DIY Culture Industry: Signifying Practices, Social Networks and Other Instrumentalizations of Everyday Art

Afterthoughts on D.I.Y. Abstraction

Nobody asks what I think about art anymore. That’s okay, because it’s not a very interesting question (I’ll explain why in a minute). Still, if I were asked I’d probably mention two things. Both are related to labor. Number one: it used to be assumed that, with artistic as well as other types of labor practices, a much more one-to-one relation existed between skill and task—that is, between what an artist or other worker has the capacity to do and what their doing actually produces. A pipe fitter fits pipes, a painter makes paintings. Today, this skill-task correspondence has begun to unravel. In our on-demand, just-in-time world, employees of all stripes are assigned tasks that are myriad and that change moment to moment, context to context. Often approaches and solutions will be improvised well beyond the expectations of training and expertise. Paolo Virno has described this as a newly democratized form of virtuosity, defined less by mastery of one particular, rarified skill than by a general willingness to try one’s hand at all sorts of specialized tasks, whether one is qualified or not.(1)

This kind of virtuosity—or ambitiously dispersed amateurism—characterizes a lot of current post-studio practices, whereby artists abandon the studio, with its stable routines for perfecting technique, and instead search scavenger-like for ever-new sites and contingencies, “moving between roles” as they “swap one social or project-related setting for the next.”(2) There’s a short-term precariousness and insecurity, not to mention something like perpetual job training, that closely aligns such practices with today’s service-economy labor in general. But that doesn’t mean that, back in the studio, painters and sculptors remain immune. The conditions underlying labor’s shifting valuation extend to them as well. They too feel the pressure to become virtuosic; they can’t just make and exhibit objects but must also produce parties, magazines, clothing, dinners, graphic design, music, etc. The same goes for studio artists as for everyone else; your CV will look thin if you only list shows. Shows aren’t enough; you must also list residencies attended, blogs published, performances staged, shows curated. The more diverse the categories, the better.

So what I said before about painters making paintings was wrong. Perhaps they once did. For a while what they produced instead were shows—that is, at least since the ’60s exhibitions replaced the single work as the primary unit of meaning in art.(3) (“I’m working on my show” is what painters, like all other artists, would say.) But no longer are shows primary. Today artists, painters included, work on something larger and more amorphous. They orbit and sometimes even create worlds, some of which are art worlds. They hop between revolving scenes, juggle various professional identities, seek out and improvise ever-new situations and contexts for staging what can be recognized and evaluated by their peers as art, all squeezed into schedules already bloated with myriad non-art activity. If this is true of those lucky few who have Chelsea galleries, it’s even more true of the countless rest. In Brooklyn (but also in Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City, San Antonio, San Francisco and beyond) artists band into groups, ad-lib galleries, cobble together crowdsourced support for occasions where colleagues meet and stay informed, all to achieve the level of coherence necessary for internally reproducing things like professional status and recognition—that is, for running art worlds.(4) Such artists, painters included, have to devote as much attention to organizing as to object making. This is why I think it’s uninteresting to talk about art today. A much more compelling topic is all the social labor poured into creating and managing the many moments and contexts that make up today’s various art worlds and their entanglements with other worlds.

When the single artwork was primary, its context was often described diachronically—as moving from previous work toward future work, the resulting narrative gaining value by mirroring or internalizing the supposedly autonomous progression of art in general. When focus turned to exhibitions, art’s context became more synchronic; exhibitions were related to overlapping institutions, to an art system. But today both art’s time, its traditions, and its spaces, its institutions, have dispersed. This is my second point. Connectivity and circulation have perforated institutional enclosures like museums; here again exhibitions are superseded, made into mere excuses for all the newly prioritized social events and educational programming. And so it goes with art’s temporality. Today the moments of art pass by unbound and disarticulated, like pdfs previously sequenced as essays into magazines or mp3s that float free of their original albums. For example, when I want to look at what’s new in painting I’ll often search blogs, where entries are stacked with the most recent gallery or studio visit on top. A new canvas appears only to immediately get pushed down by the next entry and so on. Such blogs help filter out from the expanding ocean of artworld output a simple, manageable selection of high-value hits. And like search filters, they displace the need for criticism—there’s no point in assailing something for its shortcomings since not making it onto the blog already means being condemned to invisibility. But after a few weeks, perhaps only a few days, the same fate befalls the blog’s chosen few; with each new post they too sink further and further into the cold, dark depths of obscurity.

