Dialogue: The Future of the Art World

Daniel Miller, Pierre d’Alancaisez, and Adam Lehrer debate the Contemporary Art World

Daniel Miller: A century since Marinetti denounced “the Venice of foreigners” and the necrotic dependence of Venice on tourism, the 2024 Venice Biennale has opened an ultra-politically correct exhibition dedicated to “Foreigners Everywhere” featuring the highest percentage of dead artists in the event’s history. The results have been criticized as empty and sterile even by critics with no record of taking courageous positions. Meanwhile, all over Europe sentiments are moving to the Right in response to the unprecedented rates of mass migration that have been imposed on Western countries over recent decades, and the increasingly blatant corruption and incompetence of globalist Leftist regimes. In the last five years the prestige and power of regime cultural organs and their ideological police networks have declined considerably. At the same time, little of genuine substance has so far emerged from the counterculture. Are reaching the end of the road for the art world that has dominated recent decades? And what do you guys think might replace it?

Pierre d’Alancaisez: The striking feature of recent art spectacles like Venice or the 2022 edition of Documenta is their regressive appearance. In the Kassel show whose imperative was the recognition of the Global South, hundreds of artists showed works more appropriate for a community center than the world stage. In Venice, where the organizing trope is total decolonization, a multitude of folk- and street-like art trumped the once dominant aesthetics of contemporary political art.

One reason for such aesthetic malapropisms is that the liberal art world muscles in on all politics. From Trump to climate change, its ideological priorities change faster than artists evolve aesthetic responses. The other cause is the progressive expansion and diversification of artistic sources. As the art world machine rapidly sucked in non-Western traditions and the once-excluded Western voices, balancing their aesthetic novelty with even the recent canon became impossible.

Fifteen years ago, Western contemporary art had an intelligible, if politicized aesthetic. Today, the genre is bound chiefly by incoherent, antagonistic slogans. This makes the project more vulnerable to capital’s co-optation than ever. But the art world has not noticed that its recent output is unintelligible to its home audiences, preferring to redefine them as enemies instead. As Documenta showed, outsourcing the production and consumption of hegemonic contemporary art to new geographies is more profitable anyhow. Yet the peak of art globalization might create opportunities, and not only for the Right. Now that the ‘foreigners’ are, indeed, everywhere, it will inevitably become more difficult for the art world elite to police what contemporary art is. Documenta’s disavowal of an Indonesian artist group for its supposed antisemitism paved the way for a complete political breakdown in the art world over the question of Palestine. There are only so many artists the art world can cancel for yet unthought forms of wrongthink.

The more fragmented the culture, the more likely someone is to assemble the fragments into a new order. The artist group Technologie und das Unheimliche, for example, has built a bizarre “Hungarofuturism” movement that subtly antagonizes the whole political spectrum through deliberate overidentification with both progressive and reactionary aesthetics. Such projects stem from a close study of the recent historical and aesthetic trajectory of the underlying politics. By contrast, malcontents of the contemporary on the Right habitually dismiss all art made since 1960. This is a mistake that overcorrects for the Left’s politicization of art, foregoing the potential of an aesthetic language that until recently did command receptive audiences.

Adam Lehrer: There has been much evidence that even those deepest embedded in the higher-end institutions of the art world have become world-weary and sick of the art world’s ideological dispositions. I was recently struck by the extremely negative response of Alex Greenberger to Arthur Jafa’s dreadful recent exhibition at 52 Walker Gallery reimagining Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver climax. Four years ago, Jafa was untouchable – fully insulated by the political narratives (BLM, etc…) surrounding his work. The fact that he’s taking criticism at all does indeed reflect some movement in the Overton window. 

That said, this version of the art world isn’t going anywhere. It is a business, a huge business, and right now business is still looking pretty good. Last year, global art sales were down 12%, but the art world still netted $13 billion. That’s hardly a crisis number, and MFA brats will need a much harsher wake-up call before they start to rethink their whole approach. Human beings are stubborn, after all, and curators, dealers, and directors are so set in their ways they might as well be Vietnam Vets drinking at the Legion every night. For me to have faith in some kind of change would require me to see humanity in a tender, open-hearted way, and I simply don’t.

