Our Kind of Venue: Subcultures, Institutions, and Historiography

Diedrich Diederichsen

Not long ago I received an email from an old friend from Los Angeles. In the email there was an account of an apparently very pleasant and inspiring opening, including the words: “A great old art world crowd…” It somehow amazed me; I knew exactly what my friend meant, but I also realized that it was a long time ago that I experienced a great old art world crowd. I really miss it. I only meet hectic young art professionals nowadays. Usually I do not complain about this. Often I try to console myself that the sheer number of people involved in some niche of some art world these days can’t be all bad, although it leads simultaneously to contingency and arbitrariness on one hand and, on the other hand, to fierce and inhuman competition, the boredom of individualism, and the dubious aesthetics of narcissism, as well as to many precarious existences. Never before were so many people involved in the production of visual art and the incomes of those involved were never distributed so unequally.

Okay, these insights are of course also due to the cultural pessimist grumpiness of fiftysomethings like me. But the grumpiness was gone for a moment and I thought: what made such good old art world crowds, where have they gone to, and how come I immediately understood how such a crowd looks in a medium-size L.A. gallery? I thought of my experiences in Los Angeles and the astonishing fact that a certain small crowd would find itself over and over again in such a large territory, which is usually, like Southern California, mainly occupied by the other industry, the real Culture Industry. So I gave in to that special romanticism connected with this city, to which I always had a tendency. But then a few months later I heard a similar description, this time about a huge opening in New York—Wade Guyton’s show at the Whitney. Reports from very different people again about a great audience, a sense of community and common purpose, reached me in different ways and through different channels. It reminded me of the fact that this used to be much more common and ordinary than it is now; it reminded me of the idea that there is such a thing as a social side of art production that is more than business, gossip, and competition.

The title of this talk is stolen from Douglas Crimp, from his latest book, called “Our Kind of Movie.”1 It is not necessarily a venue I am talking about, it could also be called a space or something even more neutral. I just want to explore what this “our” could be in relation to the current state of affairs in bohemianism and to current debates about this in Germany, Britain, the U.S. and Russia. But I also want to compare the state of affairs twenty years ago, when I came for the first time to Los Angeles to teach, when the city, in relation to the visual arts, seemed to be shaped by two men (among others, of course) who both died in in the last twelve months: Mike Kelley and Michael Asher. Twenty years ago, I came from Cologne; now I live in Berlin and Vienna. At the time, Cologne and Los Angeles seemed to have something in common as places for art. It seemed that a lot of exchange had taken place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and many friendships started around that period. It has never been really explored why that was. (In Philadelphia, Bennett Simpson curated an interesting show a while ago on Cologne and its importance in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The show explored some of those issues about Cologne, but not exclusively about the connection to L.A.2) I guess both cities had art worlds of approximately the same size, and in both cities being an artist was more often than not connected with a bohemianist, subculturalist orientation rather than with a predominantly academic one—for better or worse. But maybe this description is also too simple.

Four feature-length videos by Raymond Pettibon are key works for these moments of mutual understanding between Los Angeles and Cologne in the early 1990s. All were shot in 1989, on four historical countercultural subjects: Weathermen 69 on the Weathermen, Citizen Tania on the SLA, The Book of Manson on the Manson Family, and Sir Drone on punk rock. Sir Drone stars Mike Watt from the Minutemen and Mike Kelley as two young punk rockers, both still virgins, arguing, rehearsing, and running around Los Angeles seeing bands and talking to other musicians. Their key term is hardcore, more as an adjective than as a noun, referring to a musical style, although it was clear that the hardcore and post-hardcore punk world was their milieu. But here, hardcore is a term I would translate with the desired consequentiality of symbolic acts, of artistic acts. If something was hardcore in their language, that meant that it had a transgressive effect, it meant that a sign reached a body, altered a body, decorated the body, and so on, and one rather simple measure, of course, was to turn up the volume of the sign. At one point in the film—which has great acting by both Kelley and Watt, both in their mid-thirties yet playing teenagers—they turn to the inevitable subject matter: sex. “You know what,” one of them ponders, “Sex, it can’t be too hardcore. Even your parents must have been doing it.”

