Book of the Week: Dark (Art) Matters, Radical Social Production in the Contemporary Art World

The majority of art world participants are in fact being groomed for failure through a managed system of political (small “p”) underdevelopment. Only those who believe that talent (like noble birth) inevitably determines one’s individual fortune would describe this as natural. And yet that is typically how the art market is described, as a natural economy in which truly gifted artists are rewarded. What would be necessary to see this the other way around? For one thing it might mean that those who exceptionally succeed become a sort of footnote to a broader social intelligence or collective talent. Furthermore, the closer the art world gets to some sort of full employment, the more it would incorporate a mass larger than its own ideological construction. That would appear to be a logical impossibility, unless a very different art world was imagined, with a very different dispensation of artistic “real estate.”

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This book directly addresses the peer production of art, and how this dark matter could move from the current ‘free labour’ and precarity position in the art world, to become its core.

* Book: Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Gregory Sholette, Pluto Press, 2010

A summary from the publisher:

“The premise of this book is that the formal economy of contemporary art is dependent upon a previously suppressed sphere of informal, non-market, social production involving systems of gift exchange, cooperative networks, distributed knowledge, and collective activities, which is becoming increasingly visible and potentially threatening to the symbolic and fiscal cohesion of high culture, especially in its most politicized form as interventionist art.

“Based on a multitude of examples from the heterocosmos of invisible art practices, Dark Matter is the ultimate companion to contemporary activist art. In his exquisite and theoretically informed style Gregory Sholette investigates the problematic functions of art practices in the processes of neoliberal appropriation, but above all the wild explosive, and deterritorializing lines that are drawn in the dark matter between art and politics. Gerald Runig philosopher, art theorist and author of Art and Revolution.”

Gregory Sholette adds that:

“I think the real issues in terms of the visual and plastic arts is that artists still hold on tightly to a notion of symbolic or cultural capital that appears generated only by certain centers of art industry power – “gatekeeper” galleries and major museums in NYC, Berlin, London, and so forth, but also certain individual art collectors and influential journals. I do propose briefly in the book that if artists could recognize that most are always already structurally redundant in this system then they might instead develop a new set of values through p2p thinking and digital technology. Still, obviously, because we are discussing art works as opposed to more intangible media like sound/music text/writing or video/film most of what “artists” actually produce is still going to be non-virtual and therefore require actual spaces of production and display, however, nothing ordains that these power hubs of galleries and museums and so forth should be the only generators or even the principle generators of artistic value and critique should (and its a big should I admit) the vast majority of artists who are destined to not succeed organize a different system of value exchange amongst themselves.”


1. From the Introduction

Gregory Sholette:

“Astrophysicists describe dark matter (and dark energy) as forming an invisible mass predicted by the big bang theory, yet so far only perceived indirectly by observing the motions of visible, astronomical objects such as stars and galaxies. Despite its invisibility and unknown constitution, most of the universe, perhaps as much as 96 percent of it consists of dark matter, a phenomenon sometimes called the “missing mass problem.” The gravitational presence of this unseen force presumably keeps the universe from flying apart. This book borrows the metaphor of an unknown but ubiquitous stellar mass and applies it to the world of art and culture. Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture – the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators. It includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices – all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to be invisible. While astrophysicists are eager to know what dark matter is, the denizens of the art world largely ignore the unseen accretion of creativity they nevertheless remain dependent upon.

Consider the destabilizing impact on high art were some of these hidden producers to cease or pause their activity. What would happen for example if the hobbyists and amateurs who purportedly make up a billion-dollar national industry in the US simply stopped purchasing art supplies or no longer took classes with “professional” artists, or ceased going to museums to see what bona fide artists do?2 And why consider only the tactical withdrawal of amateur participation, which is by definition marginal? What about the dark matter at the heart of the art world itself? Consider the structural invisibility of most professionally trained artists whose very underdevelopment is essential to normal art world functions. Without this obscure mass of “failed” artists the small cadre of successful artists would find it difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the global art world as it appears today. Without this invisible mass, the ranks of middle and lower level arts administrators would be depleted, there would be no one left to fabricate the work of art stars or to manage their studios and careers. And who would educate the next generation of artists, disciplining their growing numbers into a system that mechanically reproduces prolific failure? Furthermore, by purchasing journals and books, visiting museums and belonging to professional organizations, these underdeveloped “invisibles” represent an essential pillar of the elite art world whose pyramidal structure looms over them eternally out of reach. And yet there is no material difference between an earnest amateur on one hand, and a professional artist made invisible by her “failure” within the art market on the other; except perhaps that against all the odds she still hopes to be discovered? How would the art world manage its system of aesthetic valorization if the seemingly superfluous majority—those excluded as non-professionals as much as those destined to “fail”—simply gave up on its system of legitimation? Or if they found an alternative to it by creating a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network of support and direct sales bypassing art dealers, critics, galleries, and curators? Indeed, to some degree this has already begun to take shape via media applications of Web 2.0. What has not happened is any move towards re-distributing the cultural capital bottled up within the holding company known as high art. All of these forms of dark matter play an essential role in the symbolic economy of art.

