“Just because Hitler said that modern art is bad, that doesn’t make it good”
~ Peter Sloterdijk in conversation with Reza Negarestani.
Now more than ever the discourse on the death of art represents a senseless narrative. Contemporary art—simply understood as the art produced today, beyond any constrained and shallow aesthetic or historical label—is, unmistakably, a reality. Yet, under the multifaceted rainclouds of what counts as “contemporary art” there lies something even worse than its own death; that is to say, its self-imposition as the manifestation and divinization of nihil.
As Jean Baudrillard has noted in The Conspiracy of Art, in the vast majority of contemporary art, waste and banality are raised as values, and even subsumed under a perverse aesthetic pleasure. Thus conceived, contemporary art denotes nothing but the concrete implementation of the death of God, the supreme deicide, where nothingness is celebrated as the symbolic (de)generator of its own system of values, of which is fiercely exhibited the presence of their absence. Here lies the paradoxical duplicity of contemporary art pointed out by the French philosopher: it claims to be null, while already null and void. Contemporary art, and especially museum-like art, as we are provocatively going to argue, cannot be thought of as outside the value-less reign it inhabits (the reign of nihilism): it is rather its solemn representation…its installation, to use one of its dear words.
There’s been a time in which art meant something, and I am not saying it with melancholic attitude, but with a pure assertive intent. Although structurally useless, in the practical meaning of the word, the artistic expression used to have a precise sense, which continually changed with time passing by according to different art forms and movements, but that nonetheless justified it as the symbolic or concrete conveyor of such and such system of values, such and such narrative. Raffaello’s Transfiguration is a clear example of this well-defined modus essendi of art: the painting, subsumed under precise rules, adheres to a specific aesthetic canon, and it has been commissioned for a clear purpose. In front of it, Nietzsche was aware of assisting to a double-illusion or a double-appearance. If we consider our way of relating to reality as essentially representative, it follows that the artistic yearning, which is a po(i)etic intensification of this representation, signals a further hiatus, such that the work of art becomes an appearance of the appearance, “and therefore as an even higher satisfaction of the original desire for appearance”, to quote The Birth of Tragedy. Artists, raising themselves above the original sin of representation, give birth to a double, a double of the real, which can be celebrative as well as critical, but which nonetheless draws a demarcation between empirical reality (our representation of this appearance), and its artistic (double) reproduction.
Renaissance art, baroque art, and generally speaking every artistic manifestation until the first decades of the 20th Century, fed themselves of the magico-metaphysical mechanism of the illusion (the double-appearance), through which the status of “being-art” is claimed to be attained and circumscribed in a specific dimension. Even modern art and the avant-garde, through their multiple dis-figurations of the object of representation and an inherent critique of the tradition, conserved that principle, even though they have shown the first symptoms of an imminent foundational gangrene.
Beginning with Duchamp, and then with Warhol, the boundaries of artistic circumscription began to blur. The very nature of art is being put into question. What is art becomes the issue par excellence of the aesthetic discourse, as well as “what is history?”, “what is philosophy” and so on, are the questions raised within their respective conceptual domains. Overall, the 20th Century exemplified the growing awareness of an underlying lack of sense, marked by a foundational crisis and the feeling of an inexorable decline. It is the century of tragedies—the century which, in other words, deals with Nietzsche’s prophecy.
The ready-made is the real (conceptual) revolution of the neo-artistic universe. Prolegomenon of the senselessness to come. Both de-evaluation of the creative act and attack towards the terrorism of aesthetic. Presentation is the new keyword, rather than re–presentation. Art finds its new shelter within the crypt of abstraction. The science of beauty leaves space to the virtuosity of lucubration.
The artistic object in itself, as untied from the daily sphere, does not exist anymore. Art becomes what is declared to be art, beyond any aesthetic criteria. Everything can be so since everything can become-art just through its exposition and exhibition according to the usual terms and guiding-lines of the artistic scaffolding—it shall not be a surprise that a pair of glasses intentionally left to the ground in a contemporary art museum have been confused with a work of art. What is gone and missing is the mechanism of illusion. “Real” (as non-artistic) world and art world mingle in an empty dimension—the incursion in a museum or gallery is just a way of eluding the problem. The boundaries between artistic and daily objects, leaning towards the aseptic undifferentiation between art and non-art—thus making the former as a sheer matter of perspective—have disappeared. If modern art managed to be a kind of dramatic alternative to reality, by translating the rush of unreality in reality, what art could possibly mean, asks Baudrillard, in a world that has already become hyperrealist, cool, transparent and marketable? A world in which the deep tissues of western societies are weighed by superficial aestheticization and pornographic drives, a world in which everything is already art if considered from a certain perspective and packaged according to the norms.
In the first place, such a conceptual revolution is a subtle recognition of the essence of the artistic production (during a well-defined historical phase) and, in the second place, as the acephalous repetition of the violence toward representation, nothing but the sterile fabrication of the emporium of the banal—the crowning of kitsch and nonsense. Arthur Danto, desecrating the spoils of Hegel qua aesthetician—one of the first ones who whispered about the death of art—claims that after Warhol’s Soup Cans art becomes impossible, and that is therefore ended with modernity.
