Let’s catalog a few important moments in the history of conceptual art:
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed and dated a porcelain urinal, installed it on a plinth, and entered it into the first exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists.
In 1961, Robert Rauchenberg submitted a telegram reading “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so” as his contribution to an exhibition of portraits hosted at Clert’s eponymous Paris gallery.
That same year, Piero Manzoni exhibited tin cans labeled “Artist’s Shit.” The cans purportedly contained the feces of the artist, but opening them to verify the claim would destroy the work.
In 2007, Damien Hirst commissioned a diamond-encrusted, platinum cast of a human skull. It cost £14 million to produce, and Hirst attempted to sell it for £50 million—mostly so that it would become the most valuable work sold by a living artist.
And in 2017, Nigel Gifford designed an edible, unmanned drone meant to deliver humanitarian aid to disaster zones.
Okay, I lied. The last one is a technology start-up. But it might as well be a work of conceptual art. In fact, it makes one wonder if there’s still any difference between the two.
* * *
Conceptualism has taken many forms since the early 20th century. At its heart, the name suggests that a concept or idea behind work of art eclipses or replaces that work’s aesthetic properties. Some conceptual works deemphasize form entirely. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, for example, is a book with instructions on how to recast ordinary life as performance art. Others, like Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull, lean heavily on the material object to produce effects beyond it. And others, like the pseudonymous graffiti-artist Banksy’s documentary film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, about a street artist who becomes a commercial sensation, deliberately refuse to reveal whether they are elaborate put-ons or earnest portrayals.
In each case, the circulation of the idea becomes as important—if not more so—than the nature of the work itself. And circulation implies markets. And markets mean money, and wealth—matters with which art has had a long and troubled relationship. By holding business at a distance in order to critique it, the arts may have accidentally ceded those critiques to commerce anyway.
Before art was culture it was ritual, and the ritual practice of art was tied to institutions—the church, in particular. Later, the Renaissance masters were bound to wealthy patrons. By the time the 20th-century avant-garde rose to prominence, the art world—all of the institutions and infrastructure for creating, exhibiting, selling, and consuming art—had established a predictable pattern of embrace and rejection of wealth. On the one hand, artists sought formal and political ends that questioned the supposed progress associated with industrial capitalism. But on the other hand, exhibition and collection of those works were reliant on the personal and philanthropic wealth of the very industrialists artists often questioned.
One solution some artists adopted: to use art to question the art world itself. Such is what Duchamp and Rauchenberg and Manzoni and Hirst all did, albeit obliquely. Others were more direct. Hans Haacke, for example, used artwork to expose the connections between the art and corporate worlds; his exhibitions looked more like investigative reports than installations.
Despite attempts to hold capital at arms length, money always wins. Artists low and high, from Thomas Kinkade to Picasso, have made the commercialization of their person and their works a deliberate part of their craft.
By the 1990s, when Hirst rose to prominence, high-art creators began embracing entrepreneurship rather than lamenting it. Early in his career, Hirst collaborated with the former advertising executive and art collector Charles Saatchi, who funded The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a sculpture of a severed tiger shark in three vats of formaldehyde. That work eventually sold for $12 million. Hirst’s relationship with Saatchi was less like that of a Renaissance master to a patron, and more like that of a founder to a venture capitalist. The money and the art became deliberately inextricable, rather than accidentally so.
Banksy, for his part, has often mocked the wealthy buyers who shelled out six-figure sums for his stenciled art, and even for his screenprints. It’s a move that can’t fail, for the artist can always claim the moral high ground of supposed resistance while cashing the checks of complicity.
Hirst and Banksy have a point: Cashing in on art might have become a necessary feature of art. The problem with scoffing at money is that money drives so much of the world that art occupies and comment on. After the avant-garde, art largely became a practice of pushing the formal extremes of specific media. Abstract artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock pressed the formal space of canvas, pigment, and medium to its breaking point, well beyond representation. Duchamp and Manzoni did the same with sculpture. And yet, artists have resisted manipulating capitalism directly, in the way that Hirst does. In retrospect, that might have been a tactical error.
* * *
If markets themselves have become the predominant form of everyday life, then it stands to reason that artists should make use of those materials as the formal basis of their works. The implications from this are disturbing. Taken to an extreme, the most formally interesting contemporary conceptual art sits behind Bloomberg terminals instead of plexiglass vitrines. Just think of the collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps that helped catalyze the foundation of the 2008 global financial crisis. These are the Artist’s Shit of capitalism, daring someone to open them and look. The result, catastrophic though it was, was formally remarkable as a work made of securities speculation, especially for those who ultimately profited from collapsing the world economy. What true artist wouldn’t dream of such a result?
Even so, finance is too abstract, too extreme, and too poorly aestheticized to operate as human culture. But Silicon Valley start-ups offer just the right blend of boundary-pushing, human intrigue, ordinary life, and perverse financialization to become the heirs to the avant-garde.
Take Nigel Gifford’s drone start-up, Windhorse Aerospace, which makes the edible humanitarian relief drone. In the event of disasters and conflict, the start-up reasons, getting food and shelter to victims is difficult due to lost infrastructure. The drone, known as Pouncer, would be loaded with food and autonomously flown into affected areas. Whether in hope or naivety, Windhorse claims that Pouncer will “avoid all infrastructure problems, corruption or hostile groups,” although one might wonder why bright green airplanes might avert the notice of the corrupt and the hostile.
