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James Bradburne
Franziska Nori
Piroschka Dossi
Pier Luigi Sacco
Wolfgang Ullrich
Julian Stallabrass
Boris Groys



The Artist as Consumer

It is a long time since consumption became the new leading ideology of our society. Belief in production, which was characteristic of early industrial capitalism, no longer exists. Since the demise of the Soviet style of socialism at the latest, it has become clear that the society, which devotes itself to the aim of a forced development of the means of production at the expense of personal consumption, thereby ruins its economy. The historic conflict between the ideals of work asceticism and consumption was not resolved through ethical reflection but through economic rationality: contrary to the opinion of many sociologists and economic theorists, orientation towards decadent consumption proved itself to be economically more effective when compared with the protestant work ethic. That is to say that production does not make headway if there is a lack of demand. Thus today it is not production but consumption, which is considered to be the citizen‘s primary duty. In times of crisis and of war modern politicians no longer demand that one should be thrifty and tighten one‘s belt still further, but, on the contrary, that one should buy more so that the economy can keep running. Consequently, labouring under social pressure, modern man finds himself under an almost inescapable compulsion to consume.

Now, however, one asks oneself what position art occupies in this current situation, which is characterised by the granting of a social licence to consumption. At first glance art is thereby put in a difficult position, for the artist is regarded primarily as a producer, who, through his handiwork, serves the art market, which in its turn represents a part of the general commodity market. Seen in this perspective the position of the artist does not seem particularly advantageous in two respects. On the one hand the individual artist, under mass consumption conditions, cannot compete with fashion, advertising or commercial design – his production thereby seems condemned to go under in the visual world of the present-day mass culture. Above all, however, because of the general denigration of production, the artist appears to lose his traditional esteem as a paradigmatic, creative or even genial producer. In the modernity, artistic creativity was regarded namely as the embodiment of true, authentic, genuine human production, which was contrasted with alienated work as a positive ideal, which the majority of the population shared. Since then this ideal has not only been socially devalued by the revaluation of consumption but its basic theoretical presuppositions have also been questioned. The structuralistic-post-structuralistic discourse has, as is known, thematized the death of the author, by which is meant that the artist is incapable of bringing new, authentic, original insights and forms into the world: every artist is, therefore, primarily a user, if one likes, a consumer of the medium, in which he works – and for that reason can produce nothing other than that which this medium, be it language or visual images, allows him to produce. The artist has thereby finally been robbed of his cultural mission – and subjected to the logic of general social consumption.

Such an opinion – incidentally rather widespread – overlooks, however, the fact that the social rôle of the artist has undergone a far-reaching change during recent decades. From being a exemplary producer the artist has become, as it were, a exemplary consumer. Above all within the framework of installation art as well as in the new media section, the artist works, as it were, equally both with self-produced as well as with externally-produced objects. The act of art production has itself become an act of shopping. The artist draws, as it were, on pictures and objects from the mass culture, in which he lives, and changes them for the creation of his own space – just as every consumer does. Only the artist does it in an exhibition room – and thereby in an ostentatious and exemplary manner. Certainly since Duchamp and at the latest since Pop Art the artist no longer regards himself as a producer but much rather as an exclusive consumer of anonymously produced things that are permanently circulating in our cultural networks. No artist will today claim that he is the source of his work or that he originally produces meanings or forms. Nowadays art no longer stands at the source of artistic work but at its end. The signature of an artist no longer means that the artist has produced a specific object, but that he has made use of this object – and done so in a particularly interesting manner. If he is successful the artist thereby demonstrates, of course, his ability to recapture his claim to authorship in that he uses the serial, anonymous, impersonal production of images and things so that this use is recognised by society as a proof of his authorship. It is not by chance that the contemporary artist no longer wishes to be creative, but critical. The critical attitude, however, is not a characteristic one for the producer but solely for the consumer. The producer does not criticise – rather does he offer his production to the critical judgement of the consumer, who enjoys the privilege of testing and assessing the offering to hand. Therefore, the fact that promoted modern art does not wish to be creative, but critical, thereby shows clearly enough the complete reversal of the artist‘s rôle from producer to consumer, which has taken place in the meantime.

In this it is particularly interesting to note, and for the ideological mechanism of modern society outspokenly characteristic, that the theoretical criticism of the concept of creativity initially followed a completely different political pattern than the one of making a consumer out of the artist. The criticism of the gilding of art production initially had the aim of de-throning the artist and placing him on a par with other modern producers. The famous demand made of art by the historic avantgarde that it should reveal its technical processes and surrender the concept of genius, initially had as its sole aim the attainment of parity between the artist and the industrial worker. In the twentieth century art production was formalised, subjected to technical rules and de-personalised to such an extent by the avantgarde (from Malewitsch and Mondrian via Albers and Sol LeWitt to Buren, to mention only the painters) that all traces of the physical presence of the artist in the work of art were intentionally expunged, so that this work began more and more to resemble the industrial product. Parallel to this were developed readymade techniques as well as different variations of media art, which have almost completely eradicated the traces of the physical presence of the artist in his work.

Now, however, the cleansing of art from any reference to physically performed work has, in the final analysis, in no way placed the artist on a par with the industrial worker. Quite the opposite – the artist has as a result radically distanced himself from all kinds of production and instead has placed himself much closer to the administration, planning and management – and finally close to consumption. The artist‘s gaze has become “disembodied” – it has become a consuming gaze, which does not “work”, but only criticises, assesses, decides, selects and combines. And for that reason this gaze can also always be “re-embodied”: as often as anyone has the desire to reconstruct the choices, which the artist has taken through his gaze. This change shows up particularly clearly in the altered position of the artist in the temporal economy of gaze. The immense investment in work, time and effort, which were necessary for the creation of a traditional work of art, was namely irritatingly disproportionate to the conditions of art consumption, for, after the artist had had to work hard at his work for a long period, the beholder was able to consume this work effortlessly and at a single glance. This gave rise to the traditional superiority of the consumer, of the beholder, of the collector over the artist-painter as a supplier of pictures, which he had to produce in wearisome, physical toil. As photograph, as video artist or as readymade collector the present-day artist, however, places himself on the same level as the art collector with regard to expenditure of time and effort.

In a corresponding manner the museums and other art collections nowadays do not function as places, in which the uniqueness of the historical art heritage is represented, but as archives, in which various strategies of gaze are archived, which may be borrowed from these archives and re-used at any time. One can hardly consume, in the traditional sense, the installations of the kind created by artists nowadays – as previously one could purchase a painting or sculpture and bring it home. Installations, in which new media are used, can frequently not even be consumable mentally, for the video material is simply too extensive to be able to be viewed in its entirety during the time that a normal visit to an exhibition lasts. This clearly shows that art making became an act of consumption and not of production. The visitor is certainly allowed to view the art – but he is not its real consumer. Instead he takes as his model a specific type of consumption, which the artist demonstrates in his exhibition, in the same way that in former times one took the aristocratic lifestyle as a model. The present-day art consumer no longer consumes the artist‘s work. Instead he invests his own energy in consuming like an artist.

In doing so it is not only a question of an individual take-over of single items from the repertoire of the present-day mass culture, in the sense of the readymade technique, which meanwhile has become widely established. The artist is increasingly taking over not only objects from the outside world but also various social rôles. The artist has often appeared as preacher, prophet, teacher, revolutionary, seducer, or entertainer. He is now also appearing as social and institutional critic, as ethnologist, sociologist, curator, art critic or even as terrorist. The further the development of art proceeds, the more roles the artist assumes, whereby this assumption is made increasingly explicit. The artists prepare food for the exhibition visitors, fit them up with new hairdressers, wash their feet or sell them small souvenirs. The assumption of non-artistic rôles by artists, however, also takes place outside the rooms specially provided for artistic purposes – even if excursions, readings and political events are organised, which get involved in urban space and intervene in everyday life. This assumption of different social rôles by individual artists really equates with a “consumption” of these roles. Here work itself becomes an item of consumption - and above all just like alienated, reproductive work.

The positioning of art described here is, by the way, not all that new: the works of art from the old, pre-modern periods, which we see collected and exhibited in our museums, are similarly not kept there because they derive from the creativity of famous producers – for in those ancient times the artists were regarded as tradesmen and servants and for the most part remain unknown – but because these works of art were formerly used by the aristocracy in their palaces or by clergy during sacred ceremonies. It was, therefore, not the origin in the sense of a paternity on the part of the producer, but a specific – aristocratic or sacred – usage, which originally ennobled these things and made them into works of art. Historically such an aristocratic usage of things has always been of central significance for the whole culture – and for the whole economy – for every economy eventually ends up in a dead end, if it exclusively orientates itself on the profane needs of the people. The so-called “natural” human needs are, namely, extremely limited – and very easy to satisfy. A developed economy can then only climb higher if it exceeds the natural needs of the people, if the consumer consistently replaces his natural needs with artificial, freely-invented desires – if he begins to strive after the unnecessary, the superfluous, the luxurious.

In former times it was the aristocracy‘s social function to promote innovative and at the same time exemplary consumption and continually to discover new, artificial, exquisite needs, towards which production could orientate itself. The traditional artist-craftsman merely satisfied these aristocratic, artificial desires through his production. And in this sense his efforts were secondary, although he thereby functioned as producer of his works. Almost immediately after the abolition of the traditional place of the aristocracy as a result of the French Revolution, the middle classes understood that the expansion of the economy to the masses and the fulfilment of their natural needs, which Jean-Jacques Rousseau had preached in his time, is not sufficient for the development of the modern economy. Imitation of the lifestyle of the fallen aristocracy began directly after the French Revolution, in which, from the start, the artists clearly played a leading rôle. The poets and artists of the romantic period already developed a cult of extravagance, of luxury, of the refined, exclusive life, of the unusual taste. Different variations of dandyism and decadence followed, all of which pursued the aim of continually developing new forms of the unnatural, “sick”, fictitious lifestyle. The artist became the modern economy‘s special envoy for seeking out and developing new consumption desires, which include, incidentally, the desire for simplicity, directness and asceticism.

While in this way the artist assumes the position of the pure beholder, of the exemplary consumer, he compensates for the deepest trauma of modern times, namely the loss of the aristocracy. Nowadays one visits a major exhibition or installation in the same way that one previously visited an aristocratic palace – which, as has been mentioned, has now also become technically possible to rebuild. As a flaneur with the sovereign gaze the artist of today is that permanent consumer, whose innovative, “unnatural”, purely artificial consumption behaviour represents the objective of every well-functioning economy. Art thereby becomes the open horizon, the last frontier, the avantgarde of the modern economy. Present-day art shows that one can make everything into an object of desire if the artist redefines desire and gives it a new direction. In his article “Der Begriff des Politischen” (“The Concept of the Political”) (1932) Carl Schmitt already noted, with reference to the Early Romantics: “The way from the metaphysical and moral to the economic passes via the aesthetic and the way via the still so sublime, aesthetic consumption and enjoyment is the safest and most comfortable way to economising spiritual life”. (1) In modern times the artistic avantgarde functions as economic avantgarde or, if one wishes, as pseudo-aristocracy of a society organised on the basis of the economy – as an “artificial” aristocracy, the social function of which consists in pushing ever further the boundaries of what is desirable.

Now, however, one can say – and in fact says it very frequently – that art can play no leading, innovative rôle in consumption, because the innovation in art is itself dictated by the market. This equating of innovation in art with the change in fashion, which governs the commercial mass culture, is, however, as equally widespread as it is questionable. There is namely an important difference between art and commercial mass culture: art has at its disposal an archive – and mass culture does not. This difference between art and mass culture becomes clear immediately if one asks oneself the question as to how a historical diagnosis can be practised in both sectors, which will allow a distinction to be made between the new and the old. And in fact, in order for such a distinction to be drawn, one needs an historic archive, by means of which various periods in time including the present can be compared. Only when such a comparison is made can the specifically new of the present be distinguished from the old. And since the individual person is obviousely incapable of such a general historical overview we are directed to the archives of our culture in order to carry out such a historical diagnosis. If in so doing we turn to the art sector, then one must ascertain that it is the archive of valorised artistic tradition – as represented in the museum collections, the books on the history of art and practical artistic instruction – which not only makes such a diagnosis possible, but also demands that it is done.

Artistically obsolete for us, therefore, is not merely something, which belongs to the past. Instead that art presents itself to us as obsolete, which is in fact being made today, but looks like the art, with which we are already familiar from our art archives. And we consider that art to be new, which does not resemble the art, which we preserve in our archives. Basically it is precisely the art archive, which drives us on always to do something new, instead of repeating the past for, in view of the lasting presence of the art archive, such a repetition seems to be a superfluous imitation of what is already extant. Incidentally, if this archive did not exist and the old art, instead of being preserved, were regularly to be destroyed, there would be no reason to produce anything new. One could then without more ado continuously produce the same art – since it could not be compared with the old art, it would always appear to be new. Furthermore, in that case one could not make any comparison between new and old and for that reason could also not make any appropriate distinction.

This is precisely the way, however, in which present-day fashion, advertising and commercial design function. Since the old stock is regularly removed from the boutiques and supermarkets these sectors of the industry have a short memory. Therefore with them the introduction of the new, functions, if at all, primarily as a revival, though one cannot say instantly to what extent such a revival corresponds with the historical model. In order to be able to do that one must create a special fashion archive, which, however, for a normal customer would be largely irrelevant. The market, therefore, does not dictate innovation, as is often assumed. Rather the market operates in a zone of indistinguishability between new and old. The mass consumer consumes what pleases him – in so doing he does not have available a clear criterion of the distinction between old and new.

(1) Carl Schmitt: Der Begriff des Politischen, Berlin 1963, p. 83



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