Norm, Miracle, or Radical Skepticism?

– I think that psychedelic art and culture also contain relatively dialectical aspects – obscenity, irritation, radical skepticism, says critic and curator Lars Bang Larsen in this interview about his publication series on contemporary art in the age of the experience economy.

Lars Bang Larsen. Photograph from Independent Curators International.

The third and final volume of critic and curator Lars Bang Larsen’s series about contemporary art’s political instrumentalization and critical potential in the age of the experience economy came out at the end of 2010 (see, 8 November 2010, «Indie kunstkritik»). The series includes the volumes Kunst er norm (Art is Norm, 2008), Organisationsformer (Forms of Organization, 2009) and Spredt Væren (Dissipated Being, 2010). It gives a historical and theoretical perspective on contemporary art which, especially since the 1990s, has steadily developed closer in line with what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have called «the new spirit of capitalism», where raw materials are the freed individual’s crea-productive abilities, experiences, and development. It’s a situation that calls for a delicate reevaluation of the merging of art and social life introduced by the avant-garde. Such a reevaluation, beyond utopia and disillusion, is precisely what Bang Larsen undertakes: namely, to highlight the aspects of contemporary art that do not allow themselves to be assimilated by the experience economy, but rather defy its consensus.

Jacob Lillemose: Can you say something about the motivation for the volumes’ origin?

Lars Bang Larsen: There have been several motives for writing the books. When I began writing in 2007, contemporary art had been an economic Klondyke for a couple of years; it enjoyed substantial attention from discourses that mediated it into the mainstream. In the mid-1990s, this was not least a result of «creativity» being called up as a force of production and job description. So it was essential to discuss the rhetoric around the experience economy and creative industries, which allow aesthetic concepts to be a fundamental part of economic models and a new cultural setup, where art is no longer found or imagined outside of the established order. The concept «art» is in the process of mutating and receiving new meanings.

A second and major motive, which isn’t as explicit in the books, was my need to find another place to speak from as an art critic. It seemed difficult to say something about the cultural condition of contemporary art production in a newspaper or an art journal. One might call it a desire to break down the positivism of art commentary; that is, as an art critic you typically write about art exhibitions that occur, rarely about their structural circumstances, or about the art and exhibitions you can imagine being created. Or to put it polemically: what does an art critic do the moment there is nothing to review? Can one as a writer of art commentary be a pessimist, a skeptic or a Utopian? And what sort of critical art text would result?

The books are written in Danish, and that also makes a statement. The experience economy is not, of course, a Danish phenomenon, but we recently had a prime minister who announced the «culture struggle»: a euphemism for dismantling cultural and democratic institutions. In such a context, there was no reason to be jubilant on behalf of contemporary art, just because the economic markets were strong.

Disobedience, 2010. Video archive curated by Marco Scotini, designed by Xabier Salaberría. From the exhibition A History of Irritated Material , Raven Row, London 2010. Curator: Lars Bang Larsen. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith.

JL: A persistent theme in the three books is the question of the political significance of contemporary art. In spite of clear skepticism about what Boltanski and Chiapello have called «the new spirit of capitalism », you, at the same time, speak out against Brian Holmes’s activist aesthetic, where art’s political potential is dependent on its ability to dissolve itself in direct social engagement. I read that as an attempt to negotiate a position that is capable of a critical relation to relevant social circumstances, not least capitalism’s broadened territory, but it is also working with art as something other, as an exceptional experience that points beyond these circumstances. Have I read correctly, and if so, can you say something about this understanding of the political in contemporary art?

LBL: The books shouldn’t, of course, be understood as an abandonment of the possibility of art. My assertion that art has become the norm is a sociological observation of a viral phenomenon – compare the way Marx defines alienation. First and foremost it involves how we understand art: how the idea of art is reproduced by media, markets, and institutions.

In the last few years there has been a tendency to distinguish between politics and formalism, action and thought, or to hybridize the concept of art in, for example, activist art. I don’t think that’s especially beneficial for art, and definitely not for politics either, even though it’s understandable that the concept forces itself on art, as it has become a very indistinct presence since the 21st century.

Ad Reinhardt, screen printing, 1966. From the exhibition A History of Irritated Material, Raven Row, London 2010. Curator: Lars Bang Larsen. Photograph: George Eksts.

The political belongs to those reality principles that overcode art. Politics and economics will always be stronger than the indirect, symbolic forms that occupy art. But art is its own form of recognition and can outdo politics as a greater challenge to thought. It was also a political or anti-political expression when writer Robert Walser, at a political meeting in Berlin around the First World War, raised his hand and asked the future party commissar, «Herr Lenin, what do you think of German sausage?» Try to picture yourself asking that question in a hall full of revolutionaries!