But in a way they are wrong. Sex is indeed the hardcore experience par excellence, if we define hardcore as an index of consequentiality. Its consequentiality is the key theme of biopolitics—be it human reproduction and its control, and/or the right to lust without anything other than immanent consequence, that is, consequences only between those free individuals involved in the sexual exchange. The non-hardcore verdict against the punk rockers’ parents is precisely and correctly based upon the fact that (apparently) they could not see any other consequence of sex than having a family, that they decided to choose the boring, biological consequences of sex, and not the community building, intensity-based consequences of sex among artists. And isn’t this bohemianist preference for a socialization and culturalization of sex (and other intense exchange practices among humans) a decision for social consequences and obligations, and at the same time a decision for the avoiding of consequences insofar as they involve people entirely different from themselves, like relatives: children, parents and other contacts you can’t select? Recently Lee Edelman and other queer theorists have pointed out how the image of the child and a certain discourse of futurity builds the basis of heteronormativity. But even beyond queer community—and anti-community theory (a possible common denominator of the consequentiality these two punks are looking for)—and beyond certain discourses of anti-heteronormativity, we may find the idea of the strangely consequential productivity of art versus the normativity of fertility and its discourses: the future that lies in the “no future,” the well-known punk slogan Edelman refers to in the title of his book.3

The title of Douglas Crimp’s book, “Our Kind of Movie,” refers to one of those typical, wise tautologies uttered by Andy Warhol when he was asked about the kind of movies he was making in the Factory. He answered by making a list of genres, from porn to art. But Warhol denied that they were actually making movies in any of those genres, any of those kinds; instead they were making “our kind of movie.” This our kind of, tautological at first sight, is of course the trick of what I want to talk about tonight: Is it really a tautology if we are those that we talk about when we describe something as typical for us, or as our kind of thing? Is there such a thing as a collective narcissism? And is that bad?

Of course, if the same “we” stands on two sides of the equation, that is a tautology. And this tautology is one of the worst highly ideological constructions: We are the ones who are not the others. And one of the most common contemporary formulas for collective belonging—the category of a “generation”—is, although not as proto-fascist as the “we are us” equation, still quite culpable of the production of tautologies. The assertion that “we” are the generation that has seen such and such programs on TV as children or heard such and such songs on the radio, is empty, because every generation always hears on the radio what was widespread at a given time—they might have heard something else as well, but as long as you’re not evaluating the data from an historical perspective this is truly tautological. On both sides of the equation you have a vague description of an historical unit and the two data points—born in year X, growing up with pop culture item Y—not explaining or expanding each other by their confrontation. This is different with art, or some art. And this is what Warhol meant, or at least what Douglas Crimp found fascinating, because Crimp is also a fine subculturalist, among other things. “Our kind of movie” defines the “we” on one side by something unknown and beyond definition on the other side, which at the same time is absolutely not vague or indefinite, but very precise—only not as a model or description of a community. So isn’t this, one could say, one of the most honorable tasks of art: creating community by equating a group of humans and others with the dialectics of a simultaneously open, undefined, and provocatively precise meaning of an artwork?

Let’s see what the other option is. We had the vague tautology of the generation as a model for community and commonality, and its opposite would be a very strong understanding of community, actually spelling out who belongs and who does not. “Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees,” for example, or “Hey, hey, we’re not the Monkees” as the KLF used to say.4 This strong non-tautological collective identity can be based on a common reason for resistance; it can be an elite of people who have mastered a specific skill or who acknowledge their privilege, it can be a tradition, an ethnic group—all these groups are based on a more permanent identification, they are not just a “we.” The word “we” is what the linguist and semiotician Roman Jakobson calls a shifter, a sign that finds its meaning only through the context in which it is uttered—in principle it can mean anything and anyone. The Freemason is always a Freemason, but he might say “we” and talk about his family or the sports club he supports. The idea of collective identity is the opposite of this context-related openness; it tries to close exactly this openness by fixing it with a permanent, non-context-sensitive loyalty.

