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The Critique of Art as Commodity

“Given two things that resemble one another to any chosen degree, but one of them a work of art and the other an ordinary object, what accounts for this difference in status?” (Danto, 1981).

The infinite idea or ‘form’ of a thing may be its definition, and the finite object or the ‘thing’ itself, its example. As in the example of a ‘bed’[i]. The idea of this exists beyond any and all examples of various kinds of beds available today, and beds through times and cultures. A bed has a specific human purpose and need, and all the varying forms it has taken would have to satisfy these conditions, even the air mattress of today. It is meant for the human body to lie upon. The idea, or definition (‘the form’), in this manner is complete and does not need to be changed according to the multitude of changes that occur in the tangible, visible ‘thing’ itself. It, the definition, encompasses all these variations (Danto, 1981).

Thus, all definitions of things should be autonomous of them, and an ‘idea-l’, within which it would be possible for the myriad of pluralities to find space to exist. So should be the definition of art.

Occasionally, though, it may happen that a change in the thing is so drastic that it forces a re-reasoning of the form. The internet could be taken as an example. It re-defines the concept of space, of selves. On it exist virtual parallels of our beings; these ‘selves’ are not physical beings nor the ‘spirit’, but exist nonetheless, in a dimension of space that is peculiarly different from our earlier physical and metaphysical concepts. And, in being so, at least, makes a need for the ‘idea’ to be re-evaluated and re-constructed through further reasoning and dialect. It requires thought to go further, into realms hitherto unexplored simply because it was impossible to go beyond, as circumstances had not developed to this particular point ever before. It is a point of arrival that renders our former set of knowledge obsolete and requires a departure, yet again.

This is not the case with the bed[ii], yet.

Art, however, faces this dilemma. Art has had varying theories through time and space, replacing or augmenting each other, many of these having been rendered dysfunctional in the present time through the pluralities of the ‘objects’ of art itself. These works of art, by being removed from definitions of art —for example, Duchamp’s Fountain and Warhol’s Brillo boxes – yet being recognized and accepted as art, make the lack of an ‘idea’ of art apparent, and also the need for one. By being just like ‘mere real things’[iii], in visual appearance and tangible, tactile form, they pose the question of why they are art and why similar objects on sale in the markets are not. The ‘art’ lies not in the similarities, but in the differences that distinguish them from commonplace objects[iv]? Or, in both simultaneously? In the ‘transfiguration of the commonplace’, is the commonplace of more significance, or is the transfiguration, or are both? Does art lie in this commonplace, or in the transfiguration, or in what happens via this morphosis? The gap that is between art and life, which makes both distinct, yet links the two? Art exists in this space in-between the two?

Art has fulfilled a spectrum of needs, desires in and for the human, as discussed by various philosophers over time[v], but, none of these functions are the purpose now, wholly… seemingly, art has become autonomous of its function[vi]… can a bed survive if we do not have a need to lie down and rest? Everything we have, we create, analyze, think, do, is in anthropomorphic terms, as we are what we are and do not have the possibility of being something else and have not had that experience. Thus, everything is by, through and via the self that houses the body and the rational[vii]… Thus, art existed, even before it was conscious of itself as art, the art “before the beginning of art” and exists even now, “after the end of art”, where the narrative has stopped, or evolved to a new level of consciousness, of self-realization… applied to itself.[viii]

It is a pertinent fact that it is only now, at a particular point in time and space, that this could have been possible…and that now, art could “ achieve knowledge, not merely of what itself is, but that without the history of mishaps and misplaced enthusiasms, its knowledge would be empty”[ix]. The turn of events in art, peculiar developments, contingencies, eventualities, form the context for this discussion, and, cause it to happen. Similarly, it was possible for Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Brillo boxes to be art at that time alone and not at any other point earlier or later in time. Therefore the quality of being art relies not only on the ‘object’ or ‘idea’ of art itself, but on “Content and Causation”[x], on meaning contained due to the discourse of reasons preceding, surrounding and following it. Why is “J’s raid”, the red square of painted canvas,  “Untitled” work, not art, or “empty”[xi]? Is it an instance of “the kinds of cases which had [have] become artworld commonplaces by then [now]”[xii]?

We deal with two problems: firstly, that of ontology, definition and interpretation. What is ‘it’ that makes something a work of art? Secondly, content and causation, that Danto also terms as ‘The problem of Historical Modalities’[xiii]. “Contemporary art replaces beauty, everywhere threatened, with meaning”, it is this ‘textual’ inference(s) that creates the difference between an artwork and reality. It is what exists beyond the sensual and the visible. And, this is essentially a discourse of historical reasons (Danto, 1992).

If now, since rising to the status of self-awareness/reflection/critique/analysis, through ‘re’-presentation/appropriation of itself, art has become majorly about the discourse, ideas, words/language, then what about the visual? If there is no more a need for something to be there that is an object, different strikingly from ‘mere, real objects’ to be called an artwork, in some cases, not even any visual, tangible or abstract, is an absolute necessity, – what happens to ‘visual’ arts? However, it may be argued that ‘it’ was always about the words, the ideas, and visuals were signs, signs that signify narratives, words, ideas. Only now, it is predominantly so. Even in ‘mere representations’, it is the idea of presenting reality on a two dimensional surface, not real, or something beyond reality; as mirrors reflect/imitate the real world but also show us something that is not visible to us otherwise, namely, our selves[xiv]. Mere objects, and mere re-presentations are also endowed with the subjective…

But the questions that remain only vaguely answered are, again, ‘what’ and ‘when’ is this ‘idea’ or ‘form’ of art? What could be the “defeating conditions…the object of which they were true would be disqualified as an artwork…?[xv]” As we do need to make sense of /within/ ‘deduce’ the pluralities that exist …

In the copious discourse on images – historical, critical, philosophical – there exists between ‘art’ and ‘life’, an indistinct yet constantly perceptible border. Though postmodern dialogic has the tendency to blur and disregard these distinctions between art and the commonplace, between high and low, between the fine and the popular, how far is it reflected in the actual visual culture surrounding and permeating us? Is it the postmodern thought that influences the production of works that blur these boundaries or is it the visual works that influence not only the writings/discourse but also our perceptions?

How far and how does his work blur this distinction, how successfully, what is the measure of success, if any? And, does it still remain ‘art’ in doing so? Thus what is art? Is there or should there even be, a demarcation between art and life/commerce/commodity? Or, to imagine art to be on a step higher, in a hierarchy, from a commodity is a fallacy, an assumption?

The excess of reality, and the fact that the excess is writing, are only the strongest signs of a general uncertainty about what picturing now is.”[xvi] And, this uncertainty is rendered even more poignant by the heterogeneous nature of the plethora of images we are constantly surrounded by, in both our daily lives and in art. This hegemony of uncertainty, of “contingency”[xvii], is – or at least seems to be- the mien of the postmodern existence, ridden by mass-scale mechanical/industrial/cultural production/re-production and consumption. Conversely, or paradoxically, this absence of certainty, of meaning, of cause and effect, of absolute dictums, could beget new meanings – a world fecund with possibilities where traditional borders blur and melt and previously distinct entities morph, and spawn hybrid and mutant forms.

It is in this scenario that the nature of art and its definition is questioned as well as stretched. It is here that visual culture has become a ‘subject/field’ that deserves intense study.[xviii] It is now that the polemic of high and low, classical and popular, culture as well as art, is interrogated. It is also now that images and objects from the “Popular Culture” are analyzed microscopically, much as “Art”[xix], and now that the latter appropriates elements, ideas and values from the former[xx].

Such tensions are apparent in much of contemporary art, which incorporates not only industrial production and images from popular, mass, high and low cultures but also re-translates itself into a ‘brand’, an outlet for high-end luxury objects.

The work, the accolade, and the ‘buzz’ about it all, bring to the fore questions about art, about art and society, art and politics, art and commercialism/consumerism, art and popular culture, and, the reification of life. The need to distinguish art from “mere real things”, to scrutinize the gap that exists between the two, emerges again.

Why are the commercially produced objects and artifacts in a contemporary art exhibition or fair “Art” and the social objects and concepts that they are derived from, not? Is it that their presence in the sacrosanct precincts of a museum is suffice to bestow upon them this honor; or is it the impeccably produced surfaces and forms; or the meanings, connections and raveling of hierarchies that they allude to?

In being so, however, art now reflects the “essential dynamic” of the society, but the dynamic as reduced to the prevalent hegemonic trends of the present world order, severed and crystallized in the iconic, the commodified, the canivalesque, the fetishistic. [xxi] The combination of art and commerce is not uncanny, and seems to be merely a reflection of art and life as we know it today.

Art is popular in the art-worlds, aiming to be accessible to the general audience in visual terms, to the collectors for possession, indulging self-consciously in a discourse about its nature, meaning and purpose… it is maybe not a critique of art and the art-world, -practice and -mechanics in the present scenario, but a manifestation, a crystallization of it. It glories in this, lavishes, and glorifies it. It is successful, not in taking a common object like Duchamp or Warhol and transcending that to the stature of ‘art’ but takes ‘art’ and brings it to the realm of realistic life. Does it make art into the commonplace? Is that another step for art? Does art have to be sublime? Nonetheless, the leveling of art as commodity would seem to somehow level the topography and make it all consistent visual landscapes, without vicissitudes. Which it can not be.

The argument brings one around in a circle to similar questions one started with… is this art? What is art? What and/or who determines the ‘value’ of art, not just monetary but aesthetic value? Galleries, auctions? Museums? Critics? Art-philosophers? And, what and where is art situated in today’s world saturated with media images? Is it indispensable to draw conclusions and/or definitions? To move beyond the multivalence of today’s existence and discourse? is there a beyond? If so, what is it or what might it be? Or is this pluralism and trans-textuality the mode of thought, perception and being that we have arrived at and need to work with to make sense again of things? Whatever it is, what cannot be denied and is maybe the only thing that can be affirmed is that as the invention of the camera and film heralded a new era of mechanical reproduction, this is a time of festering as well, of new understandings and changes. It is a time of the spectacle, the carnivalesque, the beach, all magnified, more intense, more loud, more vivid, and also a time when more and more is produced in it, and in response to it.

[i] Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Works of Art and Mere Real Things”. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (pp. 12). London: Harvard University Press.

[ii] or the closet, or the chair, or a bag, and so on…

[iii] Danto, Arthur C. (1997).” Introduction: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary”. In After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (pp. 13). Princeton University.

[iv] Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Preface”. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (pp. vi-vii). London: Harvard University Press.

[v] As an example, Plato and Shakespeare, who thought of art as being an “imitation”, a “mirror to reality”.

Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Works of Art and Mere Real Things”. In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (pp. 8-12). London: Harvard University Press.

[vi] Adorno, Theodor. (1999). Aesthetic Theory (pp. 1). London: The Athlone Press.

[vii] Danto, Arthur C. (1997). “Introduction: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary”. In After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (pp. 6). Princeton University.

[viii] Ibid. (pp. 4, 6-9)

[ix] Ibid. (pp. 5)

[x] Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Content and Causation”. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace. London: Harvard University Press.

[xi] Ibid. (pp. 2-3).

[xii] Danto, Arthur C. Volume 1: Works in Progress: Art and the Historical Modalities. Retrieved October 18, 2007, from http://www.uqtr.ca/AE/vol_1/danto.html

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Works of Art and Mere Real Things”. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (pp. 9). London: Harvard University Press.

[xv] Danto, Arthur C. (1981). “Works of Art and Mere Real Things”. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (pp. 31). London: Harvard University Press.

[xvi] Clarke, T. J. (1999). Farewell to an Idea. (pp. 45). London: Yale University Press.

[xvii] “’Modernity’ means contingency. It points to a social order which has turned from the worship of ancestors and past authorities to the pursuit of a projected future – of goods, pleasures, freedoms, forms of control over nature, or infinities of information… meaning is in short supply – ‘meaning’ here meaning agreed-on and instituted forms of value and understanding … The phrase Max Weber borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world,’ still seems to me to sum up this side of modernity best.”

Clarke, T. J. (1999). Farewell to an Idea. (pp. 7). London: Yale University Press

[xviii] “Although the distinction between high and popular culture, organized by practices of aesthetic evaluation, is of recent origin, it is often presented as having been in existence since the beginnings of human history…”

Storey, J. (2003). Inventing Popular Culture. (pp. 32). Singapore: Blackwell Publishing.

[xix] Kellner, D. (1995). Media Culture. Routeledge.; Brummett, B. (2006). Rhetoric in Popular Culture. Sage.; DuGay, P. (1997). Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. Sage.

[xx] The ‘Pop-Art’ artists; Warhol, Lichtenstein, Olderberg, Koons, and others.

Cagle, V. M. (1995). Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[xxi]What Adorno says about sociology, with minor re-phrasing, seems pertinent here: “If this work and its submerged content is taken as a metaphor or an allegory for the ‘society as a whole’ – which ought to be a subject – then, by its internal logic, it turns society into an object; and that in doing so – in the act of cognition, as it were – it repeats the process of reification which, for their part, are already implicit in the logic of the commodity character which is spreading throughout society”.

Adorno, T. W. (2000). Introduction to Sociology. (pp. 137-8). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.



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