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Organising Art: Constructing Aesthetic Value
Dr Jonathan Vickery
Department of History of Art
University of Warwick
The terms ‘art’ and ‘organisation’ usually come together in one of four ways. Firstly, art is a form of organised production: from the workshops of the mediaeval era to the modern studio, artists create art within a system of co-ordinated labour; second, art is created to be sold, displayed and disseminated: the art world is a network of interrelated organisations devoted to that task; third, non-artworld organisations collect art and participate in the process of artistic production; for example, most large corporations and pension funds usually have expensive art collections, and also sponsor artistic events, initiate artistic projects through patronising individual artists; and lastly, art is not merely a collection of interesting objects, but a mode of thought, investigating the nature of visual reality; all kinds of cultural and academic organisations are devoted to studying and researching art.
All forms of art organisation involve management systems, whether managing materials, arts funding distribution, or managing knowledge. My concern in this essay is to draw attention to the way the study of management organisations is central to the study of contemporary art. It may seem obvious that the study of management organisations will have something to contribute to our knowledge of art production and the various activities which make up the artworld, like corporate patronage or
the private art markets. My argument in this essay, however, is that the study of organisation goes to the heart of the central problematic of contemporary art: the nature of aesthetic value.
One cannot use the term ‘work of art’ without a presupposition of value; it is less obvious, however, determining what it is that constitutes aesthetic value and how value is identified or certified. Aesthetic value in the modern era has always been conceived in opposition to the instrumental rationality of bureaucratic systems and rational organisation of all kinds. Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795)
proclaimed art as a restorative force in a society that is becoming increasingly bureaucratised and functions according to the ‘fragmentary specialisation of human powers’ (Schiller, 1982: 43). In our present society, where the management systems of commercial corporations have formed a template to which all social institutions must conform – from art
museums to universities – there is still some faith in the therapeutic
power of art. Even today, we assume art has an intrinsic value and these values are ends in themselves, that is, broadly existential values. For example, art is champion of a reflective, contemplative mode of life (over goal-oriented, achievement driven forms of motivation); art elevates subjective experience and individual perception (over scientific objectivity or specialised knowledge); art promotes both community or shared values and experience (against ‘individualisation’ and atomisation of modern capitalism society), and authentic expressive individuality (against the homogenisation of corporate culture).
In what follows I will outline common conceptions of aesthetic value, the centrality of the concept of value in the validation and criticism of contemporary art, and why value is principally a matter for organisational
analysis. I will do this via a case-study of an object celebrated by the artworld: the ‘Tate Bricks’.
Art as Non-Art
In 1972 the Tate Gallery purchased a work of art from the John Weber Gallery in New York (Tate Gallery, 1975: 73-75). The work was made by the American ‘minimalist’ sculptor Carl Andre: it comprised 150
firebricks in rectangular formation set without a plinth on a gallery floor, and was entitled Equivalent VIII. This work usually provokes three
categories of question from critics and the general public alike: the first concerns identity: Is this object art? If so, what kind of art? The second category concerns meaning: what does this object mean, or signify? Is the artist making a statement? Is this object sculpture? The third category concerns value: Is this object significant? What does it say about the nature of art? What kind of artistic or aesthetic value does it have? I will be pointing out the way the first and second categories of question have become submerged in the last. In any case, the first two questions are somewhat anachronistic, as Andre’s bricks (and Minimal art in general) has assumed a privileged place in the dominant surveys and critical histories of contemporary art.
Andre’s bricks were first exhibited by the Tate in 1976 and caused a public outcry. Over 70 articles and essays on ‘the Tate Bricks’ appeared
in journals, newspapers and magazines. It is worth considering a few factual details. Firstly, Equivalent VIII was, as the title indicates, just part
VIII of an eight-part work originally exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York in 1966. For the artist, the sculptural ‘qualities’ of the original work were generated by the sequential spacing and formal variation of the separate pieces placed together in a gallery space of
particular dimensions. Does Equivalent VIII -- as one part -- constitute a
single work of art? Andre himself was party to the purchase, overriding the initial organisational motivations of his own activity and the aesthetic investment in that organisation (consequently, on the level of interpretation, considering the artist’s ‘creative intention’ becomes nugatory; its institutional function becomes primary). Secondly, Andre informed the Tate shortly after the purchase that the Equivalent VIII they
had bought was not the ‘original’ work of art. The original only existed
for the duration of the Tibor de Nagy exhibition – the unsold bricks were
returned to the Long Island City Brickworks for a refund.
Is the Equivalent VIII – made of replacement bricks (in fact, firebricks
and not sand-lime bricks, like the original) – a fake? A forgery? Can an
artist forge an identical copy of one of his own artworks? Or is it a replica perhaps? Does this then affect its value? Or does this adversely affect the way we see it? Was this the institutionalisation of intellectual gullibility? Oddly, these questions were rarely asked at the time; the initial protests related to the categories of meaning and identity. One of the tabloid newspaper protests was by Keith Waterhouse in the Daily Mirror on the
th19 February, 1976, and stated, ‘Bricks are not works of art. Bricks are bricks. You can build walls with them or chuck them through jewellers’ windows, but you cannot stack them two deep and call it sculpture’ (Craig-Martin, 1989: 8).
Waterhouse did not have the same complaint against Anthony Caro who used steel girders and aluminium pipes. Caro’s girders and pipes, however, were juxtaposed, joined and painted; they testified to a certain species of creative organisation having taken place and related to certain formal and spatial concerns of the practice of sculpture. Andre’s Bricks
were simply assembled bricks, untouched by the processes of creative transformation. Assembling bricks in a gallery may be a novel idea but can hardly be called creative. Without any qualities one could identify as either sculptural or artistic, interpretation or appreciation of the work is rendered inoperable, and the critical role of the spectator is terminated. For Waterhouse the spectator becomes a passive consumer of an art world spectacle whose only claim to significance is art world provocation.
Again, the conceptual orientation of this discussion is anachronistic. The battle over the validity of Minimal art has been won; questions concerning the categories of identity and meaning have become irrelevant, submerged in the concept of value. Firstly, what is aesthetic value?
Models of Value
There are three general ways of investigating art, all of which appeal to a distinct category of aesthetic value. These categories are three modes of organisation, all of which have to some degree provided a source of inquiry for management and organisation studies. They can be described as the following: (i) material organisation: the technical or material
construction of the work of art: the physical structures within which the viewer’s perceptual activity is orientated; (ii) aesthetic organisation:
composition, or the aesthetic characteristics of the object’s material organisation; and (iii) hermeneutic organisation: art’s interpreted
meaning as configured within or in relation to existing systems of thought or institutional practice. The tripartite character of art bears an analogical reference to the basic structure of any organisation or corporation: the physical infrastructure of the organisation as institution, the routes or modes of activity and interaction facilitated by that infrastructure, and the
way this takes place within a contextual network of value-laden activities common to its corporate, and more broadly, social, context.
Category (i), material, involves an analysis of the technology of the
artwork’s material construction. Art is (or was) primarily a form of material technology, and from every cultural epoch new aesthetic possibilities are engendered by technical innovation, whether oils to bind pigment, a portable blowtorch for welding metal or complex chemical compounds to pickle dead animals; moreover, the use of material technology is always subject to economics, both the economics of art production (material expenses, facilities, patronage, etc.) and the economics of art’s location (transportation, display, maintenance, etc.). The order of value we can identify in this category is technical innovation
(often judged by degree according to the extent to which it transforms artistic practice through ‘influence’). For example, Picasso’s Head of a
Woman (1930-1), also in the Tate Collection, is not an outstanding composition nor of significant conceptual meaning, but finds a role in art historical narratives and is attributed value for pioneering the use of welded metal as a viable medium of sculpture. Andre’s bricks hardly strike one as similarly technically innovative (or in retrospect, particularly influential).
Category (ii), aesthetic, would identify the artistic conventions according to which the technical innovations are used to create a composition. In a sense this category attempts to identify the uniqueness of the work of art as a non-utilitarian form of manufacturing – an artistic composition with
its unique conventions which in turn demonstrates ‘artistic quality’.
Categories of artistic quality can be identified in terms of the exploration of pictorial form/shape, line/contour, colour, space, light/dark and
surface/texture. The concept of the medium is given to mean way the
materials and technical methods of construction of a given genre appear when mediated by such conventions. The medium is not simply the materials, but the materials-in-application-according-to-the-conventions-of-painting, or of sculpture, etc. The mode of value we can identify in this category is stylistic innovation: the way materials and techniques of
construction generate aesthetic qualities and a new and expressive formal language. Again, style, expression, artistic conventions and formal vocabulary are not concepts relevant to the Bricks.
Category (iii), hermeneutic, has a broad range of concerns. Literally
referring to the methods of interpretation available to the viewer (the way the object is made to yield meaning), the subject matter of this category ranges from the compositional content of an artwork – symbols,
iconography, metaphors, allusions, associations, narrative, and so on – to
its socio-cultural and political contexts. These contexts can be categorised as (I) the contexts of production: the social milieu of the artist, the demands of the market or patronage, the location, and all the other ways the social, economic or political circumstances act as determining factors in the form and content of the work; and (ii) the contexts of reception: the intellectual milieu of the artist, the circulation of influential ideas, professional networks of activity, criticism and art historical assessment, and other social, economic or political circumstances acting as determining factors in the way the work is understood. This latter category has many temporal registers as an artworks’ ‘reception’ is something that changes in every cultural epoch, can be continuous and incremental over time, or occur as periodic trends or debates provoked by specific circumstances. The kind of value we can identify in the category of the hermeneutic is, broadly, cultural significance: the way in which the
modes of meaning and experience generated by the work of art extends beyond the confines of the physical object and its artistic context and relates to culture or society in general.
