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Sight Reading

Do philosophers understand contemporary art?

‘What is called Philosophy of Art usually lacks one of two things: either the philosophy, or the art.’ Friedrich Schlegel, Kritische Fragmente (Critical Fragments), 1797

The most influential philosophers since the 1960s are those who have continued pursuing philosophy’s old desire to grasp the world as a whole. Despite their differences, and the expansion of the sciences and arts – accelerated through globalization, media and technology, and polarized by capitalism – what many of these philosophers share is the acknowledgement that any attempt to create systems for understanding the world has to consider all manner of issues: whether politics, science, epistemology or art.

For the Anglo-American, analytic school of thought, the role model is the rationalist scientist-expert: modestly avoiding speculation while assuming an almost juridical authority over a checklist of concerns (abortion ethics or parliamentary politics, say). For many continental philosophers, it’s different: they switch registers between academia and other communities, between analytical lucidity and sibylline opacity, hommes or femmes de lettres and public intellectual. They embody the idea, or fantasy, of potentially infinite disciplinary proficiency. Art, in the wake of expansions into Conceptualism, performance and new media in the 1960s, mirrors this too, embracing philosophy as an inspirational tool – often in the guise of the more inclusive and neutral-sounding term ‘theory’.

Specialist art-theoreticians such as Rosalind Krauss or Thierry de Duve have never aspired to the handyman versatility of major continental thinkers such as Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. The last of these to die was Derrida, in 2004, and now another generation has claimed its rights to the empty thrones. (It’s hard to ignore, less excuse, the persistence of a male-dominated aristocratic model in this regard.) In the case of Jacques Rancière or Judith Butler, their work gradually expands outwards from initially specialized concerns. For Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek, it goes hand-in-hand with a confident return to universalism. It is in regard to these ‘completist’ rather than specialized thinkers that I ask: do philosophers understand contemporary art? Obviously, this is a loaded question. Its bias is fed by my own observations over the years as much as by informal remarks made to me by artists and critics. Enquiring after the reasons for this bias must acknowledge the willingness to falsify it. 

Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953, oil on canvas, 152x117 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2009

Francis Bacon, Two Figures, 1953, oil on canvas, 152x117 cm. Courtesy: The Estate of Francis Bacon. All rights reserved. DACS 2009

The question is partly inspired by Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964). Sontag’s famous rejection letter to hermeneutics queried its philosophical underpinnings: Plato’s idea that art was an imitation of reality (an idea which forced art to justify itself by claiming profundity of content), and excavations, in the manner of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, of what things really mean. ‘Interpretation’, wrote Sontag, ‘means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work.’ She called for immediacy of experience and transparency of the work, comparing interpretation’s effect on the senses to that of exhaust fumes on the city – finally declaring that ‘in place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.

The irony is that there are no erotics without interpretative ambivalence; between intimacy and detachment, for instance, or invitation and rejection. Moreover, the very title ‘Against Interpretation’ was itself an extracted element, plucked from a remark made by Sontag’s close friend, the artist Paul Thek. According to the composer Ned Rorem (another friend of Thek’s, interviewed in 2006 by Sontag’s biographer Daniel Schreiber), Thek had a habit of closing off discussions about art with a deliberately snobby ‘Oh, I’m against interpretation, I’m against interpretation’. The ‘oh’ and the ‘I’m’ and the repetition are not accidental but signal ambivalence between nervous ennui and cheerful retort. In other words, the style of the comment was ‘camp’. Sontag, who wrote ‘Notes on “Camp”’ the same year as ‘Against Interpretation’, didn’t mention Thek in either of these texts. However she dedicated the entire volume of Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966) to him. This dedication was both gift and disguise; it consoled the artist and friend for having had his phrase ‘stolen’, and concealed the interpretation lurking behind the immediate-sounding title ‘Against Interpretation’.

