Category Archives: Art

Midas Touch

Art has always served power but in the premodern period, power, though associated with wealth was not its product. Contemporary power is corporate. It is the power of dead capital, which means that we are subjects not of the Sun King or the Pope but of the nameless, seemingly contingent forces that rule the global economy. This is a power that art is hard-pressed to exalt. The real story of modern art, once one gets past the self-heroicizing bluster of the avant-garde, is the story of the difficulties that had to be surmounted (the craft that had to be forgotten, the qualms that had to be allayed) before art could be sufficiently debased to serve capital.

For art to serve capital, it had to develop the means to give vacuity the appearance of effervescence. And beyond that, it had to develop means to glorify a wholesale inversion of values. Adapting to an ugly age, art learned to glorify ugliness. Adapting to a materialist age from which the sacred had been banished, it learned to glorify superficiality. Adapting to an age of diminished men, it learned to glorify stunted tastes and feelings. Adapting to an age in which the worship of technology had nullified virility, it learned to glorify effeminacy, lameness, and confusion. Adapting to an age “emancipated” from patriarchy, it learned to glorify perpetual adolescence, impotent rebellion, and formlessness. At every step, these adaptations had to overcome the resistance of artists, intellects, standards of taste and probity that retained some filiation with nobility. Finally, with the advent of postmodernism, a succession of triumphs over every lingering trace of decency was consolidated under a rubric that apotheosisized perversion and made an explicit principle out of the elevation of the marginal.

With each step forward into debasement, the diminution of quality has been accompanied by an expansion of quantity until, today, the term art is applied to the slightest affectation. We are now drowning in the excreta of swarms of “performative” mountebanks. Everything today is tainted by “art.” It is as if we are afflicted by the modern equivalent of the Midas touch–now revealed to be the curse of the total commodification of the world and the transformation of everything in it into a hectoring signifier of exchange value.

The deeper meaning of this wholesale artification of the late modern world is that it is driven by the need to aestheticize spiritual, cultural, and artistic degeneration, making the evil consequences of capital’s dominion appear deliberate, provocative, transgressive.

This is the fundamental mystication that underlies all modern “countercultural” ideologies. Thus, capital’s desecration of sex and sexuality is given the cover of a rebellion against “heteronormative” and patriarchal strictures. The destruction of tradition and the banalization of every aspect of existence are given avant-garde lustre. And, finally, every possible degeneration of taste, manners, and character is affirmed as “progressive,” so that the fatuous notion of progress becomes a synonym for civilizational putrefaction.

Formalism

One can grant that formalism once served a purpose as a bourgeois antidote to the bourgeois moralism that threatened to envelop art from the moment it was “emancipated” from aristocratic patronage and became a signifier of bourgeois elevation. The limitation of formalism has always been that it could never be more than a secular stopgap against the profanation of art. In this, it is of a piece with Kant’s overall attempt to rationalize tradition, without his comprehending the violation that such a rationalization would inflict on the rationalized principles, whose authority is either absolute (and inhuman) or else nonexistent. All of formalism’s notorious blindspots, starting with Kant’s ridiculous notion of disinterested judgement issue from this misguided effort.

The economic stakes involved in the game of art should by now be sufficiently evident to not require more than a mention. Yet formalist discourse withholds even a mention. It completely forecloses any hint that the work of art circulates as a commodity. The aesthetic object (which only becomes an aesthetic object after formalist discourse has succeeded in dislocating it from any context other than that of its connection with other such dislocated objects) undergoes an isolation that forces its meaning to depend on a wordless communion with a subject who is conceived as equally removed from any symbolic network. Once this operation is accomplished, all manner of ineffable qualities can be found in the object corresponding exactly to the investment that went into ripping it out of its context. In other words, what the formalist worships in pure form is his own capability to abduct the object from every relationship other than with himself. Pure form is the mediating term of narcissism.

That the formal qualities of an object structure its meaning is not to be disputed but form has meaning within an intersubjective (social, cultural) context. The discourse of beauty never takes us far here because beauty only indicates the effectiveness of the Gestalt, the lure. This lure only has a purpose within a structure that structures a subject to be caught by it. The object is the embodiment of a pact, which as Lacan never ceases to insist, is what every symbol is first and foremost. Ranciere’s hallowed statue of Athena is erected and placed in a temple to reinforce the group identity of the Athenian citizenry–which is why the looting and destruction of temples and public monuments is one of the priorities of conquering armies to this day.

Panofsky defined art as consisting of objects that “demand” to be considered aesthetically. But if objects demand anything, it is because they are apprehended as speech, which always calls for a response. This is what formalism does not want to know, in so far as it wants to preserve the aesthetic object in its alienation as the mirror image of the self, a self already conceived as an object, an ego–so that the aesthetic experience can then take place as an encounter between objects. For it is only as a relationship between objects, both mortified to the point of inertness, that one can postulate the disinterest of disinterested contemplation.

What we encounter in formalism is in fact typical of modern anti-modern ideologies, which recoil from the banality of modernity but are compelled to oppose this banality in modern terms (i.e. on rational, secular grounds) because they dare not affirm tradition.

Perverts

Artists have to please much the same perverts that high-class whores do. And like whores, artists, too, have to pretend that they are self-motivated, that they put out because they enjoy it.

But what are the perverts after?

Some tangible, consumable sign of their alterity, some token that enables the rich to straddle both sides of the law: to be at one and the same time comfortably and smugly ensconced in the establishment and posing as its subverters.

The remarkable thing is that this collusion between pervert artists and pervert patrons can still somehow generate satisfaction despite the transparency of the collusion. For this, I think, we have to thank the abiding myth of the avant-garde. Officially, the avant-garde ceased to exist, oh, around 1960. But in reality the myth simply mutated. The cult of the modernist avant-garde mutated into the cult of postmodernist hipsterdom, which fulfills an identical function but without the utopian trappings of the former and, for that reason, with greater efficiency.

The figure of the hipster embodies the pervert fantasy reduced (or refined) to its essentials: conformist nonconformity, the covert acknowledgment of the law and its simultaneous disavowal. The pervert gets off by abusing/disabusing an imaginary innocence in which he is, perhaps, more invested than anybody else. Since this process can go on forever, we must assume that art too can go on forever despite its perennial promise to abolish itself by becoming indistinguishable from “life.”

Relational Aesthetics

Why the idea of art survives: Because even a dead horse has its use. It breeds maggots. It facilitates a social occasion.

At any given art opening, the more theatrical of the attendees easily outshine the work on display. When relational aesthetics became the vogue in the ‘90s, the rubric validated what had been happening in art since the ‘60s, if not earlier: the occultation of the work of art by the art milieu. Warhol appears to have fully grasped the implications of this when, at the end of the ‘70s, he came up with Shadows, a work that once adorned the walls of Studio 54. As usual, he was ahead of his time. He did not need to wait for Bourriaud to inform him that the production of art had become ancillary to the staging of an art scene.

Franchise

Duchamp had shown the way but his readymades remained for a long time encapsulated and quarantined within the transgressive aura of Dadaism. With Warhol, the integration of the artist into the market becomes overt: “Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art.” From this point on, the untenable model of the avant-garde artist operating on or outside the margins of society survives only in fantasy.  The critics, rightly fearing that in the age of Pop, their hieratic expertise was becoming irrelevant, did their best to ironicize Warhol’s perfectly explicit declarations of his crass ambitions.  The true irony, however, was that their efforts ensured the market value of work that might otherwise have failed to return a price above that of what it appropriated. A good part of Warhol’s genius, such as it was, was to recognize that there was virtually no limit to the intellectual self-contortion his critics were willing to undergo in order to safeguard the mystique of the avant-garde and the benefit they derived from positioning themselves as the avant-garde’s esoteric intermediaries. 

But Warhol also accomplished something else. Photography had threatened to make even the most uncommon objects common, at least as representations. Warhol turned this photographic devaluation of the uncommon on its head. He was able to turn the most debased photographic representations into objects of uncommon consumption. A can of soup, a bottle of Coke, a discarded picture of Marilyn, all these and others became superlative luxury items via the performative magic of Factory appropriation.

Warhol was famous for saying that he made a painting of Coca-Cola bottles because the popular drink was something that he and the queen could equally enjoy. What he left unsaid was that after the transformation of vernacular image into Art, only royalty could afford to purchase his particular brand of Coke.

Rise of the Machines

What Duchamp brings into view with the readymade is an overlooked implication of the formalist reduction of the art object to pure form: the possibility, henceforth, of apprehending all objects, and not merely those that arrogate to themselves the designation of “art,” as detached signifiers. This happened around the same time that the Futurists were proposing that the acme of modern beauty is the machine. For the Futurists this mostly meant the displacement of traditional subject matter by depictions of force and velocity. Duchamp took the decisive step of replacing depiction by appropriation. In so doing, he forced upon art a confrontation with its own redundancy insofar as formalism had reduced its function to formal invention. For at the formal level, the inventiveness of art is as nothing compared to that of modern industry. The nominative authority of the artist revealed by the readymade is in itself of secondary importance.  The greater significance of the readymade is to force upon modern art the unintended consequences of its fetishization of form.

Limited Supply

Why is Duchamp intent on abolishing “retinality”?

Explanations that dwell on his animus against painters and painting miss the point.

What is implicit in Duchamp’s opposition to retinality and what his invention of the readymade insinuates is that the aesthetic qualities of an object no longer determine its artistic value in a society in which exchange (market) value has supplanted every other.

The readymade is, perhaps, the boldest artistic demonstration that rarity is the fundamental determinant of exchange value and that rarity can attach itself to any object by the mere fact of its being signed (nominated, branded) by a recognized name. Significantly, Duchamp–and following him, those who have exploited the concept of the readymade–took care to refrain from conferring the status of readymade promiscuously. The readymade would seem to confer upon the nominating artist the power of the Midas touch, but overproduction would collapse demand.

Like Nietzsche in relation to the Christian god, Duchamp does not kill the aesthetic object as much  as reveal it to be already dead. The aesthetic object (art sanctified as Art, as object of pure aesthetic contemplation detached from any ritual or practical use), oddly enough, comes to prominence at the same moment as the commodity form. The apparent paradox here is that art asserts its uselessness, its “autonomy,” most aggressively at the very moment that it is transformed into pure commodity. In reality, it is just this declaration of autonomy, just this assertion of Art’s uselessness for any purpose other than “contemplation” that makes Art the commodity sans pareil.

Henceforth, the worthiness of this useless object is conferred by the whims of speculators not by qualities intrinsic to the object. It is the activity of speculation itself that this privileged object comes to embody. The readymade is art’s abrupt and traumatic recognition of this truth. Authorship of the Art object no longer belongs exclusively to the artist–it never did but the myth of artistic genius had occluded this. The readymade goes as far as any Art object could possibly go to declare that its value is entirely determined by speculative demand. It is is in this very precise sense that a “death of the author” occurs. The artist remains the originator of the work but like one of Duchamp’s “bachelors” in the Large Glass, acknowledges that his ejaculations can only reach the Bride (the repository of objects recognized as Art/commodities) via the interpretive mediation of the viewer. The prominent role assigned to the viewer/interpreter as co-creator in Duchamp’s work and that of other anti-authorial authors should really be understood as recognition of the overriding importance of the market in determining the value of the artist’s work.

The democratization of art, the abolition of the distinction between “high” and “low” that imbecilic academic critics routinely profess to find in the readymade is but a ruse. Exactly the opposite is achieved: The readymade is an exquisite means for making the common uncommon, for making the unoriginal unique, for making the worthless into a luxury.  It is to the vanity of the moneyed viewer seeking both profit and validation as sophisticated connoisseur that the readymade addresses its appeal for interpretive support. Like bourgeois democracy itself, the readymade’s conferring of “rights” (in this case, the right to an interpretation) on all is but the necessary condition for ensuring the dominance of the few. The readymade’s “generosity” to the common viewer is a cover for its whoring itself to the needs of financial speculation uninhibited by aesthetic considerations.

