Art as production for use turned into art as production for profit

The art world can’t help but be pleased with the efforts of its victims — there’s money to be made, after all. But there are those of us who watch these developments with increasing alarm, wondering if the art world will ever wake up. The saving grace is that art’s machinations generally have little effect on the rest of the globe. That may be the reason that art — especially today’s art — “is the only human activity that does not lead to killing.” Contemporary art has made itself so meaningless that nobody can be bothered to pull the trigger over it. – Alex Melamid

On Kawara (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I am almost finished with Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, but rather than rush through the novel’s ending and write hurriedly about it, I wanted a few days to ponder it since I feel it deserves thoughtful consideration. I’ll write about it in my next essay over the weekend.

That, of course, leaves me with the need to find a topic for this essay. I have two, and after careful consideration (that sound you hear is the coin landing on the table), I’ve decided to write about an interesting piece from Huffington Post that is yet another complaint about the problems facing contemporary art. The piece focuses on visual art, but I think the same is true for literature and music, so much of what the author says applies to art in the broad sense of the term’s usage.

That problem is, perhaps explained by using terms that will set of alarm bells for all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons: “production for use” and “production for profit.”

But first a few words about On Kawara who is sort of a poster child for what the title of this essay is on about….

Kawara, who died just over a year ago, is considered perhaps the premier practitioner of the Post WWII art movement known as conceptualism. For those unfamiliar (or, like the author of the HuffPo piece, Alexander Melamid, incredulous) with conceptual art, the idea is that the artist offers up seemingly ordinary objects that the viewer then “conceptualizes” (get it?) into the experience of art. In Kawara’s case, he did the following: 1) painted a canvas each day with that day’s date on it for a whole bunch of years; 2) typed each year for a million years, then had that long list of year-dates bound in a vast tome; 3) sent people (notably, he chose people in the art world who could advance his career – just saying) telegrams stating “I am still alive” for many years. Karawa’s exhibitions, then, become displays of all this stuff he’s done – he’s used these objects of life to suggest the – vastness and power of time? Ordinariness of human existence? That’s what art experts see when they look at his “works.” And that’s why he’s a celebrated artist. He’s gotten those who can give the imprimatur of authenticity to give his “work” the – imprimatur of authenticity.

Your experience may vary, as the ads tell us.

Alexander Melamid thinks that’s bullshit. I sorta do, too. But I think there’s an explanation for why Kawara just had an exhibition at the Guggenheim. And why his works will sell like – well, like (insert name of any fast food/junk food here) did for a while there before people finally realized they were stuffing themselves full of stuff that was terrible for them.

“Production for use” is a term used to describe products manufactured for specific purposes and uses. You know, stuff like soap, toilet paper, chairs – things, in others words, that we might actually need. “Production for profit” describes, besides the capiltalist system of ownership of means of production, what we’d call in the vernacular “luxuries” – things we want – sports cars, golf clubs, perfume, that sort of stuff. The former group we’d be pretty miserable without – the latter? Not so much, despite what advertising tells us.

What Kawara has done, and maybe this pisses off Melamid because he didn’t think of it, is figure out how to take stuff that we use(d) in everyday life – books, telegrams, even paintings since they are standard home decoration – and turn them into luxury items that people who buy luxury items would be tempted to buy. That’s taking production for use and turning it into production for profit. If you ignore Melamid’s valid argument that art maybe ought to be something besides merely stenciling the day’s date onto a canvas repeatedly, you might be tempted, especially living in the “marketplace age” that we live in, to think of Kawara as a genius for figuring this out. After all, his life’s work is like that of any great industrialist – he made the same products over and over and eventually worked his marketing skills until they gained great value in the marketplace. Maybe Kawara’s work is the perfect merger (merger – ha! – I am so witty) of art and capitalism.

There’s clearly something to what Kawara achieved. After all, popular music is now characterized by musical compositions based on repetitive beats that vary little song to song;  authors write series of books that repeat characters (and, one suspects, plots) over and over; and artists like Kawara make bank on works that repeat themselves ad nauseum.

So this is where we are as a culture. I am still alive. How about you?