Cool by Committee: Cultural Capital and Art

March 20th, 2014 | Category: Essays

“Nobody wants to be uncool,” writes Chris Kraus in her book Video Green (Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 24). She’s writing about the trials of graduate school, specifically MFA programs and the inherent ambiguity in determining the value of art. The rigor of graduate work is part of the gatekeeping and cultural encoding that make the art world go ’round, that make cool art cool. Kraus continues,

…this two-year hazing process is essential to the development of value in the by-nature-elusive parameters of neoconceptual art. Without it, who would know which cibachrome photos of urban signage, which videotapes of socks tossing around a dryer, which neominimalist monochrome paintings are negligible and which are destined to be art? (p. 24)

Damien Hirst: Shark

In his search for authenticity, writer Andrew Potter reduces this hard-won pedigree down to just an artist’s brand. His favorite example is Damien Hirst. “One logical endpoint of this takes us to the world of contemporary art,” he writes (2010), “where many of the works in and of themselves are so ludicrous in concept and so inept in execution that the old philistine war cry ‘My child could do that’ is an insult to untalented children everywhere. But this objection misses the point, which is that the work itself is totally irrelevant. What is being sold is the artist himself [sic], his [sic] persona, or better, his [sic] brand” (p. 98). Brands in this context are largely decided on by the gatekeepers in art schools, galleries, and museums, not so much by “the market” in any economic sense. Potter’s reductionist view is blind to an artist’s training and talent, not to mention her art’s raw aesthetic appeal. Hirst’s art speaks in the language of authenticity (see Boyle, 2003), which must make it worse. Potter adds, “[S]narkiness over sharkiness isn’t serious art criticism, and judging Hirst’s work by the criteria of technical skill, artistic vision, and emotional resonance is like complaining that the Nike swoosh is just a check mark” (p. 99). We may think we’re unaffected by such subversions, but that is a danger in itself. “Considering yourself immune to advertising and branding is not a solution,” writes Rob Walker (2008), “it’s part of the problem” (p. 68).

No MediumWhen Thomas Kuhn (1970) conceived of a paradigm, he was referring to the attitudes and beliefs of the scientists in a community, not the scientific facts themselves. His paradigms are “the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community” (p. 175).* Certain things matter because enough of us decide that they do. We also decide that some of those things matter more than others and that some of them are cooler than others. Cool is tribal. It travels in groups, committees, and communities (see Eckert, 2000; Liu, 2004; Wenger, 1998).

All of these examples hover between what Pierre Bourdieu (1986) called social capital and what he called cultural capital: a system of exchange that takes cultural knowledge as its gold standard. Such knowledge creates in-groups and out-groups (Leppehalme, 1997). You are down if you get the reference and not if you don’t. Craig Dworkin writes in his book No Medium (MIT Press, 2013), “…[W]e are misled when we think of media as objects. Indeed, the closer one looks at the materiality of a work—at the brute fact of its physical composition—the more sharply a social context is brought into focus” (p. 30). Communities of people imbue these objects and their relationships with value. Cool could be the product of an MFA, but it could just as easily be the right amount of properly placed irony or the timely subverting of a paradigm. As Dave Allen puts it in his recent piece “White Ants and Flying Saucers,”

As the famous phrase goes: You are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. This is not to say there won’t be another transitory effect that may destabilize the current models, it is just to say that we must work hard to untangle our strongly held beliefs from the actual reality of the situation. That is where the opportunity for informed debate lies, and the opportunity should be embraced by all who have strong and passionate feelings for the “future of music.”

We tend to think of technological shifts as driven by their own forces (see Winner, 1977), as diffusing through the same old channels (see Rogers, 2003), or as slouching toward their own attractors. People still decide what counts though. Untangling the changes and how we feel about those changes points to the impossibility of finding distance from our devices: The changes happen without our noticing. It’s only when we look back that we can tell a threshold has been crossed, that the paradigm has shifted, that what we thought was cool is now not so much. Sound artist David Dunn (1999) describes it this way:

Most of what we live in now is a technological environment. That’s the status quo. That’s the social ground that constrains us. The degree to which we understand these tools is the degree to which we have freedom from them. If we don’t understand them and don’t know how they work, we easily ascribe to them some mystical significance and belief that the machines are doing our thinking for us (p. 65).

Capital may only want more capital, but art and technology don’t want anything. They are each radically subjective in their own ways. As Kaya Oakes (2009) writes, “Any valid culture, anything that changes people’s perception and way of thinking is made of many, many voices, and the disharmony and occasional harmony of those voices is what makes things interesting and complicated when you’re trying to define what that culture means” (p. 17). I prefer interesting and complicated over cool any day.

* Kuhn’s other definition of paradigms involves the models in use as puzzle-solving tools among those scientists (see Kuhn, 1970, p. 175).


Allen, Dave. (2014, March 11). White Ants and Flying Saucers. Beats Music.

Boyle, David. (2003). Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dunn, David & van Peer, René. (1999). Music, Language, and Environment. Leonardo Music Journal, 9, 63-67.

Dworkin, Craig. (2013). No Medium. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Eckert, Penelope. (2000). Linguistic Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic Construction of Identity in Belten High. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Kuhn, Thomas. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Second Edition, Enlarged). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Leppihalme, Ritva. (1997). Culture Bumps: An Empirical Approach to the Translation of Allusions. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters.

Liu, Alan. (2004). The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Oakes, Kaya. (2009). Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Potter, Andrew. (2010). The Authenticity Hoax: Why the “Real” Things We Seek Don’t Make Us Happy. New York: Harper Perennial.

Rogers, Everett M. (2003). Diffusion of Innovations (5th Edition). New York: Free Press.

Walker, Rob. (2008). Buying In: Why We Buy and Who We Are. New York: Random House.

Wenger, Etienne. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Winner, Langdon. (1977). Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Further Posting: