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Artistic Self-Exposure

Is the activity of artists overshadowing their art?

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Hugo Ball in a Cubist costume during his speech ‘‘Verse without Words’’, 1916

Hugo Ball in a Cubist costume during his speech ‘‘Verse without Words’’, 1916

Making art has always been perceived, by society at large, as a highly problematic activity. The goals and motives of art production never presented themselves as obvious and socially recognized but remained obscure, questionable and even suspect. At different historical times, however, this questionable character of art took different forms – according to the different kinds of questions posed to art. We remember the times when the question ‘What is art?’ addressed the difference between art works and mere things. We also remember the times when the question addressed to art was formulated in terms of the difference between art institutions and non-institutional, ‘profane’ spaces. In our times, these modes of questioning art have lost their edge. We know today that every object can be used as an artwork in the context of somebody’s art practice. And we also know that such an art practice can take place inside art institutions as well as outside of them. Every thing and every place can be used as art work and art space if they are used as art. Thus, the contemporary question addressing art seems to me not to be ‘What is the art work?’ and ‘Where does art take place?’, but rather, ‘What is artistic activity?’, or in other words, ‘What is the difference between the artistic and non-artistic use of things and spaces?’ To answer means, of course, not to define the specificity of artistic practice among other social practices. Every social practice can be understood and interpreted artistically. Rather, I would suggest that the artistic attitude shifts our attention from the goals and results of different political and social practices to the make-up of the subjects of these practices. Art reveals and at the same time produces subjectivities operating behind ‘objective’ goals, achievements and failures.

Indeed, contemporary artists want more and more to operate not so much inside specific art milieus and spaces but rather on the global political and social stage – proclaiming and pursuing certain political and social goals. At the same time they remain artists. What does this problematic title mean, within the extended, globalized, social-political context? One can perceive the title ‘artist’ as a stigma that makes any political claim suspicious and any political activity inefficient – because these are seen as inescapably co-opted by the art system. However, failures, uncertainties and frustrations are not the sole privilege of artists. Professional politicians and activists experience them to the same, if not to a greater degree. The only difference is this: professional politicians and activists conceal their frustrations and uncertainties behind their public personae. And accordingly, the failed political action remains final and unredeemed within political reality itself. But a failed political action can be a good work of art because it reveals the subjectivities operating behind this action even better than its possible success. By assuming the title ‘artist’, the subject of this action signals from the beginning that he or she intends self-exposure rather than the self-concealment that is usual and even necessary in professional politics. Such self-exposure is bad politics but good art; herein lies the difference between artistic and non-artistic types of activity.

The central role of subjectivity in art is, of course, nothing new. The understanding of art, literature and philosophy as a stage for subjectivity has a long history reaching back at least into the 17th century. But today, the analysis and interpretation of artistic subjectivity is confronted with new theoretical difficulties. These difficulties belong to the legacy of so-called Postmodernity with its characteristic belief in the end of subjectivity, the death of the author and the impossibility of inferring the meaning of the artwork from the intention of its author.

However, Michel Foucault, who is generally regarded as a main protagonist of this critique, never denied the notion of subjectivity and its centrality in our culture but rather asked the following question: How does the process of subjectivation function, leading to the emergence of subjectivities? The answer Foucault gives to this question is highly relevant for our present discussion. He states that the process of subjectivation of human bodies is an effect of their exposure to the gaze of the Other, of their public visibility. Foucault describes this exposure, at least during the first stage of his theoretical development, as an operation of ‘power’ and its ‘panoptical’ gaze. For Foucault, human bodies are subjected to the process of subjectivation by an external, if not externally identifiable force. Indeed, we know that modernity is characterized by the increasing exposure of human bodies to external surveillance and control. Our bodies are submitted to permanent visualization; this is how they become subjects – for example, the way they get caught in the nets of bureaucratic identification by ethnicity, citizenship, gender, date and place of birth, etc. These bureaucratic mechanisms of surveillance and control do not ‘objectify’ but subjectify us because they define not only our behaviour but also our self-consciousness – and even our subconsciousness.

This identification between subjectivity and visibility, or between subjectivation and exposure, is actually less new than it seems to be at first glance. The concept of the soul is based on its visibility before God. The human body was assumed to have a soul because it was believed that it could be seen by the divine gaze. It is the loss of the divine gaze that made human subjectivity invisible for the first time in its history. In this respect, Foucault simply restored the original definition of the soul by substituting the divine gaze with the secular apparatuses of surveillance and control.

The artist is primarily a specialist in exposure and self-exposure. Thus, if everybody else may be an involuntary subject (controlled by power and the system), the artist is, as it were, a professional subject. That is why the figure of the artist manifests the inner contradictions of modern subjectivation in a paradigmatic way. Indeed, the transition from the divine gaze to surveillance by secular powers produced a set of contradictory desires and aspirations within the heart of modern subjects. Modern societies are haunted by visions of total control and exposure – anti-utopian visions of an Orwellian type. Accordingly, modern subjects try to protect their bodies from total exposure and defend their privacy against the danger of totalitarian surveillance. In particular, subjects operating in socio-political space struggle permanently for their right of privacy – the right to keep their bodies hidden, not to be fully subjectified. However, this privacy is incessantly being invaded by public opinion and the commercial media that try to bring light into the obscurity of private lives – and to ‘subjectify’ them.

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Marcel Janco, Cabaret Voltaire, photographic reproduction, c.1916

On the other hand, even the most panoptical and total exposure to secular power is still less total than the exposure to the divine gaze. In Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus spoke Zarathustra, 1883–85), the proclamation of the ‘death of God’ is followed by a lamentation about the loss of the spectator for our soul. If, on the one hand, modern exposure to power seems excessive, on the other hand it seems insufficient. Of course, our culture made great efforts to compensate for the loss of the divine spectator. But this compensation remains only partial. Every system of surveillance is too selective, it overlooks most of the things that it is supposed to see. Beyond that, the images that accumulate in such a system are mostly not really seen, analyzed or interpreted. The bureaucratic forms that register our identities are too primitive to produce interesting subjectivities. Contemporary surveillance and systems of control have made some progress in the subjectivation of human bodies – but not a degree of progress that could totally compensate for the loss of divine omnipresence. Accordingly, we remain only partially subjectified. The only possible collective, political way to complete subjectivation would be the complete abolition of private property – and with it, any protection of privacy. The truly Utopian perspective is the promise that everything private becomes public – and every body becomes a subject. Such was Plato’s project of a completely transparent state governed by Philosophers, such was the initial Russian avant-garde project of a new Communist society. And this Utopian impulse can also be diagnosed as driving the global fascination with Facebook, which gives its user a chance to reveal more from his or her private life than any surveillance is capable to achieve.

Thus, our condition of partial subjectivation engenders within us two contradictory aspirations: we are interested in retaining privacy, in the reduction of surveillance, in the obscurity of our bodies and desires, but at the same time we aspire to radicalized exposure, exposure beyond the limits of social control. I would argue that it is this radicalized subjectivation through radical self-exposure that is practiced by contemporary art. In this way exposure and subjectivation cease to be means of social control. Instead, self-exposure presupposes at least a certain degree of sovereignty over one’s own process of subjectivation. The art of modernity shows us different techniques of self-exposure, exceeding the usual practices of surveillance. More self-discipline than is socially necessary (Kazimir Malevich, Piet Mondrian, American Minimalism); more confessions of the hidden, the ugly or the obscure than is sought by the public, etc. But contemporary art confronts us with even more numerous and nuanced strategies of self-subjectivation involving the self-positioning of the artist in the contemporary political field. These strategies include not only different forms of political engagement but also all possible manifestations of private hesitation, uncertainty and even despair that usually remain hidden beneath the public personae of standard political protagonists. The belief in the social role of the artist is combined here with a deep scepticism concerning the effectiveness of that role. This erasure of the line dividing public commitment from private insecurities has become an important element of contemporary art practice. Here again the private becomes public – without any external pressure and/or enhanced surveillance.

Among other things, this means that art should not be theorized in sociological terms. The reference to the naturally given, hidden, ‘invisible’ subjectivity of the artist should not be substituted by the reference to his or her socially constructed identity – even if artistic practice is understood as the ‘deconstruction’ of this identity. The subjectivity and identity of the artist do not precede artistic practice: they are the results, the products of this practice. Of course, self-subjectivation is not a fully autonomous process. Rather, it depends on many factors, one of them being the expectations of the public. The public also knows that the social exposure of human bodies can be only partial and is therefore unreliable and untrustworthy. That is why the public expects the artist to produce radicalized visibility and self-exposure. Thus, the artistic strategy of self-exposure never begins at a zero point. The artist has to take into consideration from the outset his or her already existing exposure to the public. However, the same human body can be submitted to very different processes of socially determined subjectivation, depending on the particular cultural contexts in which this body may become visualized. Every contemporary cultural migrant – and the international art scene is full of migrating artists, curators, art writers – has innumerable chances to experience how his or her body is situated and subjectified in and through different cultural, ethnic and political contexts. These different contextualizations, exposures and installations mostly contradict and ultimately annul each other. If not at the beginning then at the end of the artistic itinerary, the subject arrives at the zero point of socially constructed identity. Artificially self-produced subjectivity is all that remains.

This result was already predicted and prefigured during World War I, by Hugo Ball, who brought together émigré artists from different countries in the Cabaret Voltaire, while nations battled nations. In his diary Flight Out of Time (1927), Ball describes the ‘simultaneous poem’ that was presented by Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco on 29 March 1916, at the Cabaret Voltaire, and in which the score of the recital was constituted via parallel recitatives in different languages, including singing, whistling, rattling, etc. As Ball remarks: ‘The human organ represents the soul, the individuality in its wanderings with its demonic companions. The noises represent the background – the inarticulate, the disastrous, the decisive… In a typically compressed way the poem shows the conflict of the vox humana with a world that threatens, ensnares, and destroys it, a world whose rhythm and noise are ineluctable.’1 Nevertheless, about three months later (23 June 1916), Ball writes in his diary that he has invented ‘a new genre of poems – namely, Lautgedichte [sound poetry]’.2 Sound poetry, as described by Ball, can be interpreted as the self-destruction of the traditional poem; as the exposure of the downfall and disappearance of the individual voice. Ball describes the effect of the public reading of his first sound poem at the Cabaret Voltaire in the following way: ‘Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was carried out off the stage like a magical bishop.’3 The reading of this kind of sound poetry was experienced and described by Ball as an exhausting exposure of the human voice to the demonic forces of noise. Ball wins this battle (becoming the magical bishop), but only by radical exposure to these demonic forces, by allowing them to reduce his own voice to pure noise, to nothingness. It is the exposure to the impossibility of expressing one’s own ‘natural’ subjectivity that produces this subjectivity as an art work.

Boris Groys is an art critic, media theorist and philosopher. He is currently Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University, USA, and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, Germany.

1 Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p.57

2 Ibid., p. 71

3 Ibid.

Issue 1

First published in Issue 1

Summer 2011
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