New Left Review: The Coming Exception

New Left Review no. 99 (May-June 2016) contains my essay “The Coming Exception: Art and the Crisis of Value.” In a critical reading of recent theory as well as recent artistic practice, I argue that rather than focusing on the question whether or not art can be integrated into the Marxian labour theory of value, we should focus on the challenge posed by art to the theorization of value, and examine the increasing economic normativity of the putatively exceptional commodity that is the work of contemporary art in today’s economy.

Metropolis M: The Long 1980s

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Metropolis M no 3 (June/July 2016) features my essay “The Long 1980s: Between No Future and the End of History.” For the time being, this text is only available in the print issue, and in Dutch. It is a response of sorts to a flurry of recent and current exhibitions on the art of that decade, and an extension of sorts of parts of my “Cultural Revolution” essay.

Image: Never judge an article by its glamour factor. This one is actually fairly substantial, in addition to being dead cool.

Texte zur Kunst no. 102: Returns of the Stone Age

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The thematic section of issue no. 102 of Texte zur Kunst is dedicated to the topic of fashion. I’m sure it will come as a surprise to nobody that I did not contribute to this section. I did, however, write a kind of review-essay on two recent publications. These books Kunst der Vorzeit and Allegory of the Cave Painting, were published on the occasion of eponymous exhibitions. These exhibitions and publications deal with modern and contemporary artistic and scientific rediscoveries of prehistoric art. In my text “Returns of the Stone Age” I discuss some iterations and aspects of the anachronistic returns of cave and rock art—largely drawing on the publications in questions, but throwing Raymond Queneau and Trevor Paglen into the mix for good measure.

Image: Georges Bataille in Lascaux (source).

Books in Progress

Lucy (2014)

Two books that have been in the making for quite some time are beginning to feel rather real. Once intangible potential, they are now well and truly in the process of being actualized. One in particular, the critical reader Art and Autonomy, has had a prolonged gestation period. The book which will be published by Afterall as part of their critical reader series; I served as the main editor, working with an editorial team and a number of research assistants. While there were other causes, in part the prolonged process was due to my insistence on rethinking the “critical reader” format in ways that made everything so much more complicated than it needed to be. However, it looks as though it’s going to pay off in the end. For the time being Art and Autonomy is now semi-out-of-my-hands, thanks to other capable hands.

A smaller project, also scheduled for this autumn, is my “solo” book Cultural Revolution: Aesthetic Practice after Autonomy (Sternberg). The book is a collection of five reworked essays from recent years, including one text on autonomy that is based on the autonomy reader’s introduction, but goes beyond it. In turn, to a greater or lesser extent all these essays have been reworked from their previous incarnations. At the end of the Gutenberg age, book production is frantic and the results are often obsolete before they hit the shelves; and yet, making a book still feels more definitive than publishing an article. Even if previous (online) versions may continue to circulate more freely than those published in book form, the latter matter. Things seem to be progressing very smoothly, apart from Luc Besson’s production company,  EuropaCorp, categorically refusing us permission to reproduce a still from Besson’s film Lucy. It was probably unwise to ask in the first place, but high-res images are otherwise hard to come by. As a negative image of our regime of intellectual property, this would almost deserve to be one of those empty “permission withheld”  non-illustrations that you see from time to time.

Image: Lucy (2014). Source.

Other Criteria: Wendelien van Oldenborgh, Zachary Formwalt

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On April 3, Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s book Amateur will be launched at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, with a screening of her films Bete & Deise and From Left to Night, aswell as a talk by David Dibosa. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend this launch myself.

Published by Sternberg Press with If I Can’t Dance, Amateur is the first major monograph on the artist. I contributed an introductory essay; there’s also an interview and many shorter but substantial pieces on individual works by a range of authors, including Eric de Bruyn, Tom Holert, Denise Ferreira da Silva and Grant Watson. The text pages alternate with horizontally cut pages with film still and various kinds of documentation; by browsing these half-pages, one makes a continuously changing montage. My text is titled “Production Notes” and deals with Wendelien’s work as consisting not just of a series of films, but as an engagement with film production; her cinematic practice involves the use of highly particular sets and stage of encounters and the creation of situations that can never be fully scripted, and provide material that is then edited into highly musical time-images, which in turn are often presented in spaces which in turn function as sets for the viewers.

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Timing and place of this launch are somewhat curious. The Stedelijk is a key actor in an ongoing effort to marginalize art practices such as Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s in favour of more object-based and collector-friendly practices such as that of Magali Reus or Saskia Noor van Imhoff. Neo-formalism, at times with a hint of half-remembered institutional critique taken through a post-internet blender: the perfect cocktail to serve at exclusive openings. I don’t mean to suggest that selling works to collectors is Bad, or that the work in question does not deserve to be shown, or that it is devoid of qualities. But which qualities, exactly, are these? And by which criteria are they perceived as qualities?

