IN NEED OF AN IMMINENT CRITIQUE: MOCA’S ART IN THE STREETS AND THE RESTRUCTURING OF THE KANTIAN LEGACY

In the Western world we have come to understand art and aesthetic theory through the legacy of Enlightenment thinker Immanuel Kant. Kant’s theory of art as developed in his Critique of the Power of Judgment1 involves an understanding of aesthetics that is purely rational, one which must not be overpowered by emotional response, history, or any individual experience whatsoever. Yet Kant, a product of the Age of Enlightenment, seems to emphasize reason to such an extent that one often loses the immanent scope of an understanding of aesthetics, particularly in our age of modern art. In other words, Kant’s elevation of reason seems to ignore experience in the world.

This has potentially grave implications. Taking up the philosophical position of Theodor Adorno and others, it can be said that Kant’s view of art, namely Kantian formalism, takes away from art’s purpose in the modern age: to serve as the means for working through social problems. Additionally, it is my view that Kantian formalism has contributed to the commodification of art which has played a significant role in the increase of global inequality. Looking specifically at the 2011 exhibition Art in the Streets at Los Angeles’ Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), it has become all too apparent that the Kantian tradition of formalism now contradicts the social, economic, and political reality of the art world and the world at large. Despite this, art in the modern age has come to require an emphasis not on formalism, but rather on another aspect of Kant’s aesthetic theory, that of reflective judgment. We have reached what Arthur Danto considers ‘the end of art,’ in that there is no longer a concept with which to define art. Keeping in mind the views of Maria Pia Lara, one can see that it has become necessary in evaluating art to make a reflective judgment, one that considers both present and past circumstances to form a holistic understanding of the art we make and the world we live in.

Often considered the first modern thinker and quite certainly the first true aesthetician, Immanuel Kant sought to define in his three most influential works, the three critiques,2 three distinct spheres of knowledge: the scientific sphere, the moral sphere, and the aesthetic sphere. Kant claims that each of these types of thinking are inherent in the human mind, though they exist separately and for separate purposes. For the first time in history, art was severed from its traditional association with religious morality. Art’s origins lie in its association with religious experience, serving as an object of cultic devotion. It was not until Kant’s time, arguably until as late as the nineteenth century, that art gained its autonomy in the West. Artists were now free to create works independent of the patronage of religious and government institutions. Without a specific religious purpose, art now simply possessed a formal purposiveness.3 It was only with this development that Kant was able to create a theory of aesthetics that evaluated works of art independent of historical, economic, social, political, and religious factors; it was with this that art could be understood simply in terms of its forms.4 Once emancipated from other categories of understanding, art could now be created and evaluated for its own sake.

However, pure formalism is a slippery slope to the commodification of cultural products and the exploitation of these products and the artists who create them. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become a privilege to be a formalist, to be able to perceive art’s forms independent of anything else. It was at this moment in history that everything, including works of art, began to be made using mechanical, reproducible processes, effectively changing every aspect of human life. It was the view of Jurgen Habermas that the increase in mechanical mass-production was changing society itself. For Habermas, the industrial age triggered a shift towards cultural commodification. Books, photographs, films, and other mass-produced cultural products could now be purchased and consumed by anyone and, as such, no longer required the formal education once needed to participate in culture. “It was not merely standardization as such that established an inverse relationship between the commercialization of cultural goods and their complexity, but that special preparation of products that made them consumption-ready, which is to say, guaranteed an enjoyment without being tied to stringent presuppositions.”5

What is important to note here is that works of art have now been lumped into a category with other consumer products. The defining characteristics of art have been lost to these changing social conditions. Art has become another commodity to be bought and sold; furthermore, by this moment in history art has become a luxury good to be profited from. In the words of Montesquieu, “wealth is the result of commerce, luxury the consequence of wealth, and the perfection of the arts that of luxury.”6 If art is so distinct from other elements of society, as Kant seemed to have believed, why then is art tied up with money? The naïve optimist would like to think of the world of art and the world of finance as ideologically at odds with one another and thus have no interaction. Yet by simply opening one’s eyes it is possible to see that in our time these two worlds are inherently entwined. “Consumption is power, and the ability to consume excessively and willfully becomes the most desirable aspect of power.”7 Wealthy financiers are major patrons of the arts, often sitting of boards of museums and arts foundations or amassing huge private collections of (contemporary) art, while gallery owners like Larry Gagosian make upwards of a billion dollars a year in profits.8 What does this mean for the artist, the art market, art institutions, and society in general? In short, the art world as it currently exists is an active participant in a global system of inequality and exploitation.

“Why did it take an art world that prides itself on criticality and vanguardism so long to confront its direct complicity in economic conditions that have been evident for more than a decade now?”9 In her submission to the 2012 Whitney Biennial, as well as in her entire body of work, artist and art critic Andrea Fraser has made it her project to point out the contradictions between art discourse and the social, economic, and political conditions of art. The inequality Fraser describes is a product of a larger global system of inequality, one which has been pushed to the extremes since World War II, particularly during the most recent economic crisis of the early twenty-first century. In recent years, art prices have skyrocketed to levels unfathomable only a few years prior.10 At the same time, however, the locations which have seen these massive increases in the sale prices of works of art have also seen the steepest rise in economic inequality.11 “Art prices do not go up when a society as a whole becomes wealthier, but only when income inequality increases.”12 Seemingly even more frightening is the notion that “a one percentage point increase in the share of total income earned by the top 0.1% triggers an increase in art prices of about 14 percent.”13 It can therefore be said that the art world’s success stems directly from economic conditions, albeit unbalanced ones. With numbers like these stemming from the Gini Index, which calculates global inequality, and the Mei Moses Art Index, which has shown that art has outperformed nearly all other investments, it has become impossible to say that art does not interact with other elements of a modern, global life.

This reality of today’s art world has affected the way museums, galleries, arts publications, arts foundations, auction houses and other institutions understand and present works of art. In 2011, the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles presented the exhibition Art in the Streets, the first major U.S. museum survey of graffiti and street art. Curated by MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch and Associate Curators Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, the exhibition featured over fifty artists and traced the development of the graffiti and street art movements in urban settings from the 1970s to the present, particularly emphasizing Los Angeles’ role in the evolution of these movements. As the first exhibition of its kind to place street art within the time line of art history, Art in the Streets proved incredibly controversial: it brought into the cultural institution of the art museum a form of art that was inseparable from its socio-economic and socio-historical context, one which had an entirely different effect when contemplated based solely on forms versus taking this social context into account. This being said, the attitudes toward graffiti, the art museum as an institution, and art most generally held by the MOCA officials responsible for Art in the Streets can be read as ignorant of the social reality that affects every aspect of our relationship with art.

Graffiti, as our society has come to understand it, is the product of a subculture’s visual form of creative expression being criminalized, suppressed, and even demonized by those in power. For many, graffiti connotes gang activity, and thus alludes to violence, the illegal drug trade, vandalism, and criminality in general. It is this false connection between graffiti and gangs that produces a negative feeling towards graffiti itself. Yet, this understanding of graffiti has been constructed over the past four decades as a means of suppressing a particular community. In fact, much of the graffiti in the United States, and in subsequent years across the globe, has grown out of hip hop culture, a marginalized subculture that developed in the 1970s among black and Latino, often impoverished communities in New York City. Thus, one can easily conclude that the condemnation of graffiti by authority figures is an extension of the more general condemnation of these marginalized groups.14

Hip hop culture has its own forms of music, dance, fashion, poetry, and visual art. In the same way that rap is the poetry of hip hop culture, graffiti can be said to be hip hop culture’s own form of painting, one that stems from lack of conventional materials or a knowledge of art history. “Hip hop graffiti became a kind of spray can rap, a series of subcultural markers painted on the surface of the city.”15 This was the type of visual expression people within the subculture of hip hop knew and participated in. Graffiti art, particularly the stylized writing of tags, became more and more ornate as a competition of style emerged that called for bigger and more elaborate pieces. Soon enough gallerists and art dealers were seeking out the work of graffiti artists to be exhibited in galleries around the world. This, along with the increasing popularity of rap and hip hop music in the 1980s, contributed most the spread of hip hop writing and graffiti art into mainstream culture. However, as graffiti entered the mainstream canon of style those in positions of power in the U.S. have developed campaigns to suppress the graffiti generally while specifically targeting the economically disadvantaged people of color who consider themselves members of the hip hop community. “Since the 1970s in New York City… politicians, transit officials, corporate executives, and others have increasingly responded to graffiti as a political and economic issue, and thereby constructed it as a social problem.”16

