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Pop or PopulusArt Between High and Low

Preface to the English Edition: Letter from New York
(p. 9-11)

We find ourselves in a strange moment, marked by a paradox: over the last century, art has challenged most of its traditional roles even as, in a corresponding and highly unlikely development, it has become more popular than ever. Art's discursive context has been redrawn in dynamic ways, during a period when Western societies have moved from an industrial, local, and material culture to one that is digital, expansive, massmediated, and fluid. Artists have surpassed many of their historical conventions and strictures, forcing a reassessment of virtually all the criteria under which one would produce, house, view, and discuss art: questions of authorship and originality, artists' perceived roles and public, their materials and contexts, their financial support structures, and their systems of distribution and reception.
In writing this book, I have relied on three “bridges” to help me make sense of this situation: an interdisciplinary link between philosophy and art history, a connection between academia and the art world, and a conduit to span the cultural gaps between Europe and the United States.
The first of these bridges is reflected in the book itself, which is a stubborn attempt to join philosophy and art history. Philosophy has provided a way for me to take distance from the history of art, to reach a vantage point from which to reflect on the conditions under which art production takes place today. The questions pursued by philosophers, or “theorists,” as they are sometimes called in the United States, have offered me the most productive path to engage and analyze the situation in which art finds itself. It may be that the wave of theory is receding, at least in universities and the art world, but that's just another reason to try to make a case for philosophical thought, particularly beyond an American framework often composed of Frankfurt School thought and a few French figures.
Several particular concepts have helped to structure the arguments in this book. First is Friedrich Nietzsche's complex notion of ressentiment, which grounded my analysis of the complicated relationship between artist and a public, and enabled a deeper response to Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's critique of Joseph Beuys's use of the artist persona. Then there is Boris Groys's idea of the archive as a time-based economic model, one that distinguishes high from low culture, contrasting that which is maintained and honored in protected spaces with that which, even if consumed voraciously at first, proves ephemeral and soon forgotten. This idea has grounded the book's arguments on the archive and the definition of high culture in general. Finally, there is the force field generated between two conflicting views on the role of culture and its political implications, that of Peter Sloterdijk and that of Jacques Rancière. The resulting aporia makes for a productive tension between elitist and emancipatory thinking, an unresolved and maybe unresolvable contradiction that runs through the entire book, lurking within the questions I've addressed, and mirroring the impasse produced by art's own enmeshing of cultural, hierarchical, and creative forces.
I have also found it important to find a place somewhere between academia and the contemporary art world. As with all of these bridging ideas, it is a movement as much autobiographical as methodological. Completing a doctorate while working professionally can be a double life, particularly when one works in a realm like the art world, where (as if just to confuse things) one can continue the same academic conversations on entirely new and shifting terrain. In any case, one starts to seek ways to align the intimate relationships that one develops to one's academic canon (mine would include Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx, Derrida, and Adorno, as well as Groys, Rancière, Sloterdijk, and Buchloh) and art historical canon (Duchamp, Pollock, Warhol, Beuys), with the connections one forges with friends and colleagues, the people who bring these older inquiries into the present tense. Some of my most productive exchanges, in fact, have occurred outside of institutional contexts. The most inspiring and formative has been collective work with a group called Continuous Project, composed of Wade Guyton, Joseph Logan, Seth Price, and myself. The resourceful and freeing aspect of the group comes from the excitement of leaving our art world identities (two artists, a designer, and a writer) to work on something collaborative and ill-defined, whether that work takes the form of published books, Xeroxed magazines, or marathon reading performances. The way artists think—the liberties they take, the speculation that allows for their particular risks and leaps—has certainly influenced my own way of working, and these three people have all been deeply involved with this book in one way or another.
My third bridge is geo-cultural, and this too is informed by my own history. I began working on this book some ten years ago, when I first moved to New York from Germany, and it documents a transition from a strictly European way of thinking to a more American one. Profoundly different modes of cultural reception and habits of discourse have left many of my thoughts unsettled, but that is as it should be. This has been a process of learning, misunderstanding, and apprehension, and it is still in motion.
My own studies and research have been highly interdisciplinary, and my path has led me in and out of the academy and the art world, but my ultimate concern has always been Zeitdiagnostik, a “diagnosis of our own time.” The consideration of the past is most relevant and engaging where it has implications for our current historical situation, and this is why the book concludes by turning to artists and works of my own generation, which must face the contradictions of an uncertain new art world. In this sense, contemporary art tests the philosophical absolutes and arguments I have outlined in the book, hopefully enriching them and making sense of their complications and impasses.

New York, November 2009

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