Merlin Carpenter “The Opening”

by Alex Wisser

Mer­lin Carpenter’s “The Open­ing” is in fact an art open­ing.  Usu­ally staged at an up-market gallery, the event takes place dur­ing the “pri­vate view” that is held prior to the pub­lic open­ing, and reserved for col­lec­tors likely to pur­chase works.  The gallery walls are hung with blank can­vases, the fine qual­ity of which is attested to in the media release mate­r­ial and com­mented on in the reviews.  The guests are left to wait until they become impa­tient and uncom­fort­able.  At this point Car­pen­ter enters car­ry­ing a bucket of black paint that he then uses to splash abu­sive, lurid, and even puerile state­ments of protest across the pris­tine can­vases and gallery walls. He then leaves and the can­vases are sold for upwards of $40,000 each.

At first glance, this work will appear as either a clever though defeatist protest against the money dri­ven cyn­i­cism of the art world or as an equally clever exploita­tion of its con­di­tions.  The assump­tion of either one of these posi­tions almost imme­di­ately relin­quishes its sin­gu­lar or unary con­di­tion to a creep­ing aware­ness of the endur­ing pres­ence of the other.  In other words, it presents as a para­dox – an expres­sion of eth­i­cal out­rage that is at the same time an act of cyn­i­cal opportunism.

The two sides of this para­dox are not merely lay­ered one on top of the other, but folded into each other.  The insult thrown on the can­vas “Die, col­lec­tor scum” is ren­dered more pow­er­ful, more den­i­grat­ing by the fact that the col­lec­tor, com­pelled as he is by mar­ket (and cer­tainly cul­tural) forces, will pay $40,000 of his own money to receive the insult.  The trans­ac­tion ren­ders the col­lec­tor servile and abject in the extreme – to pay so high a price to have some­one spit in his face.  But the para­dox con­tin­ues, because if viewed from the other side, from the posi­tion of the col­lec­tor the trans­ac­tion looks very dif­fer­ent.  If we imag­ine the paint­ing hang­ing on a collector’s wall, over­look­ing a din­ner party of his art col­lec­tor friends, its sig­nif­i­cance is very much trans­formed.  It would hang there as a tro­phy, a tri­umph, an emblem of the sophis­ti­ca­tion and cap­i­tal prowess of the col­lec­tor who has been able to pur­chase the out­rage of his enemy, and in a sense stuff and mount it on his wall.  It would be quite humor­ous actu­ally, in a din­ner party kind of way, to see this insult so humil­i­ated on the wall of its intended target.

What Car­pen­ter has done, is to per­form the entire art world cir­cuit from pro­duc­tion to dis­tri­b­u­tion in a sin­gle move­ment, col­laps­ing the struc­tural antin­omy between artist and col­lec­tor that sup­ports it, thus pre­sent­ing the con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of its func­tion­ing.  It is an almost clas­si­cal act of decon­struc­tion – the two poles of oppo­si­tion, each depen­dant on its dif­fer­ence from the other for its own iden­tity, are col­lapsed, made to stand at the same place, thus ren­der­ing the entire trans­ac­tion inca­pable of sus­tain­ing mean­ing.  By clos­ing the gap between artist and col­lec­tor, Car­pen­ter fore­closes the space within which the pos­si­bil­ity for trans­gres­sion is con­ceived, and value cre­ated before being trans­formed through its pur­chase into pres­tige, lux­ury, com­mod­ity fetish, etc.  That the trans­ac­tion still occurs, despite its impos­si­bil­ity, is per­haps the most pow­er­ful affect of the entire per­for­mance – the impres­sion of the art world as a liv­ing corpse.

But this work’s reflec­tion on the art world goes beyond an iso­lated con­sid­er­a­tion of the poten­tial for protest to a more uni­ver­sal reflec­tion of con­tem­po­rary art in its cap­i­tal­ist con­text.   In fact, slo­gans are not the only things Car­pen­ter slops onto the can­vases. Many of them receive only crude ges­tural strokes and splat­ters, rough par­o­dies of abstract expres­sion­ism.  Car­pen­ter even calls the can­vases “Black Paint­ings”, con­flat­ing the deep pes­simism of their func­tion­ing with an all too obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the move­ment of for­mal purifi­ca­tion that led many mod­ernist painters to reduce the sur­face of the can­vas to a black field.

At stake here, as always, is the com­pe­ti­tion of val­ues.  On the one hand, the val­ues expressed or man­i­fested in the work of art and on the other hand there is exchange value, the dom­i­nant value of Cap­i­tal­ism.   The com­pe­ti­tion is of course uneven.  Exchange value, like it or not, reg­u­lates and deter­mines the cir­cu­la­tion of cul­ture.  It is also a very dif­fer­ent kind of value because it is empty, and has no mean­ing or value in itself, but serves only as a medium of con­ver­sion and exchange between other val­ues.  Con­vert­ing the value of a work of art to its exchange value ren­ders it rel­a­tive and ulti­mately alien­able.  By putting a price on a tran­scen­dent value, you destroy the absolute nature of that value, and place the power of money above it.   That cit­i­zen of dying Rome, Gaius Petro­n­ius Arbiter put it best:

“men whose one idea is to pile up the dol­lars can­not bear that oth­ers should have a nobler creed than they live by them­selves. So they spite all lovers of lit­er­a­ture in every pos­si­ble way, to put them into their proper place– below the money-bags.”

The peren­nial strug­gle of the artist to resist and defy the com­mod­ity sta­tus of his/her work is bound directly to the defense of its value as art, and iron­i­cally the price that a work will demand depends on the gen­uine­ness of those val­ues it is meant to man­i­fest.  A Rothko, for instance, could not demand the price it does, if it could not sus­tain the high seri­ous­ness of the dis­course that cir­cu­lates around it.  If it could not sus­tain the man­i­fes­ta­tion of those val­ues it is said to con­tain; if it were imme­di­ately reducible to the sta­tus of com­mod­ity, of kitsch, who would want to buy it?  What makes it valu­able in terms of exchange is exactly that which resists exchange – the more tran­scen­dent, the more authen­tic, gen­uine, unique the work of art; the more desir­able it becomes and thus the higher the price tag.  If the trans­ac­tion can be sus­tained, the rela­tion­ship is inverted: it is then the exchange value that con­fers and main­tains the pres­tige and impor­tance of the work.  It becomes seri­ous, and valu­able, and wor­thy of our close atten­tion because it costs so much to own.

In fact it can be argued that Green­ber­gian for­mal­ism is no more than a mythic strat­egy (in the sense of the myth as a syn­thetic means of rec­on­cil­ing irrec­on­cil­able con­flicts within a soci­ety) for rec­on­cil­ing the tran­scen­dent value invested on the sur­face of the can­vas with the sta­tus of the object it makes up as a com­mod­ity.  The her­metic frame of for­mal­ism iso­lates the autotelic tran­scen­dent pic­ture plane from the world in which the paint­ing hangs as an object amongst oth­ers, and from which dan­gles that sig­ni­fier of its poten­tial cor­rup­tion, a price tag.  This strat­egy main­tains the ‘higher’ val­ues of the art object while per­mit­ting it to be bought and sold in the process of its’ cir­cu­la­tion.  In fact, many of the black can­vases of for­mal­ism were the nth degree of this impulse to purify the pic­ture plane of any ref­er­ence to, or con­ti­nu­ity with the world in which the paint­ing stands.

Car­pen­ter mocks this fic­tion by paint­ing his abstracts across both the can­vas and the wall on which it hangs.  He even comes to call one of his later shows “Intrin­sic Value”, com­ment­ing directly in his press releases on the rela­tion­ship of the art mar­ket to the cur­rent finan­cial crisis:

“A Matisse is still her­alded by the auc­tion houses as being of ‘intrin­sic value’. For the con­tem­po­rary art scene this implies find­ing a source of value untouched by the recent spec­u­la­tive mad­ness, whether it’s paint­ing or crit­i­cal authen­tic­ity. Mean­while, with a gnaw­ing sense of dread, cap­i­tal­ists are look­ing for a way to rebuild prof­its in the depression.“

While he quite cogently sug­gests that the ‘intrin­sic’ value of the Matisse is its abil­ity to sus­tain its exchange value in times of eco­nomic hard­ship, he is not iden­ti­cal to the posi­tion he takes in order to say so.  There is a sense of pos­ture and impos­ture that is inescapable within the con­text from which he is writ­ing.  i.e. he is speak­ing from within the media release intended to pro­mote and sell his own works and thus, no mat­ter how accu­rate or true his descrip­tion, it is imme­di­ately impli­cated in the process it describes.  His cri­tique is in itself an ‘intrin­sic’ value which jus­ti­fies the $40,000 invest­ment col­lec­tors will make in his paintings.

