Autonomy in Conservative Times
‘Autonomy’ has crept into the lexicon of contemporary art. As contemporary art is a field vaguely founded upon the theoretical rejection of aesthetic autonomy, its recent theorization is fraught with particular manifestations of abuse. On one hand, autonomy has become a dirty insult, used pejoratively. On the other, it is construed as the restoration of art in an era of its impossibility. In the former scenario, art-activists and political artists, ideological critics, and philosophers see the ‘pure form’ which is now conflated with autonomy as extraneous and perhaps even decadent when understood in a social context of profound social injustice. It is ‘merely’ aesthetic. In the latter, art is expressly valued for its myopic focus on ‘aesthetics’ alone, which in turn is valued for its projected apolitical nature, as something that does not take part in the torpor of contemporary politics. In other words, left politics is considered so miserable today that it drives otherwise political thinkers into depoliticized art. Neither of these sentiments are explicit, however. The ‘pure art’ vs. ‘political art’ debate is itself antiquated—it was understood as passé even a century ago—and today it does not debate autonomy, but the terms of debate indicate something else entirely: aesthetic autonomy’s absence as a meaningful category. It indicates not a discussion of aesthetic autonomy, or even politics, but rather the reconstitution, in a curiously distorted form, of a classical debate from the nineteenth century that by the early 1920s was mooted by advanced social conditions. This critical framework of necessary misinterpretation is one of the defining categorical features of contemporary art. Before our time, we sense, there were notions of the autonomy of art in modernity that dabbled in no such simple bifurcation of ‘political or apolitical’, which are antidotes to conservative times, imparted by conservative times. The very separation of ‘political’ or ‘apolitical’ into ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ indicates regression—or at least a mild transfiguration without consciousness of that transfiguration—in terms of how we now determine the social situation of art, which isn’t to say the quality of the art itself. I.e. the meaning of how and why it is misunderstood today demands newfound clarity as a possibly critical misinterpretation. The mode of the era is misinterpretation. Autonomy is necessarily misunderstood, but it may ultimately be for the sake of clarifying what autonomous art was trying to convey, but could not in its own moment.
Autonomy and Society
The construction of ‘autonomy’ has origins in philosophical and social conditions extrinsic to art, but that art was theorized as critical for developing. ‘Philosophical’ and ‘social’ conditions were not initially perceived as separate, though they were not understood as unified either, not in the sense we’d understand—their separation is posthumous in a way that misunderstands autonomy, and in particular ways does so. These extrinsic, or heterogeneous conditions, beginning with the French Revolution and German philosophy, have been theorized retrospectively by a number of art historians, philosophers, and political thinkers who perceive the situation of autonomy as ‘dead’, perhaps in the sense that it can be seen clearly anew. Our distant vantage point is an otherness to the moment of autonomy, but not the otherness that autonomous artworks proposed. Seeing this historical development requires a certain imagination. For instance, T.J. Clark imagines Jacques Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793) becoming unhinged from the walls of patronage and joining the newly articulate masses in the streets of the French Revolution. Imagery becomes synthetic, open to interpretation, and abstract when representing new conditions of social possibility. Idealism and Romanticism were direct reactions to the failure of the French Revolution to sufficiently ‘achieve’ liberty; aesthetics emerges because art becomes a mirror not of concrete reality, but of reality in the image it wants to be, of what is embryonic within it. Art in modernity is the representation of efflorescence. This project of the hypothetical, so to speak, led German Romantics to develop an individuation that is in tension with universals that are no longer given; a universal which is critically incomplete, and which has necessary manifestations in different particulars that cannot add up to a singular whole, but is a totality nonetheless. Marx articulated this developmental process when he said that with modernity, “all that is solid melts into air”, which may sound today like an indictment of modernity as being chaotic, meaningless, or even nihilistic, but what was originally meant was that this dynamism registers the mutability and transformability of social conditions.
