Design and Crime (And Other Diatribes)
Hal Foster, Verso 2010
Boris Groys, Sternberg 2010
On October 2, 2009, the New York Times Style section named the Facebook generation’s latest Warholian moment. In a breezy trend piece, author Alex Williams took a stroll through outer borough flea markets and Manhattan boutiques, returning to announce the ubiquity of ‘curating’–that formerly art-world practice of separating cultural wheat from chaff. With an excess of options threatening consumer decision-making, Williams reported that ‘curating’–nebulously defined as putting a financial premium on style–had been taken up by the service industry as a hip new sales tool. Liberated from museums, it’s been appropriated by high-end sneaker retailers, Brooklyn pickle salesmen, and anybody with aspirations of adding a dash of elitist appeal to their chosen–and usually charmingly eclectic–profession. [for a different variation on this theme have a look at these images: https://wvrijn.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/street-cred-curation (vvvr)]
Curation-as-sales technique, of course, is just one example of the term’s incursion into culture writ large. (Though ironically, as of this writing, ‘curating’ has yet to make it past the cerberii of Microsoft spellcheck). As curating has crept into public discourse over the past several years, it has evolved from a practice into a buzzword for self-presentation, a nickname for saying, as the Times paraphrases it, “I have a discerning eye and great taste.” DJs curate music, thrift stores curate clothes, and increasingly, writers curate media. Selection, in this capacity, is now on par with creative production, and it’s valued accordingly. Like bouncers at elite nightclubs, tastemakers price items by context, declaring them less worthy when removed from proper, well-heeled company.
Seven years before the Times flagged the trend, Hal Foster noted its underpinnings in his 2002 essay “Design and Crime,” a work deemed resonant enough to merit a re-release from Verso this spring. The Princeton art historian documents the spread of design into previously uncharted territory, mapping its evolution from the study of objects into a comprehensive worldview. Design, he writes, now applies to both object and subject, enveloping how somebody’s apartment looks to the kind of prescription medication they’re taking:
Today you don’t have to be filthy rich to be projected not only as designer but designed–whether the product in question is your home or your business, your sagging face (designer surgery) or your lagging personality (designer drugs), your historical memory (designer museums) or your DNA future (designer children)… Just when you thought the consumerist loop could get no tighter in its narcissistic logic, it did: design abets a near-perfect circuit of production and consumption.
With “jeans to genes” falling under a common qualitative rubric, people advance from being image-producers to images themselves–embodied examples of taste, skill, and ethics. In short, we become the sum of our choices, and as such, are required, as Boris Groys puts it, to take “aesthetic responsibility” for ourselves. “Design today has become total,” Groys writes in “The Obligation to Self-Design,” and in lieu of an artistic avant-garde, we’re left with curators.
In the years since Foster first cast suspicious eyes on his surroundings, the internet–that formerly collective blank slate for invention and aesthetic–has become a field for individual representation, with personality filtered through the machinations of design. While the early years of the web were distinguished by nobody knowing who was a dog, the culture of web 2.0 is one of transparency, accountability, and auto-archiving. Thanks to social media, “the practice of self-documentation has today become a mass practice and even a mass obsession,” Groys writes in his new essay collection, “Going Public,” and as the process has been streamlined, it’s been corporatized. While the internet becomes more seamless, technological leaps have enabled the private sector to transform the web into an intangible Fosterian bazaar; a space where integrated paywalls, virtual shopping carts and omnipresent ads degrade the boundaries between consumerism and identity. Simultaneously, the public has been handed the means of production, enabling anybody–and everybody–to make art.
But Groys is less interested in the economics of culturemaking–”everything can be interpreted as an effect of market forces,” he sniffs in his introduction–than in its social dimension. A German-born critic and media theorist, Groys spent his younger years behind the iron curtain, where he embedded with the artistic underground and coined the term “Moscow Conceptualism” to describe artists’ subversive relationship to socialism. Decades later, he turns his attention to another aesthetic regime; ours. With technology eradicating the barriers between artists and masses, Groys approaches artmaking from the vantage point of the producer, calling for a new paradigm to reflect the decentralized working of cultural production. As what people post, link to, and thanks to the ever-expanding social media net, what they read, is deemed a growing reflection of who they are, “Going Public,” probes the differences between making art and producing one’s identity in the brave new information ecosystem.
The question at the heart of “Going Public” is deceptively simple: “How can a contemporary artist survive this popular success of contemporary art?” No clear answer is offered. Groys’ skill lies in framing scenarios rather than proposing solutions, and lacking a single thesis, he constellates his writing around the idea that the artist is going the way of Barthes’ author; which is to say, disappearing quickly. This claim is supported by a survey of the art scene: in place of paintings and sculptures, artists are increasingly drawn to participatory projects, public installations, and ephemeral works–pieces oriented toward process over physicality. Interesting, perhaps, but disconcerting for artists: as collaborative art gains ground, the context they work within is one of their own de-professionalization.
Groys’ most incisive observations about this scene are sociological, in a sense. In “Loneliness of the Project,” he offers an elegant assessment of the project as a professional/creative gestation period–a form of “socially sanctioned loneliness” that suspends people outside of the flow of the workweek with society’s collective blessing. This vision of installment-based time is the counterpoint–or perhaps the anecdote–to Michel Houellebecq’s vision of contemporary alienation, and apart from him and writers such as Andrew Ross, it’s one that’s rarely explored amid the global reformatting of professional life. But Groys isn’t a labor theorist, opting for what he terms a ‘poetic’ approach towards cultural economy. As more people drift outside the parameters of the 9-5, “project formulation is gradually advancing to become an art form in its own right,” he writes, and only in the face of monumental events–natural disasters, terrorist attacks, death in the family–are we knit back into the common fabric of world affairs.
Which brings Groys to the larger issue undergirding the ascent of design: If the personal is political, then the private is now as well, to put a Zuckerbergian update on a stock slogan. In “The Production of Sincerity” Groys examines how the aestheticization of private life has bled into the political sphere, shaping media culture in its own image. As excessive design induces suspicion–consider natural reactions to unnaturally airbrushed models or PR statements–Groys posits that the media has responded to this with an economy of sacrifice, demanding sincerity and disclosure in exchange for public trust. Celebrities admit to guilty pleasures, politicians hold press conferences to confess infidelities, and the public embraces them all the more for it, extending sympathy and network TV show as consolation prizes. “When art becomes political,” Groys writes, “it is forced to make the unpleasant discovery that politics has already become art.”
Forgetting, for a moment, the cynicism and celebrification that have flourished in our political climate, this may not be as insidious as it sounds: Because appearance is often more consistent than content in the political sphere–and tends to reveal more than it ostensibly lets on–Groys concludes that, “modern design belongs not so much in an economic context as in a political one.” And, yet, this is where things come full circle. Politics may be subject to the whims of design, but it’s also the realm in which hyper-individuation collapses, and the vanity of taste is subject to demands beyond its own making. So long as a carefully worded Tweet can buoy a Senator or set the Middle East ablaze, then politics is also where curation breaks down; or at least, becomes collaborative; the point where the public sphere confronts the private in a collective and potentially generative way. There was once a time when going online meant evading the challenges of the real world; now, in the era of self-design, they’ve become one in the same.
Jessica Loudis is a Brooklyn-based writer from Washington, D.C. She currently works at Slate, and is an associate editor at Conjunctions.