by Alex Wisser
Merlin Carpenter’s “The Opening” is in fact an art opening. Usually staged at an up-market gallery, the event takes place during the “private view” that is held prior to the public opening, and reserved for collectors likely to purchase works. The gallery walls are hung with blank canvases, the fine quality of which is attested to in the media release material and commented on in the reviews. The guests are left to wait until they become impatient and uncomfortable. At this point Carpenter enters carrying a bucket of black paint that he then uses to splash abusive, lurid, and even puerile statements of protest across the pristine canvases and gallery walls. He then leaves and the canvases are sold for upwards of $40,000 each.
At first glance, this work will appear as either a clever though defeatist protest against the money driven cynicism of the art world or as an equally clever exploitation of its conditions. The assumption of either one of these positions almost immediately relinquishes its singular or unary condition to a creeping awareness of the enduring presence of the other. In other words, it presents as a paradox – an expression of ethical outrage that is at the same time an act of cynical opportunism.
The two sides of this paradox are not merely layered one on top of the other, but folded into each other. The insult thrown on the canvas “Die, collector scum” is rendered more powerful, more denigrating by the fact that the collector, compelled as he is by market (and certainly cultural) forces, will pay $40,000 of his own money to receive the insult. The transaction renders the collector servile and abject in the extreme – to pay so high a price to have someone spit in his face. But the paradox continues, because if viewed from the other side, from the position of the collector the transaction looks very different. If we imagine the painting hanging on a collector’s wall, overlooking a dinner party of his art collector friends, its significance is very much transformed. It would hang there as a trophy, a triumph, an emblem of the sophistication and capital prowess of the collector who has been able to purchase the outrage of his enemy, and in a sense stuff and mount it on his wall. It would be quite humorous actually, in a dinner party kind of way, to see this insult so humiliated on the wall of its intended target.
What Carpenter has done, is to perform the entire art world circuit from production to distribution in a single movement, collapsing the structural antinomy between artist and collector that supports it, thus presenting the contradiction at the heart of its functioning. It is an almost classical act of deconstruction – the two poles of opposition, each dependant on its difference from the other for its own identity, are collapsed, made to stand at the same place, thus rendering the entire transaction incapable of sustaining meaning. By closing the gap between artist and collector, Carpenter forecloses the space within which the possibility for transgression is conceived, and value created before being transformed through its purchase into prestige, luxury, commodity fetish, etc. That the transaction still occurs, despite its impossibility, is perhaps the most powerful affect of the entire performance – the impression of the art world as a living corpse.
But this work’s reflection on the art world goes beyond an isolated consideration of the potential for protest to a more universal reflection of contemporary art in its capitalist context. In fact, slogans are not the only things Carpenter slops onto the canvases. Many of them receive only crude gestural strokes and splatters, rough parodies of abstract expressionism. Carpenter even calls the canvases “Black Paintings”, conflating the deep pessimism of their functioning with an all too obvious reference to the movement of formal purification that led many modernist painters to reduce the surface of the canvas to a black field.
At stake here, as always, is the competition of values. On the one hand, the values expressed or manifested in the work of art and on the other hand there is exchange value, the dominant value of Capitalism. The competition is of course uneven. Exchange value, like it or not, regulates and determines the circulation of culture. It is also a very different kind of value because it is empty, and has no meaning or value in itself, but serves only as a medium of conversion and exchange between other values. Converting the value of a work of art to its exchange value renders it relative and ultimately alienable. By putting a price on a transcendent value, you destroy the absolute nature of that value, and place the power of money above it. That citizen of dying Rome, Gaius Petronius Arbiter put it best:
“men whose one idea is to pile up the dollars cannot bear that others should have a nobler creed than they live by themselves. So they spite all lovers of literature in every possible way, to put them into their proper place– below the money-bags.”
The perennial struggle of the artist to resist and defy the commodity status of his/her work is bound directly to the defense of its value as art, and ironically the price that a work will demand depends on the genuineness of those values it is meant to manifest. A Rothko, for instance, could not demand the price it does, if it could not sustain the high seriousness of the discourse that circulates around it. If it could not sustain the manifestation of those values it is said to contain; if it were immediately reducible to the status of commodity, of kitsch, who would want to buy it? What makes it valuable in terms of exchange is exactly that which resists exchange – the more transcendent, the more authentic, genuine, unique the work of art; the more desirable it becomes and thus the higher the price tag. If the transaction can be sustained, the relationship is inverted: it is then the exchange value that confers and maintains the prestige and importance of the work. It becomes serious, and valuable, and worthy of our close attention because it costs so much to own.
In fact it can be argued that Greenbergian formalism is no more than a mythic strategy (in the sense of the myth as a synthetic means of reconciling irreconcilable conflicts within a society) for reconciling the transcendent value invested on the surface of the canvas with the status of the object it makes up as a commodity. The hermetic frame of formalism isolates the autotelic transcendent picture plane from the world in which the painting hangs as an object amongst others, and from which dangles that signifier of its potential corruption, a price tag. This strategy maintains the ‘higher’ values of the art object while permitting it to be bought and sold in the process of its’ circulation. In fact, many of the black canvases of formalism were the nth degree of this impulse to purify the picture plane of any reference to, or continuity with the world in which the painting stands.
Carpenter mocks this fiction by painting his abstracts across both the canvas and the wall on which it hangs. He even comes to call one of his later shows “Intrinsic Value”, commenting directly in his press releases on the relationship of the art market to the current financial crisis:
“A Matisse is still heralded by the auction houses as being of ‘intrinsic value’. For the contemporary art scene this implies finding a source of value untouched by the recent speculative madness, whether it’s painting or critical authenticity. Meanwhile, with a gnawing sense of dread, capitalists are looking for a way to rebuild profits in the depression.“
While he quite cogently suggests that the ‘intrinsic’ value of the Matisse is its ability to sustain its exchange value in times of economic hardship, he is not identical to the position he takes in order to say so. There is a sense of posture and imposture that is inescapable within the context from which he is writing. i.e. he is speaking from within the media release intended to promote and sell his own works and thus, no matter how accurate or true his description, it is immediately implicated in the process it describes. His critique is in itself an ‘intrinsic’ value which justifies the $40,000 investment collectors will make in his paintings.
After all “The Opening” is a performance. In fact, it is performance art in the highest degree, because, far from performing a representation of the art world, he performs a direct presentation of it’s functioning. The performance is the actual production and sale of art works, complete with the exchange of large sums of money for the art objects. Art and the world are indiscernible. In this dimension of his work we see his (mentor) Martin Kippenberger, who pioneered the strategy of “self performance”, of the artist performing the various positions from which they make art, generating an essential indeterminacy between the ‘authentic’ self of the artist and the strategy employed in self presentation and presentation of the work. As George Baker points out in his essay on Kippenberger in Art Forum, that he would often assume two diametrically opposed positions that would cancel each other out.
“In just this way, Kippenberger, especially in his paintings, used the language of citation and appropriation to suspend his own work incoherently, locating it between the most logically incompatible artistic positions staked out by his immediate predecessors.”
This was also Carpenter’s earlier method, painting popular media images on abstract expressionistic backgrounds.
Carpenter manages to bring the two sides of this equation as close together as anyone since Warhol, when he discarded the scruple of containment separating the value of the art work as art and the exchange driven value of the commodity. I can only imagine that his Brillo Boxes in their day would have produced the same sense of incredulity and vertigo that The Opening produces today. Only of course, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes weren’t conceived as an insult to, but a celebration of commodity culture, and they weren’t immediately snapped up for a tidy sum. In this we can find reason to assert Warhol as Carpenter’s antecedent, though Warhol never took it so far as to render the transaction null. He played the commodity game brilliantly, and both the art and glamour industries profited from it. Carpenter’s work offers both sides nothing but a sense of their own desolation – an effect due in no small part to the lack of institutional resistance it faces, a condition, which we can credit in part to Warhol. Minimalism, on the other hand, far more earnestly attempted to discard the distinction between art and the world and paid for it by the production of works that, despite their severity and high seriousness, were defenseless against absorption into their commodity status at the cost of their hard won austerity.
Karl Marx, speaking of the capacity of Capitalism to dissolve value wrote “Everything solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” He saw this destructive power as serving the cause of communism by clearing away the foundations of false consciousness that stood in its way. I think we know now that Capitalism, and the forces it commands, serves only Capitalism, and far from clearing the grounds of knowledge and belief for the laying of the firm foundation of a truly socialist state, it must continue to produce value only to profane it, establish laws only to transgress them, achieve solidity only to dissolve it. From the static model of traditional society with its eternal values, vouchsafed and transmitted by tradition, modernity gives way to a dynamic model of meaning that is caught in a continuous process of production and consumption, a continuous state of coming into being and passing out of being, described by Deleuze and Guatarri as analogous to schizophrenia, and for which they claimed that capitalism is the nightmare of every society that came before it.
What role, what position has Carpenter assumed in this process? Is he the vanguard artist, transgressing the limits established by the previous generation, generating new meanings and providing new potentials, or is he the cynical opportunist, profaning the essential values, the authentic outrage his canvases carry by the price tag they demand? Whatever the answer, he’s not asking enough.