The fall of Soviet communism in 1989 seems to echo through the cultural production of the generation of artists who emerged in the 1990s and for the most part exhibit a general shift away from the Marxist concept of capitalism as a socially repressive system. What Foucault referred to as the ‘repressive hypothesis’ seems less convincing today when we understand social systems in terms of complexity theory and self-organising systems. Today we are more likely to think that no individual or group is entirely in control. The sociology of Niklas Luhmann, for example, suggests that social systems are autopoietic (self-generating) much like natural, ecological systems. And for Foucault power is disseminated and distributed across the entire fabric of society to the level of individuals. There is no ‘them and us’, in Foucauldian terms; instead we are all implicated in the web of power and this becomes a crucial feature of Foucault’s concept of resistance as local action rather than as the meglomanic social engineering schemes taken on by communism and fascism with such unfortunate consequences.
Postfeminist artists such as Breitz do not portray mass media as an authoritarian ‘reality studio’ programming women’s minds, instead they reveal a postmodern concept of identity which is looser, less fixated, more able to play with the social mechanism. Indeed we can suggest that the social construction of identity has become envisaged less as an hierarchical oppressor and more akin to the story engine in Huang and House’s 5 ‘til 12: a machine without an author in which the viewer is inextricably interwoven into the story. In short the social construction of identity becomes understood not in terms of repression but in terms of a game. One might also refer here to the quite profound sociological ramifications of panoptic reality TV games such as Big Brother. The current problem confronting fine art is that it has not evolved to the same level of viewer involvement evident in mass media.
Cultural theorist Gordon Matthews describes postmodern identity as constructed from ‘the information and identities available from the global cultural supermarket’ (Matthews 2000: 4). Matthews sees this mode of identity superseding that of either personal or national identity: ‘Market identity … is based on belonging to no particular place, but rather to the market in both its material and cultural forms—in market-based identity, one’s home is all the world.’ (Mathews 2000: 9). Mathews also cites Madan Sarup’s meditations on postmodern identity where via fashion and lifestyle accessory consumer goods ‘one can put together elements of the complete ‘Identikit’ of a DIY [do-it-yourself] self.’ (in Mathews 2000: 12). This is less Marxist alienation than it is a social game in which one’s individualised combination of clothes and accessories becomes a creative act. One is not a fashion victim so much as a player of a creative game mixing the main outfit with an individual individual permutations. In short, consumption is not necessarily a passive robotic activity used by an oppressive social elite to dull the minds of its subjects. Instead we are all more or less implicated in the web of mass culture.
The Swiss artist Sylvie Fleury is of interest here because, like Breitz, she shifts away from the ideological critique of mass media that characterises key artists of the 1980s such as Kruger, Haacke and Victor Burgin. Instead, Fleury creates a productive interface between ‘market identity’ and artistic identity. She portrays female identity in the wake of the achievements of the women’s movement when the social script has been rewritten, and women can go shopping and be successful artists—or even go shopping in order to be successful artists. From an art historical point of view, as well as relating her work to Sherman, we can also position Fleury in the broader discourse of popism, with key figures such as Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons whose work both parodies and celebrates the interrelationship between identity, celebrity, mass media and consumerism. Like Warhol and Koons, Fleury adopts a postmodern persona. For Warhol it was the blank screen onto which the viewer could project anything. For Koons it is a hyperrealisation of the ‘winner’ as an embodiment of the consumerist American Dream—which, for him, became a reality. In the case of Fleury we have the creative products of the fashion industry transmuted into a fine art game which not only encompasses the parody of consumerist obsession but also the elitism of fine art which considers itself somehow more ‘spiritual’ or intellectual than global capitalism and the increasingly complex mediatisation of the everyday. But such pretensions should be measured against the background of the auction room and the capacity of the art system to create mind-boggling overvaluations of even the most ‘deconstructive’ art objects. One thinks, for example, of Fleury’s signed Coca-Cola cans.
The ludic-parodic image of consumerised female identity that Fleury projects is not akin to the hardcore feminist critique of the social construction of female identity evident in art of the 1970s and 1980s—I am thinking particularly of Kruger. Fleury’s sculptural installations include packaging and carrier bags as well as the objects she purchased. In addition her installations are characterised by the projection of a stereotypically female obsession with shopping onto the discourse of what has been until quite recently a male-dominated art world. As Pierre-Andre Lienhard notes:
At her first exhibition in 1990 she presented monochromes and ‘Mondrians’ in synthetic fur, ‘Fontanas’ in ripped-up jeans, ‘Rymans’ splattered with nailpolish: a number of emblematic icons of artistic modernism that she ‘bastardizes’ by linking them to products stemming from the world of fashion.
