[-empyre-] Complicity

Christiane Robbins cpr at mindspring.com
Wed Jan 6 11:24:58 EST 2010

A hyper-condensed tour ( informed and infinitely re-iterated  
compliments of academic institutualization )

"Could commodities themselves speak, they would say:  in the eyes of  
each other we are nothing but exchange values."

  Marx, Capital, Vol. 1

Marx introduced his analysis of the system of capitalist economic  
relations with an account of the commodity form.  Arguably, this form  
can be see an the nexus of capitalism as well as offering an mechanism  
of understanding the inherent contradiction in what has been posited  
here as the aestheticized object.  I am using the standby of  
“commodity” to specifically address the impact of the ‘art market” in  
relation to the ’aestheticized object” as it has been discussed thus  

Commodity capitalism also fully developed the notion of use value –  
Wolfgang’s Huags’ Critique of Commodity Culture, 1986? (in which he  
concludes that commodities possess a double reality:  the buyer values  
the commodity as a means of survival whereas the seller sees such  
necessities as a means for valorization.  In other words, first they  
have a use value and secondly they have the appearance of a use value  
which is essentially detached (welcome to our 21st c brandscape.)   
Both Marx and Haug suggest that fethishization of the commodity is for  
the consumer the fetishization of use.  The abstraction of labor which  
may well serve as the basis of the fetish quality of commodities is  
not something that we, as consumers, can easily comprehend as it  
triggers our inability to fully understand or imagine non- fetishized  
use values.  It is in Haug’s account of commodity aesthetics where he  
views human sensuality as wholly inscribed in the appearance – the  
surface play - of use value.  We then view use value as abstracted and  
permutated into market value.

George Lukas aligns this trajectory with his position on reification  
in his seminal History and Class Consciousness, 1971.   Lukas’s  
designation of reification is pivotal to our discussion in that it  
suggests that once labor exists as the abstraction of human activity,  
it extends its influence to human qualities and personality as well.   
Reification then explains the transformation of commodity fetishism  
into the realm of the human experiential.
“  The transformation of the commodity relation into a thing of  
ghostly objectivity” cannot therefore content itself with the  
reduction of all objects for the gratification of human needs to  
commodities.  It stamps its imprint on the whole consciousness of man;  
his qualities and abilities are no longer an organic part of his  
personality, they are things which he can own or dispose of like the  
various objects of the external world.  And there is no natural way in  
which man can bring his physical and psychic qualities into play  
without their being subjected increasingly to this reifying process.”

Central to both Lukas and Haug’s position re: the commodity form is  
that they both suggest that under capitalism the qualities of being  
human and the attendant sensual dimension of one’s experiences are  
objectified and abstracted – or detached from people and their  
activities.  Hence they become commoditized and, subsequently,  
“reified” or “aestheticized.”  The problem then presented is how does  
one rupture this process as to recuperate and reaffirm these human  
qualities that the commodity form (so generously offered to us via  
Taylorization) negates through its abstraction.

Enter Adorno and Negative Dialectics, 1973 – which, to my mind,  
embodied a remarkable potential for reclaiming and rethinking art  
practices under capitalism.  It is dissimilar to the concept of  
reification in that it anticipates fetishism as a tension between the  
abstracting forces of domination and their (e)utopian antithesis.  It  
strikes me that the question that we are grappling with here is one of  
reconciling this contradiction…. and negotiating with Adorno’s  
aesthetic of contradiction that is inherent in “modern works of art.”   
Adorno had written Negative Dialectics as an inescapable expose of the  
more mundane world – of the quotidian- where ND stands in opposition  
the homogenization of “mass culture” – a culture where standardization  
is marketed as a signifier of quality and the breadth of qualitatively  
diverse cultural forms is translated and materialized into the design  
details of commodities.  This position, of course, stands in  
opposition to the plight of the 30’s and 40’s modernism, which adapted  
the principles of Taylorization to respond adequately to crisis  
affecting humanity across the EU and NA in ways that prove difficult  
for us to imagine today.  I am referring here primarily to  
architecture and design practices as opposed to visual art.

Perhaps we should inject this concept of ND into our contemporary  
brandscape that now represents the Taylorization of consumers as well  
as objects.  Rather than fragmenting generalized notion of consumers  
into discrete and manageable units, our brandscape positions the  
consuming subjects as capable of  ( if not vulnerable to ) being  
simultaneously attached and interpolated from a number of different  
sources…. with the mechanisms of social networking serving as an ideal  
vehicle for its implementation.  Perhaps this is, in part, what Simon  
refers to as the “remediated self” and ‘dark matter that mediates our  
social contracts” -

The global capitalist landscape of the early 21st c is quite literally  
and figuratively overly saturated with an unfathomable number of  
reproductions/copies of works of art (primarily of that of the “great  
masters “ – from Michelangelo and Leonardo to Cezanne and Monet to  
Warhol and Thomas Kinkaid).  Is it probable that we now be find  
ourselves thrashing about over a struggle over meanings – some of  
which often define cultural commodities in conflicting ways…. and that  
leave the practice of contemporary artist unmoored.

In response to an earlier reference to Jenny Holzer, the 1980’s  
reflected a time when neo-conceptual art aka appropriation art stood  
in opposition to the conventions of media and advertising.  Irony  
prevailed, as did the critique of the commodity – resulting in what  
has been identified by some as a radical take on consumer culture.  I  
believe it was Gary Indiana who slyly coined it “market art.”   
Perhaps, the greatest irony of all is that this critical art came into  
existence at a time when art was inextricably intertwined and totally  
dependent upon the market.   In other words at a time when, in  
essence, any real degree of agency – of criticality - was simply not  
feasible.  Where does this expectation – this myth - of agency come  
from – the marketplace itself?

“Artists themselves become the historians of their own impossibility  
to survive their art.”

What I’ve witnessed for the past 15 yrs or so is a voracious appetite  
for the archive – for indexing – that played nicely into the emergence  
of database aesthetics.   The celebratory re-inscription and of  
cultural legacies – of the historical – (even of our own practices)  
bears an uncanny and, to my mind, problematic resemblance to the  
courts of the 18th and 19th Beaux Arts.   This is especially troubling  
in any consideration of the role of the academy itself.

I believe it was Virillo that recently said something to the effect  
that:  art today doesn’t need any interpretation, it has enough  
problems proving that it just exists and that it has a  legitimate  
presence  –  a quote I do have of his is:
“the accident of art could be that it no longer has any reason to  

The question for me ( perhaps for us all) then becomes:  Is it  
possible to re-emerge from such an exhaustion of re-interpretations  
upon re-interpretation and the concretizing thereof?  Where do we find  
that innovative spring that someone alluded to in an earlier post?

All best,


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