Zodiac Rat Sculpture by Ai Weiwei. Photo courtesy David Noah

Image Explosion

The scale at which images proliferate and the speed with which they travel have never been greater. Under these conditions, images appear to be free, but they carry a price. Commenting to the New York Times on the 2010 rebound of Art Basel, the world’s most prestigious modern and contemporary art fair, American collector Donald Rubell declared with no apparent irony, “People are now realizing that art is an international currency.” (The new museums designed for cities around the world by star architects like Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog, and Pierre de Meuron would thus function as the art world’s central banks.) In a time of economic instability, precipitated by worldwide financial failures since 2008, people now see art as an international currency. Art is a fungible hedge. Its value (at least the value of art sold at fairs like Art Basel, in prestigious auction houses, and at blue-chip galleries throughout the world) must cross borders as easily as the dollar, the euro, the yen, and the renminbi. By definition, a currency moves freely (though not without a price). It is an instrument invented to transfer value easily and efficiently—and with the aid of computers, almost instantaneously. Even the negligible materiality of paper money has grown practically obsolete—required only for a fraction of transactions. Currencies are universal translators: they can assign a value to every kind of commodity, whether goods or services. In the 1990s a second type of universal translator gained prominence: digital technologies with the capacity to transpose any work in sound, image, or text into numerical sequences—into code. Contemporary art and architecture are produced at the intersection of these two universal translators—one that specifies value, and the other that specifies form. But how can we describe the aesthetics of a currency like art?

First, we must discard the concept of medium (along with its mirror image, the post medium), which has been fundamental to art history and criticism for generations. This category privileges discrete objects—even objects that are attenuated, mute, distributed, or “dematerialized.” One of the goals of After Art is to expand the definition of art to embrace heterogeneous configurations of relationships or links—what the French artist Pierre Huyghe has called “a dynamic chain that passes through different formats.” Medium and post medium are not good analytic tools for describing the hybridity of such chains or “currencies” of different states of form. Here we may take a lesson from late capitalist business practices in which virtually anything, from trash to home mortgages, may be “monetized”—in other words exchanged on an international market in an abstracted representational form. As Rubell described it, art has been monetized too—as a universal currency. This has had the unfortunate effect of vast commercialization, but it has had other effects too—namely, vesting images with an enhanced form of power, which After Art is dedicated to exploring.

Our first task in assessing what kind of currency art might be, or might become, is to understand the dynamics of its circulation since by definition currencies are constituted through exchange. At this moment, there are two dominant positions vis-à-vis the circulation of art. Not coincidentally, they correspond to those that structure contemporary global politics. One is aligned to the world of Art Basel, as well as the preponderance of large Western museums: it is a belief in the free neoliberal circulation of images where open markets render art (as well as other streams of images ranging from television to tweeting) as a form of currency. The second attitude might be described as fundamentalist; it posits that art and architecture are rooted to a specific place.

Religious fundamentalism is defined by adherence to doctrine, as laid down in sacred texts. Image fundamentalism asserts that a visual artifact belongs exclusively to a specific site (its place of origin): that, for instance, the Parthenon sculptures sold to the British Museum in 1816 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin (who removed them from the Acropolis with dubious permission from the Ottoman Empire) should be returned to Bernard Tschumi’s state-of-the-art Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009 to draw these works back to Athens.

It is worth pausing to assert that this great political conflict—between neoliberalism and the fundamentalisms that have emerged in both the developed and developing worlds, and which encompass most major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism—is not merely reflected in art, but advanced by it. Art has a diplomatic portfolio: it participates in building new public spheres, and in opening export markets abroad. Since 1979, to take one prominent example, Chinese contemporary art has been closely aligned with the ups and downs of domestic political liberalization through public exhibition—a practice that the artist Ai Weiwei has adapted to the Internet by, for instance, publishing troubling revelations on his blog about the tragic deaths of schoolchildren in poorly built schools in the great Sichuan earthquake of 2008. It may seem that the Chinese art world’s enthusiastic embrace of the art market disqualifies it as a political force, but in his provocative book The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture (2004), political scientist Richard Curt Kraus argues the opposite. Kraus asserts that the success of Chinese artists in the international art market has led to reduced restrictions in the cultural realm and consequently greater political openness overall. As he declares, “Despite the violence of the 1989 Beijing Massacre, political reform in China has been more profound than is commonly recognized: artists (and other intellectuals) have established a new more autonomous relationship with the state. The price of this growing independence is financial insecurity, commercial vulgarization, and the specter of unemployment.” Given the crackdowns on dissident Chinese intellectuals after the public protests that characterized the so-called Arab Spring of 2011—including Ai’s detention for eighty-one days for alleged economic crimes—Kraus’s optimism may seem misplaced. However, it is clear that Ai’s international reputation lead to pressure on the Chinese to release him, including efforts by German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. If art has political efficacy in the twenty-first century, it may lie in cultural diplomacy as opposed to the invention of avant-garde forms as new content.

The debates surrounding repatriation of cultural property in the first decade of the twenty-first century constitute a very different sort of diplomatic dilemma. Though not fought over works of contemporary art, these controversies nonetheless offer a thoroughly contemporary conflict between a neoliberal model of free circulation and a fundamentalist belief in art’s belonging to a unique place. Indeed, like Conceptual Art, the most widespread “international style” to emerge since the mid-1960s, the contemporary ethics of cultural property hinges on information. In response to a thriving trade in illicit antiquities, whose original archaeological context is typically undocumented, UNESCO established a policy in 1970 called the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property. The convention posits a clear theory of archaeological value:

“Cultural property constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and…its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin.”

Should images flow freely like currencies, anywhere the market will take them, or should this neoliberal freedom be tempered by the values of cultural identity whose most extreme expression is fundamentalist?

Not only does the UNESCO convention stress informational value as “truer” than aesthetic value (in the very same year as two watershed exhibitions of Conceptual Art, “Information” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and “Software” at New York’s Jewish Museum, which also sought to redefine the work of art as a form of information), but its enforcement relies on a second genre of information: the thorough documentation of an object’s “history”—a continuous chain of custody, its provenance.

In the course of the first decade of the twenty-first century, which witnessed legal actions such as Italy’s prosecution of former Getty Museum curator Marion True for acquiring illegally exported antiquities, as well as the opening of the new Acropolis Museum as part of the Greek government’s effort to persuade Great Britain to return the so-called Elgin Marbles (not to mention many less publicized scandals and campaigns), these repatriation debates have taken center stage. This makes sense because what is at stake are the ethical—and even moral—dilemmas that arise when cultural properties are virtually freed from the limits of time and space.

Should images flow freely like currencies, anywhere the market will take them, or should this neoliberal freedom be tempered by the values of cultural identity whose most extreme expression is fundamentalist? Indeed, the repatriation debates implicitly define three paradigms of cultural circulation—the migrant, the native, and the documented object—each of which possesses its own relationship to a site of origin, its own form of value, and its own particular legal status in terms that recall one of the most charged political issues of our time—illegal immigration among migrant laborers, and massive flows of refugees in war-ravaged parts of the developing world.

The migrant object may have an inadequate provenance that can be gradually legitimized by passing it through a chain of owners: galleries, prominent collectors, and, ultimately,museums. Its cultural value lies in its aesthetic power, but legally it is owned as commodity—and the sovereign authority of property rights may be used to mask its illegitimate provenance. The “information” carried by migrant objects is believed to be inherent in their form rather than dependent upon their site of origin.

The native object belongs organically to a specific place. While it may be of the highest aesthetic quality, its primary value is tied to a specific cultural identity, and typically it belongs—or is said to belong—to the state.

In a controversial book published in 2008, Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the Battle over Our Ancient Heritage, the current CEO of the Getty Trust in Los Angeles, James Cuno, recounts his first visit to the Louvre as a college student:

“I was not the lesser for not being ‘from’ these magnificent cultures. They were not inaccessible to me, though in many cases I had never heard of them and in every case knew little if anything about them. They were not foreign, in the sense of being of another’s culture. They were mine, too. Or, rather, I was theirs..And I looked at them in wonder, too; in ways, I imagined, their original beholders looked at them.”

As Cuno’s treacly account makes clear, with the “migrant object,” the right of possession does not depend on either cultural commonality or special knowledge, but rather on pure empathy. Consequently, its relation to its original site may be easily severed in order to release it into free and unfettered markets.

The native object belongs organically to a specific place. While it may be of the highest aesthetic quality, its primary value is tied to a specific cultural identity, and typically it belongs—or is said to belong—to the state. Melina Mercouri, who was the Greek Minister of Culture and Sciences when Greece initiated its efforts to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles, declared in an address to the Oxford Union in 1986, “You must understand what the Parthenon Marbles mean to us. They are our pride. They are our sacrifices. They are our noblest symbol of excellence. They are a tribute to the democratic philosophy. They are our aspirations and our name. They are the essence of Greekness.” Native objects are absolutely site specific: if displaced they are said to be maimed, rendered meaningless.

Finally, there is the documented object, whose relationship to its original site or “find spot” (which is technically known as a provenience) has been properly studied to produce an informational or documentary value. Even if such objects are removed from their place of origin and acquired by a distant collection, the knowledge derived from them—and thereafter represented by them— remains part of the cultural commons. For archaeologist John Carman, access to this kind of knowledge is a necessary but not sufficient public good. In his book Against Cultural Property: Archaeology, Heritage and Ownership, he rejects the ownership of cultural property in any form—whether by a nation-state or a museum—as inherently reducing material culture to nothing more than an economic asset that must be exploited: “This brings us finally to the core but unstated notion which sustains all of the value structures of the economic approach but which ultimately denies the ubiquity of the environment: that value only accrues to things that are in some sense, and in some way, owned.” Carman advocates instead a collective form of community management of cultural heritage. As utopian as this position may sound, it is extremely salutary to imagine how material culture, and image cultures of all descriptions, may be valued differently than as property. Images might become forms of currency that do not conform to the monetary (like many forms of communication). Because they emerge in an “information era” where documentation is virtually inherent in the production of art, contemporary art works typically belong to the category of documented objects.

The question of art’s circulation, or its currency—whether migrant, native, or documented—is thus intricately tied to different understandings of its “site specificity.”

David Joselit is the Carnegie Professor of the History of Art at Yale University. His books include American Art Since 1945 (Thames & Hudson) and Feedback: Television against Democracy.

Excerpted from AFTER ART by David Joselit. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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