Standing outside a gallery recently, I was introduced to a stranger, who immediately asked, “What are you in the art world?” An unfortunate starter, I thought, but to the point. I had once imagined a comprehensive book of etiquette that would include precise instructions for navigating every conceivable social situation with absolute confidence, and the part of me that likes to talk to strangers wished I had it with me then, perhaps on a mobile device. My new acquaintance seemed to have no sense of what a complicated question he was asking. I was all too aware, since I had been attempting to write an essay on both etiquette and the art world, finding scant point of entry for either. Neither are easy to define, nor are they comfortable topics.
My imagined book of etiquette was to be a shy person’s all-in-one forevermore preventive for the cheek-burning pang of the awkward encounter, far beyond Emily Post’s or Ms. Manners’s most excessive fantasies. The concept never made it to production, however, since the truly comprehensive accounting of etiquette I had in mind would have been as ambitious in scope and as impossible to execute as the map Borges describes in Of Exactitude in Science—one so detailed that it grows in magnitude to physically encompass what is mapped, rendering the description not only useless but absurd. The range of conceivable situations and variables encountered in contemporary social life is simply too vast and too complex to chart accurately. But more to the point, such an index would violate the logic of etiquette as a system of social differentiation.
Etiquette, or politesse, is a set of forms and proscriptions for social behavior, evolved to sustain status quo in social groups. The explicit rules of etiquette, derived from medieval treatises on the management of bodily functions, and refined through mid–20th century newspaper columns on the dinner table and the business meeting, concern minute details for handling obscure contingencies. For example, When it is necessary to remove something from your mouth, use the same method as you did to insert it. Useful for finessing an olive pit, but what of a proverbial foot? Implicit rules would apply. And, whereas an explicit code can be mapped, an implicit code, by definition, cannot be. Nor can it be subjected to a transparent process of revision and ratification. As a medium for attainment, maintenance and expression of social status, a system of etiquette is only efficacious to the extent that it remains implicit, and therefore untenable, to the uninitiated. To exhaustively describe the implicit rules of etiquette, were such rules immutable, were such a description feasible, would be to disable the social system of which those rules are an expression by making definite, legible, even teachable, that which is otherwise learned through rites of initiation and enacted through vagaries of suggestion.
“Politesse,” like “etiquette,” migrated intact to English from French. Sartre uses the term in an essay on the life and work of Stéphane Mallarmé to describe the poet’s revolt against the world: Il ne fera pas sauter le monde: il le mettra entre parenthèses. Il choisit le terrorisme de la politesse; avec les choses, avec les hommes, avec lui-même, il conserve toujours une imperceptible distance. (He does not blow up the world: he puts it in parentheses. He chose the terrorism of politesse; with things, with men, with himself, he always maintains an imperceptible distance.) Parenthesize one’s object. Set it apart as an afterthought. De-center it. For the artist wielding “a sort of charming and destructive irony,” ostensibly polite reserve belies violence “so complete and so desperate that it turns the idea of violence into calm.” This is a social judo model of terrorism.
The discreet and mild-mannered artist-saboteur Sartre describes contrasts sharply with a more recent and familiar trope: the misbehaving iconoclasts of Dada, the Situationist International, Fluxus, and punk. Exemplars of these later movements, which emerged within a technological landscape of state-sponsored violence that was unknown to Mallarmé, openly adopted positions of political dissent. Today, a backdrop of violence remains, but radical movements among artists of the professional ilk, if they exist now, lack the traction of preceding models. Instead, the art world is populated primarily by arts professionals and professional artists who pursue careers facilitated through bureaucratic institutions. Consequently, it is the art world that is today parenthesized by politesse, evinced in part by the institutional jargon of grant applications and museum didactics. Meanwhile, the term “polite terrorism,” with the superficial calm it connotes, more aptly describes justice department memos than poetry.
A bureaucracy is defined by a self-replicating structure of explicit regulations—a comprehensive body of rules that, in fact, nobody rules. As such, bureaucratic order is highly prone to degeneration, which results in structural despotism or oppression by the rule(s) of nobody, which is also to say by the consent of everybody. As Hannah Arendt writes in a parenthetical statement in her 1969 study On Violence, “If, in accord with traditional political thought, we identify tyranny as government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done…” In a functional bureaucracy, professionalism—the subspecies of etiquette native to bureaucratic order—amounts to a beneficent social craft improvised through mass collaboration, a set of behavioral standards that, ideally, smoothes the erraticism of interpersonal relations so that people can cooperate to achieve common goals efficiently. Indications that one is subject and therefore party to the structural despotism characterizing professionalism run amok include a pervasive sense of servitude to anonymously established requirements for success (which one has little or no independent interest in fulfilling, except to satisfy the ulterior compulsion of career building, dissociated from those aspects of work unrelated to acquisition of social or pecuniary advantage), and the transformation of ostensibly neutral terms (“the art world,” “academia”) into pejorative expressions of frustration with oppressive circumstances one feels powerless to affect.
Typically, one would submit to standards of professionalism for the presumed rewards of economic and social securities. For artists, the incentive is less direct, since the vast majority of artists is not actually employed as such and instead operates within a market system structured by instability and attrition. Yet, despite the relative dearth of professional benefits, the social pressure to conform to a narrow range of acceptable modes of self-presentation is significant among artists, perhaps due to the fact that the distinction between their personal and would-be professional spheres is obscure. This ambiguity is reflected in the art world on the whole. Nominally, at least, participation in the art world is not merely a matter of being part of some business, industry, or community, but of the very world itself. Nominally, then, the stakes for exclusion are high: to acknowledge directly that one is attempting to limn, or worse, to follow, the rules of the game of belonging would be to acknowledge that one doesn’t belong, which would be tantamount to forfeiture.
Increasingly acute social pressure to surreptitiously manage perceptions of one’s self and one’s relationships for presumed advantage indicates that the mastery of rules has begun to overtake the field of play itself, along with any real agency of the players. Consider the court of Versailles, with its hyper-mannered, politically impotent aristocrats. Like court etiquette, standards of professionalism subdue the fray of heterogeneous purposes, albeit in the service of business, rather than of sovereign. And this is where the matter of professionalism becomes particularly interesting vis-à-vis the art world: if the province of art is unmanageable subjects broached through a kind of play that must be at least temporarily purposeless, or within a field that must contain multiple, diverse and contradictory purposes and questions simultaneously, then a degree of suppleness and uncertainty about the status of the field and of its constituents (and their ambitions) is essential, not problematic.
Can there really be any such thing as a professional artist, then, if the purpose of adopting professional standards is to create social and institutional stasis for the efficient achievement of common (commercial) goals? Is it the authority of artists, pace Sartre’s Mallarmé or the provocateurs of the avant-garde, to conduct the play of association—digression from and transgression of dominant social codes? If so, is this authority proscribed by the tyrannical directives of professional standards—on the one hand, the explicit rules of the professional credentialing process, the statement of purpose, the grant application, the marketing blurb, the CV; on the other hand, the implicit rules of the system of nepotism by which official decisions about what constitutes art are otherwise made? The questions are political. If the inverse relationship between mannered dissemblance and political agency persists when the normative constraints of professionalism become sovereign, then to frame the matter of art-world etiquette—to consider the importance of codes of professional etiquette for how and what constitutes artists’ work—is to address the double bind between professionalism and political autonomy. What are you in the art world? The answer, and the art world, matter less each time the question is asked.