In Aesthetic Theory (begun in 1961 and published posthumously in 1970), Theodor Adorno conceded there was a kernel of truth to the claim that philosophy had a problem of ‘immediacy’ in terms of accessing art. He wrote: ‘The truth content of works must be rigorously distinguished from all philosophy that is pumped into them […]; the difference between the two, it must be suspected, has for close to two hundred years been unbridgeable.’ The beginning of that time span, for Adorno, was marked by Friedrich Schlegel’s 1797 aphorism, quoted at the start of this article; Adorno had intended to use it as the epigraph for his book. Its irony to him wasn’t just irony, but an accurate description of a flaw in the study of aesthetics: philosophy’s inability to found standards of beauty, the sublime or of taste, on actual aesthetic experiences, on an understanding of art from ‘within’. Adorno’s solution for Aesthetic Theory was to create a long, dense stream of concepts rather than an overarching system; to allow analysis itself to mimic the flow of experience and thus escape Schlegel’s either/or problem.

Susan Sontag on the set of her film 'Duett för kannibaler' (Duet for Cannibals), 1969. Courtesy: Grove Press/Photofest

Susan Sontag on the set of her film 'Duett för kannibaler' (Duet for Cannibals), 1969. Courtesy: Grove Press/Photofest

Still, Adorno’s suspicion of John Cage, or Jazz, or popular culture proved to be a stumbling block, begging the question: was his response initially intuitive and then developed into theory? Or was it propositional, following through a line of thought? At the same time as Sontag and Adorno were working on their critiques, a new wave of French thinkers had already started breaking up the Modernist canon of art that Adorno still abided to. Or were they?

This is not Contemporary
Foucault – archaeologist of knowledge and opposer of historicist relativism as much as philosophical universalism – stopped short of analyzing the mind-expanding visual art of his own time. His small book on René Magritte, This is Not a Pipe (1973), dissects the paradox of Magritte’s series of paintings ‘La Trahison des images’ (The Treachery of Images, 1928–9). Foucault makes much of the point that in Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe, 1929) the sentence ‘this is not a pipe’, accompanying a painted pipe, is rendered in school copybook style, evoking the figure of a teacher in front of class who is at a loss because he suddenly realizes that neither image nor sentence are what they designate, thus making his students laugh out loud. Yet with the study of semiotics firmly established by the time Foucault wrote about Magritte’s work of the 1920s, a contemporary teacher might, instead, have simply staged the paradox in order to teach his students a lesson. Meanwhile Conceptual artists had moved the discussion to the next level: Joseph Kosuth’s deadpan, tautological Five Words in White Neon (1965) consists of the title spelt out in white neon; and John Baldessari, throwing Freud’s quip ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’ into the mix, made a series of photos entitled ‘A Cigar is a Good Smoke’ (1972). Rather than laboriously hypostatizing these paradoxical puns of signification, they resolved them into tautologically deadpan quips, or absurdist collage.

At the very end of his book, Foucault alludes to Andy Warhol: ‘A day will come when, by means of similitude relayed indefinitely along the length of a series, the image itself, along with the name it bears, will lose its identity. Campbell, Campbell, Campbell, Campbell.’ The day had already come, as Foucault knew, but this didn’t prompt him to write anything as developed as his Magritte piece about Warhol. In his essay ‘Theatrum Philosophicum’ (1970), he briefly discusses the seriality of Warhol’s silk-screens, suggesting they offer an LSD-like experience of immersion in the ‘magma of stupidity’ out of which a ‘shock of difference’ could occur. But again, this is little more than a cultural reference thrown into a meditation on epistemology, not only ignoring Warhol’s own codifications of camp and pop, but also hijacking his celebration of surface for the traditional idea of the philosophically visionary.

Deleuze, in Difference and Repetition (1968), also refers to Warhol and seriality. His philosophy of the time broke with the age-old division between original and copy, moving towards the idea that something radically new can only come out of repetition. Yet with reference to Warhol, the idea of repetition becomes semantically conventional, claiming that the division between the ‘boring’ repetition of habit, the ‘deep’ repetitions of thought, and the ‘last’ repetitions of death were united in Warhol’s seriality. But did Warhol, the camp Catholic in both work and persona, really consider habit as boring, thought as deep, or even death as final?

In Gilles Deleuze's book on Francis Bacon he passes silently over the fact that these works from the 1950s depict men having sex.

