Liam Gillick. Industry and Intelligence: Contemporary Art Since 1820. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. 208 pp.
Review by Caroline A. Jones
Walter Benjamin once aspired to write a book composed of quotations; Liam Gillick has achieved a book of compacted aphorisms. His target is justified; the bloated, ill-defined and hypermarketed artworld of “contemporary art” is here cut down to size in flat, seemingly affectless declarations about the depressing nature of The Situation In Which We Find Ourselves Today (hereinafter TSIWWFOT or, phonetically, “the siew-futt”). Gillick is a well-established contemporary artist himself—born in the UK, he was educated at Goldsmiths and shows in international venues the world over; he is represented by Casey Kaplan gallery in New York. As a participant observer (but never declaring an intention to shape the situation), Gillick lays out the siew-futt laconically in 128 pages: “contemporary art lets nothing escape from its purview: once a set of ideas, propositions, or positions enters, it cannot escape.” “There is no contemporary art that can escape the circle of analysis and theory that both underscores and overwrites it” (pp. 18, 20). “Adherence to a high-cultural life is a negotiated concept within the current art context” (p. 127).
So far so good—this is basic Arthur Danto, updated for Columbia Press’s prestigious Bampton Lectures (which have also featured luminaries such as Arnold Toynbee, Lionello Venturi, and Northrop Frye). But unlike Danto, Gillick mostly absolves himself of any opinion about the siew-futt. Perhaps the idea is to adopt a Donald Judd-like position in relation to current criticism: describe, don’t opine. The result begins to resemble the invasive neoliberal capitalism that Gillick describes. Words are produced. They are arranged on a page. They accrue to make a reality that was unannounced but now surrounds you.
Thus, this conceptual artist chooses bland moments in history to imagine the “soft revolutions” that have landed us in the totalizing grip of marketization—1820 as a beginning to “the contemporary” (and I do love this anachronistic gesture), a date that sits silently between two real political revolutions and sounds like an apartment number rather than anything noteworthy for events. The other “soft revolutions” are attached to 1948 for its ostensible “social rebuilding, planning, and clearing” (p. 49), the emergence of education as an art model amidst “incremental” manufacturing notions around 1963, and the struggle between flexible production versus Fordism in the mid-1970s, somehow parallel to the “attrition of pure conceptualism” in the art world (p. 102).
There’s definitely something refreshing about Gillick’s deft rejection of the usual claims that something called the contemporary emerged only recently. That dominant narrative positions contemporary art as born from the head of Zeus around the end of the cold war in 1989. The author artist of Industry and Intelligence hones a contrarian tactic of banalization, which has the useful function of neutralizing all the hysteria about the global, the posthistorical, and the Anthropocene. We’re all just plugging along. It’s business as usual in the studio, or rather, “Art [as] a history of doing nothing and a long tale of useful action” (p. 117).
But somehow, conveyed as we are (as on an industrial belt) toward the book’s conclusion, all the declaratives and nominatives begin to pay off. Gillick’s tactics culminate in an essay originally published in an earlier form in e-flux, “Why Work?” The accumulation of flat statements and banal observations shifts subtly toward the proscriptions that reveal criticism at work—this is actually what art should be like. “Artists project into the near future and the recent past to expose and render transparent new commodity relations. The surplus value that is art is not limited to its supposed novelty value but is embedded in its function as a system of awareness” (p. 125). Thus the old dream that we humans make this thing called art to change ourselves (philosopher Alva Noë calls art one of our Strange Tools) gets surprising reinforcement at the end of this dour book. Hope survives, huddling at the bottom of the minimalist box.
Don’t read this book as history—that will be too frustrating. (Historians of the 1960s will find neither evidence nor argumentation for claims such as this one in the chapter on 1963: “Clone, transplant, and rejection were the new lexicon of the artistic self” [p. 61].) Do allow Gillick to ignore the pressing anxieties that prevail in more intellectual and academic parts of the artworld, whose inhabitants (some of them refugees from home cultures under assault) fret about what’s going to happen to “Western” notions of art-as-enlightenment when art disappears in failed-state chaos, or when autarchic artworlds (like those in the UAE) or party-state avant-gardes (like those in China) are entering the exhibitionary complex to give EuroAmerican narratives of critique and criticality a run for their money. Instead, you should read Gillick’s book to find the packed sediment of conceptual art discourse undergoing metamorphic transformation—with the marketized artworld’s slow heat, dull pressure, and surface torque leaving inevitable traces on an intelligent maker’s mind. Marble, after all, is the matter required for the lapidary operation.