Tag Archives: commodity

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.

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.

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.

Shoggothism

Marx’s early insights into the shoggothic power of capital were remarkably prescient.

Money, then, appears as this distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society, etc., which claim to be entities in themselves. It transforms fidelity into infidelity, love into hate, hate into love, virtue into vice, vice into virtue, servant into master, master into servant, idiocy into intelligence, and intelligence into idiocy.

Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things–the world upside-down–the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.

He who can buy bravery is brave, though he be a coward. As money is not exchanged for any one specific quality, for any one specific thing, or for any particular human essential power, but for the entire objective world of man and nature, from the standpoint of its possessor it therefore serves to exchange every quality for every other, even contradictory, quality and object: it is the fraternisation of impossibilities. It makes contradictions embrace.

Today, the money-enabled “fraternisation of impossibilities” visible to Marx in 1844 challenges even the division of the sexes. The fact that progressives hail the overcoming of the gender “binary” as progress just confirms that they are capital’s useful idiots.

Taken on its own, the claim that gender is a social construction is a triviality. All distinctions whatsoever are ultimately social constructions. What is significant is only the moment when they begin to appear as such. When a culture begins to apprehend itself as merely a culture, its tenets and tastes as merely prejudices, it is moribund. The “deconstruction” that ensues is the labor of maggots.

It is not the constructedness of gender that the transgender fad reveals but the power of consumerism to transform anatomy into consumer choice. Everything that was default, natural, is made unnatural, subject to customization, available as paid option.

Those who would free us from the last vestiges of patriarchy are in actuality delivering us into the grasp of the mutagenic corporate Borg. Once it is removed from the patriarchal order that dignified it, the body becomes a machine whose parts can be altered at will. Transgenderism is but the logical expression of this desacralization of the body at the behest of the capitalist drive to reduce all of nature to product.