On Usership and Autonomy

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 1/ 2015: Applied Art and Usership

‘The past several decades have witnessed what might be described as a broad usological turn across all sectors of society. Of course, people have been using words and tools, services and drugs, since time immemorial. But with the rise of networked culture, users have come to play a key role as producers of information, meaning and value, breaking down the long-standing opposition between consumption and production.’

Thus begins Stephen Wright’s essay ‘Toward a Lexicon of Usership’,[i] written for The Museum of Arte Útil at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, an exhibition on ‘useful art’ (December 2013 – March 2014).[ii] The Museum of Arte Útil’s website states that the museum is ‘a place where art's use value and social function [are] put to the test’.[iii]

This stands in contrast to something the influential post-war philosopher and social critic Theodor W. Adorno said about art’s social function: ‘Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness’.[iv] Thus Adorno conceives of art as ‘useless’. He builds on the Kantian notion of ‘purposiveness without a purpose’ (Zweckmäsigkeit ohne Zweck)[v] and the assumption by later thinkers that art can convey aesthetic truth about the world only when it serves no other purpose than to be art. In Adorno’s view, art’s ‘functionlessness’ is what makes it autonomous and thus resistant to political abuse (at least for the authoritarian communistic and national socialistic regimes in the Soviet Union and Germany that he positioned himself against since the 1930s, notably in Dialectic of Enlightenment[vi]). In many ways, this non-purposefulness, which has come to be understood as an aspect of the concept of autonomy, has established itself as a sign of artistic quality in modern and contemporary art.

«For Wright, usership is something positive and stands in opposition not just to autonomy but also to authorship. »

Words like ‘use value’ and ‘function’ may thus call to mind a type of art that, rather than being autonomous, serves to promote a particular political system, say one that is authoritarian or non-democratic, or which restricts freedom of speech. In such cases, the art might function to lubricate the given political system rather than be a critical and autonomous space for reflection. Especially if you put ‘social’ in front of ‘function’.

Returning to Wright’s essay, which challenges notions of autonomy (among other things), we find an interesting quote:

‘The price to pay for autonomy are the invisible parentheses that bracket art off from being taken seriously as a proposition having consequences beyond the aesthetic realm. /…/ To gain use value, to find a usership, requires that art quit the autonomous sphere of purposeless purpose and disinterested spectatorship.’[vii]

For Wright, usership is something positive and stands in opposition not just to autonomy but also to authorship. Authorship, he writes, is a way to claim ownership to ‘some particular configuration of otherwise freely circulating marks and noises, and as such regulate other people’s use of them’.[viii]

In this way Wright sees usership as liberating art from the control of the author.

From the perspective of craft, ‘use value’ and ‘function’ are words we apply to everyday objects that fulfil practical needs, for instance cups, vases, plates, garments and the like. In fact, downplaying the functional aspect of crafted objects has been important in establishing craft-based art as a discrete field of artistic practice, outside contemporary art and design. Still, what we experience more and more in today’s visual culture is the blurring of these boundaries, and a reevaluation of functionality. This is elucidated in Cecilie Tyri Holt’s article in this issue of Norwegian Crafts Magazine.

Wright speaks of objects on a 1:1 scale. He illustrates the idea by telling a story about mapmakers who considered making a map as big as the territory they were trying to map (they decided against the 1:1 idea because the map would block out the sun, leaving the landscape in the dark). Following the logic in Wright’s story, however, the territory itself could be the map. Wright describes objects as being on a 1:1 scale, thus as having a ‘double ontology: a primary ontology as whatever they are, and a secondary ontology as artistic propositions of the same thing.’[ix]

This is an interesting idea when talking about functional craft objects, because isn’t that exactly what these objects are? A cup is both a cup and an ‘artistic proposition’ of that cup.

What lies as a possible backdrop for the development of Wright’s usership, at least within the artworld where Wright is situated, is relational aesthetics, a concept which the curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud developed in the 1990s.[x] One of the artists Bourriaud builds his theories on is Rirkrit Tiravanijaa. An example of Tiravanija’s practice could be the 1992 exhibition Untitled (Free) at 303 Gallery in New York. In the exhibition, Tiravanija challenged the idea of the gallery as a place for contemplation; he rebuilt the white cube into a restaurant and invited visitors to eat curry and rice, a dish he had cooked in the gallery. Tiravanija explained his intentions for the exhibition:

‘The work is a platform for people to interact with the work itself but also with each other. A lot of it [is] also about a kind of experiential relationship, so you actually are not really looking at something, but you are within it, you are part of it. The distance between the artist and the art and the audience gets a bit blurred.’[xi]

«A cup is both a cup and an ‘artistic proposition’ of that cup.»

One way to view this exhibition is through the concept of ‘use’; to see the exhibition as a vehicle for initiating interpersonal relationships (and experiences) within the gallery space. The gallery itself becomes a place with a ‘function’ as it takes on the role of a restaurant. In this new functionality, the tools for cooking and eating serve their intended function (to make food and to contain food for eating), but they also serve the function of being props in the relational experience that Tiravanija seeks to stimulate. Drawing on Wright, as quoted above, we could say that the tools for cooking and eating are both functional objects and the ‘artistic proposition’ of such objects. But the work is not about the food or the use of these ‘props’ per se; the primary goal is something else (to create and maintaining relationships). However, when seeking to establish a more informal (and maybe private) room within the art institution, the food and the plates are important parts of the experience.

In my view, several art projects that have been deemed to fall under the rubric of relational aesthetics have succeeded in revaluating (intentionally or not) concepts of function and use. This is because they have made it vital to activate the spectator to be more of a participant, to do something in the gallery space. When you do something, you are activated and become ‘part of it’, part of the work. This activation of spectators often comes about through having them use some sort of object or tool. In functional crafted objects, ‘use value’ and ‘artistic value’ melt together – this point is implied by Bente Sætrang and Gro Jessen, who are quoted in Tyri Holt’s article.

Following this train of thought, it seems relevant to draw on Kevin Murray’s article The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft, and his critique of Bourriaud and Tiravanija:

‘For the democratic aspirations of relational art, it may not be enough to give over artistic authority to a gallery crowd. To stretch the horizon of practice beyond the limits of the art world, an artist needs an element of design. Relational craft brings design into the aesthetic process.’ [xii]

In Murray’s view, relational craft may offer a relationship with the real world, which relational art does not offer. Relational art is somehow confided to the realm of art – the artworld. Functional craft serves its ‘purpose’ when used outside the artworld, yet brings with it the ‘artistic proposition’ of the object.

Returning to Wright’s essay on usership; it is fair to point out that it does not primarily deal with the kind of ‘use value’ I have been addressing here. In many ways it is possible to read Wright as standing in a tradition starting from Duchamp, via appropriation art and the ‘Pictures Generation’ of the 1980s, to Bourriaud’s concept of ‘postproduction’.[xiii] In short, it has to do with taking existing (cultural) material and ‘reprogramming’ it, to use a word from Bourriaud’s book; to tweak and bend it, to use bits and pieces of it, to combine and alter things and ideas already existing in a shared social space. ‘Hacking’ is a term Wright uses to describe this kind of usership. He describes it somewhat differently than what we may initially think: ‘it refers to someone who hacks into knowledge-production networks of any kind, and liberates that knowledge from an economy of scarcity.’[xiv]

I will not go further into Wright’s concept of usership here, just mention that on a larger social and economic scale, he implies that we’re experiencing the transition towards a new economy where exchange and production are replaced by ‘pollination’ and contribution. It is in this transition that his concept of usership is introduced, not just into the artworld, but into society. It seems to me that this concept may provide an interesting starting point for new strategies of use and function within the crafts world as well.

[i] Stephen Wright: Toward a Lexicon of Usership; http://museumarteutil.net/wp-c... (accessed 16 March 2015).

[ii] I thank Marianne Zamecznik for pointing me to this essay, first in a lecture on curating at Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo (AGENDA: How to Exhibit Craft- and Material-Based Art? on 30 January 2015) and again in her contribution to the upcoming book Crafting Exhibitions (Norwegian Crafts and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2015).

[iii] http://museumarteutil.net/abou... (accessed 16 March 2015).

[iv] Theodor W. Adorno: Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor, London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 227. (Original publisher Surhrkamp Verlag, 1970.)

[v] For an introduction to ‘purposiveness without purpose’, see Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Judgment (first published in German as Kritik der Urteilskraft in 1790), trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hacket, 1987), § 58.

[vi] M. Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno: Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (first published in German as Dialektik der Aufklärung in 1944 and revised in 1947). Available at https://blogs.commons.georgeto... (accessed 20 March 2015).

[vii] Stephen Wright: Toward a Lexicon of Usership.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics (Les presses du reel, 2002).

[xi] http://www.moma.org/collection... (accessed 17 March 2015)

[xii] Kevin Murray: The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft - http://kevinmurray.com.au/text... (accessed 17 March 2015)

[xiii] Nicolas Bourriaud: Postproduction – Culture as Screenplay: How Artists Reprogram the World (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002). Available at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/... (accessed 20 March 2015).

[xiv] Stephen Wright: Toward a Lexicon of Usership.