Deleuze’s 1981 book, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation focuses on art works rather than biography. However, any attempt to situate the works themselves in Bacon’s historical context is notably absent. Take the example of how Deleuze refers to Bacon’s Two Figures (1953) and Two Figures in the Grass (1954), to exemplify what he means by the ‘coupling of sensation’. He passes silently over the fact that these works from the 1950s depict, in blurred motion, men having sex; homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain until 1969. Deleuze possibly does so because his point, in line with Bacon’s own expressed rejection of narrative painting, is to identify sensation as ‘non-illustrative’ – ‘what is painted is the sensation’, rather than the story of two bodies entwined. Fine, but in order to make the case why these paintings should not be reduced to their obvious semantic level, wouldn’t that demand a discussion of the act they depict? Here, Deleuze philosophically sanitizes Bacon.

John Baldessari, 'A Cigar is a Good Smoke' (detail), 1972-3, colour photographs on black and white photographs, 51x61 cm each. Courtesy: the artist

John Baldessari, 'A Cigar is a Good Smoke' (detail), 1972-3, colour photographs on black and white photographs, 51x61 cm each. Courtesy: the artist

Derrida’s The Truth in Painting (1978) assigns itself more breadth than Deleuze’s monograph, including transformative readings of aesthetics in G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger and Immanuel Kant. The book presents both the best and worst of deconstruction: tireless fine-combing of ambiguities, but also wallowing in faux-profundity apropos the negligible. Oddly, the only actual works examined at any length are not really paintings. Derrida devotes one chapter to the artist Valerio Adami, a friend of his; using Adami’s heavy-handed allegorical drawing Disegno par un ritratto di W. Benjamin (Drawing for a portrait of W. Benjamin, 1973) as an excuse to talk about Walter Benjamin’s thoughts on mechanical reproduction, without even attempting to refer back to painting. Derrida returns to form later in the book, in a discussion of Vincent van Gogh and Heidegger’s Origin of the Work of Art (1935–6). He rightly points out that there is something ‘ridiculous and lamentable’ about the way Heidegger, with his ‘academic high seriousness’, hurries ‘consumerlike […] towards the content of a representation’, his description being ‘overloaded and impoverished’. Not much better though is Derrida’s own response, in a lecture, to works by Mark Tansey. Ironic in subject matter but deadly serious in their laboured, old master grisaille, Tansey’s pastiche historical allegories enjoyed great popularity in the 1980s. Derrida Queries de Man (1990) depicts the famous French thinker in a struggle at the edge of an abyssal waterfall with his American counterpart Paul de Man, assuming the roles of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty from Sidney Paget’s famous 1893 book illustration. ‘A fall at the edge of falls in the fall’, responds Derrida like an apprentice rapper, closing with ‘falling down into the false. Of course I will not do so, I mean, I will not speak of these simulacra any longer.’ The art work as ‘simulacrum’ was, of course, the classic emergency exit for certain French thinkers.

Roland Barthes, writing on Cy Twombly, is much better. Twombly’s scrawls lend themselves to Barthes’ careful reading of gesture as a kind of ‘cloud’ that surrounds ‘action with an atmosphere’. Barthes avoids face-value readings of Twombly as spirit medium for ancient mythology and classical humanism, instead identifying that ‘when Twombly repeats this one word: Virgil, it is already a commentary on Virgil, for the name, inscribed by hand, not only calls up a whole idea (though an empty one) of ancient culture but also “operates” a kind of citation: that of an era of bygone, calm, leisurely, even decadent studies: English preparatory schools, Latin verses, desks, lamps, tiny pencil annotations.’ Barthes is not bending the world towards his methodology, but – whether writing about wrestling, cars or Twombly – opening up his methodology towards it. Against this background, it is maybe not coincidental that the two French philosophers of the 1970s and ‘80s who had the most heated, intense encounters with visual arts contemporaneous to them, Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, were the ones who had attacked philosophy’s attempt to grasp the world as a whole – albeit from opposite directions. Baudrillard did so by sucking the world into one figure: the simulacrum. For him, saying something about the entire world had become impossible because it had disappeared into an all-encompassing simulation. This begged the question: what happens if the simulators experience its symptoms as ‘true’?

Enter the New York art scene of the 1980s. After Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Conceptual appropriation and Neo-Geo were waiting in the wings to present their take on consumer society. Sylvère Lotringer, who published the English translation of Simulations in 1983, wrote in 2001: ‘Anyone could read Baudrillard’s essay, and yet it still felt like theory. It was an intensely American experience, the thrill of discovery in the safety of recognition. Baudrillard was apparently telling hundreds of young, career-minded artists – art was quickly becoming a legitimate “career” – everything they already knew, or thought they did, but with Gallic panache and the authority of “theory”.’ But then came the big Oedipal scene. In 1987, Baudrillard gave a couple of lectures in New York. Asked what he thought of artists such as Peter Halley and Sherrie Levine, he flatly rejected their work as a complete misunderstanding of his writing ‘because the simulacrum cannot be represented.’ Baudrillard was right, you can’t represent the simulacrum – to do so is a contradiction in terms. But, only able to see the old in the new, he was wrong to reduce this kind of work to rehashed Warhol (who, for Baudrillard, had already finished the job of turning banality into fetish). It wasn’t until 1996 that he issued his pamphlet ‘The Conspiracy of Art’ in which he asserted that the only gesture left to contemporary art, now that it had immersed itself completely into all areas of life and had lost the right to claim exceptional status, ‘was the wink of reality laughing at itself in its most hyperrealist form’. In control of art are ‘the inside traders, the counterfeiters of nullity, the snobs of nullity’. It was as if he was still railing against his mid-1980s encounters in New York, echoing the legions of rejected artists, critics, and art lovers who had long bemoaned the conspiracy of art world charlatanry.

Joseph Kosuth, Five Words in White Neon, 1965, neon, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Joseph Kosuth, Five Words in White Neon, 1965, neon, dimensions variable. Courtesy: Sean Kelly Gallery, New York

Lyotard declared the end of ‘grand narratives’. Regarding the question of whether philosophers understand contemporary art, Lyotard gave two answers: one philosophical; one curatorial. His philosophical answer was if contemporary art was to be fully understood, it would cease to be contemporary; it would have stopped to allow for the experience of the incommensurable, even the ‘impossible’ (based on Lyotard’s description of the Sublime as the experience of the mind’s incapability to integrate an experience neatly into concepts, something that for him occurs in great art). The job of the philosopher, Lyotard believed, rather than trying to make declarative statements about art, is to detect the conditions of possibility for that ‘impossibility’ to occur. Explaining what that could mean in Les TRANSformateurs DUchamp (Duchamp’s Transformers, 1977), Lyotard initially states that Marcel Duchamp’s work was about seeking and realizing contradiction: but then, under the title ‘complaint’, he contradicts his statement by referring to Duchamp’s pedantic exactitude. Lyotard continues to argue with himself throughout the book. He gradually encircles Duchamp’s fractious sense of buffoonery, as if Duchamp’s work is incessantly saying ‘you won’t get me’.

Lyotard’s curatorial answer took the form of the 1985 exhibition ‘Les Immatériaux’ (The Immaterials), at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Rather than simply displaying artefacts, the actual exhibit was a spatial experience. The layout was that of a labyrinth, with one entrance and one exit. In-between were the new ‘immaterials’ – objects that, according to Lyotard, transform and call into question the traditional understanding of humanity mastering nature. An Egyptian relief of a goddess offering the sign of life to a Pharaoh; photos by Eadweard Muybridge; artificial skin; works by Duchamp, Yves Klein and Giovanni Anselmo; Kevlar; a sheet of paper seen through an electron microscope; and much more. Sounds were transmitted throughout the exhibition via radio to wireless headphones. The show was, judging from its catalogue, neither celebrating a brave future nor condemning an apocalypse. Instead it was asking – concretely, in space – what effect developments in art and technology will have on aesthetic experience. For Lyotard the curator, the question of ‘understanding contemporary art’ was first of all that of how its spectators would deal with it.

Masses and Regimes
Alain Badiou associates Postmodernism in general, and Lyotard in particular, with sophism, which he distinguishes sharply from philosophy. Sophists in ancient Greece were dismissed by Badiou’s hero Plato, and Badiou agrees with him: whereas philosophers are attempting to grasp truth, sophists resort to subverting the position of the one who speaks in order to expose his interests.

