”As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867.
The commodification of every aspect within society is an inevitable progression of a capitalist based economy. Marx expressed the potential contraction at the heart of this mode of production. The surplus-value, which is unpaid labour through production of commodities, is taken as profit by those with the means of production. These ‘means’ (which hold power) have been enshrined within society through centuries of class development and exploitation. We are beginning to truly see these contradictions played out on a global scale because the working classes (which includes a great generalisation of the stratifications in different societies) cannot afford to purchase the goods and services which they produce. As Marx pointed out this leads to constant boom and bust. Hence, the boom in the 90s perpetrated by de-regulating markets, improving production techniques to decrease the labour required to create products; and then the subsequent global financial crash in 2007-08 perpetrated by de-regulated markets selling to people who could not afford to buy services and commodities.
What does this abstract economics have to do with The Public Secret project?
The short answer is everything! The human concept of ‘value’ is at stake within this discursive web. What value do we place in relation to art? There is a long history attached to this question from Aristotle to Hegel and Svetlana Alpers to Claire Bishop the ‘worth’ of art, and subsequently its position within the ecology of culture and society, has been debated for millennia. This is a complex question as there is an obvious set of economic values including exchange-value and labour-wage value in the art market. These values are monetary and do not necessarily correlate with use-value or moral-value i.e. ethics. This distinction is important and the blurring of such boundaries within the collective consciousness of contemporary society is central to a gross public secret. Let me explain. The semiotics at play within the current form of neo-liberal capitalism, which is packaged in a gloriously glossy cellophane and sold to us on a daily basis, are neurotic.
My reasoning for the above statement is complex, and needs further discussion and debate beyond this text, and indeed plays out in the collective space created by the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe. I would like to add a pre-requisite at this stage, that, just as Marx and others have pointed out the processes at work within capitalist accumulation are not inherently good or bad. It is an empirical system, the problem occurs with its distribution, and the hierarchical systems of deep exploitation which has only accelerated with the neo-liberal ‘branding’ of capitalism on a global scale. It is to such an effect that a form of neurosis has occurred in which ‘we’ as a society attribute the word, ‘value’ almost exclusively to signify ‘monetary’ value. Indeed our motivations are entirely governed by such significations. Whether we admit to it or not, we are constantly comparing and weighing up the monetary value of commodities. This plays out in its most distilled form on the international stock exchange, built on risk -reward scarcity. It plays out on social media, particularly through Instagram, and the rising cult of the ‘celebrity life’ story, which is rewarded with increasing monetary value. The image = value = money.
Historically, there is a discourse within art which has opposed the capitalist system. The development of Conceptual art of the 60s and 70s, which aimed to de-materialise the art object not only in an attempt to deconstruct the forces of the art market, but also to finally liberate art from its own materiality. However, the forces of capital and a market driven art world managed to circumvent such a critique and re-appropriate its resistance into the commodification of ‘ideas’. The strangest, most outrageous coupled with the most banal was the name of the game. Figures such as: Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth and Marina Abramovic became prominent within the art world and beyond. It is precisely this phenomena or the ‘cult of the artist as celebrity’ which the market could sell. It did not matter how problematic the theme of the artwork was or how ‘de-materialised’ the object; the art world was dealing on reputation and on endless novelty. Of course, many artists before and since have played on these notions of the art market including, Warhol, Hirst and Duchamp to name a few. Their practice was to recognise this problematic at the centre of the art world and not to resist openly but dance on the razors edge between appropriation and co-option.
There is course a metaphysical trace in play to this narrative. Philosopher Jacques Derrida articulated this in Structure, Sign and Play (1966). Derrida suggested that, ‘the whole history of the concept of structure, before the rupture I spoke of, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies’. Derrida is referring to a history in which societies have always assigned an abstract anchor or centre for belief such as: Magic, God, Man, Science etc. in which to build their entire society. Derrida suggested that we are limited by the language of the past, of our ancestors, as we must constantly destroy and remake their systems again and again in different ways in order to create ‘new’ structures. However, the ‘event’ which Derrida is referring to is when we began to question the centre and the structure revealed itself to no longer be a structure but a system of substitutions of signs. This is particularly important to our current question of the public secret, as a growing secularity within societies across the world is resulting in religion being expelled from the centre of belief. It is for this reason that many people are simply motivated by the prospect of gaining more capital, more social power bought through the accumulation of wealth. As they are no longer subjected to the moral codes imposed by religion. This of course, is not the entire picture but nevertheless the importance of gaining wealth as a motivational factor is a vital discourse.