Collectively, the amateur and the failed artist represent a vast flat field upon which a privileged few stand out in relief. The aim of this book is to raise an inevitable question: what if we turned this figure and ground relation inside out by imagining an art world unable to exclude the practices and practitioners it secretly depends upon? What then would become of its value structure and distribution of power? The answer is not to imagine the emergence of a more comprehensive social art history in which the usual art subjects are better contextualized. Nor is it to take part in some rarified tour of this dark-matter world in which the mysterious missing cultural mass is acknowledged, ruminated over, and then re-shelved or archived as a collection of oddities. Instead, when the excluded are made visible, when they demand visibility, it is always ultimately a matter of politics and a rethinking of history. This is often the case with artists’ collectives, groups, and collaborations whose communal self-embrace inevitably spotlights the general superfluity of artistic production and producers.”

Source: excerpted from the introduction to Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture, Pluto Press, 2011, Pp 1-3.

2. From Chapter 4: The productive power of Networked Ressentiment

Gregory Sholette:

“Proponents of the new, networked economy insist that digital technology is fundamentally changing for the better how individuals “interact with their democracy and experience their role as citizens … and their relationship to the public sphere. The notion of networked ressentiment does not seem to have crossed their minds.

Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals pivots on a dialectical flash, an instant when the blocked desires of the subservient class first gain knowledge of their collective advantage over their masters. It is first and foremost an opposition to a world that exists outside the self, a new form of negative creativity the philosopher calls ressentiment. The word conjures not only resentfulness, but also active repetition and the folding back upon oneself. Out of the repeated experience of humiliating submission the meek give birth to intelligence and self-knowledge. Ressentiment is a reactive project of survival, and with it emerges a previously unrecognized repertoire of skills: the ability to counterfeit and conceal oneself, to be patient in getting what one desires. Against this furtive artistry Nietzsche opposes the fierce appetites of the master class who have no need for self-consciousness or hiding places. Although Nietzsche is openly contemptuous of this new servile morality, he also acknowledges that “a race of such men of ressentiment will inevitably end up cleverer than any noble race.”

One thing is clear, whether merely bitter or revolutionary, undeveloped or reactive, this survival project inevitably makes use of whatever resources it finds at hand, including the misappropriation of the “master’s” own voice, the principal means of expressing political will today. The non-market dark matter that Benkler refers to is shot through with just such stealthy, frequently ambiguous expressions of resentment and rebellion. It is replete with acts of theft, rich with double entendre and knowing acts of indirection. Scott describes these “weapons of the weak,” and African-American scholar Cornel West lectures that as “Nietzsche noted (with different aims in mind), subversive memory and other-regarding morality are the principal weapons for the wretched of the earth and those who fight to enhance their plight.”55 But this insubordinate dark matter can just as easily take the form of regressive brutality like that associated with racist football hooligans in the UK and elsewhere. Sociologist John Wilson describes the participants in such disconnected collectivism as “unclubbables” who are eager to take advantage of public festivals and fanfare to stage group transgression of disciplinary controls. However, we might also describe this species of angry dark matter as a kind of poisonous gift that circulates as much in “real spaces” as in cyberspace. Fortunately, as West assures us, the forces of subversive memory born of repeated failure also seek to establish a kind of shadow jurisdiction with their own outlaw justice and bottom-up counter-institutionality.

Indeed, the archives, public projects, exhibitions, and publications of Temporary Services, PAD/D, AWC, Critical Art Ensemble—and for that matter even the premise of this book—would probably not be conceivable without the creative negativity made possible by a shadowy ressentiment.”

3. From Chapter 4: On Overproduction

That the art world is awash in surplus labor is not a startling insight. Tens of thousands of individuals now have undergraduate or graduate degrees in fine art. Their webpages complete with project descriptions, résumés, contact information, and blogs are spread across the World Wide Web like leaves after a storm. A few commercial entities have begun indexing these sites for a fee, however it is The Saatchi Gallery that has developed the most comprehensive online art platform providing artists with free digital space for their work (jpgs and videos), but also investing in the future of this lucrative industry by appealing directly to art students. According to information on the site some 120,000 artists and art students use their services worldwide. Saatchi takes no commissions for any sales made through its website, and boasts that since launching the platform in 2006 some 130 million dollars in transactions have taken place. The number is difficult to believe. As far as can be ascertained, cyberspace has yet to launch the career of any previously unknown artist into stardom. Most serious Internet sales appear to be backed by the legitimating collateral of a respected art dealer and physical gallery space.

