03 01 07

This Way To Exit

On Julian Stallabrass’s ART INC

Gene Ray

“Contemporary art seeks to bamboozle its viewers while being the willing slave of business and government.  This book is your antidote and will change the way you see contemporary art.”  This teaser from the jacket of Julian Stallabrass’s Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art[1] seems to promise a critical tour of the art world, written by an insider for the disenchantment of outsiders.  Ultimately, however, the illusions Stallabrass aims to dispel are not those of wide-eyed or would-be culture consumers.  It is clear by the end of this engaging little book that Stallabrass has much to say to the art world itself.  He sets out to expose the “large mismatch between the contemporary art world’s own view of itself and its actual function” (p. 186), in order to remind insiders – and above all artists – that art as a realm of free play is always bought with specific social consequences.

Stallabrass’s main argument here is that in the era of neo-liberal globalization, the institutions and conventions of contemporary art were transformed by corporate and state power in ways that calibrate art’s social functions to the needs of the new world system.  He sums up the result of these changes by pointing to art’s new “core function as a propagandist of neoliberal values.” (p. 72) 

It becomes ever clearer that the ideological conditions of these transformations in art were facilitated by the rise, first in US academia, then in the international art world, of post-1968 French theory.  In their origins, Foucault’s re-conceptualization of power, Derrida’s deconstructions, and Deleuze-Guattari’s rhizomatics belonged to a broader attempt to radically reinvent politics beyond the forms of state and party.  Especially in the cases of Lyotard and Guattari, radical textual experiments reflected specific experiences of militant political practice.  The nomadic, the hybrid, the micro and the schizo:  these motifs seemed emancipatory, in so far as they corresponded to more complex, fragmented, and conflicted forms of class composition and seemed to underwrite the new struggles of identity politics.  As the counter-revolution in the wake of ‘68 took hold, however, these approaches gradually lost their critical bite and began to appear as celebrations of a new global reality.  It was in this celebratory, neutralized form that French theory became the exemplar of “postmodernism” and rose to ascendancy in US universities in the 1980s.  The crucial contextual links to political struggle were conveniently lost overboard in the transatlantic passage.  As Stallabrass summarizes the effects of this displacement:  “Postmodern theory itself, as it moved from being an account of a potential utopia or dystopia to being a flat description of an existing reality, lost its critical and ethical force.” (p. 78)

The historical reasons for this functional inversion on the level of ideology are material:  the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production in the capitalist core, beginning in the 1970s (itself a response to the fierce revolts of labor); the consolidation of an effectively global market following the shift to a free-floating currency exchange in 1971; the development of global communications networks and information technologies; and the shift from the Keynesian welfare state model to what we now know as hard-line neoliberalism.  As barriers to trade, investment, and speculation were progressively pulverized, and as the quantity and frequency of transnational and trans-cultural contact and exchange exploded, the nomadic, flexible, identity-tolerant values of French theory became extremely appealing.  In a world in which border crossing has become a necessity, the theory of border crossing becomes a virtue.

Today, as Stallabrass observes, “Corporate culture has thoroughly assimilated the discourse of a tamed postmodernism.” (Ibid.)  And we could add: so has the state and its war machine.  The possibility of such a convergence will have been no surprise to careful readers of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.  But it was never so startlingly confirmed as in Eyal Weizman’s report on the reading lists and theoretical underpinnings of the Israeli Defense Forces doctrines of urban combat.[2]  Paratroop officers enthusiastically spouting Deleuze and Debord to explain their tactics for moving through and devastating hostile urban environments:  this is a condensed image of postmodernity that surely is destined to become iconic – and to take its place in a still unmade sequel to Apocalypse Now.  It is significant that Weizman’s article was published in Frieze, a pseudo-critical art world promotion organ that ranks just after Artforum and Flash Art in its submission to the market.  For there, floating among the full-page ads and fluff pieces, Weizman’s message is reduced to a frisson – one more bit of ironic eye-candy and discursive dissonance in a closed affirmative circuit.

