Image by: Donnie Fredericks
Kardashian, Kim (@KimKardashian). “SMH means shaking my head” 17 Aug 2009, 6:07 p.m. Tweet.
According to The Guardian, the term neoliberalism was coined in 1930. From that moment it took over seventy years for Lana Del Rey to announce her “pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola (™).” Because we live in a society, many social changes occurred between 1930 and 2012 but the most pervasive and flattening change was the rise of neoliberalism. We created a multi-headed beast hell-bent on destroying the poor, the arts, and everything else I hold dear. Neoliberalism represents a global change in thinking that has affected everything, even and maybe especially the art world, despite what many people may believe. When economist Friedrich Hayek first posed the idea he thought he was solving the problem of objective knowledge, his fundamental assertion was that truth could be derived absolutely from the marketplace. In essence, neoliberalism is the idea that competition is the only meaningful way to regulate society, SMH.
When market value is the only objective truth; other values — ontological, sentimental, moral, logical values all fall into the realm of subjectivity, which we know to be relative and thereby open to debate, scrutiny, and devaluation. Because every consumer is entitled to an opinion —even when it comes to life-saving vaccinations, opinions are in high supply and low demand, so they are worthless —that’s my theory at least. The notion of individuality is expressed through product consumptions. This is a reality that I’ve often tried to rebuke: for a few months I only bought fake fashion, which of course is an extension of art, this was a small attempt to devalue things of “real” value. My bank account was the only casualty of this experiment. It was a fruitless effort as I was still participating in the free market and still reinforcing the power of these brands through simulation and representation. Ethical consumption is a pipe dream. In this way, neoliberalism is constantly tricking me into buying things. I love my “Chanel” phone case. In the end, the most effective way to combat fast fashion and the idea of clothing as a disposable good can be offset slightly by shopping sparsely and only second-hand. Neoliberalism would prefer if you did not do that, thank you so much.
In 1989, Margaret Thatcher wrote a letter of thanks to Friedrich Hayek. She didn’t believe anything she or Ronald Reagan had accomplished “would have been possible without the values and beliefs [of Hayek] to set us on the right road and provide the right sense of direction.” What these monsters had accomplished was a massive deregulation of the market through the removal of unions and other fail-safes that protected the working class. Social norms, cultural values and many deeply embedded ideas of morality have been superseded by the market. Under the current system, anything that cannot be quantified cannot be true, anything not tied directly to a numerical value is merely fodder for the court of opinion. Neoliberalism makes the irrational rational.
The economy or marketplace derives significance from the exploitation of our planet’s mineral resources as well as from itself. Economic value is either violently extorted from the earth at the expense of poor and indigenous workers through the means of sweatshops, fracking, deforestation, factory farming, and so on, or value is completely arbitrary, like in the case of art auctions or beanie babies (see: Greater Fool Theory). Some scholars have posited that the economy is an artificial intelligence system based on a set of complex symbology that few humans have the knowledge or training to access. In this way our lives are dictated by a man-made system of intelligence that has no basis in truths except those that can be violently reduced to dollar values.
Corporations dominate the landscape of our lives, a cliche notion espoused and reinforced by the likes of Andy Warhol and more efficiently in recent years by Michael Pybus and even Lana Del Rey. When values are derived from a singular source they become easier for the rich to manipulate. Our bodies become physically entwined in the culture of corporations and our pussies taste like Pepsi Cola (™). It is like we are trapped in “The Matrix” but infinitely less cool.
On top of all these harsh realities, the value of art was nebulous and unregulated from the beginning. In the pre-modern era, most arts was of the religious ilk. Pieces in the canon could be judged together by “objective” standards —the quality of brushstrokes, use of perspective, palette and color theory, motion, theme, realism, among many other characteristics. These works were either considered successful or unsuccessful in their goal of glorifying God. Art continued to be primarily religious in theme until after the industrial revolution. In the early 20th century when Alexina Duchamp, her husband, and their cohorts pulled up to the scene it was time for these objective standards to take a seat. The goal of their collective, now known as the Dadaists, was to discredit the bourgeoisie and reject the aesthetics of capitalism. This was, of course, a noble goal. Their work often asked: how do you evaluate something that rejects systems of valuation? This question was answered for me in 1999 when a replica of the Dada movement’s most enduring piece “Fountain” sold at Sotheby’s for 1.7 million dollars. In 1999 a replica of an anti-bourgeoisie symbol sold for 1.7 million dollars. This value was derived from the marketplace, somehow. Basically, someone was willing to pay that much money. This is what neoliberalism does to art. This is why art sucks.
Whatever meaning an artist puts into their creation is robbed from the work by the indomitable force of the market. Aesthetics are not just everything, they are the only thing. On the consumer level we are robbing meaning from art on a daily basis, when we place the anti-capitalist Frida Kahlo on a tote bag that generates profits for corporations that exploit the earth and its workers or emblazon Keith Herring’s struggle against homophobia and HIV on a colorful t-shirt that homophobes and art lovers can all enjoy on an aesthetic level, with no desire for deeper knowledge or investigation. Art’s significance is no longer dependent on the creators or their merits, but rather the consumers and their willingness to pay money to be tangentially tied to a piece of art either through real or simulated ownership. Today, artists are only as good as their merchandise. I personally own a copy of Kim Kardashian’s debut photography compilation “Selfish” (hailed by Jerry Saltz as “something self-created, self-aware, and sincere, with its own essences and vulnerabilities”) as well as a miniature Koons balloon dog (pink), though I did break its nose off with a hammer so it would look like the Sphinx. Speaking of Jeff Koons’ sculptural pieces, they all have to do with breath which I find to be rather fascinating considering “The New” juxtaposed with the aforementioned iconic balloon dogs. But no one knows that and the people that do know typically hate him. Koons, who became a Wall Street commodity broker so that he could fund his first art show. It doesn’t seem like such a bad idea and I wanted to do it too but I guess I can’t because I’m not rich and white and tall. I saw you on Artforum, Jeff, you were wearing cool pants.
As a society, we cling to notions that pre-existed neoliberalism. We believe ourselves to live in a meritocracy. SMH, we are taught to believe that the wheat and chaff are separated by virtue of distinction, that works of value need only be created to be recognized by the marketplace. This is untrue of the condition we currently live in, though the notion harmfully persists. If we are to believe that value is always rewarded, then we are to believe that popular subjects are intrinsically valuable. The world tells us we should value Forever 21 over Manish Arora. Forever 21 doesn’t even bother to organize their stores. The art world tells us to value artists with prestige educations over the blue-collar artisans, Jeff Koons over Donnie Fredericks. The literary world tells us to value J.K Rowling over Octavia Butler. We are meant to believe that works can be judged only by the profits they make. The systems tell us true art exists within the all-encompassing profit machine.
When Lynn Warren became the first female curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in the 1980’s, no graduate programs for curatorial students existed. She had a bachelor’s degree from the School of the Art Institute. When I started working at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2015 it was necessary to have a bachelor’s degree to work in the coat check and a master’s degree to be an assistant to the curator. During the gap between Lynn Warren’s arrival at the MCA and my own, the price of higher education had septupled. Here is another instance of neoliberalism dicking me over. Art school was and is a sophisticated gatekeeping method designed to take art away from the blue-collar innovators and artists who historically populate the canon of great works and hand it over to people of means and privilege.
Now in addition to art collecting, art-making has become the realm of the elite. Artists who are not taught to engage with the canon, who do not have professional relationships with working artists and curators, do not have sizable financial backing or grant writing abilities, and most importantly, do not possess a degree from a prestigious school are deliberately excluded from engaging in the art world in any deep meaningful way. These people can have a tote bag if they know their place.
Lynn Warren curated the MCA’s latest Surrealism exhibit, it was populated by pieces owned by the MCA as well as MCA board members and local collectors. She led a staff tour of the exhibit during which she talked about each piece in terms of its monetary value. She said the Neeson family were big patrons of Magritte and the MCA’s own Jeff Koons bronze lifeboat originally sold for $25,000. At one point someone paid $25k to be really in on this inside joke: all bronze statues are hollow, so casting a hollow object out of bronze is actually a funny and infinitely expensive gag. During the tour, Warren mentioned nothing of the artists themselves and none of my coworkers seemed perplexed by this. I was startled if not impressed by the lack of pretense. She didn’t shy away from the fact that art exists to make rich people richer. It is a fact of her everyday life.
Sneaky rich people established the first Free port in 1888. For those not in the know, a Free port is a storage facility outside of any country’s jurisdiction and its purpose is to provide “the temporary exemption of taxes for an unlimited quantity of time.” Originally they were maybe meant to store grain, but grain goes bad after an unlimited quantity of time. Wild. Art, on the other hand, is typically dry and non-edible so it’s actually a pretty great thing to store in a Free port. It’s almost as if freeports were designed to house art. I say that because they allow for art to be stored and sold with anonymity and without tax. They are essentially the Cayman bank account of art. The Free port in Geneva, Switzerland is believed to house at least 10 billion dollars worth of art, gold, carpets, and other items. The one in Zurich is believed to be roughly around the same value. Unfortunately, it is likely that these numbers are gross underestimations. It has been observed that freeports can be used to corner the market and even bolster the value of burgeoning artists, as was the case with the early work of Damien Hirst bought by Charles Saatchi. The added bonus for collectors was that these pieces could exchange owners without ever leaving the Free port or being taxed a dime. Apparently, rich people really do not like to pay taxes.
Given that the art world is this shady and this wrapped up in capitalism and the free market — what is left to care about? Do people really enjoy standing in starkly lit white rooms looking at bronze lifeboats? Do people still cry when they see Mark Rothko’s “multiform”? It seems trite, knowing all that we know. I mean Christ, Rothko was part of a CIA conspiracy to prop up Modern American art in the culture war against the Soviet Union. No one actually cared about the way he layered the colors or his preoccupation with death. He was a toy.
I have spent the large majority of this essay being a defeatist, but that’s not what I am. Hating art is about hating what the aristocracy has made art into. It’s a rejection born out of bitterness. It’s born out of a resentment and an incongruence between what art could be and what it actually is. I really think it is up to creators to reclaim art for ourselves. It is important to value doodles, poems written by friends, and the little plasticine keychains my homie Julia makes at her house.
One time working at the MCA I saw a bird land on a two-point-one million dollar primary-colored Calder mobile —I wanted it to shit so bad. That bird was punk rock. I always have the urge to touch the artwork. To punch it like that brave man who punched the Monet. Many times I have watched children gather wide-eyed in large groups on the third floor to flap their arms in synchronicity to affect the position of the Calder mobile, that’s art. Another time in a grassy area in front of the museum I saw a pack of crows savaging a live rabbit, they first attacked its heels and ankles so the animal could not make an escape. One of our exhibits was a room full of meticulously laid out broken glass. After it closed, I got to see the preparators sweep it all up with push brooms. It only took a few minutes. Things moments of realness that interrupted the sanctified facade that museums try to incubate were more artful than many of the exhibitions I saw while working there.
Art is exchanged between friends, not collectors. It’s not plastered on white walls or on tote bags. It doesn’t evade taxes or fill the void in your lackluster personality. It’s not what they want it to be, it’s what I want it to be — because this is my essay. We can find value outside of the economy, it existed before and it never ceased to exist, people just ceased to give credence to it. We can trade art pieces with our friends. We can tell stories about the creation of each piece, attach an oral history to each piece — this is value! We can make art that educates people! Education is inherently valuable. One evening I was hanging around the museum after my shift had finished watching a performance piece by Jenny Kendler. She took the projections of future elephant death caused by ivory sales and converted that data into sheet music for a player piano. We sat together in a group of about thirty and listened to the atonal swan song of the elephants. The lights were dim and the sense of community was palpable. Jenny used her performance piece to educate and encourage direct action. As contemporary artists, we have to understand that art and activism are inseparable in our traumatic political climate. At a solo show at the University of Illinois in Chicago, I saw a collection of pieces by Christa Donna, who envisioned a world guided by feminine and maternal values, drawing parallels to the mostly feminine colonies of bees, while exploring plant communities and other eusocial colonies of bugs. Art is still so valuable for its ability to inspire and to imagine a better life. The minerals and material used to make work have value. We can show people that all material has vibrancy, that to separate humans from nature was a gross philosophical misstep that has led to centuries of increased disconnection with nature. We can use materials discarded by society and repurpose them into art thereby re-invigorating their value. It can be like JunkYard Wars only fundamentally opposed to wars. We can plant plants and rob banks and vandalize the Hobby Lobby (who smuggled five thousand and five hundred different pieces of art and artifacts out of Iraq). We can develop our own dialectic community in order to talk about our art in an agreed upon way. We can give trash a value outside of capitalism, a system which deems it worthless but produces metric tons each and every second, like Michelle Reader who has been making sculptures out of discarded toys and clock parts since 1997. We can learn to live off the trash. This is called Trash Magic and there is a whole manifesto you can read about it. We could abolish racial and class antagonism within the art world. Can we please put a drag queen in the Louvre? Preferably Alaska. Can we once again believe that maybe revolution through art is somehow attainable, as long as you refuse to play the game?
We could, potentially, create an economy of art that operates independently from money, if neoliberalism doesn’t swallow us whole first. I don’t know what value that would generate for us in a capitalist society. Maybe community is value enough. I don’t know what the next step after this would be, but wouldn’t it be great to have a value system outside of the economy? Too bad we all have to generate monetary value or else we will literally die so if someone wants to buy your art you should probably sell it to them. SMH, you should probably get a job at an ad agency.
Swezy, Zachary (@SolarisHilton). “art is just a trick to get people with mood disorders to participate in capitalism send tweet” 4 September 2017, 9:27 a.m. Tweet.
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