This new social world co-developed, and was refined by a philosophy of autonomy: the development of a philosophical program of “self-determination”. Autonomy to its foundational theorist, Kant, is summed up in his paper, Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? His well-known answer is that it is “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity”. It is “emergent” because humanity for the first time becomes free to think without affirming predetermined values and predetermined institutions. That is, free to think critically, to think through the limits of reflection, and to develop this autonomy historically and within a new concept of the public. Marx’s For A Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing further developed the necessity of this project—a thesis on how critique can productively bring about dynamic change by understanding that everything which exists is incompletely free. In the context of a free but undetermined public, art becomes about its own self-determining reconstitution, free from having to reinforce the social mores or religious values to which it was once lawfully bound. For example, in the nineteenth century, Baudelaire criticized the regressive tendencies of artists who were still cloaking themselves in the past, urging them to paint modern life in all its contradictions. Art’s inveterate self-criticism and adaptability to problematic contradictions is the reason it survives. In a sense, artworks continue because they critically recognize their possible death, imitating death, so to speak, and thereby living. Art’s newfound problematic character—its critical limitations—is its origin.
Art becomes integral because it makes universal claims that could not previously be wagered, specifically through the development of fragmentary, incomplete forms, or non-finito’s that stimulate concepts of totality through spontaneous, particular presentation. Artworks are the crystallizations of individuals that have not been made to add up to anything purely free yet, but are half-caught in a new world, half steeped in the old—artworks reflect the internal womb of social development: writings on the wall of the womb. Modernity is like a community of mutual incompletions and enigmatic idiosyncrasies, idiosyncrasies which were always present, but whose growth becomes stimulated in unprecedented ways. Crystallization of these idiosyncracies implies a hardening, an ossification—their termination. Benjamin’s well-known phrase regarding the autonomy of the poet— “the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency”—is an injunction of public knowledge brought about via individual expression adequate to a total ideal that is not merely their sum. Autonomy means the autonomy of individuals to pursue mutually constitutive differences to their ends; the autonomy to explore those aspects of idiosyncratic experience that is meaningfully cut off from others in the community, and in a way where that connective tissue is strengthened through that tension.
Schiller (and German Idealists) perceived this fragmentary ‘spontaneity of thought’ in form to be a new mode of inquiry rivaling the simply ‘whole’ or complete achievements of Greek Antiquity. In On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller writes:
But in our day it is necessity, neediness, that prevails, and bends a degraded humanity under its iron yoke. Utility is the great idol of the time, to which all powers do homage and all subjects are subservient. In this great balance of utility, the spiritual service of art has no weight, and, deprived of all encouragement, it vanishes from the noisy Vanity Fair of our time.
Subjectivity is a category, not a concrete reality or a yoke to be bent to. It reflects a new era of self-determination opened to possibilities that were once foreclosed by simplistic reconciliations, unities, and constructions, specifically through the individual expression of aesthetic reason within a totality larger than these parts, and yet illuminated by the crystallization of these parts. The inveterate problem of the autonomy of art is that it reflects something which isn’t there, but that ought to be. The rejection of traditional, simplistic reconciliations is rejection for the sake of redemption: we owe it to the past to become what it wanted to be, but could not in its own time. Likewise, there is an imperative to perceive something crucial about nature—and natural history—through art, which is otherwise obstructed. Historical difference is historical fulfillment, and alienation from nature is fulfillment of nature.
Autonomy came to mean something slightly different to Adorno. The ability for art to fully replace nature as the site of aesthetic reflection—and the perennial incompletion of this project, as illuminated by modern artworks—meant that autonomy became a critical problem. In a sense, the history of the idea of autonomy becomes implicated in something like what the poet Thomas Transtromer calls “the half-finished heaven.” The heaven-down-to-earth of nineteenth century Paris was never complete, because bourgeois life never transformed into what it wanted to become—socialism. Yet, art in the bourgeois (not to mention bohemian) sense, lingered into the twentieth century. What distinguishes art from kitsch, for example, is not merely aesthetic, but it is expressed aesthetically—kitsch is the condition whereby art falsely reflects a past for itself, and not a past that wants to develop into something else yet to be determined. In this way, artworks are imaginations of history. Autonomous artworks—those that are not kitsch identifications with the identity of the past—often do not look like art because they mimic a situation in which art is categorically complete and socially unnecessary. What is at stake with the degeneration of aesthetic experience is not merely the loss, or “impossibility” of art, as it is often framed, but the jeopardization of a capacity for experience—the experience of a lack, the problem of an incomplete subjectivity. For art to be ‘complete’ would mean that society has politically achieved the self-determining freedom it has strived for and that the “untransfigured suffering of men over the ages” has been assuaged. The life or death of art is dependent on extrinsic conditions. In such a situation, art would be categorically dead; the suffering which art was always bound up in transfiguring liquidated; the problematic, contradictory character of art completely and finally dissolved.