It’s a problem, in short, that nomadic po-mo promiscuity and hybridity became the theoretical baseline of an art world that was all-too ready to embrace the “end of history” values of neoliberal globalization.  Stallabrass approvingly cites Hardt and Negri on the grounds of this convergence:  “The ideology of the world market has always been the anti-foundational and anti-essentialist discourse par excellence.  Circulation, mobility, diversity and mixture are its very conditions of possibility.” (p.76)  And he concludes that “the most celebrated contemporary art is that which serves to further the interests of the neoliberal economy, in breaking down barriers to trade, local solidarities, and cultural attachments in a continual process of hybridization.” (p. 186)

Stallabrass’s great strength is to demonstrate how this “affinity between contemporary art and capital” (p. 8) plays out in the tendencies of actual art practice and the modes of institutional control.  Among critics and writers on current art, he is perhaps unequaled in his facility for weaving together, in the most vivid and jargon-free way, elements of classical ideology critique, digested summaries of empirical studies, and subtle discussions of specific works and exhibitions.  It certainly is to the benefit of his Marxist-inflected arguments that Stallabrass, no philistine, can ably articulate his sensitive responses to complex aesthetic works.  And in this book as in High Art Lite (1999), he is particularly strong in demonstrating the close correlations between art fashions and the economic cycles.  In this respect, the art world is, as he puts it, “bound to the economy as tightly as Ahab to the white whale.” (p. 23)  When the economy booms and stocks soar, so does the art market.  And when the art market begins its bubble, we can be sure that painting will be back “in,” and that the hottest critics will be peddling calls for a return to beauty and trashing political and critical art.  When recession threatens, this minor speculative market in luxury goods and symbolic capital is the first to be hit, and when the bubble bursts and the latest crop of art stars fall to earth, then – what a surprise! – suddenly political and critical art doesn’t seem so passé after all.  Until the next boom, of course.

Among his always-enlightening discussions of the ins and outs of art world institutions and the nuts and bolts of dominant art practices, Stallabrass’s critical dissection of biennial fever is especially cogent:

While the art world has long been cosmopolitan, the end of the cold war, as we have seen, brought about a considerable retooling of its practices and habits.  Just as business executives circled the earth in search of new markets, so a breed of nomadic global curators began to do the same, shuttling from one biennale or transnational art event to another, from São Paulo to Venice to Kwangju to Sydney to Kassel and Havana. (p. 33)

The material forces driving the biennial phenomenon are the same as those driving the expansion of museums and the construction of new ones.  Cities now must compete globally for investment and tourists; spectacular cultural events and institutions – like sporting arenas and Olympics – serve to validate an ambitious city’s brand and identity.  “The biennale is merely one arrow in any would-be global city’s quiver.” (p. 36)

Stallabrass is a competent dialectician.  He knows that the antagonisms and paradoxes at the heart of contemporary art go back to what Adorno called “art’s double-character” under capitalism:  both autonomous and social fact.  He shows that while the logic of corporate power and state agendas under the sign of neoliberal globalization serve to undermine art’s autonomy, that autonomy cannot be eradicated without sacrificing art’s affirmative social functions.  Even today, art cannot be reduced utterly to fashion or mere commodity.  Stallabrass has many important things to say about the logics and pressures linking corporate power, public funding of the arts, biennials, museum branding and expansion, trends in discourse, and installation art – lessons that are best absorbed in all their richness by a careful reading of the book itself.

For some art-world insiders, and for subjectivities recently formed in those anti-critical hothouses of careerist accommodationism known as art schools, a serious engagement with this book could be crisis provoking.  For readers familiar with the great critiques of capitalist art worked out by the Frankfurt School, the Situationist International, and Pierre Bourdieu, Stallabrass’s account will be helpful and informative, but hardly a surprise.  For those willing to go further and ask what’s to be done in response to the art world’s evident submission to neoliberal values, Stallabrass’s conclusions will be especially interesting.

