Image from Flickr via Michael Holden

In the American art world, corporations are people, my friend. Within the last five years the trend of collectives-as-commercial-entities has become increasingly prevalent as a prominent influence within the contemporary art market. And these groups are corporatizing. Faced with the shifting sands of sustainability within the fickle realm of creative practice, many artists bound together in their process of production have begun to enact the hierarchies of corporate business infrastructure as a cornerstone to their own advancement. The interest of fiscal self-preservation has many collaborative projects collectivizing and, further, assuming the title of corporation as part of their formal operative fabric and legal personhood.

A corporation, in its essence, can generally be defined as a legal entity, separate and distinct from its owners, which exists solely by the grace of the state. Unlike the individuals that create it, a corporation enjoys only a limited (but growing) subset of the rights and responsibilities that an individual possesses.

Let us back up a bit. For all intents and purposes of having this conversation, it is necessary to suss out the differences between two terms that are often (questionably) used interchangeably: the collaborative and the collective.

A collaborative activates the specialization of labor within a very particular framework. In a collaborative operation, many individuals pool resources to get a specific job done; thus, their efforts become somewhat site-specific, moving project-by-project, as necessary. Ownership of the work falls to each contributor separately. Individuals are provided autonomy beyond the umbrella of the collaboration, a harmony of efforts. In a conversation between research theorist Brett Stalbaum and Faith Wilding of the “(cyber)feminist art collective” subRosa in M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #2 (1993), Wilding notes: “Collaborations usually have a more informal or less ideological basis than collectives . . . usually each collaborator is credited by name. Ownership of the work redounds to each artist separately.” Collaboration, therefore, often remains more open-ended than that of collectivity, as it is transient in nature, often runs its course, and therefore is not substantiated by the premise of an idée fixe.

A collective, on the other hand, stems often from a political agenda and points toward the pooling of principles in the interest of promulgating and promoting a larger ideological framework or strategic methodology. For collectives, ownership of work falls under a larger over-arching umbrella that encompasses all members therein; thus, individuals are often expected to refrain from acting autonomously in any way that would contradict or jeopardize the collective goals and central objectives of the group. As a member of a collective, there is an understanding that an individual enters a contract (formal or informal) to relinquish some part of their individual identity as a maker to that of the collective whole. Members of these groups, though clearly named, often are rendered somewhat invisible or anonymous by default due to the asserted structure of a collective body. Wilding comments, “Collective members usually share similar political goals and desires—though they may have different degrees of political radicality. Collective members also share the desire to work together and to count this process as part of their ‘work’. Many collectives use only the group name for identification and don’t label individual parts of works produced with the name of the member who was responsible for making it. This is often a problematic negotiation when it comes to trying to enter the art world system.”

Problematic? How?

Collective and collaborative art-making is deeply linked to the canons of art history. What was Dadaism, Surrealism, and Constructivism in the early parts of the 20th century, found a renaissance in the 1960s in Fluxus, Conceptual, community-based, muralist and feminist art movements.1 These creative efforts moved from the margins into the middle, beginning as pièce de résistance to the academy and then being embraced by the same arms that first spurned them. Spurred by the identity politics and activism of the 1980s that carried contemporary art practice in large part through the ’90s and into the early 2000s, within the past ten years the art world has been cycling again through a rebirth and revisiting of group action, seating itself this time in participatory engagement, social practice, interactivity, and an expansion in the digital frontier of new media. Institutions have expanded and adapted in response to these shifts, with summits such as Portland’s Open Engagement, programs like The Museum of Modern Art’s PopRally series, and granting opportunities such as Triple Canopy’s research and programming fellowships, or the Museum of Art and Design’s FUN Fellowship, which funds projects wherein nightlife and social practice come into contact.

It is precisely because of this rich history that understanding collective as “a problematic negotiation” often becomes a blinding light, easier to turn away from than face, head-on. Yet it would be naïve to pretend that the rise in globalized conglomerates and corporate multinationals, and the hand these entities have in changing the course of history on a macro scale would be mirrored in every part of the world as we know it, excepting the arts. The politics of art leaves a bitter taste on the tongues of many. Though we continue to witness funding for the arts being cut nationally with MFA and Master’s program graduates flooding an art economy too crippled to care for them, we still allow ourselves to be fed and fattened by the romantic fantasy that, somehow, art and ethics go hand-in-hand.

This is not the case.

Who to turn to for uncompromised and responsible social and institutional critique of crisis within the domestic and global forum? Do these outlets exist, or are they dreamscapes of utopistic pedagogy, too romantic to be realized?

