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Rewriting Postmodernity (Notes) Eric Alliez
translated by Charles Penwarden first published in Trésors publics. 20 ans de création dans les Fonds régionaux d’art contemporain, Paris, Flammarion, 2003.
Modernity, whenever it appears, does not occur without a shattering of belief, without a discovery of the lack of reality in reality—a discovery linked to the invention of other realities. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained
One Before and beyond the matter of our own very Franco-French quarrel, we must allow that the familiar attacks on contemporary art are not without their reasons. These reasons concern, in the immediate present, its very principle of existence given that, in theory and in fact, in these times of general aesthetic crisis (art no longer has a formal definition) and reaction (against la pensée ’68, against thought in general as the power of difference), art has no necessity other than to produce the most radical problematization of the present in order to introduce a degree of play into its system of the sensorially self-evident. This play, which is that of the modern at work in the postmodern, this play of the rewriting of postmodernity1 exceeds the form-spectacle of the absolutization of the present, which all too often would make hypercontemporary art “less experimental than memorial, less radical, and more a simulator of radicality.”2 Belonging to the “fashion for art,” its extreme contemporaneity becomes that of fashion-images of an art raised up as the memorial of a ready-to-wear present (art under the sway of Pinault-Arnault3) strangely forgetting the great
postmodern lesson of the plural narrative of time (the time of all times, etc.). Postmodernity is thus to be rewritten, even if that may result in a more aggressively modern statement: the present is absolutely relative to the political economy of time and its critique. As if, “faced with works that assert their total immanence to the insignificance of the quotidian” in keeping with the trusted equation “art of the ’90s = art of the ’70s—minus kritikal dimension,”4 art in contemporary times needs to be reinsured, reloaded against any form of presentation indexing configurations of experience to the system of representation (on the common level implied by that indissociably aesthetic, philosophical, and political notion). This cannot occur without a certain split in the liberal meaning of artistic postmodernity, when the latter shucks off these avant-gardist features, aiming for a permanent putting into (re)play of art in its constitutive relation to life, to our destitute life in the world of generalized equivalence and exchange. In these days of images with everything, contemporary art can indeed be truly less than zero. In the absence of any manifestation of singularity, its contemporaneity is that of visual advertising for the all-contemporary, and inevitably calls for the contemporary consumer’s active participation. In this pax postmodernica ties are overtly severed with any kind of critical, alternative, experimental modernity, even with parody and the compulsive/consumable (Pop Art, Fluxus). Forget the relational aesthetic; contemporary art is not invalidated but validated in its “self-interested” need to de-idealize media images. Parallel with a present reaching its sell-by date in the luxury industry of smart weapons (media included) for the Empire.5 (What does “contemporary art, as such, is less than zero” mean, exactly? A poujadism in gaseous state.)
From the pen of an Immortal6 specializing in raids on the “aesthetic terrorism of the avant-gardes,” we read this inimitable cry of indignation in the voice of the man of qualities: “One can therefore be alive, produce, and even have readers, and not be contemporary.” Unhesitating reply: yes, insofar as the contemporary is more than just a chronological conjunction that has not the slightest critical interaction—critical via an alternative affirmation—with the forms of tangible and conceptual experience ontologically implied by this time (whereas fashion is deontologically contemporary with everyone). Contemporary art comes out as differently avant-gardist, as an inclusive disjunction of the images and utterances through which post/modernity makes itself in/sensitive to itself. The inclusive disjunction of those images and statements whose signified/signifier orderings living art disorganizes in order to reveal their diagram of forces and send them along forking paths, into developments that call into question their “natural” common destination. By reintroducing play into their common perception (what Jacques Rancière calls “le partage du sensible” [partition/sharing of the sensible] in order to indicate what we are given to feel in the “respective places and parts,”7) by endowing this/these with a thinking power that is composed from new forces in a self-relation where the interface between the sayable and the visible is redefined. The idea is thus to recreate above all an element of indeterminacy in the process of identification. “What am I seeing?”