Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 Arjen Mulder, Kristi van Riet 1 Jan 1994

Uneconomic Art

The exhibition Business Art in the Groninger Museum gave rise to the following reflections. A number of businesses were presented as works of art presenting themselves as businesses. The quality of the objects exhibited did not matter in the least. The important thing was the idea: business as art and contrariwise, art as business. Like virtually every exhibition, Business Art raised the question of the definition of art. Imagine that someone took this museum happening seriously: what might have been the consequences?

The fact that the appearance of each new product means that the old one simply no longer exists, is perceived by De Vries as a typical capitalist phenomenon.

de Volkskrant 24.07.93

As every truth is dependent on time - some theories are only true for a fraction of a second, others have a life-span of centuries - so also is every work of art. Some last for one and a half hours, others for five thousand years. Duration is of no consequence for the definition of art. In the twentieth century, the relationship between art and commerce developed according to a definite pattern, time after time. Movements or individual artists were new at first, then commonplace, then ugly and finally an unexpected rage. No kind of marketing has made any difference in this. Art is not defined by its commerciality or its transitoriness. The word 'medium' is obligatory in the definition of art. The medium of business art is commerce.


Groninger Museum exhibition 'Business Art' -Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 -

Fine, if we accept that doing business is a medium - what kind of a medium is it? According to the Dutch sociologist John Sasher:// Media are not carriers of cultural or ideological values. They transport no messages from sender to receiver, but form a parallel world of their own that never touches classical reality. Media regard the world as raw material for their own projects and have no further use for it. One must not seek the internal logic of media in the material processed by them, but in the strategies they follow in achieving ecstasy. Media are forced to develop continually, because every path they find to their ecstatic state can only be followed one single time. Then the technique becomes obsolete. Whereupon Sasher concludes: Media never leave the test phase in order to mature. Every medium must continually find its own dynamics in order to reach a new destination.//

What, then, is the new dynamics of the medium of business? Must it become art? Is that its new destination? Is art one of the destinations that a medium can have, before going on to search for another to achieve the next ecstatic state? In Sasher's definition, business is a parallel world, uninterested in the material of the world except as a means to achieve ecstasy. It's all about the kick, you know. Trade is not only a transeconomic market system, in which electronicised money circles the earth in a satellite orbit, day after day; you're also participating in the traffic of trade when you buy a jar of berry jam at the corner grocer's to take home and put in the interior of your home. Like the photograph on the book shelf, the poster on the wall, the painting in the hallway.

Art searches for and shows how a specific medium enriches experience. It is not true that a medium is 'only' the extension or magnification of one of the human senses. Media allow new kinds of subjectivity, sensations that simply did not exist before those media did. Capitalism, based as it is on Calvinistic morality, can only enjoy its products by feeling guilty about them. Travelling to an exotic country is not sufficient; in order to return home fully satisfied, one must experience that the country and its inhabitants have been ruined by tourism. What western art does is to separate media from this guilt complex: art is the negation of the degradation of the media by our use of it (in a capitalistic, fundamentalistic, or whatever other kind of ideological way). This negation consists of seeking out and concentrating on a medium's own moment, the moment at which the information in that medium disappears – taking with it the ideological charge that is inherent in any kind of information. At that moment, the user experiences that medium itself as informative, as informing, i.e., transformating its own experience program, of the medium and the user. Art makes clear that the content that one can extract from a work of art exists only by grace of the medium in which that information content can appear. Like the Dutch Cinema Association's advertisement last year stated:// At the movies, you forget that it's only a film.// As soon as you forget, whatever you may be looking at, it isn't art. And so disappearance of content reveals the surface as the only truth.

New Subjectivity

If the medium of business art is commerce, what is the enrichment of experience offered to it by that medium? What is it that makes commerce possible, what medial effect, what new subjectivity? What danger does commerce represent for the established order of things? How does capitalism look without guilt feelings? Where does trade appear as trade, irrespective of that which is traded? This should appear in concentrated form in commerce as art. To make art out of media, media must be interpreted as concretely as possible: these buttons, circuits, tubes, brushes, burins, copper plates, strings, voices, keys, these acts, words, gestures. Knowledge of materials, not interpreted as a medium for imposing your own subjectivity on your own, specific medium, but as a means to research the possibilities and restrictions offered by the medium to your own subjectivity. A discussion, not regarded as something that is carried on with someone, but as a series of acts that (you) can (allow to) be performed (dialogue theater). Words, not accepted as parts of the spoken language, but as things that can be ordered, replaced, re-ordered. That you can make, if need be. The jam jar is one work of art; its purchase is another. If trade is art, it is the most common one of the face of the earth, from prehistory onwards: when the hunter bought a stag from mother earth, he paid for it with a sacrifice (symbolic exchange). The only relevant question remaining is: from what material is business made? We have so much love to give.

