Art’s Properties

- by David Joselit Princeton University Press, £22 (hardcover)

‘A progressiv­e politics of art must embrace dis-possession,’ concludes art historian David Joselit, in his short polemical experiment in rethinking the idea of property as a defining aspect of modern art. Selfie-takers in museums, he notes, epitomise ‘possessive modes of looking’ that are a symptom of a history of art rooted in the conflict between how the art system (museum, art market) ‘alienates’ the work of art, against art’s ‘constituen­t alterity’, its ‘infinite capacity… to generate experience over time’ – or, in other words, its freedom.

Joselit’s critical motif of modern art’s ‘dispossess­ion’ takes in the whole of the modern period: threading all the way back to the origins of the modern Western concept of the art museum, starting with the Louvre – which ‘dispossess­es’ artworks from their context, whether as colonial plunder or the seizure of the possession­s of deposed monarchies – all the way forward to Conceptual art, which Joselit interprets as the highpoint (and crisis) of the period of art-as-property, in which even an unmaterial­ised idea can become the property of the possessive artist.

Why does this bother Joselit so much? Because the turning-into-property of art is the flipside of ‘possessive individual­ism’, an individual­ism (historical­ly liberal, bourgeois and white) that excludes those who historical­ly are themselves ‘dispossess­ed’. This novel and idiosyncra­tic reading is Joselit’s attempt to wire older art-andcommodi­ty critique into current debates about whiteness, postcoloni­alism and identity politics: criticisin­g the debate around the 2017 Whitney Biennial’s presentati­on of Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016), in which some argued that a white artist should not exploit ‘Black pain’, Joselit argues that ‘if each of us regards our qualities as a form of property, then no genuine commonalit­y is possible… The only e‚ective route is to exit the proprietar­y regime of possessive individual­ism.’

Art’s Properties feels like the prototype for a bigger project to come, and its uncertaint­y lies in Joselit’s di‘culty in seeing his way beyond the liberal (and capitalist) idea of private property. His provisiona­l solution – that we should recast ourselves as ‘witnesses’ rather than ‘consumers’ of art – seems more ethical than political, a cultural rejection of proprietor­ial relations rather than their social abolition. J. J. Charleswor­th

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom