In his latest book, David Joselit moves beyond the proprietary tendencies of the modern artist to advocate for an ethos of freedom and commonality.
Art’s Properties, by David Joselit, Princeton University Press,
148 pages, $27.95
• • •
David Joselit’s new book offers an indictment of the modern artist, a subject born at the nexus of capitalism, nationalism, and individualism, as well as its primary accomplice, the modern museum. Both institutions, Joselit argues, are property agents—whereas the artist possesses a particular style and, increasingly, a particular identity, the museum operates as a cultural storehouse where artifacts are collected, conserved, and leveraged for meaning. While earlier art historians chronicled the conventions and clichés that constitute artistic identity—the Wittkowers wrote of those “born under Saturn”; Kris and Kurz spoke of “legend, myth, and magic in the image of the artist”—Joselit redraws this figure as an avatar of “possessive individualism.” For him, the modern artist is a “proprietary artist.”
This is a large claim, and it’s meant to be. In general, I’m inclined to agree. At the same time, Joselit’s thesis almost seems designed to encourage readers to search out exceptions. At moments I found myself wondering if it holds true for all modern cultural producers (choreographers, filmmakers, novelists, poets, etc.); at others I simply wanted to grab a copy of Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” and swat the problem away. Certainly it’s less difficult to argue that museums are possessive: their goal, we know, is not simply to collect things but also to keep them and make them stand for something. Joselit sees this modus equally in the eighteenth-century Louvre, a nationalized palace of plunder shoring up French identity at the dawn of the First Republic, and the contemporary museum, which encourages viewers to snap selfies with its shiny facades, QR codes, and displays of spectacular art. Against this tendency to capture and possess, Joselit positions the spirit of art itself, which, he insists, exudes “alterity,” “freedom,” “free play,” “experiential inexhaustibility,” and “infinitude.” Contemporary artists, as distinct from modern artists, may also be on the side of liberation, for it is they who “dis-possess” objects, witness history, and unlock narratives.
Over the last number of years Joselit’s writings have come to serve as touchstones for those interested in figuring out what might still be meaningful about contemporary art. In a spate of books, including Feedback: Television against Democracy (2010), After Art (2012), and Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (2020), he has offered schematic, almost diagrammatic accounts of contemporary art’s capacities. Indeed, he crafts the type of grand narratives of which our age is said to be bereft by forging frameworks for recent debates. To do so he often works at a certain degree of abstraction, and this is the case in Art’s Properties as well. While Joselit’s theoretical propositions are provocative, the book’s stakes perhaps most fully emerge in his parsing of the controversy surrounding white artist Dana Schutz’s contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial, her painting Open Casket.
This story has been told many times by now, and I have to admit that I was wary at first to revisit it again. In addition to the bevy of art-world conversations, CNN segments, and Twitter flame wars that accompanied the painting’s initial display, numerous books have since covered the controversy, including Aruna D’Souza’s 2018 Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts. What struck me while reading Joselit’s account is how the dispute, only six years old now, already feels historicized—not as explosive as it was before. It’s possible that only in our “normalized” post-Trump moment could Joselit approach the situation with the evenhanded coolness he does.
Schutz’s painting offers an aestheticized rendering of the photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket, which Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, published in the Black press and beyond, thereby asking the world to bear witness to the brutality visited upon her son. An open letter written by the artist and critic Hannah Black made Schutz’s work infamous. In it she argued that the painting profited off Black pain and thus “the painting must go.” Joselit doesn’t spend much time with the claim of profiteering, however, instead focusing on the claim that Black pain is not Schutz’s to explore. For Joselit, Blackness as property is simply another example of “possessive individualism” threatening the possibility of “genuine commonality.” Property in all its forms is the bogeyman of this book, though one wonders if some types of ownership are not more suitable—or at least understandable—in certain historical moments than they are in others.
Against the idea that art and identity are forms of property, Joselit advocates for an art that bears witness, which leads him to the work of Cameron Rowland. Rowland has been widely celebrated in recent years for his artifactual approach to artmaking: he presents objects—from office desks to train rails—in specimen-like fashion, paired with texts that unpack their imbrication in racial economies, mass incarceration, and “the afterlife of slavery.” What distinguishes Rowland’s work from relics at a history museum, however, is their location in the space of art, which demands that we see them differently. Rowland, in other words, acknowledges that art today is fundamentally a form of property—something bought and sold—and he demonstrates how the museum is structurally connected to such a logic not simply by its purchase of artwork but through the exploitative labor made available to it through the intermediary of the state. Importantly, he doesn’t try to escape this fact; he works through it. The title of Rowland’s 2016 exhibition at Artists Space, 91020000, was the institution’s client number with Corcraft, a company that produces prisoner-made objects and offers them to registered state entities, and certain nonprofits, at significant discount.
Joselit describes Rowland’s exhibition as an act of witnessing, which ostensibly encourages viewers to commit themselves to bearing witness as well. It is worth noting, however, that while explanatory text is integral to Rowland’s work, his objects possess an obdurate quality: they feel sedimented with history and impossibly opaque—in other words, they resist an easy accommodation of story and narrative. It is, in part, because of its refusal to make sense that Rowland’s work departs from earlier models of art-as-activism, which calibrated their value in terms of social efficacy. As Joselit claims early in his book, art is not particularly well-suited to direct political action. Indeed. Art is a way of viewing the world askance, but one might ask if the model of artist as witness (and art as witnessing) forecloses art’s projective capabilities even as it may counter the project of “possessive individualism.” Witnessing implies a retrospective glance, but if art is to continue—and there’s no reason it has to—it will also have to imagine a future. Certainly, Joselit’s treatise advocates a rethinking of art’s current property relations. Of course, if such a change is to take place, much else in our world will have to transform, too.
Alex Kitnick is Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.