Normally the only acceptable excuse for doing that is politics, or at least some kind of politics, especially the emergency situation of being persecuted, discriminated against, or segregated and excluded. You can only be political as a group when you can state who you are and what you are representing, regardless of context. In that sense, the “we” in art is in the middle between the emptiness of the biological contingency of being born at more or less the same time (as in generational identity) and the fixation of collective content (as in political identity). It is a third way, a politics that is open and at the same time knows obligations; only these obligations do not derive from the legal, sexual, political, ethnic, religious, or other affiliations and identities of those involved, but only or mainly from shared aesthetic experiences. In this way, the aesthetic is valued as a binding force, not because it is a replacement for what in other communities is the religious, i.e. a source of truth, or even of a deeper truth, but because what we like about the aesthetic is that it is not about a truth, or more precisely, it has no truth aspirations. Only then is it really “our kind of movie” without any further qualifications, and not a movie drenched in truth and truthfulness.

When art and community were synthesized in recent times, in most cases this referred to political and activist art, not in a narrow “identity politics” approach, as often in the 1990s, but by applying new categories like the multitude or the 99%. These categories were not identity-based, in that they were not asking for certain criteria to be met in order to be a member, but they were in another way highly descriptive and strong, because of the respective political philosophies they were connected with. For example, the term multitude has been used as a functional successor to the term proletariat in a theory of political subjectivity, so there were categories to be met in order to identify positively something as the multitude. The community in art-politics-relation is not an aesthetic community, caused by aesthetic events, but one that already existed in the outside world and thought of itself as one. The narrative of activist art is a narrative of service, in which art supports, extends, continues, and transforms inspirations and obligations from the real outside world. Art is not overestimated there; it is not a force in itself, but one in service of social and political issues.

The argument of activist art is that art is always at the service of something that already exists in the outside world. Only this is obscured in most cases because it is in the service of the normality and normativity of the bourgeoisie. In a very impressive essay published last year in Texte zur Kunst, Los Angeles artist Andrea Fraser demonstrated how regular art practices are so closely connected to the increasing profits of the richest of the rich, not the 1%, not the 0.1% but the 0.01%.5 The text seemed to ring a moral alarm, an urgent subtext that said: “We can’t go on like this!”

There is something true about this: art is always implicated in the usual crimes of its social relations. But does that necessarily mean that its only acceptable version can be thought of in the service of crime fighting? Or are there alternatives in which art, to a degree, may create its own implied values? A traditional connection between art and community is the classic connection between poverty, productivity, and contempt for class relations, known as bohemianism. The strong point for bohemianism is that its dedication to art and aesthetic practices (as the commonality of an unfixed and open “we”) have historically created realities, social milieus, and communities, which connected and brought together people from different class backgrounds. The punk movement was a case in point. This is very important, since this is one real social result of an aesthetic operation, and far more real in a materialist sense than any of the results artworks are supposed to have on minds and brains through either aesthetic experiences or rational persuasions by propaganda, agitprop, or information. This is an advantage and a problem. The advantage is clear, but the problem is that it can be proven, and thus is an effect that already lays the groundwork for aesthetic politics. The problem is that it leads us to fetishize this kind of effect, to privilege such forms of social evidence over other effects and to underestimate the fact that it might indeed be aesthetic experiences that have caused the social effects. And one could argue that the social effect of art in bohemianism is not so interesting if it is only about social effects on top of social effects, causing each other virally and in chain reactions, but if, as it was believed a long time ago in German Romanticism, there was indeed a leap between material states, from consciousness to social effect, via art. Such direct, quasi-magical effects are eventually what Richard Florida and others in the discourse of gentrification and the creative class like so much about bohemianism.6