While other culture industries have, to varying extents, created artistic products that offered some kind of backlash to the madness and hysteria of 2020 — think shows like Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s The Curse or Mike White’s The White Lotus — the art world has been stagnant in its abjectly hypocritical brand of radical liberalism for decades. If the Venice Biennale’s 2024 theme of “Foreigners Everywhere” (whatever that means) is any indication, it will stay stagnant for the foreseeable future. In short, nothing will “replace” it. But you also don’t need “it.” I’ve become an artist of note without a single shred of institutional support from anything that even resembles an art world. Outsiderism is always an option, but there is no replacement. The monolith is immovable, but we can dance around it.

Daniel Miller: The cyclical assimilation of the outside by the inside was perhaps the defining dynamic of modern art history. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, avant-garde movements and trailblazing renegades repeatedly revitalized art by taking inspiration from themes and ideas previously considered beyond art, or beneath it, whether everyday life, primitivism, or the roar of machines. Globalist art attempts to repeat this same trick through the category of minorities: what the Venice Biennale calls “foreigners” is a more cosmopolitan synonym for the same basic idea.

Minorities are conceived as historically marginalized and repressed groups, similar to the racial and sexual identities who became protected classes after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The idea of the “global south” which has become increasingly important in the art and theory world in recent years is a kind of lost continent of minorities sunk under the historic weight of Western colonial oppression. Globalist art proposes to redress this injustice by promoting minority personnel to positions of power, emphasizing minority agendas and themes, and endorsing or tolerating anti-Western initiatives, including mass migration, anti-white violence, and Islamic jihad. This project is claimed to be both morally and culturally valuable because it is thought that Western civilization is guilty, the Global South is innocent, and underrepresented minorities offer different and vital enriching perspectives.

The problem is that these moral and cultural arguments are directly in conflict. The moral claim articulates itself in the name of equality but cultural value rests upon inequality, and not just theoretically. Nietzsche and Marx agree on this point. Cultural achievement depends upon leisure, which in turn is predicated on the labor of others. Human culture, and not only human culture, is essentially a pyramid of slavery, enforced by violence. This violence is justified because it is ineradicable. Nature is violent. You cannot get rid of it. The only question is if you can harness it. Either you have violence in the service of something or the service of nothing at all. But because we can no longer affirm, or even understand, what Marinetti, in a Nietzschean mood, called the “necessity and beauty of violence,” we are inexorably moving towards an increasingly random and ugly reality. The confusion and chaos of the global art world reflect this. 

Pierre d’Alancaisez: The mainstream’s historical appropriation of outsider art on the one hand and the splitting of dissenting artistic groups away from it on the other are interesting phenomena because they repeat today under radically different material conditions. Is today’s absorption of ‘the other’ akin to German Romanticism’s veneration of the pastoral in the 18th century by which the metropolitan artist would devour the peripheral from afar? Or does it have more in common with the scores of Polish early modernists who married peasant girls “for inspiration”? Or, indeed, is the mechanism different still because it turns the outsider into an artist and thus both idolizes and tokenizes him? 

Some contemporary aesthetic practices have evaded such co-optation, although not in straightforward ways. Post-internet art’s relationship to online memes was one hopeful example. This term originally described practices characterized by self-referential, immersive, and over-the-top aesthetics stemming from social media and the shattering dreams of online freedom. It gained prominence in art institutions in the early 2010s. But as artists continued to explore online subcultures, post-internet art clashed with the evolving online political world and the emergent alt-right. This sent the art world into a hysterical meltdown – online troll memesters and artists like Brad Troemel were just too much for it – and online cultures are still effectively out of bounds for arts institutions until today. This created a window of opportunity, albeit at a great cost to many people involved. Some years on, however, the potential of their aesthetic movement seems to have waned. 

The question of culture as a luxury pursuit is apt, also, because it challenges the idea of the aesthetic dissenter as radical. The Viennese Secession of 1897, one of the movements that art history credits with altering the course of the discipline, sounds revolutionary until one considers that its grandest works, like its Art Nouveau gallery building, were bank-rolled by the steel tycoon Karl Wittgenstein, the philosopher’s father. Such close support tolerates a degree of artistic whimsy which is hard to replicate in today’s professionalized arts NGO world, even though more artists now can access such resources on ostensibly democratic terms. But it is likewise naïve to imagine that Wittgenstein senior’s motives were any more selfless when Gustav Klimt attacked his society’s mores than when today’s founders capture the artistic interests of minorities. 

