“Contemporary art has been a war victim through Surrealism, Expressionism, Viennese Actionism, and terrorism today.” (1)
I recently read a chapter from The Accident of Art, Paul Virilio’s book critiquing contemporary art as facing a catastrophe born by technology and society. The chapter, A Pitiless Art?, claims that art is a casualty of war but doesn’t know it. Virilio argues that the two World Wars and the post 9/11 wars have been key factors driving aesthetics, style, the very philosophy of art, often without realization from the the artist.
Here’s a quote from Virilio, arguing that abstract art is an example of a style born from the trauma of war:
Take another war victim: Bazaine, the abstract painter I knew and who also used to make stained-glass—I didn’t make any with him. They said to him, “Hey, you’ve become abstract.” And he would answer, “Yes, you could call it that.” But he preferred the term “non-figurative.” He insisted that “abstract doesn’t fit me.” So they asked him when did this happen. “After the war,” he replied, “my painting diverged all by itself.” I wrote it down.
…In the first instance, technology made the divergence unavoidable: heliography, or light figured by itself through the stenotype, and later figured on photosensitive substances. In the second, a social trauma caused figuration to diverge. Disfiguration —when Bazaine says “non figurative,” that’s what he means. The war is disfiguring art, the way it destroyed and smashed the 7 Rheims cathedral and later on destroyed Oradour-sur-Glane. War does not simply destroy bodies with shells and bombs, it destroys outdoor spaces as well.
…Abstract art is not abstract, it is an art of retreat.
You can read the chapter online, as a PDF. I suggest also reading Walter Benjamin‘s, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, another essay on art stumbling in the face of our technological society. Alain Badiou‘s essay, Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art, can serve as a great response, outlining some of the ways in which art can be emancipatory.
My position is that artistic creation today should suggest a new universality, not to express only the self or the community, but that it’s a necessity for the artistic creation to propose to us, to humanity in general, a new sort of universality, and my name for that is truth.
…So, we have to create a new possibility. But to create a new possibility is not the same thing as to realize a new possibility.
…I think the creation of new possibility is today the great function of art.
(1) Virilio, Paul & Lotringer, Sylvere, ‘The Accident of Art.’ MIT Press, September 2005, pp. 16-17.
Reading Benjamin’s piece, ‘Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ stirred some thoughts (more like questions) that I’m here articulating because I’m working through them and I welcome the insight of others.
Benjamin writes that all works of ‘authentic’ art are inseparable from the fabric of tradition and that these often served a ritualistic service. Isn’t reproduced/reproducible art also ritualistic? For example the works of Slovenia’s art collective, NSK, seems a self-aware representation of this. As Agamben puts it in one of his lectures on glory and power, “media distributes glory and spreads acclamation.” Acclamation is a form of prayer to power and spread in every aspect of modern life (perhaps because it is reproducible, rhizomatic). This is a society in which glory becomes indiscernible from economy and government.
In this text, could the crisis faced by art be caused by a deep and fundamental shift in perception as a result of the new mediums (photography, film, etc.)? That the crisis is not really an erosion of the fabric of tradition but the death of one constellation and the birth of another constellation of traditions. And the rejection of the social dimension of art (seeing “l’art pour l’art”) as the migration of art to ‘culture': as a means of producing the biopolitical body mentioned in Agamben’s Homo Sacer. Art, like law and power are becoming situational. If we continue to consider Agamben’s work, then the mechanically reproduced art may serve to link order to space – touching on the virtual object of society/power/tradition, Lacan’s Big Other as the socio-symbolic order that I use to judge myself by (see Zizek’s In Defence of Lost Causes). Benjamin could be suggesting this transition when he says that “the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.”
The intrusion of (bio)politics into art, and the migration of art to culture or communication, is witnessed in the erosion of the barrier between the artist and the public; such as blurring of writer/public in newspapers’ letters to the editor (example from Benjamin), or in the very existence of YouTube. What about contemporary Iranian directors such as Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami who often blur the line between fact/fiction and actor/individual (example: Makhmalbaf’s film, Moment of Innocense aka The Bread and the Flower Pot)? As Benjamin puts it, this erosion can make the work common property, relating to the notion that media is spread into every aspect of modern life. But, where is the revolutionary potential in this art? Is there a clue in the Iranian cinema already mentioned, by the confusion created in the beholder who eventually realizes that reality and fiction are bleeding into each other and here provokes a response from the beholder who on some level realizes the subjectivity of our social anchors? Something similar seems to occus in Saramago’s the History of the Siege of Lisbon, in which the reader is confronted by two histories of Lisbon, one officially true but still erroneous, and the other fictional and also false. But, as Benjamin writes, art is commonly used “to spur the interest of the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations.” Is there a clue in the works of the Iranian directors in how we might use these new mediums, which have so often penetrated the web of our daily lives to extend the reach of power into our social reproduction, to rather “construct a new common language that facilitates communication as the languages of anti-imperialism and proletarian internationalism did for the stuggles of a previous era. Perhaps this needs to be a new type of communication that functions not on the basis of resemblances but on the basis of differences: a communication of singularities.” (Hardt, Negri, Empire P57). Interestingly, Debord writes, in his Society of spectacle, that currently “the unification achieved is nothing but an official language of general separation.”
The latest texts that I’ve been reading have served as responses to some of the questions that were provoked in me by reading Benjamin.
For example, how can contemporary art oppose power? By expressing truth, as Badiou defines it in ‘Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art‘: “artistic creation today should suggest a new universality, not to express only the self or the community, but that it’s a necessity for the artistic creation to propose to us, to humanity in general, a new sort of universality.” I find that Badiou’s essay makes for a great read following Benjamin’s essay. A quote from Zizek, in ‘Smashing the Neighbor’s Face‘, is also rich with insight on this topic:
“…my tendency to assert myself, is thus not my assertion at the expense of the world, but my full acceptance of being part of the world, my assertion of the wider reality within which I can only thrive. The opposition of egotism and altruism is thus overcome: I fully am not as an isolated Self, but in the thriving reality part of which I am.”
Back to how Badiou’s essay relates to Benjamin’s; the former addresses the question of what could be the emancipatory role of contemporary art. I think Badiou’s essay itself approaches what he argues should be contemporary art, in his own terms: “a demonstration, an ambush in the night, and a star.” This is especially interesting to me since I often write on international affairs, and the nature and application of global power mainly in Asia, and would like to reframe the very nature of my writing – not to be used as a blunt instrument to provide answers, or even ask the right questions (whatever those are…), but rather – to borrow DeLanda’s thoughts on material expressivity and affordability – to inspire a critical and creative environment that affords the reader a tendency to ask their own critical questions and ambush themselves with a paradigm shift.
Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, is interviewed on BBC’s Hardtalk. He discusses capitalism during the current economic crisis. He touches on ideas of emancipation and the construction of an alternative society.
The European Graduate School’s media and communications program has an impressive and growing Youtube channel with over 600 video lectures on philosophy, film, politics, and art.
Lecturers include Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Jean Beaudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, Peter Greenaway, Judith Butler, Manuel DeLanda, Alain Badiou, Atom Egoyan, Giorgi Agamben, Avital Ronell, Chantal Akerman, Michael Hardt, and many more.
This site has enough to keep you occupied for months. Check out the EGS Video channel.
Here’s a sample from the site:
Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, and Larry Rickels