Digital Art and Culture After Industry? – towards aesthetic business studies

Søren Bro Pold & Christian Ulrik Andersen

“L’or et le plaisir. Prenez ces deux mots comme une lumière…”

“Gold and pleasure. Take these two words as a light…”

Honoré de Balzac

When art is combined with business we often see rather traditional, mainstream and some times even pre-modern view on aesthetics far from the ruptures of contemporary art and aesthetics. A central example would be the concept of experience economy as Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore launched it in the late 1990’s. If one looks at Pine and Gilmore’s concept of aesthetics it borders on the escapist and is characterized by immersion and passive participation. Their head guidelines are “Theme the experience”,  “Harmonize impressions with positive cues”, and “Eliminate negative cues” (102-103), and their primary examples are Disneyland, Las Vegas and Hard Rock Café.

However perhaps art’s most valuable contribution is not the icing on the cake or the aesthetic harmonizing of contradictions, but exactly the opposite: the ruptures, disruptions, clashes and breakdowns – all the ways that contemporary art explores things, situations and constellations that break apart, contain paradoxes or contradictions in relation to business? In many ways this seems to be the drive when net-art becomes web design or software art invades the app store. Furthermore, when cultural content industries such as the music industry are in crisis and their business model is deteriorating both new and major acts bypass the industry by doing the marketing and distribution themselves using the web and social networks. Instead of an industry of major record labels handling the relationship between artists and audience, this becomes part of the artistic work defying industrial standards and forming instead less standardized and industrialized relations between artists and audiences. In fact, the business model, including how to finance, market, distribute and profit from the content, becomes part of the artwork and it becomes part of the artistic statement to question common models. Instead of arguing that art might be a means to serve economic ends, we should ask whether the economy could in some ways potentially become artistic?

Aesthetic business studies

Consequently, art’s relation to the market and economy is part of the artistic development and innovation, but this also means that art becomes ‘about’ the economy in a more direct way. How should we interpret this, how do we learn from it, and how do we develop aesthetic business studies?

In order to look into this, we first need to introduce a few theoretical concepts from early Marxist art theory, because here we can find positions that discusses how art can potentially play a critical, constructive, progressive, if not revolutionary, role. In the 1930’s materialist art theoreticians such as Georg Lukács and Walter Benjamin were discussing how the change in the base or “Unterbau” of reproduction technologies affected the superstructure or “Überbau” of culture, economy and thinking and how art could respond to this. E.g. Lukács analysed how Honoré de Balzac’s Illusions perdues is a novel about the commodification of literature and the capitalization of the mind (“Geist”). It is an example of a conscious, artistic exploration of a new discourse economy, exploring how material changes influence the formal conditions of the artwork (II Verlorene Illusionen in Lukács 474-89).

With his concept of “Tendenz” (tendency) Benjamin also argues for a formal relationship between art and the production process in a way that might help elucidate how art can function as a probe for investigating change. Media technological revolutions lead to fractures in the art works and -history, which make the deep “Tendenz” visible (Benjamin II.2, 752). In this way, the normally hidden, deeply layered fractures, constellations or contradictions become observable if probed by art.

In continuation of this it is important that art seeks a conscious, reflective and critical exploration of its economy and media. Contrary to the view on art and aesthetics promoted by Pine and Gilmore we should look for art which focuses on the fractures that reveal deeper tendencies (Tendenz) when doing aesthetic business studies. Or, in other words, as suggested by the initial quotation from Balzac, follow the money; if not to collect then to see which new routes it takes and to observe the creatures and creations it passes by.

Shulgin & Chernyshev: Commercial Protest, Mediaobject, 2007


Let us start our aesthetic business studies and look briefly at some relevant art. Under the concepts “Media Art 2.0” and “Electroboutique” a group of artists including Aristarkh Chernyshev and Alexei Shulgin have made a series of art works – each produced in a “limited number of copies (like Ferrari)” and sold “at affordable prices (like Sony)” – which they show and sell at galleries, festivals, museums and on-line often installed in a shop-like environment (Chernyshev and Shulgin). The intention of the project is to create opportunities at galleries and museums for new media art, which have often neglected it because of technical difficulties, and its immaterial character that makes it difficult to exhibit and sell. Furthermore, many of the Electroboutique works also perform a humoristic and poignant criticism of the (art) market and the relations between art and design.

One of these pieces is “Commercial Protest”, which is a flat TV-screen equipped with a live camera contained in a shopping cart showing the captured images – e.g. images of the viewer – as company logos.It is obvious, also from its presentation (“Commercial Protest” in Chernyshev and Shulgin 12) that it is a criticism of consumerism, which is paradoxically packaged as a nice, fairly priced art object for galleries and collectors who can see themselves as live logo portraits. The irony is of course an integral part of the art work where the artist realize that “criticism in art becomes an aesthetic category and eventually acquires itself the features of a consumer project” (Shulgin in Obukhova 128), and as such, critical art becomes a brand in the art market. However, it is not only ironic but also a comment to a situation where software art is not accepted by the large institutions that still need objects though the experimental and experiential dimensions of software have become an important part of the market, e.g. in smartphone app-stores. Much commercial design is driven by innovations in art, however, especially in the copy-paste culture of new media, often the artists do not get a share of the revenue. In the line of this, Electroboutique openly copies concepts from art history, including Russian Constructivism, media art in the traditions from Nam June Paik or Jenny Holzer, but also from design icons and re-launches them as new art works – a good example is the huge distorted but still functioning iPod, wowPod or the various distorted re-makes of television.

In short, we will point to the following tendencies guided by Electroboutique:

  1. The recuperation of critical art by design and the market, which electroboutique answers to by recuperating the commercial aesthetics and rhetorics.
  2. Fractures between the immaterial and the object or between software and hardware in the art market and in the general economy – in this case handled and highlighted by constructing object-based software art. As such Electroboutique smuggles software art into the art world disguised as artistic objects.

Of course many other examples could be made pointing towards these and more contemporary tendencies, but we hope you get the general idea: Art has the potential to simultaneously question and develop the economy. There is a straight line from wowPod to iPad and to the future sculptured and visually attractive entertainment centres from Apple that will replace our TVs and HiFis, or from Commercial Protest to the narcissistic self-promotion through ones iPhone and the many branded platforms on Web2.0 (just start watching how portraits mix with brands and logos on an average Facebook page…). As already Piero Manzoni demonstrated with his Merda d’Artista in 1961, which was 30 cans of artist’s shit sold at the equivalent price of gold, the artist is the modern day alchemist making artificial gold. However the smell of it, or its non-existing traditional use value, also casts a critical light on the virtual foundation of our money-based capitalistic economy. The main point is to focus on how art develops an artistic economy and thereby reflecting critically on the current economy while developing alternatives. As Shulgin puts it himself: “Contemporary art has got one more function. It finds out the possible borders of consuming.” (Shulgin in Obukhova 129)

Works cited:

Benjamin, Walter. Gesammelte Schriften. Eds. Tiedemann, Rolf and Hermann Schweppenhäuser. Werkausgabe. ed. 12 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1980. Print.

Chernyshev, Aristarkh, and Alexei Shulgin. “Electroboutique.” Ed. Gallery, XL. Moscow, 2008. Print.

Lukács, Georg. Georg Lukács Werke 6 – Probleme des Realismus III – Der historische Roman. Neuwied und Berlin: Luchterhand, 1965. Print.

Obukhova, Alexander. “Criti/Pop (Electroboutique, Chernyshev, Efimov, Shulgin).” Ed. Art, Moscow Museum of Modern. Moscow: XL Gallery, 2008. Print.

Pine, Joseph, and James H. Gilmore. “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” Harvard Business Review  July-August (1998): 97-105. Print.


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