Published in the exhibition catalog Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial, the essay below is copyright © 2015, held jointly by Laura Napier and The Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, 10456-3999. Permission to re-print must be granted by The Bronx Museum of the Arts.



The Contemporary Dematerialization of Art
Laura Napier

Perhaps most important, Conceptualists indicated that the most exciting “art” might still be buried in social energies not yet recognized as art. The process of extending the boundaries didn’t stop with Conceptual art: These energies are still out there, waiting for artists to plug into them, potential fuel for the expansion of what “art” can mean.
—Lucy Lippard¹

Admit that the waters around you have grown … for the times, they are a-changin’
—Bob Dylan²

To Lippard, writing in the early 1970s, art became dematerialized: the new conceptual, text-based art was made with fast, using inexpensive techniques to keep up with a market obsessed with novelty. Material was secondary, and art was, “easily mailed work, catalogues and magazine pieces, primarily art that can be shown inexpensively and unobtrusively in multiple locations at the same time.”³

Many artists have turned away from making objects as the end-object; instead they set art in real life, as lived experience in concert with other people and groups. This contemporary dematerialization of art—which is conceptually and economically necessary—is tied to artists living in financial precarity, and new definitions of art, particularly what is now called social practice. Art also reflects the time of its making. In the United States, the commercial fine art market, the debt-based economy, and a renewed push for progressive social change are the climate for art’s expansion.

Who defines a “real” artist? In New York City, the art market and attendant mainstream museums, art fairs, press, and collectors are blind to those outside the white box of commercial galleries, those who live and work outside the “right” neighborhoods, those artists engaged in wider practices. By not assigning monetary value to “other” activities and places, the market literally ignores these artist ways of working and living.

Artist and writer Gregory Sholette argues that the true art world is made up of “dark matter”—people behind the scenes who serve the art industry, hidden “failed artists” who are nevertheless producers, such as teachers, arts administrators, preparators, etc.4 He theorizes that these art workers and art consumers—visitors to museums, purchasers of books—prop up the high art world in a pyramid scheme, and that if their support stopped the system would be undermined.

Is the market relevant to those it omits? It does serve to illustrate greater societal inequities. Art critic Dave Hickey told the Guardian in 2012, “Art editors and critics—people like me—have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.”5

Whether participating in the market or not, many artists in New York City are hosts to parasitic capital extraction: the primary value of surplus artists under debt-reliant capitalism is, like their nonartist peers in the US economy, to pay interest on exorbitant loans for higher education and feed speculation on property in neighborhoods as they rent, while not materially participating. In addition, the professionalized art education system incurs debt, a financial burden to be borne by the artist until death.

Cooper Union was one of the last remaining tuition-free institutions of higher learning in the United States. On Halloween 2011, the new president of the school held an emergency meeting for faculty, staff, and students inside the school’s new $175 million building designed by Morphosis. Jamshed Bharucha presented a packed auditorium with his view of the school’s finances, stating that the school could not continue to “kick the can down the road.” He promised to pursue all avenues to solve the crisis, but warned students that tuition was not off the table. Less than three years later, the incoming class of 2014 was charged $19,800 annually. Founded in Manhattan in 1859 by Peter Cooper on the principle that “education should be free as air and water,” the school, in reneging on its promise, follows the path of the City College of New York in 1976 and Rice University in Houston, Texas, in 1965, among others.

Scarcity rules artist housing, funding, and other project support. In 2014, more than fifty-three thousand individuals applied for eighty-nine artist live/work units in the Artspace PS109 building in East Harlem, developed by the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Artspace. That is an acceptance rate of less than two-tenths of 1 percent (.17 percent). Unfortunately, US-based artists are accustomed to these odds. AIM 34 artist Christine Wong Yap compiles art competition odds on her R+D blog, typographically visualizing open-call odds for residencies, fellowships, and other artist support.6 Comparing acceptance rates to the total pool of applicants, she cites the odds from .1 percent to upward of 13 percent.

Without support, only artists secure in the wealthiest classes can continue to create work. Time spent applying for funds can prevent many artists—short on time as they labor at full-time jobs to support themselves—from actually doing the work they are proposing. Should one beat the odds and garner project support, the resulting work must follow the ideals of the funders. As Hickey argued in 2009 at the School for Visual Arts, “care is control.” Public monies and private foundations limit their support to accepted norms and topics. Not everyone can afford to participate.

So what do artists work on today, as they personally embody leveraged financial instruments and controlled artistic bodies? Just as Lippard’s dematerialized objects from 1966 to 1972 were set during radical change—struggles for African American civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam War, second-wave feminism, Stonewall riots and Gay Pride marches, and back-to-the-land and counterculture movements—the new dematerialized art stands in relation to contemporary social movements, spanning the practical and the conceptual.

The right to marry one’s same-sex partner and the legalized use of marijuana are being fought for in courts and passed in states across the United States. A record-breaking climate march was staged in New York City in 2014, as environmental talks between the US government and more progressive countries faltered.