All this has relevance for the studio and the labor undertaken there. I’ve remarked on this elsewhere, when addressing the recent amateurish (or virtuosic?) trend in painting, what’s been labeled “Provisional Painting” by Raphael Rubenstein, “The New Casualism” by Sharon Butler and “Neo Modern” by David Geers.(5) My contribution to this debate was meant to nudge it toward labor concerns and away from questions about painting’s relation to subjectivity or history or criticality or the market, all of which I feel are increasingly beside the point. “What most recommends this kind of painting to a place of centrality,” I countered,

is its superior associations with the studio, that artisanal site of making and doing, rather than in the power of painting to induce certain modes of reception like immersion or opticality or critique…. [Painting] presents itself today as the best means to just simply make and do, as if with no other objective or end in sight, nothing other than the daily practice of painting, to borrow Gerhard Richter’s now famous line.

But there’s more. Laboring as if with no further end in sight significantly alters the experience of time in the studio. Artmaking grows more intransitive, becoming verb-heavy and noun-light: emphasis falls on each isolated act of “doing” rather than on any larger purpose or project to which all such activity might be devoted. Thus, only in each immediate instance does skill still correspond to task—i.e., this quantity of effort resulting in that particular thing made. Beyond that the two float free: more paintings get made today, yet “painting” as a common category and “painter” as a shared social identity continue to dissolve. “The studio and the making of paintings,” I continued,

no longer guarantees as it once did a determinant frame for an artist’s activity, a set of imposed meanings or metaphors that approximate or link the specific artistic act to the general, to something like tradition or history … something that transcends or feels more enduring than the moment to moment of simply doing…. The studio and the paintings made there become nothing more than an endless string of those moments, stretching out as if in an empty and indeterminant temporal span, one thing after another. Making paintings suddenly becomes just like how Bruce Nauman described the making of his more Duchampian art, an art that supposedly comes after painting: to paraphrase Nauman, painting today is just what an artist does, just filling time while sitting around the studio.(6)

But here again I was wrong. Or at least I should have added this important caveat: because the studio, too, has been perforated, and the time of art dispersed, what fills time in the studio now is not just an artist making art but myriad other identities and activities. Art must take a backseat to the more crucial task of creating its various conditions of existence, its contexts, visibilities and relations. Thus art today, painting included, may indeed be just what an artist does to fill the day, again following Nauman, but only when she or he can find spare time to actually make art and perform the role of the artist, rather than having to attend to the million other things that need to get done.

NOTES

1. Paolo Virno, “Virtuosity and Revolution: The Political Theory of Exodus,” in Radical Thought in Italy, eds. Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1996), 189-209. See also Shannon Jackson, “Just-In-Time: Performance and the Aesthetics of Precarity,” TDR: The Drama Review 56, no. 4 (Winter 2012): 10-31. As Susan J. Lambert writes (“When Flexibility Hurts,” New York Times, September 20, 2012: A27), “Availability is now a major form of human capital, in both high-powered salaried positions and low-level hourly jobs.”

2. James Meyer, “The Functional Site,” Documents 7 (Fall 1996): 24; James Meyer, “Das Schicksal der Avantgarde (The Fate of the Avant-Garde),” in Christian Kravagna, ed., Agenda: Perspektiven kritischer Kunst (Vienna: Folio, 2000), 82-84.