In Crowds and Power Canetti writes that the balance and the comforting effect of the business transaction - giving a kind of currency with one hand and receiving goods with the other - is related to the way that primates moved through the jungle, swinging arm after arm. This idea could be the basis for an advertisement, a (nature) film, a scientific theory, a novel, a play - parody, satire, tragedy, sitcom - all methods of using trade as material; but what does the business aspect of the transaction itself produce? What Canetti is indicating is that a physical gesture plays a role in trade, a gesture that endows a kind of behavior that would otherwise be completely repulsive and frightening with a trusted, familiar feeling, something primally old, pre-dating our own consciousness. The capacity to swing his arms freely through the air was not forgotten by the plain-dweller, the city-builder, the man in the office building. Trade is the ability to lift one's feet from the floor and move, at a furious or a leisurely pace. And not to fall. Not yet. You must know when to let go, when to grab. Slick business kid, conscious consumer. Trade is an extension of the hand.


Groninger Museum exhibition 'Business Art' -Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 7#3/4 -

Has Business Art succeeded in discovering a new subjectivity in this pre-human medium, an experience that did not exist previously? Why was trade not discovered as a medium at a much earlier date? Very few media display the classical arrangement of sender, information channel and receiver as clearly as commerce. Andy Warhol mass-produced works of art in his Factory: this is an expression of the American fascination with the production line, Fordism, regulated mass production and the regulated production of the masses. The making of Americans went on well into the twentieth century through arbitrary immigration, everyone had a story of their own, but the Americans found their own identity when they switched to the rational planning, execution and production of self-developed, mass-marketed products. America invented itself through the medium of the conveyor belt, Modern Times. Order is always the fascination of chaos. ww ii came and went and distribution was rationalised through marketing research, marketing strategy and corporate identity. Then sales was mass-produced. The American customer-friendliness, Hello, I'm Ron, how are you today? is mass sales, but if we disregard this for a moment: where did the trading occur - in the production, the distribution or the consumption of goods? Or in all three, but in succession? When the commercial aspects of production rationalisation, management strategies and toyotism were exhausted, a new ecstatic state was found in the creation of chains of stores and logistic management, and after that form of ecstasy came routing through the department store, impulse buying, daily turnover.

Objectless Trade

Es läuft, concluded Heidegger about technology in the nineteen-forties, and it went so well that twenty-five years later, Deleuze and Guattari could determine that also the capitalist knew of an organless body: that of capitalism. Commerce, interpreted as the triptych of production to consumption, when analysed by this thinking duo, turned out to consist solely of intensities, currents, circuits that went on and off with a bang and kept things moving. Products, trucks and counters had disappeared, the material contents had become irrevelant; all of these objects that had been such frightful obstacles to the functioning of the System. Trade had become pure, as object-less as the market system. Capitalism was no longer a system of production relationships, but a medium: the world was material for its project and it had no further use for it. The new experience revealing commerce as art is that of object-less trade in which nothing is exchanged for nothing. So much for the question of guilt.

Koons must know it. Maybe we should understand the disturbing quality of his work as the new subjectivity allowed and restricted by the medium of commerce. What is Koons' medium, actually? This will probably become clearer if we attempt to remove him from the context of the medium of art history, or the mass media, and place him in the context of business art. Sure, many other artists suddenly started selling. The big break, after which you do your later, mature work. Then you really were onto something, never needed to do anything else. Your work had become enriched with an insight that you did not previously know: art is more than the process and the inevitable product, it's something real, something beyond content, it's trade. As Gottfried Benn defined it:// Art is, you make something that nobody needs and sell it for as high a price as possible. //This new insight can become the contents of the work of art, but it is even more natural that the old content of your work finds a new direction. Where there is trade, there is an audience for art, an imaginary crowd. There are discussion partners with whom one no longer talks about art, but via art. That is the change. Art used trade as a medium to reinforce itself. Trade, however, uses art not as a medium, but as a product, a product that it needs to get rid of. And quick.

The Sense of Nonsense

The senseless is in all respects irresistible: this is the Principle of Evil. The ideal merchandise is as senseless as possible. It dares consumers to indulge in their compulsion to endow all technical media with a purpose, or to extract a purpose out of all traditional media. The greater the nonsense, the more sense turns out to fit into it. Art consists of taking our ridiculous little traits as seriously as possible. The crazy aspect of business is that the merchandise, the products, are considered neutrally. In this sense, commerce still reflects the pre-ecological consciousness of the ape in the jungle. That is its power and the risk it takes. Senselessness, unpredictability enter a medial action when the medium denies its own moment its information content and strategies and interprets information as inert material that it can use for other purposes than simply getting rid of or passing on. That is where art emerges.

Where does commerce leave its foundations and take off, flying from product to product, the branches of the merchandise-jungle? Where, precisely? In the Groninger Museum, clothing racks, sturdy bicycles, flavored water, wall charts with diagrams, the logo of an airline, a mini-bar, a computer that did something (it was not clear what it did) were exhibited for Business Art. When we visited the exhibition, the only member of the personnel we met was a friendly Surinamese gentleman who offered us a glass of water. It has no fish flavor and it is free. He poured it and handed us a cardboard cup, and we drew the water from a tube in a work of art. We drank the water and put the cups on the little bar. Deliciously cool. Later, we saw the guard praising a collection of snot-rags that visitors had taken out of a commercial waste basket. Actually, it's not allowed at all, it belongs together with the work itself, but don't you find them pretty? In the rest of the spaces were products; in one of them was an assembly line for making paintings.

The suggestion was that business is using the museum in order to become art, in the tradition of Duchamp's toilet bowl and bicycle wheels. This must have been preceded by a slick sales pitch by the business-art boys, turnover is turnover, doesn't matter who pays - but where was the trade? The museum people seem to have scored: they fulfilled their social role with verve and put a chill on the danger of business as art by accepting it as information in the traditional medium of the museum. The public was allowed to discover the meaning of it, to come and extract sense from it. Museum art is art as long as it is in a museum. It has lost its merchandise aspect. It is no longer sold. In a gallery, art is art as long as it can be sold. The gallery owner is the artist. The same is true of auctions. Sold art is an investment in the interior. If commercial art is dangerous, it is because it manifests itself separately from the museum, gallery, market and interior, separately from power and the crowd, which it can do without because it has found another medium, with other laws and rules, where one can do what one likes: the medium of commerce, participating in trade, becoming trade one's self.

Medium without a Crowd

Canetti's perception of the swinging arms indicates that if trade is art, then it is a performance art. The theater is the marketplace, the store, the purchasing department or the manager's office: an act is performed by a small company, without the direct presence of spectators. Tall stories about big bargains or rock-hard negotiations do provide the act of art with some extension, but occur in another medium, the verbal one. The medium of commerce knows itself to be unseen. It occurs between two individuals, or companies, or between a company and an individual. Commerce is a medium without a crowd, but no medium can exist without a crowd. The social function of a medium is to create a crowd. Business is an anti-public art, occurring in its own, autonomous space and working with signs that negate the rule of publicness. That is why it does not flinch at the prospect of exhibiting its products in a museum, because there, they refer to a space that is utterly indifferent to the museum: the space where a jar of jam or a marketing strategy is sold. The space in which the museum itself is a product with good marketing prospects. The Surinamese gentleman, a non-artist, clarified something for us, a non-audience: commerce is a performance art, variety entertainment.

The artist in the medium of trade is not interested in art, but in trade. In this medium, he achieves the most marvellous results, usually expressed in the meta-medium of money. He doesn't bounce the effects of the new medium of commerce off of the content of the older media, that are nothing more than the information of his new medium, but off of commerce itself: every negotiation that leads to a transfer makes his hand more sure of itself, increases the strength of contractual obligations. Trade does not need to come into contact with newer media to find itself; it glides along just fine on its own, parallel world. At least, as long as es läuft. Later, as an older medium, it does nothing but search for other media to crank up its exhausted momentum, from accessory arts to biochemical media. It searches for strange techniques to achieve ecstasy when its own are exhausted. A medium can only briefly be autonomous. Subsequently, a new one appears.

Imagine, again, that business art is art, and imagine that commercial art is the destination of commerce. What comes next? Not trade, of course. Or something else. The work of art has to find a way to meet its discussion partner; only through fate alone does a work sometimes find its audience without intervention. A medium must exist – and this can also be fate – that transports the products of the art atelier as messages to a receiver. Art is communicative, not interactive. It is positioned in a classical media concept. Art can also only briefly be autonomous, is quickly left behind. And when it has passed? When commerce has lost is content? That is where the dream of commercial art begins.

translation jim boekbinder