Doing Pointing—Art & Suffering
The relationship of art to suffering is pivotal: art is an approximation of suffering that implies the replacement of suffering in necessarily illusory ways. Art tends towards the transformation of suffering, but is perhaps more like the displacement or alienation of a particular form of suffering. As glimmering crystallizations, artworks are hardened suffering reflected from the past onto new and distant consciousness. But without the object of the particularly modern suffering that art replaces, art is exclusively illusion, free-floating, and problematically autonomous—glimmering for glimmering’s sake. The presence of autonomous art that is now everywhere, indicates an already transformed suffering, but not an entirely replaced one; suffering and art co-exist, but how critically they do so is questionable. Modern art critically reflected this incomplete transformation by immanently pointing to a determinate end of art’s capability to completely replace suffering—there were built-in self-criticisms. Contemporary art, in contrast, seems to, (or seemed to), hypothesize a completion of this transformation—art is now expected to ‘do’ something instead of using its limitations as a means of pointing beyond itself and reflecting totality, as modernism aimed to do: doing pointing. Suffering is idealized as dead specifically through contemporary art, only because it truly ought to have been nullified. However, as modern art was never about resolving suffering on its own, the suffering expressed through art today is displaced; it ought to be directed at extra-artistic social conventions. Or rather, it is seen as half-dead, and there are extra-artistic thrusts to give it a little push into complete death. The idea of suffering today is named dead only in ideal—the idea of the suffering artist has become so insufferable that it is proclaimed dead, pathologically so. Suffering arouses blood thirst and rage at the sufferer, not suffering itself, whereas in autonomous artworks there is a blatant distinction between suffering and the object of suffering that implies external judgment and difference.
Illusion and Suffering
Autonomous artworks transform suffering into the possibility of its nullification, by giving suffering the image that it itself in its immediacy always denied. In the traditional taboo on representations of suffering, suffering continues in its immediate, unchanged state. Insofar as this project of pre-humanity has continued to this day, it is a grasp of the sensible image or sensible illusion of the problem that begins to dissipate, not the problem itself. If everything is ‘illusion’ or hypothetical, then even suffering is illusion, even fear of freedom is illusory. Artworks are palpable appearances of suffering, simultaneously affective and illusory; essentially contradictory and tense in a way that points to possible resolutions from the outside. It is their newfound incapacity to effect immediate change that makes it possible to envision what that change may look like, and in what ways there is already changed perspective. Autonomous artworks would be expected to perfect and intensify this contradiction. In modernity, art becomes, more so than in any other historical moment, an enigma, or an incomprehensible problem. Today, it is the experience of the incomprehensible—the image of what lies beyond our understanding—that is lost. E.g: Why is it that today there are countless instances of ‘good art’—painting that is sufficiently abstract; TV shows that are sufficiently realist, etc.—and yet the problems which they sufficiently point beyond are more opaque and critically ungraspable? The difference is that ‘incomprehensibility’—what we are unable to know in these social conditions but feel we ought to know—is not theorized, but instead suppressed.
Virtues of Necessity
What is put forth, in both lament and celebration, is that the aesthetic experience in contemporary art has dissipated, become more opaque and irrelevant than it was in earlier, modern manifestations. But it seems more apt to say that aesthetics have become hauntingly important: culture is necessary for lived life. When reflecting on the New Left, a post-Students for a Democratic Society member once stated that its main success was cultural, not political. Culture today is grasped as rewarding, therapeutic, necessary. It is defended as a right. But it is also categorically ungraspable—what is grasped in aesthetic experience is the emphatic ungraspability of a problem. It offers fulfilled experience, the exact opposite of the zero-degree moment of critical art, which offered the palpable illusion of fulfillment. The new aesthete’s position is, in part, backwards: the persistence of art as a positive value indicates regression in socializing—the need to be therapized. Any call to maintain the freedom of culture is making a virtue of necessity. Of course, nothing would be more backwards than denying therapy to those who need it—in this sense, art activism is anti-social, by denying needs, in order to fulfill their own. The fulfillment of such needs are not really art, in the sense of an autonomous art that constructs an indifference to the viewer—the indifference of nature as expressed through autonomous works that take part in cultivating a second nature. To perceive art as therapeutic is a particular phenomenon—or rather, since ‘aesthetic’ originally meant the ‘study’ of senses, that aesthetics is therapeutic today means that we are therapized by a rationalized study of our senses. Still, it is artworks that therapize, implying that there is something unchanged from the history of ritual. Every multiplying instance of therapy in art—e.g. in home listening, etc.—has ties to the prehistoric past in which material takes part in pacification. Even so, the unprecedented efflorescence of needs not adequately fulfilled implies imminent reconceptualization of needs.
That art continues beyond the bourgeois moment for whom it was intended indicates not merely a regression into bourgeois social mores, but that, like the productive forces everywhere outside art, it has developed into such robust formations that it has become something else entirely that eludes grasp, even as it demands greater critical comprehension. Its overripe character demands something external that obsoletes it, and which doesn’t yet exist. Art as a convention demands politics because it is distinct from politics. Artworks ought to draw attention to their possibly obsolete character, and thus illuminate the inchoate space of a society that can exist without suffering. Analogously, Benjamin’s analysis of supposedly ‘nostalgic’ photography is not a critique of regressive aesthetic tendencies, but an illumination on how its seeing the world in ruins is really the ability to see a world of domination in ruins and in the past. Something analogous happens in Adorno’s appreciation of Beckett’s tattered world, which shows how withered certain social conditions ought to be, but have not yet been rendered. In the words of Goethe, and quoting Engels—“All that exists deserves to perish.” The autonomy of art is ultimately and emphatically in the service of its exhaustion.
Artists, in turn, have responded in increasingly more quixotic ways to a problematic autonomous culture: the return to painting, for example; denying outright that autonomy ever existed in any meaningful way, as seen in certain strains of art-activism; or misrecognizing the concept of autonomy as a bygone relic that is merely irrelevant, as if it could be wished away. Artists know they operate under a problematic concept of autonomy. All of these ideologies are true, earnest expressions of a perceived incapacitation of art to make totalizing claims, but perhaps need to be made to add up to something as a critical whole, as a thrall of coordinates on the map of autonomy. This bindingness of art to perceived contemporary incapacitation seems to make it frail, but does so in such a way that it drags society down with it, like a tramp. Society forms a queue behind the artworks that it exiles. Recently, artworks have tended to mimic the opaque meaning of their exile—Beckett once said that all that remains is to find a form adequate to the mess, and many artists reflect this. What, exactly, the mess is, is not clear—its image-less-ness forces the issue of clarity. Art must trace what is non-existent, what is absent. What is broadly presumed to be a return to aesthetics today, via pure form, is not so much aesthetic autonomy, but kitsch: the tracing or reinforcement of what is construed as already complete and whole, specifically in past artworks. Nevertheless, contemporary art doesn’t affirm the past so much as it affirms the past as a moment of possibility. Art today mimes an ideal of what modernists thought experience very well might have looked like in an era where the very term has been made for decades to carry no meaning, and in doing so has carried very significant meaning. In other words, contemporary art imagines what modern art thought contemporary art might have looked like—or, what modern art imagined the future not to look like. As society follows an exiled art, it follows it into the past, and is burrowed into. Contemporary art is incompatible with itself the extent to which its definition is a burrowing into a past in which alternate directions may, and perhaps ought to have been pursued.
Helplessness and Consonance
Contemporary art comes to be judged by critical terms that are not necessarily self-determining because art is not understood as its own self-determining reconstitution, but is curiously still autonomous. Theory and art diverge; one can speak of art without speaking of any art at all. Indeed, one must. Even the negation of modernism’s autonomy, as expressed in theory, is problematically autonomous; even the destruction of universal claims is a universal claim; even the anti-ideologies that would like to destroy aesthetic autonomy are for the sake of greater autonomy, whether it is consciously recognized or not. The problems of contemporary art are its less-conscious critical understanding of universality, and not the disparate works themselves, which are material of it. As usual, consciousness lags behind production. For theorists supposedly interested in the autonomy of art, interest manifests as expressly apolitical in nature; art as the one thing that escapes the grasp of politics. These are responses to a perceived law of the world, and are fraught with something that might be understood as a helplessness that is also specifically the opposite of autonomy. This escaping the grasp of politics is not what was originally meant by the term ‘autonomy’, which has been rendered something benign and consonant with society, instead of dissonant with, and critical of it, and yet still part of it. Art in an age of its autonomy demands a broader-reaching social and political theory. But art in an age of helplessness fosters the need for aid, and art is only one of many things that is grasped for.
Pure Art vs. Political Art as Passé
It is revealing that that there has unknowingly festered a benign tumor of “art for art’s sake” that is misconstrued for the autonomy of art in the underbelly of postmodern ‘political’ art. The development of a misrecognition harbors ideas of autonomy more apolitical than nineteenth century bourgeois l’art pour l’art, which Nietzsche identified as symptomatic of bourgeois nihilism because it was reactionary to the bourgeois standards of morality, instead of autonomously creating its own self-reflexive standards that seems imminently able to obsolete morality and other bourgeois standards. The ‘socially-turned’ artists who have a real aversion to the ‘autonomy’ of art are both right and wrong—wrong because what they call the ‘autonomy of art’ is poorly theorized or understood as an antiquated notion of art for art’s sake. But they are right in judging today’s art for art’s sake as nihilistic when they notice that it is antiquated, passé and helpless. This judgment rightfully extends into recent aesthetic theory itself, whose principles are forged in recoiling from contemporary moral values, and aimed at a restoration of modernism, a restoration that is just as anti-modern as postmodernism’s anti-modernism, since modernism implacably opposed restoration as an idea. In the contemporary moment this setup of ‘autonomous art vs. instrumental art’ is actually a return to nineteenth century liberal terms of debate that Trotsky specifically targeted as insufficient to deal with the new, radical character of modernity. Why does it return? The prohibition of an art that critically falls short of experience—and therefore illuminates its possibility—leads to an idea of art as lawfully cathartic, fulfilled experience. Fulfillment in art signifies mere affirmation. Trotsky points out that:
The Marxist point of view is far removed from these tendencies, which were historically necessary, but which have become historically passé. Keeping on the plane of scientific investigation, Marxism seeks with the same assurance the social roots of the “pure” as well as of the tendentious art. [i.e. ‘art with a tendency’, as politicized art was then called]
Trotsky later goes on to say that:
Our Marxist conception of the objective social dependence and social utility of art, when translated into the language of politics, does not at all mean a desire to dominate art by means of decrees and orders. It is not true that we regard only that art as new and revolutionary which speaks of the worker, and it is nonsense to say that we demand that the poets should describe inevitably a factory chimney, or the uprising against capital! Of course the new art cannot but place the struggle of the proletariat in the center of its attention. But the plough of the new art is not limited to numbered strips. On the contrary, it must plough the entire field in all directions. Personal lyrics of the very smallest scope have an absolute right to exist within the new art. Moreover, the new man cannot be formed without a new lyric poetry. But to create it, the poet himself must feel the world in a new way. [italics mine]
Ploughing in All Directions
Trotsky’s historical point about the autonomy of art is that politics and art are now revealed as “fellow travelers” which are ultimately distinct and free to pursue their own courses, but in modernity share a capacity to transform heterogeneous perspectives of the same social situation. A sufficiently radical art would take advantage of all latent formal possibilities to mimic a new universal situation through apperceptive thought, fostering the “new human” by opening up new directions that are analog to, and articulate the insatiable yearning for experience that necessarily has no tangibility yet. When new directions are foreclosed in order to identify with the struggle of “the people,” or to be “pals with the revolution”, it expresses repression within its aesthetic truth of self-critique, which illuminates the revolution through difference.
It is by not critically self-crystallizing—by not being dissonant with its inevitable extrinsic conditions— that so-called ‘social art’ or art with a tendency does a disservice for experience: anti-social art. By identifying with the oppressive reality that the individual does not want to identify with, social art has the patina of a two-fold oppression. E.g.: status-quo individuals do not seek culture in order to affirm their own values through artworks that bend to them, but rather to transform their own understanding, however implicitly. What worker wants to leave an oppressive workweek only to be immersed in a museum filled with the same forms of institutional experience? Artworks instead offer anticipatory images that lay beyond current conditions because they fall to the side of, and are indirectly related to current conditions. It is in this historical, developmental sense that “art knows us better than we know ourselves”, as Adorno famously remarked. Historically criticizing likewise phenomena in the nineteenth century, Trotsky points out that:
The helpless intelligentsia, crushed by czarism and deprived of a cultural environment, sought support in the lower strata of society and tried to prove to the “people” that it was thinking only of them, living only for them and that it loved them “terribly.” And just as the populists who went to the people were ready to do without clean linen and without a comb and without a toothbrush, so the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the subtleties of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed.
The melancholia for bourgeois life and its vague identification with ‘the masses,’ within contemporary art, also does not sit right within it. It fails to resonate, though it always returns, like mismatched air and resonant vessel.
Loving them Terribly
That art which today tries to win over the masses is not limited to any one style, medium, discipline, but is endemic to many, perhaps because “the masses” have become a more obtuse problem than ever—obtuse in the way an angle falls flat. Contemporary culture may be considered acutely obtuse; its obtuseness is a glaringly acute problem. The critiques mildly leveled against each other on the grounds of ‘pure art’ or ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ vs. ‘politicized art’ are not absurd because one doesn’t kill off the other, but they are absurdly benign in that each demonstrate such strikingly similar tendencies to the other in their direct comportment to, or at the viewer. Only on the surface of principles is there a profound difference. In many ways the significance of the debate is that it is a non-debate—it is a ruse problem. The aesthete and the philistine each recognize that artworks cannot “love them terribly”, and loving the people terribly is what both purported antinomies strive for, albeit in different ways.
The more daring the pioneers show in their ideas and actions, the more bitterly they oppose themselves to established authority which rests on a conservative “mass base,” the more conventional souls, skeptics, and snobs are inclined to see in the pioneers, impotent eccentrics or “anemic splinters‚” But in the last analysis it is the conventional souls, skeptics and snobs who are wrong – and life passes them by.
In aesthetic experience, there is an implicit recognition that something is passing them by—that something is beyond the grasp. This is what defined the critical historical moment of aesthetic experience. So long as things elude grasp, art lawfully must imbibe this elusion.
Art, like science, not only does not seek orders, but by its very essence, cannot tolerate them, Artistic creation has its laws – even when it consciously serves a social movement. Truly intellectual creation is incompatible with lies, hypocrisy and the spirit of conformity. Art can become a strong ally of revolution only in so far as it remains faithful to itself. Poets, painters, sculptors and musicians will themselves find their own approach and methods, if the struggle for freedom of oppressed classes and peoples scatters the clouds of skepticism and of pessimism which cover the horizon of mankind.
Apperceptive & Anticipation
The non-representational art that is now identified with modernism was not merely for itself, but in its apperceptive, wide-reaching perspectival view represents the image of social efflorescence. It is nonrepresentational because it is anticipatory. E.g. how the digressions of Joyce’s or Woolf’s novels dilate and incorporate seemingly insignificant matter so as to represent the matter that exists, but is unseeable in rationalized society. Adorno extended Trotsky’s hopes for a new social situation that would be propitious towards the constitution of ‘new humans’ by taking up the responsibility of artistic representation to create the world anew by mimicking the totality that already seems imminent, though conceptually elusive. Art allies itself with the social world as it wants to be, not as it is, though latent in how it is.
…modern works must show themselves to be the equal of high industrialism, not simply make it a topic. Their own comportment and formal language must react spontaneously to the objective situation; the idea of a spontaneous reaction that is a norm defines a perennial paradox of art. Because there is nothing that can avoid the experience of the situation, nothing counts that purports to have escaped it.
One can see how in a social situation of barbarism, an anticipatory art becomes a problem, in that it imitates a future that is also a regression.
The Tinkling of Bells
The separation of art-for-arts sake and political art is a vulgar one and harbors vulgar ideas of society that are not limited to artistic discourse: that there is a ‘concrete’ “lived world”, and a fantasy land of art that does not exist in the world. Positivists, philistines, or pragmatists (or at least their manifestations today) despise the imagery of a different world art proposes. It reinforces that “utility” be the “great idol of the time”, which Schiller criticized long ago. In Nietzsche’s preface to the Birth of Tragedy, he is already speaking to such a situation when he says that “perhaps readers will find it offensive that an aesthetic problem should be taken so seriously—assuming they are unable to consider art more than a pleasant sideline, a readily dispensable tinkling of bells that accompanies the ’seriousness of life,’ just as if nobody knew what was involved in such a contrast with the ’seriousness of life.’ Let such ‘serious’ readers learn something from the fact that I am convinced that art represents the highest task and the truly metaphysical activity of this life.” Somewhat elaborating Nietzsche, Adorno would later say in Aesthetic Theory:
It is impossible to explain art to those who have no feeling for it; they are not able to bring an intellectual understanding of it into their living experience. For them the reality principle is such an obsession that it places a taboo on aesthetic comportment as a whole; incited by the cultural approbation of art, alienness to art often changes into aggression, not the least of the causes of the contemporary de-aestheticization of art. Its enigmaticalness may in an elementary fashion confirm the so-called unmusical, who does not understand the “language of music,” hears nothing but nonsense, and wonders what all the noise is about; the difference between what this person hears and what the initiated hear defines art’s enigmaticalness.
The “difference” is social dissonance, which is specifically omitted today—contemporaneity knows what it omits, it knows what wounds. One implied question is, why is it the case that “the reality principle” has taken grip in contemporary subjectivity in ways previously unthinkable? Or, why has this “difference” between the philistine and the initiated —a social phenomenon— grown wider, but less articulated and tense? The naturalized perception that art cannot autonomously rival or outdo the administrative functions of culture speaks to a transformative ability that is overripe which lay outside art—the free market of art is not a problem in itself, but a subjective problem of it promulgating insufficient experiences that are not understood as insufficient. What is reviled about the global art fairs, for example, is not a new commercial quality of art in capitalism and so forth, but a commercial situation of art that is so similar to the mass bourgeois salons of the nineteenth century that it seems completely unaltered. It is from art that we know this, and what is lamented as art’s shortcomings is a displaced, passé critique of broader social problems. There is something crucially unchangeable about art, as we know it. What is resisted in this experience on behalf of those who think art fails to fulfill pure form is not aesthetic experience, but the constant shortcoming of this experience. I.e. ‘social’, ‘political’ ‘artists’ don’t resist pure art because they are mere philistines (though many are), but because they sense something truly inartistic in the appreciation of art. Something nearly aesthetic occurs exclusively in the minds of the anti-aesthetic, but is blocked from full fruition. What masquerades as profoundly aesthetic today is only implicitly judged as banal by political artists. Freedom of intuition is blocked by political tendencies. Of course, the masquerading is not a new masquerading, but an intensified masquerading of an obsolete pure art that has yet to be obsoleted. The art activist’s repulsion to what malingers from history unchanged ought to be rendered more explicit, if not for today’s neo-modernism or what have you, but in order to reveal something about the undigested things of history, from the mouths of those who will cannot digest such things. This criticism, this spleen, needs to be brought to the forefront, and not remain an implicit ornament of the given community’s theoretical principles that has been rendered praxis-less by withdrawal. While the suspicions are accurate, the politics are suspicious.
Fragmented Inversions of modernism constantly add up to a contemporary aggregate, when seen from without, of a rationalized negative modernism. The anti-modernism of contemporary art theory is odd though, because modernism has supposedly receded into a movement as distant as Romanticism and so forth, and so contemporary art’s anti-modernism would be like having a movement founded on being anti-Romantic, which is absurd. Yet, contemporary art doesn’t seem absurd—and its non-absurdity, its implicit seriousness says something about the closeness of modernism, and the impossibility of gaining any critical distance. Contemporary art adds up to the question, What is the opposite of zero-degree? A: negative zero-degree, the same origins. It is a routine and calculated inverted image, determinate and deadened, but paradoxically also as open as it ever was. At this point every inversion of modernism is mere detail on the constellation of an attempted negative image. It is this going-nowhere-ness of the current situation that resounds, and not stylistic associations. It is this rationalized irrationality—negating 0—that causes anxiety. A repressed anxiety, but an anxiety all the same.
