Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Neomanagerial Art and the Cultural Will to Power

The March/April edition of the New Left Review has an article that almost earns its keep from its title alone: “Neomanagerial Art.” It’s written by Matthew Jesse Jackson, a faculty member at Cal Arts, and it deals most directly with Ilya Kabakov, who was able to work within and on the margins of the Soviet art and culture system and is now doing the same thing in the era of post-Soviet capitalism. During the Soviet years, Kabakov was identified as a dissident artist, even though he was a member of the Union of Soviet Artists. Outside of his day job illustrating children’s books and science magazines, he engaged in “conceptual actions” that took the tools of state control systems, such as surveillance and documentation, and reapplied them to pointless activities under his leadership. Jackson refers to this as “an essentially homeopathic undertaking,” a great phrase that refers to taking the active ingredients of a syndrome and applying them to build up resistance to that syndrome. In this case it would be the tools of totalitarianism putting up some protection against totalitarianism. The pointlessness of the activities documented in the “conceptual action” make absolutely clear the pointlessness of the activities required by the Soviet bureaucracies in culture and all other spheres.

Jackson describes Kabakov’s efforts to apply the same principles within the new system of cultural management, particularly in regard to his competing visions for the reuse of an old coking plant in Germany. One of the points is that he transfers his attempts at a kind of cultural homeopathy to the new cultural masters, masters who operate within a market context. There is an equivalence in the kind of absolute control both systems and their bureaucracies would exercise.

Jackson describes the Western cultural system as dominated by “cultural actors plugged directly into the entrepreneurial sector.” Thomas Krens of the Guggenheim is the poster child for this character. There has been a convergence in which the business world has adopted ideas pioneered by cultural radicals, such as iconoclasm, constant change, and fluid identities and relationships. The business world’s cooption of these sorts of ideas has been well described by Tom Frank (The Conquest of Cool) and earlier by people like my friend Warren Leming, who as a musician in the late 60s saw rock music quickly converted into profit by many levels of opportunists. Jackson’s article reminds us that it goes the other way too, as artists take on the role of managers: organizing human resources, logistics, financing, and marketing.

The managerial instinct has been around as long as artists ran studios to help them turn out their work. It may have gotten more pronounced in the 1960s. Earth artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, James Turrell can’t do a thing without a managerial hand. With Christo and Jean-Claude, the process, the business of getting one of these things made, is nearly the entire point. The question is whether artist-managers and their work resist or reinforce the prevailing systems of dominance in society. As the business world embraces anti-institutional instability (e.g., a world of purely contingent workers replaces standing employment relationships), do artists simply become adjuncts to the drive for corporate profitability? Jackson suggests that “the arts become more commercialized while business recuperates their discarded mythology of creative individualism.”

Kabakov’s response is very Constructivist, to build monuments to the non-artist rather than in engage in “yet another exercise in Effective Cultural Management.” He would make of art spaces like the coking plant “a liberated zone where the diktats of the cultural managers would be rendered redundant and ridiculous.” The inevitable role of cultural power makes any institutional setting problematic for art, whether it is the Frist Center or a small art center that is striving to “institutionalize” itself and become more of a player in the art scene. The tendency towards oppression lurks behind them all.

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