Anonymous Art FTW!
Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen
When lotteries began to appear as television entertainment in the late eighties, it was obvious that winning a lot of money wasn’t considered a bad thing. A big win was just seen as something extra—a cash buffer. Winners would always say: I won’t change a thing. I’ll keep working; maybe I’ll go on a nice vacation. Regardless of whether or not this was true, people saw themselves leading essentially good lives, and fundamentally changing things just because of a sudden influx of money would mean a disavowal of one’s choices. To the extent that money would lead to lifestyle changes, winning the lottery represented a significant risk—namely that of denying the very life you had built. This is basically the same reasoning behind Socrates declining the possibility to escape his death sentence. In short, winning the lottery could never constitute a true triumph, never be a real improvement, but rather: a real loss. This is how life was understood when I was twenty. This view was also shared by gamblers. I remember hearing about a record-breaking jackpot in the mid-nineties; when reporters located the lucky guy who won at the horse races, he was found at the Poker table.
The only conceivable moment in life when winning the lottery could be perceived as a good thing was just before choosing a career. What happens to two young students who developed a level of taste exceeding their means yet don’t possess the patience to work their way up to a position so as to afford the objects that they desire—this is the plot of Georges Perec’s debut novel Les Choses (1965). Seduced by beautiful things, the two are busy figuring out what kind of accommodation, what shoes, would best express their way of life and character—as young people acquiring the riches of adulthood. They don’t want to lead an adult life; they only wish to own its constituting objects. Neglecting their studies and careers, they have vague daydreams about the situation resolving itself in a way that corresponds to their inner lives: an unexpected inheritance from an unknown relative, stumbling across a bag of money from a bank robbery on the subway. In short, winning the lottery would make it possible for them to instantly become themselves without having to prove their qualities via a working life. Failure in launching a career makes their life a “still tragedy” in which the possibilities of self-realization gradually disappear. They discover that life isn’t easy when you’re a young person past your youth.
Now things are different. Youth is the most sought-after quality in an employee or artist, and second to that is youthful flexibility; a lifelong career in a single profession is unheard of these days, and art careers seem to be getting shorter and shorter. Or maybe you could say that an artist’s career today can be rebooted several times and move in different directions—with intermittent breaks of a few years here and there to teach at an art school. As I heard a Russian woman recently say (she was once a high-level executive but is now unemployed): “That’s just life. One day you’re in charge, the next day you’re homeless … then you become the boss again.”
Thus, the bizarre ritual in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948) can be said to articulate the general view of life that was prevalent, at least in Sweden, when I grew up. Perhaps, to a certain extent, also in the mind of Socrates. The lottery stands for the death threat that every random break with your earlier life implies: I have not been living my real life but a meaningless one that winning has now released me from. The strange thing about the short story today is that it still anticipates our situation. While surrounding villages abandon the lottery, this village sticks to it. As we know now, lotteries are for most people the only way out of a fairly meaningless and all too demanding work life. The only thing the village needs to do is reinterpret the prize—maybe change it.
The understanding of life as a continuous project wasn’t really challenged in Swedish public life until 1998. This was the year of “Lotto-Åke,” a TV commercial by the state-owned gambling company Svenska Spel’s advertising agency Forsman & Bodenfors. In it, we see an employee, Åke, summoned by his despotic boss and forced to bring work home over the weekend. Suddenly it happens: Åke begins imitating and making fun of his boss. While the manager cannot believe his eyes and this subordination, it slowly dawns on the viewer: Åke has won the lottery. And this is where public consciousness changed! I might as well just blurt it out: if I win the lottery, I’ll quit. Right away. This no longer constituted failure. (It’s worth noting that the labor market was going through transitions. Everything was being privatized, and the influence of unions was quickly diminishing. Working conditions deteriorated at the same time there was no societal or political vision about what all of this work would become. The idea of building a better society for everyone was gone.)
With all this in mind, it should be considered a major success to win this project’s lottery and anonymously contribute to its exhibition (which stands as hypothetical). Anonymity appears to be one of today’s most coveted conditions of social, political and existential relevance. In a society where you can no longer travel on a domestic train without showing your ID, perhaps, it’s not strange that people have a desire to remain unnamed. That the surveillance society, online as well as in real life, has reached a scope that I don’t think we are able to grasp is probably one reason, and the fact that anyone can make themselves visible through blogs and social media has probably also contributed to the devaluation of the currency of attention. At the same time, new types of performative identities are created on social media; some of them retain a certain degree of anonymity while the inconspicuous—discreetly conspicuous—paradoxically gain social and cultural currency (a tendency that must be behind the trend of ‘normcore’). The fashion industry was quite early—this is perhaps linked mainly to Maison Martin Margiela, which virtually from the beginning kept their designers, retailers and packaging anonymous—but today, even those working towards change in society often work anonymously. One of the most powerful hacktivist / activist networking in the U.S. goes by the name of Anonymous. This movement perturbs partly because of its efficiency and partly due to a lack of understanding about what drives them; actions carried out for fun constitute “the dark humor of Anonymous (the lulz, they call it) … spreading lulzy mayhem,” but this didn’t stop them from hacking the Tunisian government’s website when protests broke out there.1 In order to not mislead the reader, I would like to point out that there is an aspect of anonymity which is irrelevant in this context—being the representation attached to it. This may have been one important aspect of anonymity in art, as in Romanticism’s sense that fairytales (and Goethe’s poems Über allen Gipfeln written anonymously on a mountain cabin wall)—simply by having a nameless author—could represent the people and act as works which stem from common views and worldly experience. Similar thoughts are found in Anonymous. When they say in their famous video “Dear Fox News”: “We are everyone, and we are no one,”2 the only thing that separates them from the Romantics is the pathos that makes their enemies, rather than hearing a silent “we, the people,” hear “look over your shoulder.”
There is every reason to believe that anonymity would be the best condition for anyone who values making good art over getting credit for it. Obviously, it’s easier to say exactly what you think or want to think in public if you don’t need to come forward. And it is precisely this awareness, murky perhaps, that you will either be judged or that you must be prepared to answer for your work which definitely affects the actual artistic process so that you, without thinking, make cowardly decisions—or at least different decisions from what you would have otherwise. It’s common knowledge that having to be judged by others, even if it means being rewarded, fundamentally affects one’s motivation. But while today’s doxa will have it that this is a good thing, I would say that anonymity is needed precisely as a shield from such motivational factors.
For what are the means of surveillance that make people, including artists, produce—and produce well? Surveillance believes in the carrot-and-stick, assessment, reward and exclusion. The theory is that this motivates people to do their very best. “The intuitive logic for performance-based compensation is to motivate individuals to increase their efforts and the output of their labor,” concludes Professor Dan Ariely and one of his research groups.3 Increased motivation is believed to prompt a surge in both productivity and quality. But this assumes that performance can be controlled and evaluated—which in itself is said to increase motivation. According to this theory, an artist would do their very best work with an invitation to Documenta and a huge budget. And in general, their performance would increase qualitatively and quantitatively if they focused on their careers, sought to be included in prestigious exhibitions or sold at high prices to important collectors. In accordance with that, this project also assumed that no artist could be bothered contributing to an exhibition anonymously and that winning the raffle would thus be a punishment. This “intuitive logic” is supported by some observations but also refuted by others. Ariely mentions several observations made from previous studies; for example, New York taxi drivers end earlier on days that they do well, and they work more on days they earn badly, or that students raising money by knocking on doors knock on fewer doors if they’re earning a commission. Therefore, there is no essential and unambiguous connection between what stimulates motivation, effort and results.
But Ariely and his co-authors don’t stop with phrasing the logic—nor with observations. They employed large, well-controlled experiments to test this logic: “The expectation that people will improve their performance when given high performance-contingent incentives rests on two subsidiary assumptions: (1) that increasing performance-contingent incentives will increase motivation and effort, and (2) that this increase in motivation and effort will result in improved performance.4 Research findings have already shown that confidence in (1) is not wholly founded, so experiments by Ariely et al. are testing (2). They use a variety of groups from different parts of the world and with ranging levels of education. The currencies at play can either be social or economic (the experiment’s subjects can earn up to half a year’s wages). Perhaps, socially stimulating motivation is what is most relevant to the majority of artists. Evaluation is always taking place in art schools, in reviews, in conversations—but, similar to economic incentives, this is also something that you need to protect yourself from (for example, by means of anonymity), because the results are surprisingly unequivocal. That “additional incentives can decrease performance,” is decidedly true.5 It was clear that in activities which centered on performing tasks well, increased external motivational factors often led to a loss of flow and spontaneity; instead, subjects acted in a very controlled manner—even inhibited. Everybody knows that you become nervous and tense in situations with a strong incentive to do well, be it giving an important lecture, taking an exam or working on something for Documenta. Factors that increase motivation often have a negative impact on performance.
This can perhaps be combined with the result of another of Ariely’s research groups. They found that not only external but also internal reward systems lead to greater dishonesty and fraud—faking success, simply put.6 (We may ask ourselves why it’s important for our system to produce suppressed, fake artists? Who benefits from this?)
But not only that it could impair the results: when comparing groups with different levels of incentives, it was found that “the performance of participants was always lowest in the high-payment condition when compared with the low- and mid-payment condition.”7 “Dangling a very big carrot,” Ariely summarizes in another text, “led to poorer performance.”8 And the overall results were presented as follows: “Many existing institutions provide very large incentives for exactly the types of tasks we used here—those that require creativity, problem solving, and concentration. Our results challenge the assumption that increases in motivation necessarily lead to improvements in performance. In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.”9 The results become even more damning, and relevant to the arts, when you look at activities that people do just for fun. According to Jeremy Dean, studies on children by psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene of Stanford and University of Michigan, showed that children who like to draw became less interested in drawing when they could expect a reward. Their motivation dwindled, regardless of whether the reward was known or a surprise. “In fact the expected reward reduced the amount of spontaneous drawing the children did by half. Not only this, but judges rated the pictures drawn by the children expecting a reward as less aesthetically pleasing.”10 According to Dean, this is because inner motivation disappears, thus damaging creativity and even problem solving capacities. This doesn’t mean that you should be completely unmotivated in order to perform well, but that the incentives shouldn’t be too significant. Most likely, it’s best to be motivated to do something because it’s fun. One must always defend fun as a value in art, not least now with an expanding entertainment culture, with a DJ at the opening, and the ubiquity of the artist saying: “the project was very hard work—but such fun!” Even in that case, particularly in that case, you must stand up for fun—all other options are worse. This brings us back to the incentive permeating Anonymous: “We are doing it for the lulz.” Part of the power in their array of actions comes from the fact that their pursuit of doing things for fun makes them unpredictable. But it’s also confusing; how do you understand a movement whose philosophy can be summarized as a struggle for anonymity and the free flow of lulz and information?11 What should be discussed is rather good fun vs. bad fun, and how we can make art a little more worrying, fun, abstruse and striking—including arts criticism.
When children are rewarded to do what they would do anyway, it turns the activity into work. Spinoza stated that only the unreasonable or slaves want compensation for what they do, but also that humans strangely fight for their slavery as if it were their freedom. In art, this has manifested itself in that being an artist is described as a profession—not an identity. The professional artist—what a ridiculous conceit! It has brought with it a sentimental hyper-sensitivity, where artists feel offended because it’s their profession you’re talking about. Wounded professionalism in response to criticism … but it is also strange because the typical professional artist is not the one earning a living by regularly making public works. On the contrary, the professional artist is usually someone who doesn’t live off sales, but off scholarships, residencies and teaching. The professional largely consists of being aware of social aspects, networking as part of the profession, taking debates seriously, contributing to the ongoing conversation, etc. The professional artist is the one focused on a career. And today, this is done by letting the outside world provide the incentive. There are exceptions, of course, but don’t let them obscure the brutal ideal.
Was that not exactly what humankind in the nineties still regarded as a major risk connected to winning the lottery? Winning distorts the driving forces of life, and living off hope isn’t a satisfactory existence—it means that you think it would be good to stop doing what you’ve been doing so far. This brings to mind Iris Smeds’s concluding words in her performance piece Art and Economics: A Lecture by Iris Smeds (2010-2011), where she appeared as something akin to a PR-person or coach for how an artist should think in order to become a good entrepreneur (i.e., the main idea of neoliberal cultural policy): “After this, I want you all to really think about what is valuable to you in your lives and how you can best sell it.”12 Selling what you have lived for—what was once the big, implicit danger of winning the lottery—is now the rule of art according to neoliberal cultural policy. Here we have an explanation as to why society has an interest in inhibited, fake, deceptive and self-deceptive artists. What they do has no other value—for them or others—than market value, and the only thing they can want from their art is to sell it. This is the pure art market—the one that we today only see in the upper price ranges, which requires that art be made exclusively to be sold. It confirms the buyer and seller as the only individuals who can give art value. For them, it’s only flattering if its art’s sole value.
Anonymity, as a prize, aligns with the short story in which this project is based—you become dead to the system but are brought back to life in relation to art. How many more reasons do we really need before creating anonymous contexts? Art and most likely philosophy—as Nietzsche claims in his genealogy of morals (the philosopher’s need for masks and to be mistaken about himself)—needs anonymity in order to be as good as it can be, and as much as it can be. You don’t have to do less to do better; you just have to do it with an incentive that doesn’t stem from considerations such as social or economic success. Vanity and ambition must be replaced by anonymity, and perhaps credibility and gravity should also be replaced by the will to lulz … or something. I am convinced that people would do immensely more interesting things if only they were convinced that nobody knew it was them. Trolls could do art a great service, and maybe we even need art hoaxers—unreliable artists who don’t even try to win the viewer’s trust, people who say, at least with regards to the art world and the incentive system, “don’t worry, don’t be afraid, ever, it’s just a ride” (Bill Hicks). With the help of anonymity, art can become an arena for rambling and navigating by personal desires and impressions, sticking with “maybe” and seeing what that does. In other words, a truly vital place—and great fun.
- Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2014) 2.
- “Dear Fox News,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFjU8bZR19A, quoted by Coleman, 3.
- Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, Nina Mazar, “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes,” 1. http://www.bostonfed.org/economic/wp/wp2005/wp0511.pdf (accessed 8 Jan 2015)
- Ibid. 1.
- Ibid. 16.
- Nina Mazar, Dan Ariely “Dishonesty in Everyday Life and Its Policy Implications,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 25 Issue 1 (2006): 15.
- Op cit. “Large Stakes …” 13, emphasis added.
- Dan Aierly, “Bonuses Boost Activity, Not Quality,” Wired (2010). http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/03/start/dan-ariely-bonuses-boost-activity-but-not-quality (accessed Jan 8 2015)
- Ibid. 19.
- Jeremy Dean, “How Rewards Can Backfire and Reduce Motivation,” Psyblog (2009). http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/10/how-rewards-can-backfire-and-reduce-motivation.php (accessed Jan 8 2015)
- Coleman, 3 and the introduction.