Intro: We welcome Graham Harman of the American University of Cairo, the most well known protagonist of ‘Object Oriented Philosophy’ – a system of thought which takes ‘things’ to be central to existence, and which classes humans as just one of those things.
Harman cut his teeth reading Heidegger in his teens, and it was his new approach to this often misunderstood philosopher that gained Harman recognition with his books Tool-Being and Guerrilla Metaphysics, as Harman carved out a philosophy in which the interaction of objects with each other is seen to be as important as the interaction between humans and objects. His latest book – ‘Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics’ – focuses on his mentor and friend, philosopher Bruno Latour, before going on to explore the possible future impact of an object-focused form of thinking.
Harman blogs prolifically at ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy’, where his ability to mix mundane and extraordinary events on and off campus in Cairo with philosophical musings and insights has gained him many followers and, inevitably, a few detractors! This year will see him release ‘Circus Philosophicus’ with ZerO Books, a collection of essays which promise to push the stylistic boundaries of philosophical writing.
Mike Watson thanks Graham Harman for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer six questions:
Q1: Philosophers are, by nature, ‘pedants’. One envisages them as a stuffy and fixated group of individuals obsessed with petty abstract details and withdrawn from the real world. How does this meet with your image of philosophy?
GH: I’m becoming more of a historicist on this question. Today in philosophy we don’t have so many pedants: what we have instead are trolls. It recently occurred to me that each era of philosophy has generated its own type of anti-philosopher. In ancient times this was the sophist, and so much of Plato’s thought is devoted to assessing and combating the problem of sophistry. And I’m with Plato on this point: the sophists are bad. For some decades there has been a fashionable revisionist view that there is much to be said for the sophists. But in this case I agree with Socrates and Plato: the sophists are anti-philosophers, and must be defeated.
As philosophy became more institutionalized in the Church and more dogmatic in character, with Aristotle the ultimate underpinning in that period, the figure of the pedant emerged. The pedant is famous for vast but empty learning and a love of hair-splitting verbal disputes. Just as Plato combated the sophists, it was Giordano Bruno (another of the small number of literary geniuses in the history of philosophy) who waged war against the pedant. His dialogues are filled with mocking portrayals of pompous, Latin-spouting scholars who never get close to a genuine philosophical issue.
These pedants never harmed Bruno, but he was ultimately destroyed by another great figure of anti-philosophy: the Inquisitor. With this figure, dogma is no longer just the pursuit of worthless erudition, but rather the physical destruction of those who deny the content of truth upheld by the Inquisitor. Bruno was tortured in dungeons for nearly a decade, and finally burned at the stake in Rome. This is not likely to happen to any 21st century philosopher in the West, though it could conceivably happen in a few contemporary societies.
In our time the word “sophist” is a frequently heard insult, but there really aren’t as many sophists around as one believes. Pedants today are mostly harmless and comical, not serious power brokers in the Academy. And as mentioned, Inquisitors don’t really exist in the West anymore, though many people still like to fantasize that they are being persecuted by mighty Inquisitors. By and large, we in the West are now fairly free to say and do as we please in comparison with the past.
And that brings us to the truly dominant anti-philosopher of our time: the troll. As far as I know, the word gained its current meaning in internet culture. The internet gives the troll the great advantage of anonymity, but it is not essential that one be anonymous; it merely helps the cause. The modus operandi of the troll is what Mark Fisher aptly called “the sneer from nowhere.” The troll never puts forth a positive thesis or has anything at stake, but merely critiques and cuts down. The troll usually doesn’t believe the things he says (I say “he” rather than “he/she,” because the troll is an almost entirely male personality type, and by the laws of primate society it is usually a young and unaccomplished male trying to gain group status by knocking down more visible figures). The troll doesn’t doubt things because they are truly dubious, but because one might conceivably doubt them. The troll seeks only to take away and lessen, not to produce. It is “devil’s advocate” turned into a full-time lifestyle, with more than a bit of malice thrown in.
My theory is that the troll is simply the predictable excrescence or repellent underside of an era of philosophy that values critique far too highly. Even university administrators praise philosophy mostly because it teaches “critical thinking” skills. In short, it is believed that philosophy teaches us to be less gullible, to believe in quantitatively fewer things, to stand at a transcendent distance from any particular personal commitment. The mission of philosophy is to debunk and tear down and to say: “no, I don’t believe it.” Against this attitude, I agree with Latour’s maxim that the point of thinking is to make things more real, not less.
One of the two or three greatest philosophers of the past century was Alfred North Whitehead, and in the opening pages of Process and Reality he takes a marvelous approach to this problem. According to Whitehead, logical blunders are a surprisingly rare problem in philosophy, and even when detected they are not usually too difficult to fix. Moreover, philosophy is not like geometry. In geometry, one shaky inference causes the whole theorem to crumble. That’s not the case in philosophy. There is a certain component of deductive reasoning in philosophy, but it is not at all paramount. If Heidegger or Decartes adopt the wrong starting point, it doesn’t really matter, because much of what follows may be of value anyway. There is something autonomous about each stage or layer within a philosophy, in a manner that that is not true of geometry or the other mathematical disciplines.
I’m afraid this is also the problem with analytic philosophy as a discipline. Analytic philosophy is devoted to the view that a philosophy is a “bundle of arguments,” just as British Empiricism held that an apple was just a bundle of qualities. This attitude does give analytic philosophers a refreshing freedom from the past: after all, it is not hard to find “bad arguments” in Plato, and my 16-year-old freshmen do it semester after semester with no assistance from me. But Whitehead was right to observe that the problems with philosophies do not come from bad arguments, but from over abstraction, incoherence, and lack of imagination. You do not become an important philosopher by generating the most “knockdown arguments” to annihilate other people in aggressive oral combat. You do it by showing that the center of gravity of the world is somewhere different from where people suspected it was. You do it by outflanking the trench wars that waste the hours of angry intellectual disputants, and coming up with new alternatives that no one ever expected. But instead of Whitehead’s vision, we still have too much locker room machismo in philosophy today, and increasingly even on the continental side of the fence. But I find it repugnant, and deeply unphilosophical.
The troll poses as a radical critic of all, and as a skeptical and independent spirit. But he is in fact the perfect instrument of the status quo. If every new idea that springs up is subjected to instant critique and devil’s advocate assaults, what survives will be a “lowest common denominator” philosophy based on the reigning platitudes of the moment. The reason I don’t think the troll is very dangerous is because I don’t think the era of philosophy-as-critique has much longer to go. It is deeply rooted in Kant’s Copernican Revolution (though Kant was no troll himself, but one of the greatest philosophers), and I think the Copernican Philosophy has finally reached a dead end.
Q2: One assumes there are few limits to your ambition. Do you ever reflect and think ‘yes, I seem to have gotten somewhere here,’ or is it rather a case of moving ever onwards? That is to say, when is a philosopher’s (or one could apply this question equally to artists, writers or film makers) work done?
GH: At present I am 41 years old (still young by philosophy standards) and there is plenty of work to be done. I’ve still not written anything that makes me fully happy, and I want to be much further along ten years form now than I am today. That said, if I were hit by a bus tonight and killed, then I do feel that I have already written some things of value that could be built on by others. Steven Shaviro and a few other prominent readers said that Prince of Networks is my best book so far, and they may be right. It’s certainly my most advanced. Aristotle claims that age 51 is the intellectual peak of life, and if he’s right, then the jury is still out on me for another decade. After that, I will gradually morph into another familiar establishment figure whose virtues and limitations are largely clear, with a new generation rising by then that will have read all my books and have become somewhat sick of them. That’s how philosophy makes progress: by younger people becoming sick of the insights of their elders. This is no flippantly rebellious process, but a necessary one: our elders can’t ever quite address our intellectual needs fully, because the reality they had to address in their work is so different from the one that we ourselves face.
As for your question about moving forward, there is always a tension in any philosophy between forward movement and repetition. On the one hand I agree with Zizek that philosophers are insane people who say the same thing over and over again. There is always a center to your thinking that you have to orbit as closely as possible, and so you end up repeatedly reformulating a handful of basic principles. We are not linguists or ornithologists, constantly collecting additional new data. Rather, philosophers are specialists in simplicity.
On the other hand, forward motion is necessary. And this comes most often through surprise and trauma. As for surprise, I find it crucial in all intellectual work to focus on the surprises you encountered: what didn’t quite fit your preconceptions, and how you had to change your attitude to account for what you found. One often runs into people who like to say “I’m not surprised by anything,” but that is a pseudo-intellectual stance, not a serious one. If you are paying close attention to any topic, there are going to be important surprises that test your agility and openness as a thinker. This love of surprise is also why I like to travel so much. No place ever turns out to be anything like the way it was described in books. Even photographs are quite poor at portraying the feel of a place. In 2007 I made my first trip to the Far East, and was shocked by both Tokyo and Seoul, for instance, since neither had ever been accurately described in anything I had read. (Tokyo isn’t the dense megacity I had imagined throughout my life, but more like a series of 8 or 10 medium-sized cities connected by rail. And the big shock about Seoul was the great natural beauty interwoven with it. Despite being the jam-packed megacity that Tokyo is not, Seoul has a big mountain not at the edge of the city, but right in the middle of it! And a large and forested national park begins just blocks from the city center! No travel book had conveyed these things to me adequately.)
As for traumas, those usually come from the opposing views of other neighboring thinkers. No two people will ever have the same philosophy; knowledge is too personal an experience for that. And for me at least, a bit of time is necessary to digest the differing views of others. I am distrustful of those who too quickly have words for very situation. Words should be a bit of a struggle, if you’re honest.
For instance, the encounter with Quentin Meillassoux was one of these fruitful traumas for me. We hit it off well personally, and enjoy reading one another’s work very much. We even graduated from high school in the same year! And yet we really don’t have very much in common, philosophically speaking. Meillassoux does make the classic critique of correlationism, but he still thinks it’s the unavoidable horizon of rigorous philosophy: to think a tree outside thinking is to think it, and therefore we cannot think a tree outside thinking, but are trapped in the correlationist circle. We can only hope to radicalize it from the inside rather than escape it. For Meillassoux this is the hallmark of intellectual rigor; for me, it is the supreme horror and the abdication of philosophy. But it’s already taken me three years to figure out exactly why I can’t accept Meillassoux’s philosophy, wonderful though it is, and the main reason I agreed to the request of Edinburgh University Press to write a book on Meillassoux was to come to terms with the trauma by trying to put our exact differences into words.
More generally, you ask about how philosophers know when their work is done. I was greatly influenced by Ortega y Gasset’s generational conception of history. He sees generations as made up of 15-year blocks, but one needn’t accept that detail to find value in his theory. Namely, there is a big difference between those ideas that grow out of our true inner needs, and those inherited ready-made ideas that we merely sling around in verbal form without having earned or even needed them. Ortega’s terminology here is “authentic” vs. “inauthentic,” which he used before Heidegger did. He believes that up until age 30, philosophers are primarily just receptive, reading books and hearing lectures by others, though he thinks that at around age 26 the first shadows of original personal ideas start to appear. He then sees roughly ages 30-45 as being the period when one is an emerging maverick outsider, fighting the ruling generation that is roughly 45-60 years old. This is not an empty power struggle, but a reflection of the fact that things that were once fresh, new, and promising become stale established discourses for those that follow: Derrida must have been liberating to some people once, but by the early 1990’s when I entered graduate school, he was just another oppressive established authority, protected by armies of loyal enforcers.
If anything needs to be fixed about Ortega’s schema, it’s that everything has probably shifted a bit older on the spectrum. I’d almost now say that the established generation of philosophers is from ages 60-75, with 45-60 being the up-and-coming mavericks, and 30-45 being more a stage of extended adolescence when people are still getting their act together. Or maybe there are three generations in play now rather than the mere two of Ortega’s model, due to increased lifespans. But I’m sure that up to age 30 is primarily still a period of study and absorption, and for this reason I never judge people on what they do before 30. That’s mostly dress rehearsal; it’s what comes later that counts.
And now, you might ask, did I experience my own first personal ideas at age 26 as Ortega suggests will happen? The answer is yes. I was writing a paper on Levinas at that age, was following his theory from De l’existence à l’existant that reality itself is one and that it’s broken into pieces only by human consciousness, and suddenly I had the vague realization that this was nonsense. There are good reasons to say that the world itself is already a plurality, and that the parts of this plurality interact with each other no less than with the human mind. It took two or three more years before I consciously realized: “I do metaphysics, I am anti-Kantian, I am a realist.” But age 26 was the start of it, just as Ortega claims. And those will always be lonely years, because it always takes time for words to catch up with insights. Clear verbal formulation of thoughts is a goal, not a starting point (another truth that analytic philosophy fails to grasp).
Q3: Philosophy has been written for millennia. What would you define as the unique characteristic of philosophy today?
GH: The easiest way to answer this question is to ask who is the most unique great thinker in recent times. And for me, as you know, that is Heidegger. Philosophy in the 21st century will live or die based on how adequate our response is to Heidegger. And this response requires that we look both at his strengths and his weaknesses.
What are the great weaknesses of Heidegger as a philosopher? Not his Nazism, and not his tendency toward obfuscating mystical language. Those are bad enough, but they are not the heart of the issue. No, I would say that the two major problems with Heidegger lie elsewhere:
1. He remains too obedient to Kant’s Copernican Revolution. The human-world pairing still remains at the center for Heidegger, who offers no resources at all (unlike Whitehead) for bringing object-object relations back into philosophy that do not involve humans as one of the terms. The usual tendency is to assume that the natural sciences are doing just fine with object-object relations, and hence that philosophy deals uniquely with human experience, which science supposedly cannot account for. But then cognitive science comes along and claims that even the human sphere can be treated scientifically, and everyone starts screaming “Yes!” and “No!” very excitedly at this program. But most of its shock value results merely from the initial stupid decision to treat human experience as the unique topic of philosophy. If like me you don’t even think the natural sciences give a good philosophical account of inanimate relations, then a scientific treatment of cognition is hardly going to feel any more threatening than a scientific treatment of fire. It will be no more adequate to one case than to the other.