‘Bastardize’ is most definitely the wrong word to use in the context of a discussion of Fleury, due to its etymological derivation from the Portuguese word bastardo which is masculine. Fleury continues a feminist methodology that can be traced back to the postmodern appropriationism of Sherrie Levine and Julie Rrap. Like Levine and Rapp, Fleury maps feminine concerns onto the male dominated discourse of modern art history.
This strategy proved especially potent in an exhibition at the Stadtmuseum Esslingen where she scattered high heeled shoes (with a Mondrian design) over the surface of a copper Carl Andre ‘rug’ sculpture. Fleury comments:
Unfortunately it was a short-lived piece, because Mr. Andre didn’t like it. He had it removed after two days. If you have a catalog with that image in it you should keep it, because afterwards all the catalogs had my page removed! (in Halley, 2002)
One recalls here Sigmar Polke’s Carl Andre in Delft, 1968, in which Polke deconstructs the studied seriousness of Andre’s gridded floorpieces by associating them with decorative applied arts. But Fleury’s statement is all the more powerful because it is gender-politically loaded and Andre’s defensive reaction to Fleury’s intervention in the Stadtmuseum Esslingen foregrounds the fact that what we thought was progressive art in the 1960s was actually a male-dominated discourse. The theoretical rhetoric that accompanied American minimalist sculpture argued artists such as Judd and Andre were simply making objects that were like any other object in the urban environment. But Fleury’s Esslingen intervention indicates that Andre, at least, actually understands his work in traditional terms as precious ‘metaphysical’ objects that must be protected from contamination. Anna Chave’s virulent critique of American minimalist sculpture (1992) seemed a little harsh when one first read it in 1992, but now it is beginning to make much more sense; not simply because of ‘Mr. Andre’ but because the entire edifice of artistic genius, precious objects etc. is—like war and the sociopathic aspect of corporate capitalism (Achbar 2003)—a quintessentially patriarchal construct.
Andre’s rather pathetic response to Fleury’s shoe installation also contradicts patriotic American art theorists such as Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss who argued tenaciously that American Minimal art evolved beyond European geometric abstraction. Their case rests on the contention that Minimal Art recombines geometric abstraction with a post-Cartesian deconstruction of the artist-genius (Krauss 1978) and a Duchampian deconstruction of the boundary between art and everyday life (Foster 1986). Andre’s response to Fleury’s playful action deconstructs both Krauss and Foster’s case. It also reinforces the argument in this book that the deconstructive art project is in great danger of succumbing to traditional aesthetic values.
Finally, it is significant that the Stadtmuseum Esslingen actually complied with Andre’s wishes in spite of the fact that Andre no longer owns the piece. That is a perfect demonstration of the way in which what began as a radical gesture, a mode of sculpture that the young, radical Andre, wanted people to walk on, rather than around, has congealed into a traditional precious object complete with the myth of artistic genius (and the ‘great man’) that goes with it. Moreover, the ‘great man’ forces the museum to remember that their primary purpose it to preserve such values.
How much better it would be if art galleries could forget this institutionalised script and treat works of art like any other commodity. And, of course that is precisely the point that Fleury was making via her shoe action. The older, apotheosed ‘Mr Andre’ now understands his work as High Art which ought not be contaminated by everyday references such as high heels. In contrast Fleury is totally open to the objects of the capitalist everyday and the notion that works of art are essentially commodities. This is both honest and effective from a creative point of view because if we demythologise art then we can play with it rather than genuflect to it.
This chapter addressed a number of points of view on the topic of artistic identity with a view to arguing that the classical (heroic) and romantic (sublime) constructions of artistic identity are moribund. One hopes that these essentially conservative constructions of artistic identity will one day be replaced by a realisation that artists are professionals like anyone else. They learn discursive and materials practices and they contribute to discursive and material practices. What is of importance ultimately is not the artist as individual but rather the texts that they weave and the degree to which such texts contribute to the evolution of visual art practice. And one of the most essential features of that evolution is that art should address the world that it is situated in rather than suffering from self-obsession. Currently mass media is at least as interesting as fine art yet there remains the perception that mass media is less elevated, whatever that might mean in a contemporary democratic context. But there is also the possibility that in the coming decades mass media will become more sophisticated than fine art. One wonders when the institutions of fine art will become aware that they are confronted by serious competition. It is also the case that the institution of art history which is the guarantor of the immortality of artistic identity is being increasingly challenged by cultural studies which looks beyond the confines of High Art and, indeed, questions the validity of the very ‘highness’ of High Art. With regard to such observations it can be noted that although the examples of art practice examined in this chapter are informed by sophisticated and contemporary notions of artistic identity, few of them break down the barrier between the viewer and the work of art. We will have to wait until the next, and final, chapter to explore art that fully pushes itself beyond the confines of the fine art system into the complex universe of the everyday.