But a counter argument is also possible here: It is no historical accident that these two movements, French Bohemianism and German Romanticism, were in a certain way reactions to the universalism of Kantian aesthetics—a universalism of course (as has been shown notoriously by Pierre Bourdieu) that was more or less the aesthetic foundation of bourgeois class exclusivism. The Kantian universalist formula works like this: If you enjoy an artwork you enjoy your own abilities to enjoy it. They are, of course, subjective, based on your individual history and capabilities. This was meant to be an explanation for the highly subjective nature of art experiences. But in Kant, after having had the experience, you want to talk about it and socialize your highly subjective experience. Now two aspects of this formula can be highlighted: the exclusivist one or the democratic one. The exclusivist is the part where you enjoy your subjectivity as your ability to enjoy—these are clearly class-related fruits of an aesthetic education, not so much in the sense of knowledge about the arts, although that too, but mainly what Bourdieu called the aesthetic disposition, the ability to receive and perceive objects from a reflexive distance, like not being hungry when seeing a still life with fruits. The other side is Kant’s idea that the highly subjective is an experience that many share in completely different ways, but based on the same artwork and on the same mechanism. All those different subjectivities expose the sameness of their mechanism when we make an experience with the same artwork; the differences are equal. The subjectivities are different, but they are different in the same way. That would be a democratic formula.

It implies that such situations occur, and in order to install them, one had to either found new communities based on shared ideas about art as in Romanticism, or one had to overcome the borders of class and other segregations as in Bohemianism. But both are solutions of pre-technological and pre-mass-cultural ages, and above that they are, although in an understandable way, escapist solutions; they only work singularly and they do not address the larger problem.

A synthesis of these proposals—one that tries to bring about a social situation via art and one that proposes art serve already existing social situations—can perhaps be found in another approach, a type of bohemianism that is not content with life within a bohemian isolation or within a Romantic élite, but that uses as prime aesthetic material the stuff that is already and evidently shaped and formed by class relations but is still aesthetic material. This operation is in art histories often described as “The artist took an interest in popular culture.” But this can mean everything and nothing.

It is interesting that when the post-feudal, early capitalist class barriers were slowly being installed in Europe, it was the arts—literature, for example in picaresque novels, or the visual arts, for example in Breughel’s paintings of proverbs and dances—rather than art theory or philosophy, that took an interest in so-called popular culture, whereas Herder arrived more than a century later at the praise of the songs of the lower classes.7 But after the installation of mass culture and the Culture Industry, it wasn’t just about ostentatiously including or referring to popular culture any longer. Other strategies were needed, strategies found after the Second World War in several phenomena called Pop. First, I want to talk about their basic principles, and then about the specific understanding of this in Mike Kelley’s work.

Before Pop, an item could not be popular and valuable at the same time. The commodity character of a piece of popular culture was total, whereas in a piece of high art it was only a component. There were of course exceptions. But commodity character was a distinction, and that is very important, that referred not only to items and objects but also to people, since it was class based. Since it was evident, it was also possible to do all kind of things with this distinction. You could, for example, side with the object that was not meant for your side of the divide. Use the principle of distinction and separation and apply it to an already separated area. Create the high art of low art or create the low art of high art, or use a high art reception style for low art or use a low art reception style for high art. This was the first wave of recuperation attempts, similar to those of Bohemianism and Romanticism, but this time in a world of mass produced art and administered opinion.

One could extend this to several sub-maneuvers that happened. Mainly one can say that Pop music worked with the application of strategies of exclusiveness on non-exclusive musical commodities, based on very different ideas of exclusion and friendship, some of them just like old bourgeois elitism, but, at least in the U.S., also deploying the African American idea of hipness that had already turned a condition of being violently excluded into a weapon of creatively excluding (and by the same maneuver strengthening the included). Similar mechanisms can be found in Camp. On the other hand, Pop art worked by voluntarily choosing the lower side of the high, by applying the distinction of mass culture and art on high art production, and choosing the lower side. One could also extend this observation further. Not only could the vertical hierarchy of the arts be subverted that way, but also the horizontal division of labor among the arts. Pop music clearly applied elements and strategies of visual art formats and visual media upon music, while Pop art and subsequent inclusions of popular culture used often decidedly musical and sonic components.

