Taming the Dancing Table: Post-humanist ethics in the age of hyper-capitalist spectacle

A conversation with Noah Simblist, Carol Zou, Andy Campbell and Chelsea Weathers

Terremoto, 2016

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties…The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.
– Karl Marx, Capital (1867)


NS: Marx’s famous comment suggests that despite the seemingly radical shifts in capitalist society, metaphysics still abound in the magic of the commodity. I’m thus interested in talking about the ways that ethics have migrated from religious doctrine to secular humanism, to the post-humanist world—especially the art world. In a recent panel at the Nasher Sculpture Center during the Dallas Art Fair, the collector Stefan Simchowitz suggested that artists and museums are given too much of a holy, ethical aura, when collectors are unjustifiably maligned as being greedy capitalists.

When Lisa Cooley recently announced the closure of her gallery, she spoke of the exhaustion of the hyper capitalism of the art market with international fairs, demands for bigger gallery spaces, bigger production costs for artworks, etc. and suggested that we take a break from art and instead donate to a few causes including Planned Parenthood. Is there an aspiration for an ethical relationship in the market? Aren't the ethical problematics of capitalism not only linked to galleries and collectors but also cathected to non-profit institutions such as museums and smaller “alternative spaces”? I’m thinking here of Andrea Fraser’s essay L’1% C’est Moi where she details the corrupt practices of board members that support museums that have historically supported her work with institutional critique.

CZ: I question the premise that secularization of ethics has occurred to precipitate this crisis of spirituality—perhaps it appears so if you only look at Western capitalism. I am thinking of the various degrees to which Islamic states have secularized, some less than others; of the current indigenous protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline which merge culture, spirituality, and resistance; and Buddhism’s lack of such Judeo-Christian hierarchies which are invoked by Stefan Simchowitz’s suggestion of the “holiness” of the artist. For me the premise of this issue poses a #FirstWorldProblem which can only have #FirstWorldAnswers, but my interests and practices are firmly ensconced between worlds—I am a staunch atheist raised between cultural Buddhism and predatory evangelical Christianity. So I just need to put that out there.

I agree with Noah that smaller nonprofits and alternative art spaces do not escape the problematics of capitalism. Simchowitz completely ignores the power differentials between artist and collector and attempts to horizontalize a gross power inequality. Within the art ecosystem, we can speak of certain agents as being more disempowered than others. I subscribe to Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed where she talks about how being disempowered often means you engage in the problematic behavior of the system that oppresses you, for the sake of survival—small nonprofits and alternative art spaces with almost no exception have to replicate the problematics of art-world capitalism, but I think there needs to be a more nuanced analysis of the power positionality and the agency from which they operate.


AC: I question Simchowitz's premise that artists and museums are somehow given a holy aura that collectors are not; and that art markets (as unregulated and slipshod as they are) are the end all/be all of taste-making. This is ignoring the fact that we live in multiple art worlds, that many of us build our communities of readers and viewers at a local or regional scale.

A lot of folks participate in the art market, but not so visibly/directly, such as alternative spaces and non-profits (as you point out Noah), but also art historians, archivists, educators, etc. But this is never acknowledged, and a lot of artists feel themselves on the outside of “success” as normatively defined by capitalism (that is, self-sufficiency on one’s artwork). The truth is very few artists are able to make a life solely from the sale and circulation (or commission) of their work, and the perpetuation of this fantasy (which runs totally contrary to how arts and artists are actually valued, funded, and supported with capital and other kinds of resources) does nothing to help people who want to be in the art world retain a modicum of mental and physical health in relation to their working lives.

What that ArtNews piece on Cooley highlights for me are the ways in which (most) galleries and artists feel burned out by the same economic uncertainty of our field—and whether this is a place worth figuring out if there are supportive links yet to be made.

It's interesting to consider an advice Adrian Piper gave lately in an otherwise uneven listicle from ArtNet entitled: “18 Female Artists Give Advice to Women Starting Out in the Art World” (https://news.artnet.com/art-world/advice-to-young-female-artists-542609).

“You should be clear about what you are aiming for (…) (if) you are aiming for (3) art-historical significance, the best means (…) is financial independence, (…) a day job in a different field. (It) will free you to make the work you are most deeply driven to make, regardless of whether or not anyone else likes it or buys it.”
Of course, Piper’s advice may not be right for everyone—but at this particular time, in this particular economic climate, I think it’s some of the clearest/plain-spoken advice I’ve heard.

Last year, I was a Critic-in-Residence with the Core Program in Houston, but the payout wasn't enough to afford rent, groceries, etc. I then found a nearly full-time as a barista at a cafe. I hid the fact I had a Ph.D. from my cafe co-workers, inducing a lot of internalized class shame that I had to deal with—on top of the strenuousness to have two jobs at the same time, which was not, as I heard a Core Program board member suggest, a “fun stuff”, but an obligation. I guess this little story demonstrates at a modest, personal scale the narratives that tie our mental/psychic worth to the machinations of systems that don’t value cultural labor. The scene from Mean Girls kept replaying in my head where Tina Fey’s students encounter her working at a restaurant in a mall on the weekend. (http://cdn2.crushable.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Tina-Fey-Mean-Girls.gif)

Resignation doesn’t feel like a politically or ethically smart thing to do in relation to capitalism and the art world(s)—but neither does careerism.