Badiou boldly makes the case for a return to metaphysics. His central work Being and Event (1988) presents itself – to use his own term – as an ‘event’, a sudden emergence that cancels out and moves beyond the polarization between continental and analytic traditions of philosophy. Key to his argument is the implementation of mathematical ontology – mainly concerned with set theory after Georg Cantor with its pure ‘multiples’, its ‘infinite infinities’. But this is decidedly not classical metaphysics: rather it’s a kind of coldly nominal subtraction from Jacques Lacan’s notion of the void (mathematics understood as presenting ‘nothing […] besides presentation itself’). Badiou’s central concept of the ‘event’ is diametrically opposed to Deleuze’s: the event is not understood as immanent to ‘becoming’ (the philosophical term for the growing, withering and growing of everything that exists), but as that which traverses, crosses through the given cyclical repetitions and produces new possibilities, new multiplicities. In this sense, the ‘event’ is radically distinct from ‘becoming’. Badiou’s prime example throughout his work is the political revolution: it comes out of the blue, and can’t be explained away as being the sum of its conditions.

For Badiou, it’s an almost mathematical job to subtract arbitrary conditions from the drive towards truth, towards preparing the ground for events to happen. For Badiou, art is irreducible to philosophy, and art’s truths are specific to it, different from those produced in science, love or politics (between which philosophy acts as a ‘go-between’). His term for this is ‘Inaesthetics’, which ‘describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art.’ Accordingly, in his Third Draft of a Manifesto of Affirmationism (2004), Badiou calls for an art that is ‘as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.’ No wonder then that the corny allegory of stars persists in his litany of artistic heroes: ‘Pessoa for the poem, Picasso for painting, Schoenberg for music’. As if parodying a eulogy he writes: ‘We will praise Affirmation: of Malevich or Mondrian, for the ontological certitude of geometries; of Frantisek Kupka or Mark Rothko, for their power – oh, draperies of the soul! – of the great and pure contrasts of sufficient colour. We will say: Kandinsky, legitimator of the connection of signs! Jackson Pollock, enclosed effervescence of the infinite gesture!’

To note that these are ridiculously inefficient and inaccurate characterizations of the artists mentioned – and that they are all dead white males – would be written off by Badiouians as irrelevant sophistry. But why ‘affirmation’? Who or what is affirmed? On one level, it’s the affirmation of that very modernist canon he reinstalls, in opposition to expressive Romantic particularities. On another level, Badiou’s enthusiasm sounds like the disembodied remnant of a – or rather the – Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Foucault wrote about Magritte's work of the 1920's; meanwhile conceptual artists such as Baldessari and Kosuth had moved the discussion to the next level.

In The Century (2005) Badiou identifies, rightly, the abiding obsession of the 20th century with war, with a ‘final solution’. He ascribes Mao Zedong an ultimately clarifying role in this: of having understood that the key task is to distinguish ‘antagonistic contradictions’ – us versus the enemy – from ‘contradictions among the people’, or battles between factions of the left. The factional differences are not to be treated in an antagonistic manner, but need to be resolved by ‘formalization’ – Badiou’s euphemistic term for a link between the passion for direct action and its formal consistency (i.e. its adherence to ‘truth’). How such resolution is supposed to work in the case of Mao or any politics in his wake is not really laid out; but in any case Mao’s Cultural Revolution is generously described by Badiou as a ‘stimulus for the unleashing of politics, under the banner of the march towards real communism’, as opposed to the ‘police-like end of mass politics’ favoured by Mao’s opponents in the Chinese struggle of the mid-1960s; though, unfortunately, ‘extreme violence is therefore the correlate of extreme enthusiasm’. There was never a cleaner Mao, never a cleaner ontology, and never a cleaner ‘inaesthetics’. What becomes apparent is that Badiou’s eloquent use of a mathematical ontology of the ‘multiple without quality’ anticipates the uniform masses who are subject to Mao’s political formalization, and – is it heresy to see an odd analogy here? – the artist’s modernist formalizations of the ‘masses’ of aesthetic material (taking the ‘particularities’ of ethics, identity, body or violence out of the equation to create coherent forms effective towards the higher goal of ‘truth’). Badiou’s mathematical rigidity recalls how common it was amongst Western European Maoists of the 1960s student movement to brush off, in the name of the ‘main contradiction’ (class struggle), feminist or anti-racist invectives as mere ‘minor contradictions’. A residue of that attitude can still be detected in the way particularities of any kind, including aesthetic ones, are quickly declared irrelevant by Badiou. Does he understand contemporary art? The issue becomes, one is tempted to say, a ‘minor contradiction’ compared to his understanding of political masses as formalizable.

Rancière, who has emerged as one of the philosophers with the most to say about contemporary art, has bones to pick with Badiou. In short, what Rancière mainly holds against Badiou’s inaesthetics is that they are driven by what he calls an ‘ultra-Platonism’ of the multiple, forcing Badiou to assert the essence of the artwork as being strictly separated from any discourse on art, and strictly the essence of one, not several, disciplines of art. However, Rancière’s own project is not without contradictions. He has two central notions: that of the ‘aesthetic regime’; and that of le partage du sensible – usually translated as the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (which is closer in meaning to something like ‘shared partitioning of the perceptible’). It asserts that art and politics share potential for emancipation in terms of ‘redistribution’, or ‘cutting up’: an alteration of what can be perceptible in society. This definition, Rancière is quick to add, ‘has nothing to do with Benjamin’s discussion of the “aestheticization of politics” specific to the “age of the masses”’, but rather with a ‘a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience’.

How do we distinguish successful ‘redistributions’ and ‘cutting ups’ from mere pretensions of such? Rancière: ‘Suitable political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double effect: the readability of a political signification and a sensible or perceptual shock caused, conversely, by the uncanny, by that which resists signification.’ But if that double effect is ensured, how can the uncanny still play itself out against readability? Also, this implies that the most important quality of political signification is readability, whereas political reach (say from a queer perspective) often resides in coded innuendo. It seems that a more ordinary version of the work division between politics and art re-enters covertly: as content ruptured in form. The problem with Rancière’s other central notion, the ‘aesthetic regime’, is the way in which he understands its effects on questions of subject matter and medium. According to him, the current aesthetic regime was instituted some 200 years ago. Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795) is Rancière’s touchstone, because ‘Schiller’s notion of the aesthetic experience suspended the opposition between active understanding and passive sensibility, thus simultaneously establishing “the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself.”’ This implies that, for Rancière, modernity – with its ideals of autonomy as well as the merging of art and life – is an articulation of, not a break with, that aesthetic regime. But in order to claim this fundamental continuity, he studiously avoids Schiller’s notion of ‘the good’ and replaces it with ‘politics’. Schiller’s programme is that of a holistic totalization of the beautiful that will lead to the good; it finds its realization more in the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner than in most avant-gardes of the 20th century.

Most contemporary philosophers tend to favour writing and the dead over images and the living. 

As Thierry de Duve has observed, in the early 20th century there occurred a shift in aesthetic judgment that replaced the classical Kantian ‘this is beautiful’ (on which Schiller built) with the Duchampian ‘this is art’ (or, ‘this is the idea’) as the definition of art. Rancière renders this shift invisible. He notes that the incorporation of the ‘low’ into aesthetic production had occurred already in the 19th century, when the aesthetic regime had dismantled the correlation between the dignity of a subject matter and its mode of representation that had been in place before. Suddenly everything could be seen as beautiful: ‘a display of fruits or fish, the feelings of a simple creature, or an adultery in a small provincial town are as receptive for beauty as the figure of Olympian gods.’ That may be the case, but is there really a continuation of this paradigm in some of the art that was to follow? The subject matter of Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is not the dignified, beautiful form, but the gesture of showing a banal object as art. This cuts the ties with the connection between ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the good’ – art’s legitimizing role in the moral education of society. The urinal was a pseudonymous entry to an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists, of which Duchamp was a board member. The society had declared it would show every work submitted. Duchamp submitted his urinal to expose the limits of the board’s tolerance (we allow you to do everything, but only if you do it in a mannerly fashion and for the sake of the good). Rancière says that ‘the aesthetic revolution is first of all the honour acquired by the commonplace’. For Rancière, Duchamp’s commonplace object turned ready-made is just a variation of this. But that is to ignore the difference between the ‘common place’ as subject matter, and as object; between a ‘regime’ primarily defined by ‘this is beautiful’, and one defined by ‘this is art/this is an idea’.

Final Fantasy
One may disagree with Rancière; which of course doesn’t mean his insights are invalid for art; art’s discourse is always full of disagreements. Whether Postmodern or neo-universalist, should philosophy’s compulsion towards completeness – no cultural discipline left behind! – mean that philosophers have to articulate their definitive take on contemporary art? Of course not. It’s just that if they do harbour the ambition to say something about contemporary art, they should bear in mind some of the points that are often taken for granted, or simply ignored. At least since Conceptualism, artists ‘talk back’; Barnett Newman famously said that aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds, but there are certain artists that publicly reflect on their habits and habitat, declaring this activity to be their actual artistry. These supposedly idiot savant artists who talk back are a little hard for philosophers to deal with. Even philosophy’s contemporary proponents are still haunted by the fact that they are returning incessantly to the thoughts of people who are (almost all) long dead. This clairvoyant predisposition rubs off on their approach to art, which tends to favour writing and the dead over images and the living.

Perhaps French philosophers have to subtract disgruntlement over New York ousting Paris as the centre of the 20th-century avant-garde from their justified criticism of art and its markets, and resentment of ‘the spectacle’ from more current philosophical understandings of the effects of technology and electronic media on aesthetics. Maybe Schlegel’s aphorism has to be read not as a dilemma but as the affirmation of a productive lack: philosophy of art, forced to commute between knowing too little or too much about either its subject or itself, spills surplus thoughts along the way. What’s important is that it moves; that it traverses its fantasy of definiteness.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.

Bibliography (in order of citation)

Friedrich von Schlegel, Lucinde and the Fragments, University of Minnesota Press, 1971 (Critical Fragments first published 1797) Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 2001 (first published 1966) Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag. Geist und Glamour: Biographie, Aufbau Verlag, 2007 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, University of Minnesota Press, 1998 (first published 1970) Michel Foucault, This is Not a Pipe, Quantum Books/University of California Press, 2008 (first published 1973) Michel Foucault, Theatrum Philosophicum, 1970 Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, Columbia University Press, 1995 (first published 1968) Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Continuum Books, 2004 (first published 1981) Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, University of Chicago Press, 1987 (first published 1978) Jacques Derrida, ‘Deconstructions: the Im-possible’, in Sylvère Lotringer and Sande Cohen (eds), French Theory in America, Routledge, 2001 Roland Barthes, ‘Non Multa Sed Multum’ and ‘The Wisdom of Art’, in Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, University of California Press, 1985 (first published 1976/1979) Sylvère Lotringer, ‘Doing Theory’, in Lotringer and Cohen (eds), French Theory in America, Routledge, 2001 Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, Foreign Agent Series/Semiotext(e), New York, 1983 Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Conspiracy of Art’, in Baudrillard and Sylvère Lotringer (eds), The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), 2005 (first published 1996) Jean-François Lyotard, Duchamp's Transformers, Lapis Press, 1990 (first published 1977) Jean-François Lyotard, Les Immatériaux (ex. cat.), Centre Georges Pompidou, 1985 Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Les Immatériaux’, in Reesa Greenberg/Bruce W. Ferguson/Sandy Nairne (eds), Thinking about Exhibitions, Routledge, 1996 Alain Badiou, Being and Event, Continuum Books, 2006 (first published 1988) Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics, Stanford University Press, 2004 (first published 1998) Alain Badiou, Third Draft of a Manifesto of Affirmationism, in Lacanian Ink No. 24/25, 2005 (first published 2004), Alain Badiou, The Century, Polity Press, Cambridge UK and Malden US 2007 (2005) Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum Books, 2006 (first published 2000) Jacques Rancière, Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art, 2006 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and its Discontents, Polity Press 2009 (forthcoming) (first published 2004) Jacques Rancière, Ist Kunst Widerständig?, Merve Verlag, 2008 (based on a 2004 lecture entitled 'Si l'art résiste à quelque chose?') Jacques Rancière, ‘Politics & aesthetics: an interview’, with Peter Hallward, in Inaesthetik, No. 1, June 2009 (the interview was conducted in 2002) Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Oxford University Press 1983 (1795) Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, October Books/The MIT Press, 1998

Issue 125

First published in Issue 125

September 2009
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