Surveying the lands of the 21st century, we can’t help but notice a few things. The first observation relates to the revered shaman and charlatan Joseph Beuys, who was overheard making the histrionic claim that ‘everyone is an artist’. Twenty-four years on and it is clear that Beuys’ idea was more an act of imagination than an accurate prognostication. Despite the rise of social media and the newly electrified capacity of individuals to invent and mediate their identities, along with the attempt by artists to instigate new forms of sociability, the actual production of art remains cooped within a defined set of places, practices and players. As the fugitive in the hen house replied, ‘there ain’t nobody here but us chickens’.
For the purpose of a useful fiction, we would like to take Beuys’ universal ideal off the shelf, open it up, and treat it to a live test. But what does this test involve? Nothing less than the invention of a world in which everyone really is an artist — producing objects, actions and images, all the while discussing this activity in the tongue of a common language.1 The question that sprouts here is: in this world where art won, what would happen to art itself?
Of course there is no such thing as art itself. After all, art is almost as complicated and diverse as the world that it falls out of. Indeed, it is this relationship that gifts art with the ambidextrous ability to refer both to itself and to everything else. So, to return to the question at hand, we might speculate that the relationship between art and the universe would shift and recede. For if -everyone is an artist, and the planet Earth is progressively transformed into an artwork, then there will be no outside to draw from.
Two consequences will result: the first is that the debate over the autonomy of art — the attempt by artists to rework and present social and political conflicts — will end. In this bemusing fiction, politicians will debate form and the welfare state will mutate into a semi-plausible exercise in relational aesthetics. The second is that the artist as intrepid disbeliever will disappear, becoming, by default, the ultimate insider. This will raise the question: was there ever an outside to begin with?
At this point, art, shorn of its ability to negotiate between itself and the universe, would become a confused and clumsy monolith. Wavering between the total inertia of an art that refers only to art, and the terminal invalidation of an art that has been quietly transformed into all that it refers to, the word ‘art’ disappears from the face of the earth, extinct like the luckless dodo bird.
Of these two possibilities, we would like to pursue the latter, except, this time, we will do so tethered to the conditions of contemporary reality, where only a few people take up ‘the role of artist’. So, let’s ask: can an artist truly leave art whilst retaining the inventive and agile mindset that occasionally makes art great? This leads us to a second thought experiment: three artists whose work suggests a kind of migration, while still recognising art as their true home. Do the objects they make give us any answers? In honour of Fūjin, the Japanese god of wind, we will blow through this speculation in point form:
1. Will French, Framed Bicycle Wheel (Clydesdale) — an adroit, ready-for-use ready-made that suggests that the way out of art will never be through ‘anti-art’.
1.1. It is possible to go beyond well defined strategies. French’s astonishing load-bearing bicycle fiddles with the genetics of Duchamp’s founding gesture. The ready-made mutates into a wonderfully awkward, yet enticingly functional, bike. A change has taken place.
1.2. It is possible to reference art while still riding towards fresh vistas. French’s bicycle is clearly an artwork, and presents itself as such. However contained in this gesture is the expression of a nascent potential. We would characterise this as an ingenious relationship with the given world of industrial objects.
1.3. The pre-configured can be re-configured.
2. Kenzee Patterson, Type 70 — a cube forged from spirit-levels that is familiar and then surprising. An inversion of the -viewer’s progress through an artwork, which suggests that alternative histories — and consequently, an alternative present — are possible.
2.1. Meaning is historical. The intelligibility of Patterson’s object, like French’s, depends on art history and the signs, symbols and understandings it carries with it — in this case, minimalism. -History is vital to making sense.
2.2. The history you know is not the only history out there. Type 70 aids the imagination, bringing to mind a world where industrial designers applied the proportion and harmony of Greek antiquity to the task of modern machinery.
2.3. Art can accommodate new references and new frames of understanding.
3. Kate Mitchell, Small Time Genie — an ornate card that entitles the bearer to three acts of assistance from Mitchell herself. A work that seeks out indeterminacy and strife by moving outside the nurturing eco-system of the art world.
3.1 What is it for? Small Time Genie provides an answer to this indispensable question. It is for whatever circumstance demands.
3.2 Assistance is always contextual but does not need a given context. Mitchell’s thrice bound promise proves that art simply doesn’t need a gallery. We could just as well imagine these cards, meaning intact, on the back of a cereal box.
A piecemeal answer: empirically, it must be possible to find the qualities we’ve tried to track outside of art. Inventive verve and an agile mindset can be found in all areas of human endeavour. In this way the question was perhaps a ruse. After all, these three works have shown that art has a capacity for renewal. Hasn’t this always been the case? A claim to finish on is that good art is art that exercises this capacity. From here, can we claim that art is available everywhere and to everyone?
Unluckily, while we were preparing a draft for this article, the always timely Boris Groys published The Weak Universalism, where at one point he adopts a very similar, in fact almost identical, premise: a world where Beuys’ maxim has come true and everyone is an artist. Although we felt the point he was drawing was significantly different from ours and thus we could continue with our use of this premise, Groys’ article is worth a look. Available at:
See: Ai Wei Wei and Atelier Van Lieshout. ↩