After After

So many things are ‘over’ now that all the post- and neo- prefixes are themselves suffering from fatigue. Even ‘after’ is so finished that it can’t be formulated with much more than ironic speculation on the downward spiral of exhaustion. Or so it seems if one looks at what is on display in the high-profile galleries and museum shows, alternative exhibition spaces, or in publications dedicated to critical writing.


Forms of fatigue show up as work that is derivative, second- and third-generation neo-conceptual, post-studio, dully didactical or pseudo-political. Someone copies Raymond Pettibon or Jason Rhoades or Tracey Emin and gets half a room in a museum show. Someone else imitates Richard Tuttle or Mona Hatoum and gets a write up about their radically innovative informalism. Third- or fourth-hand comments on media culture, identity politics, appropriation, ethnography, and institutional critique parade through galleries and exhibition halls. Even when not flagrantly careerist, much of the work is merely conformist, conceived within the terms of the academic formulae that replicate models of aesthetic activity whose roots track back to nineteenth-century aspirations for a now (regrettably) long-vanished socialist utopianism. The idea that the broken world could be fixed by fine art serving as the moral conscience of the culture and using a combination of intervention and provocation might be as ‘over’ as the tired recycling of formal and conceptual strategies from the inventory of contemporary art.


Thus the urgent need to conceptualise what comes after that state of ‘after’. We need to replace a nineteenth-century model (in which individual artists make rarefied objects and/or events to prod the sleeping populace into revolutionary action) with a systems-based approach based in nodal and networked conceptions of artist and work, and ecologies of resonance and dissidence. Only then will the ‘after’ of art be re-set within the terms of a vital new aesthetics.  

To sketch this model, let me present a few more thoughts on the state of exhaustion, some notes on exceptions to the malaise, and then the outlines of a shifted paradigm. Our current exhaustion is to some extent a consequence of excess supply. A substantial amount of mediocre work is produced and shown, much of it the result of the MFA industries. The schools teach and the students perform, networking into their first exhibits and debut publications. Desperately following the fashions of critical or formal trends, young artists strive to ‘position’ themselves, establish a ‘brand’, and win recognition that advances their value in the celebrity sweepstakes of fine art. By contrast, creative writing suffers from under-capitalisation, so the main prizes in the field are publication and academic jobs in creative writing programmes. The imprinted patterns are quickly replicated by students following the prevailing fashion. This characterisation is not a criticism of artists or writers trying to make a living. But there is a disparity between the rhetoric of opposition on which much of the creative work is pitched and the professional reality of complicity with the status quo in which it operates. Wonderful works still appear to view – new works, older works, variously unseen or previously unappreciated or striking in their vivid capacity to combine thought and form. Take a single example. In the summer of 2014, the Hammer Museum installed a Marcia Hafif piece in their vaulted gallery space. A display of monochrome canvases, it was a dramatic demonstration of the possibilities of formal languages to perform as rich cultural objects, full of perceptual, historical, and experiential resonance. The canvas groupings set up questions of equivalence and difference, calibrations so marked and measured they sustained dynamic absorption into their differential system of close tones of flat colour. This capacity to shake us out of habits of thought and animate our attention still confers distinct value on aesthetic activity. The value is suggested by the key term above, resonance. This is a means of refamiliarising or activating the inventory of individual and shared knowledge, memory, and experience according to which a work acquires its identity and value.


A modest, serious work like Hafif’s has no chance of competing for attention against the clamour attending the most conspicuous exhibition of American art this season: Jeff Koons’ retrospective at the Whitney Museum. The critical reception of this huge and hugely successful retrospective has been entertaining to watch. If any artist has troubled the comfortable terms of high academic criticism (and its mainstream shadow) in the decades since he first appeared on the scene, it is Koons, the ultimate opportunist. Those terms, which operate under the rubric of critique, were premised on the idea that the culture industry was always the enemy to be resisted or was only redeemable through mashups, intervention, or subversion. The discomfiture of the critical establishment at having to wrestle with the complete upheaval of its cherished attachment to this concept of critique is everywhere apparent in the scramble to find some language with which to save face in the face of the obvious: Koons’ success is the final revenge of the philistines from within, the art world triumph of the bad boy whose talent for marketing makes as clear a case for commerce as the heart of contemporary art as any artist could. 

