managerial aesthetics, or documenta fifteen
postmedium, para-academic, moralistic...
Certain oppressive systems - capitalism, racism, the patriarchy, ecocide - are extremely apparent. Other systems are harder to see. One of the hardest systems to see could be called “managerialism.”
Even defining managerialism is, itself, difficult. This difficulty testifies to the importance and strength of managerialism. Because this system is so dominant, it has become almost natural.
Managerialism turns the world into a process to be optimized. Managerialism is a form of indirect, even abstract domination.
In feudalism, force relations were relatively direct. When peasants were unhappy, they took arms and rose up against the ruling powers. Sometimes they won and became the ruling powers themselves. Often, concessions might be made, or sacrifices given over to them, either in blood or benefits. And quite often, they failed, and were killed. In such a world rule is transparent because it is physical. The knight’s bright clothes, shiny armor, sharp sword and massive horse all testify to his rule over the dull-clothed peasants.
Managerialism, by contrast, rules through increasing abstraction. Instead of one person dominating another, the social world gets transformed into a symbolic system. No wonder managers won: they could see reality in a completely different way, see it as a whole probabilistic system.
Gifted access to the social database, the managers created better and better and better processes. Given this superpower it should not be surprising that we live in managerworld.
But the last sentence made a mistake. We don’t “live in managerworld.” Not wholly. We live (more wholly) in a metasystem: a system of social systems. Managerworld is one system, and it dominates the world of work, the primary world most live in, but it isn’t the only one.
Some other systems are sympathetic to managerialism: capitalism, especially. But other systems oppose managerialism. Patriarchy, especially, finds itself emasculated by the indoor, mental, and symbolic qualities of managerworld.
What about the social system called “the artworld”? A very naïve observer might think that because art is romantic and personal, the artworld would oppose the desiccating, abstracting managerial drive.
A trip to documenta fifteen would educate this naïve observer.
Documenta is the every-five-year-long mega-exhibition of contemporary art held in the German city of Kassel. The current edition runs for one hundred days until September, and was curated by an Indonesian collective called ruangrupa. According to the official website “The Jakarta-based artists’ collective has built the foundation of their documenta fifteen on the core values and ideas of lumbung (Indonesian term for a communal rice barn). lumbung as an artistic and economic model is rooted in principles such as collectivity, communal resource sharing, and equal allocation, and is embodied in all parts of the collaboration and the exhibition.”
Collectivity. Communal resource sharing. Equal allocation. These concepts have progressive resonances. They sound moral, ethical. Many people coming to see documenta will also find the show moral, ethical, and perhaps even “cool.” One semi-famous performance artist said that xe liked that there wasn’t “objects from Europeans hung on the wall.” What was there instead?
Much of the work displayed followed a relatively simple mix: formal strategy + political formula.
Examples of formal strategy: dual-screen video work interspersed with photographs, an herb garden, drawings made with permanent markers on painted columns, a BDSM club with antiwhite door policy, a half-pipe built inside of a museum hall, large-scale banners with anti-Semitic imagery.
Examples of political formula: Denmark is anti-immigrant, Cuba jails political prisoners, rural people are in crisis, trans people are good, city people (especially Jews and trans people) are bad.
Although this mix is simple, it is efficient. Political formulas, on their own, lack sex appeal. They seem dry, boring. Who wants to talk about policy? (Present company excluded). Formal strategies, on the other hand, are all about cultivating sex appeal through novel transformations in underlying grammar. But without a conception of the Good, form descends into fashion. Therefore the political formula donates its conception of the Good, the formal strategy donates its erotic grammar, and so is born a managerial aesthetics.
Let’s hypothesize three qualities of this managerial aesthetics. It is postmedium, para-academic, and moralistic.
Postmedium: In the prior, “modernist” regime of aesthetics, artists worked within, and against, media, seeking to renovate the way paintings or sculptures or books or symphonies were made. While we may appreciate Kafka’s drawings, his chief focus, his dedication, his agony was within the medium of writing, within the German language. By contrast the managerial artist could make books, paintings, dinner parties, sitcoms. Anything can be a formal strategy.
From a managerial angle, postmedium art is much more efficient. The modernist format of the tortured artist striving to “make it new” was good for branding, but bad for standardization, and over time simply created inaccessible mannerism that only felt new to the initiated. The simple mix of formal strategy and political formula is a much more efficient process for art creation.
Para-Academic: What we are now calling “managerial aesthetics” is another name for “postmodern.” It is not exactly a coincidence that postmodern art arose as art became integrated into the educational industrial complex. Before WW2, art schools were separate institutions, offering a kind of craft education. Artists did not read “theory” or have “workshops” or “seminars.” After the war, art schools became integrated into research universities. This does not mean that the whole artworld became academic: there remains a vital commercial subsphere in the artworld. But with the marriage to the academy came the habits and norms of the academic. Now the presence of so many “artistic research” projects at documenta fifteen begins to make more sense to our naïve visitor!
Moralistic: By and large, the practitioners of managerial aesthetics would not like the description “managerial aesthetics.” Instead of saying that their work was managerial, the practitioners would say it is “relational” or “transdisciplinary” or “collaborative” or “social.”
Nor would they like to hear their work to be described as “moralistic.” “Moralistic” has negative connotations. It suggests their stiff narrowness, self-righteousness, hypocrisy. Instead they would say their work is “political” or “ethical” or “decolonial” or “militant.” Those words sound better, and when you describe yourself, you want to sound better.
The degree to which you accept the label “managerial aesthetics” is the measure of your distance from this aesthetics. Where does this distance come from? Perhaps from a distaste for the dry way that managerialism turns the whole world into a set of processes to be administrated. Perhaps, though, the aversion has a more positive quality. Perhaps our distaste for managerial aesthetics comes from the pull of not one different aesthetics, but 17 million possible aesthetics.