But the problem with this strategy was that it became symbolic. It became readable and understandable only within what became an extended field of aesthetic reception, but it only marginally altered reception formats in the mass culture. It also became a part of the so-called counterculture and was thus fought against repressively, through being commercialized, but also fixed to certain meanings. One of Mike Kelley’s really important ideas was that all these symbolic strategies would lose their impact not only due to the very different oppositions they would face from the state, the market, and the ruling semiocracy, but also because the general understanding would accept them being reduced to merely symbolic acts. Instead he discovered and pointed at “communities of reception,” as John Roberts called them, in which the reduction of the aesthetic maneuver to a symbolic one was not shared.8 These cultures, which Mike referred to, used in his work, theorized, and wrote about are normally named by most of his critics and monographers only as popular culture, but that’s not what is crucial about them and especially not what made them crucial to Mike. What he loved so much about the low (in which he included the concrete empirical person of the artist) was its specific consequentiality—neither the family-building element of normativity, nor the inconsequentiality of regular art—but the trans-symbolic components, if you wish, the subcultural speech acts, an extension and one might even say universalization of the historically limited models of punk rock and bohemianism. A sense of a future that was not normality.

I am talking of course of such different interests as Japanese noise music, pre-industrial pornography, fringes of the performance art world, all kinds of local pop music cultures, in general, non-academic radicalism. But there is no easy common denominator between provincial, extreme, obscene, hillbilly, but also political, radical, religious—and these are all qualities of the reception-communities Mike Kelley used and referred to. But (to put it simply) they were all not content with the limitation of art to the symbolic; they were taking it far more seriously.

What did that mean specifically? There are two ways in which classical high art discourse refers to modes of art reception outside of its own system of value attribution, which is based on distance, mastering, excellence, and complexity. One is effect-based art, that is, industrial art or strategic calculating elements of art, special effects, provoked laughter, nudity, car chases, etc.; the other is religious art or art as religion. The first has always been looked upon by high art theorists from an extremely antagonistic or skeptical point of view: the effect was of course physical and thus able to bypass reflexivity and so it stood under various suspicions: as propaganda, manipulation, or as being a too easily granted pleasure, a pleasure for which one has not worked enough reflexively, clearly a symptom of the cultural-industrial nature of a piece. But there were also defenders of the effect, for example Sergei Eisenstein and other early Soviet artists, and Georges Bataille. They thought of the collective reception of effect-oriented art as something that Walter Benjamin labeled innervation in the context of Surrealism, the bringing to life of the nervous system or its extension, its feeding with effect data as the awakening of revolutionary energy. Effect-orientation is a part of many of the cultures Mike was referring to—but he did not just embrace the effect per se, but explored how it was specifically socially embedded and how art production could relate to this.

So, were these micro-cultures what is sometimes called art-religious? Was art a sacrament of their religion? Was that the core of their seriousness? In my view, the religious dimension relies on a completely different status of the symbolic, in the sense that within certain contexts or rituals it is no longer merely symbolic but real. In those subcultures, on the other hand, that play such an important part in Mike Kelley’s art and that through his treatment and inclusion became important models or inspiration for art communities and a large variety of artists, it is not about believing in the reality of the symbolic, but in an art that is no longer only symbolic, which is made of components that one can do more with than just reading, deciphering, or enjoying reflexively. It is an art that instead evokes experiences that have consequences beyond enjoyment. And effect-orientation is only a part of it—either through social agreement, sharing the experience and making it the foundation of a social structure, or by personally living the consequences rather anti-socially, against others. I guess Mike Kelley was interested in both cases, in punk as much as in singular artistic idiosyncrasies. But of course he did not naïvely believe in the possibility of voluntaristic invention and creation of such communities; he studied them and it shaped and informed his art practice. It was believing and ethnography, and it was not just the naïve embracing of authenticity—authenticity is a category of communication, not one of art, that’s why it is so big with the Culture Industry.