Despite the apparent controversy surrounding graffiti and street art, MOCA’s acknowledgment of this form of art as legitimate and worthy of a survey exhibition can be seen as a sign of acceptance by the art world. Why would an institution like MOCA take on such a controversy? Sure, the pieces in Art in the Streets possess a tremendous degree of technical skill and creativity. Yet there is something to be said about the controversy itself and how it contextualizes one’s relationship with the artworks, the artists, and the exhibition as a whole. In 2011 the Museum of Contemporary Art was suffering from a two-fold crisis: one of both finances and identity. With dwindling attendance and an endowment at its lowest level since the museum’s founding nearly three decades ago, it became clear that something drastic needed to be done, something that would push the boundaries of art in our time and bring thousands of visitors to the struggling museum. The museum had a new director, Jeffrey Deitch, a man known in the art world for his bold choices. Deitch’s “academically thin but crowd pleasing exhibitions”17 like Art in the Streets brought thousands of visitors to the museum.

The fact that Art in the Streets, an exhibition of a particular subgroup’s artwork made in response to the particular social issues that affect this group, brought in so much revenue for the museum suggests the commodification not only of cultural products such as works of art, but of culture itself; in this case someone else’s culture. In order for this to occur, this ‘other’ culture needs to be absorbed into institutional culture. In “There’s No Place Like Home” Fraser, borrowing many ideas from Pierre Bordieu, sees this as an act of negation in the Freudian sense of the word. By this she is referring to the process through which the content of a repressed idea or image makes its way into the conscious mind. In this process the idea still remains repressed in that its intellectual function is separate from its affective function. Negation itself is a process of contradiction. The mind negates an idea or image in order to externalize and separate oneself from it only to re-internalize it as an ‘other.’ Negation is often used to describe the contradictions between one’s actions and one’s (true) intentions. In this way, it can be argued that negation is a major cause of contradiction within art discourse. Oftentimes art institutions like museums and arts publications talk about a commitment to social, economic, or political issues defensively, so as not to make apparent repressed motives or personal interests.

In the case of Art in the Streets, the fact that the exhibition sheds light on a population of artists that is traditionally under-appreciated and underrepresented in the art world can be read as only one aspect of why the exhibition was put on at all. The fact of the matter is, the curators responsible for Art in the Streets were pandering to trends in pop culture as a means of making a money. This is an example of cannibal psychosis,18 or the desire to consume other humans for profit. This idea has both a literal and figurative connotation. In the case of slavery and genocide, for instance, people are actually killed as a means for others to make a profit. More subtly, however, this process entails consuming the ideas, traditions, or cultural products of a person or group for one’s own profit. “Art can operate as an alibi for cannibal power because of its ability to gild ugly social and historical facts with the patina of taste and beauty.”19

How should art be evaluated in this context? As can be seen in the case of Art in the Streets, the forms of the artworks themselves do not tell the whole story. Rather, one can glean the greatest understanding of a work of art only when one takes the entire social, political, and economic context of the work into account. Kant’s notion of formalism as he understood it is no longer relevant when considering the art being made in our time and the contemporary aesthetic issues it presents. According to Arthur Danto, the artworks created in the wake of the mechanization and capitalization of the West have eliminated any clear distinction between what is a work of art and what is not. “…The basic perception of the contemporary spirit was formed on the principle of a museum in which all art has a rightful place, where there is no a priori criterion as to what that art must look like, and where there is no narrative into which the museum’s contents must all fit.”20 Danto’s view has two major implications: that art no longer has a concept to define what is and what is not a work of art and that art history can no longer serve as a concept on which to base our understanding of art. In saying that we have reached the end of art Danto does not mean that art making has stopped, or even that the works produced are not art. Rather, his point is that art as a concept has ended. This is illustrated in the debate surrounding Art in the Streets. Recall that for many, street art (the sanitized term applied to graffiti)21 is not art at all, and as such should not be condoned by art institutions like MOCA. Furthermore, Los Angeles, as well as other cities the world over has clear-cut laws against graffiti,22 eliminating both its status as an art form and as a legal practice.

