After Art by David Joselit

by FR


After Art (Princeton University Press, 2012) by David Joselit is a small book with a big argument. In barely over one hundred pages the art historian contends for what amounts to be nothing less than a critical shift in the way art historians, critics, and artists should be thinking and talking about art in the 21st century. According to Joselit, the conversation about contemporary art needs to shift its emphasis from the making and exhibiting of artworks to their life and circulation outside of the confines of hermetic art contexts, which is where, he argues, the true power of art and images resides today. So the “after” of the book’s title functions here less temporally than as a marker of significance: as opposed to the temporal break signaled by the post of postmodernism, “after shifts emphasis to [the art object’s] effects–its power” (p. xv). In short, Joselit (perhaps optimistically) conceives of the life of images after art as a great resource of untapped power and potential.

He further argues that the exigence of this shift is based on the changing conditions of contemporary art and images in the 21st century, “conditions of circulation” that he summarizes under the moniker of “Image Explosion”–which also serves as the title of the book’s first chapter. “The scale at which images proliferate and the speed with which they travel have never been greater,” the art historian tells us (p. 1). Whether as concrete objects on display at one of the many (and increasing number of) art fairs around the world or as JPEGS, in today’s global village artworks circulate at an unprecedented rate. And to such an extent that, as Joselit argues, “people now see art as an international currency. Art is a fungible hedge” (p. 1, his italics). And, as the value of any currency must lie somewhere, the logical question that follows is: Where does contemporary art’s power and value lie? To answer this question the art historian begins by describing the different kinds of values artworks possess and where these values reside–for instance, within the object or in its site of origin.

According to Joselit, today artworks can be categorized into three “paradigms of cultural circulation”: the migrant, the native, and the documented object. The migrant object is characterized by its mobility and status as a commodity; moreover, its value is aesthetic, contained in its form, and not dependent upon its site of origin. The art historian also aligns the migrant object with what he defines as the neoliberal position with regard to the circulation of art, a position that conceives of art as currency and artworks as commodities. The native object, on the other hand, is defined by its association to a specific site. “While it may be of the highest aesthetic quality,” Joselit argues in regards to the native object, “its primary value is tied to a specific cultural identity, and typically it belongs–or is said to belong–to the state” (p. 11). Furthermore, the native object is aligned to what Joselit terms the fundamentalist position, which, antithetical to the neoliberal position, posits that “art and architecture are rooted to a specific place” (p. 3, his italics). Lastly, there is the documented object. The relationship between this object and its site of origin has been studied and documented to produce “an informational or documentary value” (p. 11). According to Joselit, contemporary artworks fall into this last category by virtue of the fact that they have come into being “in an ‘information era’ where documentation is virtually inherent in the production of art” (p. 12).

The art historian’s differentiation between migrant and native objects on the one hand and documentary objects on the other is important, as it is his argument for “documentary value,” one that is proper to 21st century art production, that is novel to this study. And he lets us know this. Joselit reminds us that the migrant/native and neoliberal/fundamentalist binaries he discusses here were central to Benjamin’s canonical 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Benjamin’s dialectics of exhibition and cult value and, on the other hand, technological reproducibility and aura, are analogous with the art historian’s own migrant and native dialectic. The latter’s proposition of a third kind of object and value, the documented object with its documentary value, is, of course, an effort on his part to transcend Benjamin’s influential study. As noted earlier, Joselit argues that changing conditions of circulation, conditions that are new and proper to the 21st century, logically demand new approaches to thinking about contemporary art and where its potential lies.

These conditions have yielded what Joselit comes to refer as the “emergent image,” (another form of the documented object), which “is located on a spectrum between the absolute stasis of native site specificity on the one hand, and the absolute freedom of neoliberal markets on the other” (p. 19). This is an important point, for the art historian (again, perhaps optimistically) believes that this emergent image can resist commoditization: instead of continuing to accumulate artworks in museum basements, he suggests that “we could take image diplomacy seriously and attempt to imagine how art can function as a currency without falling into monetization” (p. 21).

In “Populations,” the book’s second chapter, Joselit aligns the emergent image or form with recent theoretical developments in the field of architecture. “Blobs” and “folds,” for instance, exist somewhere between discrete objects (which are subject of commoditization) and overt attachment to site. Another example of the emergent image includes Sherrie Levine’s Postcard Collage #4, 1-24 from 2000, which consists of a two-by-twelve grid of the same individually framed postcard, creating a playful exchange between figure and ground, object and field. Through these examples Joselit arrives at the concept of “format.” As images and artworks, Joselit argues, no longer serve the epistemological function of creating new knowledge and meaning–“everyone who inhabits contemporary visual culture assumes the complex communicative capacity of images to be self-evident” (p. 88)–their meaning does not reside in their content or form, but in the “performative nature of content,” their structure or format (p. 37).

It is worth noting that the art historian does mention that engagement with art’s internal logic and framing network dates back to Minimalist sculpture in the 1960s, which makes one wonder about the novelty of Joselit’s argument and position, especially considering that since the 1960s not only Minimalism, but also Pop Art, Post-Minimalism, Pictures, Feminism, and Institutional Critique all paid close attention to context. In light of this, it is not surprising that the art historian’s argument is defined not against these practices, but against art historical methodologies. He disregards all object-centric readings of art–iconography, the social history of art, structuralist and poststructuralist art history, and utopianism–as centripetal (moving inward to the object) by virtue of tethering meaning to objects, and calls for a centrifugal approach to interpretation, from the object outwards.

In the following chapter, “Formats,” Joselit further defines the notion of format through a discussion of a series of works falling under the umbrella of Relational Aesthetics. Through these works he stresses the significance of connections and fields and undermines that of mediums, which, he argues, “lead to objects, and thus reification” (p. 55). This section is followed by a critique of American museums, whose business, he notes, is to deal precisely in objects and mediums: “the American museum is engaged in a massive money-laundering operation: turning finance capital into cultural capital and putting a democratic face on the accumulation of wealth–all exempt from taxes!” (p. 71). Joselit’s discussion of art as currency (art as neoliberal, commoditized object), is perhaps the book’s most powerful argument for the need for what Todd Cronan calls “a progressive art-politics of the future.”

The book’s last chapter, “Power,” serves as a summary and conclusion. It synopsizes the shift from object to format and reiterates what Joselit conceives to be the power of art in the 21st century:

“I have tried to demonstrate that … the organization of the art world–its format–is as real as it gets when it comes to capital’s effects. It’s not just the purchase of artworks, but the self-image of entire nations, the transformation of neighborhoods and cities, and the fashioning of diplomatic identities that art is capable of accomplishing. In fact, its power has probably never been greater” (p. 93).

As a whole, Joselit’s book could be criticized for, at times, making use of overarching assumptions to get its point across, often resulting in overly optimistic passages and statements such as the one above, or, on the other hand, overstated cynicism–i.e. the claim that American museums are money-laundering operations. But, then again, generalizations of this kind are expected for the kind of argument Joselit makes here–one need only be reminded of the last two sentences of Benjamin’s seminal essay: “Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism responds by politicizing art” (p. 122, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, Harvard University Press, 2002). In other words, the stakes of the argument justify excesses of this kind.