By contrast, Marcel Duchamp was a philosopher of aesthetics and cultural production, Warhol an intuitively poetic documentarian of contemporary life. Both were modern artists whose creative talents generated a point of view in and through objects able to transact their viewers’ experience and reference frames, historical and present, in ways that shattered assumptions and common understandings. We could cite many others in the modern pantheon who understood the machinations of the art world – politics, economy, celebrity – and still made works that were remarkable for the impact, pleasure or provocation they produced (Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Robert Morris, to name just a few).


But Koons’ entire career has been a demonstration of the inadequacy of academic critical rhetoric to control commercial and popular success in the visual arts. Koons does not produce work of cultural critique. He is not condemning consumerism, not offering an alternative to the reifying force of commodities, and not suggesting a redistribution of wealth or power except insofar as it suits his interests. But long bracketed from serious consideration, or dismissed with snide asides, he is being reluctantly canonised, as Jed Perl’s skilful report in the New York Review of Books made evident. Perhaps only an equally large-scale exhibit of the late American kitsch icon Thomas Kinkade’s paintings would have created more fuss. But the class lines of fine art don’t permit such border crossings. The apparently sincere religiosity and divine illumination in Kinkade’s work are no match for the billboard-stadium-scale glare of Koons’ vulgar mega-wattage.


Some of Koons’ works are aesthetically appealing: ‘Rabbit’, ‘Puppy’, and various of the topiary pieces. They are interesting as objects and as transformations of popular culture. But Koons is really only fascinating as a phenomenon. His trajectory of success is a vivid and triumphal embodiment of a banality so without redemption and yet of such enormous scale that it calls into question all the sacred beliefs of a critically-committed art historical establishment. Shrugging, dismissive, annoyed by vapidity, money and attention-getting, the subscribers to critique – the notion that fine art must oppose mass culture and stand aside from the rest of culture industry – contort their rhetoric to accommodate Koons. In fact, his works and their success shatter a worldview in which fine art serves any critical function whatsoever. To characterise Koons’ work or attitude as a critique of commodity culture would be absurd. Koons’ triumph demonstrates the extent to which the paradigms of art historical academicism are at odds with the forces at work in the mainstream. The key terms of critique – resistance, ethnography, subversion – all touchstones of belief and valuation of art and art historical practice, are no defence against the tsunami of the culture industries.


Using Koons as an exemplar, it is easy to imagine that what is after ‘after’ is not a version of what has gone before, not an extension of the familiar terms, but that fine art might devolve (if it hasn’t already) into a high end product line: Prada, Tesla, Tiffany and Koons clones into perpetuity. Modernism’s definitive autonomy, its break from literary, religious, and mythic traditions, its freedom from patronage, its sense of superiority to industrial and mass production, its fault-lines of resistance and subversion, of successions of innovation and rebellion, of political stances and revolutionary rhetorics might all be finished. In that paradigm, the individual was the source of unique work, and fine art distinguished itself from mass and industrial production by its autographic identity. In the later twentieth century, when craft vanished and fabrication prevailed, fine art clung to conceptual premises as a mark of differentiation. What if what is coming to an end is not ‘art’ or ‘genius’ or even ‘individual talent,’ but the interior life and autonomous individual identity on which these were based? Is a seismic change in western culture occurring? The end of the age of the individual might be upon us, not merely of the expression of unique talent. But in this context, we might just focus on changing our understanding of what fine art is and how it functions.


So much of our critical apparatus is caught in a time warp, using conceptions of the cultural order formulated by Marx and Engels and passed through the work of the Frankfurt school and its followers (among others) to be used in the current times. Even the terms of simulacral, postmodern, relational or transactional art derive their DNA from the writings of Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Clement Greenberg and others. The political aspiration to social progress is laudable, but ineffectual in an era of citizens united and democratic processes dominated by SuperPacs. When politics becomes a gallery theme or compositional strategy, and aesthetics ceases to be a form of knowledge, subject, instead, to an instrumentalism that forecloses thought, then the aftermath of an old idea loses even its nostalgic appeal. Koons can’t be described in the terms of that paradigm. he is not a subversive or oppositional artist, but a symptomatic one. Koons’ success is the fully realised return of the long-repressed acknowledgment that fine art is a culture industry, even, perhaps, the quintessential one.


Before we give in to despair, we should keep in mind that the point is to envision an ‘after’ to this condition, a way to think beyond the exhaustion of fine art by reworking the critical paradigms by which it operates. Here my emphasis shifts away from cynical perversity towards affirmation. Let’s consider the recent retrospective of Sigmar Polke at MoMA and Tate Modern. I will suggest that he and his work are equally at odds with the concept of the artist as a figure practicing critique, albeit for different reasons. Thus we can move forward to a positive formulation of the concept of the artist, the art object, and of aesthetic work. 