In his last chapter, fittingly entitled “Contradictions,” Stallabrass takes note of current global realities that have put neoliberal hegemony into question, if not crisis.  What already at the end of the previous chapter he has invoked as the “return of a cogent opposition to capitalism” (p. 175) will have consequences for an art world harmonized to posthistoire neoliberal fantasies:  “Recent events – the attack of another global recession, the rise of radical political movements, and the many consequences of an overtly imperial project pursued by the US – have begun to fracture the longstanding agreement about art’s role and character.” (p. 176)

However, the way out of market-dominated servility is not to be found in the likes of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics.  Stallabrass neatly dispatches Bourriaud’s case for art as social interaction, still en vogue when Art Incorporated was published in 2004.  Bourriaud sought to justify the dialogue-based or -generating art of Liam Gillick, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and others, by positioning it as a principled response to the social fragmentation and isolation of contemporary life.  “Through little services rendered,” writes Bourriaud, “artists fill in the cracks in the social bond.”[3]  Taking Bourriaud at his word, but bringing to bear a more structural and critical perspective on the question of function, Stallabrass sums up the problem with this direction of practice: 

This type of art is, however, congenial both to governments (particularly those of a social-democratic inflection, hence its prevalence in Europe during the 1990s) and business.  Governments, as we have seen, look to art as a social salve, and hope that socially interactive art will act as bandaging for the grave wounds continually prised open by capital.  Corporations may also employ it specifically to leaven workplace environments with creative play, and free up company structures and methods with innovative thinking.  Art is refashioned as management consultancy. (pp. 182-3)

In other words, art status is now extended to forms of "sociability" that work to suppress, rather than pose, the social question.  The argument in the background, which Stallabrass can leave more or less unstated because it follows from the earlier invocation of “recent events,” is clear:  implicit in Bourriaud’s “relational” appeal to artistic responsibility is the conviction that radical solutions to social anomie (i.e. revolution) are off the table, since history is officially over; however, the globalized renewal of social movments and anti-capitalist struggles puts this very conviction in doubt and returns the social question to its proper focus on the problem of systemic (i.e. radical) transformation.  As the world turns, the relational response suddenly appears restricted and inadequate to the problems it purports to address.

It’s obvious that no general or durable solution to the predicament of art, as a relatively autonomous but ultimately dominated sphere of institutionalized practices, is possible in the absence of radical social reorganization.  In the end, art’s utopian aspirations are hitched to the fate of revolution.  As long as capitalism is the dominant world system, it will force art to tow the line.  This is why announcements of the death of the avant-garde and its project of exit or breakout prove, in times of renewed social struggle, always to have been premature.  Some might criticize Stallabrass for making too much of recent events – for being too optimistic about the condensation of “fragmented single issue politics” into “a coherent movement of opposition.” (p. 194)  Empire is real, the most sober readers might reply, the multitudo is as of yet no more than a projection.  Perhaps.  But Stallabrass is right in refusing the rancorous denigrations of Hardt and Negri voiced all too often by the self-appointed representatives of Marxist orthodoxy.  It’s too early to tell if the revolutionary potentials analyzed by the Italian heretics will in fact develop historical agency.  But that they won’t is no certainty, either.  No one who takes the openness of history seriously would want to play the prophet of foreclosure here.  That is to say, while we’re waiting to find out, let’s not just be waiting.

For his part, Stallabrass proposes four “opportunities” for exploiting the tensions and structural antagonisms of capitalist art as it too comes under pressure from the globalized challenge to neoliberal dominance.  The first, iconoclasm (the leap back from symbolic or virtual to actual violence) lacks promise and appeal, to put it mildly.  Citing attacks on Marcus Harvey’s painting of convicted murderer Myra Hindley and on Chris Ofili’s pornographic Holy Virgin Mary, Stallabrass notes – with what irony it’s not quite clear:  “The destruction of art, or even the attempt to do so, is the most basic protest against the notion implicit in contemporary art that all signs are equally open to play.” (pp. 187-8)  He goes on, giving his provocation two more turns, in spite of all odds:  “Such acts also challenge the commonly held view that all art is a good, a product of sovereign self-expression.  When public works of art are attacked their setting, purpose, and the politics of their commissioning are all highlighted.” (p. 188)  Even as a provocation, these arguments are weak.  It’s true that art as a spiritual good is overvalued and generally never questioned.  Tough critical questions in this direction are most welcome.  But mobilizing hostility to culture – and its shadow, anti-intellectualism, never far away – in the name of anti-elitism is an old strategy.  Unhappily it’s a fascist one.  So without crying any tears at all over the damage the works in question may have sustained, let’s leave option number one, please.