“But the museum itself is only part of the infrastructure of art that will sooner or later have to deal with the end of art and with art after the end of art. The artist, the gallery, the practices of art history, and the discipline of philosophical aesthetics must all, in one or another way, give way and become different, and perhaps vastly different, from what they have so far been.”23 Taking all that has been said into account, what makes something a work of art in this age? It is the view of thinkers like Theodor Adorno and Bertolt Brecht that art is only given meaning once it reveals something about social conditions that helps one to consider the copious other ways in which to live in the world. For Danto, the only factor that qualifies something as a work of art rather than a real thing in the world is its ability to stimulate critical thought that links the artwork to societal conditions within a particular historical moment. In other words, art is nothing if not a reflective judgment. “…To find out what art was you had to turn from sense experience to thought. You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy.”24 After the end of art the only remaining way to have any conception of art is by means of a process of reflection and revision of one’s understanding.

Both Danto and Maria Pia Lara speak to the significance of retrospective thinking in our understanding our art. Danto reminds us that much of what we consider art now was not considered art at the time of its creation. Church altar pieces of the Middle Ages, for instance, are now staples in art museums, yet when they were created they were considered little more than architectural elements created by skilled artisans. It is only in retrospect that we conceive of them with any aesthetic, as opposed to merely utilitarian, value, and this even is a historical contingency.25 Art itself (that is what we consider to be a work of art) is, therefore, contingent upon a rethinking of history, and vice versa. The art that humans produce comes about from within a particular historical moment with its own particular social, political, and economic circumstances. Yet it is difficult, arguably impossible, to make any sense of a historical event while it is taking place. Further still, with the creation of particular historical truths as defined by historians (i.e., those who create history as we understand it by choosing to retell particular stories of history) many historical narratives go unheard. It becomes necessary, then, not to establish historical truths through general concepts, but instead to define history by reflecting upon specific historical narratives. It is this idea of reflective judgment that Lara is particularly interested in. “…Reflective judgments can help us notice things we could not otherwise see.”26

It is at this point that we must revisit Kant’s aesthetic theory. In the introduction to Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant distinguishes between determinate and reflective judgments. As opposed to determinate judgments, which place particulars under pre-established universal concepts, reflective judgments find or create a universal with which to understand a particular. “Reflective judgments focus on the particular. They generate a general concept, not through subsumptions, as determinate judgments do, but rather by producing general concepts that grasp the specificities of the particular.”27 It is with this understanding that we can most fully appreciate the relationship between art and its socio-historical context. The specific art works produced at a particular moment in history give rise to a richer understanding of the events of that period by disclosing through their stories that which may have been overlooked. It is Lara’s view that cultural and expressive discourses can alter our consciousness and normative structures. In other words, it is often through works of visual art, literature, theater, or music that one is exposed to the individual narratives that are so often omitted from history. It is through these expressive, artistic forms that non-normative, aconceptual narratives enter the public sphere28 and are able to be absorbed by a wider audience.

The artists featured in Art in the Streets are using their works of art as a way to express their non-normative narratives. Their work takes the form of illocution,29 or a speech act that is strongly connected to its performance. The act of creating these works is as much tied to its meaning as the forms themselves. I argue that in the particular case of street art, the act of creating as well as the physical context in which the pieces were created disclose a greater meaning than the forms themselves. The power of these works, and truly the exhibition itself, is revealed only upon reflecting on their physical and socio-economic context. Why were these works created in a public space and not in a studio? Why has nearly every artist in the exhibition been arrested for making their art? Why has it taken until now for these artworks to be brought into the setting of a major museum? These questions cannot be answered through forms alone because there is no concept with which one can find answers. Rather, the answers to these and the myriad other questions surrounding the art of Art in the Streets and street art in general can only be found through a reflective judgment of the examples we are presented with. Relating back to Adorno’s idea that art sheds light on societal issues, it can here be said that art is only able to do so aconceptually by bringing non-normative narratives into the public sphere.

What remains to be considered is the nature of a narrative itself. I reject the idea that independent narratives can exist in the world we live in. Rather than the binary normative and non-normative narratives, our modern world presents us instead with overlapping narratives. The key here is to develop a cultural narrative based on our imminent understanding of our experience in the world. As we have seen, the normative narrative of the art world, that of art institutions, is intertwined with the narratives of the financial sphere as well as the political sphere. Similarly, the non-normative narrative of those outside the art institutions, such as street artists, are also greatly influenced by social, political, and economic factors. The narrative of the hip hop community as articulated by street artists is a product of issues of race and economic disadvantage in the same way that the institutional narrative surrounding Art in the Streets is a product of its own overwhelming influences. These spheres of human experience, therefore, are entirely inter-related in a way that renders the particular forms of their expressive narratives irrelevant. The individual narratives that have come into being in the modern age thus call for an act of reflective judgment that takes into account all of these imminent factors in order to assign meaning to the illocutionary act of creation.

