So we work in art. And apart from a few who sell well (or got tenure), most of us live with the feeling that we can never be sure of where the money will come from in ten years time. Ten years: the distance between two generations, more or less; at least this is how I experienced it. It took around ten years of scraping by on very little until I started getting an 'ok' fee, at least once in a while, for writing, teaching or giving talks. Does that mean I am part of the establishment? When a colleague said a while ago that my name had become a 'household name' in art publishing, it only made me wonder what it must be like to have a household, not just a desktop with unfinished work on it. Still, I have work after all, and why pretend it is a burden; it is what I wanted, so what should make me happier, right? True. And in any other line of employment, this would have consequences. You're doing ok as a lawyer? You bring new people into your practice, you share the workload and split the revenue. But as a writer? How would you react if I told you now that from this sentence onwards the writing of this text was continued by the junior partner of our firm? And why not? If this was a Koons or Eliasson type work it would be understood that this is how things are done. But to be honest, even if I gave up all pretenses to exclusive authorship, I don't have the means to hire anyone to finish this essay, not now; not anytime soon.
Healthwise, things are still ok; pains in the lower back come and go but it's not a huge issue yet so I'm sure I can keep on working like this, with little or no institutional backup, for some time longer. Nonetheless I see why people who've been around for ten years longer and managed to slip into salaried positions hold on to them, because if they stepped down, where would they go? It's not as if in the arts you go out like a CEO with ample compensations. Symbolic Capital won't pay the rent, so people stay on the carousel. They can't get off, which is not exactly what Capital promised when it started making everything go faster. In the amazing documentary Leben nach Microsoft (2001), the film makers Corinna Belz und Regina Schilling talk to programmers who worked in Silicon Valley when things got big in the 1990s. They recount how they had been hired straight from college in their early twenties and had worked nonstop to put out software, generation after generation, with the outcome that, a decade later, some were so burned out that they literally couldn't write one more line of code, but since the shares they had been given by their companies were worth a fortune, they could go into early retirement, aged thirty-something. In retrospect it almost seems like Capital had briefly proposed the terms for a new generational contract here: those willing to actualize the full potential of their creativity within under a decade will have nothing left to worry about when they hit 33 apart from what time the dance class is that they need to drive their kids to.
It almost seems as if this was what Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schröder had in mind when they wrote in their Third Way Proposal: "we want a society which celebrates successful entrepreneurs just as it does artists and footballers and which values creativity in all spheres of life"1. Or more likely: a society who trusts immaterial workers to provide for their own early retirement, just as top models and footballers do, after short working lifes of high performance. Is this for real? The pressure to perform certainly is. And since some manage to get a ticket out to a safe place, everyone else dreams of getting one too. Dreams are more exciting than contracts. Contracts fix things in place; dreams let you imagine a different future. So why not substitute the conventional logic of contracting with a new rationale of collective dreaming? Instead of having all citizens pay into national pension funds, let them gamble on stocks and real estate. Even in economically conservative Germany, Chancellor Schröder gave state money to people willing to invest in stocks and bonds for private retirement schemes. That was in the 1990s when everyone in the country was looking at Berlin as the place where, it seemed, economic miracles were performed on a daily basis, by miracle workers, who, so it appeared, did what the young brains in the Silicon Valley were also doing: actualize their your potential, fast, start a dot.com in business, come up with a signature piece in art, write a bestseller or hit single about love in the nineties, and voiolà, with all things being sorted, you can now settle down. I remember someone aton a gallery dinner, in maybe in 1999, saying that, this was the last moment for buying flats in Mitte, before prices would soar. Whoever it was, they were right.
Does this mean that the dream is over now, and only those got out alive with some real estate to their name have a contract with the future? Some get rich, and everybody else can die trying? Is that the deal, until the stars align anew and one more window of opportunity opens? The crux with economies that arguably do thrive on dreams and desires, as those of art and culture do, is that miracles are effectively the currency such economies run on. And not just that: by seizing the miracle as its foundational principle, modern Capitalism found a powerful means for validating its claim to power. "Look!" Capital never stops reminding us "What miraculous things I provide you with: Skyscrapers. Airplanes. Topstars. Microships. Canned drinks. And a youth that lights up the cities with bright ideas of what to go create next…". In its auto-celebrative mode, the culture of Capital perpetually gestures towards its own miraculous splendour.
When taken to a level of larger-than-life glamour, the demonstrative gesture can become miraculous itself. A much circulated backstage photo from the MTV awards 2013, for example, shows Miley Cyrus casually gesturing towards her own face (See, I can do it) as she performs her signature grimace: mouth wide open, tongue stretched out. Performing herself performing herself, she gestures towards herself making her signature gesture. Miley Cyrus is Miley Cyrus because she can show that she does what Miley Cyrus does the way Miley Cyrus does it. The logic is circular. And this should indeed be a reason for celebration. Theologically speaking, the instant the miracle emanates from the act of its own demonstration, a rite is born and a miracle worker to conduct the rite has emerged. At the climatic point in the Catholic transubstation ceremony, e.g., the priest will raise the host and wine, to simultaneously show what he does and do what he shows, namely to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and prove himself to be the rightful conductor of this miraculous act of animation. Miracle workers emerge from the very ceremony that entitles them to claim the title 'miracle worker' and the right to conduct future such ceremonies. The logic is circular because its implementation is radically performative: giving birth to the birthgiver, creators and creatrices emerge newborn from their own creations.
So a star is born; yet sparkling only when included in the prayers of others. That's why, in the new world, even the greatest stars can only be who they are when they offer the source code to their persona up for free use. Being, as she is, her first own impersonator, Cyrus demonstrates how you do the Cyrus: stretch out your tongue like you mean it: the Stones' lip, recast for today, more explicit, with a wink. This signature move is designed to be copied. It invites youtube parodies, which are legion; the most poignant ones in turn launch new stars. Steve Kardynal's Cyrus impersonation on Chatroulette was a megahit on YouTube: the miracle becomes the medium of its own multiplication. Not a few of Kardynal's Chatroulette partners respond to his performance by instantly going into character and performing Cyrus moves. Sure enough, Cyrus is a flagship product of a dying music industry. Kardynal and the legions of impersonators are not; they emerge from a performative culture which seems too mundane and anarchic to ever be fully contained. True, they do Capital the favour of celebrating the miracles Capital offers up for celebration and hence, in some sense, willingly play their part in what, in the bigger picture, seem like collective rites for the infinitely mindless affirmation of the infinitely mindless.
It may be impossible to convince anyone who is not somehow also drawn towards the peculiar vigour of these rites that there arguably remains an Anarchic spark to the North-American culture of collective performative self-projection, which time and again actualizes the original promise of the country for immigrants: that you could perform a miracle and, right off the boat, be someone new. The priests, families and rulers that hold the monopoly on the miraculous, who decide what's old and what's new in the place that you came from won't know. For they stayed behind. Given how ossified class structures have become in the U.S. as a result of the establishment of the regime of absolutist money-rule in the 1970s, this promise may be a mere delusion, sustained to keep the working population working. At the same time, any "How are you?", pronounced with a broadly friendly accent, effectively implies a "Who are you?", but one which can still be answered by a smile that means "Who- and whatever"; casually but unconditionally. Irrespective of whether its implicit potential is rendered null and void by its Capitalist exploitation, the promise that anyone could work their miracle continues to serve as a practical template for anyone initiated to the performative culture of the New World. Global Americanization means that even the children of the Old World get schooled in the rites, wit and hopes of immigrant performativity. History teaches, Via Youtube, how to re-enact the rupture with Old World inheritance by realizing that the miraculous is a medium that anyone can tune into, with a move and a smile.
Put differently: why would Capital exploit the miraculous, if it was not for the fact that it is a source of infinite generative energy? As a source, it can be tapped but hardly ever exhausted. Miracles happen always and everywhere. Art presents us with evidence of their occurrence daily, in the most mundane fashion: every little instant in which the mind clears, an intuition takes shape, you see what you couldn't see before, and what couldn't be resolved suddenly can be; in the spot where the writing got stuck the night before, words fall into place; the morning after, you meet someone by chance who opens a door and a project that seemed unrealizable yesterday goes through no problem; the fingers find their way across the key- or fretboard and a song is born; the painting that has been staring back at you for weeks or months now, half complete yet incompletable because it's evident that it lacks something but is impossible to see what—well, that canvas suddenly opens up, and within the shortest amount of time things shift into perspective and the work is done.
This is a miracle. It cannot be achieved, or caused by any known means (drugs don't work). It occurs: in German you say es glückt. Glücken is a verb derived from the noun Glück which means both good fortune and happiness, so literally es glückt translates as: it chances or it blisses. Experiencing the moment when something glückt, you won't ever know how and why exactly; miraculously, it just does. And often enough, sadly, such fortunate moments turn out to be unrepeatable. The miracle is not a trick. You can't simply pull it off, one more time, next time you meet an impasse, and, if you try, it usually turns stale. It becomes a formula. The experience of the unrepeatable moment in which things open up is the experience of practice. Agony and optimism are inseparably fused. It's never just a matter of 'anything goes' or 'just do it' because the agony of knowing that miracles can't be made to occur (again) at will thwarts the rationale of pragmatic planning. Yet, knowing that miracles do occur, on a daily basis, can lend agonistic practice the optimism to reject the pessimism of theories that portray Capital's power to contain the miraculous as definitive. It won't. Just look at what's right in front of you. The laugh. The sentence. The line. The thing. The moment that wasn't there before. To refresh this optimism of agonistic practice, Hannah Arendt's thoughts on the miraculous nature of human speech and action present an invaluable source:
The new always happens against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all pratical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means, that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this again is possible only because each man is unique, so that with each birth something uniquely new comes into the world2.
The crux is: how to resist the conversion of the miraculous potential for generative action into Capital, when, arguably, survival in the arts would seem to depend on it? Economically, because potential sells when it's converted into a recognizable schtick. Historically, because the manner in which art history is still being written portrays modernity as a relay race in which the schtick of innovation is passed on from one generation to the next. It makes no difference if today's critical art historians no longer mystify the gift of the new as genius but rationalize it as a set of innovative strategies expanding the field of structural possibilities. Credit is given to those who successfully position themselves as protagonists in the field and proprietors of the gift to strategize in ingenious ways. By theorizing miracle work solely in terms of how it produces symbolic capital, a generation of scholars raised on Bourdieu's cultural sociology may have only instructed their student generation in the church of Capital's foremost doctrine: there are no miracles outside Capitalism. Thus theoretical pessimism breeds practical conformism. If that really was all that ever was to the miracle, you might as well aim for total sell-out, and sell-out only, straight away. (Which, not a few of the graduates of critique-school do, unsurprisingly).
To counter such pessimistic conformism would seem to be most urgent. For, not only do we, today's miracle workers, willingly exploit our potentials, we also readily curb the pride we could take in this wild gift. Professionally enlightened, we consider miraculous creativity a myth, and sell it as an asset, for we understand that this is how it works. To exit this schizophrenic standard could be the easiest exercise: to take our cues from the uncontained aspects of the new world's performative culture, and celebrate the agony of the miracle's (non-)occurence in daily art practice. What's crucial is how to perform this celebration: in the spirit of defiance, by indulging in the powers and agonies of miracle work exuberantly, openly and casually, so the miraculous cannot possibly be fetishized as the secret of Capital's infinite splendour, because everyone can see how profane miracle work is. That is, by sharing this wild gift in a manner that permits it to be shared as a generative force, which is no one generation's exclusive property; which no one generation of gods and goods will exhaust, and which may give rise to a solidarity based on the collective awareness of how volatile and irrecuperable, yet mundane the gift for working miracles is.
- 1. http://www.ucc.ie/social_policy/Blair-Schroeder_3rd_way.htm
- 2. Hannah Arendt: "The Human Condition", Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, (1998), p. 178.