Stallabrass advances the second and third options together:  “political activism in art, and the linked exploitation of technological means to side-step the art-world system.” (p. 188)  He notes that some exhibitions and biennials have been linked thematically to explicit critiques of neoliberalism.  He justly praises Catherine David’s Documenta X and Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11 for their strong political focus.  However, he concedes that to a large degree such attempts are always neutralized in advance:  “Yet as long as such work remains within conventional art-world structures, such critiques contain self-evident contradictions that weaken their likely power.” (p. 189)  Indeed, one enormous performative contradiction subverting all attempts to develop criticality within the conventions of the gallery exhibition structure, is that no matter how critical an art object or installation may be, its very presence in the gallery reproduces the conventions of passive and isolated spectatorship that facilitate art’s political neutralization.  “If the work is shown without any prospect that it will have an effect,” writes Stallabrass, “its display becomes mere performance and its viewing a form of entertainment.” (p. 191)  Since its discovery by Richard Huelsenbeck and Raoul Hausmann, who on a 1920 Dada tour nearly triggered a riot by taking their attacks on Spießbürgertum to a city market in Prague, this truth has been repeatedly forgotten, each time to be rediscovered and quickly repressed, again and again.  One thinks of Debord’s words, spoken by Isidore Isou to a blank white screen, in his 1952 anti-film Howlings for Sade:  The gallery is empty.  That art is dead.  There’s just no use to go on like that.  If you want, we can have a debate about it.

Stallabrass positions his third option as a way “to step outside the conventional arena of gallery and museum display.” (Ibid.)  Here, as in his previous book, he argues that the Internet constitutes a real threat to capitalist art as a “protected system.”[4]  “What,” Stallabrass asks, “is the market to make of a work that is reproducible with perfect accuracy, that can simultaneously exist on thousands of servers and millions of computers, and that can be cannibalized or modified by users?  How can one buy, sell, or own such a portion of data?” (p. 192)  The hacker ethic of free circulations and gift economies, epitomized by Richard Stallman’s free software movement (championed by Stallabrass in another context[5]), does indeed threaten the enclosure of intellectual property.  And there is no doubt that the recombinant technologies of the “digital revolution” have gone far toward democratizing those reliable artistic techniques of appropriation and displacement, which now are as close to hand as the nearest mouse or laptop scroll pad.  This development is not without irony and ambiguity, however.  As is well known, tactics of appropriation have been central to both art and advertising – and historically have locked the two into sometimes hostile, sometimes loving relations of mutual dependence and abuse.  All the more reason to remember how the Situationists cut this knot:  détournement set itself apart from mere appropriation and pastiche by its aspirations to a radical political practice via a radical political critique.  For the Situationists, this meant the continuous collective analysis of structures and events, and the development of positions over years in the group’s journal – and eventually in Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life.  They understood that without the rigor of this critique, as the link to radical political practice, this kind of recombinant play tends toward pointless irony that recoils into blank affirmation.

This is the basic problem, alas, with far too much Net art.  Of course, the category is broad and covers diverse streams of practice, some of which are politicized and even consciously anti-capitalist.  Stallabrass tells the story of a project by the “art corporation” etoy: 

Their Digital Hijack diverted surfers who had typed in keywords such as “Modonna,” “Porsche,” and “Penthouse” into a search engine, and clicked on etoy’s top-rated site, greeting them with the response: “Don’t fucking move.  This is a digital hijack,” followed by the loading of an audio file about the plight of imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick, and the hijacking of the Internet by Netscape. (pp. 193-4)

