Eunsong Kim interrogates the labour and material processes of aesthetics, and asks whether art and writing are even necessary.
After dinner I enter a commercial gallery space with my brother. The stroll is unplanned but the art viewing is compulsory. As in, I have been trained to enter and re-enter spaces designated for art. The gallery is owned by Dohwa Engineering Co. and is part of their multiplex, unimaginatively and authoritatively called Dohwa Art. The building is tall and the art is on the bottom floor. Joe tells me that Dohwa is jaebol—a term provided to family-owned monopolies in South Korea. The building is owned, the art is additive: corporations first.
The friendly attendant asks me to write down my name and tells me that this is a group show, could she tell me more about it? I nod as my brother sighs in English, I don’t know why we are here. I point to an appropriated Che painting, re-titled “The Great Korean” and I respond, we are here to learn more about this fucking piece.
The attendant hands me the gallery postcard and tells me more about the work, who is who, why they made what they made and something about art being freedom of expression. She also wants me to know that I could enter my comments on their community web forum. I could, she suggests, invite an artist whose work I like to dinner. The artists look at the comments and could accept your request! The web forum is like a public auction dating site? Very 90s utopia. Once in a while the corporation is late to appropriate. Or is this retro.
Lastly, she notes, all the works are for sale, between 1,000,000 won to 5,000,000 won. Which is modestly priced so you could acquire your favourite work! And it’s true that art is a commodity and the sticker price should be upfront but how interesting, to remind us.
The twenty-meter room holds some of the worst art I’ve ever seen: no hyperbole. Everything is so bad it’s almost funny but really it isn’t. There is a sci-fi painting of dragons, and a pop portrait of bunnies. There is a collage of NBA players that feels racist (maybe it’s not but the players decontextualised, without names…seems random in a terrible way and maybe I am sensitive but something is not right), there are some abstract squares where the brushstrokes are visible and anime-lite and everything is a painting because is painting still the most comforting art commodity?
The objects in this room abide by the transnational agreements of contemporary art: they operate under the auspices of communal goods and free expression, as anointed by corporate excess. There are slight deviations, things are more upfront for sale, akin to the wall art in coffee shops. But the divisions I’m accustomed to in art spaces, between the: artist, patron, viewer, expert are present and clear.
I think about how my initial and crass judgement of the paintings makes me an elitist and a marxist and a failure at both. It also prompts me to press: where is this indignation coming from and would it have been better if it was good art? Would it be funny if the whole thing wasn’t corporate penitence?
Labour divisions are present irrespective of good. But even if it was good—whatever that means—what good is art. Honestly and again: what is it good for?
I situate the scene above as an offering of everything I’ve grown to hate about this thing called art: the naturalised corporate sponsorship, the appropriated discourse of community, aesthetics as cover-up, the subsumed hierarchy of “good” and “bad” art (of which I am beholden), the precious singularity. And everything above was expected and normative: the milieu at Dohwa constitutes the terrain of contemporary art.
A hatred of art is gradually fermented through the understanding that aesthetics is not exceptional and exempt from capitalism and colonialism, but their extensions. The supply chain is fraught, production is fraught, the profession is fraught; the suffocation of no outside.
Thus and like a cliché, artists and writers interested in liberation tend to eventually hate themselves and art. Every word in the previous sentence was used in the most bombastic of terms: “liberation” to denote artists worried about the aestheticisation of politics, the phrase “artists and writers” as a self-identified and institutional framework, and “art” as the production of that which is considered as such under capitalism.
Once this stage of the crisis is reached, a few different directions are possible. Some dream of quitting and perhaps even do so. Others devise plots towards alternative spaces. There are those who foolishly proselytise, as in, they try to convince others to join their depressive spell. As if to further the simulacra, some artists begin making artwork about the process of disbelief and hatred. And then those in the moment of Lee Wen: at the precipice of this crisis—the existential burden that one’s work may not need to exist—makes work questioning its use-value.
In Is Art Necessary? (2004) Lee carries two canvases strapped to his arms like a cross, with a sign that reads: “What is art good for?” The performance follows as Lee enters subway trains and walks across public spaces in Singapore offering the opportunity to encounter and respond to the question. The documentation shows various people walking up and writing onto the canvas. Many of the responses reify the comments made by the Dohwa group show, that art is a form of expression and something about freedom. Some responses deviate from what is expected but into another familiar fold, stating how art is about wealth, and for the wealthy.
The heaviness of the questions—“is art necessary” and “what is art good for”—is strapped to the artist like a cross or a pair of wings. Though the artist and the performance enter a public space, I would argue that these are, unfortunately, not public questions. As in, these are not questions the “public” decide. This is made apparent by the presence of the canvas. Lee holds the blank canvas on his arms and he is the artist. Members of the public—those who are not identified, those unaccredited, who partake in the documentation and make the art possible—exist as extensions, uncompensated labourers and objects. The artist asks: what is art good for? And the public (the supposed non-artists) write on the canvas, contributing to Is Art Necessary? and in ways that appease the question: Art is good. Art is good.
Throughout Lee looks desperate, middle-aged, and determined. His body is the sacrifice and he is the saviour? Sometimes he is lying on the ground and sometimes he is kneeling. The responses people write which alter the canvases—an act that might be the constitutive form of art-making—are predictable and affirming.
The word good in the question “what is art good for?” stresses the importance of understanding the use-value of art. Lee is burdened with investigating not just the exchange-value, but the use-value of his form. Though the performance does not offer an answer to the question, it showcases how the question remains negotiated. The crisis of the artist (what is the good of his object, purpose), can be resolved through the adoration and support of his function by non-artists?
I bring this niche concern to the forefront to discuss the labour division that makes this disjuncture possible, and to interrogate the terms labour, artist, and art.
What is art good for?
One would think that “use-value” would mean: the value of its use, but the framework denotes what the buyer (the market) sees as the value of its utility. Precedingly, exchange-value is the representation of its value in the market. For example: rare gemstones and art objects are noted for their exchange-value. They are valuable because they are desired, and what makes them desirable is representation. However, what’s their use-value? Gemstones and art objects may be without much use-value, or may be commodities that exemplify the inequities created via representation, as the discrepancy between its use and exchange is the distance between power and violence.1
Use-value does not exist in isolation: a ruby (or forests!), on its own, inside a mine, according to the market, is meaningless; it might as well not exist. Rubies and forests are transformed into commodities through labour. The quest to find the ruby (which requires labour), and mine the ruby (labour), and cut the ruby (labour), and more are required for the ruby to exist as a commodity and obtain its exchange-value. Labour transforms entities the market deems valuable, into commodities. Returning to art.
In Is Art Necessary? is the extractive material being examined for its use- and exchange-value the artist’s anxieties? The artist has a critical question about art. The artist makes work from this anxiety. The production requires: his body, canvas, a documentarian, and encounters with strangers. The tourists. The non-tourists. The people on the subway. Are they the labour? There is someone holding the camera as Lee moves. There are the people who come up to Lee to write on the canvas. They are the labour power? We see Lee moving around, kneeling—he is a labourer? The finished commodity is a two-part video, available for viewing and collected as art.
The artist has an idea, feelings. The idea is isolated, as in, the process in which the idea incubates is credited with the artist. The idea is shaped into a title. The idea requires the work of others because it has always required others. Others appear but they hold no bearing to the end credits because it is subsumed that they have no relationship to The Idea. No matter how radical the critique, the divisions in this world, divisions that have been made natural but have no relationship to nature manifest in his piece because his piece exists inside of this world.
Is Lee a worker because his body and anxieties are involved, or is he the artist because though others are involved and required, only he receives credit?
What is the labour process required to create art? Is Art Necessary? could be called a performance, social practice, participatory art. Each categorisation comes with a set of problems that would complicate the framed question and each categorisation would also come with a set of labour questions. Is the question “what is art good for?” an investigation into the commodity called art, or calling into question the labour-power required to make art good?
