“Everything else”

The Editors

View from the train carrying Cally Spooner to Basel, June 2023. Image courtesy of the artist. 

October 4, 2023

A number of pieces scheduled for publication this month are addressed to the tension between Ad Reinhardt’s insistence that “art is art [and] everything else is everything else” and variations on the more fashionable dictum that everyone is an artist and everything at least potentially a work of art. The former position is conventionally, if lazily, understood to insulate the aesthetic tradition from its contamination by politics and to ensure that it cannot bear upon society; that art might be coextensive with the world, by contrast, seems to promise it can serve as an agent of change within it. A purportedly conservative impulse is opposed to a progressive one, and artists and their audiences are invited to pick sides.

The increased scrutiny of that opposition might reflect a gathering awareness that the collapse of art into the world does not always support a progressive program. As some artists have been pointing out for years, the assertion that a work of art cannot be disentangled from its contexts can sometimes shade into the assumption that it is little more than a mechanical product of them. The risk is that the individual labor of the artist is effaced, their subjectivity equated with a constellation of biographical data points, and the work of art reduced to the representative sum of its constituent parts. Far from disrupt the flow of traffic on the art world’s financial and intellectual markets, this process serves to refine it by transforming the work of art into a conveniently packaged and easily explicable expression of a specific cultural circumstance.

Resistance to that tendency has seen a growing number of artists who are particularly vulnerable to being thus profiled—namely those who by their perceived difference from the art world’s governing white liberal majority are presumed to make art that must also be tantalizingly foreign and novel to it—seek to protect themselves from what Andrew Stefan Weiner calls, in a forthcoming two-part essay, an “immaterial extractivism that targets subjectivity.” These strategies range from operating under pseudonyms to actively absenting themselves from the work and can be traced back through decades-long discussions about whether and how the artist can make themselves, their communities, and their political commitments legible without risking recuperation by the same encompassing systems they aspire to change.

The continuation of that discussion is at least partly the responsibility of a robust critical culture. A first principle might be that binaries such as the one outlined at the top of this text should not go unexamined. To identify a work of art with the “everything else” is no less an abrogation of the writer’s critical responsibilities than to invoke the artist’s individual genius. It might be that art and the world are neither perfectly separate nor exactly coterminous realms, and that the appreciation—and criticism—of art consists in carrying meaning over the contested points at which they cross over. We hope that this month’s features and reviews contribute to that commerce.

Each month, to accompany the editors’ letter, we publish a photograph from an artist’s place of work. This month we feature a picture taken by Cally Spooner while working on the train to Basel. Rooted in philosophy and expressed in installation, sculpture, drawing, sound, and performance, Spooner’s work is included in collections including Castello di Rivoli, Turin, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the British Council Collection, London. Her forthcoming exhibitions are “Dancing Still Life on a Single Breath” at Cukrarna, Ljubljana and “Deadtime” at the Graham Foundation, Chicago.

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October 4, 2023

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