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After Art

by David Joselit
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2013
136 pp., illus 39 col., 1 b/w. Trade, $19.95
ISBN: 978-0-691-1504-4.

Reviewed by Kieran Lyons
Transtechnology Research
University of Plymouth


In addition to the rewards of reading David Joselit’s After Art, comes an appreciation of its links with his previous work, including the much earlier Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941 (1997). Although the scope of After Art is generic rather than monographic the ideas it contains, dealing with the potential for image proliferation and their developing redefinition, can be traced back to the earlier work.

The difference of course is that After Art deals with digital values, which, through a capacity for recursive proliferation, morph, multiply and transform –accruing power and influence in an exponential array. After Art, therefore, deals with the manifold effects of image proliferation as characters shift into different forms of settlement in the proliferating phases beyond image inception. Joselit points out a stimulating journey through recent art and architecture where his discourse functions as a sort of guide, complete with images and diagrams, within the illuminating text. Nevertheless, questions generated by the title of the work create an ambiguity for the reader that never quite disappears. Joselit, in recognising this, wastes no time in addressing the uncertainty generated by his choice of After Art as a title. He recommends this prefix above the typical prepositions that emerged in the aftermath of Modernism that seem to coalesce, whether intentionally or not, around the lonely termination of post; post modern, post object, post medium and so on, and Joselit’s contention is that all of these imply some sort of rupture and stasis. If he had chosen the title ‘Post Art’, might it also not come too close to this disruptive end point? Instead, After Art is predicated on a capacity for continuation and proliferation – but it’s a slippery distinction and both terms seem to resonate well in either state.

Within its conditional ‘after’ effect, the digital image’s rich possibilities of repetition begin to develop and multiply, extending the reach and status of the art work, shifting it into new enhanced value with the fluency normally associated with global capital. The economics of this monetary system based on artworks is, needless to say, brokered by the major museums, which become the banking houses of this alternative economy. In the early stages of the essay, Joselit shows how international art competes in a market with global currency, with the same ease as “the dollar, the euro, the yen and the renminbi”; and by orientating himself with this global economy the author skirts the territory marked out by the signature movement of the late twentieth-early twenty-first century that unified around the après-situationist artists such as Rirkrit Tiravanija and Perre Huyghe; both associated with Nicolas Bourriaud’s exhibition Traffic in Bordeaux (1996) and therefore enfolded into the rubric of relational aesthetics, first promulgated there. Although several of these artists feature and are illustrated in this essay, it is not really with their relaxed communautaire strategies and specifically local scale that Joselit’s thesis really lies. In fact scale and scalability is one of the key terms in Joselit’s requirement for an art that will negotiate and migrate through borders and these artists, involved with communicative strategies, are disadvantaged within the specifics and the actual scale of their convivial outreach. They are quite evidently impervious to further interference and do not find themselves within the reach of Joselit’s thinking. In stressing the cumulative power of image proliferation, he dispenses also with the conundrum of Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’, which for Joselit functions as a “roadblock”, and one that is too reliant on locale for its effect, and therefore a stumbling block to be bypassed. Works of art that possess ‘aura’ tend to be dependent on a specific locale to frame them, becoming ‘fundamentalist’, a startling term adopted by Joselit to describe a work’s over-dependence on its context.  In an early exegesis of this point Joselit discusses the situation of the Parthenon Frieze in light of the argument made by the groups who seek to re-situate it, claiming that the real potential can only be experienced in the home surroundings; in this case, within sight of the Acropolis, in the museum that has been built as part of the Greek bid to reclaim its lost property. Joselit wisely skirts around another roadblock dealing with the ethics of ownership in favour of analysis of how ownership comes to be and whether it promotes the proliferation of images through movement that is such a crucial aspect of his thesis.

The essay turns instead on the breathtaking achievements of architects, such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaus, who manage similar forms of migratory flow in their key projects. The sections that deal with the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, the CCTV building in Beijing as well as associated architectural projects that, not only accommodate, but effect the articulation of crowd movement into a form of unfolding denouement are where, for this reader, the logic works best of all as well as achieving, at an amplified scale, the relational concerns of the spectacular society. Architecture is the one discipline where Joselit identifies an obvious historical precursor, in Le Corbusier’s 1923 Maison La Roche in Paris where ideas of promenade and flow were structured into a building where a seamless navigation of levels is achieved. It is with these works freshly in mind that we encounter – almost as a final coda the artist/ architect Ai Weiwei’s extraordinary intervention at Documenta 12 in 2007 with a work that negotiated through frontiers the free passage, and accommodation of 1001 Chinese participants in his work Fairytale, while assimilating them all within the context of a major art fair. This work was so multifarious in its impact, implication and infrastructure that it can only be compared to the logistical achievements of the forms of architectural project that Joselit chooses to foreground.

This is a short book, no longer than an extended essay, which looks and feels as if it could be read in one sitting, and perhaps it might be, however the ideas stream and rescale in such a way that they encouraged, in this reader, a good deal of flipping back and unraveling in the enjoyment of how the fluent metaphors of art as currency and the real world considerations of architectural navigation actually meet up. The essay is the product of a series of lectures while a visiting professor at NYU in 2010 and in parts the essay has the experimental, almost notational quality that a series of research lectures would allow. The sense of a larger work in embryo form is always there, however, evidenced in the proliferation of sometimes very long footnotes, giving the sense of a big idea being eased into a small space. The diagrams that accompany the text, specifically designed to represent the functions of power and scalability through image flow, are too inconsistently used to have much effect beyond the information Joselit provides in his text. In order to achieve their potential and make a real contribution, these needed a more continuous presence, thus making a more decisive contribution, providing a visual exegesis to his ideas as they develop and transform. We will have to hope for the extended work on the subject – until then this short work will do very nicely.

Last Updated 7 November 2013

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