A substantive artist, producer of compelling images, with a distinctive vision and way of framing that vision in an expressive and well-wrought series of works, Polke is the quintessentially nodal artist, a product of intersections in a network of social, artistic and graphic connections. In fact, Polke is the perfect figure on which to reformulate our concept of the artist, work, and production. His persona and personality thrived in the intersections of events and activities, private and public. His conception of work as the appropriation, recycling, re-circulation of ideas came from pop, Fluxus, pattern painting, and even situationism. The use of silkscreen, textiles, cartoon images, photographs, and mass cultural icons was already part of the inventory of available techniques at the moment he began to juggle their use in a skilful sleight of combinatory invention. The aesthetic value of Polke’s imagery depends on consensual knowledge and, again, resonance.


What makes Polke remarkable is the way he embodies the principles of that nodally networked artist. To write about Polke, to describe his projects, to do justice to a formal and critical analysis of his work, requires situating him within that active field of associations to which he is linked. He is a linkage apparatus, not an individual talent. Nothing derives, sui generis, from his conceptual practice, or graphical vocabulary. Quite the contrary: the brilliance, the strength and genius of his work is its play of connections and with connections. The thought experiment of rethinking fine art as a fully social practice finds its demonstration model in Polke, but that is not the way he has been treated. Instead, we are presented by the same formulaic production of the resistant, the oppositional, the critical individual. What has happened to the postmodern recognition of the systemic conditions of subject production, and how do we bring them back into the foreground of critical writing? artists do not create themselves out of whole cloth (the antiquarian character of the metaphor is deliberate), but, rather, are configured within the vectors and processes of systems of which they are an integral part. They are nodes in the network, part of a living tissue of social exchanges.


We jettisoned the idea of originality a long time ago. But, oddly, we remain attached to the concept of the individual talent. The phrase ‘unoriginal genius,’ coined by Marjorie Perloff to apply to the work of a range of strikingly innovative literary works, by Kenneth Goldsmith and others, makes clear how far these overthrowings of any trace of old Romantic artistic practice have gone. Interior life, lyrical expression, inspiration and creativity, doors of perception and thresholds of sensation, love, life, emotion, insight, and above all, epiphanic moments – all (mercifully in many cases) gone. But the concept of the individual remains intact, in spite of structuralist and post-structuralist attempts to deconstruct the artist, the author, and the work.


If our concept of the fully-individualised artist needs rethinking through a social, nodal model, so does the notion of the aesthetic object or event. How do we understand the rarified objects of production? The longstanding attachment to the difference between fine art objects and mass culture ones was based on a belief in the distinction conferred by context, as well as inherent properties. This was as true in the nineteenth century, when a pears soap advertisement caused controversy by using John Everett Millais’ ‘Bubbles’, as it is in the age of Koons’ ‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’. But the contemporary critic remains determined to find terms of distinction grounded in the object as an autonomous thing, not a product of circulation in systems of value. This, too, has a residual habitual un-thinkingness that might stand refreshing.


Museums and collectors in the international arena, the serious consumers of high fine art, struggle to obtain a representative work by blue-chip artists. Do they really think of themselves as taste-makers? Trend-setters? Do they believe they are acquiring works of value? Surely they recognise that value is an effect as well as a pre-condition of collecting. The objects are not made and then circulate; circulation makes the objects, confers value on them so their distinction from other things – common things and works of art – comes to define them as rarefied objects.


Koons’ work demonstrates this principle, as does Polke’s, though in different ways. Koons’ strategy is to position work within the systems of value production he so successfully manipulates. Polke created works that embody circulatory principles: images moving through the media, mass and fine art, popular and historical. Their circulation makes their value in advance of their appropriation onto his surfaces, and then, they circulate again, reified, reiterative.

Finally, can we think about how the work of aesthetics, the working of art, can be conceptualised beyond critique? That stalwart term of art historical engagement, the very premise and foundation of its self-importance, the very defining line on which the critic or artist pretends to stand apart from and have superior insight into the cultural realm, has a long legacy. The notion of the oppositional stance can be traced to Romanticism, or to independent artists of the nineteenth century, to manifestos of the avant-garde, or to the attempt by critical and theoretical writers in the 1930s, facing what felt like annihilation by totalitarian repression, genocidal regimes, and the deadening effects of mass culture. In spite of its distinguished pedigree, the idea has outlived its viability. It is the most exhausted feature of an exhausted lineage. The notion that insight into oppression might lead to revolution, that a new aesthetic language might liberate the masses (even a few of them), that poetic language is an instrument against oppressive regimes – these die hard. We have precious little to put in their place.