The product epitomizes the conceit of contemporary Silicon Valley. It adopts and commercializes a familiar technology for social and political benefit, but in such a simplistic way that it’s impossible to tell if the solution is proposed in earnest or in parody. Pouncer can be seen either as a legitimate, if unexpected, way to solve a difficult problem, or as the perfect example of the technology industry’s inability to take seriously the problems it claims to solve. How to feed the hungry after civil unrest or natural disaster? Fly in edible drones from the comfort of you co-working space. Problem solved!
It’s not Gifford’s first trip up where the air gets light, either. His last company, Ascenta, was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $20 million. Once under Facebook’s wing, Gifford and his team built Aquila, the drone meant to deliver internet connectivity to all people around the globe. Here too, an idea—global connectivity as a human right and a human good—mates to both formal boundary-pushing and commercial profit-seeking. By comparison to Mark Zuckerberg’s desire to extract data (and thereby latent market value) from every human being on earth, it’s hard to be impressed at a wealthy British artist trying to flip a diamond-encrusted skull at 300 percent profit.
Conceptualism has one gimmick—that the idea behind the work has more value than the work itself. As it happens, that’s not a bad definition of securitization, the process of transforming illiquid assets into financial instruments. Whether Windhorse’s edible drones really work, or whether they could effectively triage humanitarian crises is far less important in the short term than the apparent value of the concept or the technology. If humanitarian aid doesn’t work out, the company can always “pivot” into another use, to use that favorite term of start-ups. What a company does is ultimately unimportant; what matters is the materials with which it does things, and the intensity with which it pitches those uses as revolutionary.
This routine has become so common that it’s become hard to get through the day without being subjected to technological conceptualism. On Facebook, an advertisement for a Kickstarter-funded “smart parka” that hopes to “re-invent winter coats” and thereby to “hack winter.” A service called Happify makes the foreboding promise, “Happiness. It’s winnable.” Daphne Koller, the co-founder of the online-learning start-up that promised to reinvent education in the developing world like Windhorse hopes to do with the airdrop, quits to join Google’s anti-aging group Calico. Perhaps she concluded that invincibility would be a more viable business prospect than education.
Me-too tech gizmos and start-ups have less of an edge than conceptual art ever did. Hirst’s work, including the diamond skull and the taxidermied shark, are memento mori—symbols of human frailty and mortality. Even Rauchenberg’s telegram says something about the arbitrariness of form and the accidents of convention. By contrast, when technology pushes boundaries, it does so largely rhetorically—by laying claim to innovation and disruption rather than embodying it. But in so doing, it has transformed technological innovation into the ultimate idea worthy of pursuit. And if the point of conceptual art is to advance concepts, then the tech sector is winning at the art game.
* * *
Today, the arts in America are at risk. President Donald Trump’s new federal budget proposes eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts (along with the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). The NEA is especially cheap, making its proposed elimination symbolic more than fiscal. It’s a dream some Republicans have had for decades, thanks in part to the perception that NEA-funded programs are extravagances that serve liberalism.
The potential gutting of the NEA is worthy of concern and lamentation. But equally important, and no less disturbing, is the fact that the role of art, in part, had already shifted from the art world to the business world anyway. In particular, the formal boundary-pushing central to experimental and conceptual artists might have been superseded by the conceptual efforts of entrepreneurship. The much better-funded efforts, at that. As ever, money is the problem for art, rather than a problem within it.
Elsewhere in the art world, successful works have become more imbricated with their financial conditions. Earlier this year, Banksy opened the Walled Off Hotel, an “art hotel” installation in Bethlehem. It’s an idea that demands reassurance; the first entry on the project’s FAQ asks, “Is this a joke?” (“Nope—it's a genuine art hotel,” the page answers.) Despite the possible moral odiousness of Palestinian-occupation tourism, local critics have billed it as a powerful anti-colonialist lampoon. A high-art theme park.
It’s an imperfect solution. But what is the alternative? In the tech industry, the wealthy don’t tend to become arts collectors or philanthropists. Unlike Charles Saatchi, they don’t take on young artists as patrons, even if just to fuel their own egos. Instead they start more companies, or fund venture firms, or launch quasi non-profits. Meanwhile, traditional arts education and funding has become increasingly coupled to technology anyway, partly out of desperation. STEAM adds “art” to STEM’s science, technology, engineering, and math, reframing art as a synonym for creativity and innovation—the conceptual fuel that technology already advances as its own end anyway.
Looking at Duchamp’s urinal and Rauchenberg’s telegram, the contemporary viewer would be forgiven for seeing them as banal. Today, everyone transforms toilets into artworks on Instagram. Everyone makes quips on Twitter that seem less clever as time passes. What remains are already-wealthy artists funding projects just barely more interesting than the products funded by other, already-wealthy entrepreneurs.
From that vantage point, the conceptual art avant-garde becomes a mere dead branch on the evolutionary tree that leads to technological entrepreneurship. Everyone knows that ideas are cheap. But ideas that get executed—those are expensive. Even if that implementation adds precious little to the idea beyond making it material. The concept, it turns out, was never enough. It always needed implementation—and the money to do so.