What a Free Art Might Be

Jean-Pierre Depetris







1 Art leaves the market


1. Art of the twentieth century was in a market, in the same sense as prehistorical art was in caves, or sacred art was in temples.

It was commodity art, as we say sacred art, or cave art.


2. Why use a past tense ? There is still an art market, a book market, a music market, and, of course, a great multimedia market. There is a market, but, do we still distinguish in it a contemporary art, as were visible in the market, say, Rembrandt, Turner, César?


3. Ten years ago, I was still convinced that a private market of art was about to be replaced with a public market. The public market changed nothing in the disappearing of art from the market.

We only switched from a private art market to a market deprived of art.


4. If we look attentively, perhaps we shall find some interesting works. They merge in the market, rather than appear in it.

Contemporary art doesn't appear in the market, while not long ago, we found art nowhere else. It didn't appear outside.



2. Art and commodities


5. How did an artist enter the market? With the ancient regime of privileges, he entered it under the guise of royal privilege, with the bourgeois revolutions, he entered it under the guise of his property rights, with socialist ideas, he enters as an intellectual worker. Since World War II, the problem gets more complex: cultural wage earner, small businessman...?


6. Why did art enter the market? Because the market was its vehicle.

Art first entered the market with literature, and literature with the discovery of printing. Photography, recordings, cinema, completed the entrance of art into the market. This period is over.


7. The book was the model of commodity art. What is a book? For the market, its definition is simple: bound paper sheets containing linguistics marks, replicated in several copies. This is a clear definition, but it implies that no book existed before the discovery of printing.


8. This definition also implies that a book isn't made by an author, but by a printer and/or a publisher. (The acknowledgment of a right fixes then the negation of a fact.)


9. The juridical and commercial meaning of the word "book" differs noticeably from its usual meaning in every natural language. The latter implies the articulation of graphic marks in a coherent set, in any medium.

Those two definitions are even noticeably contradictory, since one defines the book as independent of any medium, the other assimilates it to the medium.


10. In fact, in the modern world, the book exists only in the form of a manufactured object. In the world of the commodity, an unpublished book is simply not a book.

Photography, gramophone, cinema, radio extended this fact to every artistic activity.



3. Object and language


11. Switching from the analogical means of copying to the digital ones seems first to be the triumph of the market; actually, it is its death knell.

Why? Because digitizing implies the contingency of the medium.


12. Digitizing not only makes the work free of any medium, it abolishes the separation between writing and editing.

On one hand, there is no more unique manuscript made by the author, waiting for an editor to become an actual book. The digital file is immediately reproducible.

On the other hand, the work is no longer a project waiting for its material actualization: the printed book. On the contrary, the printed book is now only a copy, a mere copy of the original work, reproducible at any time.


13. Here, the technical definition of book meets the one of natural language, and it rubs off on every artistic creation.

A painter, a musician, attempt to consider the digital document as the true work.


14. It is not a matter of predicting the disappearance of the unique sheet or of live music, nor of performance, happening, lecture, but of pointing out that no artist can continue to ignore the fact that his work can be detached from a sheet, an instrument, a situation.

He inevitably comes to know himself as the author of this part, free of any medium and infinitely reproducible.


15. Let us imagine a very good speaker who would be unable to write, or wouldn't bother to, or who would simply be unable to write as well as he spoke. Someone might then write down what he said. Who would then be considered the author? The speaker for sure, not the scribe. This was frequently the case during the antiquity (Socrates, Gautama). It came to an end with the spreading of writing. The author became someone who writes; or more recently, someone who edits a digital file.


16. During the twentieth century, we used to say that the publisher made the book, not the author. If you referred to "an unpublished book", you were corrected: "an unpublished manuscript". That was not always without reason. There were indeed books that were made by publishers and not written by authors.


17. Today, an editor is a software program, a writing tool. Writing a text has become editing it.

It is the same for music. A musician resembles a sound engineer. The work of an artist moves more and more to the tasks he previously left to others.


18. In his Aesthetics, Hegel gave poetry a higher place than to other arts: it alone could be emancipated from any medium and then, from space and time. Obviously, the other arts followed poetry along this way.


19. How do the other arts manage to follow the same way as poetry? (The point here is not to analyze how art emancipated itself from any medium during the two last centuries, even if such an analysis is unavoidable, but to know how, empirically, it currently does.)

— Becoming a digital file, immediately and infinitely reproducible? Not only.

— Being immediately edited by the author himself? Not any more.

They follow poetry, they become also, essentially, documents composed with graphical marks; becoming, on some way, text, at least language, owning a textual nature.


20. Art leaves the market this way : it ceases to be a manufactured thing, a commodity.

Art ceases to remain in the market, and enters language.



4. The linguistic object


21. We could say that art exits the market to enter the noosphere, or to become immaterial. That would resolve no ambiguity about what we can understand with token, language or text.


22. As complex as the notion of digital document might be, it is not vague. It is only complex in the way it supposes a vertical architecture of different languages: text in natural language converted into programming languages, digital languages, binary languages.


23. In this architecture, text in natural language can be replaced by images, sound, or virtually anything intuitive for the senses.

This first intuitive layer takes place on the surface of some different levels of languages, which become more and more unintelligible as to binary sequences.


24. In the world that is ending, the model of an actual work was the printed book. What is it today? A file in a proprietary format? The same in a public format? The source code? The hexadecimal code? The binary code?

This question is less complex than it seems at first . The actual work is the editable work (editable and not only reproducible), which is written in a transparent format, and the source code of which can be freely and easily replicated and modified



5. The spectacular commodity art?


25. The market pertains to customers. They may constitute an enlightened elite as well as a broad popular audience. In either case, they are customers.

Commodity art is essentially determined by its customers. If it has avant-gardist customers, it is an avant-gardist art, if it has ordinary customers, it is a popular art.


26. Commodity art is determined by a clear-cut boundary between producers and customers: the creator and his public. The more famous the former, the more anonymous is the latter.


27. The commodity artwork, like every commodity, can be produced in several versions: a few unique and expensive artworks or numbered and limited proofs reserved for specialists and enthusiasts, cheap editions for the masses. It may also give place to by-products.

The same artwork can be produced for different audiences, and even for every audience. This way, a commodity artwork can preserve an elitist character while being famous and well known by everybody.


28. The clear separation between the creator and his customers, that is fulfilled in the art object, implies that consumption must not change the integrity of this object. The art object must not be altered in its consumption. It must be only contemplative, spectacular.



6. Art and intellectual work


29. The art market separated artistic work from all other forms of intellectual work, from sciences, philosophy, mathematics, logic... from all the other intellectual productions that cannot produce artistic objects.


30. We can, of course, sell a book of mathematics or of physics like any other book. We can also sell any manufactured object which is a direct application of a scientific discovery, the patent of which has the same function as a copyright.

However, there isn't a scientific market, or a philosophical or mathematical one, even in the form of a market of patents, in the sense that there is a market of art.


31. The art market works with some customers — direct consumers — and that is what makes it different, and isolates it from all other intellectual activities.

"Art is producing works", we say, and the works, in a market, become commodities.

In this sense an intellectual activity that does not directly produce a commodity is not art.


32. Art becomes less and less easily a commodity. It is due partly to the self-evolution of art and partly to the evolution of the market and of the commodity.

The market becomes less and less free; art, more and more free.



7. The contradictions of commodity art


33. Actually, art doesn't want to exit the market, nor does the market want to evict art. Their divorce engenders funny contradictions. One of them is the "Bovary effect".


34. In commodity art, the artist painted his world (no longer an "other world") and identified himself with it. "Madame Bovary is I" said Flaubert during his trial.

At the end of the twentieth century, the world identified itself with the artist: "Flaubert is I" Bovary would have said.


35. There is nothing odd about the idea that art would be done by everybody for everybody, but such an art would be likely different from commodity art.

Imagine people reading novels only in order to learn how to write them, or going to galleries only to learn how to paint. The market would change, and the nature of art and the methods of creation would be profoundly transformed.


36. Those funny contradictions open the new period. The present-day art market is nothing but one of those funny contradictions.



8. Programming and intellectual work


37. The market separated art and intellectual life. Art becomes free by breaking this separation.

One part of the (commodity) art gets free (by getting out) of the market, another one get out of the market of art and creates the one of culture and social entertainment.


38. The liberation of art and the reconstruction of intellectual work occur principally in and through programming.

In practice, data processing, personal computers and the Internet are the main tools for the liberation of art. Looking deeply into this, the epistemological quality of the phenomenon gives new paradigms. (Such a vocabulary, requires more explanations than it provides.)


39. Getting free of the market, art finds more direct grasps on the real. It distances itself from the object, the artwork, the commodity, for the benefit of the symbolic dimension, or semeotical, semantical, poetical, pragmatical or performative ones.

This way, it becomes essentially intellectual work.


40. In the same time, sciences and mathematics follow paths that converge with the artistic one. Here again, programming plays a decisive role.



9. Intellectual work and intuition


41. Mathematics adopted a new course with the generalization of data processing, with the ability to use computers to effect calculations that would have been inconceivable before.

Thus, a new mathematics is appearing, based on the observation of "digital phenomena", and no longer only on hypothesis and deduction.


42. Conversely, natural sciences make a more frequent and intensive use of automatic models, that is, they approach natural phenomena through programs that simulate them.

In so doing, they discover mathematical behaviors common to different phenomena, or crossing over different disciplines, for example, climatology and economy.


43. While, for a long time, the goal was phenomena modelling, the model itself behaves as a natural phenomenon.

Or again, while the sentence attempted to be an explanation, a description, a demonstration of phenomena (what is well conceived is clearly stated), it becomes something that needs elucidation (what is well stated must be clearly conceived).


44. A great part of the cognitive activity belonging to reason can be left to processing devices. (Let us understand "artificial intelligence" as cognitive prostheses, as we could label auditive or ophthalmic prosthesis "artificial perception", even if glasses do not see anything by themselves.)

Human intellectual work is then essentially turned toward intuitive perception.


45. Here, mathematics and sciences join aesthetics, not in seeking beauty or truth, but in seeking intuition.


46. "We know that this statement is true. We even know that it can actuate the real and change it. But we do not understand what it means."


47. "Up to now, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, we now have to interpret their statements." This can be conceived as a stupid completion for the final centuries of modernity.

It is, on the whole, what is proposed under the name of "Culture". The issue is to avoid such a stupidity.


48. Beauty is the appearing essence, said Hegel in his Aesthetics. We can consider appearance as contingent, but what would be an essence that did not appear?

If we conceive appearance as an appearing, then we conceive actuality as an actualization.


49. In the classic model, the scientist tried to interpret reality (to describe, to explain, to deduce it), and the artist tried to show it, to make it intuitive. Those two tracks merge and overflow: the statement becomes a program.

The statement has to be intuitive and performative at the same time. Both necessities are one.



10. The double merchant deadlock


50. Getting out of the market, art meets some risks. The first is to lose all shelter. It may change its place in the market: from being producer, it may become a consumer — a consumer of informations, of publications, of wares, softwares and hardwares — at least a consumer of technics and even of sciences.


51. If art strikethrough to be done by everyone for everyone, it probably would have a huge market. Artistic production would no longer continue to produce in this market, but would consume.

We can understand then that many artists would have conservative stances regarding this perspective. But what can they expect?


52. In such a market, artists can only claim a professional status by becoming publicists. (A good photograph, for instance, would work with a brand of film and would be sponsored by it.)

Why not? Art has never been fed by less questionable resources. The problem is elsewhere: if such conditions provided an actualization of art, the artists would accept it. Will those conditions enable it?


53. If the art market becomes a market of consumption, after having been a market of works, artworks would have to give way to talent.

We can compare this with sports: a professional athlete sells his talent. Indirectly, he promotes the sale of manufactured goods that he doesn't produce, and that have sponsored him.


54. We could imagine artists doing performances. However, there would be no precise rules for keeping score. Who would be judge, referee?


55. Let us assume that we distinguish professionals and amateurs with sales, amount of total sales, public audience...: isn't this a vicious circle?

Is an athlete well-known because he is a professional, or is he a professional because he is well-known? He is both because he makes high scores.

The art market has gone this way. What comes next? Art exits the market.



11. calculation and language


56. More seriously, art is at risk of becoming a single consummation of sciences and technics; but here, the risk would be even more serious for them.

A computer is above all a device that performs calculations. This is so obvious that it tends to be overlooked. Then, the consumed sciences and technics would be those of calculation.


57. What is mathematics? We may rephrase the question: Is mathematics a language? Or, does it exist independently of its language?

This is a very complex question: Does the plural of mathematics in French mean some language plurality? Or, on the contrary, would a plurality of mathematics get unified by a single language?


58. The tacit option of modernity seems to be that many mathematics are unified by a single language.

This is only a tacit option, and it could make people fall out if we tried to justify it. Nothing is less clear, in the contemporary culture, than a possible relationship between mathematical language and a hypothetical referent.


59. An unified language for mathematics would have been considered as a good thing at the beginning of the twentieth century. A century later, we have some reasons to wonder if an excessive complexity of mathematics is not due to what was supposed to simplify them.


60. Are mathematics independent from language? It is as if we asked if the world would be independent of English: the actual, natural, irrational, imaginary world. However, English can describe it; it can also describe, explain or paraphrase mathematical language.

We might think, in some cases, that the great difficulty of problems and, especially, the great partitioning of mathematics could benefit from a wider use of natural language.


61. Mathematics would be, not God's language, as it seemed to some initiators of modernity, but Nature's.

We have yet to know to what extent mathematics is a language, and if its relationship with the physical world has a linguistic nature.


62. To what extent can a mathematical proof state a certainty? to what extent are mathematical proof and certainty not contradictory words? Certainty belongs to synthetical intuition; proof, to analytical deduction. The whole problem is to state deduction on intuition. (Is the contrary conceivable?)


63. Contemporary mathematics presupposes a great trust in a language, a confidence widely overcoming reason. ("Mathematical language proves to be more efficient than reasonable", said Winner in 1960.)



12. New Babel


64. Mathematical formalism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, didn't produce what we expected from it, but what we didn't. If we believed it would help us to think, or only to calculate, we had it wrong, but it had the efficiency to make machines calculate for us.


65. Machines don't calculate as we do. They handle binary sequences that we can hardly decipher. We don't venture, anyway, we convert them in other languages. Those languages have some characteristics of natural languages — such as English —, and some of logical and mathematical ones: the source code.


66. From the source code, we can go to the mathematical languages, to the natural ones, to the machine ones, to the "languages" of sense: sound, images, texture...


67. Formal mathematical language doesn't work here as a universal language. There is no universal language, but a flowering of languages, at different levels, which, this time, by contrast with the myth of Babel, doesn't seem to divide, nor to discourage the builders.



13. Reading, writing and editing


68. "If the generalization and the development of operating systems based on graphical and metaphorical improved interfaces make the use of a computer accessible for whose don't know its functioning, they make remote and hide the true nature of the processing program and its metaphysical potential." Bluescreem (<http://www.b-l-u-e-s-c-r-e-e-n.net/>)


69. At the end of the twentieth century, some people believed that the end of writing had came. The contrary happened: everything has become text.

The world's "source code" is very explicit. The code is the source of everything. The source is free when it's readable, and it's readable when the code is explicit or completed with commentaries.


70. At the beginning of modern capitalism, intellectual life concerned a cultured elite, well defined in some European capitals. Making one's work public implicitly meant making it known by this elite. Today, just about everybody can virtually discourse with the whole world in a quasi universal language.

Of course, this eventuality is always virtual. At the other extreme, private communication is threatened. Every actual communication takes place between those two inaccessible poles: universal and private.


71. If nevertheless a homogeneous artistic elite composed of well-known personalities continued to live, they would barely give something else than a show business of intellectual life.

Its production would take its place in a mass market of culture and entertainment.


72. Previously, the purpose of writing was the production of an edited text. It is now the production of an editable one — or music, images...


73. The question of the right to use, to copy, to diffuse and to modify freely soon becomes a rearguard problem. The actual problem is to have the ability (and not only the right) to edit.

An intellectual work could be nothing else than editable. The concept of editing replaces reading and writing, and unifies them.



14 Freedom and readability


74. Today, nobody knows exactly what free art means. It is a new idea, never evoked before. People demanded a revolutionary art, a militant art, art for art's sake, an art for everyone made by everyone, an independent art, a popular art, a democratic art... no one had never seriously thought that art could be free, nor how it could become so.


75. In some ways, free art takes its place in the twentieth century art continuation, and adds nothing notably new. In other ways, it recognizes its precepts in those of the Free Software Foundation.

Until now, there has been an unconsidered relationship between free and readable. We now have to better understand what such a readability for art might be.


What a Free Art Might Be is a translation of
"Ce que pourrait être une art libre".

© avril 2003, Jean-Pierre Depétris Copyleft: this work is free,
you can redistribute it and/or modify it according to terms of the Free Art license.
You will find a specimen of this license on the site
Copyleft Attitude http://artlibre.org as well as on other sites.