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Lyotard, Capitalism and the Sublime

Lyotard, Capitalism and the Sublime

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Published by Eva Fotinou

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Published by: Eva Fotinou on Aug 05, 2011
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Lyotard, Capitalism and the Sublime
… Right now the world is different from every other time there'sever been. And what if, just maybe, this is the first time money'sever become important for artists? And maybe for ever after this itwill be. Maybe we're just at that point. Where money's an elementin the composition.Maybe it's just hard luck; I was born at the wrong time. Thisis what I do. You're a conduit from art to money. It's getting closer and closer and closer. And if money becomes king, then it justdoes. But there's a point where you've got to take it on.Damien Hirst
Sublimity is no longer in art, but in speculation on art.Jean-François Lyotard
In my earlier discussion of Gene Ray’s critique of Hirst, I have highlighted thefact that his notion of the sublime is drawn from Lyotard’s essay “TheSublime and the Avant-Garde.” It is to this essay that I shall now turn, tothrow further light on the contemporary conceptions of the sublime whichanimate Ray’s essay in particular, and discussions of sublimity aroundcontemporary art in general. Lyotard has been the figure most associatedwith the revival of the notion of the sublime in contemporary philosophy, andalthough he has written somewhat prolifically on the notion
, it is this essay
Damien Hirst and Gordon Burns, "The Naked Hirst (Part 2)," Guardian 6 October2001: 138. online ed.<http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,564027,00.html> visited12/01/05.
Jean-François Lyotard, "The Sublime and the Avant-Garde," trans. Lisa Liebmann,Geoffrey Bennington and Marian Hobson, The Inhuman (Cambridge: Polity Press,1991) 106.
Lyotard’s references to the notion of the sublime are too many to be worth listingin full here, however, for particular relevance, see the essay “An Answer to theQuestion: What is Postmodernism?” for his earlier comments on sublimity(published in Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report onKnowledge, Theory and History of Literature; V.10 (Manchester: ManchesterUniversity Press, 1984) 71-82. The discussion of the sublime is pp.77-82) Althoughthese remarks, due to the notoriety of the book, are perhaps even more cited (at thevery least in the broader academic sphere) than those in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” they are also much more brief, and “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” can be understood to elaborate on them. Also perhaps centrally significantin Lyotard’s corpus on the sublime is Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the
which has become such a central text in recent discussions of the aestheticsof the sublime in contemporary art. This would seem to be partially becauseit is the essay in which Lyotard treats of the sublime most explicitly in relationto contemporary and modern art, and also because the essay, appearing inthe art magazine Artforum, was Lyotard’s essay on the sublime which wasaimed most centrally at
in the critical discourses aroundcontemporary art.Ray in particular draws on Lyotard’s differentiation of the temporalityof the sublime ‘event’ (an experience of the ‘now’) from the mere
 Analytic of the Sublime (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994). In this, adetailed, if ‘strong’, reading of the section of Kant’s Third Critique dedicated to thesublime, Lyotard gives his lengthiest account of the sublime. Coming somewhatlater in Lyotard’s career, and as a piece of abstract thinking, much less aimed atdiscourses on art, it has been less influential on these, and moves away somewhatfrom the concerns of the current essay. Also relevant, aside from the other essays inThe Inhuman, the collection of Lyotard’s work in which “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” found its place, many of which also touch on the question of the sublimeand modern/contemporary art, see Jean-François Lyotard, "Complexity and theSublime," Postmodernism, eds. Lisa Appignanesi and Geoffrey Bennington, I.C.A.Documents; 4-5 (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1986) 19-26. In “Post-script to Terror and the Sublime,” Jean-François Lyotard, The PostmodernExplained to Children: Correspondence 1982-1985, trans. Don Barry, BernadetteMaher, Julian Pfanis, Virginia Spate and Morgan Thomas, eds. Julian Pefanis andMorgan Thomas (Sydney: Power Publications, 1992) 81-86., Lyotard exploresfurther the relation of the sublime to Kant’s later political writings, questions of terrorand totalitarianism, fascism and capitalism, and the work of the avant-garde’s‘anamnesis’, as not exactly a “politics of the sublime” but rather “an aesthetics ofthe sublime in politics” (p.85), as a resistance both to naziism and globalisedcapitalism. A further interesting take on the sublime is in the as-yet untranslatedessay, Jean-François Lyotard, "La Peinture Du Secret à L'ere Postmoderne:Baruchello," Traverses 30-31 (1984): 95-101. Here Lyotard suggests the possibility,which for him is realised in the work of Gianfranco Baruchello, of finding analternative sublime to that of the Romantics, and which will be more suited to a‘postmodern’ era: one which can be understood in terms of a ‘babbling’ of images,rather than the Kantian prohibition of representation. Such a sublime, constituted byan infinite profusion of fragments, is rather more playful and less over-serious thanthe Romantic sublime of Newman and company, and, suggests Lyotard, mightserve as a ‘laxative’ for philosophy. This essay, from a slightly earlier stage inLyotard’s work on the sublime, opens the way to an art of the ridiculous sublime,perhaps in opposition to the more ‘serious’ work on Newman, which would seek toplace an altogether more constipated sublimity of the avant-garde in opposition tothe bathos of capitalist culture…
the ‘new’ that the world of commodities provides us. It is to this distinctionthat I shall now return, in order to examine the ways in which Lyotard uses itto contrast the temporal logic of the avant-garde to that of capital itself. Doesthe opposition between the two temporal logics, set up (broadly) in terms ofan opposition between high art and mass culture, sustain itself?I feel impelled to ask this question of Lyotard’s essay, not immediatelyfor ‘philosophical’ reasons, but more because, on the level of its dealingswith contemporary art – in its guise as art criticism and as art history – itseems to have a double blindness
. This double blindness is perhaps themark of the essay’s genesis as a ‘tactical’ piece of writing by Lyotard
, as aresponse to the particular situation of the growth in the eighties of‘transavantgarde’ art (as it was dubbed by it’s champion, Bonito AchilleOliva). In Lyotard’s writings, this movement, at the centre of a ‘big bang’ inthe art market, seems to be understood as marking a retreat of artists from Adornian positions of aesthetic autonomy which might secure them a placeas oppositional to ‘capitalism’, ‘instrumental reason’ and the ‘cultureindustry’. With the transavantgarde, Adorno’s worst fears about theabsorption of art into the commodity and entertainment system might haveseemed to have been realised, as their jettisoning of aesthetic autonomy
I use the term ‘double’ here (rather than suggesting that there are ‘two’blindnesses) to suggest that what we are dealing with here are the two faces ofessentially the same figure…
It has been noted by Meaghan Morris that Lyotard’s writings always have thistactical and interventionist quality, and are always formulated as a response to aparticular situation. Moreover, she argues, the very heterogeneity of stylistic andformal qualities that we find between Lyotard’s works should also be understood asstemming from Lyotard’s adaptation of each text to its context and aim. SeeMeaghan Morris, "Postmodernity and Lyotard's Sublime," Art & Text 16 (1984): 49.

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