The political in art is probably a matter of trying to understand what’s being said in relation to what’s being done, as feminism did with performance art. Or maybe it’s productive to think of art and politics as two parallel tracks, the way Ad Reinhardt did. Reinhardt painted black monochromes and said, «Art is art. Everything else is everything else.» This sounds like a high-modernist segregation of art and life, but he was also an activist and satiric cartoonist for communist periodicals. When that distinction between beard and snot is made, different and irreconcilable quantities are sharpened to their logical conclusion and set to work in a reflexive or possibly paradoxical way.

JL: The first volume has the title Kunst er norm (Art is Norm). Can you describe this assertion more closely, and say something about what you see as problematic with this normatization of contemporary art?

LBL: It may be overdoing things to call it an assertion. I think, however, that it’s more an analysis than a postulate.

Art was already a norm and already had a powerful function in bourgeois culture. But if art was previously seen as something placed outside society, it is now involved in mediating between subjectivity and economics. It has become a social imperative; you can’t find a clerk in a toll-and-tax office that hasn’t taken a course on how to learn to think more creatively in the workplace. But even if art is paired with management in this way, it’s presented with a touch of mystic otherness, like an exotic or provocative element. And the artist is no longer a madman, a genius, a criminal, or an otherwise foreign presence, but has become an entrepreneur and problem-solver—flexible and visionary.

A norm is a governing rationale that affects people’s attitudes and mentality by being inscribed on markets and institutions—which is the case with the experience economy when it becomes a course in the university, or the government makes it into a field of action. The norm is a rationalistic and problem-free form of social reproduction. It’s what Foucault calls «governmentality». A new-liberal governing style produces forms of knowledge that organize subjects to govern themselves. A person is influenced to form a self-relationship, to be self-directed and self-controlling. When the system is maintained to function better if there is no certainty, one is supposed to demonstrate «responsibility» towards oneself: Improvise! Be creative! Save yourself!

The smallest parts of the social web take the form of activities, as is true of the production and consumption of art. The tendency is partly that such cultural consumption is phased out as a collective, societal matter. Instead one can «see oneself seeing oneself», consume oneself. In the experience economy aesthetic experience is vaporized so that money is always between you and the art.

JL: Another problematic you touch on is the question of what the designation «contemporary art» covers. Actually not an easy problem … Why is this question relevant to ask?

LBL: Even though the concept «contemporary art» has existed since the Second World War, I want to think it seriously expanded in the 1990s, between the growth of the experience economy and creative industries. When contemporary art becomes an economic achievement, its underlying conception – that which clings to the cutting-edge and confrontation with the old – needs to be questioned. But when art becomes «with the times» in this way, cultural theory, the experience economy, and what currently exists have won over the potential otherness of art: its futurity, its existence against the grain of the state of things, or how art can now be anachronistic in productive ways.

JL: At the end of the 1990s you were involved in publishing an anthology about interventionist art. One of the recurring questions was whether art has the possibility, by means of various interventions in capitalist structures, to criticize and undermine them. Is it now the case that it’s more readily useful to analyze how capitalism intervenes in art?

LBL: Yes. Interventionist art is, on the whole, a somewhat undigested concept, partly because creative «interventions» have a more likely tendency to stimulate than undermine late capitalism. So capital intervenes more in art than the other way around.

Sture Johannesson, installation view, Raven Row, 2010. From the exhibition A History of Irritated Material, Raven Row, London 2010. Curator: Lars Bang Larsen. Photograph: Marcus J. Leith.

Where my thinking has changed over the last two years while writing these three books is probably in relation to how these problems can be grasped. I don’t mean that the experience economy in itself is interesting, but as a symptom of how art and its institutions are conditioned by that kind of economy, that kind of norm. Thus, in the last book I focus less on the discussion of the experience economy and more on the artistic and methodical consequences of it—for example, in relation to art activism or the concept of contemporary art. In the books I often take a sociological approach in my analysis of the experience economy, but my own text also defines a border where sociology is not thorough when it comes to discussing the concept of art and aesthetic experience.

JL: You are now finishing a doctoral dissertation on psychedelic art, which can be seen as a kind of fall from grace involving art’s entrance in the experience economy. Could you say something about that perspective on your discussion of art as norm that psychedelic art offers?