—when one “could easily pass by without seeing anything” (as the New York artist Zoe Leonard puts it) of the abandoned world, when the fundus of the eye no longer allows us to recognize the expression of phenomenal appearing in the artist’s fine individuality, when expression no longer finds its model in the World-Eye8 but in the constructions of the Eye-Brain (whether structured like a language or not). It is not surprising, therefore, that the question of the de-definition, of the dis-identification of art (the collapse of the shared heritage of Fine
Arts forms, the subversion of its technical and institutional media, the ironic over-representation or playful multiplication of the space-time of the exhibition, the questioning of the art form and of aesthetic criteria in general) should have been the necessary vector of this in a process that consummates the break with all forms of Romanticism whose deepest determination Hegel expressed in the form of a difference that saves the essential: Romantic art, he writes, must be considered as “art transcending itself, while remaining within the artistic sphere and in artistic form.”9 Hegel’s judgment implicitly reveals the workings of reason in the history of the de-definition of contemporary art, which is nonRomantic, absolutely. To read and write again that contemporary art is the displacement of art outside its own domain in the destruction of its classical forms, maintained by Romanticism as the form of art itself. This does not allow us to grasp the rupture of contemporary art without making visible its relation to nonmodernist modernity (modernism, writes Greenberg, is this “tropism in direction of aesthetic value”). The photographic insensitization of Manet (“the first in the decrepitude of [his] art”, according to Baudelaire, who knew his Delacroix). Seurat’s Machine-Eye (too gray, too mechanical for Signac, when it comes to laying the road of liberation for color leading from Impressionism). The Fauvist chaosmosis of Matisse (which, we prefer to forget, underlies the expansion of the all-over). And not forgetting the superior ballsiness of the late (couillarde) Cézanne (hidden by Gasquet’s prose and Merleau-Ponty’s protoImpressionism). In its formalist-medium-based mode and in its teleological regime, Greenbergian modernism can be conceived as the last Romantic avatar of art viewed as art’s self-transcendence, but
within its own sphere and in the form of art itself. Here, as an indirect consequence, we must understand the rupture of contemporary art as a condition of reality of the contemporaneity of art in the world of the real (i.e. de-realizing, deterritorializing) subsumption of Capital, prohibiting the Odyssey of the Spirit, outside itself, in sensible materiality. (Marx against Hegel: there is no material-formal exteriority to the representative logic of capital when it replaces and processes all forms of natural presentation— this is the very historical and very Marxist foundation of the postmodern idea of the loss of the sensible; it was explored by Pop from the early 1950s in the euphoric mode of the simulacrum, and by minimal art in the more severe mode of an object art using industrial materials). There is nothing to stop us measuring by the objective yardstick of the unworldly (im-monde) Greenberg’s sudden change of direction just after the war, abandoning the tangible presence of the medium and the physical status of paintings in favor of the mirage-like transcendence and “Byzantine parallels” of an opticality freed of materiality by the purported impressionism of Louis and Olitski’s quasi-monochromes.10 Lyotard for a while traveled a parallel path when he got involved in a phenomenology of art using up its literary genius in the most conventional dialectic (the Visible and the Invisible) to praise forms of art which, one would like to believe, attest to the sublime, to the ultimate presence of transcendence in immanence. Lyotard thus explained that modern art finds its impetus, and the logic of the avant-gardes its axioms, and the revised postmodern its end and its (new) beginning (immanent to the modern), in the aesthetic of the sublime which demonstrates (“alleges,” “alludes to”) the unpresentable within presentation itself. Postmodern thought is phenomenally adequate as long as it records the extinction of the conditions of possibility of a Romantic art, but philosophically inadequate when it seeks a positive
solution to the crisis in a Return to Kant. Lyotard’s Kantian sublime: on reflection, no salvation outside Romanticism. De Duve’s postmodern Kant “in the name of art”: after Duchamp, no salvation outside a “liberal” avant-garde.
