Let us continue with a paradoxical observation: when an artist enters the structure of a global art market, the thing we call ‘artistic value’ can become (and it often does) only an optional side effect of artistic production.
Surely, it all depends on what ‘artistic value’ means exactly, and we can only proceed with this reflection if we agree that this notion has always been rather unclear and elusive. Both modern and postmodern art were always haunted by the vagueness of this term which dwells on an often unproblematised interchangeability between the value of use and the value of exchange. The confusion of these two modes of value comes as no surprise: on the one hand, whenever we say that a certain piece of art is ‘valuable’ (’good’), we mean that it is somewhat useful (e.g., it reveals certain actualities of our being in the world and relates to our current concerns or creates the new ones), while on the other hand, by saying that a certain piece of art is ‘valuable’ (‘good’), we also mean that it potentially has a certain exchange value and therefore it will ‘do good’ in the art market. Tightly locked in a feedback loop, these two modes of value—that of use and that of exchange—create a flickering effect which makes it possible for an artwork to exhibit both types of value simultaneously: the use and exchange are conflated. As simple as that… and as complicated as that.
But what does the ‘use value’ of an artwork mean today? Or, to put it in other words, what is the use of art and why is it desirable? On the one hand, art is desirable because it does something to the way we understand the world, and we do like to reveal things about ourselves in the world. Of course, the idea of ‘liking’ is problematic here. Why should those things that art reveals about us be likeable instead of shaking us up, and making us think? Perhaps, we desire art not because it is a matter of choice—e.g., when we chose to like being shaken up—but because it is a matter of survival. And by ‘survival’ I mean the survival of our ability to think about things—both good and bad—that happen to us.
The things that art does might no longer be useful in the world of ‘humanist values.’ If we were to accept the post-humanist notion of ‘use,’ then art would prove useful as long as it is useful to the technological advancements and developments of the ‘global market.’
We might admit that if art is successful in doing that, it has a use value. On the other hand, an artwork can be useless in terms of it being unrecognised, hermetic, and unavailable to ‘user’ who is unable to ‘make use’ of it (just think about a common situation when an artwork is not even recognised as ‘art’). It might not necessarily mean that useless art is absolutely passive. It might still be doing something, only the things it does might no longer pertain to our world of ‘humanist values.’ Indeed, in this sense, the term ‘useless’ might be turned into its own opposite if we were to admit that contemporary art belongs in the speculative world devoid of human concerns. If we were to accept this post-humanist notion of ‘use,’ then art would prove useful as long as it would be useful to the technological advancements and developments of the ‘global market.’
More often than not, as far as contemporary art is concerned, the very fact that an artwork participates in the procedures of value exchange stands as a proof of its use value: if a piece of art is fully embedded and operational within the networks of promotion, exchange, and circulation of capital, it must be a good art. It must be something to be desired for. If this is how we understand the question of value then we can be sure that we have developed a Pavlovian reflex to equate a well publicised and mediated image with the notions of ‘current,’ ‘important,’ and ‘relevant.’
Art is unconscious because it is neither an artist nor an audience or a curator that decides on what is relevant: the question of relevance is decided beforehand by the antagonistic reality of capitalism itself.
Here I will propose another paradoxical observation: with only a little bit of exaggeration we could say that art is unconscious because it is neither an artist nor an audience or a curator that decides on what is relevant: the question of relevance is decided beforehand by the antagonistic reality of capitalism itself. Unless, of course, art is conscious of its own ‘underdevelopment.’
“The Effect of Contemporaneity” is a series of reflections that problematise the notions such as the emergence of an artist, cultural developement, artistic value, global art market, and colonialism.