Art and bribery

The history of art is a history of bribery. A young person who for many possible reasons was lucky enough to escape complete and total ideological subjugation in the first few years of life keeps in touch with their sense of desire, a desire for everything, a desire obscurely but undeniably not satisfied by the social organization of the life into which they have been thrown. Thus, they create, they permit themselves the curious project of ascertaining that part of everything to which they are not permitted access. For obvious reasons already elucidated, this ambition is always a fatal threat to the social system, wherever and whenever it appears. But a social system has always already evolved an almost infinite series of offers, one after another, for the individual to exchange the ambition for exiting or revolutionizing the whole system in return for some better individual offering within the system.

All life hitherto is the experience of being brought to a restaurant one never chose and given a menu that offers nothing especially desirable. But at this restaurant, when one decides one would rather leave and search for food elsewhere, the server begs you not to leave, promises the chef can arrange something for you, reads off one special dish after another, to be made just for you, each one a little more attractive than the last but never arriving at anything one genuinely wants to order, until he arrives at one that is just good enough for you to say, all right, you’ll take it. And the very few who politely listen to a thousand inadequate offerings before finally standing and walking toward the door? They find that the door was locked all along and, on the other side of it: a cop.

Interesting in this light is the practice of many restaurants to offer children crayons and paper to keep them pacified before their meal arrives.

So-called artists who go on to achieve successful bourgeois lives through profitable artistic work are akin to those who, after taking a look at the menu, make an announcement to leave, are met by the waiter and eventually settle on one of the very nice special dishes made “just for them,” but which, curiously, looks a lot like what the other artists are eating. Consider the Salon des Refusés, where the Impressionists famously took refuge. It was decreed by Napoleon. in 1863 by Napoleon. Why? Because no regime can tolerate painters of such talent breaking the rules and running around the dinner tables of the bourgeoisie; he had to give them a nice little room of their own in the corrupt and rotten regime despite which they were clearly going to keep working on their own. The true artist, the revolutionary artist, is the one who stands up, walks away, and meets his or her fate at the locked door guarded by police. When he or she gets there, such radical artists typically choose one of a few possible fates.

One choice is to kill oneself, an unfortunately common choice of some really great individuals. Another is to return to the table voluntarily and take something from the menu, also very common (rarely achieving fame, artists who enjoy bohemianism in their twenties in hopes of locking in middle-class security from their thirties onward).

A third choice is to go on hunger strike and wait until your either force-fed (your works are bought and sold by entreprenurial dealers you never even asked (Beuys, for instance, who consciously desired detachment from money but took as a fait accompli that his things were being bought and sold) or your dead corpse is taxidermied, polished up, and returned to the table you left (academic canonization, the exemplary case here being figures such as Nietzsche who die penniless, friendless, and delusional, completely rejected by society, only to become universally respected as an obvious genius. The popular idea of some people just being “ahead of one’s time” is an absurd ideological mystification for the simple and easily demonstrated process through which societies systematically identifies and banishes individuals precisely because they are “geniuses”, i.e. they refuse to be assimilated because they see their society better than it sees itself, but then reclaims and sterilizes their ideas which are at once too destructive of society and too true to be left lying around untouched.)

The final option is to stand up on one of the tables and suggest that everyone in the restaurant ignore the waiters, ignore the chefs, agree that the restaurant belongs to them, and proceed collectively to do whatever they all wish to do. This last option is the strategy characteristic of what is known as the avant-garde (a useful example for reasons to be elaborated below is the Situationist International and CoBrA, both of which insisted on just going into the kitchen and using what’s there to make new dishes, e.g. _detournement, _in order to subvert it according to theoretical, exploratory analyses of how the restaurant functions “normally”).

More urgent is the question about what is to be done given this castration faced by a critically rigorous artist or intellectual? The first is to become theoretically cognizant of its mechanisms, a work we have begun here. The second is to elucidate its implications, the first of which is the necessary, unconditional refusal by every genuine artist and intellectual to accept profit for anything he or she calls artistic or intellectual work. If one makes money from it, it’s simply not artistic or intellectual work. It’s a commodity, which is a betrayal of the inherent content of the genuine artistic impulse (revolutionary desire). Our analyses show that to profit monetarily from a production is the precise mechanism by which one volunteers to transform a potential freedom-source into a freedom-sink. Every manifestation of honesty in the history of the human intellect, as well as their consistent failures to achieve widespread and durable emancipation for anyone but a few passers of the torch in every generation, together represent an historical index of the capitalist transformation of freedom-sources into freedom-sinks.

The second is to form a community that is minimally but absolutely exclusive with respect to nothing other than this simple commitment, to develop one’s work as much as possible without implicating it in profit. The Situationists are an interesting example because they sensed very clearly the necessity of drawing sharp lines and rejecting those invested in the status quo, but they erred in their paranoiac politics that surrounded the line itself. For, it is not so much about the positive content of any works or ideas–it’s not even clear what content means anymore. Of chief importance today is the the relation works of art assume with the institutional status quo, the lines of the social circuitry with which it does or does not connect itself.

Cite this post: RIS Citation BibTeX Entry

Murphy, Justin. 2012. "Art and bribery," (April 17, 2017).