One noteworthy alternative model of autonomous online representation is, a cooperative web platform made up of left-leaning artists from Canada, Mexico, and across the United States (although primarily from the west coast and Midwest). Thematically focused on issues of social justice and anarchist history, Just Seeds artists produce “traditional” graphic works— silk-screen posters, spray painted stencils, even linoleum block prints. The pieces are displayed as digital images on the website and sell for modest prices, often between 10 and 75 dollars. As if illustrating the long-tail theory of retailing in which numerous specialized interests form a proportionally larger consumer base than that of mainstream buyers, Just Seeds’ tiny sales add up to at least enough to sustain both the website and provide a partial income stream for participants.7 Despite the simplicity of this model, made all the more effortless thanks to the Internet, such cooperation is still rare among contemporary artists. Instead, the growing army of surplus art producers apparently prefer to survive by helping to reproduce the familiar hierarchies of the art world, the same symbolic and fiscal economic system that guarantees most of them will fail.

Some redundant cultural workers are employed by the mega-studios of successful artists. Inside these art factories they might sand and polish resin-cast sculptures or even paint entire canvases, often doing so for little more than the minimum wage.8 A growing number of these “art extras” operate out of cultural Bantustans surrounding the invisible municipality of the mainstream global art world. In the 1990s New York City’s art center shifted away from the downtown scene in SoHo to its present location in “Chelsea” on Manhattan’s West Side. But unlike the SoHo that was initially colonized by artists in the 1960s, Chelsea, according to sociologists David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso, represents “the triumph of the commercial gallery system as a mode of showing and distributing art.”9 Practically speaking, few artists can afford to live or work anywhere near this exhibition machinery. Affordable studio space has migrated outwards, away from where the established gatekeeper galleries, museums, curators, and critics are concentrated. The actual production of art has come to resemble a form of outsourced manufacturing or “just in time” creativity. The structural partitioning of the culture industry is not limited to New York City. German sociologist Melanie Fasche points out that while 50 percent of the artworks ultimately shown at Documenta 12 and the 2007 Venice Biennale were produced in Berlin, very little of this work is actually exhibited in Berlin itself. The city has become a “production site” for the manufacture of contemporary art that is shown elsewhere. Along similar lines, French sociologist Alain Quemin’s research into France’s participation in the global art world came as a shock to that nation’s cultural elite when he reported that despite the flow of artists and art institutions between an increasing number of global museums and art biennials around the globe, the majority of artists and the capital (actual and cultural) associated with contemporary art remain concentrated in the US, the UK, and Germany.10 Which is to say that even as art production appears increasingly distributed in time and space, the processes of cultural valorization remain tied to New York, London, and Berlin.

Meanwhile, the majority of professionally trained artists go on reproducing this state of affairs, despite their guaranteed exile from its inner circle. If the art world still typically represents itself as a top-down process with the cream rising and the dross settling, it effectively functions the other way around, from the bottom-up. For what the Rand Corporation does not report, or cannot acknowledge, is that unlike other professions the art industry must ghettoize the majority of its qualified participants in order to generate artistic value. But this dark surplus creativity does not function to lower artistic labor costs or the price of artistic goods, as in Marx’s classic formula. Rather, the army of under and semi-employed cultural workers performs a price-enhancing role, though only with regard to a limited number of artworks by a select group of artists whose labor is in turn lavishly rewarded. All the while, as we have seen, these many “invisibles” help reproduce the art world through their purchase of art supplies, journal subscriptions, museum memberships, teaching assignments, but also their informal conversation and gossip, which reasserts the status of leading art brands at openings, on blog sites, at parties, and so forth. Furthermore, as Marcelo Expósito points out, this upwardly distributed art factory system does not extract value on a limited basis as do traditional forms of employment, but does so intensively, continuously, by requiring nonstop forms of “self-educating, training or testing, preparation, production, and so on,” all of which are carried out without remuneration.

The majority of art world participants are in fact being groomed for failure through a managed system of political (small “p”) underdevelopment. Only those who believe that talent (like noble birth) inevitably determines one’s individual fortune would describe this as natural. And yet that is typically how the art market is described, as a natural economy in which truly gifted artists are rewarded. What would be necessary to see this the other way around? For one thing it might mean that those who exceptionally succeed become a sort of footnote to a broader social intelligence or collective talent. Furthermore, the closer the art world gets to some sort of full employment, the more it would incorporate a mass larger than its own ideological construction. That would appear to be a logical impossibility, unless a very different art world was imagined, with a very different dispensation of artistic “real estate.”

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