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Your Everyday Art World

by Lane Relyea
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
264 pp., illus. 36 b&w. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 9780262019231.

Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth


If there were one word to describe Relyea’s relentless analysis of today’s art world, then it would have to be ‘cynical’. Relyea’s book is a razor-sharp analysis of the contemporary art world from circa 1987 onwards that leaves the reader close to severely depressed. Relyea argues convincingly that the way artistic creativity and networking have been operated during the past 27 years has led straight to the current neo-liberal economy with its abundance of zero hour contracts, most notably also in the cultural sector. Artists, and for that matter also curators, although Relyea does not mention them specifically, will always produce because of the inherent need of their productivity. So no matter if there is no budget, the making and producing will go on. On top of that artists and curators are flexible, creative and come up with quick, “just in time” solutions, something Relyea describes as – “being a DIY artist, uncategorizable and nomadic, a hacker of culture and a poet of the everyday”, the new romantic. It serves any neo-liberal politician or economist well.

In what seemed to be a spontaneous process to build an alternative to the museum, the longing for the real, everyday, in terms of Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, a genuine joy in DIY or maybe rather self-initiation, might have bitten the art world collectively in its tail. Relyea questions for instance amongst others a devaluing of theory since the late 1980s in the wake of this development. The international platforms and the networks connecting them, created certainly an “immeasurable space of international mobility” in which being somewhere was more important than doing something, and as Relyea seems to indicate, thinking about something.

What seemed to be refreshing at the time now becomes somewhat muddled in hindsight and poses the question whether we really got it so wrong. In the whole process disciplinary arenas collapse as Relyea states and indeed libraries and museums nowadays remind someone rather of air port lounges and vice versa. Birmingham’s new library is a good, and I would argue, exciting example. But the way Relyea describes the process to get to that point leaves a bitter taste.

After introducing the importance of networks and platforms Relyea goes on to look closer at four specific cities that he sees as particularly important in the eventual downfall – Glasgow, Los Angeles, New York And Cologne. For someone like me, starting to be active in the art world from exactly 1987 onwards a city like Antwerp could have been easily added to this series. Especially since one of Relyea’s protagonists, Dennis Anderson, ended up working there in the beginning of the ‘90s. No doubt other readers will add their particular cities, as Relyea’s analysis seems to portray the art world per se during this period. This is however a rich and extremely informative, well-documented historical chapter that in itself is a must-read to fully understand the workings of today’s art world.

All ends unavoidable and literally in ruins but where the rest of this book slaps the average art professional around the ears, the last chapter seems to be too forced to be convincing. Whereas the overall underlying message is dramatic enough in itself, the tone of this last chapter does not do the argument a favour. The attention for so-called bricolage art seems already to be somewhat out-dated. As usual, we need distance to get a clearer picture. What is clear however is that cherishing flexibility, relentless creativity and a DIY attitude in itself is not the problem. It is preventing politics to exploit this and cultural institutions to seamlessly adapt to zero hour contracts where they are supposed to protect art, artists and curators. To be able to do this, a book like Relyea’s should be compulsive reading and re-reading matter for anyone involved in the art world as it gives all the arguments we need.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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