2. He remains too dismissive in his treatment of specific beings. Heidegger merely wants to tell us that all distinct entities are undermined by a prior ontological realm. As a result, all individual monkeys, trains, coconut trees, and planets are submerged in a single monotonous sea of Being. And that’s why Latour is such a refreshing supplement to Heidegger, because Latour can literally discuss any kind of specific entity.
But more importantly, what is the greatest strength of Heidegger as a philosopher? As I have argued from Tool-Being onward, Heidegger’s great distinction between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand is one that lies not between “practice” and “theory” (this would be both trite and unsustainable). Instead, it is a distinction between reality and relation; and since reality is plural, we can say that the distinction is between objects and relations.
No model of a thing will ever grasp it. No knowledge of a thing will ever drain it to the dregs. No causal relation between two entities will ever allow them to make perfect contact; each entity always has depths unsounded by the other. To be is not the same as to have qualities discursively knowable by someone, not even if that someone is God. To know all the qualities of a tree (if that were even possible) would not turn us into the tree itself.
This is the great breakthrough of Heidegger’s tool-analysis. But in some ways it is merely a return to the Socratic insistence on philosophy as a love of wisdom, rather than as a supposed wisdom obtained from language, mathemes, natural science, or analyses of “power.” Nor is Socrates giving us an epistemological theory on the limits of our species: “Oh, we wretched humans, who will never know anything, unlike the gods!” No, the point is that no relation to a thing can ever replace that thing, even if humans are left out of the question.
Another way of putting it would be this… We need a realism without a correspondence theory of truth. If you think that feeble human knowledge can adequately exhaust the inner life of things by doing nothing more than listing a few hundred measurable qualities, then your sense of reality is insufficiently robust. You are not interested in realism, but in celebrating the hard sciences and using them to beat up the softy poets who supposed ruled continental philosophy in the past. Reality is inherently something deeper than any relation that might be had to it. Aggressive neurology is no substitute for metaphysics.
Q4: Your philosophy is ‘object-oriented’. That is to say that you consider the object to be as important as the (human) subject. Many people think this is dangerous, as activity in the blogosphere testifies. I think the issue here is that if the subject is considered as a mere object amongst others, people feel that humans might find it easier to justify abuse of other humans. What do you say to that?
GH: Freud always claimed that psychoanalysis was the third affront to human dignity in modern times. Copernicus moved the earth out of the center of the universe. Darwin made us no more special than animals, plants, and fungi. And Freud made conscious thought derivative of less palatable underground currents in the psyche. As a fourth supposed affront to the dignity of humans, let’s add the notion to which you just referred: that the human is not metaphysically special either, so that my perception of fire is no different in kind from the relation of cotton and fire among themselves. Cognitive and causal relations all end up on the same footing. And it does seem to be a bit of a traumatic claim for people, judging by how upset they have become about it (I wasn’t expecting this to happen).
And just to be clear, I cannot take credit for that fourth trauma. Whitehead is the one who did it most clearly on the post-Kantian landscape, where it was such an unwelcome gesture. My own contribution is simply to replace Whitehead’s relational model of things with Heidegger’s model of things withdrawing from all presence, while retaining Whitehead’s cosmic scope and dumping Heidegger’s human-centrism.
I’ve heard the critiques to which you refer in your question, and just can’t make much sense of them. Some people have even claimed that object-oriented philosophy says that “humans are worthless.” I don’t get it. Did Copernicus say: “The earth is not the center of the universe, and therefore it is worthless”? Did Darwin say: “We are related to apes, and therefore we are worthless”? Why this all-or-nothing model, in which humans must be everything or nothing? There’s a lot of open ground between 0 and 100. To flip wildly between saying that humans are the best or the worst, just like political factions who flip between saying that the United States is either the greatest or most evil country on the planet, reminds me of one of the best-known symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder.
The truth is neither 0 nor 100. The truth is that humans are not metaphysically special just because we happen to be humans. Nonetheless, humans are probably still among the most fascinating entities in the universe, and even if we weren’t very interesting in the absolute sense, we would of course still be interesting to ourselves. Iowa surely does not have the most interesting history of any American state: it fascinates me because that state happens to be my ancestral home. But it would be idiotic of me to insist that Iowa is either the best or worst state in the Union, or flip between the two claims at different times.
Q5: What would you say to an aspiring postgrad student about to leave the safe confines of study for the real world? Supposing this person is shortly to face the human jungle that is academic work (lecturing, publishing in journals, addressing conferences, etc) what are, in your mind, the skills needed in order to thrive as a humanities academic?
GH: As you know, I’ve given a great deal of advice to graduate students on my blog. The main reason is that I had a terrible time as a graduate student, not enjoying it at all. Those were great years of intellectual discovery for me, but I felt as alienated as one possibly could from both my professors and the institutions I attended. And look at me now: I’m an administrator! It would have been unthinkable even 10 or 12 years ago.
The first thing these students need to know is that the beginning is the hardest part. Most of the people who fail in academia go down in flames through self-destruction. Namely, they never finish their dissertations. The human mind is clever at inventing alibis, and even at producing real excuses. Avoid graduate school psychodramas. There are a handful of tyrannical professors in most graduate programs, but your fellow students already know who they are, and you will be warned in advance. Listen carefully to the warnings. Don’t think you will be the special exception, because you won’t be: tyrants are tyrants.
The next variant of self-destruction is perfectionism. One of the wisest clichés I know is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Your goal should be excellence, not perfection. No perfect philosophical book has ever been written; indeed, even my often 16-year-old freshmen in Egypt make mincemeat out of all our great authors within weeks of their very first philosophy lesson. Perfectionism is the subtlest and most corrosive alibi for not getting any work done. It grants you a false sense of moral superiority, and if you wish, it even allows you to troll those who are getting much more done than you are. If I’m proud of anything about the darkest periods of my student years, it’s that I never ceased to admire those who were getting more done than I was. Never did I resent them. Instead, I wanted to be like them when I grew up, and now I finally am like them.
I have no time for academic careerists: people who choose their advisors and institutions and topics based on professional connections and likely job payoffs. The life of the mind must be primarily something other than a career. But there is also nothing wrong with success, and success should not be a badge of shame. I’m certainly much happier today than I was at age 25, and that’s mostly because I’ve found a niche in the world where I can do the work I love while also earning my meals. Once you reach a position like that, the sky’s the limit. It’s up to you to capitalize on your situation.
The most inspiring advice I ever heard given to students was from Alphonso Lingis, the colorful American philosopher who was my M.A. advisor. I wasn’t personally present when he said this, but there’s no doubt he did: “Go outside on a clear and starry night,” he said, “and try to get some sense for the vastness of the universe. And consider that your fingerprint is enough to make you unique in all the universe. And then consider how much more complicated your brain is than your fingerprint… Your brain is wired to do something that nothing else can do. And if you don’t do it, it’s not going to get done.” Take that advice to heart, and do what you are wired to do that no one else can do.
The Academy has its tyrants, oppressors, and banal functionaries, yes. But it leaves plenty of operating room for independent thinkers as well. It gives you unequaled schedule flexibility, ample vacation time, stimulating contact with students, and often generous travel and grant support as well. The Academy tends to make ambitious and sensitive young people feel roughed up and abused (I certainly felt that way), and many of them run away or never recover. But I’ve found that it only gets easier with time; your twenties are an artificially difficult decade in the university system. Why pay the bill at a restaurant and then leave before eating what you paid for? That’s what it’s like if you suffer through graduate school and then quit before things start to get interesting and comfortable.
Q6: Your blog is key to the promotion of your work. In what way do you think the internet has changed philosophy? How might this impact in the future?
So far, I think it’s mainly changed the rate of dissemination of philosophical trends. Speculative Realism has been the best example so far: the rise to prominence of this movement, of which I was a co-founder, could never have taken place so quickly without the internet. And since internet usership is higher among the young, the blogosphere has certainly mobilized and legitimated the young like never before in history. Young students like Reid Kotlas and Nick Srnicek have book deals already, something I couldn’t remotely have dreamed of at their age, since the era of my youth was one of slow-moving brick-and-mortar publishers acting as stern gatekeepers, just as it was for several centuries before me.
But I still don’t think the blog is a mature medium for the expression of philosophical work itself. Levi Bryant comes the closest to having a true philosophy website. If you read his Larval Subjects philosophy blog (and I know you do), you’ll see what I mean. Levi writes full-fledged mini-treatises, and they are both stimulating and readable. I think his blog is the model for the best of what might be possible. But I just can’t do it. Instead, I prefer to use my blog as a mixture of daily observations and philosophical snacks. When I’m in the mood to do my best work, I turn to traditional word processor genres: the article, the book, the lecture. Maybe that won’t be the case forever. Maybe we will soon reach the point where Levi’s model is the primary way in which philosophy is done. What would it take? Probably just a practical technical innovation: I don’t always feel like reading a technical philosophy blog post on a computer screen, but if there were some easy way to download them to pleasant portable devices and read them there, then I might do it. I realize there may already be ways to do that to some extent, but that’s not where the group culture is at the moment. Instead, the group culture is still divided between blogging on computer screens and writing traditional academic works for paper.
And obviously, the technical innovation of the blogosphere creates an automatic generational watershed in philosophy. I find it hard to believe that the aging lions of SPEP are spending much time browsing the blogosphere, and that means they are aging ever faster the more that things evolve quickly in a medium of which they are largely unaware.
The Musée du Quai Branly opened in 2006 in Paris: a red Lego warehouse suspended in midair, with the nearby Eiffel Tower rising above the neighboring apartment houses. The Museum was built to house non-Western artworks previously scattered throughout the city, not without protest from the curators of their former homes. The masses have quickly embraced Quai Branly; the ticket queues are daunting enough that I abandoned my first effort to visit and returned the following day. Predictably, the mass appeal of the Museum is explained by many critics as the result of vulgar theatrics and intellectual emptiness. True enough, there are numerous cases of popular success where such charges are richly deserved. But in the present case, I find myself on the side of the masses, and opposed to the joyless subtlety of those who believe that the sole function of the intellect is to make the world more complicated and boring.
One such person is Michael Kimmelman, who gave Quai Branly a sour review in the July 2, 2006 issue of the New York Times. Alongside the innuendo that the Museum was built mostly to serve the personal vanity of Jacques Chirac, and the moralizing pose that the reviewer is offended by the Museum’s supposed racist condescension, Kimmelman does make several objections of a greater interest. He calls Branly “a spooky jungle, red and black and murky.” It is “an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness.” Worse yet, “the atmosphere is like a discotheque at 10 A.M.” But the ultimate sin is that Quai Branly places side-by-side such diverse entities as “Vietnamese textiles… contemporary Aboriginal paintings… pre-Columbian pottery… Sioux warrior tunics… and Huron wampum.” I have chosen these criticisms in particular because all are entirely true, yet all should be viewed as selling points rather than as the grievous faults that the reviewer imagines. The general idea of the reviewer is apparently that the atmosphere should be less mysterious, and that the objects in the Museum need a heavier apparatus of historical and economic context. But not only would this ruin the effect of Branly— it already ruins many existing museums whose objects would be better served if they were changed without delay into the equivalent of “scary masks and totem poles looming out of the darkness.” Indeed, I believe that only the Scary Mask Effect is likely to keep museums relevant in the future. Like discotheques, amusement parks, and videogames, but also like the best works of literature, science, and philosophy, Quai Branly succeeds precisely by liberating objects from their context. I will now give a brief description of the Museum, concluding with a plea that “the priests of contextualization” (as Museum President Stéphane Martin delightfully describes them) be exiled from the arts as quickly as I hope to see them banished from philosophy.
After a long wait for tickets and a fairly rigorous security check, the visitor to Branly immediately encounters a preview of the larger collection. A glass display case in the lobby holds various non-Western musical instruments, arranged less like museum pieces than like freight in a Dutch merchant ship— yet somehow, this evokes material abundance rather than colonial abuses. One also immediately senses the musical style of the Museum. Instead of discrete recordings activated by push-button and introduced by learned commentary, the builders of Branly have converted ethnic music into ambient music. Every point in the Museum is dominated by some muffled strain of tribal horns, drums, or xylophones. At times, this music is bizarre enough to compel actual physical movement toward its source.
Entry to the main collection occurs via a lengthy, rising, serpentine pathway that seems to eat up a bit too much space, though the eventual “red and black and spooky” main collection area is large enough to fill a lengthy visit. A multitude of display cases, labeled with tasteful minimalism, contain all manner of textiles, clothing, amulets, and figurines. But the highlight of the collection, for me at least, were the scary masks and scary musical instruments. There are dance-masks fringed with string and topped with stunted rabbit ears. There are forest spirits, their faces decorated with feathers and hay. There are jagged-tooth seal faces worn by Inuit shamans, along with the better-known Kwakiutl masks of the Alaskan Peninsula: octopus, sea-raven, and other creatures of the North Pacific. One also finds the remarkable mask of a snake, whose usual winding land-bound form is converted into a vertical straight line extending from the top of the head. The easy criticism of this scattered collection (and the Times takes the easy road here) is to claim that the masks of so many diverse cultures from vastly disparate landscapes belong together only if unified by condescending imperialists under the arrogant label of “The Other.” If this is true, it is due only to a technicality: after all, Quai Branly’s mission is to serve as a museum of non-Western art, and by definition this means lumping all non-Western cultures together. The only conceivable remedies would be to open countless sub-museums across Paris for all individual cultures, or to add spooky Western or Japanese artifacts to the Branly collection as well. Yet both options are ruled out for practical and thematic reasons, rather than arrogant colonialist ones.