Collaboratives in this day and age operate within the art world as points in a longer narrative, participants therein often defined in part by their difference from one another, brought together to participate in exchange. A collective practice, however, is a lifestyle, and, as many lifestyles do, collectives often value sameness of goals and aspirations over radical difference amongst members. Within the art world collaborations have been accepted and acknowledged as valuable assets within the larger market community of commerce; it is the commercial collective (a paradox to its very core), however, that is still finding its place and its ethical beat. Collective as an item of commerce is often more difficult to swallow for patrons, collectors, benefactors, and institutions, as the larger agenda of the group can sway the direction of the group’s career path, and the amassing of more than one individual in the process of art-making and the production of artworks introduces the entangled issue of compensation. How to compensate many individuals who operate under the golden arch of mono—one? It is here that the unified corporate model proffers a strategic solution for the capital success of collective creative practice.

Thus, the lifestyle and the politic of the collaboration become the products, manifesting themselves in participatory gatherings, programs, and events, used to cull content for the production of objects that can be pinned to the white box or placed on the auction block to be consumed by the voracious appetite of today’s art market. The archetype of the artist-in-solitude within the studio has been shattered as the definition of studio has expanded. And the work of the participant, spectator, or audience just might end up in the galleries of the next blockbuster exhibition, authorized and presented as part of a collective oeuvre.

In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin stresses the importance of the utilitarian nature of creative practice in times of crisis as a tool “for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art2 .” With the working-class struggle against capitalist coercion as a focal point, Benjamin challenges creative individuals to use their work as a vehicle for social dissent and discourse. Enter paradox: if artists need to make a living to sustain their creative practice, yet artists hold, in part, the responsibility of critiquing and dissenting from the social and cultural systems upon which they depend for sustainability, how to bridge the gap?

…the dichotomy that delegates corruption to the realm of finance, and earnest self-expression to the Shangri-La of creative practice, is false.

The answer: the collective. Collaboration is a good seedling, but it is within collectivity that codes of power begin to substantiate. And it is in this turn that we begin to hear the call and response between the collective and corporate as symbiotic models.

Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle, sheds light on the alienation of the individual under the thumb of capitalism. “The more . . . life is now a product, the more [one] is separated from [one’s] life3.” Life as a marketable object is a shape-shifter, ever-changing as it is sold off in parts as a means of entering the social system and purchased in parts as a means of compensating for that which has been displaced or lost via sale or exchange. That said, “The present art market and its existing infrastructures still promote the success of the individual4” over that of the collective. The brand of an individual offers the possibility of a constant. And an individual’s lifestyle is a large part of creative currency.

In light of this, the contemporary collective finds itself pressured to echo the strategies of the individual, finding success in the fullness of one. Though collective practice has the potential for liberation from the anxieties and alienations presented by individual practice, within the art world it does little to invert the capitalist model it often is bred to resist against, collapsing in on itself and alienating its audiences as an overt vehicle of capitalism. In asserting itself as an authoritative voice of polemic rhetoric, it requires its audiences to acknowledge its political expertise. When a collective is placed in this position, the group takes on a didactic function, with the public’s participation as signed consent to be educated, regardless of the veracity or quality of what is being taught.

In his essay “The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis5,” curator and educator Okwui Enwezor asks, “Is the collectivization of artistic production not a critique of the poverty of the language of contemporary art in the face of large scale commodification of culture which have merged the identity of the artist with the corporate logo of global capitalism?”

With today’s American art world collectives increasingly miming the self-interest of the individual, we must ask ourselves: What is the alternative when these groups also take on “the corporate logo of global capitalism”? Who to turn to for uncompromised and responsible social and institutional critique of crisis within the domestic and global forum? Do these outlets exist, or are they dreamscapes of utopistic pedagogy, too romantic to be realized?

Those who purchase artwork from collectives and collaboratives, or who support their practice as patrons, are, indeed, shareholders of company stock.

As Enwezor points out:

“…collectives tend to emerge during periods of crisis; in moments of social upheaval and political uncertainty within society. Such crisis often forces reappraisals of conditions of production, reevaluation of the nature of artistic work, and reconfiguration of the position of the artist in relation to economic, social, and political institutions.”

Yet more and more the collective, once a critical strategy of the avant-garde, has morphed itself into a critical strategy of capital gain to engage with commerce and create a base of power within the art market. The art world’s collective has become a part of the crisis.

Contemporary impulse to mimic the corporate form has come together with the desire to collectivize, and then to commercialize as a move toward sustainability. This means that artists shouldered with the historicized responsibility of critical resistance have become implicated and entangled in a diseased corporate archetype. The ineffectiveness of this illusively sound corporate model is one of many catalysts for the Occupy Movement, shedding harsh light on the culpability of the one percent and the devastating impact such socio-economic imbalance has on the rest of the (inter)national body. Is complicity with ailing structures of power, tools of a dominant paradigm, a new resistance? A form of institutional critique so seamless that the divide between institution and artist is rendered invisible? The emperor, it seems, has no clothes. But perhaps the Occupy Movement, in its mixing of models, is onto something. Jonathan Kaiser6 observes:

“Occupy Wall Street has not only reintroduced radical ideas about collectivity into mainstream discussion, they have managed (for a while at least) to convincingly frame those ideas as the common-sense goals of the majority, rather than as the irrational demands of a countercultural fringe. Any public demonstration has to be concerned with public presentation and media representation as much as its own internal process and ideology. But by combining the two and trying to construct a transparent micro-example of direct democracy, OWS is showing a glimmer of positive direction in a long lineage of protests that can’t seem to be heard beyond the prefix ‘anti.’”

Occupy Wall Street—though forcibly driven in part by creative micro-communities within the OWS movement (such as Arts and Culture, or Arts and Labor)—was not first formed to critique or evaluate the art world specifically. Occupy Art World, on the other hand, was. Yet, as a result of its decentralization the frequency of these public actions has been staccato, with the public perception of their true points of genesis being choppy at best. Though one can follow some of this activity via @OccupyArtWorld on Twitter, this forum has largely found its strength in enacting a sort of running manifesto “For people who are tired of the 1 percent and their tools controlling the direction of art7,” and a tongue-in-cheek talk-back to the forces that be, ranging from Saatchi to Saltz and beyond. While @OccupyArtWorld seems to preach to the choir (its followers) using social media as its mouthpiece, the actions that have taken place away from the perpetual Twitter roundtable (but perhaps virally fueled by it) have been impactful in their socio-cultural significance. Groups like @Occupy_With_Art have a similar online presence paired with a commitment to interact and engage beyond the facelessness of the digital stratospheres, documenting and bringing “art, cultural events and projects, with a particular focus on OWS itself as a social art process8” into the streets for public participation and engagement. These two groups are a sampling of a vast many more that represent opposite sides of the same essential coin: Occupy Art World highlighting the inequalities of the art world via the lens of the vast imbalances presented by the art market, Occupy With Art reifying the role of the artist-as-revolutionary, placing at the forefront the possibility of inciting change within the scope of creative production through the act of making. Occupy With Art has made its mark with everything ranging from performances to film screenings to screen-printings, while Occupy Art World has manifested itself in a variety of more disparate forms. To name a few: Occupy Museums, wherein people marched last Fall from The Museum of Modern Art to the New Museum to “protest the conflation of art and commerce9” ; the September 22, 2011 disruption of auction proceedings at Sotheby’s Upper East Side location; the short-lived October 2011 occupation of SoHo gallery Artists Space; the sending of a letter to the Whitney Museum by the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Labor group requesting the termination of their Biennial event10; and, most recently, a fake press release placed on a faux-Whitney Biennial website headed by the bold proclamation that, “WHITNEY MUSEUM TO CLOSE FOR MAY DAY; ANNOUNCES GOVERNANCE CHANGES11.” Though perhaps not the sole source of inspiration, the Occupy Movement has set the stage for other points of public critique of the current art world system, such as the recent release of the Working Artists and the Greater Economy survey at Artists Space on April 20th, which noted that “58 percent of artists who exhibited at a New York non-profit organization between 2005 and 2010 received no form of payment, compensation or reimbursement—including the coverage of any expenses12.”

As part of his project Occupy 2012—a self-described daily effort to “write and think about Occupy each day of 2012”—writer, teacher, and visual/cultural critic Nick Mirzoeff muses:

“Why does the art world not get similarly tired of wealthy patrons dictating ‘taste’ or indeed of the neo-liberal regime of the art market? Why is it not bored of Sotheby’s, the art auction house, locking out its union Teamsters Local 814 in order to reduce still further their labor costs? These staff are art handlers, so you would think you would want that job done well. Perhaps we get a clue when we learn that Diana Taylor, director of the board at Brookfield Properties, owner of Zuccotti Park, is also on the board at Sotheby’s13.”

Mirzoeff highlights with swift simplicity the reality of the presence of the one percent on Wall Street as well as within the art world, and the nature of their co-dependency. Thus the dichotomy that delegates corruption to the realm of finance, and earnest self-expression to the Shangri-La of creative practice, is false. The art world is a reflection of its financial counterpart, and there is no more integrity within the art market than the stock market.

Yet somehow we are still unresolved. Yes, the world calls for regulation of Wall Street, demanding accountability, and leading bastions of corporate economy have been disgraced as prominent examples of their violations. However, the conversation about responsibility and how to officiate regulations of abuses of power and unethical corporate-genre practice within the art world is not fully realized; in short, the art world remains unsupervised. Labor violations, selection and funding bias based on sex, race, class, and gender, insider trading, the hiding and shuffling of assets, the misuse of the non-profit structure, the misrepresentation of creative-corporate personhood to the general public in the interest of capital gain and advancement—all this has become de rigueur. And the collective often poses itself as a mode of resistance, a key part of the solution.

In her “Thoughts on Artists Collectives14” artist and writer Michelle Grabner notes:

“ . . . the rationale of a . . . collective is primarily to cultivate a base of power. Among the many variations of contemporary artists groups, with their broadly diverse social and political agendas, it is this desire for power that unites them. Regardless of whether these contemporary groups are modeled after corporate firms, pop bands or ephemeral grassroots organizations, they all hope to assert themselves more effectively as a group than as an individual into their given cultural spaces and institutions.”

The well-oiled collective model is incredibly efficient in streamlining production and amassing sheer force in labor alone, making it a prime structure for competing within a capitalist market. For one individual to be asked to compete with the efforts of five, or ten, is a near-impossible task, as the production capacity surpasses that of a single individual with ease. Though the efficacy of group work remains somewhat of a constant throughout, the utilization of power within contemporary art world models of collectivity has shifted radically from the dawning days of groups such as the Art Workers’ Coalition, Gran Fury, Group Material, Guerilla Art Action Group, the Guerrilla Girls, Colab, or Critical Art Ensemble. Once used as a tool to challenge the systematic marginalization of groups and political positions considered by the mainstream as fringe, power now amongst contemporary American collectives seems to feed directly into the “pop band” modality of creativity—the machine of super art stardom.

The recent debate in the United States about corporate personhood is a cyclical resurgence of a conversation that can be traced as far back as 17th century America. Personhood and its historical ties to the structuring of the corporation allowed corporations to be held accountable for their debts—as a person, a corporation could sue and be sued, provide creditors legal recourse, and encourage banks to extend credit to corporations. Thus the fiction of personhood allows corporations to increase their capital and continue to grow.

Collective practice in the art world and the personhood implied therein is also a legal fiction. Collectives garner public support because the public identifies with and trusts the ideology and lifestyle that the group promotes. Items made by a collective group therefore become manifestations of those modalities. The public consumption of these objects provides a connection to the group. The group produces these objects on credit, based on the reputation as substantiated by public opinion. Credibility and authenticity is then assigned to art objects based on this reputation, whether the reputation is a distortion of reality, or not. This credibility allows collectives to continue to expand, grow, increase their capital, and pursue more elaborate projects. Without checks and balances, collectives, much like corporations, are stripped of the mechanisms for the downgrading of credibility when these groups fail to make good on the credit extended to them. Thus, if a reputation is established based on a skewed representation of reality, there is no mechanism provided to the public to democratically challenge and dissemble the structures therein.

Hans Haacke put it best when he said, “What we have here is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored15.” In this case, the commercial collective aligns itself with that of the sponsors, and the general public is paid via cool factor, intellectual investment, and celebrity association. This cycle enacts itself as somewhat of a turbine, with the symbolic capital acting as stock for the masses at the bottom—as long as a collective of artists maintain their cultural capital, and thereby maintain their cool factor, this stock keeps its value, and is able to generate enough energy to keep those at the top in motion via production. Where socializing is currency in the art world, those at the top win doubly—they gain financially by culling content from those at the bottom that they can later offer as a product within the art market, and they gain momentum by being provided the opportunity to socially network, a major stepping stone toward greater success.

Many seeking access to the elite art world bubble are left to trade in symbolic capital while their labor—in the form of support and viral publicity of art star collective participatory projects, branded as property of the collective and alchemized via the turbine into financial capital—continues to fuel the overall machinations of celebrity. Yet, symbolic capital does not allow for social mobility; that which is known as the American Dream is not based on symbolism, it is based on money. In the division of profit and labor the gap between the zenith of art stardom and the populace below is widened; the financial capital necessary to rise up is not provided to those who hold the stock of symbolic capital alone. In order to invert this model, to call for change, one must ask: How to make the participating public real shareholders in the actual profits of the celebrity collective? If art stardom is built via open source public contribution, how to define ownership? How to make sure that those invested in symbolic capital get back concrete dividends—and what would those dividends even look like?

