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Art in The Post-Consumer World: A Case for Exceptionalism?

I don’t know what a “post-crisis art” would look like. I’m more inclined to engage with others—as I’ve done most recently in the context of the Occupy movement—in simultaneously imagining and constructing the conditions under which a post-capitalist art may or may not be produced. I wonder if it is either necessary or responsible in this post-capitalist, post-consumerist world we envision, to consent to or provide a space for the generation of art that consists of matter.
Some thoughtful and innovative work is taking place here in New York, work that confronts both the destructive decline of capitalism and the global environmental crisis. Artists are not only “repurposing” objects—the un-readymade as a critique of the thorough commodification of the art object, including the valorization of the found object—but, in the vein of planned obsolescence, they are repudiating the consumerist demand for material artifacts of the aesthetic experience. Impermanence and ephemerality are considered compulsory characteristics of any artistic project. Certainly numerous artists have ventured there before, but now, in the context of a global crisis of capitalism (and I’m going with David Harvey’s assertion of the inevitability of such crises, which will become progressively more catastrophic), it seems vital that we have this conversation about exceptionalism and art. The fetishization of the art object has seemingly rendered it immune from consideration in the larger discourse on the environmental crisis, which should probably demand that nothing extraneous is produced or at least nothing is wasted. This certainly leaves space for the ongoing production of, for instance, new media, conceptual, and performance art.

But doesn’t a post-capitalist (and post-identarian) art also demand an entirely new paradigm in which artistic production takes place outside of the conventional, neo-liberal model of consensus? I appreciate what Massimo de Angelis has to say about the possibility of contesting some of the “boundless expansion” and enforcement of “social conflict” necessary to the success of capitalism by creating a “commons” counter to the one on which neo-liberalism relies. In essence, as de Angelis explains, the capitalist system needs to enclose. It is our task to create a commons that is not merely a physical space but a symbolic one where commonality supercedes heterogeneity and exerts a counterpower, where we create an interdependence that nurtures rather than engenders dependence or neglect.

It is within this commons that we celebrate diversity at the same time that we explore “being-in-common,” as Marion von Osten puts it. Significantly, it is as much performative as it is an actual or theoretical space where art may (or may not) be produced. Returning to the question of what a post-capitalist, anti-commodity art might look like, I want to acknowledge that we probably cannot fully anticipate it. However, I do contend––and creative experiments of Occupy have demonstrated this––that we can imagine it into becoming in a way that has the potential to establish new terms for artistic production. Through creative direct action—the employment of the arts for multiple aims, not merely political or socio-critical ones—we have endeavored to, as von Osten puts it, “decenter and decolonize the common production of knowledge,” including our capitalism-infused preconceptions about art and aesthetics.

Would this new paradigm exclude the production of art objects? Will we restore the beautiful and the sacred to art? Will we revisit the pre-Raphaelite exaltation of craft beyond the boundaries of an art market, perhaps in the context of mutual aid? In this imagined, post-capitalist commons, will art, whatever the medium, attend to notions of community and, as a friend suggests, return to a consideration of natural milestones like birth, puberty, and death? Will there be, he adds, “less pressure to depict universals or maintain a strict pressure to be avant-garde since there wouldn’t be an art market based on speculation/novelty?” I don’t know.

I think, however, of what must surely be relinquished. Michel Houellebecq’s last great painter of the last object scenario comes to mind: the photographer-turned-figure-painter has exhaustively catalogued every imaginable object and has turned to painting, this activity culminating in his rendering in expensive oil paints of the last object: the producer of the objects/commodities. It isn’t merely the painting to end all paintings: it is the swansong of capitalist art.


Debra Thimmesch

DEBRA THIMMESCH did her graduate work in the history of art at the University of Kansas. A New York City resident for the past three years, she became involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement in late September 2011.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2013

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