Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World
Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2013; 257 pages, $24.95 hardcover.
In the “everyday art world,” artists are always on the move, disdaining not only art objects but any kind of artistic finality whatsoever, making putative works out of mere schmoozing, and turning the art world into a string of floating cocktail parties disguised as seminars (and vice versa). This EAW (as I’ll call it for short) has been creeping up on us for the last 20 years or so. Now, according to Lane Relyea, an associate professor of art theory and practice at Northwestern University, it’s here in its full networking glory.
Once, most artists made art objects in their individual studios and sold them through retail shops known as galleries. More recently, many executed commissions for created-on-site physical works (with re-creation licenses that could still be sold by dealers). But today a large number of key figures—Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tobias Rehberger et al.—perform cloyingly mundane public services as, in the current argot, their artistic practice. French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, in his 1998 book Relational Aesthetics, essentially wrote the script for a thousand—for a hundred thousand—social exchanges rechristened as artworks. “Artists cook and serve meals or re-create bars and lounges in galleries and museums,” Relyea writes, “in an effort to conjure an environment without marked-off frames or stages, only diffuse conviviality and atmosphere.” The work of others, such as Jorge Pardo and the late Martin Kippenberger, tends to envelop viewers in installations so pervasive as to be indistinguishable from “everyday” nonart experience.
A possible first, proto-EAW salvo against the old, product-oriented, hierarchical, “fine arts” paradigm may have been inadvertently fired—Relyea cites Thierry de Duve as noting—by the Museum of Modern Art’s 1959 show “Sixteen Americans,” which included several of Frank Stella’s Black Paintings along with work by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and others. That exhibition gave artists the go-ahead to start thinking in terms of a show as a kind of meta-artwork. The next dominoes to tilt, if not fall—slowly, over a couple of decades—were such “totalizing stereotypes” as Finish Fetish and Light and Space in Los Angeles. Identifiable movements of this sort gave way, as the semi-closed system of the art world frayed into open, porous networks of itinerant artists cobbling together ad hoc events as works of art. And while the nearly universal white cube (artists’ studios, commercial galleries and modern museum rooms) wasn’t entirely destroyed, big cracks started to run through it. For example, Relyea cites a 1997 exhibition by Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens and Frances Stark as a kind of mutual-help arrangement that boosted the international mobility of all three.
With the advent of global networks, a different cultural role—that of the glamorous slacker, akin to conventional showbiz celebrities slumming on reality TV-began to appeal to some artists. At the behest of organizers Maurizio Cattelan and Jens Hoffmann, for instance, Elizabeth Peyton, Olafur Eliasson, Pipilotti Rist and other well-known artists famously sent up the convention of the big international invitational show by turning the tongue-in-cheek 6th Caribbean Biennial (1999) into a group vacation on St. Kitts. Critic, curator and now gallerist Carl Freedman (one of Relyea’s many quotees) wrote of a similar but more straight-faced event called “Traffic”:
Pleasure and enjoyment were not to be found in the exhibition itself but in the week-long gathering of the 30 artists involved. Under the auspices of an “exchange of ideas,” the artists talked, drank, dined and danced together whilst creating, preparing and installing their different works. . . . The gathering was central to [Bourriaud’s] theme, awkwardly formulated as “the interhuman space of relationality.”
Such intellectual and touristic indulgence is part and parcel of the EAW, often (wishfully) conceived as liberation from—even opposition to-old-fashioned cultural institutions and hierarchies. Travel and talk, Relyea says, are replacing rooted, isolated art-making, as artists use the pub and the street (in both their literal and figurative senses) to construct “platforms” from which they “offer up their projects or shows as participatory architecture for other artists to operate within.” Whatever solitary creative musing artists still require can be got in transit: “Travel provides sanctuary, a prolonged interval to collect one’s thoughts, summarize, piece together an overview,” Relyea says. (To tweak the great photography curator John Szarkowski’s remark about lectures, this would have been a better work of art had it been a longer flight.)
