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Minor Art: Between Dominant and Reactive                             




'In place of a Manifesto for Art, such being too gestural, too wedded to the politics of generation, of shock, and... of the market as first arbitrator of value (when it should be the last). Manifestos are about the generational struggle over market share.'



What picture of the twentieth century do we carry around with us? What kind of construction, what kind of representation, what kind of... artwork is it? What narratives come with it? A picture of the past implies a present and an expectation of the future. What does our (often unquestioned, unconscious) picture of the twentieth century look like? Does it only contain one story; a story of progress allied to the latest thing as the best thing (an avant-garde repeating its favourite mantra to infinity). Panglossian, Hegelian, but also an attempt to continue yesterday’s Modernisms; lauded as the best of all possible representations (worlds) - because surviving, because successful, because new (the avant-garde joins hands with the market).


A glance at the last decade's exhibitions (as well as at a little recent art history) shows another picture. Endless revivals, ceaseless repetitions, subtle variations on a handful of major trends. What we see now is more a chaotic bundle of parallel processes than a single victory parade: each process self-referring back to the previous generation for its continuity and difference; or by contrast, employing the destructive form of memory; forgetting the father. All these trends have been involved in cross fertilisation, all are therefore hybrid (and so most emphatically in-authentic) - and this is as it should be.  Moreover all these trends are now established; they share a history spanning at least a century. As such we might refer to them as schools or genres of art practice (figurative, abstract, found object/minimal/conceptual, and performance) whether in the form of an image or in three dimensions (from sculpture to installation) and in whatever medium (the tools of graphic and fine art, photography, video, virtual/computer-aided, through to plastic objects and their significant contexts).


New conceptualisations, however, are and will always be important.  Human knowledge is always finite in contrast to an infinite and changing world (epistemology). Capitalism in particular, child of our labour become an imperious parent broaching no correction, develops further and faster than our knowledge or experience allows (ontology). The difference between epistemology and ontology: the drive to commodification and efficiency. To paraphrase Freud (but looking forward instead of back) 'where we are (where we have come too), it has already departed.' New ideas, new concepts, therefore, are a means of keeping up with the driverless juggernaut now usually referred to as globalisation/mondialisation - the tiger on whose back we all ride (right utopians valourise a trajectory they can not even predict: left-utopians fantasise getting off... ). All politics, and not only the politics of aesthetics, now takes its direction from this wild hunt into unknown forests; a chase that transforms the chasers even as we run. The image of the chase must keep up with the chase itself if we are not to believe ourselves in a landscape we have already left behind long ago (nineteenth century metaphysics). Investing in an image of the present is not the same as investing belief in the latest image.


Therefore (with the proviso discussed above in mind) what is needed in art is not the eternal declaration of the 'new'. Because much of what masquerades as 'new' is actually rather old: traditional, in fact, in terms of a century of art practice (after a hundred years the new linear perspectivism of the quattrocento was already found to be artificial and limiting). Rather it is a question of the conscious use of (lets be honest) always already 'old' forms.  All are 'old': are twentieth century traditions we receive as given - treat them like gifts. It is not a question of historicist progress, but the use of the art work, what work is it put to: profit; pleasure; cause? Is there respect for the audience as well as for the object? For the audience as scapegoat as well as audience as lynch mob? As a test case take the case of transgression in art. If modernism focused (largely) upon transgression of form; then post-modernism, or the neo-avant garde of the 'seventies, preferred transgressions of content, transgressions reliant upon the aesthetic frame (Sherman). And this was fine until we arrived at the 'eighties (with Dada & Duchamp as founding fathers, presiding geniuses). Now transgression of content as such became the guiding principle. Was a new revolution in the content of art imminent? There are two senses in which transgression in art is in fact conservative by nature. In the general anthropological sense a ritual transgression prefigures a return or renewal of order - the conservation of a (collective) identity. Nothing could be more conservative; art here functions as ritual in its identity-forming function. We have only to ask the question, to interrogate identity: whose? The response will always include the identity of the Same, the group to which the artist belongs (or imagines him or herself belonging) - usually made-up of a generational, factional, aspect and an authenticising, justifying, element. In some measure this situation holds for all art. Second, there is the narrower sense of transgression as the crossing of a taboo (showing the previously unshown). Yet if art as taboo-break becomes a trend (whether datable back to Jeff Koons, to the 'sixties', to Duchamp, or even to Manet) transgression ceases to be transgressive. Rather we are presented with a sequence of stage-managed shocks (often based on the combination of a minimal pun with maximum attention-seeking). We are left with the artist as court jester (we expect more from advertising). This situation describes the 'eighties and 'nineties and appears to have become canonic.


