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Out of the Commodity!

Guest Editor: Andrei Siclodi »

This edition of the Open Systems Online Journal is critically concerned with the advancing commodification of artistic practices as a characteristic phenomenon of present-day cognitive capitalism. Unlike the classical production system of art, in which artists fulfill a function as producers or authors of artworks, in cognitive capitalism the practice itself, and so the entirety of the activities and conditions that are generated by the artistic subject and result in the art production, becomes an exploitable resource. One of the most recent manifestations of this phenomenon is the concept of art as field and medium of specific knowledge production or of “artistic research”, which first originated in academia and has now also arrived in the art market.

In a fundamental understanding cognitive capitalism describes the growth in the meaning of knowledge in the contemporary world economy. So the term is quite similar to that of the “knowledge society”, even though with a significant extension. In the discourse of and about cognitive capitalism, the flexibilisation of its players – workers and employers – plays a crucial role. Cognitive capitalism addresses its attention not only to a knowledge production and distribution based on rationality, but also on a subjectivisation of knowledge claims that have to consider the aspects of immaterial work and are not least marked by affective components. By “immaterial work” Maurizio Lazzarato understands communicative and affective activities that are generally not recognisable as work, thus “activities that operate in the field of culture and artistic norms and that influence fashions, taste and consumption habits or, to speak strategically, process public opinion.”[1] “Immaterial work” is today above all common in the service sector, where creative, affective and communicative skills are decisive for success. Skills that are per se characteristic of the field of art are thus transferred to economic branches. This development can be led back to various notions of artistic activity. As Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello have shown, the concept of art as an innovation principle enjoys great popularity in manager circles.[2] What at the end of the 1960s could still be described as an identifying characteristic of a global corporation with an “advanced” art practice (see for example the statement by the Philip Morris corporation, one of the main sponsors of Harald Szeemann’s 1969 exhibition “When Attitudes become Form”, in the foreword of the exhibition catalogue), would in the 1990s then become an appropriation feature of the “New Management” ideology. The knowledge context of art and its working culture, which, as is well-known, generates (and successfully upholds) a great identification potential of the artists with the ideals of engagement, personal responsibility, personal motivation, adaptability and risk disposition, were increasingly perceived as exemplary systems for adaptable and crisis-proof businesses. “Due to its social use, which is even beneficial to humanity as a whole, in the case of universally valid masterpieces artistic production has been elevated to the status of a (semi-) public good. As a consequence, the mechanisms of the socialisation of the art producers’ risk have also emerged,” writes the sociologist Pierre-Michel Menger.[3] It seems logical that this attitude – which is inherently problematic, since it reproduces the bourgeois mythologisation of the artist subject and his or her products – is adapted in management circles and applied to a new form of corporate management. This advances the birth of a creativity dispositive [4] that can now be regarded as the new paradigm of capitalist rule.

How is it possible, however, to counter these tendencies in art practice? Perhaps, for instance, by understanding artistic practice as a radical form of anti-work? And if artistic practice already represents a form of rejection of work, how does it then relate to the politics of work? This latter question is the focus of Marina Vishmidt’s essay: she tries to answer it starting from the position of Theodor Adorno's negative dialectics and connecting it with a further question, namely as to how to overcome the reproductive function of art, which is safeguarded not least by a rather well-intentioned but misleading remystification of labour.

Lisa Mazza and Laura Windhager also address the issue of the valency of work in the art context by analysing an institution of the contemporary art world which has been neglected so far from a theoretical point of view: the residency and the residency programme, respectively. They identify this institution on the basis of its inherent capacity to temporarily merge life and art production in one place and also to make this coextensivity visible, as an institution that operates very close to the present conditions of immaterial work. This condition, however, is described as a Janus-faced state: by making working conditions and processes visible, the residency can develop an emancipatory potential, but can also easily reproduce patterns of representation that are neoliberal in their nature.

The residency is again addressed in J.K. Bergstrand-Doley’s contribution, even though this time from the view of an “affected subject”. Bergstrand-Doley describes the residency system as a kind of selection machinery which only grants a small number of “chosen ones” access to means and resources and thus implicitly reproduces capitalist culture. According to him this selection process is carried out “on the back of many precarious, exploited existences”, which are rejected in the course of the procedure. Based on the premise that we do not live in capitalism, but in a “society of work” (workerism instead of capitalism ), Bergstrand-Doley outlines an artistic practice from the perspective of “rejected materials”, which unveils the relations between capital and work, understands the commodity as “dead labour” and strives to reapproach the workers’ movements.

The oft-desired political potential for change which is inherent in art is the focus of Veda Popovici’s contribution. She bases her analysis of arts’ borders as politically subversive practice on the example of the revolts in Bucharest and their legal interpretation on the fact that art currently plays a decisive role in the configuration of global capital. This role model is constituted above all from the precondition that art represents a privileged zone of negotiation between agents of hegemony and agents of subversive change. Depending on how the controversy between these two poles turns out, art can have a legitimising or delegitimising effect, and in the second case can eventually appear as “spectacle”, as the manifestation of a downplaying practice in favour of a striving to commodification that is not to belittle at all.

In the closing article of this issue Julia Prager takes up one of its initial questions – the consideration of artistic practices as research and thus as a commodity in order to direct the attention to the border zones of disciplinary practice where criticality develops above all due to “undisciplined” action. Based on Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach and its exemplary history of impact, Prager raises a plea for a deconstructive politics of knowledge that aims at questioning the still existing division between theory and practice from a point of view located on the side of science. She advocates an opening of the critical sciences towards that what Judith Butler identifies as “productive impurity” at the borders of philosophy – a science that until today is still difficult to commodify.

Translated into English by Dörte Eliass


[1] Maurizio Lazzarato (1998): “Immaterielle Arbeit: Gesellschaftliche Tätigkeit unter den Bedingungen des Postfordismus.“ In: Toni Negri, Maurizio Lazzarato, Paolo Virno: Umherschweifende Produzenten: Immaterielle Arbeit und Subversion, Berlin 1998, pp. 39–52.
[2] Luc Boltanski, Ève Chiapello: Der neue Geist des Kapitalismus, Konstanz 2003, pp. 142–152.
[3] Pierre-Michel Menger: Portrait de l'artiste en travailleur: Métamorphoses du capitalisme, Seuil 2002, p.20ff. Here translated from the German version “Kunst und Brot: Die Metamorphosen des Arbeitnehmers”, Konstanz 2006 by Dörte Eliass.
[4] Andreas Reckwitz: Die Erfindung der Kreativität: Zum Prozess gesellschaftlicher Ästhetisierung, Frankfurt am Main 2012, pp.49ff.

Supported by:

ERSTE Foundation
Stadt Wien - Kulturabteilung MA 7
MA 7 - Interkulturelle und Internationale Aktivitäten
Stadt Wien - Film, Kino, Neue Medien

In kind supported by:

Italian Cultural Institute / Istituto Italiano di Cultura

In cooperation with:

Istanbul Bilgi University
Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen, Innsbruck

grafisches Element