LBL: Acid art of the 1960s is interesting because it is so corrupt and complex that it’s difficult to understand. Two or more states always coexist. I agree that it describes a fall from grace or a kind of climacteric for aesthetic experience. Psychedelics turned the nervous system into an action space and thus showed the way for the experience economy’s solipsistic phenomenology, which turns the consumer’s own time and experience into a commodity. In addition, the world of psychedelic performance had a far closer and more operative relation to cybernetics than the cliché about luddite, nature-loving hippies suggests; just think about how rhetorical figures like «turn on» and «tune in» are mechanical, machine-oriented. And cybernetics is a power source, or infrastructure, in semio-capital. A second point of accusation consists of a certain new thinking about work. As they said in Hollywood when they made mod-culture films like Easy Rider (1969): «Get high, make money and express yourself—all at the same time» That’s what it was now all about. That kind of integration of work and lifestyle has been made operative today through demands on the worker’s flexibility and mobility, and through imperatives toward socializing: work is supposed to be fun.

At the same time, however, I think that psychedelic art and culture also contain relatively dialectical aspects—obscenity, irritation, radical skepticism—that one can study against a contemporary use of creativity. So from this perspective, psychedelia isn’t simply the villain. It also constitutes a complex aesthetic that hasn’t been theorized in relation to the new avant-garde, and which has remained disorganized and unruly in relation to attempts at the management of creativity.

JL: You’ve lived abroad for several years, in fact during most of the 2000s. Has this had an effect on your view of Danish and Nordic contemporary art?

JBJ: It’s a stimulating type of foreignness one feels when living in new surroundings… But at the same time, it’s always Copenhagen and Denmark that I can say I understand; I understand art’s institutional, political, and cultural frameworks here. I’m not capable of getting a read on what happens in Spain or the UK in the same way. It takes a long time to acquire a new nervous system.

JL: Since Hardt and Negri published Empire (2000), Neo-Marxist analyses and theories have influenced critical thought, not only in the art world, where theoreticians like Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Franco «Bifo» Berardi, Brian Holmes, and Gerald Raunig play major roles. How do you see your own project in relation to this tendency?

LBL: I draw on the Italian Neo-Marxists such as Paolo Virno, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Bifo, with Hardt and Negri in the background as some of the first to reread Marx after the Wall fell, when the Marxists had their hands freed of the Soviet Union. But I read Marx also through Derrida’s fantastic ghost story, Specters of Marx, or through art historians, such as Margaret Rose. So my Marxism is mostly methodological. It’s also an attempt to open up a dialog between two materialisms, namely Marx’s communist critique and Deleuze’s thinking about assemblages of material and energy. I try to see Marxism’s promise of freedom and equality in relation to the promises art gives us today.

JL: In the 1990s there was much talk about a Nordic miracle in connection with a new generation of internationally successful artists, many of whom you worked with. How do you see the legacy of this generation today? On first glance, it could resemble a neoclassical example of an art that starts out with avant-garde tendencies, in opposition to the art establishments, but then is assimilated into it. But, of course, that isn’t the whole story, right?

LBL: If one lays out the history in that way, the artists from the 1990s look more avant-garde than they actually were. Or the loose, process-oriented work from the 1990s was read as defective and aberrant in relation to the art object, so it came to appear quite rebellious to those with an unhistorical or conservative understanding of art.

From the artist’s perspective, there was actually no talk of antagonism toward the establishment. I, myself, wasn’t in opposition to the establishment either, nor was I outside of it. There was more talk or irritation over its sluggishness, something one tried to offset and accelerate through new international networks. When looked at in this way, the fact that most of these artists now have international exposure is not inconsistent with their beginnings. Maybe it’s the starting point that should be more closely examined.

The feeling we had in the 1990s of being in the middle of something wholly new has been confirmed to a certain degree by historical accounts—and this is a little surprising. But the history of ’90s-art solutions of aesthetic problems in the social sphere is probably worth examining in relation to the growth of new economies in the period: economies which specifically capitalized the social sphere. The art of the 90s described a new beginning because many other things also started anew in the 1990s: Europe began over again, we obtained a new world economy, new structures of communication, and so on. So it’s not by chance that there was a feeling of change. Not even the entrepreneurial spirit was immediately recognizable. We thought it looked like a yuppie from Wall Street. But as is now well known, it began to mutate in many directions.

«The Nordic miracle» was of course a highly institutionalized affair—a hype that paradoxically saw new investment in the national or regional categories the moment that the national was opened up. Nor should it be forgotten that before «the Nordic miracle» there was a «Glasgow miracle», and that as far as I can remember, it was followed by a Slovenian miracle. This was before it became clear that the phenomenon more directly involved not so much local realities as the power to declare curatorial fields of action in a logistical world. There was a strange arrogance in the idea of miracles, a kind of reverse provincialism: «Just think! They are making art here, in this wilderness. It is contrary to nature! A miracle!»

Kunst er norm, Organisationsformer and Spredt væren [Art is Norm; Forms of Organization; and Dissipated Being] can be bought through Det Jyske Kunstakademi [The Jutland Art Academy] or downloaded from its website  An English translation of the books will be published in 2011 by Sternberg Press.