It is paramount that as individuals within a society we have a centre of belief, even if we know rationally it is not a ‘real structure’. This is essentially an ideology. Our collective wellbeing and mental health relies upon it, as the complete ‘free-play’ of significations, which Derrida suggested is taking place, implies possible infinities. As humans we cannot greatly conceptualise infinities, we almost gravitate to forms of structure and limitations with the goal of proposing forms of order. It is this fundamental pattern making, that is both socially and culturally ingrained within metaphysics. It is also why we accept models such as capitalism and socialism, as they impose some order which we can break and remodel to some extent without giving in to complete anarchy. Indeed the word ‘society’ implies a meta-structure to our human relations.
What is left?
In an episteme, in which time is out of joint and the past is constantly returning in ghostly and spectral forms. This state of play is both created and reinforced by the ‘consciousness’ streamed directly into our hand-held devices. We are always on and always sharing information in a never before globally connected way. Everything seems to exist simultaneously in this non- stop, neoliberal nightmare of a capitalist realism. However, just for a second, if we follow this logic then perhaps the ‘thing’, which can aid in managing this situation is already available. The key is recognising such a moment when it smacks you on the forehead.
For me, it is the collective- or, a notion of the collective. This notion of collectivism, what Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson call ‘the new collectivism’, resists the full blown authoritarian form of state based collectivism implemented in the last century to devastating effect in both the then USSR and in Hitler’s Germany. This new collectivism, or ‘isms’, is your local ‘hacktivist’, it is your full blown terror cell and simultaneously your ‘freedom movement’- as we have witnessed across the Arab world. It forms micro community land trusts, which are fighting corporate and governmental ‘gentrification’. It also, coalesces to form activist groups, artist-led collectives, self-help groups, flash mobs and plugs the gaps in diminished welfare through charities and ‘junkyard’ initiatives. This new collectivism doesn’t identify with Marxism, Communism or Leninism. It is a product of global neoliberal capitalism, but at the same time it resists through a smorgasbord of the new and old forms of autonomy. These forms of collective activity are re-modelling a failing system- the distribution of power is beginning to see nano-shifts in its organisation. We are witnessing this shift in power through political events such as: Brexit, Trump’s America and Catalonia’s struggle for independence etc. These re-alignments appear random precisely because collective activity doesn’t have a one specific identifiable ideological basis. Each collective is different, however, they all share a trace. This trace is political, they are endeavouring to collectively change some element of the world we live in. This change is always ideological on some level, and they do it together, as a tribe. However, different they are as individuals, the collective can act as a form of catharsis against an increasingly individualised and isolationist structure of the neoliberal.
Collectivism may not be ‘the’ answer to the world’s problems, but it sure is a start. Personally, I find that the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe is increasingly becoming a support group constructed through mutual respect and collective endeavour to actively tackle social and political problems in society. It is a place, both physically and virtually, where I feel comfortable testing ideas and discussing issues. I feel my mental health is better for being a member, because I feel I belong to something greater than myself. Friendship and solidarity are loaded terms, but they belong in the Retro Bar. What is most rewarding within the Retro Bar is the unspoken role in which each of its members have undertaken. Everyone has organically taken up certain responsibilities. On a personal level, I have developed an exclusively curatorial role within the collective as I feel that is most appropriate both for the collective and also my individual practice.
Finally, the public secret is one of those oxymoron’s. It might even be the ultimate example of an oxymoron. It is through its contradictory nature that we might begin to address our collective failings and eradicate our toxic prejudices. Thus the value of art and the value of collective forms of art go beyond the fiscal. They are searching for the ethical, for a new set of parameters in which to create equilibrium. This is an unfinished project and it has a long way to go! However, the journey has begun.