apexart :: New York City Fellow :: Stephen Wright
Fellowship Program
Stephen Wright
writer, Paris, France (Canadian)
March 15 - April 14, 2000
Paper presented at apexart on April 5, 2000   "The Use-Value of Contemporary Art"

In the closing lines of his lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel summed up the reason for his protracted interest in art in the first place: "For with art", he asserted emphatically, "we are not dealing with something merely agreeable or useful, but rather with the deployment of Truth." Today, few would be inclined to make such exorbitant claims of art; and yet, should we be prepared to relinquish all exigencies with regard to the art work's use-value? The question is what we want to mean by "merely useful". For Adorno, art was not merely useless, but was somehow radically useless, and therefore a subversive force in a world of all-pervasive utilitarian rationality. This notion of art as the Other of such rationality - that endless chain of ends and means, which makes usefulness an end in itself, is so deep-seated in contemporary intellectual culture that the very question of the "use-value" of art smacks of philistinism. "What is the purpose of usefulness?" asked Lessing over two-hundred years ago, though question rings like a present-day quip. Art works, wrote Hannah Arendt, "are the only things without any function in the life process of society…. They are deliberately removed from the processes of consumption and usage and isolated against the sphere of human life necessities." While we may applaud this attempt to preserve art as an autonomous sphere, irreducible to the functionalist logic of consumer products, it is ultimately dissatisfying that art's value be founded on its uselessness. Certainly this is not art's specificity. After all, despite what Arendt asserts, many things are useless - and art works scarcely spring to mind as most useless amongst them (though it is imperative to distinguish the use-less from the merely futile, which often heeds a utilitarian logic). What we require is a more discerning understanding of utilitarian rationality. One that would acknowledge art's specific use-value, while recognizing its difference from the "merely useful". Because beyond its uselessness, its purposeless finality, art must be of some use to us - why, otherwise, would we bother to engage with it? Each time we judge one work superior to another, the arguments we use to do so must presuppose some notion of the appropriate use of art. The concept of use-value was briefly introduced by Marx on the first page of Capital, in opposition to exchange value. While the term needs to be fleshed out in entirely different terms with regard to art, Marx is right to note that every useful thing is a whole made up of many different elements, and that consequently its use-value - multiple and both context-specific and user-determined - is realized only in the course of its use. The question is, therefore, value for what - and for whom? My hypothesis will be that art's use-value is inseparable from its heuristic value - that is, its ability to foster discovery, draw attention to the overlooked. But this too is inadequately specific, inasmuch as documentary film or even bracing conversation can do the same. What, then, can art do that no other symbolic configuration can? Does art not, in fact, have a role to play in the life process of society? The question of the use-value of art is about identifying a universally recognizable function, genuinely specific and exclusive to art. ©2000 Stephen Wright

Mr. Wright was recommended by Martha Rosler.

Stephen Wright

Born 16 October 1963 in Vancouver, Canada

Studies: 1990-
Ph.D. Thesis in Comparative Literature (Universite de Paris III, Sorbonne)
"The Situation of the Narrator in the Contemporary Novel": at the crossroads between literature and philosophy, a contribution toward a theory of the narrative-immanent subject Researcher in philosophy (Universite europienne de la recherche, Paris)
Seminars in contemporary Aesthetic Theory: normativity and the empiricist challenge
Seminars in Practical Reason, focusing on the scope of critical theory after Habermas

Research in philosophy at the Frei Universitat, Berlin

D.E.A. in Comparative Literature (Universite de Paris III, Sorbonne)
Research paper on The Politics of the Avant-garde movements

1984-85 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature (Universite de Paris III, Sorbonne)
Masters Thesis on Bertolt Brecht: in and against tradition

1982-84 Bachelor of Arts in Political Science (Carleton University, Ottawa)
Full academic scholarship

Professional Experience
Lecturer at the School of Fine Arts, Brest (France)
Course on critical "interfacing" - ie. teaching third, fourth and fifth-year students the critical and discursive tools required to grasp and situate their work
Editorial-board member of the journal Mouvements: politique, societes, culture
Founding member of the Paris-based, progressive, socio-political journal - a forum for in-depth debate on current issues for both an academic and non-specialised readership
European Editor, Parachute
Contributing editor of the bilingual, Montreal-based contemporary art magazine
Independent literary translator
Translations include: novels by Francois Maspero; screenplays by Peter Greenaway, Manoel de Oliveira; poetry by Jacques Provert, Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Michaux; essays by Andre Malraux, Jacques Lacan, Rainer Rochlitz, Jean Clair
Author of numerous texts on contemporary art and / or political theory
Independent contemporary-art curator
L'incurable memoire des corps, thematic exhibition, September 2000, Paris Languages: English, French, German (spoken and written)