Introduction: Stephen Wright’s Theory / Omer Krieger

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

Stephen Wright is a theorist, curator, and independent researcher primarily engaged in theoretical alternatives to the current capitalist framework of the contemporary artworld. Wright’s work revolves around the use value of art in society, and “usership”, one of the concepts he coined, challenges the existing museal-economic-political relationship between artist, object, and spectator, and in effect calls for its retirement. He has curated several exhibitions that explore artistic practices with low coefficients of artistic visibility, in which he examined the possibility of art without artworks, without authorship, and without spectatorship.

One of Wright’s central essays, Toward a Lexicon of Usership,[1] was published in 2013 with the opening of Tania Bruguera’s “Museum of Art Útil” exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The book proposes twenty-six emergent concepts underpinning usership (such as “1:1 Scale”, “Coefficient of Art”, “Competence”, “Imperformativity”, and “Museum 3.0”), ten conceptual institutions to be retired (including “Autonomy”, “Authorship”, “Spectatorship”, “Expertise”, “Objecthood”, and “Purposeless purpose”), and nine modes of usership.

We have chosen to publish here for the first time a Hebrew translation of Wright’s introduction to his book and two central concepts: 1:1 Scale – a key emergent concept that pertinently demonstrates the thinking and action of usership, and the concept it seeks to replace: Autonomy – a seminal concept in the perception of modern art and its political history, which like other concepts, is to be retired, taken out of circulation, and replaced.

The new conceptual edifices Wright proposes also served as the foundation for the exhibition “Making Use: Life in Postartistic Times”,[2] which opened in February 2016 at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. The exhibition was curated by Sebastian Cichocki and Kuba Szreder, with Wright as a shadow curator. It featured about one hundred reports on works from various spheres of life that employ “artistic competence” for the purpose of an action or claim in the real world, outside the artworld (part of the exhibition was a document from 2012 – a letter of appointment of the undersigned for the office of State Artist, signed by then Speaker of the Knesset, MK Reuven Rivlin).[3]

According to Wright, such use of artistic competence contains an emancipatory dimension for the art of today. In fact, he proposes a repurposing of art, toward usership that is neither that of a spectator, an expert, nor an owner. It is hard to imagine this in an artworld that is primarily based on items exhibited in galleries, performance as an object, and public art funded by private capital. The usership-based art that Wright speaks of looks more like public art actions, the kind that have no spectators, only users: actions that breach the boundaries of art’s autonomy and its expert culture, and are not sold in the art market on the basis of the artist’s ownership of the work.

One of the manifest examples Wright gives for this kind of art is the “Dissolution of Rosendale” project by Raivo Puusemp, a conceptual artist who in 1975 decided to create “a work of art as a solution to a political problem”, ran for mayor in the village of Rosendale – and won. After two years in office, and to conclude the public debate he sparked in the village, Puusemp declared a referendum, following which the village’s independent existence was abolished, and it passed into the jurisdiction of the neighboring township. On the face of it, one could argue that this was not an artistic act of any kind whatsoever, and there is no connection between it and Puusemp’s work as an artist – and yet, in 1980, artist Paul McCarthy (who studied art with Puusemp) insisted on locating the action in the art discourse, and financed the publication of a “catalogue” containing official records documenting the village’s dissolution process entitled Beyond Art: Dissolution of Rosendale, N.Y. A Public Work by Raivo Puusemp.[4]

Wright proposes renewed power for art. He proposes art that can be more than a comment on the state of affairs or a mere observation, beyond scaled-down representation or an area ostensibly isolated from the authorities and their pressures. Art can be more than “just art”. It can breach the boundaries of the minor role allocated to it in modern culture. Wright calls for the creation of facts on the ground: producing multiple components of actual reality that function in the symbolic and real order that together constitute the entirety of the world and human culture. His category of usership is a radical proposal that can rouse all of us from the political despair that has gripped us in this era of capitalism and nationalism, and relieve us of the irony inherent in postmodern consciousness that resides in the institutions and conceptual edifices of modernity.

No longer art events that are an exception to the usual, or a kind of carnival that springs out of the daily routine. Instead imagine ongoing actions by people, and new habits. Imagine another economy of art. Imagine there is no artist, no spectator. Imagine there is no autonomous sphere of art. Imagine ongoing action performed in the extra-artistic world by a collection of artistic competence users: a group that resembles the group of all human beings, like a map the size of a country.

Following Kant, we have become accustomed to opposing the usability of art. We have erected walls to separate use from art, and thus made art purposeless by its very definition, something intended exclusively for spectatorship, and which today functions as a commodity with a market of its own, demanding privileges in the freedom of expression. The artworld scorns the useful and the concept of use, but Stephen Wright draws attention to its emancipating political and artistic potential. What if all human beings were to enjoy art’s freedom of expression? What if ownership of intellectual property is abolished? What if we refuse to be spectators and declare ourselves users of artworks? What if we decide that we have had enough of the artworld’s aristocratic regime? Stephen Wright proposes new foundations for what could be the democratic ethos of art.


[4] Artist Allan Kaprow devoted a chapter to the project in his book Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.