But aside from the scope of the mask collection, let’s consider its effect on the visitor. Nothing is more frightening or empowering than a mask. Children gain new self-confidence, or a new violence and depth of evil, when changed by masks into Spiderman, a mummy, or a rabid dog. Even animals can be strangely aroused by masks, a fact I learned through disturbing personal experience. One Halloween during my adult life, I attended a costume party wearing a horrifying zebra mask, molded in the plastic factories of a failed African state now descended into bloody unrest. The jawbone gave vague suggestions of paralysis, while the eye-holes were surrounded with smoky black highlights that made the zebra seem newly risen from the grave. Combined with black turtleneck and black pants covered with white adhesive tape stripes, and an irrelevant but frightening pair of cowbells thrown around my neck, this costume earned first prize at the party, and the admiration of many. More importantly, it later almost caused me to be injured by my parents’ pet dogs. Though I have enjoyed years of warm friendship with their brilliant fox terrier and retriever, this did not protect me from the blind rage unleashed in both dogs by the sight of the zebra mask. Finding it one day in my parents’ spare room, I decided to relive old times by wearing the mask once more. Even though just minutes earlier I had been petting and praising the two dogs, placing the mask on my head was enough to transform me, in their eyes, into some demonic creature of the underworld. The terrier barked rapidly and desperately as if faced with a mortal threat, while the retriever eventually leapt into the air with bared teeth and knocked the mask from my face.
For almost all living creatures, the face is a small percentage of total bodily volume. Yet the face contains a disproportionate sum of the effect each human and non-human creature has on us. When approaching friends or strangers, only a lewd pick-up artist is likely to stare at the hips, the thighs, or the chest. The face is where we look for meaning, and where we first try to decipher the codes that place each person in a context for us: I never see an abstract physical face, but the face of my boss, disciple, lover, rival, fellow citizen, pompous official, or threatening criminal. Each of these human roles participates in a context of meaning. What we normally observe is not the sheer physical features of any given face, but a total human network of friendship, deceit, or domination. Even when confronting wild animals or coral marine life, we look to the face for signs of harmlessness or lethal danger. This too involves a context, a system of safety and danger for our own precious lives. By contrast, a mask strips a face from all context. By distorting the usual proportions of eyes and lips, or by adding frivolous bells, strings, and ribbons to the usual straightforward meaning of a face, it becomes an art object irreducible to the power plays and consignment of roles in which human and animal life unfolds. To wear a mask is to become a supernatural creature able to charm humans and terrify domestic dogs. If natural faces sometimes have this effect too, whether in unusually beautiful or pitifully deformed human faces, or in the motley visage of certain fish and birds, this simply tells us that some faces are naturally mask-like. Indeed, the face of an animal is always somewhat like a mask, since by definition animals belong to a forbidden zone beyond the contexts that turn human faces and bodies into carriers of so much cultural meaning. To document an exhibit of masks with volumes of cultural data, as the New York Times recommends, is to deaden their horror and fascination in favor of various wordy theories as to the reasons for their origin. Which is more colonialist: to assemble all scary masks from all parts of the world? Or to kidnap the aesthetic allure of masks and bring them back into the fold of bureaucratic commentary, each imprisoned in its own specific cultural context? In the context of Quai Branly, to weigh down an octopus mask with ethnographic data is no more interesting than to reduce Shakespeare’s witches to Elizabethan cultural quirks. If this is what scholars must do, it is not clear that museums should do it as well.
The music of Branly is an even clearer case of objects stripped from context. It is hard to imagine the life of a deaf person. I would dearly miss the allure of bird calls, calls to prayer, whispered voices over the telephone, and even the jarring blows of Cairo taxi horns. But above all, like most humans, I would miss music. Only in rare avant garde cases does music contain actual real-life sounds. For the most part, music is sound stripped of its relation to practical artifacts and everyday dangers. The largest percentage of sounds that we hear, as city-dwellers, is of human origin: our ears are dominated by human voices flattering or commanding us, and by the sounds of human-built machines. For this reason, animal sounds already have a kind of aesthetic effect, since most of us no longer inhabit a world where animals present significant dangers or direct practical benefits. There is something musical in the voices of sheep, even more so in the case of whales, and also something musical or animalesque in the voices of opera divas or melodious telephone friends. The magic of musical instruments lies in their capacity to generate sound divorced from context, whereas the sounds of cars and other machines remains too attached in our minds to the use we make of these machines. But even the sounds of machines can become musical under the right conditions, such as the rumble of washing machines and the hum of factory turbines—a fact nicely exploited by so-called techno and industrial dance music.
The musical atmosphere of Quai Branly could hardly be less “interactive.” We are not asked when and where we wish to hear recordings of traditional African or Oceanic ceremonial tunes. The music is already there, muffled in the darkness, and there are no buttons to give us any control. In many cases, the actual instruments responsible for the music lie before us in a glass case, motionless. Unlike the gimmicky House on the Rock Museum in Wisconsin, the strings of guitars and bellows of accordions are not set into motion before our eyes to produce the sound. Instead, the sound and the instrument lie before us simultaneously, but without any causal relationship. Just as normal music removes sound from all context by stripping it of any human meaning, the added gesture of placing the motionless instrument before us strips the instrument away from its normal use as a sound generator, and turns it into a mysterious physical bulk. In other words, the musical instrument becomes a mask. The same is true for the textiles, voodoo dolls, and other objects scattered throughout the Museum. Scholarly documentation is never absent, but is always tucked away in some corner where it does not interfere with the objecthood of masks or totem poles.
According to Kimmelman’s review in the Times, the point of objects is that each person can assign his or her own unique interpretation to each of them. Since this is what constantly happens in everyday life, it is hard to see why art, or a museum, needs to be established for this purpose. The central intellectual dogma of our time is the notion that solid, discrete objects do not really exist, and that everything should be seen instead as part of a seamless web of interactive meanings. But in fact, this sort of boring holism is nothing but the starting point of everyday practical life, in which it is often difficult to detach things from each other or draw exact boundaries between them. Holism is a basic condition of life, just like mosquitoes or headaches, and one must cope with its complexities. Nonetheless, all of our creative labors tend in the opposite direction: all human effort is object-oriented, and aims to create objects that stand apart from us with a kind of unique integrity. To establish the Constitution of a government requires negotiation and compromise, but once completed it is a freestanding force able to exert its weight no less than individual humans—a force that must be dealt with and respected even when we try to modify the document. Science proceeds by way of numerous complicated tests and false starts, but its end result is an object (quarks, electromagnetic waves) regarded as durable beneath all the shimmering surface-effects that it generates. Artworks break free from the history of their production, and create fascination even when shipped through distant continents or centuries, or moved into contexts where their theological assumptions are no longer valid: Dante is not a meaningless poet to a resident of Tokyo in 2006, or of a colony on Mars in 2405. By the same token, I do not need reams of ethnographic data to appreciate a squid-mask from Polynesia. Anthropologists may be able to specify the mask as a ceremonial or nuptial object and thereby create a breakthrough in Polynesian Studies, but this need not affect its status as an aesthetic object for the casual museum visitor. Amusement park rides (and the newest rides are of an almost inhumane terror) strip human movement from its usual practical context and change it into pure upside-down rotation or rapid backwards spiraling, just as Euclidean geometry turns the complex and culturally coded Egyptian Delta into an equilateral triangle. Videogames, which find increasingly serious uses every year, reduce the complexities of human life to a half dozen basic motor functions: walk, run, jump, shoot, kick, die. To simplify human action in this way is to turn it into an object, a set of basic skills cut off from the confusing environment in which they are utilized.
To create a model of anything is to simplify all the confusions of its context, defining it as an object with certain known and mysterious properties, independent of all relations with other things. This is something that the Quai Branly collection does wonderfully. To accuse the Museum of converting objects into scary masks is as useless as accusing Einstein of converting our subtle, highly contextual physical world into the vulgar theater of scary light and scary gravity. This is what the mind is for. Human activity discovers or creates objects, and objects, in part, always resist their context— even when they are created by it.
the school of being: hermann nitsch in conversation with paul sakoilsky ~ recorded at schloss prinzendorf, the morning after the 2-day play, (120th action ~ Parsifal.) — july/aug 2004.
Abbreviations ~ N. : Hermann Nitsch; S.: Paul Sakoilsky
S. I’m sitting in Prinzendorf castle, on August 3rd, 2004, after the successful completion of Hermann Nitsch’s 2-day play (120th action). Firstly, for the English audience, for whom the story of your version of Parsifal will be entirely novel, can you say something of the origins of this 2-day play?
N. You know, my main work, is my 6-day play; and the first version of the 6-day play, was realized 6 years ago…[And all]…performances I did, and I do, and I will do, are connected to my main work. And all of this 2-day aktion, was just a part of the 6- day play and whenever I do a new performance, I learn something more. I had the feeling this time that the music was very, very important; and, there’s another thing…the Viennese State Opera…invited me to do the art direction, and the sceneography…[for Wagner’s] Parsifal. And the Director invited me, but then the political situation changed, and he kicked me out. But now I am much happier that I did my own Parsifal, because, all this stage work is just craft-work; and here [at Prinzendorf] I did my own work…When I heard that I would not get this Parsifal thing, I said, “Okay, okay; maybe it’s a waste of time to do this? I [will] use my time for better things.” So I used my time to realize this 2-day play. And, it’s not on the front of the posters, but, it is the 120th aktion; and let us say the subtitle is Parsifal…
I’m a great admirer of Wagner. I like this, especially his music, and…also his drama; I like it very much. But I’m a hundred years after Wagner, and I’m in a very different situation. Wagner was before Nietzsche, before Freud, and he was very influenced by Schopenhauer, and he had this, I would say…this old, old aesthetic philosophy in his mind. And I’m very influenced by Nietzsche, I like life, I enjoy life; I’m influenced by Freud, by Jung; and I see all these Parsifal rituals as neurotic rituals. The ‘wound’; you say in English?
S. ‘The wound’, same word, the wound, yes.
N. The wound, let’s say, is a symbol of sick life, of unrealized life. And, I want to change Parsifal…The spear is for me a phallus symbol. Also, when you read Wagner’s text, at the end: “Only one weapon can close the wound.” That’s the Spear. And so all the spears that are used are phallus symbols, and also, I want only to show with the spears something [e.g. reality, not a representation]. I show the wound, I show the genitals, especially from the ‘wife’ [sic. Qua. Woman, in 2-day play]; the open body of an animal…
Anyway, that was my version of Parsifal. A hundred years [after Wagner]. And not against Wagner, absolutely not, absolutely not! I admire him, and it was a work of deep admiration.
S. To discuss the concept of abreaction within the context of the OMT: I slept, after the aktion in Dieter Roth’s tower; and I had the most beautiful sleep…The first good night’s sleep in the last three; and then suddenly, in a nightmare or vision, I was the steer, the bull, and the bull was me, I was also the stiertrager, the platform for carrying the bull.
S. – and the platform was me; and then suddenly all of its weight, at the same time [sound of hands being smashed together] crashed down upon me! And you can ask Thomas [Draschan], I woke up, naked, screaming: “AHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!”
S. …and standing there…you know; I nearly jumped out of the window.
And I can only maybe take one of these in my life. If it happened again the next night, then, maybe, okay, again? I think even I, and I’ve experienced lots of extreme things, couldn’t take it…but, it’s okay — somehow necessary…
N. You have spoken about abreaction. That’s always in my work. Maybe it’s better to use the word, ‘Catharsis’. I want to bring out so much depressed energies, and in the same way, to bring out the trueness…
S. The truth, yes.
N. And also, there’s a kind of ontology. It is always the question, the question about Being. The symbol of [the] Grail; that’s Being…Essere.
S. …You are influenced, obviously by existentialist philosophers; and Zen, and Heidegger, etc.; the Pre-Socratics –
N. I would say, for me, all of the history of philosophy is very important…the old Greek philosophers, the for-Socratics [sic.], —
S. The Pre-Socratic.
N. Ja, ja, very important for me. And then all the Eastern philosophy: Hinduism and Buddhism; Taoism, Zen Buddhism; and, um…I was, very influenced by Schopenhauer, that was very, very important for me when I was young. And then, very much, by Nietzsche. He [taught] me to enjoy life, to enjoy Being. And then, very important for me, was Existentialist philosophy, especially Heidegger. Jaspers, yes, but – anyway, he also influenced me. Not so much Sartre, because he was a pupil of Heidegger. The basis of his work is a big essay about Heidegger, the ‘Being and Nothingness’. Anyway, he was a political philosopher. This kind of existentialism don’t — didn’t interest me. And then, Zen Buddhism is very important for me, but, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not Catholic, I’m not Hinduist, I’m not Buddhist, and, I’m not Zen Buddhist. But most of the ideas of the Zen Buddhists influenced me, and like them and I would say, that’s very, very modern philosophy. And, I am not like John Cage. He made Zen Buddhism into his special thing. It’s not a question of belief, I respect it very much, and I respect the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. And everybody who saw [sic] my work, he must…must feel the influence of Zen Buddhism.
I say the Grail is not the wound, or not the…chalice. Everything is the Grail. This here, this here, this here! [Picking up & pointing out objects on and around the table] His face, your face! Being –
S. Being is the Grail?
N. Being is the Grail. And also that’s the light of [the] Grail. And then, erm…Empedocles.., Origen said, “The fire— is the root of everything”…And there you have also the light of grail. The grail is the fire of Being, fire of movement, fire of creation…But…it’s only…I’m not a scientist—
S. No, you are a philosopher –
N. I never say, there is this.
S. I studied philosophy and, you know, you can keep returning to Nietzsche forever. Heidegger similarly.
N. Ja. And, I forgot. Heidegger influenced me…[But] I don’t agree with his politics. Politically, that’s very sad. I always say, that’s…a man who has an objective for…the Cosmos, for the Whole. And in the closed situation of politics, he was blind.
S. …he was totally and utterly blind.
N. He was blind –
N. And he lost his way.
N. I’m very interested in Sein und Zeit [Being and Time]; that’s a great work; and also for me, the Phanomenologie is also very important. You know Husserl was his teacher and so on.
