04 06 07

Users and Usership of Art: Challenging Expert Culture

Stephen Wright


The task of the day is to “revive art’s transformative potential within the broadest possible frame,” to use Alexander Alberro’s expression. By all means; I certainly endorse the thrust of that remark. But what, exactly, is to be understood by “the broadest possible frame”? What lies beyond the frame, even in its broadest possible extension? Is there any art out there, any potentially transformative art, beyond the broadest possible frame? The frame, I assume, is the performative frame, which enables those symbolic activities and configurations known as art to appear as such. For without that frame, of course, those activities and configurations might well be visible – their coefficient of visibility might indeed by very high – but not as art per se, at least not according to current conventions. In the absence of a performative frame, objects and actions are ill inclined to change their ontological status and to become art; only the presence of that frame can coax them into being something other than the “mere real thing,” as analytical philosophers rather facetiously put it. It is tempting to see this sort of frame-legitimized sea-change as one of the last remaining acts of magic in an otherwise thoroughly rationalized society – so counter-intuitive it is that something, anything can change its ontological status at the snap of a performative finger, upheld by the presence of the frame, however broad. Yet that frame, like any frame, is also a limitation…a limitation, above all, to art’s transformative potential. When we say, unaware that the frame is in place, we didn’t “even” know something was art, the adverb is very telling: in order for something to be perceived as art, it must be framed as such, but more importantly, the more distinctly framed the more incisive it is. This is a highly dubious claim, however, for we can just as easily say, once we are aware of the frame’s invisible but powerful presence, that it is “just” art. There too, the adverb is revealing: just art, not the potentially more transformatory, corrosive, even censorship-deserving real thing. In short, then, while the frame is an almost magically powerful device, it is also a debilitating one. And this is the reason, I think, that an increasing number of art-related practitioners today are seeking not to broaden the frame still further – thereby pursuing art’s already extraordinary colonization of the life-world – but to get outside of the frame altogether. Every year, more and more artists are quitting the artworld frame – or looking for and experimenting with viable exit strategies – rather than broadening it further. And these are some of the most exciting developments in art today, for to leave the frame means sacrificing one’s coefficient of artistic visibility – but potentially in exchange for great corrosiveness toward the dominant semiotic order.

As I say, a growing number of artists and artists collectives are questioning the need for art to heed the frame, however broad: in the place of the sacrosanct artwork, some are favouring an art which remains open and process-based, showing scant concern for the usual criteria of showing and disseminating, refusing to subordinate process to any extrinsic finished product; others (often the same), challenging the artist’s expert-like authority, have come to advocate coauthorship, broadening responsibility for the creative process to all those taking part; still others (invariably the same), instead of contributing to an art whose legitimacy relies on recognition by the spectator, refuse this conventional division of visual labour (whereby subjet1 produces an object for delectation by subjet2), preferring interventions, which, though not exempt from the exigencies of the public sphere, have only a negligible coefficient of art-specific visibility. Such practices undermine positions of authority and diminish the remit historically attributed to experts of expression.

Envisaging an art without artwork, without authorship and without spectatorship has an immediate consequence: art ceases to be visible as such. For practices whose self-understanding stems from the visual arts tradition – not to mention for the normative institutions governing it – the problem cannot just be overlooked: if it is not visible, art eludes all control, prescription and regulation – in short, all “police”. In a Foucaldian perspective, one might argue that the key issue in policing art is the question of visibility. As Jacques Rancière put it in his now classic definition,


“the police is, in its essence, the law which, though generally implicit, defines the part or lack of part of the parties involved…. The police is thus above all a bodily order that defines the partition between means of doing, means of being and means of saying, which means that certain bodies are assigned, by their very name, to such and such a place, such and such a task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable, which determines that some activities are visible and that some are not, that some speech is heard as discourse while others are heard as noise.”[1]


The art police acts tacitly, its hidden injunctions only becoming perceptible with the benefit of hindsight, when the shape of an era or movement slowly comes into focus. Rancière’s analysis applies not only to art, but more generally to the partition of the real between places and non places of knowledge, visibility and legitimacy, and enables us to better see how actions and words are distributed in keeping with a line that has been defined a priori, an always shifting line of partition between practices that are admitted and those that are discredited, between what must be said and what cannot be said (socially mandatory and forbidden speech).

Rancière’s use of the word “police” to refer to the forces that maintain a semblance of self-evidence in the existent perceptual order is useful because it draws attention to the fact that this order is enforced. Not by truncheon-wielding wardens of the law, of course, but in a far more sophisticated way, by controlling what can and cannot be said, heard or seen. This becomes particularly evident with respect to frame-related discourse and the sophistication with which framing devices function.

I want to give just one example of this today – and that is the notion of the user and of usership in general. I would like to devote the rest of my talk to unpacking some of the embedded suppositions and values that can be found in the semantic field associated with the notion of the user and usership.

I have noticed, over the past few years, a steadily growing usage in public discourse of the category of the user. Despite, however, this ongoing extension and expanded usage of the term, there are clearly limits to its usage. We readily speak of art practices, for instance. But art usage? Art lovers, yes, but art users? However, I consider myself to be an art user – and almost by definition, anyone attending events such as this one, is also an art user.

There is a definite correlation between frame-related discourse and expert culture. By and large, discussions of relationality have taken for granted a highly differentiated artworld increasingly dominated – like all other fields of activity in contemporary society – by expert culture. Those experts of expression, display, interpretation and appreciation known respectively as artists, curators, critics and audiences all jealously preserve their specific spheres of expertise. In France, the Ministry of Culture has gone so far as to create a new socio-professional body mandated to regulate the allocation of public resources in the artworld: the Inspector of Visual Arts... However, as in other realms of social action, the division of labor behind this expert culture, and its afferent privileges, have been brought into question by the emergence of a new category of social actors, which contests expert culture not from the standpoint of some competing expertise but from the standpoint of experience: the political category of the user. We are not accustomed to speaking of “art users” – and indeed, the fact that the term smacks of philistinism says a great deal about the lingering aristocratic values which continue to permeate the artworld and make a mockery of art’s claim to having much transformational potential or will.