What are the labour processes involved in the production of aesthetics?
If my own activity does not belong to me, if it is an alien, a coerced activity, to whom then, does it belong? To a being other than me? Who is this being?
—Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844
To examine the labour and material processes of aesthetics is an ongoing task. An exemplary interrogation into aesthetics and labour is Winnie Wong’s Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade, which triangulates painters in Dafen, Chinese globalisation, and conceptual art, to examine how the dynamics of colonial power shape how the figure of the artist—and forms of creative labour—continue to be mediated.
Wong’s text centralises painters in Dafen, China, whose labour supplies the world its fill of masterpiece dupes, painted by them (or their family members and the like) and with their expertise. Because of their skills, artists in the US and Europe have commissioned them in sardonic projects, from painting the full text of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” to re-creating famous contemporary works of art under the banner of fake art. Though Chinese painters supply the labour, their names are often uncredited, or patronisingly credited as part of the artists’ singular and conceptual intervention.
Wong is explicit in arguing against a narrative that boxes the painters inside the category of flat exploitation that works to further infantilise and erase their lives. And simultaneously, the text provides account after account of white US and European artists who utilise and anonymise the painters in Dafen, such as Hong Kong–based Michael Wolf who commissioned the painters to paint “fakes” of Richter’s and the like, took photographs of them next to their paintings, then sold their portraits as limited-edition prints in the US, all the while refusing to name the painters in the title or the tombstone. The Chinese painters were also unaware that their portraits would be exhibited or sold.
The projects examined by Wong trace the labour processes normalised in contemporary art. There is the artist with the idea: we are to recognise the artist because they are named and they have the capital to commission other people to do the work: the other people who do this work are often anonymised: this is as naturalised as the supply chain of all the other commodities that come into our lives: from the phones in our hands, the books on shelves, tank tops, strawberries, canvases, paints, everything: who knows the names of the labourers? Why would the labour process be any different for the objects required to make art. Sometimes the name of CEOs, venture capitalists, and artistes are known. Actually, it’s often considered an intellectual feat to know their names.
“Who knows the names of the labourers?” is not a hypothetical question.2 One of the answers would be: the labourers who make the object know their names, and Wong’s work also tells us some of their names.
In my experience, most people working in contemporary art consider labour processes to be quaint. To assume that the artist is also the artisan/worker/fabricator, and then be shocked when they are not, and then to ask genuinely about who made what, how, and why, is often considered to be a revealing tell of the outsider who doesn’t know much about art. In order to sincerely ask some of these questions, one would have to be unfamiliar with the histories and ideologies that denigrate labour questions in this realm. Duchamp and Warhol operated processes that explicitly theorised the practice of hiring out, commissioning others, and factorising their art. This theorising comes from all sides of the political spectrum, from self-proclaimed leftists like Lawrence Weiner’s “Declaration of Intent,” to the nonchalance of auction houses who explain the elegance of outsourcing fabrication while listing its million-dollar sale price. One could go even further back in history, to the practice of painting houses used by artists of the Renaissance. In the contemporary landscape, most artists operate post-studio practices. Richard Serra and many others have been noted for being entirely removed from making and production, hiring workers and young artists to make their art (it bears endless repeating that in 1971 a worker hired by Serra died creating his “dangerous” sculpture, Sculpture No. 3; if you did not know this before please tell all your friends, please let this be the only thing he is ever remembered for3), and following the trade routes of neoliberal capitalism, prominent painters such as Kehinde Wiley have discussed operating a studio with assistants in Beijing. He is probably not the only one.
Thus, is Lee Wen’s Is Art Necessary? a dematerialisation of the post-studio practice, in which questions of art’s extractive labour processes can be delineated; abandoning any positivist and liberal notions of art’s good? Or does Is Art Necessary? situate a post, post-studio landscape, in which extractive labour processes pivotal to art become normalised as good?
“What is art good for?” is a guilty, disillusioned question. It subsumes and embeds art into forms of excess and leisure outside the scope of life, and attempts to untangle its complications from there. And from this vantage, art is not supposed to have a use-value, it’s supposed to transcend value. It’s good because it’s representation and beyond.
My understanding is that an empire does not compensate you for overthrowing it. An empire compensates you for quelling rebellions or translating them into performatives or narratives that say there is a war as an abstraction, but not a war as a concrete phenomenon.
Dohwa Engineering Company Limited is a publicly traded, multi-national corporation with fronts in Algeria, Nepal, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, amongst others. They’re one of the largest engineering companies in Korea and the world, in charge of overseeing everything from: designing and constructing the sewage system in Kandal Province, Cambodia, to railways in Bangladesh and Algeria, to freeways in Pakistan. The corporation began in 1957, and as of 2019, their operating profits were 17.3 billion won, with a revenue of 402.5 billion won.
I say all of this because since entering their art complex, I have wanted to learn more about their labour practices and their subsidiary holdings. In Southeast Asia, South Korean corporations are notorious for operating with rapacious labour practices and for violently suppressing protestors. Their methods have at times been enforced by the Korean government.
Additionally, I am told by my brother that there is a Korean law—the “Culture and Arts Promotion Act”—that requires corporations, hospitals, and large buildings in general to have art sculptures in the front of their buildings, which usually take shape in the form of an abstract, large-scale geometric steel or cement object, which definitely requires many, many fabricators and workers to make.4 This is a globally familiar corporate practice, as the presence of art is often used to placate liberal notions of community engagement, public good, democracy (is this what it’s good for!). Whether or not art objects can facilitate public good and democracy in the presence of multi-national corporate suppression of all things communal and democratic in the service of neoliberal capitalism, remains outside the fray of corporate press releases about said outside sculptures and art spaces. But I am surprised that this normative practice was inscribed into Korean law in 1972, and then formalised in 1995.5 Should I have been more cynical about the existence of Dohwa Art?
There are only reasons to be pessimistic but lately I’ve been thinking about how the enthusiastic recipients of the critiques I’ve made about aesthetics and labour have exclusively been the young artists and writers whose art I most admire. These people usually find me in their transition away from the art world, from poetry, from writing. They summarise how difficult it’s been to hold the contradiction, between the violence of capitalism and their desire to make art. And upon understanding how there is almost no ethical and anti-capitalist way to be an artist, they reconfigure their ambition.
When they tell me, I protest. I tell them that I had no critique of them, my critique was never intended for them, and nevertheless they become my sole recipients. They appease me by stating mine was not the only work that convinced them—but is this my contribution?
I want to repeat thinkers who’ve articulated how we want to destroy this stuff because we are inside of it. Something vaguely dialectic, about how the lack of an “outside” or “alternative” is where we might thrive. Would we care to critique if this wasn’t our everyday, our lives? Would we have a critique of capitalism on the outside?
I’ve been wrestling with how to write something, for them, a fraught love letter about how theirs is the only art I want to know and feel and what is this? A Victorian tragedy involving locks of hair and pocket watches? If all I’ve done is aid their exit out of making: my inquiry has been wrong and I need to start again.
I want to offer you, us, more than exegesis. And so perhaps instead, a confession and a request:
I don’t wanna be here without you.
Take me with you when you leave
my closest friends are writers. we commiserate together on the process. before the pandemic it was about deadlines and copyeditors. is it not terrible—that deadlines exist, we would comment. capitalism is the worst.
now it’s different. instead of: this white copyeditor crossed out the word “chattel” in “chattel slavery” all discussions concerning writing have become a refrain. we take turns divulging: i cannot seem to write, and then in between: it is becoming difficult to write. and once in a while: i wrote something and i’m exhausted. we agree that the act feels different, the act of writing in this distance, is different.
i hear similar things from students. in our digital meetings and via email they tell me they want to write. they want to write papers and finish research but cannot seem to do so.
those of us in the profession of writing and those of us assigned to writing for a variety of reasons profess similar sentiments. the thing we tasked ourselves to do, the task we once knew so well—has become different. heavy. difficult in an inexplicable way.
is writing even necessary
now that a year of the pandemic has passed i think i understand. writing has become different for us—for me—because i remain somewhat retracted from the world, and i have never before written in this distance.
when we are able to see each other again in a future unlike the past and the present, i hope we can write essays about how we could not write away from each other, because we do not write on our own.
writing, thinking, making is about the presence of others. capitalism mythologises the lone artist—it crafts narratives about how they work alone, away from stuff and in the absence of resources—when even the things i think i do on my own have never been, and will never be just about me, or mine.
I wrote these sentences after calling Juwon Jun. I wrote these sentences listening to Kim Nguyen laughing on the phone, I wrote these thinking about the editor Paul C. Fermin, I revised the second paragraph after texting William C. Anderson, I imagined and finished this essay chatting with my brother, after eating lunch after taking a walk. Everything I compose is an amalgamation of my interactions with the world. Which is to say this thing that I say I do on my own cannot be done alone. Everything I write, and do, is a reflection of the encounters I’ve had with the people I know so well and the strangers whose names I wish I knew. If I have not credited this properly before it is because this is something that I felt but did not fully understand until I could no longer be around you.
I have never performed mental or hand work, have you? Writing is not mind work. Writing is not about my mind. Writing is me hoping to remember how you made me feel in my body. Did you eat did you sleep you who I love who I do not know you the writer reader somewhere breathing and not. Thank you for making it possible for me to eat today. Thank you for showing me how much I disagree. Thank you for the glances, the desires.
Perhaps in the next world the byline for this essay, the byline for all essays and projects until we no longer need them will say something about the place from which this is written and all of the people who appeared, disappeared, and were made to disappear during its time. Everything I want to say because you are there and not there. The kind of materiality that takes up the room and all of its encounters: what else is there. Look and speak. What else is not there
I am forever thankful to my brother Joseph Kim for sharing his insights, space, and time with me—this essay exists because of our relationship. Paul C. Fermin guided the shape of this essay and pushed the language so that it can be what it is here; I thank him and Karen Cheung for their pivotal feedback. I am ever grateful for my friends and comrades for existing and making existence so full.
Eunsong Kim is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Northeastern University. Her monograph, The Politics of Collecting: Property & Race in Aesthetic Formation (under contract with Duke University Press) materialises histories of immaterialism by examining the rise of US museums, avant-garde forms, and neoliberal aesthetics, to consider how race and property become foundational to modern artistic institutions. She is the author of gospel of regicide (Noemi, 2017), and the recipient of the Ford Foundation Fellowship, Yale's Poynter Fellowship, and a grant from the Andy Warhol Art Writers Program. In 2021 she co-founded offshoot, an arts space for transnational activist conversations.
1. I recognise that this is a truncated explanation of use-value and exchange-value, and acknowledge that many have devoted their entire lives to problematising/exploring/theorising their terms, functions, and more.
2. It is not impossible for others to know their names. But of course, capitalism ensures that their names are purposely distanced for those who are not them, and as Wong demonstrates, tremendous research would have to go into identifying the artists, labourers, and makers.
3. Jaime Chu writes about how Ryuichi Sakamoto’s exhibition at Beijing’s M Woods museum’s was delayed when a worker fell to his death (9 March 2021) during the installation of the show, and argues that many other critical conversations will need to take place about art work, before art injuries and deaths can be thoughtfully addressed.
4. My brother, the journalist Joseph Kim based in Seoul, has been working on a critical report about this law. I also thank Minyeong Kim for telling me more about this and sending me the linked article.
5. This Korean law should be considered under the backdrop of US corporate art-washing. US art historians (for a starting point see Erika Doss’s Spirit Poles and Flying Pigs: Public Art and Cultural Democracy in American Communities) have written extensively about the successful intersections between “public” art and gentrification, thus this Korean law serves as another spotlight for how US neo-colonialism functions in Korea.