The rights of women not to be harassed in the streets — and to be believed as victims of sexual violence on campuses or of celebrities—are advocated for in the press. Roberta Smith reviewed Columbia University art undergrad Emma Sulkowicz’s performance piece Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), in the New York Times in September 2014.7 Sulkowicz carried her mattress everywhere she went on campus in protest at the continued presence of her rapist at school, until she graduated. Endorsed by Smith as art and activism, and compared by Smith to the “solitary ordeals of Vito Acconci, Tehching Hsieh, and Marina Abramovic,” Mattress Performance was also formally recognized by Columbia as Sulkowicz’s senior art thesis project. However, much poststudio work artists do is not recognized by institutions and the public as art.

Demonstrating renewed energy for artists today to work collectively to change systems affecting them and on larger issues of our society, Occupy Wall Street was staged almost exactly ten years after September 11, 2001, during oil wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Formally incited by a call to action in the Canadian anticapitalist magazine AdBusters in June 2011, what became the core General Assembly group began in the downtown artists’ and writers’ space 16 Beaver.

Contemporary dematerialized work takes form in meetings, and through collaboration and cooperation, and leads to freely circulated publications on the Web and the performance of mass protest, such as the people’s mic and hands up. These are also forms utilized by social practice. Claire Bishop defines this field—Lippard’s “social energies”—as an “expanded field of post-studio practices . . . socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, contextual art, and (most recently) social practice.”8

In December 2012, a dozen students for a Free Cooper Union, mostly artists, staged a lock-in, demanding that “the administration must publicly affirm the college’s commitment to free education.”9 In May 2013, about one hundred students at Cooper Union occupied the president’s office for sixty-five days. In the meantime, a wider Cooper community collaboratively authored The Way Forward, proposing a sustainable course for the institution. Later, the board-sanctioned Working Group Report proposed a plan to preserve all full-tuition scholarships to Cooper’s trustees, who rejected it. Art student Victoria Sobel and several others spent so much time organizing that they may not have graduated without art faculty recognizing their work as artistic education.

Evoking back-to-the-land, drop-out-of-the-system movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, artists are again interested in experimental communities, self-sustained living, and permaculture. Participation allows artists to temporarily drop out of paying rent, but also prototypes resilience to apocalyptic global climate change and resistance to consumer culture. SmARTpower artist Mary Mattingly develops new living systems with her large-scale collaborative projects Waterpod (2009), Flock House (2012), and WetLand (2014). Her transient, floating structures—made in collaboration with architects, gardeners, and scientists—are designed to be inhabited. Subsequent to residencies on Mattingly’s Waterpod and at the artist collective Flux Factory, AIM 26 artist Alison Ward cofounded Habitable Spaces in rural central Texas in 2011 with partner Christopher Heinemeier. An experiment in collective living and a living sculpture, Habitable Spaces is being built from the ground up utilizing alternative building technologies and traditional homesteading techniques.

Advocating for the rights of artists in a city where the labor of artists often goes unpaid, Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E), formed in 2008, builds on the legacy of groups like Canadian Artists’ Representation / Le Front des artistes canadiens, which has published the CARFAC Minimum Fee Schedule since 1968. Art cannot exist without artists, and artists cannot exist without money. The W.A.G.E. Certification’s fee calculator, released in fall 2014, calculates that for an organization with total annual operating expenses at 5 million dollars, minimum fees required would be: $10,000 for a solo exhibition, $1,500 for an artist talk or reading, and $1.00 per word of commissioned text for publication. W.A.G.E. states that their work is not art.

This is art that can’t be art. As Allan Kaprow wrote in 1986, “an artist concerned with lifelike art is an artist who does and does not make art,”10 in a meditation on his solitary performance of brushing his teeth. Most artists are individually maintaining their teeth. But they continue to work together to improve living and support systems, in ways not so easy for the public to dismiss as “just art.”

When I moved to New York City in 1994 as an art student, Giuliani was mayor, and soon the NYPD put “broken windows” theory into practice. In 1995, students I knew were tear gassed by police as they were leaving a protest over tuition hikes at CUNY and SUNY campuses. When I joined protests, it was in fear. New York’s Occupy encampment in Liberty Plaza ended violently at the same time as many others around the country, coordinated by local law enforcement, FBI, Homeland Security, and banks; surveillance of Occupy protestors as a “potential criminal and terrorist threat” began a month before the encampment, according to Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.

In late November 2014, a St. Louis County, Missouri, grand jury failed to deliver a single indictment over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and a few days later a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict NYPD Officer Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner. Masses turned out in the streets of New York City in anger, sorrow, and with renewed energy to stand up for the rights of black men to be free from deadly police harassment. We were able to march freely that week, tacitly supported by Mayor De Blasio, temporarily obstructing streets, bridges, and tunnels—direct actions that Fluxus artist Maciunas could only dream of. Temporary open spaces like these are today’s opportunities. And the weather is changing.



1 Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973, reprint, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, First California Paperback Printing, 1997), xxii.

2 Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’ (New York: Columbia Records, 1964),

3 Ibid., 263.

4 Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (London: Pluto Press, 2010).

5 Edward Helmore and Paul Gallagher, “Doyen of American Critics Turns His Back on the ‘Nasty, Stupid’ World of Modern Art,” Guardian, October 27, 2012,

6 See, e.g.,

7 Roberta Smith, “In a Mattress, a Lever for Art and Political Protest,” New York Times, September 21, 2014,

8 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012), 1.

9 See “Free Cooper Union,” Allan Kaprow, “Art Which Can’t Be Art” (1986),; repr. In Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (1993, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 219.