And this is why I am able to talk of a synthesis of practices: Mike Kelley did not try to be one of those practitioners—although he sometimes identified with them—he was referring to, extending, researching them. They were his given reality, as in the context of activism, the reality of community and commonality is given; they were what he decided to serve in a similar way activist art serves certain outside realities. But this given reality was at the same time an aesthetic practice, and one that transcended or tended to transcend the limits of gallery- and/or museum-based art. In other words, it was an exterior that included the interior of artistic practice. The complex nature of solidarity, reference and signification, the presence of an absence, can only be grasped through such an operation with its Escher-like structure: the outside I refer to is not distant, it includes me as its inside but I am also including the whole process as my inside: as an artist’s practice. The classical models of representation are to be criticized or rejected. One cannot get completely outside of relations of distancing and separation, but they cannot be understood any longer along the lines of truth, lies, and ideology, but rather by complicated chains of implications. This might sound to some like a postmodern truism with no consequences; it was, as I like to put it, the sense for entanglements and implications, the process of taking sides, of good and evil, that brought these complications to life. The big mistake of postmodern thought and complex system theories, and with those using and interpreting them inside the art world, was that they seemed to suspend all obligations, all consequences. But it was the other way around, it was only because of and through the rich new consequentiality of implicated and entangled thought that one could do justice to this reality.

In Mike Kelley’s politics, this meant that he not only built all these rather effective bridges of research and solidarity, of mimesis and aesthetic distance to micro- and subcultures of extremism, provinciality and resistance, he also did the materialist research on how these sensibilities and sensitivities were constructed in the first place, above all, his own sensibility. This was his extended theory and practice of art and educational institutions, which is well known to all of you. It is a specialty of Los Angeles that the art history of the city is written as a history of art education institutions, which is very rare in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Of course, global art metropolises, like Paris and then New York, later maybe London, Cologne, or Berlin, did not make history by producing artists in certain schools, except to a degree London, but by congregating them, after they’ve been educated elsewhere. So curators and gallerists are the ones who write history, not teachers. In more provincial places it is mostly also not the art education but rather local traditions that are made responsible for certain artistic local specialties, not to say quasi-colonialist stereotypes. It is a specificity of L.A. that history is attributed to well-known artist-teachers like Michael Asher, John Baldessari, Mary Kelly, Douglas Huebler, and…Mike Kelley, and to their respective educational institutions. This has endowed the role of the artist with a specific dimension of consequentiality that is rather unthinkable elsewhere. There are, of course, relevant art teachers elsewhere, but their importance as teachers has often very little to do with their artistic fame.

It is in teaching that a specific consequentiality is introduced into art practice on a daily level that is neither romantic nor dramatic but rather mundane. But it contains plenty of dramatic moments and romantic epiphanies. There is a steadiness of the existential component of art on very low and very high, banal and complex levels. In this city you might have heard many eulogies on Mike; you don’t need another one, so I am trying to express this on a more general level. The attack on art education institutions in Europe through bureaucratization and shortage of funding has not been the same here in the U.S., where education has always been to a large degree private and extremely expensive.

But of course one can sense it here as well: as the general volume of value generated by art production is increasing, fewer and fewer practitioners are making a living from it, with only a very few making a very, very good living. The middle class is also disappearing within the art world. There are the precarious practitioners who are sometimes included in the state-sponsored but extremely poorly funded, politically aware Manifesta-world, and then there are a few top earners who form the other world, who have a large choice of potential assistants, writers etc. to use from the first group. Not many people in between. The educational complex has become more and more part of this construction, although not totally; it is very worthy to defend the still democratic components of the educational complex. Because the other problem is that for an artist who wants to move more than tiny objects, the more dominant second role is not teacher but entrepreneur. It is as an entrepreneur that you feel the double nature of art not only in your work but also in yourself, more or less schizophrenically: you are becoming commodity and have some autonomy yourself, while you simultaneously exploit yourself and others. Most people solve this problem by thinking of themselves as a good artist but a bad entrepreneur when they are only medium successful, or as a good entrepreneur and a mediocre artist, if they found a cynical way to reproduce a certain success. But what if you are a good artist and a successful one, what if you understand that a certain material success is a condition for production on the level of the state of the art, the state of material Theodor Adorno talks about? I would say this leads also to a “Can’t go on like this” situation, at least psychologically.

I recently read a long interview with the Russian philosopher Boris Groys in which he developed a theory of bohemianism and its many returns. One element is of course, the collapse of class barriers under certain special circumstances. For example in the relatively less class-based welfare-societies of late Fordism, bohemianism could be superseded by a larger counter culture, and now bohemianism is back because there is a vital need for a third space beyond the super-rich and your own precarity. But Groys also mentioned another component: unproductivity. He explained the attraction that Berlin has recently developed (and is about lose probably while we speak) as due to the extremely low level of productivity in Berlin’s bohemia.

To a degree this is very true. But in order to arrive at a materialist synthesis of semi-classless bohemian anti-productivity and the intellectual necessity to produce open, undefined aesthetic items in which the collective can imagine itself or mirror itself, one has to reevaluate what all these people who are involved in the art world today are really producing: how everyone is constantly taking part in generating value, even the audience, the gallery visitors, the guided museum tourists, all working, although drastically underpaid, on the total value of art. It is this productivity that has to be evaluated and demystified at the same time, then feelings indeed can arise like: “Great old art crowd.” It is the feeling of being among colleagues—among workers like you and me. They are all trying to contribute with their subjectivity to the collective imaginary, the “we” of “our kind of movie,” and they do, and at the same time they are, we are, in the same way subjected to selling these productions under conditions we did not choose. Every hour we spend in art bars, or as assistants, writers, artists, curators, gallerists, and managers of non-traditional spaces is involved and implicated in both productions: surplus value and collective imaginary, commodity, and utopia—this needs to be described in a restaging of the critique of art production.

“We” may be two things: a romantic collective and a group of colleagues on a lunch break or on strike. In most cases we are not able to see this double reality. We see either one or the other, our romantic bohemianism or our real precarious existence. This double image, this superposition of beauty and exploitation is a great theme of art in L.A., not only with Mike Kelley, although he contributed a lot to the theory of art production, and especially to the theory of the production of producers in institutions of reflection and milieus of effect, but it is also true for many others from, of course, Allan Sekula’s Fish Story to Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break, and many others.

That’s what our kind of collective really is: open, shapeless and specific, concretely utopian, and at the same time subjected to the law of surplus value. This is not a new observation. It was like this when Adorno described the artwork as being simultaneously a social fact and an autonomous object, and when Mike Kelley worked around and through the utopian energy of the most grotesque segments of the Culture Industry. The new thing is the degree of surplus value that is generated by so many more art workers, who are getting paid less, while the business grows, and especially the more and more woman- and man-hours spent on watching, commenting, blogging, tweeting, observing, gossiping, and thus creating value. I can understand why people say, in one way or the other, that we can’t go on like this. And it is hard to come to such a conclusion: that you are wrong, that you’ve been wrong, and you have to face the consequences. Sometimes I think it is even often the case that you are right—and even then the consequence is that we can’t go on like this. Yet while creating value one can see all of a sudden that one is in that very property a colleague of the other person, and so one can become a component of a great old art crowd. Thank you.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a German writer working at the crossroads of the arts, politics, and popular culture. He is Professor of Theory, Practice, and Communication of Contemporary Art at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

This talk was jointly sponsored by Otis College of Art and Design’s Department of Fine Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Santa Monica College Associates.


  1. Douglas Crimp, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012).
  2. Make Your Own Life: Artists In & Out of Cologne, curated by Bennett Simpson, Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, 2006.
  3. Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Series Q) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004).
  4. Editors’ note: The KLF (Kopyright Liberation Front) was a British acid house band of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Members included Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty. See J. Reid, “Money to burn?” The Observer, September 25, 1994.
  5. Andrea Fraser, “Le 1%, C’est moi!” in Texte zur Kunst 83 (September 2011), 114–27.
  6. Editors’ note: See Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
  7. Editors’ note: Johann Gottfried Herder was an eighteenth-century German philosopher of language and history.
  8. Editors’ note: John Roberts is the editor of Art Has No History!: The Making and Unmaking of Modern Art (1994) and The Impossible Document: Photography and Conceptual Art in Britain, 1966–76 (1997).
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