Book: Art Power
MIT Press, 2008
by Eric Zimmerman
How will history look back at the past decade or so of contemporary art production? It seems inevitable that exhaustive pluralism and the once mighty market will play some role in the report, as the increasing forces of capitalism and radical secularization continue to march their way around the globe. Pluralism renders everything relative, making judgment impossible and, as Boris Groys argues in his latest book of essays Art Power, making discourse “ultimately futile.” “This fact alone,” he claims, “is enough to put the dogma of pluralism in question.”
Art Power is a diverse collection of essays that span a wide range of topics from curatorship and criticism to social realist and cultural studies. Nonetheless, Groys allows a few central themes to thread through the topically diverse texts. “On the Curatorship” tackles the rising role of the curator in contemporary art and the iconoclastic strategies that he claims lies at the heart of what it means to curate, or to use the authors word, “abuse” art objects. “The curator,” he writes, “is an agent of art’s profanation, its secularization, its abuse.” Placing the curator in direct league with the art market, Groys deftly connects the curator’s interdependence with or codependence on the market, to the abuse of images and the preservation of the dominant iconophilia. Placing contemporary art within the context of urbanism, Post-communism, new technologies, and the Modernist revolution, Groys skillfully develops this concept of modern and contemporary art production as a form of iconoclasm throughout the book.
Grappling with art criticism, he proclaims that critics might instead be called “art commentators,” as they effectively prepare “protective text-clothes” for works of art. Echoing the ideas of James Elkins in his 2003 text, What Happened To Art Criticism? Groys admits that art criticism is perhaps, from the start, “texts that are not necessarily written to be read,” “…at once indispensable and superfluous.” The line between artist and critic has disappeared, he concludes, and the increasingly blurry lines between artists, critics and curators are headed in the same direction. The result of the former for arts writers is a freedom unmatched by writers in any other field: freedom to pair personal narratives with scholarly knowledge, while combining multiple theories and stylistic devices within the same text.
For Groys, art is inseparable from the engines that drive it, be they economic, political, or cultural. Art is powerful and always political, as it exists in a world that is becoming increasingly visual. Our pluralist contemporary art world is a product of our capitalist economic system; a world in which difference and paradox is celebrated, often at the expense of discourse and judgment. This call for renewed discourse and decisive judgment is refreshing and vital, especially as we move forward and begin to ask the questions about what it means to make, exhibit, and write about visual art in contemporary culture. If, as Groys suggests, every thesis is continually met by its anti-thesis, than the groundwork for such questions still remains uncertain, but his willingness to make engaging arguments and judgments himself is a step towards finding more stable platforms for discourse.
Eric Zimmerman is an artist living and working in Austin.