Conceptualising the use to which art is put to as major/minor trends (Deleuze & Guattari) is one possible response. But too easily these distinctions become those of dominant/reactive. An inverted mirror image is hardly an alternative - although it is satisfying and increasingly profitable. One option in opposition to major or dominant (that is paying or marketable) trends is the pursuit of 'minor' trends which exist either on the borderlines of the dominant, or in their turning (putting them to work in other registers of human experience). The test would be to include 'other' topics, contents, points-of-view; to introduce new thematics and not engineer (instant) marketable conversions of art into cash.  Yet this is not a call for a return to difficult art as such (as in the empty gestures of Art & Language - Conceptualisms's limit case). Rather it is the precise stating of points, forming of juxtapositions, balancing of effects, that is required. Neither is this a call for Duchampian detail as 'pure' irony, nor as a Warholian sequence of repetition, but for a worked-through aesthetic in which all levels justify each other - and do not exist only for their gimmick value. This 'slighting' of the art object has been part of its reduction to a post-conceptual pun. A well as an unforeseen consequence of the Minimalist revolution, this reduction has arisen from the expansion of the frame to include everything (including the attempt to shake the institutional frame; the function of the gallery and museum). If the positive result of this expansion has been its inclusivity, there has also been a certain loss in the sense of the importance of what is framed (the sacralising, or setting-aside character of the frame). The vestigial effects of the frame have all-to-often been used to trigger parodic effect (the unlikeliness of the object framed). Rather less often do they deliver a positive (the sacralisation of the everyday).  The frame is the key to the role of art as ritual (not in the sense of the gory parodies resulting from the ritualistic enactments of Hermann Nitsch, but in the more fundamental sense of the art object as ‘always-already’ a form of ritual in is implications for meaning and identity. Time in art is also often present in its absence, whether as the 'now' instant of the pun, or conversely, as the rhetoric of eternity, the enframed aim of ritual, the otherworldly foundation for ideology. Present as temporality, time offers the multi-dimensionality of our actual experience of time together with its many potential configurations according to culture and life.  The emphasis would be on taking time rather than hiding from it; taking responsibility for images (their role in cultural memory, their potential impacts on current points of tension; their past, their future), rather than squandering them for an immediate return (identity, recognition, profit). Ritual gives us art as an index of identity and community. Temporality gives us art as repository and the ethics of influence.


Minor art (between dominant and reactive): to make meaning responsible and beautiful (or its polemical reflection, thought-provoking, made from masochistic pleasure). Crafted meaning, demanding time, made over time. Consumed over time. Not short of time; extinguishing all time (memory, redemption) in the immediacy of the pun. Then excusing this new version of art-as-instant - no sooner grasped than exhausted - by drawing upon the potentials of allusion, figure and connotation, which all earthly things are heir to, in order to summon the illusion of depth. As if walking upon a newly made floor, one were asked first to imagine it made of glass and then to seek the artwork not in the qualities of that floor, but in the world concealed beneath it.


Revealing the hidden world in every crafted object, every crafted image; the glass that reflects what is not there reflects the desire for a world unimpared; the diamond that distorts the world also offers its double.


The more interesting art of the twenty-first century will be regarded as a commodity last, its politics of recognition will refuse the media, and its ethics will eschew the shock of the transgressive found object or representation (art as taboo) for the remembering of the shocks and transgressions perpetuated on those not yet able to represent (lives and values drowned out by the noise of the carnivalesque). It will find ways of bringing into aesthetic presence (and so into cultural discourse and debate) experiences which are valued, yet not necessarily immediate, nor in a position to compete with shouting self-advertisement. It will be opposed to the sham democracy of an inclusion which limits itself to the grosser forms of human behaviour (much recent art, cinema, literature). It will be able to distinguish between ideological and genuine pluralism. It will also find ways in which to defend valued experiences from instant commercialisation (if possible). Or (in a more pragmatic vein) to ensure that their politics of marketability is consonant with their need to reach a mass audience (politics of visibility/presencing of issues) or with the accepted level of interaction between identity and commodity relations within a given community (politics of identity), or of the circulation of the artwork to its intended audience.


Has such an art not always existed? Art, now, then, and in the time to come. Art with the Same, but with the Other; slight, crafted, allusive. Complex, time consuming, responsible; resisting commodification. Art as above commodities (even if sold) because art as gift - and, as every gift carries with it the trace of a self-assertion, above economics. Even above (its own) survival - if that survival does not allow space for a principled existence. Better the art of silence than the art of noise.





Copyright 2002, Peter Nesteruk