Human feelings, emotional work and art fairs. Benjamin Fallon observes ways to interact and links between negativity and constructive criticism, from the curatorial to office space organization.
In 1983 the feminist sociologist Arlie Russell-Hochschild published The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling based on years of on the ground research into what she would term ‘emotional labor’. The book follows two forms of gendered labour, primarily air hostesses but later in a less discussed aspect debt collectors, tracing how in their working lives they are trained to perform a supposed interior essence. In her analysis she develops the idea of deep acting, linking it to the theatre director Stanislavski’s method acting, differing from the more superficial niceties we enact daily to smooth social interaction, deep acting moves from the attempt to persuade others to a more profound alteration of oneself to respond to stimulus differently. We are now 30 years on from the publishing of the Managed Heart’s first edition and things have changed, written in America at the start of widespread deindustrialization and only two years into Reagan’s tenure (1), we have seen a shift in the ‘West’ to a finance economy supported by a service sector of emotional workers. Emotional work has been expanded into almost every aspect of labor and ongoing precarisation, brought about by flexibility, means we are more often than not in sales mode, selling ourselves on the open market, looking for the next job.
One of the key developments over this period has been the erasure of the negative to make way for a relentless and at times terrifying positivity. In Harun Farocki’s 2012 direct film Ein Neues Produkte his camera is trained upon the working processes of the Quickborner Team, a company that specializes in office design thinking beyond the spatial, how an office operates and how workers relate within it, and most famously credited for developing the open plan office. The film follows three members as they work on developing the titular ‘new product’ of personnel development and corporate culture. In one important scene they discuss the problem of the worker having to spend too much time at work and as a result feeling detached from his family, thus creating a despondent worker which is no good for corporate culture. The response to this dilemma is instructive, rather than situating it as a negative to be corrected, a positive solution is suggested that the family simply come and spend time in the office. So far has the positive embedded itself in our lives that when the film was screened the three protagonists were shocked that there would be any form of criticism of their working methods, which is unsurprising as from their perspective they are ostensibly the good guys working with the existing reality and attempting to ameliorate its most deleterious effects on a local level.
Recently the bane of our social media feeds Buzzfeed appointed a new book editor Isaac Fitzgerald. It would not normally be cause for much attention that a rapidly growing media company should appoint a new (and apparently high profile) editor, however in this case a radical position on editorial process accompanied it. This new line expressly forbade negative book reviews, Fitzgerald stating in an interview before taking up the post “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” (2) This way of thinking may have been easy to identify across the media both old and new but this seems to be the first time it has been explicitly stated as an editorial policy. There is a clear line of logic behind this move from a company that has built a multi-million dollar and growing company by operating a complex system of affiliate-marketing schemes in which referral links mean money. To put it bluntly people are unlikely to click through that link and spend their hard-earned money on something of which they have just read a negative review.
Negativity of course has not been entirely eradicated but it is now largely the preserve of the privileged to make use of as a weapon, for a recent and ongoing example see the channeling of negative affect towards benefit claimants in the UK in their casting as shirkers. It is here where we see latent class antagonism contained within emotions and their public deployment.
The art fair proves an interesting artifact of late modernity, an odd non-place with an accompanying non-time, an accelerated version of the white cube exacerbating the excision of the outside. One can look at the art fair as the nexus of a number of these concerns, often inhabiting the same peripheral spaces of the trade centre, cavernous flexible spaces that host an endless array of the new in every industry. A logic of centralization brings together people to be guided through the latest offerings under a permanent intensity of strip-lit space. Here gallery girls and boys take on the role of flight attendants as they promote and act as the smiling faces of the gallery, obliged to perform multiple roles, assessing those who visit on whether they are a serious contender, being able to discuss the work and providing a hospitable atmosphere for collectors before the ‘real’ work of closing the deal takes place, all the while never breaking character.
This is something that we see moving back into the curatorial and it’s etymological link to the idea of care (3) with a slippage to a misplaced conflation with the idea of love. I would argue that care should develop into something beyond an uncritical love and be able to situate a sense of critical distance. The deeply acted love of the curator for the art world and the artist can lead to a position in which when one presents a negative criticism towards an artwork or artist it is often taken as a personal insult, rather than a position from which one can think. The negative requires an engagement beyond the positive of something merely existing in the world and having been defined as art. It is with the negative that we might be able to assert the artwork as a tool(4) with which we would be able to so something on the level of thought or action. The negative has another inherent class aspect, time, of which access to is increasingly divided by class boundaries. To develop the negative is long, difficult and often boring, not something that is suited to a time of precarity in which one is often stuck in an odd bind of having time but not a free time, as that is now taken up with an entrepreneurial selfhood. And on a much more banal level the expression of thoughts could easily have a negative impact on your future employment possibilities.
So how do we reclaim the negative? I would proffer this as one of the more important questions of our moment. In a present in which emotion abounds and we are largely stuck with the limiting register of the positive it becomes increasingly pressing to re-establish the balance. This is not a call to produce a kind of bizarro-world negativity positivizing it into ‘your thing’, another entry on your CV. Equally it is not to posit a fall into the easy trap of a cynical position sneering from the edges, but rather to understand that negative emotion is essential to understanding our position in the world and requires an engagement that uncritical love is blind to.
In place of a coherent conclusion I will leave you with what I think is one of the more salient passsages to be found in The Managed Heart.
Emotion is a sense that tells about the self-relevance of reality. We infer from it what we must have wanted or expected or how we must have been perceiving the world. Emotion is one way to discover a buried perspective on matters. Especially when other ways of locating ourselves are in bad repair, emotions become important. (5)
(1) His time as president was to have an interesting effect on cultural production, consolidating the nascent American Hardcore movement, mobilizing a negative approach to the restructuring of the world around them. One of the early and influential groups was indeed called Negative Approach from which I have borrowed the title for this text.
(3) For a discussion on this I can recommend the work of Vesna Madzoski especially her thinking on the subject object relations of curating.
(4) Here it is necessary to differentiate my thinking from that of the idea of Arte Útil and its usage of the term tool. Whilst interesting and suitably provocative I find it lacks the urgent engagement with the idea of the negative and still relies on the figure of the artist and art in general as being imbued with a certain messianic quality.