Service Aesthetics: Steven Henry Madoff on Personal Transactions in Art

By Madoff, Steven Henry | Artforum International, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Service Aesthetics: Steven Henry Madoff on Personal Transactions in Art


Madoff, Steven Henry, Artforum International


THE ATTITUDES AND TECHNIQUES of artists have clearly buckled and changed many times over the past century, as industrialism became postindustrialism and first-world enterprise shifted from goods to services while manual production was shunted to outlying zones of cheap labor. The significance of these shifts is a central focus of Helen Molesworth's 2003 essay "Work Ethic," in which she describes how artists--in their working ethos, methods, and social legitimacy in relation to other workers--are strapped to the twin engines of the economy and the technologies that drive it. Art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh explored related issues when he formulated the notion of an "aesthetic of administration" in a piece in October in 1990, arguing that the postwar period's concentration of power in the hands of managers "administering labor and production (rather than producing)" became a working model for Conceptual artists in the 1960s and after.

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How have more recent artists modified their practices in view of our own epoch's social and economic tumult and transformations? During the '90s, critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud famously looked at one strand of recent art that he characterized using the term relational aesthetics. His unique formulation of a kind of socially based art took shape just as the separation of art and life, author and audience, manual workers and knowledge workers, and the art market and artists' resistance to it all reached what seemed a historical point of tension, if not outright implosion. The art that Bourriaud focused on--by Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Philippe Parreno, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, among others--mapped and reflected this moment.

In the "culture of use," as Bourriaud aptly phrased it, artists were attempting to make socially relevant art outside the constraints of the market, pitting commodified objects against the slipperiness of a post-Duchampian Conceptualism that broke the logic between labor and exchange value, production and worth, use and uselessness, author and audience, centralized power and autonomous agency. The artists of relational aesthetics critiqued the power of the State and of capital by emphasizing the power of the crowd that participates in and completes their artworks. Yet it is becoming ever more clear today that there is another category of art that offers a different way to define artistic work in relation to social praxis and the issue of identity: an art that focuses not so much on the social relations of the artist and audience but on the atomized power of individual relationships within the social whole; an art focused not only on the artist's autonomy but also on the contested idea of the self in our post-Fordist era.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial in New York last March, artist Bert Rodriguez presented In the Beginning ..., 2008. The piece consisted of a simulacrum of a generic psychologist's office--complete with de rigueur stuffed leather chairs and potted plant--in which the artist (although he is not a trained therapist) held forty-five-minute personal consultations. By nature, these sessions were intensely personal for both the subject and the artist, moving toward a symbolic enactment of therapeutic release. In the same month, at Eyebeam gallery in New York, artist Natalie Jeremijenko presented Environmental Health Clinic, an ongoing performance piece and working clinic begun in 2007, where people come to report environmental issues affecting their personal health and the well-being of their neighborhoods. Visitors, whom Jeremijenko calls "impatients" because of the sense of urgency they feel about their situations, log their complaints on a detailed form, and the clinic's lab-coated staff prescribe some local intervention in response, such as the establishment of a small park area near the client's home. Last January, meanwhile, for an exhibition at the Sundance Film Festival, artists Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse presented Invisible Threads: Virtual Sweatshop in Second Life, 2008-. …

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