The terms of critique sentenced fine art to an instrumental role in exposing, protesting, or subverting the dominant orders of mainstream ideology. Sometimes this is effective. David Hammons and Kara Walker forced us to engage with questions of race, particularly within the precincts of institutionalised art practice and image-making. Judy Chicago and Barbara Kruger helped to open the gates of fine art for feminist work at two different moments. But these could be read as surface formations within the larger systemic conditions of art-as-culture. And what makes Hammons’ or Walker’s work interesting is not their didacticism, but their generative capacity. The work the works do keeps us thinking back and forth across the possibilities of what we might know and what we have too often thought we knew.


Generativity is a principle of aesthetic work, the key one, in Theodor Adorno’s writing, when the passages about formal and conceptual features of art are given their due. A generative tension between conception and execution animates a work of art, keeps it alive in the way it engages its viewers. Anish Kapoor’s ‘cloud gate’ is a striking example of this capacity of aesthetic practice. Sitting in the midst of Chicago’s Millennium park, the sculpture’s deceptively simple form (try drawing it) and mirror-polished surface engage anyone in its vicinity. Whether it’s a toddler lying underneath the belly of the bean, feet against its close curves, or a group of tourists trying to find themselves in the distorted reflection of the convex surface doesn’t matter. The thing, its remarkable beauty seductively hypnotising, creates a space within the busy hubbub of the city landscape. Like a dimension-warping device, introducing space inside the literal plaza, it opens up the possibility for play. Play, the space for movement within a system, is as much a social fact and aesthetic act as a mechanical feature.


Critique? Nothing about Kapoor’s sculpture assumes superiority to its audience or viewers. Nothing about it directs our attention in any particular way towards an instrumental or scripted end. Quite the contrary: like all potent works of aesthetic expression, it calls us to attention and calls our attention to us. It provides experience and shows us what categories of experience might be. These are not complicated concepts, just complex ones, inexhaustible in their possibility. Works made in such a mode do not have as their agenda a playbook of prescribed outcomes for the culture. The Saint-Simonian aspirations to a socialist reworking of social structures beset with inequity are as needed now as ever, but somewhere along the way to modernism an inversion of categorical hierarchies appeared. The idea that modern art was a subset of socialism gained purchase, as if all the good objects of art production were those that inscribed an agenda of revolutionary transformation and all the bad objects of art production were those that frivolously, trivially, or otherwise-ly engaged in what seemed to be ‘mere’ conceptual or formal projects. ‘Cloud gate’ is a work of fine art that shows how attention may work generatively within a public space. Aesthetics is that branch of philosophy concerned with perception. ‘Cloud gate’ provides an image of the world we live in, an insight into our experience of it.


My argument does not advance a conservative agenda. The work of Ai Weiwei falls absolutely within my paradigm, and helps define it. He knows exactly where and how to apply pressure to the points of culture. But he works from within, from a systems-understanding of the connectedness of works and conditions of perception across the social order. Very few artists are astute enough or brave enough to craft such a crucial registration of effects on a dominant culture, or risk being subjected to the reprisals. In an era when most heroicism is posturing, Ai Weiwei is a genuinely heroic figure. But he lives the work and its beliefs. His is not an armchair socialism or a political stance produced within a sinecure.


The terms of aesthetic valuation are what need rethinking. The apart-ness, the stance of separation and superiority, on which critique operates must be rethought on fundamental grounds. The distinction between creating attention and directing it is crucial: between generative activity and didacticism, between engagement and opposition. The potency of fine art resides in the first term of each pair, and it is subsumed, hamstrung and defeated by the second.


In a wonderful scene in the 1983 Chantal Akerman film documenting Pina Bausch’s work, a dancer has learned to sign, and is using his hands as to perform ‘The Man I Love’ while he sings. He first does this in a rehearsal studio, and the effect is riveting, the focus on each gesture commanding us to watch. When we see the performance again, on stage and in costume, our experience of the event resonates with what we saw before. In the gap between the two, the generative intensity of the experience amplifies, the waves of recollection parsing the experience into similarity and difference, memory and presence, the recollection and that which is being shown. Of course, a fuller appreciation of the work comes by situating it within the conditions of its production – Bausch’s use of narrative, theatricality, staged references to the historical past – all taboo topics in the previous decade. The work’s impact at the time of production was conditioned by that set of considerations and contrasts. No single engagement with its formal properties suffices.


Works, like authors and artists, are nodal, they are points of awareness and articulation that exist within a mesh of connections and networks. The value of the work in its fullest sense springs from the artists’ own existence within a set of cultural vectors and forces, the compression of these into formal expression as a perceived ‘work’ that is always an event-space, re-occurring, and which demonstrates the generative power of aesthetic experience as the fundamental characteristic of art.


The foundation of aesthetic knowledge and cognition lies in the perception and production of experience. An aesthetic object, fully optimised, never finishes its generative work – so we go back to the parthenon, the Hagia Sophia, the great Wall and the greek vases, to the ‘Mona Lisa’ and Méret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup and saucer. These are not works of critique, because the terms of critique presuppose that they (the artist, the critique, the work) stand in some superior relation to that which is, that it poses itself as knowing more than the average person, the viewer living inside the bad faith illusions of a voluntary complicity with hegemonic practices. But that hegemony was in the critique as well, in the belief that fine art had a purpose and that its purpose was to pose such a critique, rather than to open up possibilities.


Critique is most reprehensible, perhaps, for its stance of moral superiority, for its unquestioned conviction that, like all utopian agendas, its cure for the ills of our world are above dispute. We cannot afford this. Our values, like our knowledges, have to be part of ecologies, cultural systems whose equilibrium is in constant recalibration, not fixed relations or distributions of power.


We come back to fundamentals, to the belief that art performs in ways no other activity does, even if other kinds of experience and knowledge formation share some of its properties of generative possibility. Christian Marclay’s ‘Clock’, that sweeping encyclopaedic work, absorbing and addictive, virtuosic and entertaining, playful and skilful, might serve as a useful final image. A summation of all that was and has been, an ‘after’-work if ever there was one, and an optimistic one. That work performs its relation to the system of production of representation, of temporality, of drama and climax, anticipation and regret, foreshadowing and recollecting, all across a mass of shared images. The artist as orchestrator of nodal points, the work as a networked object emerging from a system, the terms of the work generative, engaged, fully complicit and yet revitalising, refamiliarising while making new, rather than strange, the host of recognised and almost recognisable snippets from our produced past. All the elements of an altered foundation for understanding how a work works are present in the multiple dimensions of artist’s identity, object’s emergent value, and aesthetics ‘after’ critique.


In the predicament of what comes after ‘after’, the goal is not to ‘Make it new’ in the modern sense, but to produce conditions of understanding and experience, to refamiliarise the known through generative engagement with experience. Not the unframing activity of an essentialising phenomenology, which purports to put one in direct touch with the authentic being-ness of a thing. Instead, consider the full associational trail and field of triggers, points of interest, knowledge awareness, resonance, and difference. The project is not a contextualising project, either, not a matter of putting an entity into a setting, but a constellationary one. Engage with the full event-structure of experience, not its capacity to be known, but its capacity to produce knowing-ness, awareness.


It is time for us to reground the critical paradigms that dominate the feudal hierarchies of academic discourse in a reality that conforms to the conditions of our lives. We must not continue to project a mechanistic view of art and its operations derived from nineteenth-century analyses of the political structures of culture and possibilities for change. Ours is a different world, and we need to think its realities into our critical thought, not imagine we can conform them to some dream-world illusion through the presumptive power of outmoded critique.


We need an epistemological shift in conceptions of aesthetics and the social systems in which our ideas about fine art are produced. Not the works, but the work of art needs re-thinking. We must recognise that alignment with the status quo, in the name of ‘critique’, only conforms us to neo-liberal behaviours. Fine art has the potential to open up new spaces for thought, but only if the conditions of its production – as the result of nodal, networked and systemic conditions – are acknowledged. Nothing and no one stands outside. No stance of moral superiority or other-than-the-system can be sustained. The dissidence of Ai Weiwei is from within, not outside. The resonance of Anish Kapoor flourishes through and nurtures engagement, play. Agency resides in play, the nuance of difference, the space within the parts of a system where movement is possible. Refamiliarisation, shift, generative and provocative engagement are the thought forms of aesthetic activity. The academic attachment to critique subsumed fine art conceptions within an instrumental thought structure that directed attention rather than calling us to it. A bad faith educational production line has exhausted itself. Let it go.





is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. She has published widely on topics related to visual aesthetics, digital humanities, graphic design, experimental typography, and modern art practice. Her most recent title, Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production, was issued by the MetaLab series of Harvard University Press in 2014.



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