by Jonathan T. D. Neil


by Domingo Mestre

“The End of the Banquets” (El fin de los banquetes) is the title of a recent article by Estrella de Diego in El país, the first global daily newspaper in Spanish. The argumentative premise of her thought is: With the current financing crisis, will art stop being in fashion? Looking for answers to her question, I center my attention on ARCO 09, a spectacular event that is celebrated every year in Madrid, and can be considered to be a kind of local thermometer of the global temperature. More than an art fair, ARCO is, since its inauguration in 1980, a celebration of the reincorporation of Spain into (post)modernity, after 40 years of isolation and military dictatorship. A rite in which all of the actors in the field meet to confirm their own existence as such. To be or not to be in the fair is the sign that every year marks the difference between being—or not being—a gallery owner or an artist, amongst those who count for real, because they have been invited to the banquet and they rub elbows with those whose voices are not trembling when they pronounce figures of several million dollars. Every year, the official curators select the limited group of gallery owners that will have the honor of participating. And every year the controversy spills out into the newspapers because those who haven’t been admitted to the fair denounce the injustice that their exclusion involves. In this way, they make use of the last possibility of softening up the politicians and obtain some type of compensation for the unbearable discrimination. In fact, a parallel fair exists, Art Madrid, and it functions like a kind of postmodern Salon des Refusés.

But 2009 is different: Nobody protested this time. The aisles of the fair are strangely spacious and the most photographed work, according to the press, is a hyperrealist sculpture by Eugenio Merino that represents the artist Damien Hirst shooting himself in the temple. The journalists also all point out that the most savvy collectors ask for discounts, but the professionals, like the gallery owner Tomás March, says no to this, given that Discounts would be a discredit to the artwork and the artist. Everyone tries to give the appearance of normality, but the objective data is not good. For the first time, the Ministry of Culture has not participated in the fair. Furthermore, around 5% of the selected gallery owners preferred not to attend this edition, and the sale of admissions has declined, also for the first time, by a similar amount. The reason for this change in tendency is the financing debacle, of course. But... Do we know that this is, really, this crisis thing?

The beginning of the end—of the financing cannibalization put together with bubbly derivative products—started officially, on August 9, 2007, and, since then, it has increased in intensity every day, as if this were a display of fireworks. It is said that its extent could end up being comparable to the famous Wall Street crash of 1929, a chilling perspective, since the price that then had to be paid was 100 million dead, with Auschwitz and Hiroshima as symbols of the barbarity contained by the apparent rationality of the system. Returning to the current recession, I find it hard to believe that there might be someone who thinks, still, that a crisis of this magnitude could have produced itself by chance. The order of the events, so far, fits the management program of the new capitalism like a glove, described in minute detail by Naomi Klein in her essay The doctrine of Shock (La doctrina del shock). As the Canadian researcher explains, just as the traditional orthodox communist saw in each crisis the occasion for a new revolution, from the perspective of Milton Friedman and his followers, disasters and catastrophes of all kinds now are not a problem; rather, they are considered to be true opportunities—words that, curiously, are repeated like a mantra by all of the members of the organizing group for ARCO 09. The difference between this view, which is the prevalent one in the current state of the Empire (of capital), and the view of the former Marxist revolutionaries is important, of course, but their results are rather similar. Where the communists of the past century saw an invitation for the proletariat to take up arms, the executives indoctrinated by the School of Chicago and its branches see the opportunity of new businesses on the horizon, impossible to even be thought of under circumstances of democratic normality and social stability. This is how it has been happening, starting from Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’etat in Chile, which could be considered to be the first grand success of the Doctrine of Shock, and even the exploitation of Hurricane Katrina as a profitable opportunity for the urban reordering of New Orleans and for the privatization of its public services of education and health.

From its ever-more-evident condition of being a cultural industry, the art market now functions according to strict marketing and business management criteria. Changed into a paradoxical mass product for consumption by elites, art has only one function that can be considered fully current, which is to be a testimony to its time. Being a reflection, more or less distorted, of those values that, in each moment, are considered to be predominant in a society. And the only indisputable value right now is gold, with its double condition of stable commodity and symbol of power. For that reason it is worrisome that the 15th of September of 2008, the exact same day that the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (the fourth bank of the USA) was announced, the work titled El becerro de oro (The Golden Calf) from the above cited Damien Hirst, was awarded to the highest bidder in Sotheby’s for no less than for 13 million Euros (U.S. $17,278,000). A dead calf, with its hooves and horns covered in this precious metal, preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. But the latest grand production of this artist represents even more so, with more precision, the material manifestation of this idea: an Aztec skull that the artist has covered in a total of 8,601 encrusted diamonds. The value of this macabre work, titled For the Love of God, is not so much rooted in the act of using true human remains—something that has turned into habitual practice— but rather in its out-of-orbit production cost, that was 20 million Euros (U.S. $26,581,000). Supported by the potent propaganda machinery of the artist, as soon as it came out on the market, the work was sold for no less than 75 million Euros (U.S. $99,679,000).

 sculpture by Eugenio Merino

4 the love of Go(l)d, sculpture by Eugenio Merino that represents Damien Hirst committing suicide in a glass case. (ARCO 09, Madrid, Spain, 2009).
Courtesy of ADN Gallery.

Personally, I find the operation repugnant; but, exactly for that very same reason, I think that there is no better way of representing death in our time, in this case the death of art itself as a product differentiated from the rest of commodities. Doubts emerge at the time of asking oneself if other ways of thinking still fit. If there is still a place for thinking about art itself and for itself, after its postindustrial fall into pure financial speculation and the worldwide crisis of that speculation. Said in another way: Does anything else exist, in the business of Art, apart from money?

Probably yes, although I’m also not very sure. According to ARCO 09 management’s report: This year’s fair has been positive and satisfactory; although they prefer to not offer figures, alleging that The gallery owners are reluctant to give them. It seems, then, the Art Market is going to survive without big changes, at least in the short term. But it won’t be because the general situation isn’t different; it is because the forecast, according to the logic of the free market, is that the first victim of the crisis be the creative independence of the artists, emphasizing the commercial aspects of the product even more. And because the truly powerful ones—just as powerful as the journalists—are going to continue using and abusing the symbolic aspects of art, as evidenced by the photos taken by the collective Democracia of the presentation of its sculpture Biktimak in the Basque Parliament. Photographs that constitute the true “work” of art, but that, for that same reason, have produced sore spots upon being presented as works of art in ARCO 2009. Regarding this, the journalist Natividad Pulido has not hesitated to call attention to the lynching of the artists—not all innocent, of course, but not guilty either—when she affirmed in ABC, a daily newspaper from Madrid: The looks on politicians’ faces speak for themselves. We don’t know how victims of terrorism will take the commercialization of their homage in an art fair. Surely, there isn’t any lack of reactions. I contrast this information with that of Pablo España, one of the components of the collective, and he tells me that: “The article came out on Wednesday, and on Friday we had a meeting with the curator that commissioned the piece (after a call in which she let us know about her being upset about not having been consulted about exhibiting the photo) ... Curiously, the same photographic framing was reproduced in the Basque and national press and there wasn’t any alarm. It seems that when it was introduced in the context of the art world, the different readings of the work were multiplied which I believe speaks clearly of a certain hypocrisy when accepting images being distributed by the mass media as opposed to images being distributed by the art world.”

 sculpture by Eugenio Merino

Democracia, presentation of the sculpture Biktimak
in the Basque Parliament (Vitoria, Spain, 2008).
Courtesy of Pablo España.

But, what would happen if the changes did not end here? If the crisis continues to get worse in spite of the shock measures that are plundering public coffers and if the economic situation were to get worse up to the point of, for example, what happened in Argentina when el Corralito was decreed, following the instructions of the International Monetary Fund, in the year 2001. To respond to this question, it would be worth transporting ourselves mentally to the Southern Cone because, as Arthur C. Danto notes: To imagine a work of art is to imagine a form of life in which it plays a role 1.

According to data from the World Bank, in the year 2004, low income (less than 140 Euros [U.S. $185] per month for four people) was earned by 36.1% of the Argentinean population and an estimated 8.3% of the population was indigent (receiving less than 67 Euros [U.S. $89] per month for four people). In this context, worrying about the art market requires a robust stomach. The situation is even more desperate in the Ciudades Hambruna (Hunger Cities), in the northeast of the country, where the poverty is over 50%, the reason for which the majority of the stomachs have other worries every day.

One of the few alternatives, when the situation becomes unsustainable, is to organize an artistic Marcha neopiquetera (Neo-picketing March). Experience demonstrates that symbolic occupation and the blocking of the transportation grids is the only way to get the politicians to sit down and negotiate, as equals, with the famished masses expelled from the system. But to achieve this objective, without falling into assistance-ship, is not easy. Above all, you have to orchestrate the order of the trips, in order to avoid both the possible damages from the unruly as well as the easy processing of isolated individuals; and also you have to take into account the predictable harassment from the paramilitary and the infiltrations of police and provokers. Upon arrival at the occupied space, it has to be delineated by black columns of smoke, which will be obtained from the burning of tires. The next step is the organization of surveillance and the self-defense of the camps, as well as solving the logistics of eating by way of the installation of Ollas populares (Community Pots) in emblematic spaces that habitually correspond to landmarks and monuments.

In this work, the collaboration of professionals, with both technical and artistic training, is fundamental. It is the case of the collective CE. VI. PO. (Centro de la Vivienda Popular, or Popular Housing Center), a group of architects that try to collaboratively un-learn their profession, forgetting about auteur architecture in order to look for creative solutions via a true architecture of actors. This is how they have constructed, recently, 50 dwellings in the city of Resistencia (capital of the Chaco province). Obtaining the resources thanks to neo-picketing mobilizations, the project was head up by artist groups such as Hormigoneras de paseo (Cement Trucks out for a Drive). Bureaucratic problems were solved through performances such as Tren amarillo (Yellow Train), term that alludes to teams of workers, uniformed with helmets and reflective vests, that follow the pathway of the file folders within the interior of the institutions to avoid sabotage or artificial delays in the processing of the redtape paperwork that circles the world of construction. In the words of the architect Leo Ramos: “We go back to performance because it does not need previous knowledge, and social movements are always putting one’s body there, on roads that are cut off, in camps, etc. Furthermore, the majority of their components are illiterate. Architects contribute the technical side, through politics, to stimulate technologies that are multipliers of the National or Provincial Programs. It is an appropriate technique in relation to climate conditions, to the resources and to labor; and amenable in the sense that the protagonists can construct it, and that its apprehension is easy.”

With us having arrived at this point, I understand that I have more than enough of my own words here and I prefer to close the article with a new citation, in this case from the philosopher Antonio Negri: “The global world, just as we know it, as well as the Empire that guards it in the political order, is a closed world; it is subject to the entropy of the depletion of space and time. But the multitude that acts within this closed world has learned to transform it passing through each one of its subjects, each one of its singularities, that compose this world. ... This, I believe, is the meaning of art in the Imperial Era and in the time of the multitudes” 2.

Arthur C. DANTO. Después del fin del arte. El arte contemporáneo y el linde de la Historia, Paidós, Barcelona, 1999, p. 210.
Antonio NEGRI, El arte y la cultura en la época del Imperio y en el tiempo de las multitudes. [last consultation 2/20/2009].

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