Compared to previous aesthetic theories (stretching as far back as Galileo), contemporary art theories often look passé because they rest on a somewhat antiquated notion that art and art alone, or anti-art and anti-art alone will transform society, in direct ways. This is often lambasted as ‘romantic’, but contemporaneity has its own colloquial meaning of ‘romantic’, which is closer to the meaning of sentimental. (And sentimental is likewise meant differently than Schiller meant it). Nevertheless, this sentimental or anti-sentimental theory is itself an antiquated nineteenth century theory of art. Contemporary art ‘discourse’ itself is a malingering form of bourgeois consciousness. For Adorno and Benjamin, art would not exist in socialism, because the problems that art immanently critiques would be resolved by circumstances broader than the subjectivity that art demands. The way this is dealt with today is rationalized: by wishing away art, condemning it to the sidelines as an irrelevance to the ‘concrete’ ‘real world’, social art yearns for socialism without achieving it. The situation is inverse from the Adorno-Benjamin theory: if art disappears it means socialism has been achieved. The pedantically enforced irrelevance of art becomes a ruse or a symbol for what its real death might indicate. Art as a category has not been transparently disposed of—what it points towards is constantly blocked up or masked by restorative or resistance impulses in its enveloping theories—theories which rekindle bourgeois notions of art, as is evident in new modernists or new aesthetics that aim to restore a perceived golden age. But there is some truth in the sentimental comportment to things from history that linger but ought to die. Or conversely in the immediacy of politicized, pragmatic art, which is ultimately equally as passé when it is suffused with a sentimentalism for nineteenth century American Transcendentalism or Pragmatism, for example. Neither are adequate to the free cultural formations of the time, which are abandoned without adequate conceptualization. If only art could die by merely wishing it away.
For art to finally complete the experience it points to, and dissolve itself as art, the sentimentalism that has become bound up with it must wither, and this it must do through recognizing how it has actually been preserved as an armor against social regression. In that absence, the hysteria for change and new art or old art is often rhetorical, or merely an art for art’s sake, even when it is politicized. And it is an art-for-art’s sake particularly sentimental to our own era. Art is not ‘dead’ so much as it problematically co-exists with all those advanced capitalist productive forces that have overgrown it and put it to work—akin to the way extremely primitive and extremely advanced cultures share a world without a clearly conceptualized tension. The withering of art, if it could transparently articulate its withering, could reveal something crucial about the way society can progressively obsolete traditional, but developmental yokes. That is, the hypothetical death of art has something inveterately optimistic and progressive in it.
The Most Despicable, Constipated Man
Though sentimental, one ought not presume that contemporary art is merely a ruse — which is doubtlessly true — but rather that contemporary art is a very real ruse. Contemporary art is the dense, overripe accumulation of ruses. Art, we might say, is constipated in the bowels of human development, constrained by the musculature of current social ethos, including politics. The politics of the contemporary world will not let art pass—in its anal retention—its conservational rationality—it wants to retain art, to hold onto it forever and ever. It resists art’s passage. Contemporary art is a very real ruse—the sensuous presentation of a ruse. The natural fulfillment of the common expectation before gallery hopping in Chelsea that expectations will not be met is possibly progressive, because it is the call for a restoration, which is truly passé. Criticism engulfs this, no matter how oblique. That contemporary subjectivity can be let down any further than it already is, that there can even be a philistinism, let alone a rampant, steroidal philistinism, illuminates that we are not quite wholly anaesthetized. When Bram Van Velde, the Abstract painter, visited Beckett he said he was satisfied with his new work. Beckett responded, “There’s really no reason to be”. The freedom of the contemporary could be a freedom to despise the existent, a freedom to understand that no work is sufficiently unified. While contemporary art seems innocuous, has even been rendered so on its own watch, it is nothing to sneeze at, and everyone recognizes this, while trying to force an artificial sneeze. One ought to understand the impulse to sneeze. It is the unprecedented piling up of artworks that demands an imminent and primary revolution in critical judgment. Contemporary art might be understood not as wholesomely reconciled in any of its singular manifestations, but rather as the glaring negative image of resolution via a recently delimited despising, which consequently comes to be admixed with longing. In contemporary art we see a bit of Nietzschean redemption, “Alas, the time of the most despicable man is coming, he that is no longer able to despise himself”. That this man has not yet come in contemporary art is one of its most redeeming qualities.