It is a commonplace to note that in the case of contemporary art technical innovation and artistic conventions of composition have been evacuated as sources of value; moreover, the hermeneutics of reception have largely supplanted the hermeneutics of production. Three of the most common arguments in defence of Equivalent VIII are as follows: firstly, the bricks
(and Minimal art in general) feature as an essential part of a pivotal debate on the nature of abstract art and modernist formalism which took place in New York between 1962-68; the basic terms of this debate were instrumental in the emergence of postmodernism in art; secondly, Minimal art was a powerful symbol of resistance against modernist hegemony in the art world; Andre’s Equivalent VIII has become a trophy
for all those who favour experimentation unfettered by conventions of style or historical precedents; and thirdly, minimal works like the bricks are an important touchstone for speculation on the ontology of art or the historical evolution of our concept of art, generating a route of aesthetic inquiry (See Colpitt, 1990, 101-132).
Andre’s work, therefore, has aesthetic value because it plays a significant role or function in our progressive understanding of the concept of art as it has developed in the context of artworld activities. This is an important proposition as it brings to our attention two things: (a) intrinsic aesthetic
values have largely been supplanted by extrinsic values -- the former
being artistic qualities or unique characteristics of the individual artwork, the latter being artworld activity in the form of an institutional endorsement of an object because of its significant function in a discourse,
debate or set of institutional practices; and following from this, (b) the hermeneutics of reception as articulated by these dominant arguments has been shorn of any direct set of connections between the artwork and society or socio-cultural issues; the ‘artworld’ stands in for ‘context’: aesthetic value is art’s hermeneutic function in artworld discourse, and the strength of its function in the artworld is the measure of its cultural significance.
In this context Andre’s bricks perform other roles which, again, usually
serve as common defences for Minimal art. First, the Bricks are said to
‘comment’ on the way the institution of the art museum has detrimentally severed our experience of art from our experience of everyday life; second, they ‘question’ the nature of creativity and its concomitant
concepts of originality and genius; third, the Bricks stand as a ‘statement’
on the nature of art in general and the minimal conditions needed for an object to attain an identity as art; fourth, they stand as a symbol of the bankruptcy of modern art in toto: the historical trajectory of modern art
was predicated on the intellectual fecundity and aesthetic efficacy of stylistic innovation, a motivation which has revealed its own absurdity in that innovation was revealed to be little more than the dissolution of all aesthetic content through progressive abstraction – Equivalent VIII is the
logic of modernism fulfilled. Furthermore, Minimal art circa 1964-8 was
itself part of the reception of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ and can be
understood as a series of responses to the aesthetic implications of ‘anti-
The problem with all these explanations of the aesthetic value of the bricks, however, is that there is only an arbitrary connection between the physical object itself and the institutional discourse, or between the
intrinsic and extrinsic spheres of aesthetic value. Andre could have used planks of wood or car batteries; the object itself is only an arbitrary tool for a series of questions or propositions. Perhaps value is only ‘discursive’ in the sense that all meaning and significance is derived from conceptual speculation on the nature or condition of art and its institutional status; or, perhaps this object is simply a political ‘gesture’ in a symbolic battle for ideological power within the artworld itself, or even the smaller network of major art institutions. We might remind ourselves that the popular outrage at the bricks did not primarily concern aesthetic issues or a populist protest claiming ‘this is not a work of art and the Tate
are idiots to think it is’, but that in a time of severe Government cuts in public spending over ?2000 of tax payers’ money was used in its purchase.
The institutional implications of the Tate purchases, however, extend beyond the possible squandering of public funds to the construction of value itself. What our public institutions exhibit are henceforth considered de jure ‘exemplary works of art’ that (I) create the framework
of further practice for the current or next generation of artists; and (ii)
engender attitudes, reference points, conceptions or frameworks of understanding which maintain a determining impact on the nature of (a) the art education system, (b) the pricing system of the private art market, (c) museums’ acquisitions policy, and (d) the subjects of art criticism and art historical narratives; and so on. Considerable ‘cultural capital’ is at stake in our defining aesthetic value.
The most influential theories of aesthetic value to date are ‘the institutional theory of art’ or ‘ the artworld’ theory of art. They have