After all “The Open­ing” is a per­for­mance.  In fact, it is per­for­mance art in the high­est degree, because, far from per­form­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the art world, he per­forms a direct pre­sen­ta­tion of it’s func­tion­ing.  The per­for­mance is the actual pro­duc­tion and sale of art works, com­plete with the exchange of large sums of money for the art objects.  Art and the world are indis­cernible.   In this dimen­sion of his work we see his (men­tor) Mar­tin Kip­pen­berger, who pio­neered the strat­egy of “self per­for­mance”, of the artist per­form­ing the var­i­ous posi­tions from which they make art, gen­er­at­ing an essen­tial inde­ter­mi­nacy between the ‘authen­tic’ self of the artist and the strat­egy employed in self pre­sen­ta­tion and pre­sen­ta­tion of the work.  As George Baker points out in his essay on Kip­pen­berger in Art Forum, that he would often assume two dia­met­ri­cally opposed posi­tions that would can­cel each other out.

“In just this way, Kip­pen­berger, espe­cially in his paint­ings, used the lan­guage of cita­tion and appro­pri­a­tion to sus­pend his own work inco­her­ently, locat­ing it between the most log­i­cally incom­pat­i­ble artis­tic posi­tions staked out by his imme­di­ate predecessors.”

This was also Carpenter’s ear­lier method, paint­ing pop­u­lar media images on abstract expres­sion­is­tic backgrounds.

Car­pen­ter man­ages to bring the two sides of this equa­tion as close together as any­one since Warhol, when he dis­carded the scru­ple of con­tain­ment sep­a­rat­ing the value of the art work as art and the exchange dri­ven value of the com­mod­ity.  I can only imag­ine that his Brillo Boxes in their day would have pro­duced the same sense of incredulity and ver­tigo that The Open­ing pro­duces today.  Only of course, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes weren’t con­ceived as an insult to, but a cel­e­bra­tion of com­mod­ity cul­ture, and they weren’t imme­di­ately snapped up for a tidy sum.  In this we can find rea­son to assert Warhol as Carpenter’s antecedent, though Warhol never took it so far as to ren­der the trans­ac­tion null.  He played the com­mod­ity game bril­liantly, and both the art and glam­our indus­tries prof­ited from it.  Carpenter’s work offers both sides noth­ing but a sense of their own des­o­la­tion – an effect due in no small part to the lack of insti­tu­tional resis­tance it faces, a con­di­tion, which we can credit in part to Warhol.  Min­i­mal­ism, on the other hand, far more earnestly attempted to dis­card the dis­tinc­tion between art and the world and paid for it by the pro­duc­tion of works that, despite their sever­ity and high seri­ous­ness, were defense­less against absorp­tion into their com­mod­ity sta­tus at the cost of their hard won austerity.

Karl Marx, speak­ing of the capac­ity of Cap­i­tal­ism to dis­solve value wrote “Every­thing solid melts into air, all that is holy is pro­faned, and man is at last com­pelled to face with sober senses, his real con­di­tions of life, and his rela­tions with his kind.”   He saw this destruc­tive power as serv­ing the cause of com­mu­nism by clear­ing away the foun­da­tions of false con­scious­ness that stood in its way.  I think we know now that Cap­i­tal­ism, and the forces it com­mands, serves only Cap­i­tal­ism, and far from clear­ing the grounds of knowl­edge and belief for the lay­ing of the firm foun­da­tion of a truly social­ist state, it must con­tinue to pro­duce value only to pro­fane it, estab­lish laws only to trans­gress them, achieve solid­ity only to dis­solve it.  From the sta­tic model of tra­di­tional soci­ety with its eter­nal val­ues, vouch­safed and trans­mit­ted by tra­di­tion, moder­nity gives way to a dynamic model of mean­ing that is caught in a con­tin­u­ous process of pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion, a con­tin­u­ous state of com­ing into being and pass­ing out of being, described by Deleuze and Guatarri as anal­o­gous to schiz­o­phre­nia, and for which they claimed that cap­i­tal­ism is the night­mare of every soci­ety that came before it.

What role, what posi­tion has Car­pen­ter assumed in this process?  Is he the van­guard artist, trans­gress­ing the lim­its estab­lished by the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, gen­er­at­ing new mean­ings and pro­vid­ing new poten­tials, or is he the cyn­i­cal oppor­tunist, pro­fan­ing the essen­tial val­ues, the authen­tic out­rage his can­vases carry by the price tag they demand?  What­ever the answer, he’s not ask­ing enough.