CW: The fact that the art world fails to uphold certain ideals (the establishment of fair wages for art workers, the preservation of intellectual property, the ways that collectors and galleries avoid giving artists financial compensation for their work) suggests that there is some sort of ethics in play—it’s just that there is not any organized or clear way to enforce those ethics. Is there a way that we can point to some institutions that maybe are trying to do better, to uphold some sort of code of ethics—something that an organization such as WAGE is trying to do?

Before I go on though, and as someone who is invested in thinking about local/regional art communities : I'd like to endorse Andy's point about there being multiple art worlds, both on the producer and cultural consumer's side, while refuting Simchowitz’s claim that the “micro audiences” of collectors build huge audiences that could challenge the validating ones of museums and other not-for-profit institutions. Of course there is a wide array of success and failure amongst institutions who take up the mantle of providing access. But at least those mandates exist, whereas I’m not aware that collectors usually open their homes and their files and libraries to academic or general publics at any time other than under very limited circumstances.

I attended a panel at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts here in Santa Fe, as part of Indian Market—a problematic event in itself—titled Exhibiting Culture, which in this context specifically referred to Exhibiting Indigenous Culture. The panelists were Julie Decker, the Director of the Anchorage Museum in Alaska; Cherokee artist Shan Goshorn; and Christina Burke, the Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma. To me, the conversation productively named the problems that cultural institutions face when acquiring and representing indigenous cultures, both for Anglo and indigenous audiences.

In many cases, institutions are met with pushback from boards and institutions who impose values and metrics of success that blatantly disregard indigenous values or metrics. Burke was clear about the amount of compromise involved in her efforts to get the Philbrook compromising between building shows that would ensure a high audience (e.g., Monet) so they could also accommodate her shows that, due to a much lower knowledge of the general public in native or non-western art, have a much lower turnout—a sort of never-ending self-fulfilling prophecy. I then found it fascinating that Decker claimed that the Anchorage Museum had thrown out attendance as a reliable criterion for measuring the success of its exhibitions—a position in overwhelming minority. All three panelists were adamant about the need to have indigenous artists or members of the indigenous community present and involved in exhibitions of indigenous art and artifacts at the beginning of the planning process. Both this mandate and the idea that maybe we need some sort of alternative method besides quantitative metrics of engagement imply, at bottom, an ethics at work.

My instincts say that even the most influential and powerful institutions in the art world don't adopt these kind of ethics. But still, despite of this intuition, I struggle continuously not to discount the work that is going on in less visible communities, even being an art worker who may not identify with those centers and who is trying to understand the small arts community that I have just moved to. I just left a job at a very establishment, very white, very influential humanities archive, because of my own inability to reconcile its mandate to access with its conservative idea of what that access should actually entail, and I am aware of the difficulties to come to terms with our own goals.

NS: I'd like to bring up another question that I’m curious about in relation to universities. Similar to WAGE, the group BFAMFAPHD, looks at the unsustainable system of art degrees, in which students go into huge amounts of debt to face limited potential for income even once they have entered the professional world and attained some degree of success.To some degree, like the Philbrook example that you brought up Chelsea, we rely on full tuition paying students to subsidize the enrollment of lower income students. But even still, some students have incredibly difficult moments—sometimes being on debt years after. Thankfully, our MFA program is fully funded, but graduate students still need to take out loans to pay living expenses if they want to be full-time students. This compounds the financial precarity of the examples that you all mention above, because in addition to supporting our professional and living expenses, we must also bear the burden of debt service. Not only that, but from an ethical standpoint, and as an educator and as the chair of the department recruiting students for our BFA program, I find myself in the position of potentially replicating my own precarity through my students. Something that I find problematic but unsure how to negotiate, aside from raising more money to further subsidize the degrees that my institution offers.

To go back to one aspect of my original question : in some religious systems there is an attention to a shared set of ethical principles. The secularized capitalist world believes that logic or law can replace this. But to follow the notion of multiple art worlds, or multiple nation-states within the art world, perhaps there is a need for an explicit code of ethics that can attend to the potential structural problematics of museums, galleries, universities, publishing houses, archives, and other platforms for cultural work. But this kind of communal agreement flies in the face of the currents of Foucauldian questions of power and anti-establishment individualist rebellion that course through various nation states of the art world. Can we set up a code of ethics for various art nation-states, without falling into the trap of power?

CZ: Andy’s words about the precarity of the art worker really underscore the need for whatever ethics artists adopt to be part of a global solidarity movement—and going way beyond of the art nation-state. I can relate to Andy’s words insofar as I am also in $60k of student debt, making an annual poverty level income that is pieced together from several freelance sources, without health insurance or benefits. However, I also manage a socially engaged art project (Trans.lation Vickery Meadow) in which I work with refugees, undocumented immigrants, sex workers, people receiving federal benefits, etc. who are all more economically precarious than I am in terms of income, citizenship, and educational attainment. I find that my position affords me with an immense amount of privilege but also with the potential for transformative solidarity in articulating a co-struggle for survival. For me there’s a danger when art workers articulate their own precarity within the scope of the art world, which is a legitimate precarity, but fail to understand that precarity within the context of the larger exploitation that produces the global labor class—both in terms of our privilege and our solidarity. Whatever code of ethics the art world/nation states adopt needs to be situated inside this larger ethical question of global labor and equity.

Teremoto, November 14, 2016 — Issue 7: Eternal Life