Art users are not passive consumers, nor merely even viewers. Rather, the term refers to a broad category comprising all those people who have a stake in art taking place; the broadest possible category of the framers of art, who ultimately generate its relationality. Usership breaks down obsolete binaries between authorship and spectatorship, production and reception, owners and producers, publishers and readers, for it refers to a category of people who make use of art and whose counter-expertise stems from that particular form of relationality known as use-value in their lifeworlds. Like consumer-protection groups, citizens’ initiatives, neighborhood associations and so on, art users experience the use-value of art directly.

The mounting challenge to expert culture due to the expanding sematic field of usership in contemporary public discourse is by no means homogeneous. It is only appropriate to approach the phenomenon through the use of the pragmatics of language (stemming philosophically from Dewey and Wittgenstein), where meaning is determined through usage. Let us take a look at some principal instances of usership today.

The growing current interest in participatory democracy (if not yet in anything but a defanged way) provides a first example. But it is merely part of a broader shift of user-driven initiatives focusing not on claiming individual freedoms but on defending uses and usage. The reference to users is increasingly generalized in a political context where legitimacy is measured by the ability of the governed to appropriate the political and economic instruments made available to them. This is of course a double-edged sword: on the one hand, public services – anxious to uphold their regime of exception with respect to the market-driven private sector – are quick to point out that they serve users, rather than customers or clients; and on the other hand, they are the first to again uphold their exceptional status by stigmatizing users (or consumer advocacy groups) as the Trojan Horse of this same market-driven logic…

There are other, still more interesting cases of usership. Drug users, for instance. To use drugs is to know something about drugs and their use that the medical experts, and the legislators whom they advise on a purely prohibition-authorization basis, do not and cannot know. It is a form of experience-based knowledge.

Similarly, the British Disabled People’s Movement, has developed a wonderful watchword, particularly eloquent in its experiential challenge to expert culture: “We are the experts of our own condition.”

Or parent-teacher associations… In a recent case in Britain, parents were being brushed off by the teaching staff, who dismissed the parents experience as being merely “anecdotal” rather than establishing evidence. The users’ response came in the form of a disarming question: “How many anecdotes does it take to become evidence?”

The most extreme example of usership that I know of occurred last year when the prisoners of France’s highest security prison at Clermont-Ferrand, contending unexpectedly though irrefutably that they were “users of the incarceration system”, demanded that the death penalty be meted out to them, rather than remaining their entire lives in prison without any prospect of release… In a country where the legitimacy of the current polity is founded upon the abolition of the death penalty, this challenge to broad-based expert culture from within the lifeworld of the prison system is terribly poignant.

Usership, however, also stands opposed to another form of authority: ownership. Ownership is the most complete – both inclusive and exclusive – right that one can hold or exert over an object. One can literally do with it as one will, regardless of what those who may also use it have to say. This, is of course something which has been fiercely contested by since the nineteenth century writing of Marx and particularly Proudhon, the former developing his philosophy on the idea of use-value and the second on the notion of the right of use (droit d’usage) as a way of contesting ownership (which Proudhon flatly described as “theft”). In a world where privatization is rampant, usership is a burning issue: how is ownership to be brought into check before it ends up shutting down the system altogether? How can the rights of usership be formulated in a way that is adequate to new modes of production and circulation of immaterial goods?

This implicitly raises an accessory question: that of alternative terms to users and usership as part of a diagnostic to the plight of contemporary relationality. One term that has been used a great deal is that of the “multitude.” The term is felicitous in one respect, because it does describe what is most constitutive of contemporary intercerebral collaboration and networked knowledge production, no longer based on a relationship to the means of production (as was the proletariat) but on a more open or at least loose-knit network of brainpower. But it has the disadvantage of being untethered to any unifying experience or common life-world. Which is why the category of intersubjectivity one finds in usership strikes me as more promising – or at least worth exploring.

With respect to contemporary art and art-related practices, usership as a challenge to expert culture can follow two different vectors: challenging expert culture within the artworld frame itself, in the lineage of institutional critique; or lending art-derived, art-specific and art-engendered competence to other user-initiated and user-driven challenges to expert culture in other walks of life outside of the broadest possible frame of the artworld, collaborating with citizen’s initiatives, amateur scientists’ projects, and so on. Ideally, of course, the deployment of usership by art practicianers would do both, unleashing the tautological imperative (that conceptual art always held tethered to the art sphere alone) on expert culture and its consequences inside and outside the frame. Using the tools and acquisitions of conceptual art to expose and undermine the privileges of expert culture found in other fields of human endeavor.

Usership I believe is a new and extremely relevant category of relationality and political subjectivity with respect to contemporary art-related practice and the conceptual and physical architecture of the places where its users converge. What do we use exhibitions for? And art journals? How, why and when do we use the word “art”? And who are “we”? The experts have their answer, and the users have theirs – necessarily conjugated in the first person plural. Users comprise a loose-knit community based upon common experience. The bedrock of human relationality.

The paper was initially delivered in the context of a conference entitled “Reconsidering Relationality” organised by Alexander Alberro and Nora Alter in Paris on April 18-19, 2007.

[1] La Mésentente (Paris: Galilée, 1995), p. 52. Our translation.

stephen Wright