A review of “Forgetting the Art World” by P.M Lee (MIT Press, 2012)

There is something a little un-nerving in reviewing only the introduction of a book; a small internal voice whispers that you have missed the central platform of the argument and thus are making an ass of yourself; if you had only read the entire book you would have understood all.

This anxious feeling is lessened somewhat by the exhaustive nature of P.M. Lee’s dense introduction to her book: “Forgetting the Art World”. And exhaustive it is. My powers of literary cognisance are admittedly a little rusty, and so it took me quite a while to come to grips with the historical and philosophical frameworks that Lee puts in place in the first 22 pages of her introduction. Here she delineates her themes of the “art world” and the “world of the work of art”. She painstakingly sets up a progression of ideas surrounding these concepts, from Danto’s rarefied, heavenly art world floating above the 60’s, through Lawrence Alloway’s writing on art as a system propagated via networks, and on to George Yudice, who describes the fall from Paradise as the “culturalisation of the economy”, a process whereby culture becomes a crucial part of capital. Once she has arrived at this point in art history and in a reversal of Danto’s image Lee appeals for a closer look at the underbelly of the “work of art’s world” from our position below it.

My uptake of Lee’s ideas really takes off from this point on, as she begins to mediate her theories of globalization and art via specific artists and their work.

Lee laces her evocative critical descriptions of Steve McQueen’s films Gravesend and Unexploded with coherent and compelling arguments for their indissolubility from the phenomenon that they themselves interrogate. This, she says, is the crux of the process of art in a globalized “world of the work of art”.

Lee goes on to outline a series of chapters, each utilizing an artist or collective of artists as the prism through which to view these Mobius-like ideas of art as both product and instigator of globalization. At the heart of these themes there is a challenge for any artist engaged with the process of making art, to consider their own place in this endless circularity and co-dependency. Lee asks me to complicate and worry about the relationship between these worlds, and in this introduction extends an invitation to play an active role both as viewer and maker.

In this heightened state of complication and worry I came across a short piece in the February Vanity Fair magazine. (Surely the perfect example of the conflation of culture and capital, and a guilty monthly pleasure.) In this piece, entitled The Diplomacy of Art, and written by Hillary Clinton, we learn about “art as a tool of diplomacy”. The article describes the creation of the Art in Embassies program, initiated by MoMA in 1953 and formalized by J.F.K in 1963. Since then the work of more than 4,000 primarily American artists has been showcased in U.S Embassies and Consulates around the world. Mrs. Clinton’s final remarks are illuminating in the context of cultural capital and the slippery political nature of globalization.  She says:

“Just think about what an exhibition of American and local artists means to someone across the world yearning to express himself or herself.”

This fervent expression of a desire, one that most non-Americans would describe as nostalgic at best, to march metaphorically and artistically into the hearts and minds of the global community, sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside the double-page spread group portrait that accompanies it. From the balcony of the U.S State Department in Washington, with a backdrop of a dusky twilight and the Great Seal of the U.S.A, stare out a group of superstar artists; all adorned with gold medals hanging from blue ribbons around their necks, and expressions that range from the severe and the smug to the ecstatic. These artists look like nothing less than war heroes, wearing their spoils from the battle.

An additional layer of frisson is added by the knowledge that this group portrait has been made by Todd Eberle, he who regularly photographs the homes of the uber-wealthy for the same magazine.

In conclusion, I do think it is a bridge too far to stop reading Vanity Fair over breakfast. However P.M Lee has prevented me from doing so in future in quite such a state of blissful mindlessness. Now I think I shall have to read the rest of the book.

Vanity Fair. Feb 2013
Vanity Fair. Feb 2013

5a.m, December 28 2012

5a.m, December 28 2012

Thoughts on pilgrimage lifted with gratitude from Robert McFarlane in his feature in the Guardian, The Road More Travelled, June 16th 2012,


“Place works on the pilgrim, that is what pilgrimage is for.”

Rowan Williams, Anglican bishop and Archbishop of Canterbury until Dec 2012. Cited in R. Mcfarlane, The Road More Travelled The Guardian, 16.06.12



“Pilgrim rules:

The Rule of Resonance: a smaller place with which we resonate is more important than a place of great pilgrimage.


The Rule of Correspondence: a place within a landscape corresponds to a place within the heart.



“The number of quiet pilgrims is rising. Places are starting to move. On stones and in forests one comes across small offerings-a posy made from wheat, a feather in a bunch of heather, a circle from snail shells.”


Vaclav Cilek, from “Bees of the Invisible” Artesian journal, cited in R. Mcfarlane, The Road More Travelled The Guardian, 16.06.12


Highbrow or lowlife; the society of the spectacle in the age of The Contemporary.

In her talk at the January MFA seminar 2013 at Whitecliffe College Judy Millar used as the central provocation a debate held between Gilles Lipovetsky, and Mario Vargas Llosa.This debate was held at the Cervantes Institute, Madrid, on 24 April 2012.

The main thrust of the debate centres around a single point of contention: culture as reflective of the ultimate dissolution of a decadent society or its best means of salvation?

In defending the current trajectory of spectacle in society, Lipovetsky identifies individual desire and change for its own sake as the two key denominators of modern life.

These agents are the drivers at the forefront of humanity’s ability to stay one step ahead of pedagogy and tyranny he argues.

Mario Vargas Llosa maintains however that the role of defender of freedoms is that of High Culture. He claims that high culture has always been a place of non-conformity and that the humanism inherent in it’s forms of expression is a “main source for progress and freedom”

Lipovetsky argues that revolution is no longer needed, and that instead the driving forces of self and consumerism will of themselves stay one step ahead of convention and ideology. This seems to ignore the real evidence that human nature has a propensity to hedonism and survivalism. Neither of these traits are conducive to community-building or a less ego-driven approach to the business of existence. Lipovetsky also argues that consumption of spectacle-culture is not passive, as multiple choices require a continuous active navigation of options. It does seem likely however that a majority of Western consumers would opt for familiar experiences and allow themselves only exposure to thinking that mirrors their own rather than choosing to encounter new, difficult and challenging ideas, some of which could broker real social change.

Some support for Lipovetsky’s positivity toward the effects of entertainment comes from a hero photographer of mine, Alec Soth, in his blog post titled should artists be entertainers? (Posted in Flotsam by LBM on Nov 7 2011. http://www.littlebrownmushroom.com/2011/11/). Soth suggests that art works on three levels; that entertainment is the hook to draw the viewer into something more educational and perhaps even transformative. In support of this he refers to the novelist Michael Chabon, who in his essay the Pleasure Principal says the following:

“Yet entertainment-as I define it, pleasure and all- remains the only sure way we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection.”

(Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/27/books/bk-chabon27)

Vargos Llosa however posits that in the age of The Contemporary “everything can be art, and nothing is”. Inside the safe enclosure of the museum or gallery a viewer can expect to see anything, no matter how visceral or disturbing, and detach from the experience via the endorsement of the institution; after all it’s just art. Thus the art market, and the hegemony that it supports, negate the disruptive possibilities for radical change occurring as the result of viewing an artwork. Expanding on this opinion Millar cites the recent exhibition by Cyprien Gaillard at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, April 2011, the recovery of discovery. In this show a giant geometric pyramid of beer boxes is gradually dismantled and consumed over a period of months, leaving a stinking mess of broken glass and detritus. Millar asks is this rebellion or decadence? The impact of either seems dulled by the implicit endorsement of the event by the institution; inside a safe curated space, anything goes.

