This review of David Joselit’s book ‘After Art’ was published in Art Monthly issue 375, April 2014
Memes, weak signs, viral, poor, intolerable and pensive images; the 21st century has come bundled with a glut of neologisms seeking to describe the accelerated nature of digital image production and exchange via neat, pithy units of language. Uniquely, for socio-cultural theorising, attempts at classification have come from a wide field. Professional thinkers – or rather those paid to speculate on cultural matters – like Jacques Rancière, Boris Groys and Hito Steyerl, deliver their ideas via essays couched in the grand tradition of image speculation kick-started by Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. Online, in the chartrooms and comment fields of imageboards (large web forums that operate on the upload and exchange of images by members), new terms come unencumbered by the need for academic exposition and arise in tandem with the phenomena they describe (ie ‘selfies’, the term used to describe images in which the photographer has extended their arm, twisted a wrist and taken a portrait of his or herself). What lies beneath and compels these attempts at classification (whether those engaged in the pursuit know it or not), is the spectre of the internet, the age of unprecedented image saturation it has ushered in, and the need to make some kind of sense of it all. Stepping into that breach with After Art is US curator, scholar, art critic and occasional editor of October magazine, David Joselit.
An easily digestible amalgam of three lectures previously delivered under the title ‘States of Form’, After Art is Joselit’s attempt to convince us that ‘images possess vast power [to generate capital and influence politics] through their capacity for replication, remediation, and dissemination at variable velocities’. This may be a truism obviating any need for further exploration, but there is more to Joselit’s endeavor; the book proposes that actors within the art world should harness the digital image so that we may ‘exploit its potential power in newly creative ways’. The reason this is necessary is because we are living in an age Joselit identifies as being ‘after art’. Why ‘after’ and not ‘post’?
Initially Joselit writes that, ‘post leaves the art object in tact albeit transformed or negated, whereas after shifts emphasis to its effects – its power – under the conditions of circulation.’ It is a spectacularly vague sentence that is left hanging, without clarification, until the book’s last few pages. There Joselit reveals a surprisingly conservative view. For him contemporary art is all about reference, whereas modern art was ‘a vanguard for the promotion of and research into how images constitute secular knowledge’. In the book’s mid-section this is sketched out: contemporary art no longer has the ability to show us how new images might ‘carry new content’ (was that ever art’s main purpose?), instead contemporary artists are like search engines, their consciousnesses crawling through high and low culture to connect pre-existing material in order to present audiences with networks of old meaning. These networks come in two forms: grid-like image presentations à la Sherrie Levine’s Postcard Collage #4, 2000, and large-scale immersive systems (in which images are arrayed or generated) that Joselit dubs formats – think Rikrit Tiravanija’s or Ai Weiwei’s relational situations, or installations by Matthew Barney and Thomas Hirschhorn. It is a nice idea, but are these ‘top-tier’ artists really indicative of where things currently stand?
Beyond the human-search-engine model, Joselit’s central thesis, the idea that images become more powerful when reproduced online, is informed by a reassessment of Benjamin. In the book’s pointed first chapter he asserts that Benjamin’s ‘brilliant analysis’ has ‘become a roadblock’; that accelerated digital reproduction infuses images with vast power and that in today’s neoliberal, globalised economy what use is a bourgeois concept like ‘aura’ to anyone anyway. Again, anyone who has thought independently about Benjamin’s essay for a few minutes will have come to a similar conclusion. A more accurate position would be to pair Benjamin’s loss of aura with the powerful image distribution model in order to offer them as opposing states within a system of meaning that exists in perpetual equilibrium. In fact this has always been the case, even in Benjamin’s time – some images are emasculated by distribution, while others gain power. Take graffiti and subway art, for instance: a well-used analogy is that the internet is like a vast network of train tracks, while web pages are like different train companies who use those tracks to run their services; the goal of subway art is to get your tag on as many train cars as possible so that it may gain in notoriety, yield the image-maker prestige, fame and the authoritative power of ubiquity. This is exactly how image circulation functions online, and its power, whether it is an image of Joseph Kony, Beyoncé or some satirical illustration of a political figure, is based on the quick recognition of surfaces. But while depth is an essential property of art and slowness a necessary condition for its appreciation, why would anyone want to reduce their work to the status of a vapid meme?
There are some compelling angles explored within After Art, but a cohesive cogency never arrives – perhaps due to it being the product of three lectures stitched together. While the attempt to dismantle the Benjaminian roadblock is laudable, the use of computational metaphor (the human artist as search engine) is reductive, restrictive and as inaccurate as the popular brain-as-hard-drive analogy. As you would imagine for an academic of Joselit’s stature, After Art offers an informed, accessible, if fairly standard image theory for the information age. But if and when the paradigm shifting text arrives, my money still says it will come from outside the institution, not from established critics, curators or academics within.
After Art, David Joselit, Princeton University Press, 2012, 136pp, £13.95, 978 0 6911504 4 4.