Duchamp’s desublimation of the Art object updates realism to encompass not merely “real” objects but also the subordination of Art to commerce–which like a high-class prostitute selling “love”, Art goes to great lengths to hide from view.

They have eyes but do not see

The reproduced photograph somehow always reaches us as a cliché: it bears within the very economy of its circulation a fading of its effect. This weakness of photographic realism does not have anything to do with the aesthetic revulsion that Barthes in “Shock Photos” claimed to experience when viewing atrocity photographs tainted by the overzealous rhetorical intervention of their moralizing authors. Barthes’ precious aestheticism displaced onto photographers a fault that actually resides in the very nature of the photographic image. For the published photograph, even on first viewing, always intimates the uncanny feeling that it belongs to a type we have seen before, but it intimates this not because of any specific aesthetic deficiency on its part but because of its very reproducibility. From the moment of its publication, indeed, from the moment of its inception, the photograph joins an effluvium of banality.

As Walter Benjamin had already grasped in 1936, photography destroys distance but also devalues what it brings closer to its avid consumers. The stripping of the world, its pornographic exposure to the public gaze grants effortless access to the farthest recesses of the earth and even makes visible features that the unaided human eye could never apprehend (such as the gait of a galloping horse). But this unhiding of the world, this forcible unveiling–which is part of the larger scientific project of quantifying the visible–also reduces the object of its attention to a flattened and ultimately insipid representation. Photography becomes a fetish that magnifies the domain of the visible at the expense of what exceeds the visible. It functions, alongside other technological marvels, as a means to profane and miniaturize the world, formerly a source of awe, now diminished to what fits inside an iPhone screen.

What never occurred to Barthes is that the very nature of photography implicates it in atrocity. Had he really wanted to find shock in a photograph he could have found it in the way every photograph, no matter its intention, contributes to the profanation of the world, to the loss of its transcendent dimension.

The true deficiency of photographic realism, like that of modern realism in general, is that it is impotent against the chronic unreality of the modern world that this realism seeks to counteract because this peculiar condition derives not from lack of forensic records of modern life and its atrocities but rather from the modern world’s disconnection from the sacred. The modern world, reduced to a strictly material world ruled by money and infested by the human worms that money breeds, is a world in which nothing is sacred and therefore nothing is of any significance. Realism’s attempts to give a true “objective” picture of this world only adds to its squalor by dimming whatever remains of the memory of a different world inhabited by a different and nobler humanity.

The photograph, a marvel of representation, enters the world precisely at the moment that the world becomes unworthy of representation. The result is that photography proceeds to desecrate whatever still retains the slightest connection to the sacred, winkling it out of the obscure places in which it had survived and making a meal of it for the consumers of modern “spirituality.”

Monochrome

The monochrome testifies to a recognition of  painting as an action, i.e. as coverage, as work, as performance. It is a repudiation of painting’s pictorial relevance after the medium cedes representational primacy to photography. The monochrome proletarianizes painting by making the production of a painted canvas all but indistinguishable from the craft production of a painted wall. And yet, with repetition, the meaning of this gesture, so radical in its implications,  is inverted, and the monochrome becomes instead the sign of an extreme aestheticism. In this, I think one glimpses how modernism failed: it was meant to be a transitional aesthetic, a bridge to a future in which art would no longer be distinguished from the productive activity of the emancipated worker, but this future never came, and with repetition modernism’s radical gestures became mannerisms. And its products,  profane receptacles for the ill-gotten gains of oligarchs.

Form

We look to form to succor us from chaos. The palliative form need not possess anything more than the vaguest trace of organization. It can be the statue of Athena or the jazz tune Roquentin hears at the end of Nausea. Or, it can simply be the representation of formlessness itself for that representation is already a victory over the abject, a removal from it. The more immediate the threat of disintegration, the closer the aesthetic object will approximate the very thing it defends against. This is why in the modern period art is driven to simulate its own absence—as the last recourse against the disappearance of the last trace of meaning in a profaned world where the total dominion of quantity threatens the catastrophic desublimation of all objects.

