Our point of departure in conceiving this issue on “Property/Eigentum” was the observation that the concept of property is inherent to liberal ideas of subjectivity. We are interested in how these propertied-individualist ideas can be broken up when subjectivity is thought of as originating in expropriation. It is a question that is of particular urgency at a time when lived alternatives to the dominant property relations have become rare. Lashed to the capitalist yoke and the principle of “so-called primitive accumulation,” we find it more difficult than ever to imagine the realization of models of a communality without property and the changed social realities they would enable. We therefore devote this issue to an attempt to detect some of the hairline cracks where alternatives might come into view – be it in the mode of a critique of the prevailing property structures and relations to self, or in the form of a sustained reflection on the possibility of different forms of property, as in the debate over the commons.
If we today pursue these questions in an art magazine, then, that is not to say that the present issue revolves primarily around questions regarding the role of collectors or the commodification of art. Rather, it seems to us that art is the privileged scene of a convergence of antithetical ideas about avant-garde subjectivity both as a form of possession of itself and its product and, on the contrary, as eluding its own grasp and losing sight of itself. This antithesis, however, conversely also sheds light on the contradictions and conflicts within art’s property relations. On the one hand, we find that the liberal tradition of the self-possessed individual has not in fact been dislodged by other relations to self that have emerged within the field of art, such as transgression, disintegration, opacity, and intractability. Not only do the system of art and its forms of value production nimbly integrate such procedures, the latter also remain acts of an aesthetically proprietorial subject. This is readily evident in the operation of the signature, which marks possession in the form of intellectual property and is nonetheless perfectly compatible with the idea of transgression. Artists’ efforts to use the signature to recast or even dismantle property relations within this liberal dispensation have accordingly been hampered by the fact that contractualism is effectively part of the very system of juridification whose primary objective has been to protect private property. Tobias Vogt’s essay turns the spotlight on this aspect by tracing its antecedents in art history. Isabelle Graw, for her part, limns the specific profile of the artist-proprietor, in part by comparing them to the private property owner. As she sees it, the signature lodges a claim to ownership that is as necessary as it is problematic; she also shows how historic attempts at creative self-expropriation have failed to transcend the sphere of value known as the art market. In that sphere, however, not everyone is at liberty to raise their voice or circulate a product under their name. Similarly, while many artists figure (or are compelled to figure) as liberal subjects in formal terms, they are not all treated as such in concrete interactions. These concerns are thrown into sharp relief in all those works and theories of art that address forms of discrimination and scrutinize questions of who controls whose history and is able to speak.
Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann have studied the repercussions for property and ownership rights in a globalized labor market and provided us with a work about the social physicist Alex Pentland, from which we print a song written by Creischer. But a full discussion of possession and property, the contributors to this issue suggest, requires more than just a contemplation of the private ownership of goods and labor power: it demands a probing examination of an ingrained relation to self in its historical and contemporary dimensions. The power that the modern notion that we are in possession of ourselves exerts over even the deepest recesses of our souls is illustrated by a dispute between Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich; as Hannah Proctor reconstructs it, their disagreement hinged on the question whether communism – which is to say, the abolition of private property – might release novel forms of libidinal energy. Another fresh perspective in this issue comes from critical Black studies, a movement that has been instrumental in radicalizing the debates around property in recent years. Its guiding objective is not so much to undermine, restructure, suspend, or harness property relations, but rather to call attention to the historic and ongoing expropriation inflicted by the principle of colonial domination. Scholars including Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, and Denise Ferreira da Silva have pinpointed the processes of dispossession – of land, subjectivity, history and stories, memories, and rights – that are the legacy of slavery, placing them at the center of their work. Meanwhile, Brenna Bhandar’s book Colonial Lives of Property has mapped the intrinsic connection between colonialism and the logic of capitalist expropriation. In a conversation with Bhandar, Daniel Loick asks her about the racialized roots of primitive accumulation. To what extent are art and aesthetics complicit with this system by virtue of a hegemonic subjectivity that is not only firmly inscribed in the classics of Western philosophy but actually touches on the fundamental premises of aesthetics? That is the question explored by David Lloyd in his book Under Representation. In his essay “The Racial Thing,” he takes this line of inquiry further, sketching the limitations of the Marxist conceptual framework and opening up an ontology of communal life on the edges of capitalizing violence. Kerstin Stakemeier’s discussion of Lloyd’s work extends his argument, asking how his project may also make it possible to read lived creative practices in the horizon of their deaccumulations. In this issue, then, we raise questions of property as a contemporary nexus of very different aesthetic and political investments and interventions. In doing so, our purpose is not least to survey the intersections between them, in the hope of detecting political solidarities amid the aesthetic – solidarities that rest on the conviction that art, in the present situation, still has the capacity to be a critical social force.
Translation: Gerrit Jackson