Traveling in the EAW is even more useful for networking. An EAW participant must have not only someplace to go, but someone to see when he or she gets there—preferably someone who can help with career advancement by connecting the participant with other people who can help with . . . and so on, into the night. That, in turn, nudges the EAW toward the kind of faculty/former-student old-boy cohorts informally operated by Ivy League law schools, and turns the primary purpose of graduate school into mapping out potential networks. These days, an MFA degree might as well stand for “My Fat Address-Book.”
But an art world in which “to go where the action is means to be always on the go” turns out to be just as economically demanding as one based on staying put in spacious studios, slick galleries and pristine museum offices. Simply put, travel costs money. Another guest expert-Marc Bousquet, the Emory University writing professor and crusader for academe’s exploited part-timers-describes the unsalutary life of the poor adjunct faculty member:
The network or flex-timer is in constant motion, driving from workplace to workplace, from training seminar to daycare, grocery store and gym, maintaining an ever more strenuous existence in order to present the working body required by capital: healthy, childless, trained and alert, displaying an affect of pride in representing zero drain on the corporation’s resources.
Such, too, Relyea implies, is the predicament of a struggling, peripatetic neophyte in the Everyday Art World.
The consolation prize for the EAW’s frenetically nomadic artists is a revived romanticism, centered on the idea of just what, or who, artists are: “No longer did their specialness need to be named as such, declared out loud and up front. . . . It could just be, accepted as some incontestable fact or mystery, a divine gift with which only a lucky few are endowed.” No wonder, then, that at the art schools where Relyea is invited to give critiques, “the painting students, all of them, across the board, don’t say they’re painters.” Moreover, “they also don’t call themselves artists. ‘I do stuff’ is the most frequent response. Or, ‘I make stuff.’ . . . All open-ended adaptability and responsiveness, no set vocation.” Artists still make objects, of course, tons of them—some selling for startling prices. But there are also, more and more, signs and markers of conceptual projects, or tokens of unfolding careers, rather than visual treasures that one would want to live with and value, in and of themselves.
But only piecemeal, and seemingly reluctantly, does Relyea declare how smoothly—yea, creepily—the EAW fits into an entrepreneurial world stuffed with social media, smartphone apps, digital startups, on-demand streaming entertainment, blogs and MOOCs (massive open online courses), yet populated by Dilbert-ish office workers who sift through endless streams of business data, as they labor without unions, without job security, without pensions and without bargaining power. Granted, right up front on page nine, Relyea writes, “The [Everyday Art World] network begins to appear less like defiance and more like the latest answer to capitalism’s constant need to overcome and reinvent itself.” But he then sheaths his sword and proceeds to speak of his disinterested interest in “how [post-studio art procedures] align with and articulate new social and organizational norms and positions.”
As chair of a prestigious art department with “theory” in its name, Relyea is understandably careful to avoid a blanket condemnation of the new EAW. Although he seems to want to make a felony case concerning the ravages the EAW has wrought on the contemporary art scene, he writes—like a doubting medieval philosopher in a kingdom of belief—for two very different audiences.
One group comprises academic colleagues and younger artists who might like to see an art world of finished products (whether objects in inventory or custom-built for exhibition) largely deconstructed, perhaps even replaced with an anybody-can-be-everything, DIY network. For those readers, Relyea provides a narrative thread running from MoMA’s “Sixteen Americans” and 1971 Mel Bochner “Projects” exhibitions through the evolution of the big biennials into avant-garde versions of old TV variety shows, Andrea Fraser’s videotaped sex with a collector, talky artists’ cooperatives in Glasgow, L.A. and Cologne, and the “new bricolage” of such artists as Lara Schnitger and Rachel Harrison (where, ironically, a ramshackle physicality might be turning things back just a bit toward objets d’art).
Relyea’s second audience consists of skeptics like me (and, maybe, the author of Your Everyday Art World himself). For them, Relyea occasionally shines a prosecutorial floodlight on the wider consequences of the advent of the EAW:
Today’s claims of romantic defiance too often look past the fact that our sense of expanded agency has been purchased largely through an aggressive shattering and collapse of the larger social structure. Falling progressively into ruin, this is a scene that belongs not to romance but to tragedy.
He said it. I didn’t.
PETER PLAGENS is a painter and writer living in New York.