Some Preliminary Thoughts on Groys’ Art Power

I started reading Boris Groys’ Art Power yesterday. Well, by “started reading” I mean that I slogged through the introduction; I find Groys fascinating but dry, which is probably more of a byproduct of translation than anything else. I enjoyed the opening bit, and I think that his criticism of modern art is both smart and on-face apparent, both of which make for a good argument to get some play.

Groys claims that modern art is characterized by paradox–it constantly folds in on itself and there are infinite counterexamples to any theory of art. From this information, he concludes that the only way out it to accept, and revel in, the paradoxical nature of art. This lies somewhere near the Derridean joussiance in play; things are how they are, the structure isn’t changeable, so take pleasure in the whole enterprise.

The second major claim is that art only becomes politically viable when it is produced from an ideological standpoint divorced from the market. The issue with the free market of art is that art begins to proliferate simply for the sake of accumulation; art gets caught up in an unstoppable process. He takes issue with the idea that art produced outside the market is somehow “perverted” because it is produced from a specific ideological standpoint, and continues:

It is also interesting that even the most severe judgment on the moral dimensions of the free market never leads anybody to conclude that art that was and is produced under those market conditions should be excluded from critical and historical considerations.

The belief that the free market somehow creates art that is more “ethical” than art that comes from regimes or revolutions is wrong. I take a little bit of joy in the fact that this argument about the ethics of art hasn’t really happened in the fields of video games or comic books. There are always people who claim that “real” comics or games only exist outside the publisher system, but those people aren’t even a vocal minority, much less a group that splits the fields.

That isn’t to say that I don’t find indie comics and games to be important. In fact, I think giving people the tools to make those things might be one of the most important ventures in both fields. But I am glad that no one is looked down on for enjoying Capcom games or Marvel comics in the same way that a person would be for authentically enjoying a Thomas Kincaide painting.

Anyway, Groys’ claim for the best kind of art appeals to me. He says that:

Art becomes politically effective only when it is made beyond or outside the art market–in the context of direct political propaganda. Such art was made in the Socialist countries. Current examples include the Islamist videos or posters that are functioning in the context of the international antiglobalist movement. Of course, this kind of are gets economic support from the state or from various political and religious movements. But its production, evaluation, and distribution do not follow the logic of the market. This kind of art is not a commodity.

This is obviously a divisive point, and while I don’t think it is entirely correct, I do think it is worth considering. There is something to be said for art that is politically effective and eternally obscure–shields shaped like books to protect students from the police, posters for OWS, invasive photoshopped ads. While Groys wants to think through state-enforced art, I think that the argument goes the other way. There’s a power in not being able to be bought and sold, to be accessible for free outside of market demands. Anna Anthropy’s points about the absolute necessity of free games ring bells here.

As a sidenote, there is also an interesting debate to be had with Ranciere here. Groys is always going to fall victim to the “distribution of the sensible” arguments that Ranciere makes, but I am not sure that Ranciere’s critique of the political image actually applies to Groys’ conception of the same. Ranciere’s political image is one that exists for a specific purpose, to violently interrupt the distribution of the sensible, and yet it fails because it is too pointed; it can be depowered and radically rejected because it makes its point too bluntly. Groys’s political art allows for spaces of ambiguity, which means that it can draw in affective responses, unlike what Ranciere is critiquing.

Anyway, expect more posts from me in the future regarding this book.

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