The phenomenon of Art in the Streets is that it is the first instance in which we see the narrative of hip-hop culture integrated into the mainstream cultural institution of the art museum and it places street art into an art historical narrative, if such a narrative even exists. Is this, the acceptance of hip hop culture’s narrative by the institutions of the art world, considered a success or a failure for this group? In Narrating Evil Lara emphasizes that subaltern groups, those traditionally excluded from history, use forms of artistic expression as ways to enter and consequently be slowly accepted by the public and their normative standards. Once accepted by the institution and presented within the public sphere, is this individual, expressive narrative really so individual? To whom does this story now belong? Does this process distort or even invalidate the non-normative narrative? Our historical moment can be described as a turning point in human thought in that it has seen the acceptance of alternative narratives into the greater scope of history. With this, the latest issue in aesthetics can be said to be the struggle of understanding the ways in which narratives both interact with one another and are constantly in flux. This only further emphasizes the necessity of Kant’s notion of reflective judgment and the imminent, as opposed to theoretical, understanding of art in our time.

 


Notes

1 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews. Ed. Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

2 These are The Critique of Pure Reason (1787), The Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790)

3 “Thus we can at least observe a purposeiveness concerning form, even without basing it in an end… and notice it in objects, although in no other way than by reflection.” (Critique of the Power of Judgment, Third Moment, 10 – “On purposiveness in general”)

4 Thus nothing other than the subjective purposiveness in the representation of an object without any end (objective or subjective), consequently the mere form of purposiveness in the representation through which an object is given to us, insofar as we are conscious of it, can constitute the satisfaction that we judge, without a concept, to be universally communicable, and hence the determining ground of the judgment of taste. (Critique of the Power of Judgment, Third Moment, ァ11 – “The judgment of taste has nothing but the form of purposiveness of an object (or of the way of representing it) as its grounds”)

5 Habermas, Jurgen. “From a Culture-Debating Public to a Culture-Consuming Public.”  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989. Print. (166).

6 Quotation borrowed from:

Mattick, Paul. “Art and Money.”  Art in its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics.  New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. (29).

7 Root, Deborah.  Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation, & the Commodification of Difference. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998. Print. (9).

8 Crow, Kelly. “The Gagosian Effect.”  The Wall Street Journal, sec. Arts & Entertainment:1 Apr 2011. Print.

9 Fraser, Andrea. “There’s no Place Like Home.”  Whitney Biennial 2012.Eds. Elizabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print. (28).

10 According to a 2013 Forbes report, Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucien Freud is the most expensive work of art to ever be sold at auction to date, having brought in $142.4 million at a Christie’s contemporary art auction. At $58.4 mllion Jeff Koon’s Balloon Dog (Orange) is the most expensive work of art by a living artist to be sold at auction.

11 These locations include major cities in the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and India.

12 Fraser, Andrea. “L’1% C’Est Moi.”  Texte Zur Kunst  Sept 2011: 114. Print. (3).

13 William N. Goetzmann, Luc Renneboog, and Christophe Spaenjers, “Art and Money,” Yale School of Management Working Paper No. 09-26, Yale School of Management, April 28, 2010.

14 Implicated by Ferrell, Jeff.  Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996. Print.

15 Ferrell (8).

16 Ferrell (12).

17 Trebay, Guy. “The Lives of Jeffrey Deitch.”  The New York Times: ST1. 21 Oct 2012. Print.

18 Root

19 Root (18).

20 Danto, Arthur C. “Introduction: Modern, Postmodern, and Contemporary.”  After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print. (5).

21 Mizota, Sharon. “Art Review: ‘Art in the Streets’ at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.”  The Los Angeles Times15 Apr 2011 2011. Print.

22 “Graffiti is a crime that can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor. If damage is $400 or more it can be charged as a felony.” California Penal Code 594 (a)-(b)

“Possession of graffiti tools… with the intent to commit graffiti is a crime that can be charged as a misdemeanor.” California Penal Code 594.2

23 Danto (17).

24 Danto (13).

25 Danto, Arthur C. “Three Decades After the End of Art.”  After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

26 Lara, Maria Pia.  Narrating Evil. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Print. (9).

27 Lara (11).

28 Habermas, Lara, et al.

29 Lara


2014

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