Skip to content

Retiring “juxtaposition,” Living More Honestly?

March 2, 2010

A couple months ago I read Johanna Drucker’s book Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (2005), and also saw her speak at UCLA (not on this topic, but still).

In the interest of not writing a huge long book report, I will try to stick to just the main thesis. But Drucker also talks about a lot, A LOT of artists, which is great. She summarizes Benjamin and Adorno, opticality and visuality, and the politics of visual pleasure and whether it’s allowed, in ways that were really accessible and useful to me. (She also writes some things about “slacker aesthetics” that I found very gratifying, but that still convinced me it’s a legit movement, as well as some very gratifying things about Lisa Yuskavage, who should maybe be the subject of a whole other post).

The book is kind of inflammatory. Sweet Dreams‘ basic premise is that while artists and theorists generally pretend, at least in their intellectual formulations, to be separated from and indifferent to commercial mass culture – even in exercises of appropriation and irony – most contemporary artists actually are working in a way that recognizes their relations to power and culture, relations that are complicated and contradictory. Fine art is, in Drucker’s view, complicit with mass culture and free market economies both in its content (theories and subject matter) and in its very existence, the way it is able to function as objects of culture that generate symbolic value. When we experience a piece of artwork, we don’t respond to the thing only in itself, in a vacuum, as if it simply offered up unequivocal meaning that we have only to receive (one more reason for writing off Modernism). Rather, art images are part of the vast context of other images, fine art to vernacular, past to present; aesthetic values, production values, and high consumability communicate in the languages of our shared cultural reference library.

Symbolic discourses in fine art are not just about form and practice, but are also part of broader cultural discourses, like identity, history, and place. The values sustained in specialized art practices – individual thought and autonomy, fetishized labor – are the same values that undergird the consumption-based, display-driven free-market mass culture. In many cases, fine art is only distinguishable from mass culture by the conditions of its consumption (location in a gallery, cost, presentation, etc.), the cues and codes that establish it as having some symbolic value.

Duchamp Boite-en-valise

A Duchamp "Boite-en-valise," a travel-size compendium of his most famous works

Drucker writes that the models of thought that often succeed in the art world, those which are self-characterized as radical, are in fact fairly old hat and are used to minimize or hide careerism of artists (said more neutrally, the desire to make money from what you do). Rather than being a neutral third party who can comment on our culture from outside it, as this negatively-positioned language would suggest, the art world is “embedded in the very value systems that the avant garde was traditionally supposed to oppose.” (20) (It’s important to say “supposed to,” since even the engineers of this oppositional avant-garde sensibility were a bit compromised, e.g. Duchamp supposedly tearing down aura and auratic original works while at the same time conscientiously building the Duchamp brand.) Ergo, “My work is a critique of…” and the overuse of “transgressive” and “subversive,” etc. And the inability or unwillingness among art world types to acknowledge this situation and to address it honestly and critically represents, according to Drucker, a failure of imagination and widespread cowardice.

VB60, a 2007 Vanessa Beecroft performance in Seoul

Drucker writes that the avant-garde oppositionality also lets us maintain a disdainful distance between mercenary work-for-hire and the noble, unpaid labor of the genius, and to stake a corresponding moral high ground. I sometimes find it hard to explain exactly why what I term “controversy for the sake of controversy, not ideas” bothers me, but when I see works in museums and collections that, in supposedly risky “juxtapositions,” highlight the oppositionalities of high/low culture, PC/non-PC statements, skilled/deskilled labor, etc. I remember that these false binaries are maintained because to do so benefits some party. The work of Vanessa Beecroft is an example of this kind of seeking controversy that is entirely non-controversial and sells well because it actually shows us what we’re used to seeing in popular culture (i.e. women as bodies as objects for consumption). She exploits in order to talk about exploitation. I have read a number of attempts to formulate a way for her art to somehow be negatively positioned towards fashion, sexism, and spectacle, to be “co-opting” these things so as to criticize them. Better to stop pretending and simply acknowledge that the work is compromised by its alliance with these aspects of consumerism, and go from there.

Projects of institutional critique of any sort are necessarily compromised, because with art, they nearly always take place in the institutions in question. Drucker writes that the art world is peopled with artists who “simultaneously desire to dismantle and to be taken up by these [art] institutions.” (8) Andrea Fraser is but the most obvious example. While this is sort of scary, artists are in a unique position here: by participating in the corrupt world, they then show us how corrupt it is. If it’s honestly acknowledged, the impurity of fine art makes it wonderful; it’s both a commodity and an alternative space of expression, and somehow aesthetic, symbolic expression still works in that situation. So that’s Sweet Dreams in a (very limited, very brief) nutshell.


Aside, Sort of: I think we should all stop using the word “juxtaposition.” (It’s annoying, anyway). Instead, the reality is that connectivity, contingency, and relationships make up our perceptions and influence our ideas. The smashing together of the high and the low, or the pure and the capitalistic, or the creator and the consumer, or the expert with the untutored – these things are not clashing, mutually exclusive conditions. They are merely points along the cultural continuum. The next step, I think, is to own up to and address fine art’s being a luxury item, an elite, exclusive, limited, unshared, gated, (indulgent?) phenomenon. And if it is really that, is it a problem? Intuitively I feel that it is; on the other hand, money is one of the ways that we show that we value things; but, like any bubble, the art bubble was founded on validation through selling only, rather than through the many other things that are good about art; still, I don’t think commerce itself is inherently bad for art, because while there are certain values like creativity that may be beyond price, I don’t know that anything we actually make is ever not commercialized, i.e. able to be exchanged for something. It’s just that in the present case, commerce serves to keep art exclusive and secluded among a small elite group, rather than to move art around and foster relationships through exchange.

Indexed by Jessica Hagy

Indexed by Jessica Hagy


The above book review here serves as a long introduction to some short and incomplete thoughts on #class, an art-think-tank-conference event occuring as we speak at Winkleman Gallery, and its co-creator, the artist William Powhida. In his text-heavy, painstaking drawings Powhida alternately uses the voice of an ambitious, naive art world innocent and a jaded, cynical insider. At left is his editorial cartoon/magazine cover depicting the major players, bystanders, and condoners of the scandalous conflict-of-interest goings-on at the New Museum last fall. While it vehemently criticises a major, once-promising alternative museum in the midst of an ethics crisis, the drawing reads a bit like a friendly roast. (Here it is larger.)

William Powhida Brooklyn Rail Cover

William Powhida, "How the New Museum Committed Suicide," cover for November 2009 issue of the Brooklyn Rail

I found it helpful in illuminating those connections and characters which are out of reach to the non-rich and art powerful, but somehow I have some doubts that anyone pictured in it now plans to amend their ways. On the other hand, Jerry Saltz said that this cartoon alone changed his mind.

Moreover, I don’t think the (in)effectiveness of his campaign of sorts in terms of changing the New Museum situation is really a factor for judging the work. (After all, we haven’t achieved world peace yet but they’re still giving out the Nobel for good effort.) What is most interesting about Powhida’s work is the way the knowing-cynical-insider and outsider-idealist-watchdog roles are balanced and mixed. His credibility as a critic of art world players and practices is founded on his status as a (relative) outsider, yet his subject matter and information are only available to him as a (relative) insider in the art club. Powhida is also an occasional critic and keeps a blog.

And he’s a level-headed participant-critic. Of #class occuring at the same time as major art fairs in New York, he writes:

I’m sure it was part of the reason that Ed [Winkleman] offered Jen and I this slot during Armory to address and hopefully problematize the fair mentality.  It really is a perfect time for the show.  Ed will be participating in two fairs, PULSE and another new ‘alternative to the alternative’ fair.  This is a spectacular set of conditions for #class to exploit and be exploited by.  Ed hopes to potentially take part of our show and enter it in to the real market, while Jen and I hope to invade the polished, hushed art fair atmosphere in return.  What I love about this project is, even as I’m writing this, I will also potentially be participating in two fairs… If anyone still believes for a second that I am not a ‘pig’ as Jen Dalton describes those of us who participate in the market (the other choice being ‘loser’ and the attendant poverty and integrity that comes with it) then you should really go back and take a look at my art.  I have been trying to sell out for years, and have found that it takes an incredible amount of work to make any headway at all.

#Class chalkboardsIn the proposals for #class, Powhida and Dalton acknowledge the mushy, mixed-up relations between theory, making, and commerce. These three factors, while treated separately as Think Space, Work Space, and Market Space nevertheless overlap in terms of the physical space dedicated to them and in the activities and lectures set for the gallery. The setup of the space may reflect the everyday reality for most artists, or else an aspirational ratio for art activities; the bulk of the space and time is devoted to panels and group discussions in Think Space, followed by Dalton and Powhida responding in Work Space, and the works they make being offered for sale in the deliberately marginalized Market Space.

Our transparent complicity in the market and the proximity of the think/market spaces to the work space will help steer the discussion back to the emotional conflict between ideals and reality.

There are tons of panel discussion topics and activities scheduled for #class, including at least one that I’d be really interested in: “Background, Identity and the Straight White Male Discussion.” I find it a little painful sometimes to be reminded of how art is just a pile of luxury objects whose ownership and understanding is completely restricted to high-income-earning people. (Other times I am more cynical, or complacent? and it’s not as bad.) In the inverted gallery space – an in-progress working and talking area, rather than a space for the display of finished, consumable objects – maybe the #class participants will be able to regrasp some of the intangible, non-monetary goodnesses of art.

Excerpt from Sweet Dreams

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2010 8:17 am

    Is it juxtaposition that sells? As laymen, if we understand the world through comparison, or familiarity, does that compromise our understanding of fine art to begin with?

    Thanks for your thoughts on art, commerce and creativity this morning. It’s nice to be thinking about the big picture from the basement office.

    • bumbleleaf permalink*
      March 2, 2010 12:53 pm

      I don’t mean that juxtaposition is a bad idea formally. I just think that “juxtaposition” of content that is supposedly binarily opposed is inherently false, and that “juxtaposing” high and low culture isn’t inherently edgy or radical because those things are already in much closer relationship than you might think.

      Your understanding of art through comparison or familiarity is exactly how it works — I mean, that’s how we understand anything, right? It’s by drawing on our experiences of other things, making comparisons and seeing patterns. In the example I gave of Vanessa Beecroft, she’s deliberately presenting you with something that looks a whole lot like the fashion spreads in magazine (something you recognize), but it’s mixed with something else as well. I think there’s supposed to be a tension created because it’s like, “OMG it’s art but it looks just like commercial photography,” but really, commercial photography and art photography aren’t inherently all that different. I see mass culture and fine art practices as being more or less adjacent on the continuum of practices, rather than opposites.

  2. david permalink
    April 4, 2010 12:20 am

    wow powerful post. The word juxtaposition needs to be retired as various cultures have been “juxtaposing” for as long as the art record goes back.
    Vanessa Beecroft is selling Sex plain and simple.
    Very strong points about the cronyism and unsavory side of the “art world”
    After the financial collapse it has become apparent that the contemporary art world is another Tulip bubble.
    Your criticism Is entertaining and enlightening, keep it up

    My hope is that the High New York scene dies for good, and that the internet allows for an art world where participation is truly democratic, as opposed to oligarchic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: