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Art is a Luxury

An essay by Florian Cramer
* A reference text to the Coolhaven song, read as part of the performance of Kboek- Second Coming*
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art is a luxury\\
starving people don’t paint\\
maybe they scream a lot\\

art is a luxury\\
but as far as expression is concerned\\
that’s very meagre\\

art is a luxury
throw the poopshoot on the canvas\\
colourfull society you can’t put them in a square

when you talk to me\\
you talk to yourself\\

Let’s begin with just the title of this song: art is a luxury.
Above all, it reflects a historically fairly recent notion of art.
In the middle ages and roughly until the 18th century, the Latin word
“ars” most generally referred to crafts and science. Agriculture, for
example, was called a mechanic art, astronomy a free art (“ars
liberalis”). When the visual arts — painting and sculpture — were
only one of many mechanic arts, nobody would have called art in this
sense a luxury since even most basic life-sustaining hunting and
collecting would have counted as a art.

The line:
starving people don’t paint
would only have made sense roughly with the Renaissance when painters
and sculptors like Leonardo and Michelangelo attempted to elevate their
craft from the low mechanical arts to the high scientific arts. From
that point on, artists were no longer proletarians
maybe they scream a lot

This line reminds of the campaign “Give Up Art, Save the Starving” by
the Irish artist Tony Lowes from the late 1980s. Lowes and, at least
nominally, Coolhaven continue a tradition of an ethical critique of art
that can be traced back at least as far as to Calvinist iconoclasm. The
line: art is a luxury
also describes the factual failure of the Renaissance project of making
visual art as a scientific discipline, an idea that has gained new virulence
today with the abounding notion of artistic research. What happened
instead, though, is that the visual arts became dependent on commissions
by either the church or the aristocracy or, in the case of Dutch golden
age painting, wealthy middle classes. This has remained the business
model of visual art today: It is, in most cases, about producing
expensive collector’s items, in sharp contrast to other contemporary
arts like literature, music and film whose core business models are
based on mass-reproduced media.

This exclusive status of visual art works is a product of its
emancipation from the crafts to the status and notion of fine art. This
status has also been the reason why art, as a whole, has been fiercely
attacked by activists and critics such as Henry Flynt — who coined
the slogans “Down with Art” and “Demolish Serious Culture” in the
context of the 1960s Fluxus movement — and the Marxist Roger Taylor,
author of the book “Art, an Enemy of the People”.

When Coolhaven sing:

but as far as expression is concerned\\
that’s very meagre\\

…they echo a 20th century notion of art that blurs the line between
art and expression, or more generally between art and communication. It
has lead to the endless debates — from the early 20th century
avant-gardes to the more recent “relational aesthetics” — about what
qualifies as art and non-art. Here, Coolhaven supply a concrete example:

throw the poopshoot on the canvas\\
colourful society you can’t put them in a square\\

when you talk to me\\
you talk to yourself\\

…which of course reminds of Piero Manzoni who bottled his excrement
and sold it as art, of action painting, of the Vienna actionists, and of
outsider performance artists like Robert Delford Brown, Istvan Kantor
and Alexander Brener. All these examples work with a contrast of high
and low, beauty and disgust, that by this very dialectics marks the
territory of art as what it still is: the beaux-arts, beautiful or fine
arts, based on a hidden consensus that an artwork is something
elevated, standing out or detached from everyday life, even if — in the
case of Duchamp and others — it is only the white cube of the
exhibition space that marks this difference. It is what the philosopher
and art critic Arthur C. Danto programmatically called the
“transfiguration of the commonplace”.

If this is true, then it’s also true what Coolhaven sing: art is a
luxury indeed.

art is a luxury\\
but organics are it’s muscles\\
paint will never dry\\
fingers will be sticky\\

get your hands dirty\\
washing washing washing

when you talk to me\\
you talk to yourself

If art is, in its core, about the production of luxury items, then this
throws fine art paradoxically behind its own emancipation from the
crafts. Hand-crafting luxury items, after all, is the same business
model as that of luxury craftspeople such as hairdressers,
tailors, goldsmiths. While art based on mechanical reproduction has been
practiced since woodcuts and theorized since Walter Benjamin, it is still in
most cases restricted to the notion of an inferior reproduction –
typically in a catalogue — of a unique original work; even multiple
artworks are artificially restrained in their numbers copies and
validated through individual signatures. Electronic media art has either
resorted to similar strategies or resorted to its own festival-based
media art system.

In most cases, immateriality of art works are the precondition of
their reproducibility. This is the Hegelian, idealist 19th century
legacy both of Walter Benjamin and conceptual art; an idealist legacy
that links the most contemporary with the most classical Renaissance
concepts of art. When Coolhaven sing of “getting one’s hands dirty”,
“organics” and “fingers [that] will be sticky”
they side with an aesthetic current that has always been present in
the modern arts and run contrary to the idealist conceptualism: It is
rooted in the various expressionist currents from the early 20th century
to de Kooning, Pollock and Cobra, 1980s neo-expressionism,
punk culture, contemporary street art. Beyond mere expression, this
vision of art is one of lived practice, and construction of being, close
to Heidegger’s idea of the art work as an epistemological object.

art is unnecessary\\

- Isn’t saying that art is unnecessary and a luxury a pre-20th century
salon art concept? Haven’t the avant-gardes from Futurism to Bauhaus,
Fluxus and relational aesthetics tried to overcome this notion? If, for
example, basic cooking and socializing can be a contemporary art
practice — through Beuys, Daniel Spoerri, Gordon Matta-Clark or
Christine Hill –, how can that be a luxury? Cooking is necessary, so
isn’t art, too, one could ask? But on the other hand: why do we still
need the notion of art? And perhaps, cooking art and club art is neither
about rethinking or democratizing the notion of art, nor about
redefining the aesthetic status of cooking, but in the end only a
hegemonial move to secure the art system and expand its territory?

it’s active lethargy\\

…when it sanctions lazy lifestyle as art. And perhaps art is active
lethargy also in the sense that, despite all discussions of postcolonial
aesthetics, the notion of art used in contemporary art is purely Western
and has no equivalent in in Asia and Africa, for example, where the
division between arts and crafts, in other words: the whole concept of
autonomous art, does not exist except as a Western cultural import.

inspiration is an opinion\\

…and notion like creativity and inspiration are a romanticist legacy
that has nowadays been taken over by the so-called creative industries.

time is a black hole\\

Whereas the traditional notion of art is that it outlasts time.

art is a black hole\\

So if art is like time, what remains of art? If Coolhaven suggest that we
read it as an expression of temporality and ephemeralness, isn’t that
just echoing popular positions on contemporary art.

it’s only about itself\\

We haven’t talked about this central line of the song yet. Next to
the elements of Calvinist, idealist, existentialist and materialist
art critique in the song, we now deal with what could be called a
systemic or system theoretical perspective: art as a system defined,
like other social systems, through its self-sustainment. Or, in idealist
terminology, as transcendence and reflexivity. That art is only about
itself, an infinite self-reflexive regress, was exactly the aesthetic
postulate of the early romanticist aesthetics of Schlegel, Fichte and
Schelling. It is, in other words, the radical and ultimate fulfillment
of aesthetic autonomy, no longer just as autonomy from commissioning
parties, applied use and pictorial representation, but even social and
epistemological autonomy.

when you talk to me\\
you talk to yourself\\

But that of course is the irony of Coolhaven: Being artists themselves,
and performing at an art event, they ultimately are part of this talking
to oneself. They thus embody an even more sinister turn: Namely, the
integration of the critique of art as being only about itself into the
way art talks about itself.

\date{Oct. 3, 2009}