Tag Archives: masochism

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.