Critical Reflections on “Artists’ Commerce”

by Hammam Aldouri


The essay “Artists’ Commerce” is the fourth installment of a series of five essays by the Publication Study Group (PSG), eight Philadelphia-based artists and art professionals. The group emerged from 2013’s Citywide, a project that involved artist collectives participating “in an exchange of exhibitions, ideas and practices” (as their website puts it). The essays attempt to do two things: provide retrospective reflections of Citywide as a whole and synthesize those reflections by sketching out overarching issues.


What is striking about the essays – which grew out of a series of conversations between artists and members of artist collectives – is the decidedly uncritical nature of a great number of propositions and ideas presented. In a certain sense, “Artists’ Commerce” is the most caricatured example of this un-criticality. One of the basic presuppositions grounding this presentation of ideas is, as stated in “The Preface to the Publication Study Group,” the first of this group of essays published in Title Magazine: “In November 2013, the visual artist collectives in Philadelphia organized a festival called Citywide to celebrate, well, ourselves.”


In “Artists’ Commerce,” the PSG ceremoniously turns its attention to artist-led galleries and questions the role that commerce plays in the interpretation of an artwork. From the outset of the essay, a peculiar move is made: the omission of any discourse on capitalism as the core structure and meaning of commerce. Indeed, the most pervasive problem in the essay is the substitution of the historical reality of capitalism with the term ‘commerce.’ In order to give sense to this substitution, we need to comprehend the way PSG understand commerce:


The term “commerce,” when applied to [artist-run] spaces and their creators, can be interpreted as occupying the full sense of the word. There is, of course, the physical transaction where goods pass hands, but commerce also refers to social transactions—the social dealings between people that generate value through the exchange of ideas.


Here, ‘commerce’ is understood in two ways: as the activity of buying and selling goods and as a specifically social activity – an activity in which people come together and do things together. This is hardly an invocation of the “full sense of the word.” What is at once missed and strategically evaded is the description of the particular time in which commerce takes place, a historical specificity that reveals how and under what conditions we buy and sell. Without this specificity, the word commerce is strategically mobilized as an ahistorical term that can be applied to any time and any situation.


What is the outcome of this strategic employment of ‘commerce?’ It is unequivocal: we can never get a sense of what actually happens during a specific period, under the specific conditions that organize the way we engage with commerce and, by extension, interact socially. Thus, this usage of “commerce” ideologically covers up what occurs in capitalist forms of social relation and production. The very fact that PSG and the participants do not discuss capitalism is proof of either a basic naivety on their part or their strategic, instrumental dissimulation of it as a point of discussion.


If we assume that the PSG are not naïve, we should ask the question of why they substitute ‘capitalism’ for ‘commerce.’ One answer to this is clear: to make room for a wishy-washy discourse on social collectivism, a delusional rhetoric of fostering communities and a puerile fascination with DIY culture. To speak of capitalism – the specific forms of social relations and forces of production that emerge under its conditions – is to be forced to speak more precisely about its more concrete realities, structures. One can no longer get away with sloganeering, delusional affirmations, and puerile declarations. And it is precisely for this reason that the substitution of capitalism with ‘commerce’ is made: the strategy allows PSG and participants to side-step the hard work of coming to terms with the broader problems within the real conditions of this cultural practice.


Another explanation for the substitution of ‘capitalism’ with ‘commerce’ allows for an apologia for capitalism itself. It allows the PSG to make the following proposition: “of course, financial success is our goal, but for our panelists, success seems to be measured in metrics beyond market values.” What PSG seems to engage is the prevailing ideology of ‘capitalism with a happy face,’ a form of politico-economic exchange in which the systems of representation that dominate our cultural life contain the very remedies for the antagonism, exploitation, and imbalances that are generated by capitalism.


For Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, the most accomplished example of this ideology is found in the quotidian Starbucks coffee and its “C.A.F.E. practices” (Coffee and Farmer Equity): when you buy a coffee you are also actively participating in the fostering of communities through fair trade practices. Thus, the very problem with multi-national corporations – namely, their exploitation of workers and natural resources – is rectified in the very commodity that you consume. The effects of this are twofold: you buy Starbucks coffee because you know that you are engaging in a ‘progressive’ move toward social equality through the act of consuming itself, yet you feel guilty that we live in a world of social imbalance and exploitation generated by consumption. Thus, to consume is to simultaneously placate your guilt and re-inscribe it because you are obligated to consume through subjugation to a consumerist social life.


Is this not exactly how artist-run galleries, according to “Artists’ Commerce,” function? With the above observations in mind, it comes as no surprise that these galleries no longer orient themselves in relation to the objects that artists produce (since these are, one is led to infer, too clearly ‘commodities’) but rather “focus on artistic practice.” The supposed sensitivity to the artist’s practice professed by the PSG is not some ethical rejoinder to the omniscient and omnivorous art market. Rather, the sensitivity is just a reflection of the basic structure of market culture that is ostensibly being resisted by giving it a seemly visage of being beyond market values. ‘Enterprise culture’ in contemporary theory on cultural practices no longer recognizes the commodity as an ‘object,’ a thing set out on a stall in front of an anonymous consumer who can freely pick and choose what s/he wants to consume. Rather, ‘enterprise culture’ is the arena in which we all participate as producers, that is, the arena in which we all ‘do-it-ourselves.’


One needs to think about why this phenomenon of DIY has developed and expanded so powerfully in the last 20 years, and not simply celebrate it as a self-evidently good or progressive thing. One needs to reflect on why, in a context of financial crisis, the prevailing ideology is more and more focused by generating ideas and images of participation and ‘doing-it-yourself.’ These are things that the PSG absolutely fail to do.


The absence of a critical and historical examination of ‘DIY’ in the discussions held by the PSG is a basic symptom of the substitution of the historically specific structure of capitalism with a more diffuse and abstract notion of ‘commerce.’ But with this concealment of historical specificity what is the point of ‘study groups,’ like the PSG? The point of discussion focused on the nature and status of cultural practices must not be restricted to a banal celebration of DIY culture as it continues to supposedly thrive and develop in Philadelphia. Rather, the point of discussion needs to begin to explore why DIY culture is such a dominant form of cultural practice in contemporary society and how it continues to be so. Without such critical investigations, we simply engorge ourselves in an endless festival of drunken self-congratulation.


Hammam Aldouri is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the CRMEP, Kingston University London. He is currently leading a public seminar series on modern philosophy and art theory at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, Philadelphia; and from September 2015, he will be Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies at the Whitney Independent Study Program.