Books

Parsing a Would-Be Canon of Recent Artists’ Writings

The new book Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 over-relies on art institutions to vet a very uneven selection of writings by 75 artists.

Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 by Paper Monument. Editor: Jennifer Liese
Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 by Paper Monument, edited by Jennifer Liese (courtesy of Paper Monument)

Language is now the medium of choice in art schools. The blame does not lie with Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of art that is wrought by decree, which is today’s institutional model for art-making. It lies with the introduction of art within the university system, as MFA programs began to expand in size and number in the late 1940s. In this academic context, disciplines of study must be ones of knowledge, not craft, thus forcing art to justify its existence next to, say, biology or history. Art first posed itself as research, later theory. Students graduate not once their objects are visually compelling; it is when they can justify the existence of those objects (or performances, practices, interventions, or whatever) on linguistically satisfying terms.

Writing — graduate theses, catalogue essays, grant proposals, wall texts — has come functionally necessary for all art institutions, which includes schools, museums, foundations, organized fairs, galleries, journals, non-profit spaces, etc. Encapsulating the writings of artists trained and working within these constructs is Paper Monument‘s recently released Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015. The book positions itself as the latest iteration of collected writings by artists, the most notable predecessor being Peter Selz’s and Kristen Stiles’s Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, first published in 1996. Social Medium, edited by Jennifer Liese, takes the possessive away from “artists” in her subtitle and emphasizes “writing” as an activity, a verb.

This shift marks an important difference between Liese’s editorial approach from that taken in Theories and Documents, which was not reliant on personal preference, but rather on canonization. Liese believes categorizing artists’ writings within movements, styles, mediums, etc. is outmoded. Her method is rather a consequence of selecting very recent writings not vetted by time, which forces her — an academic who is not an artist — to rely on institutional writing as a pseudo-canon of options from which to choose: conference presentations; books from foundation or art school presses; art journals; grant-supported blogs; texts from museum talks, and so forth. By virtue of this, her choices are subjective to the point of arbitrariness, then sectioned by what the artists are writing about (e.g., “Artists Writing on The Whole World”). But artists who write within the institution — not artists who share a movement, style, medium, or much in common at all — is a category emptied of significance, like people who share the same initials or have all seen the Grand Canyon.

Nevertheless, 75 artists are included in the 530-page book. According to Liese’s introduction, they “weigh in on the cultural, political, social, economic, and environmental exigencies of our times” with “experimental forms, syntax, and logic, to unfettered subjectivity, unfinished thoughts, and unfixed truths.” They are “upending the rules of rhetoric,” she claims, as if rhetoric’s goals — to be clear and persuasive — deserved a good beating. These are all unlikely attributes of writing generated by “thought leaders in society” — to use the pretentious label for artists Liese borrows from Creative Time Reports. Yet it does ready the reader for most of the writing in Social Medium, which, in its self-referential subjects and homogenous political views, reflects the academic cradle from which it comes.

Exemplary of “unfinished thoughts” is Marisa Olson‘s “Postinternet: Art After the Internet.” The artist and former Rhizome editor argues for a historical taxonomy of recent art in which “all works are postinternet” — ipso facto — because we are in the “postinternet” era. First offered in 2006 — when less than 17% of the world was using the internet — Olson’s just-so story or ad hoc fallacy constructs a narrative that cannot be confirmed or disproved by any evidence, and is therefore neither true nor false. “Truth,” according to Richard Rorty, “is whatever your contemporaries let you get away with.” Here, it’s all posturing. Olson stops after 3,250 words or so, when “this author has surpassed her word count just as she is prepared to serve up examples of recent, provocative, or interesting postinternet work.”

Harrell Fletcher, founder of Portland State University’s Art + Social Practice MFA program, contributes a running list titled “Ideas.” The listed items, many of which were conceived for the 2004 Whitney Biennial, are hypothetical projects ranging from “have a young child redesign my website” to “sell a service where I come to a collector’s house and plant a tree.” What’s insufferably institutional here is Fletcher’s belief that art needs external justification for its own existence. His MFA program requires language. “Society” and “community” provide that. But his art can’t exist outside of words, so he is stuck with language, like Sisyphus is with his impossible rock. Fletcher has become his own readymade, art without an artist.

Social Medium contains a few terrific readings. Coco Fusco‘s “Still in the Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Twenty Years Later” recounts the changes in critical reception the eponymous performance piece has undergone since its first staging (1992–94). It “frustrated bourgeois ethnics who wanted multicultural art shows to be dignified celebrations” and “turned out to be a kind of exposé of the racial doublespeak of educated liberals.” Her sensitivity to those who engaged with her work, a piece fraught with risk, recommends this essay as required reading for those invested in identity politics as an art form, especially as a means of understanding others.

Hito Steyerl‘s “The Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy” is a brilliant indictment of “the ways in which contemporary art is implicated in transforming global power patterns.” Her PhD in philosophy and background as a journalist explain the remarkable concision of her prose and her depth of insight. Parsing the complexities of cultural and economic exchange, with piercing moral clarity, this essay stands out in the volume for its fierce intellectual rigor.

Greg Allen‘s “Blog Posts on Erased de Kooning Drawing” is a high point in the book for its originality and unusual curiosity. In it he studies, like a private detective, the discrepant accounts of how this work from 1953 by Robert Rauschenberg was first presented and subsequently interpreted, over the decades. Initiated as a medium-specific experiment (to subtract a drawing that he did not make), it was recontextualized many years later as a conceptual piece, an idea put into Rauschenberg’s head by his friend and lover, Jasper Johns. However idiosyncratic and personal Allens’ obsession is, it most openly demonstrates how past conversations about artworks are ever-present within them, unseen.

Scattershot as Social Medium is in what it offers, there are other good pieces. But such writings — by Mike Kelley, Paul Chan, Josiah McElheny, Deanna Havas, Ronald Jones, Greg Bordowitz, Gregory Sholette, Ai Weiwei, Seth Price, Peter Rostovsky, and Miriam Ghani, for example — are too few for such a large collection. The disappointment in the volume owes much to the implicit understanding that it is third in a series by Paper Monument. By virtue of its typographic design, it is continuous with Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the assignment and I like your work: art and etiquette. Those two works — informative, hilarious, and readable — reflected a culture of insiders welcoming in outsiders. This is also the tone of Paper Monument founder Roger White’s book The Contemporaries, which supplants Sarah Thornton’s superficial Seven Days in the Art World as an account of the art world’s composition and character. Social Medium, as compared to previous texts from this publisher, is a slog to read. It is more artifact than art, likely to remain crisp and clean in school libraries. Grungy studios? Maybe not.

Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015 is available from Paper Monument.

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