Quasi-Subject Commodities - Minimalism, Art, and the Social Life of Things

Paul Smith


Commodities play an integral role in the creation and maintenance of personas— to such a degree that they begin to take on characteristics of labor, provenance, and politics, such as distressed clothing or fair trade labels. This essay proposes that we have begun to freight our commodities with their own personas and imagined subjecthoods, and that this shift is foreshadowed in the transformation of artistic practices in the late twentieth century.

Two theories on the status of contemporary artworks have come to recent prominence—David Joselit’s “Painting Beside Itself,” which argues that artworks need image not just their status as commodities but rather their circulation and [social] networks, and Isabelle Graw’s claim that artworks are be reconsidered as imaginary “quasi-subjects.” Thus artworks are being equated with persons, not by their looks but by their actions. This new apprehension of objects finds its own roots in American sculptural debates of minimalism in the late 1960’s, where theorists resorted to ascribing subjectivities to objects to account for the relentless anthropomorphism of even those works which attempted to fully excise the human form.

Proponents of “quasi-subjecthood” argue from two tacks: the object is either a subject of its own, or is propped on the “ghostly presence” of its maker. I believe this indicates two predominant characterizations of commodities: full subjects, or signs of an absent maker. Both arguments flirt with a fetishism that, in giving personas and personalities to objects, threatens to erase the social conditions in which each object is made. But there may be a way in which these imaginaries can be harnessed as prosthetics for our communities. This essay explores possible avenues for artists and critics to create ethical objects for societies of art.


Minimalism; Quasi-Subject; Transitivity; Commodity Culture

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.21153/ps2016vol2no1art540


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