Gift noun – a thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.
– Oxford English Dictionary
It turns out that the giver has only apparently lost. Not only does he have the power over the recipient that the gift has bestowed on him, but the recipient is obligated to nullify that power by repaying the gift. The rivalry even entails the return of a greater gift: In order to get even the giver must not only redeem himself, but he must also impose the “power of the gift” on his rival in turn. In a sense the presents are repaid with interest. Thus the gift is the opposite of what it seems to be: To give is obviously to lose, but the loss apparently brings a profit to the one who sustains it.
– Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
To state ‘never look a gift horse in the mouth’ might seem like an obvious and trite way to start a discussion of Hans Haacke’s recent Fourth Plinth commission, but there is definitely something in the old saying. Far from being long in the tooth (sorry), it demonstrates a sentiment which has run from protohistoric civilizations to the internet age of courtesy Facebook likes and Twitter favourites: that a gift must never be taken for granted; that it has its own imbued meanings; and therefore to squander that gift, or refuse it outright, would be seen as disrespectful because, after all, it does have a value. I was always taught to say thank you and I would hope that you were too, but when it comes to a gift how is one to reciprocate?
The history of destruction as impetus behind modern art has been well documented and the chronology runs pretty smoothly and without much objection: Marinetti’s 1909 call to burn the museums; Gustav Metzger’s first Destructivist manifesto of 1959; Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York (1960) at MoMA; the Destruction in Art Symposium of 1966; Pete Townsend – famously, a student under Metzger at Ealing Art College – smashing his guitars on stage; Hendrix and his sacrificial instruments in flames; Richard Hell, and later Vivienne Westwood, ripping open garments; and Michael Landy’s repeated spectacles of modern consumerist critiques in the twenty-first century. All these occurrences, with their political stances from pro-war rallies through late ‘60s counter cultures and punkish anarchism, have been seen as radical, against the grain of the modern. Decidedly anti-twentieth-century.
The will to lose, to prodigally waste your lot, is to be counterproductive in the consumerist society in which we live. Therefore, one can assume that productivity can be defined as consumption toward an end. We consume in order to produce but we produce because we consume. It is within this cyclical paradox that one disguised and ancient phenomena of destruction has remained to fuel the wallets and souls of civilians right into the heart of post-Fordism: The Gift.
We give, Marcel Mauss claimed in his essay The Gift (1925), in order to receive in return. A supposedly voluntary and free gift is the most basic form of contract between two groups of people, after all it is a social, and not a personal, construct that we are dealing with. It is so fundamental to our society and basic in its formulation to the point that is never written down or stated, yet everyone knows the score: everyone is at negative 1. It is the gift which can be traced as the source of modern commerce, not the barter, as many people believe.
So Haacke has given us something. We have had a gift bestowed upon us which is lovingly wrapped with a bow; and as united Londoners and we have accepted it. What do we give in return? How does a public gift, comparable to the potlatch of the North Americans and Spanish kings, warrant its return? In bygone years it was always with interest. Rivals would pass gifts to each other in order to show their superiority – this is called ‘the power of the gift’.
“Look what I can afford to lose” one gift says.
“Well I can give away more than you so I am more powerful” says the next.
Repeat until funds have depleted and the only sacrifice one can make is oneself.
Suicide in art is another theme which has a history running through the veins of modern art, but that is another tale to tell altogether.
Gift Horse, so the literature surrounding it states, passes comment on the links between money, power and history. A rider-less horse, harking back to the original statue of William IV planned for the site; based on an etching by Stubbs in front of the National Gallery in a public square – the home of politicised marches – topped off with a sarcastic bow around its front leg; ticker tape, live feed from the London stock exchange illuminates Trafalgar Square in LEDs, juxtaposed with the traditional blackened bronze of the skeleton. The links between money, power and history are, superficially at least, easy to trace.
But Haacke isn’t an artist who ventures after the superficial. Granted, the aesthetic is a key component of his work, but the what and the how are two startlingly different things. This is a man who doesn’t offer his followers artworks, he actively seeks out a very specific audience in order to tell them something they didn’t want to know or were unwilling to learn. Haacke says that “the context in which the public encounters [my] work…plays an important role”, adding “The people who came across my installations in public places…are different from the museum public”. Furthermore, “The social and political character of the exhibition locale plays a role” in how his artwork is consumed and understood (Bourdieu and Haacke, 1995: 90-91).
So then, after that long-winded and meandering introduction we have come to the point where anarchic notions of gift exchange, rebel strands of inverted economies of loss and the historical backbones of the fourth plinth collide at the point at which we stand, staring up to the beast. We are the audience Haacke sought out, the “uninitiated passersby in the street” (ibid.). We are the holders of the accursed share with a debt to pay.
Returning the gift
When, on 7th March of this year, I posed the question ‘what does London pay back to Haacke, or to the art world?’ to the panel at the ICA’s symposium Looking Gift Horse in the Mouth, not one person had an answer. And it wasn’t a trick question, I was genuinely intrigued by the idea of an unwitting public consuming this hodgepodge of influences without really knowing how or why, and above all not realising the extent to which this gift underwrites any economy we take for granted.
We have already noted that there is a shift in power when a gift is given. The power of the gift has been passed over to us and it weighs down upon us. Gift Horse functions in (at least) three economies simultaneously – the standardised post-industrial, Bataille’s general economy which runs on losses rather than gains, and Pierre Bourdieu’s social understanding economy, a shifting matrix of complex social and cultural ‘fields’.
Boris Johnson’s thumbs up to Gift Horse (despite being a thinly veiled reference to David Shrigley’s submission), which branded the front page of the Evening Standard on 6th May this year, makes you think the joke has been lost on the poor chap. What is approving, the insinuation Haacke makes that ruling power and aristocratic history is linked to the exchange of commodities? Or that Haacke’s attempt to highlight the economic influences at play in artistic and civic decisions should be highlighted and emphasised? Really, you know that this publicity shot just says: “look what he have, although I have no idea why”. It is the look of a burdened man.
Cultural fields and economic fields lie within one another, they overlap and it is system behind the façade that Haacke brings to the fore. Sponsors and the sponsored exchange their own gifts to one another: there is financial capital given by the sponsor which obligates cultural or symbolic capital on behalf of the sponsored.
London, a financial capital, has offered Haacke a soapbox from which to preach and we are now seen as symbolically or culturally empowered (Boris holds the look of a culturally empowered man, I am sure you will agree). What we must now give back to the art world is uncertain because we have to give back at a loss and how does one measure loss within a symbolic economy?
This is a problem at the crux of all public art commissions but it just so happens that it is now, with such glaringly obvious icons of commerce on display, that these questions are being raised.
The answer is this: we have to destroy something. We have to be seen to lose more than we have gained. According to the laws of general economy, it is this simple. This is the reason why images of the destruction of public artworks, iconoclasm from the protestant reformation through to the felling of images of Stalin and Saddam Hussein resonate so strongly and are one of the first targets of public angst. These happenings encourage a conflict within the mind of modern society – we twinge at the lost memory of loss for gains sake while at the same time cringing at the waste which doesn’t correspond to the socially constructed economy we live in.
How decidedly unmodern of us.
This essay was originally published via Curating the Contemporary CtC. Read the full article here.