Beshty Ethics cover[MIT; 2015]

Artists surveyed include: Michael Asher, Merlin Carpenter, Claire Fontaine, Lygia Clark, Andrea Fraser, Liam Gillick, Thomas Hirschorn, Martin Kippenberger, Walid Raad, Martha Rosler, Tino Sehgal, Santiago Sierra; Writers include: Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Roland Barthes, Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriard, Simon Critchley, Grant Kester, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Rancière, Susan Sontag, Hito Steyerl, Jan Verwoert

Art is increasingly reflexive about its social conditions and the conditions of its reception. In the collection Ethics, editor Walead Beshty, an artist and writer based in Los Angeles, addresses the methodological implications of this shift from the perspective of artists, art critics, and art historians. The goal is to reexamine the applicability of the work to its surrounding by applying various historical and critical insights. We see this, for example, in artist Constantin Brancusi’s dissolution of the barrier between sculpture and its material support. Beshty emphasizes the various tactics artists have implemented to explore the productivity of art for critique and politics. His inclusion of older texts allows us a comprehensive understanding of these shifts, and the discussion of a diverse range of artworks and methodologies illustrates the undulating impact of the world upon the work. The volume is separated into sections to construct coherence and fluidity between texts that otherwise range in tone and date and are often substantial excerpts. The inclusion of an interview with David Hammons and of texts that are lighter and operate more directly, breaks up the density of texts steeped with jargon that can be more challenging to decipher.

Beshty defines ethics as that which maximizes good. An ethical approach to art implies the direct bearing of the artwork to the world, rather than an allegorical or philosophical question of morals, which refer to absolute rules. This creates an important distinction that situates art’s potency not as an agent of reflection or repression, which can only take shape against the pressure of external forces, but rather designates for art a role that includes an awareness of its bonds to these forces. His interest lies in how the work comes to being, how it creates “conditions of reception . . . how it proposes a modification of the social contract with the artwork acting as the signification of this modification.” Rather than a disassociation of the work of art from its site of reception, he asserts the interdependency and contingency of artworks upon the context or institution to which they are dependent. Rebellion against ties to the institution is seen in the texts and works of Andrea Fraser and Merlin Carpenter, whose texts are also included.

Beshty retraces art history, recasting Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made as a fundamental “marker for the social contract . . . a node around which individuals congregate and transact.” Those who are drawn together through the contract the work provides allow the work the possibility of meaning. Commenting on this restructuring of the social field, Jacques Rancière describes the distribution of the sensible, which determines what is in common and what is different, who is excluded and included in the social world. For Dorothea von Hantelmann social realities are reproduced in artworks, affirming the agency of artwork and it’s role in society. Beshty’s position firmly opposes the notion that critical or political art is a negation of the world and the texts confirm that art’s situation in society is integral.

The method of approaching aesthetic analysis while including social interconnections is introduced in an early text by Nicolas Bourriard, and is picked up by Grant Kester and Claire Bishop, who question the form and function of the relationships of the artwork to the apparatus. For Bishop, the notion that all dialogue created by art is automatically democratic is problematic, and the discord implicit in democracy requires a praise of alternative, alienating experiences, rather than their dismissal. For Kester, practices that are much less visible that are at the periphery of art discourse are inconsequential to mainstream art production.

Beshty draws a distinction between social efficacy with artistic efficacy. He asserts that equating them dismisses the political implications of the perceivable and sensate – the aesthetics – of the work. This is crucial because much of the broader context of art history is meaningfully attached to the political nuances within these aesthetics. Beshty reminds us that social projects can have little or no aesthetic value while remaining the primary justification for certain forms of participatory political art, regardless of their ability to be viable within the public sphere, failing “both as art and as social work.”

The question posed by the collection is almost unanswerable. It is not one of how successful the participation-based social project is, but rather what the aesthetic implications of modifying social relations are. In a 1970’s text Beshty has included, Lygia Clark paints this beautifully, writing about how

a sheet of plastic resting on the floor is still nothing. It is the person who, penetrating it, creates and transforms it . . . humankind is consequently a living organism. One incorporates the concept of action through one’s gestural expression . . . At the very moment when they digest the object, artists are digested by the society . . .

Clark goes on to write that society allots for artist an activity that will not affect the balance of the social structure. Yet this is precisely the undertaking of numerous artists interested in closing the gaps created by socio-economic inequality by including the presence of the apparatus. Beshty enlarges the scope of critique, by including in his volume not only artworks that incorporate the viewer, but also works that implicate art production in general. Liam Gillick writes that art is an

ethical equation, where assumptions about function and value in society can be operated upon . . . art is embedded in its function as a system of awareness . . . the critical community is both subject and object simultaneously.

This dual nature implicates the complexity of our ties, influenced by labor. Jan Verwoert theorizes that we no longer work, but rather exist in a culture of compulsive performativity, spurred by our indebtedness to others. He compares this to a the Pasolini film, Teorema, wherein the end of work and the arrival of love creates a situation where each of the characters are freely able to perform, without a single dominant imperative to do so in a particular way. Perhaps we cannot inhabit such a condition because of our continued commitment to others. These examples serve to underline the extent of our social connectedness.

This is not to be skirted but rather can be unveiled to be repositioned. By taking issue with the conventions in the discourse around art, beyond aesthetics, the selected contributors deeply interrogate objects, labor conditions, and the transparency within ethics. Art not only comments on global inequalities, it then reproduces them, as Andrea Fraser’s texts make clear. Where the subjects of the art are global inequalities, on another scale, the galleries situate themselves in areas of the world where poverty exists, and neighborhoods become gentrified. The places of engagement on these topics accumulate capital. For art to deal with it’s own terms and conditions it needs to accept them rather than remaining against it only from gentrified centers.

Renzo Martens inserts his own claims on the realities of political apparatus. By disclosing the constrains of his own industry – film – he also makes visible the labor conditions in Congo through films to open conversations on these circumstances. Comments on global inequalities are funded by these global inequalities and films are part of an industry about winners that doesn’t include its subjects. How can one represent a film about poverty without including that we will consume it and remain on the winning side and that the film itself is not going to change that. For Marten, without including this we cannot make a good film about global inequality. Marten tells the Congolese in his film that they would make more money if they weren’t taking wedding photographs; he is a white man telling the Congolese that they should take photos of death and starvation to make sense economically. As consumers we witness this horrible status quo in these films or we buy into capitalism’s misrepresentations.

Beshty writes that Bourriard’s analysis includes artists that “learned to inhabit the world in a better way.” Following this insight, Ethics seeks to redefine the methodology involved in aesthetics, focusing upon ethics rather than favoring object-based, easily charted discourses which lack clarity regarding art’s distribution or instrumentality. It is a must-read which provides introduction to a variety of insights by influential contributors, on loaded territories with layered meanings, that ultimately aim to tackle and redraft economies of social relation.

Maia Nichols is a California born artist and writer currently living and working in Berlin. Her work can be found at


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