A further problem with Net art, and one that even Stallabrass’s example makes clear, is that displacing art to the relatively less administered realm of cyberspace doesn’t necessarily disturb the structures of passive and isolated spectatorship.  If it goes no further, surfing is a degraded form of consumerist interactivity that hardly meets the minimal criteria for politicized participation.  If the Internet is to reach its potential as a threat to capitalism, it won’t be through the mostly harmless diversions of Net art.  It would need to become more than a site of ethereal, but still fundamentally passive consumption of visual culture.  Indeed, to begin to invert spectacular power, it would need to become more than a merely liberal public sphere that functions as a counter-circulation of critical images and discourses.  As important as this counter-circulation is, it falls short of the radical public sphere, the “non-servile republic” of virtuosity projected by Paolo Virno.[6]  The beginnings of that kind of anti-capitalism are found in the online networks organized to mobilize militancy, the real struggle of real bodies:  Peoples Global Action, the No Border network, the anti-G8 Dissent! network, Euromayday, and countless other ad hoc networks and regional social forums set up to link up groups into coalitions and to coordinate political resistance.

In this light, Stallabrass’s positioning of Net art calls for some skepticism.  “Art on the Net clearly raises – more than their vestigial treatment in the gallery – issues of dialogue and democracy.” (p. 196)  Granted, but Stallabrass never quite succeeds in dispelling suspicions that these concerns are secondary, that the bulk of Net artists are careful to keep one opportunist eye on the art-world institutions they have purportedly abandoned.  Such suspicions are confirmed by regular perusals of, a very old (founded in 1996) online platform for Net art that in 2003 established an affiliation with the New Museum of Contemporary Art.  If this is right – if most Net art is animated by the same conservative impulses, opportunist ambitions, and servile tendencies as most contemporary gallery and museum art – then the category is too large and indiscriminate to be politically useful.  One way to draw some lines would be to reserve the name “Net art” for work that merely displaces the conventions of visual art to the new medium of cyberspace, and in so doing reconstitutes rather than disrupts basic structures of passivity and separation. 

“Tactical media” would be one name, already in use, for the rest.  As a distinct and politicized approach to art and media activism, tactical media coalesced in the med-1990s around the Next 5 Minutes festivals in Amsterdam.  Tactical media groups – Electronic Disturbance Theater, Critical Art Ensemble, ®TMark, and the Yes Men are among the best known exemplars – combine fiercely anti-authoritarian and collectivist political instincts with an amateur’s DIY approach to new technologies.  Their détournements and tactical inversions have sometimes yielded astonishing results, as in the Yes Men’s now notorious parodic attacks on corporate power.  And they have sometimes overlapped with the world of hackers, as in Ricardo Dominguez and Electronic Disturbance Theater’s support of Zapatista campaigns and appeals through virtual sit-ins (denial-of-service attacks) against websites operated by the Mexican government.  Tactical media itself seems now to be in a kind of crisis, as it faces what is in effect a hostile takeover by the art institutions; as it has outgrown its first more or less underground renown and emerged into the light of art-world and mainstream media attention, it has become the object of what Pierre Bourdieu called the “enterprises of seduction or annexation by the powerful.”[7]  The Interventionists, a 2004 exhibition mounted by MASS MoCA, indicates the path of recuperation now open to tactical media.  However, in a further twist, with Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble still under federal indictment in the US – “essentially, for impersonating a scientist” as Blake Stimson aptly puts it[8] – the art institutions may actually give politicized cultural practitioners some needed cover from arbitrary power let loose by the so-called war on terror.

On to Stallabrass’s option four: “to challenge the illusion of art’s uselessness by producing works of explicit use.” (p. 195)  Here, he has in mind the old avant-garde project of negating art’s dominated autonomy by the direct re-linkage of art and everyday life.  Stallabrass suggests that the revival of the avant-garde option is a result of “the synthesis of productive and reproductive technologies in the digital realm” (Ibid.)  I doubt that.  What renews this option – for Stallabrass is right about its current relevance – is the fact of renewed anti-capitalist struggles (coherent or not, at this point) on a visibly global scale.  And Stallabrass himself has as much as said so, if mostly between the lines.  However, the suggestion is not far off the mark.  For as Stallabrass’s citations of Hardt and Negri acknowledge, the current renewal of struggle is indeed linked to recent qualitative increases in global connectivity.

