledging the implications of the artist’s work not only to those immediately consuming, producing, or participating in it but also to those existing under the regime of the capitalist order from within which it is produced—an order generating an industry of cultural activity and then neglecting to acknowledge its social effects or the possibility of the art act or object having relevance to those outside of a culture-consuming class.
Not only have artists and cultural workers become a necessary part of capitalist production, but a whole set of individuals and groups are implicated in art-work through the growing popularity of participatory work and the separation of artists from traditional institutional structures through site-specificity, medium, or form. It is questionable how the “promotion” of a singular artist’s work fits into a scenario in which everyone is part of the sculptural landscape: we are all “cultural producers.” If we are all “cultural producers”, we too can disrupt the relations that subject our affective life to an exterior and dispassionate logic. This disruption that has value to me.