Chris Kraus. Where Art Belongs. Semiotext(e), 2011.
Where Art Belongs, the title of Chris Kraus’s latest collection of essays, sounds corrective. As if, instead of in its proper place, art is elsewhere. It has been mislaid, like a cell phone. Or perhaps, like a vase, not so much lost as thoughtlessly positioned. Where is art, and who put it there?
Anyone who has read Kraus’s earlier work can guess who she’ll bring in for questioning. “Until recently,” Kraus wrote in her previous essay collection, 2004′s Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, “there was absolutely no chance of developing an art career in Los Angeles without attending one of several high-profile MFA studio programs,” including ones at institutions where Kraus herself has taught. (Since the late 1990s, she has held teaching positions at a number of schools in California, including UC San Diego, UC Irvine, and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.) The MFA is a “two-year hazing process” “essential to the development of value in the by-nature elusive parameters of neoconceptual art. Without it, who would know which cibachrome photos of urban signage, which videotapes of socks tossing around a dryer, which neominimalist monochrome paintings are negligible, and which are destined to be art?”
Duly initiated in sock videos, artists graduate to a handful of galleries, where their advanced degrees reassure collectors intending to get their money’s worth. The MFA is a quality assurance stamp, certifying that no matter what a piece looks like on the surface, it is guaranteed to be full of art-historical references. Alternative exhibition spaces are “dead-end ghettos, where no one, least of all ambitious students, from the art world goes.” While curators and professors consider the continuum between MFAs and galleries a “plus”—”what makes LA so great,” chirps one gallery owner, “is that the school program is actually a vital part of the community”—Kraus had her doubts. What “community” were these people talking about? “It is bizarre,” she observed, “that here, in America’s second largest city, contemporary art should have come to be so isolated and estranged from the experience of the city as a whole.”
Kraus—who was raised in New Zealand, where she worked as a journalist before moving to Manhattan in 1978, when she was 21—was made similarly uneasy by local zoning policies. There are, she observes, no stores in LA’s residential neighborhoods. A city that accepted isolation so indifferently seemed to her an apt symbol for the art world of the 1990s, when the slick conceptualism of the previous decade acquired a harder sheen: sliding doors reflect the pool, the pool the sliding doors—walls of glass, the city eternally showing itself to itself. Like Los Angeles’s galleries, the art inside constituted a closed circle of vacuous self-reference. “Preemptive emptiness” prevailed: “the greatest triumph of this art work is . . . the way it references so much, content dancing on the surface like a million heated molecules”—angels on the head of a pin and pixels on a screen—”until you can’t pin it down to any given meaning. As such, it is an embodiment of corporate practice: never put into writing what can be mumbled on the phone.”
In Where Art Belongs, Kraus continues her assault on neoconceptualism’s anticipatory emptiness (or Obliteration, as Stefan Brüggemann—whose work Kraus discusses in the essay “Twelve Words, Nine Days”—titled his series of squiggly, abstract neon sculptures, illegible “scribbles,” exhibited in 2007 beside earlier text works whose words Brüggemann had since obscured with silver paint). But the landscape is never far from her mind. In the same chapter, Kraus describes Baja California’s condo-lined Highway 1, where billboards advertising new housing developments all use “some form of the word ‘life’ in their copy: Life Elevated, Oceanview Life, Live Your Baja Dream . . .” Trump Baja’s slogan is Owning here is just the beginning. “The beginning of what?” wonders Kraus. “The poetics of marketing: since everything is available, the point is no longer to have things but to use them as stations in eternal flux, leveraging into the infinite.”
The “poetics of marketing” are publicity Esperanto, the universal language that everyone speaks, whether they’re selling a Brüggemann installation or a time-share in Baja. The critics and gallery assistants and freelancers tasked with producing captions and catalog text become copywriters. Their job is “to give [art] a language that translates into value.” But Brüggemann’s original text installations—black vinyl letters stuck straight to the gallery wall—already resembled their own blurbs, art made in the language of the market.
And yet art has newly been spotted somewhere else. “You Are Invited to Be the Last Tiny Creature,” the first essay in Where Art Belongs, begins on “the arterial edge of Echo Park.” Here, in “a new-ish low-rise cement structure” approximately “20 yards north” of the 101 freeway, Janet Kim launched the art gallery/collective/music label Tiny Creatures in 2006. When it opened, Tiny Creatures neighbored an ice truck and a vacant lot; 99-cent stores stretched into the distance. “The American Apparel at the corner of Alvarado and Sunset had yet to be built.”
A few years later, Tiny Creatures had become a sensation, warranting a 2009 photo feature in the Los Angeles Times, where it “looks like a portrait of the new LA: neurosurgeons, fashion designers, visitors from London, curators, musicians, and local artists stand outside with drinks, just a few yards from a spot near the freeway where homeless men still sell oranges.” Unfortunately, this was Tiny Creatures’ farewell party: Kim and her friends had been priced out of Echo Park. When Kraus visited in 2010, the entire office complex was abandoned, except for unit 603, which houses a truck-parcel business serving Guatemala.
The collective efforts of Kim and the others affiliated with Tiny Creatures, most of whom had not attended art school and therefore lacked the credentials and unofficial alliances that granted other artists access to LA’s art scene, created an alternative to the “cluster of fiefdoms ruled by a handful of MFA programs.” Tiny Creatures artists were finally invited to mount shows at galleries dominated by credentialed professionals, marking a small reversal of the trend Kraus had identified in Video Green, which was the “shift that has taken place during the past ten years in how art objects reach the market, how they are defined and how we read them. The professionalization of art production—congruent with specialization in other postcapitalist industries—has meant that the only art that will ever reach the market is now art that is produced by graduates of art schools.”
This is the crux of Kraus’s true dissatisfaction with the contemporary art world: as the lives of artists started to look ever more alike—high school, college, MFA—they decreased in value. “The artist’s own biography doesn’t matter much at all. What life? The blanker the better. The life experience of the artist, if channeled into the artwork, can only impede art’s neocorporate, neoconceptual purpose. It is the biography of the institution that we want to read.”
And so although “You Are Invited to Be the Last Tiny Creature” has something of a happy ending—”when I send [Kim] a draft of this story, she tells me she’s just accepted an invitation to curate a new Tiny Creatures show later this year”—it’s hard to read it as a success story, or even the whole story. Running contrary to Kraus’s enthusiastic assessment of the collective and her analysis of the career trajectories of its artists is the work Tiny Creatures actually produced: Holy Shit frontman Matt Fishbeck’s hallucinatory photo collages, Jason Yates’s psychedelic posters—a glimpse of this work lets you understand how the Los Angeles art world quickly found a place for it. Tiny Creatures’ communal, do-it-yourself ethos might not have aligned exactly with the polished anonymity favored by the art world elite, but that hardly made it antiestablishment.
“Tiny Creatures,” reads the manifesto Kim asked her artists to sign, “glorifies expression and communication, not the ego.” But if that’s the case, then there is nothing assertive or threatening behind such work, no matter where it comes from—nothing that might mean its interest in and presentation of personal experience would pose a danger to, or be radically or even slightly different from, that of a branded artist like Brüggemann, where the ego is contained in familiar credentials and the fatuous cant of the artist’s statement. The “artist’s statement”! So like the college applicant’s personal statement, where the teenage supplicant appeals to institutions by formalizing confessed, “unique” experiences, in the same moralistic language used by every other high school student in America.