Millar goes on to further discuss the role of art institutions in the society of the spectacle. In the example she gives, despite the protestations of the curator that art is not the art market, Klaus Biesenbach promotes the artist is present (Marina Abromavich) via an HBO film, in a way that sets up the artist as auteur and star, with added drama added by way of score and editing. The drama of the promotion is not borne out by the experience of being in the building itself while the show is happening, says Millar, and somehow packages what could be an intense and personal encounter into something played out for the big screen.

Wether society is rotting from the inside out by way of its decadent obsession with consumer culture, or rather that its citizenship are instead charting their own individual courses to salvation via the Arts or Shopping Channels, it seems that art institutions have become a much diluted force for change.

This sense that institutional art has become completely commoditised and thus stripped of any real agency for subversion does open up some new possibilities, and these are in part linked to technology. Millar referred to the promulgation of political revolutionary thought during the Arab Spring and to the activities of Anonymous as examples of internet-based cultural disturbances outside the control of the hegemony. Vargos Llosas maintains that technology breeds encapsulated skill-sets owned by specialists working in isolation, and says that only culture can create a community of interests. This may be so, however technology does offer vehicles for the creation, sharing and distribution of these interests.

In closing Millar poses a particularly relevant question for a group of tentative new artists; in this arena how do you disrupt? How do you challenge or subvert? Or are you content simply to add your output to the weight of existing art-commodity?

Marxists knew that owning the means of distribution was key to revolutionary success. The internet facilitates this means of distribution; a global arena for creativity, thought and citizen-to-citizen exchange as well as for commerce. As art institutions become increasingly reliant on revenue from the paying public, and thus tailor their offerings accordingly, technology continually creates new cracks away from the centre, new ways to enable disruptive and challenging projects on the fringes. This re-marginalisation of non-conformist thinking may well be the key to its survival. Grass-roots activist organisations can exist and interact via the internet, and a resurgence in local community based projects and interventions now exists as a global reality. Artists and writers can design and print their own books, and sell them directly to their audience without the need for major publishing houses to endorse their product. Crowdsourcing can fund-raise for a project, avoiding the circle-jerk of government “creative” funding rounds.

The brief romance that radical art has had with the mainstream, and all the attendant wealth and adulation that the relationship has engendered, may well be over. It may be time once again to make art that earns less and means more.



“Proust is important for everyone”

Original in Spanish ,Translation by Paul Hammond

First published in Letras Libres 7/2012 (Spanish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Letras Libres

© Gilles Lipovetsky, Mario Vargas Llosa / Letras Libres

© Eurozine


The Pleasure Principal excerpted from “Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands”

by Michael Chabon (McSweeney’s: 222 pp., $24). Copyright 2008 by Michael Chabon. Published by arrangement with McSweeney’s Books.

The fear of naming things.

Naming things has always brought with it a level of anxiety. When something is named, it exists. It becomes more concrete, more present, inhabits it’s own reality to a certain degree and takes on a life of its own. This knowledge brings with it a responsibility to get the name right. A thing mis-named will forever be somewhat misbegotten.

Thus the naming of this blog brought with it some of the doubts and uncertainties that lie at the heart of the projected work I am about to undertake.

Surely a mis-step here would somehow curse the project? Send me off on a false start from which things simply continue to unravel?

This unease is amplified by the resonances of the name itself, once chosen. Pilgrims Progress; surely this name will simply bring religious fanatics to my door and raise the pious spectre of the New Testament to hover uncomfortably over the entire proceeding?

Mikala Dwyer, in her generous and hypnotic artist talk yesterday, allayed many of these fears. She talked about how her work and how its’ possible readings can veer uncomfortably toward the New Age, with all the connotations of flaky lifestyle solutions and Californian hippies that entails. She makes the work and talks about it in terms of it’s mysticism and her fascination with the occult and paranormal nonetheless.

So, a pilgrim’s progress.  A hikoi, a road trip, a “journey” to quote a much-scorned term frequently heard in art critiques. A departure from the usual route. The road less travelled. A portal. An escape. An adventure. A possible redemption.