The daddy-patron model might make a return. We are today beginning to see the closures of art schools. The government cuts and market failures that have led to these collapses have been on the horizon for a decade. It is an indictment of the art world machine that, despite its rhetoric, it has done nothing in this time to secure any meaningful diversity of talent. In a generation, art may again become the preserve of the children of lawyers and dentists. This might shift the official culture politically to the Right, but it’s unlikely to be a win overall. As the practice of art becomes an elite interest again, we must urgently address the questions of purpose, quality, and merit.

If we write off today’s ‘globalist’ art as a tool of ideological manipulation, what would future dissenting art be for? Moral edification? Hedonistic pleasure? Speculation on future social forms? These missions will need different kinds of artists with different skills and talents. All of them will have to do a lot better than the current lot at bringing broader audiences with them through aesthetic means. 

Venice Biennale, 2024

Adam Lehrer: I agree that dissenting art is important, but I see no utility in mourning an art world that has been a crock of shit and a proverbial father of lies for decades. Harmony Korine once said that he likes one thing about the art world: that its audience is primed to encounter strange things. But is that still the case? What constitutes a strange thing? Arthur Jafa littering a gallery with overpriced prints of his Jpeg collection? Midwit artists like Nina Hartmann making Darja Bajagic rip-offs while signaling her “oh so interesting” background in noise and hardcore scenes? These people are hacks. Even when using images that might come across as provocative, she imbues her work with so much ideological justification that she dissolves its meaning and importance entirely. Here’s Hartmann in an interview for Autre

“Going back to the influence that punk and experimental music had on me, there’s a certain mode of critique learned in those spaces. It almost approaches the sublime. I think a lot about Reagan-era punk bands and how they would use photos of politicians or policemen on the covers of their albums. The simple recontextualization of the image creates a new critical function.”

Really, bitch? Ronald Reagan? Transgressive artists are stuck in the 1990s, perpetually. They go for the cheap shock, never failing to reconcile with the fact that transgression requires the crossing of limit thresholds. There are no more limited experiences because we have no more limits to transgress. I can watch cartel beheading videos at the speed of the Internet and these artists, devoid of the ability to reconcile with the world’s reality, and I’m supposed to be thrilled by this?

I recently spoke with artist Ben Werther who did a photo series of military reenactment LARP groups, and he told me that he thinks there is real creative energy simmering in worlds totally divorced from conceptualism. These reenactments usually start from the point of a historical battle, but they never reenact the battle sequences perfectly. Instead, the historical concept becomes perverted throughout the action, and an entirely new result is yielded by the end. A new historical narrative is wretched from the action of doing. These are men, many of them actual vets, creating new images based on historical concepts. They are accidental conceptual artists, and they are doing so in a true sub-cultural platform. I am very excited by this.

In the last four years, I’ve built a multimedia conceptual art platform outside any institutional parameters. I’m making a living and I feel free. That is the utopian vision, to be an artist who doesn’t need the art world. That is the path that the post-2016 cultural landscape has paved for us, and this is what we need to be celebrating. But what are the truly important and subversive artworks of the last five years? A truly subversive artwork needs to unveil something true. Friedkin’s The Exorcist: evil is real. Rambo: First Blood: PTSD and the pain of the veteran. Artworks like these are those that move me. Cultural products that have taken that mantel recently are Red Scare podcast, Safety Propaganda, Bronze Age Mindset… These are the cultural products changing how people think, and though they might be hard sells in the stiff annals of art history, I don’t think that importance can’t be denied. 

We need to open our minds. We need to be realistic about how information now flows. The avatar has superseded other mediums. And while Hollywood and cinema have made several products of late that use a kind of “crypto-transgression” to subtly and gesturally allude to a cultural dissidence – films like Blonde, Tar, Poor Things, and others – the art world still has its artists on a leash, and even the smart ones don’t offer their full viewpoints. I want to build a new infrastructure entirely. 

Daniel Miller: In his book Faces of the Third Reich, Joachim Fest observes that despite the vast cultural ambitions of National Socialism, the art they produced was mediocre. The same point could be made about globalist art, and for similar reasons. The globalist art world is a parasitic bureaucracy dominated by apparatchiks and bootlickers who have no genuine feeling for art but want to control it. I am thinking of the kinds of people who work for magazines like Texte zur Kunst or Art Monthly. These people would be National Socialists under Hitler and Communists under Stalin. Today, they are global progressives committed to propagating ideological narratives that legitimate bureaucratic expansion. Globalist art is an instrument that has been developed for this purpose. It is not really art, but synthetic symbolic material that has usurped the space of art to exploit its inherited cultural prestige. 