Two Picasso-Braque (with the rebus-collages/junk [rebut] of a duly manufactured/in-formal everyday), Picabia-Duchamp (Mechanical Expression seen through our own Mechanical Expression as a constructivist animation stand for the former,11 the strategic reduction of art anaesthetically projected into the “visual indifference” for the latter), but also Matisse, are modern contemporaries of the New World dis-covered by the “crisis of foundations.”12 Matisse is not the least interesting of these figures when, in the most controversial passage of his “Notes of a Painter” (1908)—notes that should be conceived as a chess game on the question of composition played with Maurice Denis and colleagues —he sits the “mental worker,” “businessman” or (and?) “man of letters” in a “good armchair” and administers a pharmakon whose “soothing, calming effect on the mind” sometimes makes us forget that this was an attack on painting as a major art, including its modernist purification. “The point,” Matisse explained to Duthuit in 1929, “is to guide the viewer’s mind so that it rests on the painting but can think about something very different than the particular object that I set out to paint: to hold him without holding him back.” Without absorbing it into an opticality, even a “strictly pictorial one” (Clement Greenberg, in “Modernist Painting,” in the footsteps of Kandinsky). Here the aesthetic is sensorially diffused outside the visual frame, an aisthesis working towards the spreading of the perceptual field (“pushing back the walls”) in order to attain a subliminal “calm” that might loosen the hold of
the general spectacle of which we are all the conscious agents. According to the most common gloss, Duchamp is the sole player responsible for the irruption of the contemporary in the field of a modernity now relegated to a prehistory of interest only to archeologists (of the past) and art historians professionally allergic to the refrain of the death of painting. There is a lot to be said against this ready-made Duchamp (the lecture room version), basing ourselves on an attentive reading of the works, of the Notes that constitute their hypertext and the statements that, in truth, no one quite knows how to handle. Like this devilishly intractable one, concluding the filmed interview with James Johnson Sweeney in 1955: “I believe that art is the only form of activity in which man, as man, shows himself to be a true individual who is capable of going beyond the animal state. Art is an outlet towards regions which are not ruled by space and time.”13 Félix Guattari quotes and reframes Duchamp’s statement on these only regions that are not ruled by space and time because, he argues, “the finiteness of the sensible material becomes the support for a production of affects and percepts that will tend to be increasingly off-center in relation to the pre-formed frameworks and coordinates.” And since two times are better than one, he thus kicks out of play the affirmed individualism of a chess player with little inclination for our animal destiny and the chaosmosic immersion in the matter of sensation.14 I am not objecting here to the new aesthetic paradigm advocated by Guattari which, as I see it, is contemporary art’s most powerful ontological affirmation yet (the genitive is objective: it actively participates15). I am objecting to the attribution of this protoaesthetic ontology to Duchamp. Because his “pictorial nominalism” is, quite literally, de-ontological16 (“I don’t believe in the word ‘to be’” he told Pierre Cabanne, a statement to be contrasted with the Deleuzo-Guattarian ontology, defined as a “politics of being,” a
“machinic of being,” etc.). Because Duchamp conceived of the irruption of the contemporary in the field of artistic modernity exclusively in the mode of a constructivism of the signifier that takes over from Cubism17 in order to do away with a common enemy: the Fauvist energetics (and Duchamp knew very well what this was18) insofar as, with Matisse, this is raised to the identity of Expression and Construction in what, in a new sense of the word, he calls Decoration. (Which, via Derain, also links Nietzsche with Bergson, the Nietzschean wasp with the Bergsonian orchid.) For Decoration à la Matisse implies the deterritorialization of expression (human, too human) through and in the construction that works directly in intensive, non-formed matter: but also the decoding and varying of construction through and in expression which keeps only tensors. In this twofold operation, which is one of constructivist (that