That’s absolutely not the case—what is ended is rather a mode of doing art. Warhol is not the founder of modernity, as holds Baudrillard, nor he symbolizes the death of art, as Danto argues. Warhol is instead the prophet of a kind of art produced within postmodern times (which is not postmodern art, as would say Boris Groys). With Warhol, art starts to impose itself as something more alive than ever, though as the mise-en-scène of its own onanistic and presumptuous self-negation, feeding on its speculative reverb, conceptual as much as financial. Erasing the word “art” from the vocabulary, as Allan Kaprow wishes, is nothing but another empty desire of those who do not understand the productive system art bases itself on. Art is today the flagship of capitalist logics: as little effort as possible for the maximum profit. It should not come as a surprise that Warhol’s signature decrees the (commercial) value of the signed object—millions of dollars. In short, paraphrasing Jerry Prokosch from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris, who in turn is mocking Goebbels, when we hear the word “art” we should bring out our cheque book.
There are different forms of contemporary art, they say, and that is true: there are bulky installations, schizophrenic performances, fair-trade recycling, atherogenic harems of frippery and messy experimentations; in a couple of words: a stratified porno-political representation of nothingness. Still, there is only one mode of production of the Artistic. That is to say, the mode of production that characterizes postmodernity, which sanctions the impossibility of grounding art into any aesthetic judgment or value. In this sense, we talk about trans-aesthetic. “Beauty” is the only word that ought to be removed from artistic vocabulary, even though it keeps resurrecting in the stammering of those apt to throw comments at contemporary galleries.
Postmodernity is the anomaly of the bewildering feeling stemming from the death of God, that which dis-qualifies every foundational possibility. The decline of great narratives. Contemporary art does not have any foundational principle, any faithfulness to a narrative, except for the one that obeys to the strict and forthright market dynamics.
“Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, east McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wear Paris perfume in Tokyo and ‘retro’ clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games. It is easy to find a public for eclectic works. By becoming kitsch, art panders to the confusion which reigns in the ‘taste’ of the patrons. Artists, gallery, owners, critics, and public wallow together in the ‘anything goes,’ and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the ‘anything goes’ is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the value of works of art according to the profits they yield. Such realism accommodates all tendencies, just as capital accommodates all ‘needs’ [for every problem there is a virtual market solution, Land would comment], proving that the tendencies and needs have purchasing power.”
That is how Lyotard, answering the question about the nature of postmodernity, ends the issue. Basically, the postmodern model is the one whereby the desire to loot museums by the futurists ends up by locking up their own works of art in such museums.
If art at the times of Raffaello and Michelangelo used to be produced according to a precise Weltanschauung—and right because of this its celebrative inutility constituted a value—with the decline of great narratives, we can understand why the inutility of contemporary art, arising from a pervasive underlying lack of sense—the absence of answers to the question why?—carves its way as a redundant and tautological form of expression, unaware of the fact that its emptiness is already given a priori, thus rendering its glorification vane. Hence, we understand the paradox of a kind of art of, and produced in, the reign of nihilism. Something thought and created within the already-null that claims to raise itself, as null, in the forgotten desert of nothing.
There are also contemporary art-forms that manifest themselves as not empty and null, which in the worst (or best?) case scenario are nothing but enthusiastic and rhetoric ravings, not far away from the sentimental and sensitizer attempts of advertising campaigns, to a larger extent seasoned with a moralizing, unconscious and cheap humanistic ideal. These endeavors live in the illusion of saying something, of even criticizing!—what a poor end has undergone critique—generally without comprehending that their object of criticism is precisely the mode of production they warmly welcome and use.
When art does not buy from its favorite shop, the pop-culture, becomes the discourse of a few, an endless series of logorrheic press conferences where critics and artists love talking to themselves. Without understanding each other. There is nothing to understand, indeed. But having understood it, made the speculation on the heads of people who strive to understand possible. They indeed feed on those who commit themselves to intellectual acrobatics while struggling to account for the “nature”, “message” or even “meaning” of contemporary works of art, rouging their discourses by the perennial philosophical reference. Always vilified, misunderstood, disregarded. Contemporary art cunningly makes use of the uncertainty it is marked with. To what is art really contemporary?, we should ask following Virilio’s provocation. Contemporary, I would say, to a shared consensus of what needs to be art, in its own idiosyncrasy. In a couple of words: contemporary to exo-legitimated abstract masturbations, often candidly-crushed in sadistically boring guided-tour at fashionable galleries, where, of course, you must go to as a tourist.
The only possible path for art seems to be the one of building an intimate relation with the viewer, consumer, or listener, who is prompt to take art as a useful way to think and live differently. However, everything can, de jure, reply to such a call: there are not given codes that designate the ways of conveying modes of “thought” and ways of “feeling”—and is often a matter of autosuggestion. Thinking that there exists such a kind of art means to let ourselves be kidnapped by the quicksand of abstraction.
Let’s stop with art is the howl that must be raised. With this art horrified by itself, and less horrified by the profit that it generates. With the empty trans-aesthetic exhibitionism. We no longer have to make art with the justified stylistic features that are externally imposed on it, in its own proclaimed negation. Art must reside and be produced elsewhere. Outside—but is there one? Only an intoxicated and fanged poetics seems possible to me!
Be careful, I am not proposing any kind of retromania and nostalgic desire, nor I am curling up like an hedgehog by exposing a ruthless criticism of the world of art—that world feeds precisely on these criticisms, as is aptly noted by Virilio. There is no aesthetic or value judgements at stake here. Rather, we want to enhance people’s awareness of the condition in which we are thrown. Thinking about the mechanisms that art makes use of represents, these days, a way to think about the all-encompassing disorientation of our times. The question to ask is no longer the Greek-flavored one “what is art?”, but the more cybernetic-oriented one “how does art function?”, thereby questioning its mode of production and our own relationship with it.
~ Noologizing defines himself as “a guy who writes”. When he doesn’t swim with sharks, tweets at @Noologizing.