The imbalance here is this—while the participating public is offered symbolic capital in the form of association with these larger collectives, collaboratives, and miniature art corporations, these groups garner financial capital for their creative contributions to culture. This means the public’s engagement does not only support that of the collective’s capital gain, but it guarantees the systematic disenfranchisement of the participants themselves—it deepens the divide between the collective and the individual, making it more difficult for the individual to make the leap independently between the regions of symbolic and financial capital gain. Thus the individual becomes dependent on the collective in the same way that the individual depends on the corporation. Is this model sustainable?

Those who purchase artwork from collectives and collaboratives, or who support their practice as patrons, are, indeed, shareholders of company stock. Patrons therefore become dependent on participants as well, because participants drive the symbolic capital that supports the rise of the collective financial gain. Thus the survival of the collective becomes contingent on the value of the stock alone and the public’s investment in it—where many act as one, we see the capital gain of many to be placed under the umbrella of the individual. If the symbolic capital diminishes, so might some part of the financial capital, as the interest in acquiring works may shift.

Faith Wilding noted that, “Monumentality is the business of capitalist culture16.” In a capitalist art market that conflates the collective and monumentality, separating the two becomes an increasingly difficult task. Capitalism requires constant growth, and, similarly, within the art market, collectivity requires constant growth and flux to remain socially relevant. The hand of collectivity has been forced—collective practice used to be a form of collaborative practice, but faced with the weight of financial sustainability and the siren song accompanied by the laurels of art stardom, the relationship between the two is becoming increasingly distanced. The facelessness of collective practice, oft branded by anonymity, presents a Goliath similar to that of the corporation, providing a micro one percent of its own, a miniature economic model echoing the macro examples we see headlined in the world at large.

There is no immediate fault in mimicking the corporate structure alone. However, mimicking the corporate structure as well as the gormandizing nature of the modern mega-corporation is what compromises the integrity of the collective politic and the material history therein. Contemporary art collectives—and the artists within them—must remain conscious, critical, and responsible. One ought not to fall into to a corporate model for its plain ease; one must make a choice, acting with transparency, intent, and determination. Understanding the failures of the structure itself is key to making changes and a stepping-stone toward modifying the rubrics that have been previously established. Corporations are not individuals—but individuals together are collectives. An obligation to the individual’s agency and credit to his or her voice, as part of the collective task, is an essential anchor. In pouring our labor into the alternative collective effort, let it be in the name of palpable political progress, not solely commercial gain, and let our investment require of the collective an investment back into the populace that built it.

1Papastergiadis, Nikos. “The Global Need For Collaboration”. Collaborative Arts, online, 2008.
2 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936.
3Debord, Guy. La Société du spectacle (The Society of the Spectacle), Chapter 1, Section
33. First published in 1967.
4 Laws, Joanne. “How Does Collective Practice Function Within Contemporary Art Practice?” Online, March 4th 2011.
5Enwezor, Okwui. “The Artist as Producer in Times of Crisis.” 16 Beaver Group, online, April 15th 2004.
6Kaiser, Jonathan. “Work About Working Together: On Collaboration and Activism in Contemporary Art.” Constellation 17. QuodLibetica, online, December 1st 2011.
7Excerpted from the Twitter bio of @OccupyArtWorld.
9Ryzik, Melena. “Taking the Protests to the Art World.” The New York Times. Art Beat, online, October 21st 2011.
10This letter also happened to coincide with the anonymous mass distribution of a mock press release (and website to boot), headlined “Whitney Biennial 2012 to Open March 1; Museum Breaks With Two Corporate Sponsors, Apologizes to Participating Artists.”
13Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Occupy (and) the Art World?, Occupy 2012, ongoing. Online, February 17th 2012.
14Grabner, Michelle. “Thoughts on Artists’ Collectives.” X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly, Volume 6, Number 2, Winter 2004.
15Bourdieu, Pierre and Hans Haacke. Free Exchange, page 17. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
16Wilding, Faith and Brett Stalbaum. “Collectivity and Collaboration: subRosa, An Interview with Faith Wilding and Brett Stalbaum.” M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online #2, 1993.

Legacy Russell

Legacy Russell is a writer, artist, and curator. She has worked at and produced programs for The Bruce High Quality Foundation, Creative Time, the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney, and the Met. Her work explores mourning, remembrance, iconography, and idolatry within the public realm. She was interviewed about her performance project in New York City’s East Village and Lower East Side, Open Ceremony, for Guernica’s studio visit series, and her work has been featured in Guernica’s art section.

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