is, in the Matissian sense, decorative) vitalism, putting painting outsides itself, staging the destruction of the Painting-Form of art to go beyond its closed world (its way of presenting its image as a spectacle, of presenting it as a WorldImage), the Expression = Construction identification is unrealized/unrealizable because it is valid only by virtue of its necessary openness to the most common experience of life that is extended, that tends towards new destinies, new configurations of experience. Or again: the expansive character of Matisse’s works tends towards Outside (l’Espace du Dehors) because that is where their diagrams of force come from. This is the necessary condition of the permanent Fauvism asserted by Matisse (Fauvism, he says again, is “the foundation of everything”)—against all the temptations and attempts to restore Images of painting (characteristic of “Neo” periods19). From the Fauve counterpaintings to the large-scale decorative panels (The Dance in 190920) , from the translation of painting into architecture (the “architectural painting” of The Dance at the Barnes Foundation) to the large gouache cut-outs, the forms (de)construct themselves
through color relations, as the becoming sign of the forces. Just as “the quantity of color was its quality” (this quantitative equation can, according to Matisse, stand as a technical definition of the Fauvist chaosmosis: to attain intensive quantities), so the “sign” cannot be constructed independently of the most material forces (of an intense and living center of matter) that it expresses in a total pragmatic experience that causes it to lose its formal quality as art. Art as Experience—to quote the famous title by John Dewey, Matisse’s American intercessor outside France. This active conception of the decorative led Matisse to make art that was both experimental and environmental, encouraging us to consider art as more than a simple object of experience (beauty spiritually purified in the abstraction of sensorial forms) or judgment (not of taste, but regarding the attribution of the name “art” to any object), a lifeexperience of which the photos of the places where he pinned up his cut-outs provide the astonishing vision of a site-specific installation open to the forces of the Outside (dehors). “In accord,” he announced, “with the future.” Art as Experience beyond Art as “the beauty parlor of civilization.” (Attempt to redefine in proximity to Matisse Minimal Art and Pop Art and Land Art, etc., with the exception of the analytic languageart of Art & Language.) This future which we now inhabit is difficult to map out, even on the most generously historical level, in accordance with the spectacular Matisse/Picasso alternation. Whether we define Picasso as—to stay on French terrain—“structuralist” (Yve-Alain Bois) or “aggressive and trivial” in his radical opposition to the “question of the painting” (Philippe Dagen), the truth is that above all Picasso serves as an Anti-Matisse (to the extent that he resuscitates the Matisse-in-France version, he of the essence and properties of painting with a diffuse religiosity, the patron saint of pleasurable
art) without proposing to do anything with him in the present. And no wonder, if it is true that our postmodern world is that of “impossible art,”21 taking art as the place for relaunching process and “extending the domain of struggle.” Q.E.D. History comes back to Duchamp through this liquidation of Fauvism and of the abstract-Matisse Machine,22 a liquidation that inaugurated the century of the historical avant-gardes in the name of a “purism” that was fought over by two manifestoes of 1911– 1912 (Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art; Gleizes and Metzinger’s Cubism.) The strategic radicalization effected by Duchamp consists, as we know, in reducing language games about art to the signifying iteration that cuts up its subject in order to turn the plasticity of language against the so-called visual arts (“plastic arts”) (cosa mentale, gray matter; art is what language realizes. In doing this, Duchamp signals the abolition of the world’s sign-making by cutting expression off from construction, now taken over by the literalized signifier (Phallus and Art come down to the same thing, from Fountain to Objet-Dard, from The Bride to Given). The cutting (up) of painting by this “invisible color” which is that of the titles/words is thus negotiated in accordance with a logic of events reducing art to the Bachelor Machine of the floating Signifier whose expressions now only symbolize the “active tautology” of construction “without any resonance of the physical world”: its final Reality ex-posed in the form of its image fetishized as an object (given the absence of sensible donation in the inaesthetic state, art outside art is what realizes its signifying image. This is Duchamp’s unique position in contemporary thought: he translates the impossibility of Romanticism into the nihilistic irony that takes over the presentation of the unpresentable: not the Invisible of/in the Image, but the Signifying-Image outside art as the in-aesthetic foundation of postmodernity that we de-monstrate as such for the first time (in the guise of the Possible, the
