Autonomy names the fact not that artworks are free from external circumstances, but that precisely those external circumstances are actively taken up by works of art in ways that are irreducibly normative.
Meaning in art (what you have actually done and said) slips away from the artist’s ranges of control within the environment, for example, of the unprecedented circulation of commodities. But instead of allowing meaning and intention to be coopted, predictably and inevitably, the artists Michaels admires evacuate the work of emotional, affective, or personal forms of address preemptively, as though anti-pathos and anti-sentiment were a shield or defense.
Helio Oiticica’s career tells the story of the democratic leap of art off the wall and into life, out of contemplation and into action and experience, from autonomy to involvement, from elite contemplation to democratic participation, from aesthetics to politics. This narrative, which carries the authority of being the story Oiticica himself wanted to tell at one point in his life, is not false. And yet the truth lies elsewhere: closer to the works themselves and, only apparently paradoxically, in the great political crosscurrents that tore through the Brazilian 1960s.
Fluxus containers, in summary, initiate the beholder (a holding, handling beholder, maybe a tool-being holder in the Heideggerian sense) to explore and take interest in the world. The boxes sensitize the user to a world where the public is overwhelmed and numbed by the excess goods proliferating, literally ad nauseum, in the world and landing in the seconds bins along Canal Street, where Maciunas made use of them as artworks. The kits express a collective obligation (or opportunity) to repurpose the excess manufactured articles of late capitalism.
It is important to recognize, when reading his critique of literalist sensibility in “Art and Objecthood,” that his view of literalness and contingency is not that these should be abolished from artworks (as though that could ever be possible! Mallarmé reminds us that it’s not), but that the literal and contingent properties of a work should be acknowledged and incorporated into it, creating an intimate and non-arbitrary relation between a work’s literal conditions and its configuration, between its situation and its syntax. The problem is not literalness, but what one does with it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the history of Hollywood production mirrors the history of venture capital in the United States, as each new film presents an idiosyncratic set of risk factors, and each new production or distribution technology distorts return forecasts for a new generation of film speculators.
Aravena’s entire Biennale, then, its emphasis on “natural” materials—the omnipresence of earthen brick and tile—its insistence on the collaboration among state and humanitarian actors, all lead to the quayside behind the Arsenale, to a Catalan vault through which a starchitect advances his brand and a global conglomerate advances its sales.
Formalism assumes that the features being picked out are part of a “best possible” construction of what was done when the work was created. In this way formalism can work equally well for those who see intention as equivalent to meaning and those who see intention as a naïve and unworkable construct. In the latter case it is able at once to attribute significance through the quasi-intentionalist mode of writing described here, and to pass in everyday description as “anti-intentionalist,” as writers from Wölfflin and Shklovsky to Clement Greenberg have combined this general way of operating with explicit denials of the admissibility of artists’ actual, consciously made, statements about their own work.
This is to say that the strictly documentary character of Adams’s work, which by and large claimed viewers’ attention at the time of New Topographics, has somewhat receded in importance. And it is also to suggest that the theoretical issue of the non-representational nature of the photograph as well as of the problematic status of the photographer’s intentions owing to the photograph’s indexicality…turns out to be not quite relevant to the present case. Or rather, more precisely, it is as if the “weak intentionality” of the photograph…turns out to throw into relief the extraordinary strength and efficacy of Adams’s esthetic perfectionism…with respect to the appearance of the final print, the esthetic artifact as such.
Is damaged art still art? There are two ways to approach the question. The first is ontological; it is a question of how much a work of art can be changed, damaged, or altered (the water-logged painting, the shattered sculpture, the abridged novel) and still be thought of as the same work. The other way to approach it is political: as a question of what it means for art to represent or reflect the damage—the compromise, concession, and instrumentalization—that is an inescapable consequence of its place in a market economy and a capitalist world. To put the question this way is to inquire into the conditions of an artwork that doesn’t pre-exist its damage, one that arrives already in damaged form; “totaled in advance,” to use Jennifer Ashton’s excellent phrase. But the artwork that is totaled in advance raises in turn a further question, which is whether it is possible to differentiate intentional damage from unintentional damage, the preemptive from the inevitable. Does art that takes up the unavoidable demands of the market as its subject thereby somehow escape those demands? Or is the very point of art under such conditions simply to demonstrate its own impossibility in the face…