Pisser

For at least a century, beauty’s most felicitous relationship has been with merchandising, not art. Today, one is more likely to come across something beautiful in a mall or in front of a screen than in a gallery or museum. Consumer economies run on eye candy and are remarkably good at manufacturing it. The best creative talent is enlisted in the making and marketing of sexy consumables. The fine arts make do with the spoiled children of the rich.

This was already evident when Duchamp proposed an upturned urinal as an entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibition. The truly shocking thing about Fountain was not the nomination of a urinal to the status of art but the much-slower-to-sink-in actuality that a mass-produced urinal might be as beautiful as a Brancusi.

In other words, with hindsight, Duchamp’s gesture appears realistic rather than nihilistic. It acknowledged that industry had robbed art of its privileged relationship with the aesthetic. If art was to remain fixated on beauty, it was obliged to express this fixation by the practice of framing as art what was already readily available as commodity, via what came to be known as appropriation.

How could the idea of fine art survive Duchamp’s gesture? There was simply too much cultural and financial capital invested in the idea of art to permit it a graceful exit.  What’s more, by emancipating art from overt social function, modern art endowed the art object with the potential to achieve close to limitless speculative value. This is what the avant-garde ultimately contributed to modernity: a new type of commodity, at once empty and unique and, by virtue of that combination, the most desirable commodity of all.

Masochists

Art history is fiction, a compilation of nice stories people tell themselves because they want to believe that there is a logic, a progression, that links one style or trend to the next. There is indeed a logic, but it is a crude one, too crude to ever concern professional art historians. The logic of art history is determined by whatever at any given time and place captivates the rich and powerful. It is solely their whims that art, understood only as art, signifies.

The problem for the modern artist is that the rich and powerful no longer actually voice their whims or explicitly direct the artist to do their bidding. On the contrary, they insist that the artist should be solely guided by his vision, even to the point of appearing to be contemptuous of bourgeois taste. Like game fishermen, they want the fish they hook to give them a fight. In reality, no transgression that articulates itself within the frame of art can in any way threaten the bourgeoisie because bourgeois taste is quintessentially a taste for vapid novelty. Shocking the bourgeoisie and pandering to it have always been one and the same thing. Hence the masochism that characterizes the avant-garde’s most “radical” gestures. The performance art of the last 50 years or so (actually going all the way back to Dada) is full of spectacles of artists subjecting themselves to torturous and debasing ordeals. Why? Because the closest that art can come to stating the truth about itself in the modern era is to repetitively stage its own debasement, beyond which it cannot advance. A positive art, a sacred art, would be an art that served a consecrated culture and would therefore be an art that no longer had the qualities we associate with art since it would be bereft of the false autonomy of bourgeois art. The condition of art today reflects the impossibility of either art or the society that encloses it achieving sacredness. Instead, they both dwell in banal sacrilege, and art is forced to vomit as aesthetic spectacle the evidence of its impotence.

The very notion of history is a product of the profanation of culture. For history embodies a linear notion of time that marks the loss of contact with the eternal, which is radically timeless. Sacred art has no history. It does not progress. It can only be incorporated into art history once it has become a dead thing, a husk abandoned by the spirit.

Literal Objects

Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the art object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending symbolic destitution of the art object. The literalization of the art object (whose reduction to formal object was already an impoverishment) transforms it into something that imposes itself on the viewer as a physical ordeal. But this literalization, this debasement of the object, is inevitable once the premodern symbolic order in which it used to be enclosed, and from which it derived its metaphysical meaning, disappears. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body. Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its strict materiality, its total instrumentalization. Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s. Or Ron Athey’s. Or countless others. Why this compulsion to debasement? Because it reenacts the impoverishment that all objects suffer when nothing is left of the sacred and the entire world has been profaned and reduced to just so much material, i.e. to pure quantity. The putative de-aestheticization of art does not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brings it closer to shit.