N. And I would say, I like everything that he had written, but I agree not with what he did.
S. Except for his political speeches. [Ha ha ha…]
N. Ja, ja…. We have a problem with some German writers. Also Gottfried Benn. He was a great poet, and he had a problem with fascism. But after 40 days, he understood his mistake.
S. Yeah, and stopped…then there was like, the Junger brothers, Jun-ger brothers? You know, ‘Total War’; anyway…the one thing…um…you are basically an existentialist, or para-existentialist, or something like this?
N. I would say, there’s a deep connection.
S. Yes. But the difference is that…to understand your philosophy – you can only understand your philosophy by taking part, and in taking part, you are literally thrown into your body , totally thrown into your body. The weight, the excessiveness, and the impossibility of dragging out this bull that Thomas and I did.
N. Ja, ja.
S. It’s impossible that we could pull this bull [out of the truck]; and yet Thomas and I did it on our own. You are thrown into your body, and that’s – your philosophy is in the aktion. You know, as we said before…
N. I hope so.
S. No, not, ‘hope so’, it is a fact. And for me, you are one of the greatest living existentialists, or para-existentialists But I can’t explain to other people, or other philosophers…they have to take part.
N. I would say, I would say, I’m a post-existentialist. (ha ha).
S. Ja, para-, post-. I can’t explain to another philosopher, I would say, ‘You have to take part in the aktion’, and then you can read his theory.
N. Ja, ja… a ‘School of Being’
And, maybe one more thing. The aktion in the Chapel? That’s the first time there’s been an aktion in the Chapel?
N. The first time I used the Chapel for an aktion.
S. And this, is this a special occasion, or special thing?
N. The aktion in the Chapel, is something I would repeat. Yeah, you would repeat it again…I was very happy about the treatment, I was very happy about that, but I was not so happy about the performance I did in the Chapel. But, anyway, the next time we do it better.
S. One can never attain perfection, or one would stop, I think, yes?
N. Ja, ja. I don’t believe in that…without mistakes. I’m full of mistakes.
S. Can you please explain something of the central role of Schloss Prinzendorf for the Orgies Mysteries Theatre?
N. Let’s say, let’s say, that’s a mythology. Half of my relations are coming from here. The mother of my mother was born in Prinzendorf, and, ja, my grandmother was born in Prinzendorf. And, during the war we always got food from the farmers here, because in the big cities there was no food. And then we always…went to Prinzendorf to get some food, to drink some wine; and we were always invited to the wine cellars when…[we were children]. It was wonderful. The grown-ups they were drinking and we, the children, we also got a little bit of wine, and we were naughty—
S. Ha ha ha…
N. And it was wonderful…And when I was here, let’s say, when I was 17 or 18 years old, and, at this time I studied art, and I got a very deep connection to this wonderful landscape, and this landscape is a little bit similar to what the Impressionists painted, and later Van Gogh. These cornfields you can see here; the sunset. And I got a very, very deep feeling for this landscape. And then, I saw this castle. And it was really like a great experience to see this castle. And I was meaning, when I was getting old, and I am famous with my work [that] the government will give me this castle to realize my work, to realize my theatre. And then they [the Austrian Government] put me in prison three times, because of my work.
S. Yeah, I know.
N. And then there was no more hope that I would get this castle. And then…I did exhibitions in America, in Germany, and I always had photographs from Prinzendorf, and I said, that is the Orgies Mysteries Theater…. Then my wife, Beate…[who later] died by a car accident…We [his wife Beate and he] got a little money from her parents and she wanted to buy a house in Germany, in Bavaria, and it was so expensive…it was not possible. We tried to find one house, but it was much, much too expensive. And then, we were in the wine cellar of my uncle, and um…Beate my wife, asked if it would be possible to buy a house here in Prinzendorf. “Yes, there are enough houses to buy, but why you not buy the castle?” And the castle was so cheap. And she was a psychologist. She said they will make…[A home for Children…. for handicapped children]. For her, it was no problem to do this really, and also top realise my theatre here. And she bought it very, really very, very cheap – Well, and then I got this castle, and it’s my Bayreuth. No architect can plan this ‘theatre’ better than it is here. Ja, that is the story of Prinzendorf, that is the story of the castle.
S. Psychology…you said you’re wife was a psychologist. But the psychology of the Orgies Mysteries Theatre, or better, to use Nietzsche, the ‘physiology’, not psychology, but physiology of Prinzendorf [as ‘theatre’ etc]. It’s like, um…The first aktion I took part in here on the 2-day play; or the first aktion with the blud and the wasser [blood and water], etc.; it was the big tub here [near where we are sitting] with Igor [as] Amfortas. And, I had a really bad problem with the first one [aktion]. You see the photograph [ha ha ha], — I really wanted to throw up. And then…as the day progressed, you go through waves – it’s, ‘Urgh, Oh my God!”, and then it’s okay, and then, ‘Oh my God!’, and then it’s okay, and then you’re just breathing, relaxing, beautiful music, like, ecstasy, catharsis, and then, ‘Urgh!’ again – this [cycle is] continuous. But then afterwards…after this aktion even, which was so bad for me, the first one – afterwards, you go in the shower, you wash it off –
N. Ha Ha ha.
S. And it’s nothing, it’s just ‘shit’, it’s only blood, it’s nothing?
N. Many people say, it’s much better to be in a live aktion than to see the photographs and all these things… it’s very important to be in the aktion; also with the music, it brings you in, it takes you in…and then you’re in a kind of moving cosmos.
S. For sure. Well, it’s the gesamtkunstwerk…
N. I hope, I hope so.
S. No, not ‘hope so’. For me it is simply a fact.
©paul sakoilsky 2004/2011
[The interview was first played on resonaceFM, 20.10.04]
‘It’s better to spend your time failing at something you want to do than to waste your
life becoming a successful nobody’ (Henry Miller)
Artists, do not be seduced by the American Dream. It will devalue your work
and leave you longing for a false ideal of success. This ingenious piece of social
engineering would have you believe that so long as you work hard and think positive
then you have a fair shot at success: talent always rises to the top and if you’re not at
the top then you only have yourself to blame. Pursuing the American Dream means
accepting that the odds are stacked against you, and getting on with the business of
succeeding over others. It’s a reptilian mindset which is now no longer confined to
the Gordon Gecko’s of the business-world, but has come to latch on to all walks of
life. In the artworld, this mentality finds its equivalent in the artist’s obligation to
constantly self-promote: if you believe in your own brand, then, with the right kind
of networking, you too might share the limelight with the other celebrities and live
comfortably ever after. But the challenges of art are never solved through money
and status, and nor is there any prescription for making a masterpiece: if blind belief
and hard work do not guarantee a fair wage in the real world, then why should it turn
your artwork into a commercial success? Rather than trying to capitalise on your
insecurities by offering you the glib reassurance of the marketeers, these principles
are addressed to all you sick, broke, and talentless artists out there who know your
true potential, and still want to continue.
1) Don’t fetishize incompletenes
The poor artist will often relish the raw and unfinished in their own work and in
that of others as a means to avoid facing up to the limits of their own talent. It’s
much easier to see the promise of genius in your first drafts and sketches than it
is to make the finishing touches to what you know will be a substandard piece of
work. Abandoning your work at an early stage allows you to enjoy the thrill of being
an artist without having to subject your results to the harsh gaze of others, or even
your own better judgment. Leaving your work unfinished also means that you won’t
risk spoiling your chance achievements, and lends support to the idea that the great
work descends on the artist like a cosmic lottery ticket. But there’s no solution in
simple self-exposure: an artwork needs time to develop, and an artist needs internal
tension to create: sharing it too soon will just make you conform to expectations.
Where historically the measure of an artwork derived from its ability to function as a
complete representation of nature, the veneration of ‘the incomplete’ originates with
the philosophy of Friedrich Schlegel, who believed that artworks must ‘be entirely
isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog.’
Accepting our understanding of the world can only ever be partial relieves us of the
obligation to figure out universally valid judgments, and such a view finds its most
recent descendent in postmodern theory, where a high culture with fries approach to
art means that ironic allusions to great works of the past stand in for great works in
the present. Supposedly the triumph of the popular culture over modernist elitism, the
postmodern preserves its own strict hierarchy by kicking away the ladder to artistic
genius: nothing is worth learning systematically, anything goes, and only your genes
and luck can grant you artistic success. Consciously or not, those who share only their
promise with their peers maintain their privilege over the uninitiated.
2) You’ll always find time for inspiration; it’s making time for concentrated
hard work that’s difficult.
Surely the best trick for avoiding hard work is to imagine that you’re waiting for
artistic inspiration. While others work hard at improving their craft in the hope of
masking their inner poverty, you are secure enough in your own talents to wait
patiently for that great idea to fall from the sky. But when making art, inspiration
is rarely the problem: even a poor artist can be plagued by hundreds of wild ideas
for future work. The architect Louis Kahn would maintain that ‘a good idea which
isn’t done is no idea at all’, suggesting that an artwork cannot exist in the mind of an
artist alone, not even a poor one: it demands realization and an audience. And while
it’s true that you can ruin a good idea by rushing it to completion, you can never go
wrong by setting aside plenty of time for the concentrated hard work.
3) The tragedy of the working classes is only articulated by the middle classes:
don’t let them speak for you
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of reading a socialist newspaper, you can’t help
but be struck by how terrible life must be for the poor workers, condemned to lives
deprived of all those middle class essentials, like organic food and good taste, or
existing only as consumerist dupes, spiralling through shopping centres in a secular
version of Dante’s Hell. But who writes these papers? Behind the high principles
of your learned socialist can often reside an unhealthy interest in the workers best
described as voyeuristic. It’s as if the shame of their privilege is relieved by their
voluntary abasement before them. Never mind if such a view already presupposes
a low opinion of the workers in general. Thankfully, the poor artist is only political
insofar as their work is not concerned with the crude material interests of party
politics: ‘The artist is responsible to no-one but himself. He donates to centuries to
come only his own works; he stands surety for himself alone. He dies without issue.
He was his own king, his own priest and his own God.’ One has to be as generous in
spirit as Charles Baudelaire to absolve all the debts of the poor.
4) Better to be an honest dilettante than a fake artist
Is it possible to enjoy the great works of art without wanting to be a great artist?
When faced with a masterpiece a poor artist can feel compelled to state how their
own efforts have no relation to such grand works, a reaction which usually goes hand
in hand with the secret belief that their own works would be great if only they were
discovered, and then the sense of failure is compounded with a feeling of rejection.
This idea that the great artworks demand an equivalent effort from those who
appreciate them is like a secularised version of the Protestant work ethic: whereas
Original Sin was thought to be relieved through doing our duty to God by hard toil,
now the pleasure in consuming art must be repaid by making oneself worthy of the
great artists. The medieval peasants knew better: for them, the joy of work came not
from the back-breaking labour of the day, but from the drink and fornication of the
5) Better to be mad than mediocre
Madness is overrated. There’s nothing more pathetic than an artist who acts mad in
order to get noticed, and you can probably learn more about Van Gogh by drawing
birds’ nests than by drinking the Absinthe. Of course anyone can get drunk, but
putting time aside to accurately draw a birds’ nest requires a degree of commitment
which is beyond most people’s scope. Likewise, most of us have no comprehension of
what it means to suffer from a real mental disorder. The rare hallucinations and brief
moments of ecstasy which are supposedly the privilege of the mad are usually paid for
by prolonged periods of isolation, paranoia, and finally despair. Yet the conjunction
between art and madness is not simply a romantic cliché: the artist who settles for
convention is no artist at all. The duty to expand the limits of what’s conceivable
means that the artist must break the chains of good sense, and madness is what
happens to those who can’t find an adequate frame for their work or keep a straight
face in public. Perhaps it’s easier for us when our great artists suffer: only then does
their genius become tolerable. And don’t we secretly hope that our own sufferings
might also be rewarded with a great artwork?
6) Nothing in the artwork is accidental, even if it was put there by accident
There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand an artwork through learning
about the artist; but there is a problem if the artwork gets reduced to what that artist
intended. Critics who explain a work of art by referring to an artist’s life-story usually
do so as a means of silencing dissent, but the successful artwork communicates
directly without translation, and this goes against those who would seek to understand
an art work on purely formal grounds. Purely formal grounds for judging art simply
don’t exist: at best they are descriptive terms for deducing the compositional elements
in a work in order to launch a response; at worst, they are the means by which
academic learned taste tries to pass itself off as a politically neutral affair.
7) Colours are the flowers of the universe; leave some behind for the others
Can the lurid configurations of rubbish in a London gutter have as much vibrant
appeal as the paintings of Matisse or Kandinsky? Perhaps, but you must already
know their work before you can see their results in your own environment. Just as the
richness of colour is given to all regardless of social rank, so the poor artist creates
works which require no expensive mediation. As simple and as universal of colour,
the challenge of art is to tear through the web of our petty concerns, exposing the
mysterious of life which underlie our most trivial observations.
8) Everyone’s a critic, but there is no miserable creation
A poor artist suffers from terrific self-doubt when their own achievements fail to
live up to their higher ambitions. But they should take comfort in the fact that even
the greatest artists have also experienced this same self-doubt: they’re as vulnerable
to critique as the rest of us. To the uninitiated, all artworks seem effortless. And
consequently, enviable: regardless of whether their work is meant to communicate
great sadness or suffering, it’s difficult to believe that the great artists could have
ever been truly unhappy, given the creative powers which were at their disposal.
Their artwork stands as proof that whatever turmoil went into these creations was
in the last instance overcome. But the question remains as to whether this suffering
was intensified in the process of making the artwork itself, and whether this was a
price worth paying. At best we can be sure that these questions were not resolved in
advance, and sheer commitment is not enough to guarantee a better life or a place
in heaven. Perhaps the strength of an artist should be measured by their capacity to
withstand these great self-doubts and still carry on. ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll
go on’. Samuel Beckett’s ‘Unnameable’ leaves the poor artist with the only working
9) It’s easy to focus on your work when all around you falls to pieces, but why
sacrifice present happiness for the grand delusion?
It’s a truism that artistic inspiration for the great works has more often come in times
of great hardship rather than in those periods of insipid comfort. At first this might
seem counter-intuitive, isn’t it easier to be creative when you have the right conditions
for concentration? So why have artists often made their best works in times of
personal crisis? Making art is seldom an easy escape, but it could be that the challenge
of artistic creation has become easier to handle than their other more personal
difficulties. A better test of an artist’s commitment is not in their ability to work under
duress, but depends on whether they are willing to sacrifice personal happiness for
the ambivalent rewards of making art. There’s no straightforward solution to this
dilemma: it’s not about an all or nothing commitment. Even the greatest artists have
known when to stop. Arthur Rimbaud, the quintessential modern poet, would burn
out in his mid-twenties, renouncing literature entirely to settle for a life as a colonial
business entrepreneur, while Marcel Duchamp, originator of the ready-made, retires
from the artworld at the height of his fame to play chess for the remaining twenty-five
years of his life. Clearly, there’s something extraordinarily lucid in the way that these
artists knew when their work was finished, and their decision to abandon their lives as
established artists suggests that other ways of living can be equally valuable.
10) Constant production and accomplished technique makes a great craftsman;
empathy with the poor and inarticulate can make a great artwork.
There’s something oppressive in the way that certain artists desperately churn
out work after work in a vast range of accomplished styles and techniques for
everyone’s approval. It’s as if the artist gloats over the inarticulate through their
constant demonstrations of power. Although certainly a mark of great self discipline,
constant production also betrays a certain insecurity: the artist keeps making works
which anyone can recognise as accomplished, rather than risk their reputation by
doing something original which might seem clumsy or pretentious. But one can be
unpretentious to the point of stupidity, and ridiculing artistic experiments is just
another kind of artistic elitism. Only when you realise that the artworld can be just as
mean and parochial as any other, and that the artist has no privileged access to a world
beyond it, only then is there a chance for their work to generate true value.
More than a century ago, George Santayana published The Sense of Beauty, one of a tiny handful of philosophical books on the arts worth multiple rereadings. In comparison with such topics as logic, metaphysics, politics, and the theory of knowledge, philosophical discussion of beauty has been confined to a minor role. Scattered classic books on the subject have appeared from the pens of great thinkers, but one still gets the sense that aesthetics is an underdeveloped field— like a young nation made up of isolated frontier towns rather than great cities.
This fact ought to shock us more than it does. As Santayana himself observes, beauty plays an almost overwhelming role in everyday life. In our choice of clothing, homes, vacation sites, and mates, in our strong preference for certain kinds of pets or specific foreign languages, and in our near-physical disgust at annoying voices and hated styles of music, aesthetic considerations play a pivotal role. Animals detect the slightest variations in patterns of color and sounds, and even lifeless stars and crystals display a kind of aesthetic structure. According to Santayana, philosophers have ignored beauty mostly because aesthetic standards seem at first to be so personal and arbitrary. Mathematical theorems are true for everyone, but to rank Picasso as greater or worse than another painter strikes many people as no less pointless than debating whether peppermint or chocolate is a superior flavor. Yet disagreement of opinion is not enough reason to place all beauty in the eye of the beholder. To be dazzled by a sunflower or ruby is not to live inside my own self-obsessed daydreams, but means instead that I reach out and grasp something in the things themselves, even if other humans do not follow me. This is why Santayana defines beauty as “pleasure objectified,” for it is pleasure seen as a quality belonging to an object, not just a bodily pleasure felt in my tongue, ear, or some other organ.
Already, we have found in Santayana two basic principles for developing a larger sense of beauty. First, beauty is not one limited neighborhood of reality, one tiny theater district or concert hall of the world, meant to entertain us after the day’s serious work is finished. Instead, beauty penetrates every square inch of reality; the world as a whole has an aesthetic structure. Second, the sense of beauty is not just a random personal taste projected onto a boring objective world of chemicals and neutrons. Although we humans may disagree about whether a canvas by Jackson Pollock is beautiful or not, this debate happens not because we are miserable isolated egos unable to communicate. There is no reason to be so cynical. Instead, we disagree about beauty because we live outside our private minds, agreeing and disagreeing about the objects that surround us all.
Furthermore, it is not true that all aesthetic opinions are equal. The artistic judgments of Clement Greenberg are clearly not those of a three-year-old child. And though it may be impossible to verify which critics are “right,” and though critics throughout history have sometimes overlooked masterpieces and overvalued absolute junk, and though standards of taste change greatly as the centuries unfold, this only shows how difficult it is for the human mind to pierce the swirling mists of the world. It is quite possible that one object is absolutely more beautiful than another, just as one object is hotter or colder than another, even if temperature is easier to measure objectively. Our inability to agree on the most beautiful object does not mean that there is none.
Next, it should be admitted that art and beauty do not entirely overlap. The common-sense view, like the classical view, is that artists are concerned with creating beauty and scientists are occupied with detecting reality. But as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek recently noted, there has been a reversal of roles between artists and scientists. It is now scientists rather than artists who praise the world for being “elegant” and “beautiful.” The new superstring physics is often praised for its mathematical loveliness no less than its possible truth, and when Crick and Watson found their model for the structure of DNA, they decided that it was “too beautiful not to exist.” But where are the avant garde artists these days in discussions of aesthetics? The search for beauty and elegance would strike many of them as laughably naïve. It is now the artists who give us the contact with brute reality, which used to be the domain of science. Real artists no longer focus on creating pretty objects: instead, they throw dissected cows into vats of chemicals, or spit from windows onto random pedestrians, or make films of clowns using the toilet. There may be artistic merit in some of these gestures, but my concern here is with beauty in all domains, not with the arts in their various pleasing and displeasing forms.
While Santayana was surely right to complain that philosophers have not done justice to the important status of beauty in human life, he should have pushed his complaint even further. One recent fashion in French philosophy holds that all philosophy should be based on ethics. My own view, by contrast, is that all philosophy should be grounded in aesthetics: not because there is no truth and we have to shape our truthless lives like a personal artwork, but rather because beauty stretches far beyond the human mind, and inhabits even the causal relations between stars, trees, and water. It is possible to explain this view clearly and briefly.
The English word “object” usually refers to lifeless bulks made of such materials as wood or stone. Let’s redefine the word here to refer to anything that exists: not just atoms and hammers, but also universities, armies, wishes, numbers, diamonds, rivers, and moons. Anything that exists can be called an object. While there are many different types and families of objects, all of them must share two basic features. First, every object is unified as somehow a single object, or we would never give it a name. An army contains many weapons, many soldiers, and the many body parts of each of the soldiers, yet historians still speak of the actions of a single army led by Caesar or Saladin. For the purposes of military history, the countless tiny parts of the army are irrelevant, and it can be treated as a unified whole. Second, every object must have specific features not shared by all the others, or else all objects would be the same. To cite a trivial example, a list of the features and qualities of coffee is very different from the same list for airplanes or dogs. This may seem absurdly obvious, but our goal here is to shed strange new light on the obvious, which is the only thing worth doing in philosophy. To repeat the point, every object is unified as one object, and every object also has thousands or billions of qualities, if not infinitely many.
In 1970, the philosopher Saul Kripke reminded us that the name of a thing goes far beyond any list we can make of its qualities. There is no way to “define” a person such as Churchill or his enemy Gandhi. We can write everything we know about each of them on a piece of paper, write books about them stretching to tens of thousands of pages, even millions of pages, and still we will never exhaust the reality of these two men. There will always be something more to say that is left out of our description. Some of our information may even turn out to be false, but this is not important. The names of Churchill and Gandhi are not abbreviations for detailed lists of qualities, as though the names changed their meaning every time we learned new information about these people. Instead, names are like fingers pointing rigidly at stable individual people who are never completely understood, no matter how much information we amass about them. A person always hides behind his or her properties, forever capable of surprising us. The same is true not just for people, but also for animals, plants, buildings, candles, sound waves, and atoms. Although objects can only be experienced through their qualities, in some way they must always exceed or hide behind these qualities. This apparently simple idea has surprisingly deep implications.
Now, what is most typical of everyday life is that we usually confuse a thing with its qualities. The philosophers Henri Bergson and Martin Heidegger both claimed that we do this because we tend to reduce things to their usefulness for us. Individual grains of salt are unimportant as long as they usefully give our food the desired salty taste. We do not usually care about the inner soul of a bureaucrat or teacher, as long as they give us what we expect. Science has no interest in the secret internal life of a specific star, but simply measures all its known properties and lists them in a table comparing it with other stars. The womanizer moves from one woman to the next, each of them equally capable of serving his needs. The common link in all these cases is that objects are stripped of their individual reality, and turned into a cash value of interchangeable usefulness. Any object having the right qualities fills the role that we plan for it just as well as any other object with similar qualities. In most cases this is not morally evil, but is simply a question of mental health. If we paid tender loving attention to each grain of salt at lunchtime, we would rightly be viewed as insane. No one could function normally in everyday life if they did not reduce most objects to their use-value.
Yet there are numerous cases in which objects are no longer fused together with their qualities—cases in which an object becomes highly unique, elusive, and alluring. Let’s use the term “allure” to describe what happens when an object is split from its qualities and seems to hover outside them, beyond our grasp. Allure is the root not only of beauty, but of many other things as well. Imagine the case of a dull bureaucrat whom we visit regularly to do paperwork. We have no interest in this person, as long as she stamps our forms in the correct manner. But imagine that one day she is lost in a shipwreck, is kidnapped and never seen again, commits suicide, turns out to be a terrorist operative, or blows us a passionate kiss without warning. In these cases the dull bureaucratic façade is no longer fused together with the person as a whole. We now sense a mysterious hidden reality or persona in the bureaucrat, an individuality that was previously suppressed from view, and which lies much deeper than all the boring, stereotypical mannerisms of a government official. All of these possible surprising or chilling events would give us the same dizzying thrill that beauty always does.
When someone disappoints us or pleasantly surprises us, here too they break away from the qualities that we used to believe were fused directly into them. We are now confronted with a mysterious depth to the person that we never suspected was there. Their previous useful function in our lives collapses, and we are both confused and bewitched by the new reality that lies before us, since it is difficult to define in terms of known properties. The same is true of profound courage, in which someone refuses to adapt his or her actions or compromise to changing circumstances, but continues standing for a deeper principle than the cynics and manipulators who shifts their ideals like chameleons. Here too, there is an alluring split between the surface qualities of the person and their deeper unified cores. Allure is the root of humor as well: as Bergson showed a century ago, comedy occurs when a person or other living force is unable to adapt to changing situations, and in this way becomes exposed as something separate from its surroundings. Love is also a kind of allure, since it aims at something in a person that is indescribable or indefinable and never quite clear, and which can often resist numerous deceptions and disappointments.
Even more importantly for us, metaphor is always a form of allure. If a journalist writes that “Lebanon is the Arab France,” we may be able to think of specific common features between Paris and Beirut, specific character similarities between the two peoples, and even a shared relation to the French language. But the statement remains a metaphor because, unless it becomes dull and trivialized through overuse, it remains hauntingly vague and can never be translated into any clear and definite list of similarities. Through the use of metaphoric language, Lebanon becomes a ghostly force— hidden from any direct access, and deeper than any of its known properties. It exerts a gravitational pull on certain known features of France (cosmopolitanism? sensuality?) while repelling others as inappropriate (the land of high-speed trains). No exact list of common features between Lebanon and France will ever succeed in recreating the metaphor, simply because it operates at a deeper level than all features and qualities.
My view is that every form of beauty can be described as a specific type of allure. Bottles and houses usually have a practical function, and can be efficiently used without ever being noticed. But when someone succeeds in designing an especially beautiful bottle or house, there seems to be a hidden spirit at work in the object, one that secretly dominates all of its surface qualities without being identical with them. Critics can work hard to identify the features that make any object beautiful, but they will never quite succeed in exhausting the magic, since that magic is something that clear descriptions can only partly approach.
Allow me to end on a somewhat stranger and wilder note. There is no reason to believe that allure belongs only to human artistic experience, or bird songs, or the radial symmetry of flowers that is so attractive to insects. For there is no such thing as qualities in isolation from objects. When fire burns cotton, it does not burn “flammability,” but burns the cotton itself. We have already seen that no human can ever fully grasp the depths of cotton or fire, since these objects remain mysterious units that exceed all of their visible qualities. But the same thing must be true of the relation of the cotton and fire to each other. The fire reduces the cotton to an ability to be burnt, not reacting at all to its fragrance, its softness, its price on the world market, or the story of its origin in a village field. To repeat, the cotton itself is something deeper than all of its qualities, something that can never fully approached. The fire both touches and fails to touch the cotton. It destroys the cotton without ever fully reaching its depths. But this is strikingly similar to all the more human forms of allure, in which we encounter a unified object split from its properties, an object that we can sense but never fully define. This leads us to the following question: is it possible that even physical causation has a metaphorical structure? I believe that the answer is yes. And if so, then beauty lies at the root not only of human daily experience (as Santayana saw), but even at the root of physical events such as fires, earthquakes, and the explosion of stars. If there is something ghostly and magical about beauty, then this disturbing magic already lies in the heart of physical matter, not just in the privacy of the human soul.
TG: Andy Warhol famously said that “business art is the step that comes after art.”
This is normally read in the context of the culture industry, but today I’m seeing a lot of artists start businesses as works of art in their own right. We can read Paul McCarthy’s “Chocolate Factory” as one response to Warhol, in this case interrogating some of the formal aspects of businesses. The most important thing about “Chocolate Factory” is that it loses money as a business and
whichever collector buys the piece (I’m not sure if anyone bought it or not) they are supposed to run it at a loss, if they don’t they destroy the piece.
In 2004 Daniel Pink wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the MFA was the new MBA and that Fortune 500 companies should start hiring artists as general purpose “creative problem solvers.” This is another way that business art can be said to be the step that comes after art. There is something really defeatist feeling about this to me, yet there is also something that gets me kind of excited. Artists really are good general purpose creative problem solvers. And we certainly have a number of pressing problems today. As I
mentioned in my last e-mail, lately in my own studio art practice I’ve been mulling over certain big problems and wondering how to solve them.
For example, just yesterday the state of Arizona passed what can only be seen as a blatantly racist law. This law doesn’t just legalize racial profiling, it actually forces police officers to profile even if they are opposed the the law (and indeed many police unions have come out against it). Starting this summer Arizona police officers are required to ask anyone they suspect might be an undocumented worker for their papers. If they cannot produce papers they are to be arrested, fined and forced to pay for their own incarceration, even if they broke no law and just didn’t have papers on them at the time. What would cause a police officer to suspect that a person is undocumented? How could it be anything other than the color of their skin? Even the governor of Arizona, just after she signed the bill, said that she didn’t know what an undocumented worker looks like (you can see the video of her here ).
So on hearing this news my first thought is how do we solve this problem? How do we thwart this law? I don’t have particularly good ideas just yet, but the first ideas that came to mind was what if white US citizens started wearing tee-shirts or buttons that said “I’m an undocumented worker” which would have to be viewed as an invitation to be questioned. If the police don’t question them despite
the shirt, it exposes the law as racist in its application and opens up civil rights legal action. If they do question them they will be forced to needlessly question everyone and this would dilute force of the law. Now I don’t actually think that this idea is very good or will actually work, but this is the thought process and I feel confident that there are some real creative responses out there that will make the law unenforceable.
I just recently learned about the Transborder Immigrant Tool which was created by a group of artists to help people crossing the Mexico/US border navigate where they are. A large number of people have died crossing the border after they get lost and dehydrated. The Transborder Immigrant Tool can help direct you towards water caches. The artists who created this project are
currently under investigation and in danger of losing tenure at UCSD for their political activities. You can read about it “here(gokey3)”: http://bang.calit2.net/2010/03/bang-lab-edt-update-call-for-accountability-and-the-criminalization-of-research.
What interests me about projects like this is that they seem like good successful solutions to a real pressing problem. They use general purpose creativity rather than a more specific artistic creativity. A project like this doesn’t need to be created by artists, it could have been created by anyone. But I don’t think it is a coincidence that it was a group of artists who were able to do this. An MFA is the new Masters of Political Science.
All of this is by way of introduction to the questions I would like to ask you. We are in a very interesting time period historically. Today it only takes one person with one great idea to talk about it online and that idea can spread and gain momentum. To me this seems to change the relationship artists can play in shaping society. I think it is always important to keep our ears to the ground
and listen to the “why” questions that people ask each other. Why is school so expensive? Why are there no jobs? Why are all of our leaders from a different economic class than us? As you talk to artists and as you theorize about art yourself, what have been some of the pressing questions that you hear people asking? What are issues that really bother people’s imaginations? And what are
some of the creative responses that you’ve heard floated?
I guess some other general questions I would like to ask you are about your perspective on the changing landscape of the culture industry itself. Are there any new cracks in the way political and economic systems are structured that you think artists can slip into and exploit?
MW: I think erosion of freedom is one of the really pressing issues in the two countries I have knowledge of and work in, Italy and the UK. I was born in England and moved to Italy two years ago. It seemed initially like a haven compared to the UK, a country then party to the worst imaginable kind of politics, a sort of Stalinist-Capitalism: people being fined for over filling their waste bins by a couple of inches is no joke, it is the tip of an iceberg. In Italy things are rather different, there is less surveillance, less enforcement of what laws exist, less ‘control’ in a word. Yet there is a political hegemony maintained by fear – albeit, more a fear of what the neighbours might think or say – and by a massive wealth inequality. In both countries there is genuine risk of freedom being further eroded in the years to come, though in the UK it seems that the old methods are being re-adopted by the Tory-Liberal coalition. Unfair spending policies will maintain control – perhaps as a side effect, perhaps intentionally – where surveillance systems are unpopular or too costly. The Conservatives have always ostensibly been for greater freedoms, and their scrapping of the compulsory biometric ID scheme is to be applauded, as is the scrapping of controversial police stop and search powers – but I feel this won’t spell greater freedom overall, especially considering the raft of controlling laws bought in under Labour which will not be revoked by the Conservatives. At the least, they are unlikely to continue bringing in such laws now that the economy is in such a dire state and therefore comes as a priority, but their natural favouring of the wealthy is cause for worry at a time when household spending margins are so low as to make tax increases and welfare cuts punitive and prohibitive: for the very poor further financial strain may break the barely existent will to oppose political wrongdoing. Finally, on this note, proposals to set up a kind of compulsory kid’s training camp seem, frankly, embarrassing. If it gives the kids something to do, fine, but I think it’s unlikely to instil good manners in the most deprived. It’s like applying a band aid to an oil spill, when the cause is neglect (financial and otherwise).
Art, of course, always seems more ‘free’ than other disciplines… it doesn’t have the commitment to truth that politics, law, science and religion have. These other disciplines are deemed to fail when they ‘lie’, whereas art is all about deception, which means it may be able to resist an unfree society, even in spite of its own unfreedom (whereas Democracy, Science, Religion, Philosophy and Justice do have that commitment, and so are rendered either accessory to the totalizing affects of Capitalism or are simple rendered as interesting asides, curiosities – ones that even draw many adherents).
I see a lot of artists working with these concerns, though in terms of pressing and real solutions to the problems outlined above, I’d have to say that what I see is, on the whole, disappointing. There is a lot of ‘look at me’, and ‘screw you’ in the Art scene, and unfortunately many people see this as a positive inheritance from Dada, Futurism, Fluxus, and, indeed, from earlier movements and artists; The Secessionists, Courbet, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, etc. Yet this is not the only aspect that can be usefully inherited from Art’s past. Right now it seems that artists conduct themselves much like the people they wish to politically critique. It is ‘me, me, me’, whilst, at the same time, Left wing positions are mimed only as fetish. Everyone wants to be a comrade, so long as they get to wear the gear. Though even this is not enough, everyone wants to be the ‘first comrade’. This is the downside of Art’s deceptive capacity – it often empties the critical import it mimics, for the fact that only mimesis is deemed to be required. Real enactments of the political postures that are adopted are often absent, and for that we might even be thankful, given the dearth of political savvy at large.
Unfortunately, I have seen this with my own eyes, and I feel I should describe it, even though it will make a great many people uncomfortable. Artists risk seeming not only selfish, in light of the fact that they deny the free capacity of Art as it might be best utilised, towards a constructive realignment of power in society, via critique, and empowerment of the individual (who, utilizing Art’s capacity to lie can claim themselves as ‘free’ despite their real lack of freedom), but also risk seeming at odds with society: Contemptuous of it, the artist makes fun of its faults, the ‘solutions’ for which only serving to increase the artists’ standing in the art world.
Mark McGowan recently implored people to vote Conservative in the UK election, as an ‘art stunt’. This caused a real furore, as can be seen on his facebook page, and on Dave Beech’s facebook group page – set up in criticism of McGowan – ‘Mark McGowan is a Tory’. The volley of abuse between pro McGowan and anti McGowan camps appeared akin to political sparring, particularly for the fact that McGowan’s position was so deliberately misleading. This goes to show precisely how closely Art can mimic politics, and could do all the more effectively as it has no obligation to truth, allowing for a caricature capable of homing in on hidden political excesses. Unfortunately, many people at the time of the performance got caught up in the usual political-emotional responses, testament to how deep the polarities between Labour and Conservative run, even when the parties differed little on crucial policy matters. The political potential of the piece – of ‘Art’ – was lost as people rushed to denounce McGowan, often, surprisingly, for supporting ‘Thatcherism’.
I think Art need mimic the machinations of power, and of protest, but always as ‘Art’, removed from the system, and not as something embroiled within the system. The old embattled forms of protest merely rub up against each other. Maybe we can short circuit these forms somehow utilising Art’s ability for detached mimesis, and I think this might best start with a mimesis of the education system, undertaken outside the system, because education is where change is rooted.
TG: Your response at first seems odd to me because you see art as a mimesis of politics, whereas the artists I am around strongly favor direct engagement and interventionist practices. But if I think about it a little there might actually be a fair amount of convergence between us.
Here is one way to think about art: All of us play a role that we did not create and live in a world that we did not create. There is a kind of tension between the role society imposes and the role we are trying to create for ourselves. Part of this role-creation involves lying to ourselves about ourselves and trying to get other people to recognize us the way we would like to be seen. Art is a special kind of lie that tells us the truth about ourselves (to paraphrase Picasso). When we confront a work of art we are denuded and we see the gap between who we are and our social roles. Art is where humanity can encounter itself.
Certainly some art works this way. When the history of early 21st century art is written will we be able to find a more successful performance than Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents Dinner? Here the one “fake” journalist was able to tell the truth about Bush in front of a room full of “real” journalists who couldn’t. These journalists and politicians failed, as you say, because
they lied. And here we have a performer who is able to expose the truth because he occupies a special structural position where he is free to say what others are not allowed to say. This is similar to the structural position that the court jester or fool used to play in medieval society. This, to me, was the most interesting aspect of your response: “in a completely unfree society nothing can resist truthfully, yet this does not present a problem for art, which has no commitment to truth.” As I tell my students, who are all
first-year students, when I introduce them to performance art, you have to be willing to look foolish. The one time when all of us are willing to play the fool is when we fall in love. This is why I tell my students they must be willing to fall in love with something, a person, an idea, a color, in order to make art.
The problem is that the role of an artist can also function as merely one more social role among others. This is how I understand your lamentation of the selfishness of the artist. When someone tries to assume the role of “art star” they end up in the same position relative to truth as everyone else. This is certainly a big problem in the art world in the US, and I think it is especially a problem in England where the art world also just one more facet of tabloid culture.
But there is also a certain truth in direct intervention. What could be more honest than sabotage? What is more truthful than actual stick that we can put in the spokes of the actual wheel or an actual shoe that can be placed in the gears of an actual machine? It also struck me as odd that you view artists as irresponsible. I feel an almost frightening weight of responsibility! The responsibility of the artist was really drilled into my classmates and me in school.
The main area of convergence comes at the end of your comments. We need to challenge the university system, which I think is clearly entering a crisis. We can see this coming to a head especially with cases like the willful destruction of Middlesex University by its own administration. But at universities all across the world it seems like everything is upside down. Even universities don’t value education anymore; instead it has been restructured according to purely corporate values. I’m trying to address this with three current projects.
I’ve started my own school. I don’t have a name for it yet so I am calling it “The University Without a Name” for the time being. I am the only student and the sole administrator. I’m trying to create a course of study that is roughly equivalent to a Masters of Philosophy at a “real” university. I have no particular talent for philosophy, but I am immensely interested in it. Here is
how my school works: I find a subject that I want to study and then I start e-mailing scholars who work in that area. I explain my project to them and ask them to design a course of study for me. I listen to lectures on-line, do the reading, and write a paper. The faculty grades the paper (I tell them to take it seriously, to grade harshly, not to hold back). In return I pay them some
form of tuition. This tuition might be an agreed upon sum of money, something that I can afford on my current salary as an adjunct, but also something that respects the amount of time and effort I expect from the faculty. Tuition might also take the form of bartering. I might be able to teach my collaborator something that they want to know, or I might be able to render some service for
them. I am also willing to create a work of art as tuition.
Due to my already busy schedule I am only able to take one class at a time and at this rate it will probably take me four or five years to complete the course. When I am finished I plan on creating some form of thesis. I’m not entirely sure what form this will take, but I am leaning towards the creation of my own class. I would present my ideas as a series of on-line lectures on a yet to be determined topic. These lectures would be available to all free of charge. If there is anyone who would like to treat this series of lectures as a course of study for themselves then I would be willing to come up with some kind of mutually defined relationship with them. I see it as an opportunity to come up with a series of collaborations.
The big unresolved issue is how to make sure that this education is recognized as such. I have a number of ideas about how to do this, but the more I think about this problem the more I think that accreditation is the weak point in the current university system. We must attack accreditation, find alternative ways to accredit education, or make accreditation irrelevant. There are a number of
legitimate accreditation agencies out there. Perhaps I could get one of them to accredit my school. Or, maybe I could convince an already existing accredited program to count me as one of their students in some kind of special extension program. But the path that I am leaning towards currently is to just start my own accreditation agency. We have this silly series of legal fictions at work in education. The student does some kind of work. The teacher evaluates this work and the school offers credit for completing the course. The school notarizes the whole process in the end with a diploma. The school in turn is accredited by an accrediting agency. But who valorizes the accrediting agency? I have an artist friend who wants to become a notary public as part of her practice. I think I will ask her to form her own accrediting agency and accredit the ‘University Without a Name’.
I came up with this idea in the winter of 2008 but I’ve only just completed my first class this spring. I’m in the process of lining up a class for the fall. When I came up with the idea I wasn’t aware of other attempts to do something like this. But just this April a new book came out, “DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education” by the education policy expert Anya Kamenetz who documents a number of other similar schools that people have come up with for themselves.
In addition to creating my own school for myself, I also want to create a new school for my students. The sticker price for one of my classes is $4,400. When you factor in grants and scholarships the actual price on average is around $2,800. I have 17 students in each class I teach. Syracuse University pays me $3,300 to teach each class. Both my students and me are getting ripped off. It
is the corporate mediator of the university, which doesn’t add any value to our student-teacher relationship, but certainly knows how to extract value from my student and me that makes this so expensive and unfair. I am currently writing a proposal to create a class that examines how the university functions. We would negotiate tuition ourselves. In order to make the class valuable for the
university we would study how money functions at the school and suggest ways of reorganizing it that would save the school money. For example, our school pays money for trash collection by weight (we can throw away as much as we like, and we throw away a TON, but we pay for trash collection by the pound). Much of the weight from our various dining halls comes from food waste. I am proposing that my class create a campus wide compost system. This would accomplish multiple worthy goals, including saving the school money. Hopefully it would save the school enough money to justify letting my class meet “off the books” as it were.
But the project that I am most exited about is the creation of a new zero-interest bank to finance education loans. This project is too complicated for me to describe here, and I’m still working out the details in conversation with a number of other people. But I hope to launch this project over the summer.
What I like about these projects is that they don’t mimic other systems so much as they show that we don’t need those other systems. The banks have screwed us all. But we don’t need these banks. We can do it ourselves. We can recreate banks under a different set of values. Our schools don’t value education. But we don’t need these schools. We can educate each other without them. Would you
really call this mimesis? The problem I have with mimesis is that it is too entangled with what it is imitating. A certain about of rivalry is welcome, but only of a healthy kind, the kind that can leave its rival behind as something it no longer needs to bother with.
MW: I think the key here is that something that mimes something is not that thing. So Art can either mime politics deliberately, and in so doing can point to its difference from politics, and therefore its potential to act differently from politics, so long as a viable different way of acting can be devised, or it can be seen to mimic politics inadvertently in that many of the postures that art assumes in supposed contradistinction to gestures played out in mainstream society are really no different from those played out politically; for gain, for recognition, in conflict, often with an ‘other’. It is the former type of mimesis that I am arguing for here.
Put another way, if I copy politics and say I am making a ‘new politics’ I may well just end up rehashing the old politics, as happens with every new government ushered in. If I say that I am going to claim to create a new politics, but that I know cynically that this will fail, so I am going to merely conceive this politics as a parody of real politics, aware of all of its faults, then I have no cause for adherence to a model that is politically ‘right’. Then I can start breaking rules, and making new rules, and in that sense a breakthrough may be achieved. And I think that is maybe what art can do, if it first understands that it usually fails where it thinks it is ushering in a new politics (as with activist politics, as with the usual Old – or ‘New’ – Leftist stance of the artist).
I similarly advocate a de-centralised and new form of education and I certainly would be interested to collaborate with you on your project in some way.
When I talk about the selfishness of the artist I don’t really talk in a personal way, in terms of people and how they interact. Though, admittedly the way artists interact can be cringeful. I am more interested in how something is kept for oneself. Art is kept for the artist, so that paintings, appearances, shows, happenings, can be amassed as attestations to their worthiness. The intention is rarely to genuinely share art. Further, a certain pressure is generated within the arts scene. The pressure to perform routinely, creating a problem of quantity versus quality. This seems to happen on a wider scale, institutionally, as Art holds back from taking a final step, a subsumption into life; a kind of mimesis which involves Art losing itself in a questioning of that which it mimics, whilst always holding on to its unique facets (its lack of responsibility to truth, ad lack of responsibility per se) so that it can justifiably resist a total subsumption into the tainted politics that its mimesis enables it to question. Institutions guard their cultural credentials, jumping over themselves to become part of this or that trend. ‘Relational’ art is the new byword. Everything must have a degree of audience participation, so long as the audience go away knowing who curated and sponsored their experience. I think that political artists kid themselves they are not part of that artistic selfishness so long as they play out the same post-dada gestures, or, indeed, other gestures, so long as those gestures don’t further art’s cause. But it depends what they do. All is not lost. Setting up a loan free bank, as art, sounds refreshing. That is the kind of thing I’m guessing at, when I suggest artists should take these approaches.
TG: I would love to collaborate in some way. A lot of my studio practice lately doesn’t involve actually making things so much as it consists of writing proposals, most of which don’t go anywhere. I’d like to improve my rate of projects that actually do get of the ground. Instead of making art myself, I’m starting to view my role as being similar to a movie producer. I come up with a
lot of proposals that I don’t have the knowledge or skills to realize alone. So maybe my role will become an organizer of like-minded people who do have these skills. I’ve been really interested in the” Diaspora*(gokey4)”:http://www.joindiaspora.com/ group
and the model that they’ve used. It almost doesn’t matter if these students have the skills to realize their idea. They articulated the idea and now people with the requisite skills are coming to them. This is the model I would like to employ with the bank. So my practice is become more and more a method of talking to people and convincing them to work with me on something.
I am fascinated by mimesis, but I’m not sure I share your faith it it’s ability to open up alternatives. I tend to think of mimesis as something that happening inside of an all encompassing political and economic system. Mimesis is to static of a thing. Instead I think that time has more potential to create spaces outside of our current situation.
I do think that an avant-garde is impossible right now, but in the past there really were alternatives, the avant-garde did exist, and I think it could exist again in the future. The future offers us an outside to our current state of affairs. The future is the only avant-garde we have left. But whatever alternatives there are have to be birthed from our present circumstances. What I like about the future is that its potential is unforeseeable. Even though the situation seems dire, even though we cannot see any way out, it is precisely
this inability to see the future that makes it possible for the future to be different.
Like most people I’m often in utter despair about our present situation, but at other times I get glimpses of hope. I can sometimes almost imagine what a post-capitalist bank would look like. I also think that our material conditions are shifting quickly right now. I think we might be in a holding pattern where the current state of affairs is a kind of log jam, but the tectonic plates are
moving underneath us and this might free things up which seem immobile now.
Think, for example, about how the internet has democratized information. On the one hand the internet is no threat to the current system. The fact that most sites are dotcoms shows how the internet could be flooded by commercial interests. But everything that we can turn into ones and zeros is now free. News is freely produced and freely consumed. I think education can move in this
direction too. But the real hurdle left is physical matter. When we can turn physical matter into digital information then almost the whole world will enter a post-capital marketplace. I find that I truly love the idea of a marketplace, a place where people can create and exchange value. The problem is when the market is structured by capital. But imagine a world where you can print any
physical object you can think of. You can print food and buildings and artworks and things of any shape or size or material you want. In such a marketplace everyone must become an engineer or designer or artist. If I see something that you designed that I want, I can just download your design and print it.
Such a marketplace remains in the future, but maybe not as far off as we think. Scientists are already able print out human organs using simplistic 3D printers (sometimes by just modifying ink-jet printers). Today software and music and text are free. Soon physical things may be as well. I really think that Second Life is test driving the future. In Second Life anything you imagine you can
model in 3D in a virtual space. These objects can be bought and sold or given away inside its own economy. But soon we will be able to bridge this gap between virtual 3D modeling, and physical 3D objects. When this happens all of the bizarre things we see in Second Life be unleashed into the great outdoors.
I’ve gotten a little off track here, but the point I want to raise is the relationship between mimesis on the one hand and time on the other. I think that time does for me what mimesis does for you.
OBJECT-CULTURE: Art as Viral-Commodity
A dialogue between Paul Sakoilsky & Mike Watson to coincide with the exhibtion of the same name at RED, London, 15th – 25th April 2010.
Mike Watson and Paul Sakoilsky have been frequently dialoguing since early 2007. Using IM as a means of communicating, first across London, now across Europe, they have developed their respective practices (Mike, theorist and writer, Paul artist and writer) closely, yet not without considerable divergence on crucial topics.
Here they address recent attention given to the ‘object’ in philosophical discourse and ask what value the object has for the artist. Crucially they disagree on the centrality and worth of art praxis vs. art as an exemplary category, from which the object often creates a diversion.
Both Watson and Sakoilsky ‘object’ to the marginalisation of the subject and consider ‘art’ to be central to a re institution of the free individual, alone and as part of a community.
The generosity of the artistic process pitted against the ‘selfishness’ of the artist….
PS: To quote from the exhibition statement:
“The exhibition concerns the creative, intrinsic and problematic relationship between Art and Object, that is our contemporary stereotype of art as object, as commodity, and for the artwork as objection, that is, as a form of protest in the most general sense.
objectum – to present to the mind • to throw in the way, present, hinder • ob- in the way, + jacere, to throw … cult_ra • cultivation, cultivate • cultus – till, cultivate, worship • k–el – to move, turn (around) …”
If you look at the abbreviated definition of ‘object’ and ‘culture’, starting with the ‘object’, where does this take us; even if only as starting point?
MW: You mean the definition of ‘object’? Well, there has been a recent fast moving trend towards consideration of the ’object’ in its own right in philosophical thought. Whereas the object was previously considered as only conceivable via the thinking (human) subject, it is now argued that 1) the object exists in itself, and 2) the subject is a form of object, with no privileged status above other objects. These are the two primary innovations of Object Oriented Philosophy, or Speculative Realism, schools which I have come to place under the umbrella term ‘Scientistic Philosophies’ (SP), for their sympathy towards science.
PS: It seems to me, while this might be – and probably indeed is – a now welcome antidote to the anti-realist position (i.e. post-structuralism etc.), that all is discourse, language, perhaps it is also a step too far, or at the least, could easily be mis-read as such. Where is the subject in all this, that is, the one who sees, feels, and discourses upon the ‘objects’? That is, it seems to me, one cannot have one pole without the other. And this is not to say that the ‘subject’ is not also, always already ‘object’.
MW: True, and this is a worrying development for many, though Graham Harman did take this on in a recent interview, arguing: ‘Some people have even claimed that object-oriented philosophy says “humans are worthless.” I don’t get it. Did Copernicus say: “The earth is not the center of the universe, and therefore it is worthless”? Did Darwin say: “We are related to apes, and therefore we are worthless”? Why this all-or-nothing model, in which humans must be everything or nothing? There’s a lot of open ground between 0 and 100. To flip wildly between saying that humans are the best or the worst, just like political factions who flip between saying that the United States is either the greatest or most evil country on the planet, reminds me of one of the best-known symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. ’
And I think he is right that one has to get some perspective. Although, I am not convinced that Harman’s strand of SP has really done away with the subject-object duality (and neither, for that matter, has Brassier; in both cases the thought of the subject’s likeness to the object is a thought for thought and by thought).
Harman clearly states the primary criticism for the proponent of SP towards of subject-object dualism: ‘The correlationist holds that we cannot think of humans without world, nor world without humans, but only of a primary correlation or rapport between the two.’
Yet I do not think it necessarily follows for someone who beleives in two distinct categories ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (i.e. the ‘corrleationist’), that the human cannot be separated from the world, nor that the world cannot exist without humans. Surely the isolation of these poles from one another provides the motive for philosophy’s tendency to conceive of subject (human) and object (nature) as different in essence. It is precisely in recognition of the fact that the human cannot subsume all of existence within its realm that the subject-object split is made so prominent by Kant.
Yet proponents of SP often argue the opposite case… that the philosophical subject represents a hegemony of the human over nature.
Additionally, I would concur that casting all humans as objects is decidely risky, given that the prevailing economic system seems to objectify humans in quite a different way. Philosophy should be careful to erect a defense of the subject, even if that be the subject-as-an-object. I do not think this is a distinct and separate issue beyond the bounds of philosophies of the object, because even if people are objects, there undoubtedly exists a scale of pleasure to pain for the subject-that-is-object, however objectively construed, and that scale beckons an ethical code, written in spite of the utter lack of an overarching reason why we might want to honour that code.
Again, I can see why one may feel this to be outside of the realm of philosophy, but then I cannot see how philosophy can claim to shed the subject – the vehicle of its communication with the object.
PS: “I can see why one may feel this to be outside of the realm of philosophy, but then I cannot see how philosophy can claim to shed the subject – the vehicle of its communication with the object.” Indeed, for me, your latter point is peculiarly worrying. This idea that unless one holds that all is ‘object’, ‘objective’, they find themselves outside the realm of philosophy is a position very like that held by the logical positivists. For me, such opinions, being absolute, are outside of the spirit of philosophy. Yet if such a position is correct, might we just do away with term philosophy itself?!
To return to what you say of Harman. Of course, I would totally agree that it is no problem that the subject is no longer the centre of all knowledge. But, I guess, within his eyes I am certainly a ’correlationist’ in that I hold, similarly to you, that the subject, even if ‘it’ is always already object, is a very particular kind of being. Moreover, whilst it would be immediate nonsense to opine that the world doesn’t exist without a subject to view, discourse, to engage with it – at the same time, when we speak, when we write, we are always writing for-us, for-the-world, if you like, rather than the ‘Earth’.
You recently commissioned me to write a text which became, ‘3 objects randomly chosen from the studio’, and it was this that set me thinking again about ‘objects’, specifically cultural objects – art being a particular, peculiar or perverse variety of this. The term ‘object-culture’ – for which this dialogue forms an accompanying text – arose in light of this.
MW: Well, if I understand you correctly, the discourse we undertake is oriented towards a world in which the subject resides as a unique facilitator of experience over the natural realm. Yet I think one can reasonably take on board the innovations of SP whilst holding fast to this stance.
Firstly I think one might better understand Harman’s position by bearing in mind Harman’s vegetarianism. Now, I’m not going to argue some intrinsic link between his vegetarianism and his philosophy, but so far as biographical details can be helpful, it’s a good pointer to just why objects might be seen as so important within SP. Let’s say an exemplary pointer, in that what Harman heralds is a democracy of objects, of which the human is just one, that happens to have a unique apparatus of perception. We have to accept that this unique apparatus is bound to lend us the notion that we are supremely endowed, so to speak, but that is not to say that we are supremely endowed, any more than the existence of animals, ripe for farming implies that animals were made to be farmed by us.
Yes, the tools of perception, recall and communication are unique to the human, yet that is not to say that the object should not be addressed in its own right, and in a sense philosophy is uniquely endowed to do this. Take trees… one cannot know the true essence of a tree unless one is a tree. Science stops short of knowing that true essence. How could it not? Yet philosophy as a speculative practice can enquire further into the tree’s nature. And why not? – After all, the existence of objects has a huge bearing on the existence of subjects. Existence per se is only fractionally (an infinitesimally small fraction) a human experience… most of it is objective experience. However, philosophy has a commitment to ‘truth’ too, and it is this that may lead it down a dead end which entails its actual demise. In that once we have stripped the subject of its unique status it becomes meaningless, nothing… we are players in a nihilist consommé’, in which all the ingredients are uniquely void.
I haven’t yet been convinced Harman can escape this, anymore than Brassier can, even though the former currently cannot abide the reductive Nihilism of the latter. That’s why I think we need bring an artistic element to the debate. One that is strangely lacking, partly, I believe, for the lack of experience amongst SP’s proponents in this field. And here I say ‘artistic’, not ‘aesthetic’, specifically to make a case separate from that made by Harman in his article ‘A Larger Sense of Beauty’ in which aesthetics is addressed in distinction to those contemporary art forms that are void of beauty (following upon Duchamp’s ‘anything can be art’).
PS: “We are players in a nihilist consommé’, in which all the ingredients are uniquely void.” If this is one fallout of this argument – of the failure of philosophy – or one major conclusion, then, without a doubt one sees, that, as so often, philosophy really might actually have some kind of value, that is, that it concerns itself with what are perennial questions. And these questions do seem cyclical, as what you say here, re. Nihilism is of course, the position that Nietzsche arrived at, and worried over, at the start of the modern industrialized age proper.
Nietzsche of course, in many texts/ways, seems to take this to its absolute end point in nihilistic terms. One of its main motifs being his infamous and widely misunderstood ‘God is Dead’. It is a new point of radical doubt, one that he understood to be simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. It is also creative. Following this nihilistic end point, all that was left was the subject, well not even a clear cut subject, but rather the subject as the one that designates and creates meaning, order, and who, in doing so, binds particulars, objects, the world, into concepts/discourse/meaning, whereas unto itself, the world, as object, is in effect meaningless, pure flux, in a constant state of becoming. Now, SR/OOP, from my limited understanding of the terms, starts from a similar realist or nihilist position as Nietzsche, but comes at the problem this raises from an entirely opposite direction – strongly on the side of the object. Nietzsche, of course, gave aesthetics, art, a special place, for essential reasons.
MW: I agree on most counts, though I’d be careful not to equate this absolute nihilism with Harman’s intentions. Harman is categorically against a reductive nihilism. He merely puts humans and objects on the same footing. Though this is awkward for me, as I argued on Speculative Heresy some time back:
‘It’s just that I can only picture his system as workable on his terms if subjective thought is pictured as an object, the seeming superiority of which – with regard to the vantage point it holds in philosophical discourse – being also objective in complexion. In this sense though, all hierarchies between objects, as construed by the human ’subject’ (that is for Harman an object) are spirited back into the overall network of object interactions as existent entities, and so we again have a notion of a superior human ’subject’ as the objective ‘thought’ which attests to that ‘fact’.’ And I was unconvinced by Levi Byant’s riposte.
With regard to ‘beauty’ I see something problematic if we are going to accept that we humans are, at base, objects. Inherent beauty (the capacity of things to evoke beauty for the subject) is no more proof of the value of existence than inherent faith in God (for believers). What interests me about beauty (so far as I have an interest) is the notion of beauty as disinterested, removed from any political concerns or any bias in judgment. But that notion has its limits. It depends on the existence of beauty, for one… and there barely exists a landmark of outstanding beauty for which there is not a horde of accompanying tourists and all of the trappings: Beauty has been sold off, objectified as a motor for the production of money. So I am unconvinced that one can evoke beauty. And that is quite apart from the fact that beauty itself seems a fey and exuberant thing to evoke in the face of oppression, of objectification (both at the hands of science, and at the hands of capital).
PS: ‘Beauty’? I personally have a problem with this Kantian vision of beauty as ‘disinterested’. (Although, to be fair you answer my complaint in some way at the end of your statement). ‘Beauty’, unless the concept is spelt out, is already, for me, a limiting aesthetic construct, let alone as a concept invoked to guide praxis. As ‘disinterested’ I just cannot see how we can ever get to this vis-à-vis the art object (and indeed, on a wider note, the cultural objects)? I guess in this sense, my position is aligned with a phenomenological approach, although I would also call this a realist one. That is, we are always already in a world, and the world, is everything that stands – a marker for the world of objects, politics, art, commodities, houses, etc; the whole shebang, We are always already in a world, and we are always already political animals (where politics is understood in its most general sense) – and any work of art can only have a meaning if it is always already within such a world… very circular I know, but I think you know what I mean. But, we both agree, that the ‘art object’ is of a special nature – esp., it seems, within such a discourse as the one we have just been speaking of.
MW: Yes, I follow you, but I think we need first to just jettison this notion of beauty, and to replace it with Art, stripped of beauty and standing alone as it is. In this case one keeps only the disinterested element: i.e. for Kant that which was beautiful was that which had no intrinsic purpose. Art has no purpose, and this rids it of any obligations. It is, further, a field primarily aimed at deception. I would argue that art then is uniquely posited to help the human subject to claim its importance and its right to freedoms not extended to the object, not so that it might reign supreme over the object, but so that it might resist objectification by other subjects and by the economic system. Where art enables someone to present a canvas as a landscape, a human form, or whatever, art might also allow the subject to make a plea to its worth as something beyond a mere conglomerate of cells. This seems to me to be the calling of art, following upon Duchamp’s declaration that ‘anything can be art’ and Beuys’ that ‘we are all artists’. I think the role of art now is to rescue the subject from the reductionist auspices of science and capital, while at the same time acknowledging that we are indeed ‘material’. We are object, and subject, and the latter aspect in turn beckons ethical responsibilities. However, for me, this is a conceptual practice… each person must declare himself or herself as subject, no less than Duchamp declared his urinal as art. The art object is secondary to this, and might even be a distraction. However, just as religious devotees use objects, I can see no harm in the artist conjuring objects, so long as it is not seen as an end, but rather as the means for them to then utilize the artwork for the realisation of the subject as ethical being.
In this sense I am not sure the actual artwork is necessary anymore. Artworks become like cultic objects aiming at carrying the subject out of its objectivity. Like magic charms, again, that always fail. Yet why have the objects at all..? Or, at least, might we realise their superfluity? Though I can see you’re more taken by art objects. You are an ‘artist’. I am a theorist (though in light of the above I am not sure this makes me any less an artist). Figuratively speaking, I’m a Protestant you’re a Catholic.
PS: I would like to quote a paragraph of yours from an earlier dialogue of ours concerning art, and from there move on to address your last point, this interesting notion, our point of separation, where you suggest you are Protestant whereas I am Catholic (using these terms metaphorically, and post, the ‘death of God’,): The ‘word’ vs. the ‘object’, as it were.
“The reason I cite ‘Art’ is it has as its very basis the kind of sleight of hand needed by the human if it is to declare itself as a ‘subject’ in a completely ‘objectified’ world – i.e. one in which everything is reduced to its material value by Science, and then to a monetary cipher for that value by Capital. A painting, composed of pigment, oil and cotton duck can pertain to be a dense forest landscape, whilst maintaining its form as mere artists’ materials, arranged to deceive. It is an illusion that admits of its illusory basis. The same could be said of Duchamp’s ‘urinal’ (‘Fountain’), declared by the artist to be ‘art’ in 1917. Just as Duchamp, and his audience, know the urinal to a be a mere ‘urinal’, it is possible for the educated subject (which is objectified by the Scientistic-Capitalist system) to declare itself as a free subject, despite knowing itself to be being a mere conglomeration of cells interacting in a world for which all activity – objectified as its monetary value – merely oils the wheels of the runaway Capitalist train. This declaration, not predicated on a lie, or on a calling to some higher spiritual force or utopian future enables the subject to envisage itself as ‘free’ within an unfree system. Then collective political activity can in turn have a purpose. ‘Make Art or Die’ need be an injunction, because only Art can evoke life – as fallacy – in an unliving world. It’s a ‘fact’. The trick is to then make this effective in the wider realm, something which would be pointless without the initial declaration by the subject of its own subjectivity (as ‘Art’ – though the import of ‘Art’ here should fall into nothingness… the import becomes ‘freedom, merely enabled by ’Art’)” [Watson]
Whilst I agree with you on how you present art’s role: ” art might also allow the subject to make a plea to its worth as something beyond a mere conglomerate of cells. This seems to me to be the calling of art, following upon Duchamp’s declaration that ‘anything can be art’ and Beuys’ that ‘we are all artists’. I think the role of art now is to rescue the subject from the reductionist auspices of science and capital, while at the same time acknowledging that we are indeed material. We are object, and subject, and the latter aspect in turn beckons ethical responsibilities”. I cannot follow you to the point of the excision of the art object itself. My thinking being that the object (not necessary as a thing in itself), or rather, the object, and integrally to this, the making of the object (praxis), and the remaking of the ‘object’ (in perception, discourse etc) is essential to the whole game. Without the ‘object’ ’Art’’ falls away – the object, and here, the aesthetic object rather than simply a physical object, must be understood in a wider sense, (one can speak surely, of the object of discourse, of a literary object i.e. a text, a poem, etc)? Without object, no subject, the two are irrevocably connected?
MW: I am not intending on removing the object, but merely upon excising the subject, the creator, from objectification at the hands of capital and science, and in order to do that I would like to invoke ‘art’, but not via the art object, as art objects, works, products, are all too easily trapped within the system of production and consumption. Further, objects cannot very well act as an effective means of de-objectifying the subject, especially if the subject becomes in thrall to it, petrified by it! All I am advocating is that the artist- and ‘we are all artists’ – takes the exemplary message from art, the ability for art to present a deception, and creates his/her own deception; a deception as to our autonomy from the capitalist system, and from the objectifying auspices of Science, though one that is possible without recourse to a higher spiritual force, and without dismantling the capitalist system. That can happen later. And not before. An ‘artist’ might then make works, but without first declaring their subjectivity, as a ruse, and believing in it, they are mere objects changing, modifying other objects… the painter becomes an object twitching at the end of a paintbrush. The life, the freedom has first to be feigned before that act, the painting, or whatever, means anything, and that is the most important artistic gesture, whether you be a painter, a politician, or a bricklayer. The alarmist refusal of this idea comes from people who wish to defend the artwork for their own ends… I am not keen to destroy the artwork, but only to point out that it is not enough in itself. One needs to believe in ‘Art’, in subjective freedom, and one needs to feign it. Because one cannot know to what extent such a freedom is impossible in fact.
PS: I think, here finally, we have arrived at an interesting plateau, a point at which we can both agree, though coming at it from slightly different angles… I agree, entirely that the vouchsafing of the freedom implied in the act, the praxis, is totally necessary, and that discourse is similarly necessary and that the art object in itself is never enough. One also thinks here of all the horribly overproduced, hyperinflational (in every sense of the word), works that became so common during the last art boom, prior to the recent global recession. There is something so entirely unethical about such work, esides the fact that so much of it is, for me, just plain dumb, boring and one-dimensional. Art ‘strikes’ – in a mimesis of the wider discourse of worker protest – have of course been attempted, Gustav Metzger, Stewart Home more recently. But the only way that, for me, this could be a true power, would be if one could have a general strike in the name of ‘Art’, now that would certainly be an interesting piece of work (without a – physical – object).
The relation between art and capital has of course, always been fraught with difficulties. But then, in a world such as ours, (the world of late-capitalism,
society of the spectacle, the risk society, global capitalism, etc.), is not all labour, to use an old Marxist term, alienated; and are not all products of such labour, simultaneously alienated, fetishtized? We are all, whatever profession we undertake, then, beholden to Mammon. On a simpler note, there is of course, the fact that we all need to live, and this means, we all need money, unless, and until we can find a different way of doing things. In this world of ours, capital reaches from the top of our heads, to the soles of feet, it is enmeshed within all of our social transactions. Everything is measured out, commodified, objectified, and this, is why, yes, we certainly need to attempt to vouchsafe the ‘Subject’, and try and conserve and enlarge where possible, whatever freedoms are left to us in an unfree world. And art indeed may have a special place here. But for me, this entails the object, it entails making. It is one of the few remaining, even if, illusory in the grander scheme of things, free areas of endeavor left to us. But let me say here, firstly, that one must extend the very notion of the art object – a poem, a statement, a discourse, a painting, a song, all these are ‘objects’. The wonderful thing for me about art is that it eludes objectification – it escapes, it flees, splinters – The art object is a complex assemblage, one that is never merely the object itself.
In the conclusion of his extended essay/book, ‘Eroticism’, George Bataille speaks of language and discourse as being the necessary scaffolding, without which one could not understand, let alone be in the position to jump out of/beyond language, into the exemplary freedom of what he terms the excessive moment, the Bataillean sublime, eroticism being placed as an essential element of this. For me, when a piece of art functions, it is like language/discourse in the preceding example. It is the same with me for the making of art – the objects themselves are nodal points, stepping stones, as you say, the painter twitching at the end of the paintbrush – the experience of the making is paramount – just as dialogue is essential etc – I always think, the object as commodity can be bought and sold, but ‘art’ as making, as praxis, cannot be bought and sold – this is something, be one the maker, the viewer, the reader, the listener, that one has to ‘make’ and remake oneself, and this implies, more than implies, activates a possibility of freedom, qua. Subject-Object, that allows a passage beyond the mere conglomerating of cells (positivistic science) or the subject as mere nodal point, mere sump, for the input of commodification, etc.
In a way, the title of the exhibition, and the short statement (above), says it all, albeit in a condensed, necessarily, ambiguous fashion. Object/Object.
I use Object here, not merely as a noun, ‘to present to the mind – to throw in the way of, to hinder,’ etc, but also as a verb, to object, objection. Object-Culture. Object to the world, culture as it stands – place objections (yes, art-objects, discourse, etc) in its path. Culture/Culture. Perhaps we need to find a vaccine for artworks, or they should be vaccinated before being put on show.
MW: Well we sort of agree, though can I quickly tell you where we don’t agree? OK… I think things are so on the edge politically that if an artist were to give up practice in order to promote the notion of art as capable of of bringing about the subject, devoid of any recourse to the object, well that would be a very noble thing. And then, if an artist were to not do that, then, well that it might be seen as selfish.
Copyright: Paul Sakoilsky/Mike Watson.
London/Rome April 2010.