3. “The object has not become less important,” Robert Morris wrote in 1966. “It has merely become less self-important.” See his “Notes on Sculpture,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), 231. Thierry de Duve sets the date earlier with the 1959 debut of Frank Stella’s all-black paintings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which he says granted permission for artists “to think of work in terms of a ‘show’ and not of individual objects.” In Benjamin Buchloh et al., “Conceptual Art and the Reception of Duchamp,” October 70 (Autumn 1994): 129.

4. These are not necessarily art worlds centered around objects and the series of white cubes—studio, gallery, museum—dictating conformity in their production, distribution, and reception. Rather, they are part of an institutional art system that regulates and organizes the production and circulation of artists themselves and their discourse—that is, a system centered around MFA programs and their graduating of art subjects. See Howard Singerman, Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). It could be argued that the dealer-critic system that supplanted the art academies at the end of the 19th century is now itself in the midst of being superceded, which would force a reconsideration of the institution of art and who’s included in it. Indeed, a group of near 30 small to mid-sized artist organizations and organizers from around the U.S. have acted on their sense of mutual identification and shared purpose to take the lead in forming a new national organization called Common Field. For information go to http://commonfield.org/ and http://handingloveconference.tumblr.com.

5. Raphael Rubinstein, “Provisional Painting,” Art in America 97, no. 5 (May 2009): 122-135; Sharon Butler, “The New Casualists,” The Brooklyn Rail (June 2011); David Geers, “Neo-Modern,” October 139 (Winter 2012): 9–14. This trend shouldn’t be confused with the slightly different, more recent investor-friendly genre of painting christened “Zombie Formalism” (Walter Robinson, Artspace, April 2014), “Crapstraction” (Jarrett Earnest, SFAQ, Summer 2014) and “The New Opportunism” (Christian Viveros-Fauné, Village Voice, June 2014).

6. Lane Relyea, “D.I.Y. Abstraction,” WOW HUH (Fall 2012): http://wowhuh.com.

3 Responses

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  1. phyllis bramson said, on July 11, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    I just reread this article, so clear and astute. Written in 2012, it still applies to a painters life… maybe even plight even today!

  2. Miklos Legrady said, on November 24, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Art administration and academic discipline have stifled the arts till the poor thing is nearly dead. Will art perish? Can we finally dispense with it and be just… you know… smart? Ten years ago I wrote that reality checks were missing in the local and international art community and echoed Lane Relyea’s observation of the international homogeneity of the art object, the same kind of work being shown in Europe or Asia or India. Except I thought that was dreadful, boring, that can’t be art.

    A great experiment was made to strip the art object of fetishistic and plebeian values like aesthetics or sensory or subconscious triggers. My instincts said that since these were the interface by which art works, negating them leaves a vacuum. And so it comes to pass that 10 years later many writers concur with Lane Relyea when he says art is boring.

    My response is that the intellectual movement has throttled the definition of art according to an intellectual bias; art became the illustration to a theory, a thesis, a publication. Then Lane turns to us and says that art is only an illustration, it’s the text that’s important. Of course, he’s a writer… hello? The artwork itself is the locus of a social network; the work exists to set a stage for the interaction of marketing and making a career. In plain English, the object art is now defined by writers as an illustration to their field and a superficial excuse to party.

    Academics defined the system, and since artists could not think that well, they let the administrators become their masters; an emphasis on the intellectual function in art is reductionist since art includes the intellect along with sensations and feelings and emotions and intuition.

    Carl Jung noted four kinds mental functions that gave rise to four kinds of people, depending on your primary function. Sensations inform, the intellect classifies, feelings judge, and the intuition is a wild card. In the arts the hypertrophy of the intellect is documented by Sontag in “Against Interpretation”.

    And now I question myself once more, should I be writing this and disturbing public opinion then I remember all the boring shows, so yes, this is a valid criticism and a call for some reflection on what kind of a future we want, art we want to live with, world to live in. For example, I would not want a Richard Serra on my front lawn.

  3. […] and influence that Chicago-based critic Lane Relyea traces in today’s precarious art world. In a follow-up essay to his 2013 book “Your Everyday Art World,” Relyea observes that the most salient […]


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