Art in the Service EconomyRecent Developments - Chapter I
The changes taking place in art in the last fifteen years or so are not just innovations occurring on a formal level; the recent developments go beyond the occupation of new spaces, the engagement with the discourses on locational identity and globalisation or the defiance to other established boundaries of art. The changes from ‘site-specific’ to context-specific, from object-based to ‘discursive’ practice, or from materiality to insubstantiality, are on a par with academic discourses and theories, specially those akin to the ongoing research on media, globalisation, identity and location, which propose a more fluid, and also more complex, spatiality and locational identity. The shift in the modes of production in art is also consistent with changes in labour and with new forms of production and distribution in other areas, where terms such as flexibility, mobility, exchange, spreading the network and reaching wider audiences have circulated increasingly as the result of developing technologies of communication and new economies.
This is largely an outcome of the service economy that has developed in Western societies in general, where the surfacing of an aesthetics of the everyday, an obsession with the private and the confessional in the media in general and in reality TV shows and documentaries, has influenced a return to representation in art and a tendency to work with ‘the real’ (Foster, 1996). The challenge posed by external pressures, like the aestheticisation of life and the more interactive and popular models provided by new technologies and culture industries, actively raises the question of art’s social place and function. The artists have been responding to these challenges by attempting to reinvent their role, reasserting the usefulness of their practice through engaging largely in collaborative and public projects. The artist as ‘culture-hero’ is no longer a producer of objects but a provider of services that can take many forms.
The social and historical immanence of heroes in the community takes place precisely ‘at times when significant shifts are occurring in the techniques and social relationships of that community’s mode of production’ (Smith, 1988: 9). Recent artworks revise fundamental questions about conceptual art, installation art and site-specific practices and make reference to the strategies used by the historical and neo-avant-garde. During the 1950s and 1960s pop and conceptual artists were engaging with commercial forms of (re)production and information as a way to expand their audience, just like the constructivists in the 1920s. Equally relevant to their success were the infusion of corporate funds in the art market and the influence of a dynamic corporate ideology (Alberro, 2003: 13). The social changes in communications and new technologies of reproduction and distribution, which were in place in the 1960s, mainly in America but also in Europe, meant an increasing interconnectedness of people through the capacity to record, reproduce and transmit information. Mobility tactics, the use of advertising strategies and techniques of sales management, together with new forms of visibility and distribution of products and information were consistent with artists’ gradual abandonment of materials and specific places like the art galleries. At the beginning of the 1970s, in America and in the UK, at least, art was expanding to businesses, industrial placements, and public and community art projects (Hercombe, 1986). These practices signalled an empowerment of the artist as maker of meanings and the possibility to carry this ‘vision’ into virtually any realm of society.
This article is based on the material researched for “Performing art: reinventing avant-garde practice and the role of the artist”, PhD thesis, University of London, 2004 (unpublished).