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Art After Social Collapse

Two visions of the future

In November of last year, two weeks after the presidential election, the American artist and capitalist nymph Jeff Koons offered the city of Paris a gift, a sculpture in the form of a bouquet of variegated tulips grasped by an enormous hand jutting from a pedestal. The work, which is meant to commemorate the victims of the 2015 terror attacks, is a cloying and overwrought symbolic gesture after the Koons style; the artist’s rendering makes plain his desire to evoke the torch-bearing grip of the Statue of Liberty, and its planned forty-foot height lends it a lightly surrealist monumentality so favored by anti-social public art. And yet, as of this month, the work itself is tiny—it’s still just a rendering. It has also become something of a Trojan Horse. The city, now face-to-face with the Koons Model of artistic underlabor, is scrambling to raise the 3.5 million euros required to produce and install the sculpture. “Jeff Koons is a businessman,” said art critic Isabel Pasquier, “and we quickly understood that he was offering Paris to himself as a present.” Well, you didn’t understand quickly enough.

That Koons’s Bouquet of Tulips sounds Trumpian in conception and execution should come as no surprise. A branded scam meant for someone else to build—it’s their shared modus operandi. Nor is there much separating Trump and Koons aesthetically. We might go so far as to say that Trump, a neo-fascist president, never needed to follow Mussolini’s grand project of aestheticizing his political rule through public works, for the sham-kitsch monuments he might build already exist in the form of Balloon Dog and Trump Tower. As a matter of artistic form, at least, neo-fascist capitalism was a readymade. All it needed was a new context—an election that turned a country upside down.

A Jumble of Frauds

What will become of art in a world turned upside down? Of course, Trump himself is indifferent to art because he’s incapable of interpreting it; yet in speculating about art’s immediate or long-term future we can’t help but wonder how Trump-tinged it will all be. It’s enough to know that Trump represents an acceleration of a longstanding neo-institutionalist hatred for social life, and it helps to acknowledge that the art world and Trump’s global operators are propped up by the same cast of frauds and dupes. Trump cabinet members Steve Mnuchin, a collector whose father is a gallery-owning art world “titan,” and Betsy DeVos, founder of ArtPrize, come swiftly to mind.

The future of art: more huge, colorful, simplistic works, like those of Jeff Koons, will scar the cityscapes.

In an essay published at e-flux journal last October, just weeks before the election, the German video artist and writer Hito Steyerl presents a convincing dramatis personae for the contemporary art world, which she describes as “a jumble of sponsors, censors, bloggers, developers, producers, hipsters, handlers, patrons, privateers, collectors, and way more confusing characters.” More urgently, she analyzes contemporary art’s creation of value, which she compares to cryptocurrency. “Value arises,” she writes, “from gossip-cum-spin and insider information. Fraudsters and con artists mix helter-skelter. . . .”

Which is to say that the art world—its actors and what they value—by now conform to the Trumpian schematic, if not the Bannonite daydream. And yet, despite their anti-elitist posturing,

Authoritarian right-wing regimes will not get rid of art-fair VIP lists or make art more relevant or accessible to different groups of people. In no way will they abolish elites or even art. They will only accelerate inequalities, beyond the fiscal-material to the existential-material. This transformation is not about accountability, criteria, access, or transparency. It will not prevent tax fraud, doctored markets, the Daesh antiquities trade, or systemic underpay. It will be more of the same, just much worse: less pay for workers, less exchange, fewer perspectives, less circulation, and even less regulation, if such a thing is even possible.

If art, as Steyerl writes, will be “more of the same” but worse, this means that “inconvenient art,” or works of the wrong size, convention, anything strange or canon-expanding, art that mines forgotten histories by way of militant nostalgia—all of this will “fly out the window.” Meanwhile, huge and colorful and simplistic works, like those of Jeff Koons, will scar more cityscapes, and luxury condos everywhere will feature “oil paintings of booty blondes” and “abstract stock-chart calligraphy.”  

Comfort Brood

Steyerl’s depressing essay stoically eyes the present conditions of production and deregulation under right-wing autocracy, but it stops short of imagining these as permanent. For that we turn to a more monomaniacal thinker, the walrus-like philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.

In a new book, The Aesthetic Imperative, Sloterdijk argues that the question of the future of art is now a question about “the future of painful things in society.” Industrial society, he writes, is crumbling, and “the old clamps that held together a large-scale society regulated by the work ethic are losing their hold in increasingly dramatic ways.” In the meantime, and in place of a rich social life, an oligarchic class has erected “an anaesthetized and wired police state that has to achieve social synthesis using the most modern means of violence to control a nation of isolated asocial people.” The future, in other words, is one of pain, suffering, and social isolation. “One doesn’t have to be a prophet,” Sloterdijk adds, “to foresee an era of post-historical brutality and barbarization.”

Against the coming barbarism, Sloterdijk—himself something of an enlightened New Age guru—puts forth a stunningly lunatic proposition: art must and will merge with therapy, which will create new religious orders that buffer us against the brutality that arrives with social collapse. “I believe that only the alternative productive forces of aesthetics and therapeutic methods,” he concludes, “will be capable of developing bearable lifestyles for the new majorities that will soon pitch their tents at the gates of the traditional world of work.” And finally: “It is the challenge of aesthetic-therapeutic-ecological forces and new religious forces to foster a process of cultural life outside the establishment.”

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The belief that art should become therapeutic, or that it should devote itself to comfort, is available everywhere in society. Take the popular book Art as Therapy, by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, which argues that Manet’s Bunch of Asparagus teaches us how to “value our long-term partners.” Or consider the Marina Abramovic Institute, which was originally planned to be a “cultural spa” where participants wear “white lab coats and undergo three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.” Or, closer to home: the total eclipse of inconvenient art by entertainment, which by its etymology means “to keep in a certain frame of mind, to support.” Support what? The coming barbarism may have already arrived.