With the exception of the Van Abbemuseum, Wendelien van Oldenborgh has depended on smaller institutions for contemporary art, in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Though the Stedelijk now supposedly “shares” the piece Maurits Script from the Van Abbe’s collection, it passed on the opportunity to purchase Après la reprise via the Municipal Art Acquisitions (Gemeenteaankopen), and ultimately only acquired La Javanaise, which was produced for the Hollandaise exhibition in the Stedelijk’s semi-autonomous project space Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam,— which is one of the aforementioned small institutions that have sustained Van Oldenborgh’s work. This summer the Stedelijk will close down SMBA for good. The museum has announced that SMBA is to be replaced by a vaguely defined successor, which will probably enforce the unilaterally imposed New Normality even more stringently. It is doubtful whether something the current exhibition at SMBA—the brilliant, Vivian Ziherl-curated BELL invites—would be allowed in this future space, if it ever materializes. Preventing such exhibitions seems to be the whole point of this exercise. Meenwhile De Appel, a venerable art space that has recently imploded in a spectacular manner, and that is being held hostage by a disastrous board that refuses to step down, seems to have become another Stedelijk minion.

Zachary Formwalt is another Holland-based artists who, while certainly profiting from the artistic infrastructure and arts funding mechanisms that are still in place, has never been given the extent of institutional support and industrial-scale hype that is now bestowed on the likes of Reus or Van Imhoff. SMBA was particularly important for the development of his practice, and hence the project space acts as co-publisher of Formwalt’s recent book Three Exchanges. I did not contribute to this publication, but I can recommend it. Eric de Bruyn and Joshua Simon provided insightful essays—and Zachary and the designer have developed rather successful strategies for transposing each of the three videos into print. While the EYE museum is currently showing one of his older works in a roundup of “young film and video art from the Netherlands” that is cringeworthy even by its own low standards, it is to be hoped that less dysfunctional institutions will actually enable him, and others, to continue to do meaningful work.

When Stedelijk director Beatrix Ruf proclaims that Magali Reus is an important artist and that “every important Dutch artist must get an exhibition at the Stedelijk,” this suggests that there is a certain degree of consensus about who counts as an important Dutch artist, or an important artists working in Holland, or indeed about what matters in art today. In fact, there is no such consensus. To make up for this lack, a concerted effort is made to impose a hegemonic view of art and culture through repetition. In the resulting New Normality, it will be clear to all what good art is and where it belongs.

This goes beyond the Stedelijk picking artist X over artist Y; it has to do with fundamental considerations concerning the type of subjectivity, practice and collaboration that are desired. In the context of her plea for the “devaluing” financialized contemporary art, Andrea Phillips has argued that “the process of educating artists to aspire to forms of autonomous individuality – in procedures that mark their artworks apart from others – would need to be dismantled. There are many important ways in which artistic skills can be used in different ways to develop projects that do not necessitate individualized value as a form of capital expansion, but at the same time artists need to be able to eat.”

Whether one agrees with her in every respect or not, under present circumstances it is difficult to even begin to have this conversation. Because of course we all know that the Stedelijk will always show Important Art.

Edit: A Dutch translation (by Vincent van Velsen) of a slightly reworked version of the above text has now been published online by Platform BK under the rite “Belangrijke Kunst” (“Important Art”).. On this occasion I’ve made one or two corrections in the English version here.

Texte zur Kunst no. 101: Polarities

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Texte zur Kunst no. 101 is dedicated to Polarities –  “a term we associate with what’s unfolding around us right now: ideological polarization, from Pegida to Donald Trump.” With the elections in three German states on March 13 bringing victories for the AfD (the German equivalent of the Front National or Geert Wilders’s PVV, with ties to the racist Pegida movement), this issue is certainly timely.

While my short essay on the German Kulturgutschutzgesetz, “National Customs,” is not part this thematic section, it connects rather well. Intriguingly, the bridge between the Polarities section and my text is a picture sequence by Gerhard Richter, consisting of photos of Ulrike Meinhof. Richter’s intervention in the Kulturgutschutzgesetz debate gets a slightly curt mention in my text, but I have a longstanding interest in his work – which was in fact a key factor in stimulating me to study art history in the first place -, and I could not be more pleased with this constellation.

“National Customs” was originally posted online in English; the print version, which is in German, has been updated in one or two passages, and the online version has now been adjusted as well.

Common Conflict

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We’re beginning to wrap up the Commonist Aesthetics series in Open! with a “virtual roundtable” called Common Conflict; the introduction and the first three contributions are up now. More to follow. On March 17 there will be a public forum at Casco, and a book will hopefully see the light of day this autumn.

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