“hypophysics” of writing has “burned all aesthetics”). Also, then, to rethink Duchamp du signe (“Duchamp/the field of the sign”23 ) with Lacan on the basis of that “urinary segregation” ex-posed in the image of twin doors (MEN—WOMEN, with infra-thin indicators), that Lacan substitutes for the “erroneous” illustration of the tree (with the added word TREE) supposed to express the Saussurian algorithm S/s (signifier/signified). The goal is to subject dissent (“only natural and destined for the oblivion of natural mists,” says Lacan) to the phallic signifying chain insofar as this is equivalent to the (logical) copula as impair et manque. This, Lacan noted, was done “not only with the idea of silencing the nominalist debate with a low blow.”24 Bachelor machine of the signifier and living abstract Machine. Duchamp and Matisse, Matisse and Duchamp make art a machine (unhanging/décrochage). Duchamp against Matisse “in the name of art,” the signifier that deterritorializes signs by way of an answer to the question of what is an ob-ject (an in/sensitive anti-thing). Matisse resisting the Duchampian liquidation by stripping bare “the combination of forces” implied in the constructivist machine of expression insofar as this was able to combine all the points of deterritorialization of the paintingarrangement to put art outside the theology of the image and outside itself. Matisse resisting in Duchamp, beyond Duchamp, when the latter was caught up with the alternative 1960s ideals of art of/in life. Duchamp “recuperated,” massified, annihilated in the art-less and work-less? (à la 1990s) where we must seek out the indifferent, unlocatable art of a fully realized postmodernity when every real and every invention of new realities desert us, and all that remains (passive resistance if ever there was such a thing) is the “banalization of the banal” affirmed by the appropriately named “receiver.”25 Far from the dialectical games of critics that
conceive of “resistance” as affecting only art (neither art nor nonart) and outside any excessively narrowly “plastic” consideration, the bachelor machine-Duchamp and the abstract machine-Matisse serve that end: to reintroduce the anachronism of conflict into the underlying movement known as post/modern (complete with the appropriate bar). Note that to deny the archeology of the contemporary in the name of surfing (“surfing on the surface of the art-less”) is to run a clear risk of phenomenological nominalism: art disappears as soon as it appears, appears as soon as it disappears, etc. And that we must therefore choose between the forced course of our idiotisms and the hypermodernity of contemporary art from the end of aura. (Cut out from Paul Ardenne’s book: “The ‘everything is political’ of the 1970s is not so far from the sewing box or scissors of the pattern painter.”)
1 Jean-François Lyotard, “Réécrire la modernité,” Les Cahiers de philosophie 5 (1988): 193–204. 2 As observed by Paul Ardenne in the first few pages of his book on “the contemporary age.” Cf. Paul Ardenne, Art, l’âge contemporain (Paris: Éditions du Regard, 1997), 24. 3 This is Élisabeth Lebovici’s “true” answer to the question “Is the critical share accursed?” in Art de proximité et distance critique. La fonction critique de l’art (Paris: Sens & Tonka, 2002), 243–244. Bernard Arnault and François Pinault, arch rivals and respectively heads of LMVH and PinaultPrintemps-La Redoute/owner of Christie’s), are well known for their activivites in the art world. 4 According to the “deconstruction” of relational art (the Nicolas Bourriaud version) proposed by Miguel Egaña, which I am extending beyond its already broad field. Cf. Miguel Egaña, “Confusion théorique et promiscuité critique,” in Art de proximité, 126 and 121. 5 On the question of art in a present that is articulated as War and Peace, I take the liberty of referring readers to Éric Alliez and Toni Negri, “Peace and War,” trans. A. Toscano, Theory, Culture & Society 20/2 (2003). 