In the wake of the credit crisis, sales in the until recently booming art market almost completely collapsed within just a few weeks. In the lifestyle press, interest in events in the art world has also noticeably diminished, for there are hardly any sensational market successes or sumptuous parties to report on. Whenever the art market collapses, its actors usually resort to calculated optimism by attempting to welcome the crisis as a long called-for corrective or “readjustment” (as Sotheby’s puts it). Yet what is perpetuated here is the naïve belief in the cleansing forces of the market. Just as in boom times the authority of market success remained to a large extent undisputed, one now trusts in the “invisible hand” of the market to bring about a sort of poetic justice. In truth, though, it is precisely the auction events that give examples of how arbitrarily and unjustly this market operates – on principle. What is more, the hope that now, finally, the issue is again “Art” and its praised “contents”, fails to recognize that “Art” itself is a concept of value containing an evaluating – i.e., economic – dimension. Those counting on the pendulum swinging back from the “bad” market toward “good” art adhere to a false polarization. In reality, both – art and market – refer to each other in a fundamental way, without, however, being completely identical. If market conditions change, nothing less than a redefinition of the concept of art is up for debate. For this reason, every crisis is also a fine hour for criticism that productively discusses what “Art” is to be understood as.
In analogy to the real economy, art dealers and collectors immediately made use of the crisis to carry out preventive lay-offs or newly negotiate agreements on percentages with the artists for their own benefit. Some had simply overextended themselves in regard to operating costs by expanding, opening gigantic branches and acquiring private mansions. What is new about this crisis is that public institutions are not excluded either – a result of increasing privatization, especially in the United States. They can no longer play their role as a cushioned receptacle for market-critical and conceptual artistic approaches to the extent they had done in the past. So nobody has an advantage when the readiness to spend money on art tends to zero.
Instead of arguing along the lines of a history of decline and propagating the end of the art world as we know it, we refrain from making forecasts and speculations in this field. They would amount to nothing more than oracles. One can almost certainly say that the situation “after the crisis” – as the deliberately presumptuous title of this issue reads – resembles the situation before the crisis in many respects, yet it is also very different. The aesthetic and political implications of Alexander Kluge’s project of “filming” Karl Marx’s “Capital”, following the never-realized project of Sergej Eisenstein, seem capable of commenting on the asynchrony of the symptoms of crisis in modern capitalism (see the interview with Kluge conducted by Gertrud Koch).
After the crisis, as well, we will have to deal with the consequences of a biopolitical regime that Michel Foucault saw emerging in the 18th century. Foucault distinguished biopolitics, with its non-repressive relation to life, from the power of sovereignty. In Foucault’s view, biopolitics – which in this respect is indeed related to neoliberalism – is a technique of power that by means of “furthering, enhancing and supporting life, rules life”, as the philosopher Maria Muhle states. Instead of proceeding in an authoritarian and repressive manner, it counts on motivation and stimulation. Particularly in times of crisis, demands are made on us to take the initiative. In order to fathom the way biopolitics functions in a more precise way, we decided to relate it not to artistic practices only, but to the much-cited celebrity culture, the rules of which have entered into some parts of the art world in the past decade. Already in the 1960s, a period in which media society established itself, one can discern increased interest in the media- related production of “life”. If one defines celebrity culture as the social form in which the individual is acclaimed for successfully bringing his or her life to the market, the biopolitical subtext becomes evident. Life is a kind of resource here, too, which celebrity culture seeks to exploit. It therefore suggests itself to grasp celebrity culture as the social form that corresponds with the market’s neoliberal appropriation of hitherto non-marketable areas, just as it propels these areas on its own. The concept of life that is at issue here is always staged by the media, something which reversely implies that the borders between authentic and staged life can no longer be drawn – a state that in times of crisis seems to become ever more intensified and is addressed by an increasing number of art pro-jects (see Stephan Geene’s contribution on Melanie Gilligan’s Film “Crisis in the Credit System”).
In view of the global economic and financial crisis, however, the question arises whether celebrity culture has not also come to an end, since there is nothing to celebrate anymore. A look at the gossip website artforum.com immediately informs one of the opposite. What we see are parties upon parties – undeterred; the usual suspects optimistically smiling into the camera as if nothing had occurred, as if being there still paid off. Yet one has the impression that they are the living dead, grinning and bearing it, collecting contacts all the way to senselessness and massively bringing themselves into play. Every man for himself.
Biopolitics is the focus of this issue, because many of our authors have been dealing with this topic for quite some time (see the conversation between Muhle and Thomas Lemke). From Lemke’s perspective, biopolitics is to be understood as an economization of life: life is subjected to the imperative of optimization, as can be read in the publications and profiles having to do with celebrity culture (see the contribution by David Joselit). Tradition has it that visual artists are assigned the task of building a bridge between “art” and “life”. The work of artists should always also convey life. During the now ending art boom, one could discern a tendency toward equating art with life, a conspicuous personalization of artistic production – artworks that seem to actually mutate to subjects – while the artists staged themselves in an ever more object- like manner. The more excessive or risky the life of an artist was, as legend has it, the more he proved to be in a position to charge his work with value. One reason for this lies in the fact that life and work seem to maintain a metonymical relation – one meaning the other, without, however, being identical (see the Tom McDonough’s contribution on Jeff Koons in Versailles). And this non-identity of life and art can be grasped as something possessing a critical potential under the conditions of celebrity culture (see contribution of Isabelle Graw on Andy Warhol).
The logic inherent in the fact that artists not only place their work but also themselves on the market, is something we will undoubtedly face in the future as well. When, as is customary in times of crisis, an abyss appears behind each artwork in terms of its worth, this insecurity of value could perhaps be transferred to the artist him/ herself and the life he/she has staged. Or is the life – staged in the form of artist’s personal appearance – able to cushion the value crisis of a work? One can now clearly sense that people are much less ready to be impressed by the usual charismatic personalities and artists placing their stakes on drastic performances. Conversely, the following rule seems to apply: if the name of an artist is tarnished, his/her product is also distrusted. At the same time, this rule can become a premise for conceptual forms of artistic production that fundamentally reflect on and update artistic propositions under commercial conditions (see the conversation between Stefanie Kleefeld and Claire Fontaine).
It is once again criticism, which under these conditions must lend sense and meaning to the products and make them more credible. Criticism could be regarded as the profiteer of the crisis, if it hadn’t also suffered from the decreasing willingness to pay generous fees for lectures and catalog essays. Criticism will not be able to do much against an atmosphere in which artworks are suddenly avoided as if they were toxic bonds. The precariousness of the entire art system, which is based on the assessment of value that is not seen in the object itself, and for this reason is built on sand, is now evident to all. We are neither happy, nor do we lament the state of affairs. We instead seek to reflect on it.
(Translation: Karl Hoffmann)