We see this same “skinsuit” logic in literature, in academia, and in religion. The effect is to drown out real creativity through the production of a deafening syncretic noise and to generate a bogus status hierarchy in which MFA midwits are proclaimed as great artists because they advance the agenda of the ideological managers. All of this, of course, we all know. The critical issue at this point is not with the extant cultural status quo but with the situation of the counterculture which opposes it. What is clear is that more than simple opposition is required. Guy Debord wrote that because art is dead, it has become very easy to disguise police as artists. But this is only half the story. Many kinds of people today disguise themselves as artists, increasingly through a rhetoric of opposition, and almost nobody can tell the difference, because we no longer have a culture capable of critical discrimination. It isn’t a coincidence that during the so-called pandemic, the novel symptoms of the virus were the loss of smell and taste: the two most qualitative senses and the two that are alien to the new digital world. It also isn’t a coincidence that our culture is defined by a contemptuous incapacity for intimacy, which is treated simply as material for content. 

One of the most important roles of art is to educate the public taste. Our art is bad because our aesthetic sensibility is mutilated — and also the other way around. Our nerves are overstimulated, and our critical faculties are shattered. There’s no longer even still a public to educate. We live in a malfunctioning database indexed by consumer pathologies — global culture reflects this. But I think we are coming to the end of this era. To paraphrase Pamela Long, our current situation recalls the world of late antiquity: an era of changing boundaries, including psychological boundaries, as the extended, horizontal expanse of the Global American Empire begins to contract in favor of clandestine networks operating outside the formal structure of the state. Art is already adapting to this emerging landscape. We will continue to see a flight from exhibition value to cult value — a return already telegraphed by the twentieth-century avant gardes. The recent Russian film project DAU was a prototype. Ultimately we’ll see a new aesthetics of cults sculpting total environments and immersive experiences — and not as merely experiences but as new forms of life. Not all of this will be beautiful: some of it will be ugly on a scale that we can scarcely imagine. But either way, beyond the precincts of the global culture industry, art is entering an exciting time.

Pierre d’Alancaisez: Phrased this way, the emergence of new platforms, new transgressions, and new cults is encouraging. Is a popular or even populist contemporary art possible? The question of whom such art reaches, and on what aesthetic terms it is recognized as valuable, remains open. The reach of legacy institutions may be waning, but they have the buy-in from the educated classes on matters of taste. The emergent alternatives must compete with them whether they like it or not, both for resources and for legitimacy. Yet this is not merely a question of funding and marketing.

The theorist Boris Groys recently challenged the appeal of populism to contemporary art in an essay for regime journal E-flux, arguing that the separation between high culture and popular culture is the hallmark of modernity. Today, this distinction is threatened: legacy liberal art producers look at the mainstream with envy. “Everyone is looking for a new culture in which the serious can become popular and the popular serious.” Groys’ account goes some way to explain the fear that the popular instills in elite art. But his concern for a contemporary art that is now “existentially dependent on aesthetic recognition by an informed public” in the absence of mass recognition is underpinned by the collapse of belief in art’s social, educational, and religious functions. Whether this framing, which ultimately derives from Kant, is still correct is one of the key questions for the artist today. Has the sense of taste once shared by both the elites and the populace splintered into an irreconcilable multiplicity, or has contemporary art now taken up the instrumental functions that characterized aesthetic production before the Enlightenment?

In the institutions, we are stuck with an art that tries and fails to convert the masses to its elite values. This failure poses a challenge to the emergent alternatives. Whose judgment is their success to be contingent on? An alternative elite, the artists themselves, or the populace as a whole? Some critics dismiss the counterculture’s concerns with the liberal bias of the institutions and funding structures and advocate for a “just do it” attitude in which art succeeds or fails by the invisible judgment of the market. This works well for art forms with low barriers of entry, but less well with respect to the influence of the $13 billion trade on the visual arts. The liberal institutions not only control the means of production against the market demand, but they have manufactured the demand for political aesthetics in the populace too.

The immediate future might see a further proliferation of artistic niches, each with a version of judgment and micropolitics. This is healthy because the market will eventually decide which of the two is more important. Some critics have argued that the highly commercially successful 2023 indie anti-child trafficking film Sound of Freedom is an example of a significant cultural shift in a hostile industry with respect to the political demands of audiences. Sound of Freedom is shamelessly propagandist and is no masterpiece. But it is not merely kitsch, either. Here, Groys is right when he implies that, as neither high art, nor mass entertainment culture, cultural artefacts must choose between signalling ideological commitments and being truly enjoyable. The same challenge, perversely, faces the liberal artist, too.

Adam Lehrer: When I watched Sound of Freedom I was shocked by how bad and boring it was. It’s a peak example of the worst form of reactionary art, where it cultivates its appeal not through formal or narrative energy, but merely by, in some one-dimensional manner, rejecting the globohomo ideological stranglehold on culture. That said, I don’t believe the distinction between high and low art has just been complicated, as Groys thinks, but utterly decimated. Twentieth-century cinema proved that you could make art with mass appeal that is simultaneously thematically rich, thought-provoking, and deep. Artists like Mike Kelley understood this intimately, yielding an art that obliterated the modernist distinction between high/low. 

I think the art world is a disgrace that must be treated with utter contempt. Think of the trend of “Celebrity Art” recently elaborated upon by Brad Troemel in this video essay. The art world deploys its bureaucrats to manufacture the illusion that the art world is still the highest authority in aesthetic expression. Meanwhile, celebrities like Jim Carrey make their shitty paintings and immediately get glazed by the blue-chip galleries with blockbuster shows that artists would have to work for decades to achieve. This two-step is deeply demonstrative of the ways that art world propaganda works. To frame Jim Carrey as a worthy artist, they have to attach a narrative in which he was compelled to paint by some kind of lunatic mania — similar to the ways that we frame outsider artists. As Troemel puts it, we need to give these artists their artist “coming out” parties to create the illusion that what they make is worthy art, and to reinforce the illusion that the art world still has the authority to judge. Jeffrey Deitch went as far as to compare some sculptural atrocities made by Miley Cyrus to Mike Kelley!

For some reason, mainstream pop culture has been the locale of far more formal and political intrigue than the art world has been these last few years, and something like Mike White’s HBO series The White Lotus is far more politically dangerous than anything I’ve seen come out of the art world. So I think the way forward is not to refabricate a boundary between high and low but to completely embrace the fact that such a boundary has long ago been detonated. Joseph Beuys, of course, said that “everyone is an artist,” and this unfortunately came true: at least, everyone now fancies themselves an artist. But perhaps we can reject the notion of being known as “artists” altogether and just produce culture? Artist is a loaded term, and an important one, but the fact remains that my intellectual and spiritual curiosity and delight are being struck by all manner of media: image, text, audio, film, podcast. I can find individual products of every distinction that remind me of what is possible when a person opens their creativity to the world. 

In his book The Occult, Colin Wilson claims that all human beings have an inner psychic capacity, and that this capacity is dulled by the monotony of modern life. I take this to mean that boredom itself dulls our ability to be truly and profoundly moved by the world, by art, by nature, by God, by beauty, by the abject, by whatever. Compound this with the fact that it’s not just our obligations that are spiritually deadening, but that the Internet has also turned our consumption of media, of art, into a boring, dull routine. We just consume, consume, consume. Never do we pause. Seldom do we, god forbid, admire. Even having a clear thought unencumbered by the deluge of digital culture turning your brain into a pinball machine has become difficult, let alone having a thought that invites majesty into your soul.  

Can we evolve and develop a layer of poise that allows us to be enveloped by the infinite psychosis of culture on the Internet, that facilitates us to experience our favorite media in the same manner that Caspar David Friedrich experienced nature and landscapes? Perhaps we can learn to bring the sublime into this chaotic BLOB? If we come to terms with the world as it is, that is how we can change it. Maybe that is how we can defeat the Stalinist spooks. We annihilate their cultural prestige by taking this new media we are creating seriously, insisting on its importance, and insisting that, perhaps, it can even be art. 

Daniel Miller is IM—1776’s literary editor.

Pierre d’Alancaisez is a curator, critic, and researcher, and the co-founder of Verdurin.

Adam Lehrer is an artist based in New York and the host of the System of Systems podcast.

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