To effectively realize the avant-garde option would be to organize what Virno calls “exit” or “exodus”:  a resolute migration out of the institutions of neutralization and the inventive construction of counter-institutions and practices of resistance.  This would be to tweak Stallabrass’s fourth option more in the direction of a deliberate rupture.  Certainly some – and artists among them – today are asking and thinking about what this kind of exit might look like.  Leaving the administered art world and going. . . where?  And doing. . . what, exactly?  Without doubt, to attempt such a project alone would be socially and materially suicidal.  Exodus is only viable as a collective project, and it could only be successful if its mobilizations reached enough critical mass to make its counter-institutions reasonably durable and to offer the “citizens” of its “non-servile republics” the forms and means of living beyond the wage and commodity forms of the capitalist everyday.  But radical republics don’t just spring into being out of nothing.  They have to be prepared through a long process of debate, experimentation, and collective imagining.  And they need organic links to live struggles and social movements.  As has been noted, the movements and struggles are there, at least globally, to the point that the forms of their possible convergence into historical agency can be projected and debated.  Still, what does that mean for artists thinking about making the break?

It could happen like this:  in a first phase of self-selection, artists and cultural practitioners get clear about the functions and limits of their field.  Today that would mean a serious reacquaintance with the classic critiques of capitalist art:  Horkheimer and Adorno, Debord, and Bourdieu.  (And here books like Stallabrass’s make a real and timely contribution.)  Through a continuous process of discussion and debate, the logic of rupture, breakout, exodus is articulated as a position, an alternative vision animated by forms of living and values first defined in negating contrast to those that currently dominate the art world.  Against delusional individualism, toxic careerism, submissive opportunism, and impotent cynicism:  solidarity, collectivism, cooperation, mutual support, affinity to radical politics and increasing involvement in movements and struggles.  Those who are ready begin a progressive and selective detachment from the most corrupted and neutralizing institutions (galleries, magazines, art fairs, the worst museums and biennials), and begin to plan and organize counter-institutions (the reinvention of previous models of radical culture: collectives and cooperatives, online journals and pod-casts, arts of living and modes of making).  In a second phase, the appeal and accomplishments of these pre-figurations, developing within and in support of movements and struggles, prove to be durable and become magnets in a virtuous circle of collective (self-)production.  Qualitative mutations to the left in the system and functions of art follow.

A wish, a dream?  Yes, of course.  But this kind of structural adjustment from below of the culture field would be the only practical institutional critique of a deeply corrupted art world worth attempting today.  And it beats the “consumerism’s dreaming” (p. 77) that art has become.  Some such radical dream – aiming to generalize autonomy rather than protect it as a restricted and professionalized sphere – has animated all the emancipatory ruptures and “events” of history.  Again, such dreams are tied to the dream of revolution – to use the old word, rather than its current euphemisms – and in the end will share its fate.  But something like this, some such rupture and exodus, is implicit in Stallabrass’s option four – and gives the needed weight and inflection to the lines with which he ends his book:

To break with the supplemental autonomy of free art is to remove one of the masks of free trade.  Or to put it the other way around, if free trade is to be abandoned as a model for global development, so must its ally, free art. (p. 201)

[1] Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).  Unless indicated otherwise, all quotations are from this work and hereafter are cited by page number in the text.

[2] Eyal Weizman, “The Art of War,” Frieze 99 (2006), online at

[3] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2002), p. 36; cited by Stllabrass, p. 178.

[4] Stallabrass, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce (London: Tate, 2003).  See also Blake Stimson’s review, “The Crowd in the Machine,” NLR 30 (November/December 2004), pp. 149-54.

[5] Stallabrass, “Digital Commons,” NLR 15 (May/June 2002), pp. 141-6.

[6] Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles and New York: Semiotext[e], 2004).  For more on this see Gene Ray, “Revolution in the Post-Fordist Revolution? Notes on the Internet as a Weapon of the Multitude,” Third Text, vol. 21.1 (January 2007).

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emmanuel (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 61.

[8] Stimson, “Crowd in the Machine,” p. 153.

Gene Ray