6 A member of the Académie Française— Trans. 7 Jacques Rancière, Le Partage du sensible. Esthétique et politique (Paris: La Fabrique, 2000), 12. 8 In accordance with the trans-forming model of Goethe’s Farbenlehre. 9 Hegel, Lectures on Aesthetics, part III, “Of the Romantic Form of Art,” introduction. 10 Cf. Yve-Alain Bois, “Les amendements de Greenberg,” Les Cahiers du Musée national d’art moderne 45–46 (1993): 52–60. Greenberg’s return to impressionnism—with (Monet) and without a capital letter (an abstract impressionnism)—has a paradigmatic value. The most caricatural version of a “return to Impressionism” (here, the capital is imposed by para-Heideggerian technophobia), a version that can therefore only be read from a “symptomal” point of view (in the Althusserian sense), is proposed by Paul Virilio in La Procédure silence (Paris: Galilée, 2000). 11 This “mechanical” animation stand * [voir la question banc-titre] also applies to Duchamp’s “technical” drawings (dry, therefore a ready-made bottle-dryer to “rinse our eyes”/give us an eyeful, etc.) whose starting point is the snook cocked at Kandinsky (Concerning the Spiritual in Art): the “interior vibration” of Maeterlinck’s red-yellow-blue trees becomes the vibrator drive shaft of the Bride (in one of the Munich drawings where the transition from the Virgin to the Bride [ital] occurs, “Marcel is there” [Mar(cel) y est = Marié] soon, etc.). 12 Cf. Jean-François Lyotard, “Argumentation et présentation: la crise des fondements,”in Encyclopédie philosophique universelle, vol. I, L’Univers philosophique, ed. André Jacob (Paris: PUF, 1989), 738–750. Beyond scientific thought (which teaches us to build without leaning on data, without a “foundation”: new geometries, etc.), the “crisis of foundations” is announced by the Nietzschean perspective (understood in a “nihilist” way by the second Lyotard). 13 Ten years earlier, in another interview with Sweeney (1946), Duchamp stated: “This is the direction that art must take: intellectual expression rather than animal expression.” Memories of the Fauves [Fauves = “wild animals”]? 14 Félix Guattari, Chaosmose (Paris: Galilée, 1992) 141. Going against the ambient Bergsonism of the early twentieth century, Duchamp always stated and showed that art “has no biological excuse.”
The settling of scores with Bergson (Bergsonian vitalism) is played out between the Nude Descending a Staircase and the “nominal” invention of the ready-made: the ready-made against the (always Romantic) illusion of the * self-making. 15 Note in passing that Félix Guattari has never been read by philosophers (who have never digested Anti-Oedipus), but was read, and very early on, by young artists (and by “militants”). 16 Is there another meaning of the world “nominalism”? 17 As for our Duchampian quotation (1955) irresistibly evoking certain passages of Gleizes and Metzinger’s Cubist manifesto (Du Cubisme, 1912) and Apollinaire’s Peintres cubistes (1913). The critique of the “retinal” is also taken from them (and turned against them). It served as a war machine against a Fauvism that imperatively had to be reduced—even retrospectively—to an exacerbated impressionism (this operation was managed jointly with Kandinsky). 18 See the passage on Duchamp in Apollinaire’s Les Peintres cubistes (the “Cubisme orphique” section) which is generally thought to have been to a large extent inspired by Duchamp himself. 19 We would need here to analyze the “neo” turn of the century as this first phenomenally postmodern period to which Fauvism was a response. Its “Nietzschean” heterogenesis is fundamental in every respect. 20 Charles Morice: these “panels that they dare describe as ‘decorative’ . . . five nude women, whose limbs run after one another in a furious uproar, and three colors, in wide strips of blue, of green, of red, and that is all; it is nothing.” 21 Cf. Philippe Dagen, L’Art impossible. De l’inutilité de la création dans le monde contemporain (Paris: Gallimard, 2002). The passage on Matisse and Picasso is on 183–184. 22 In the most precise sense conferred on this concept by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Mille plateaux, (Paris: Minuit, 1980); trans: A Thousand Plateaus, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). 23 Duchamp du signe, (Paris: Flammarion, 1975): a collection of Duchamp’s writings. 24 Cf. Jacques Lacan, “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” in Écrits. A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.: 1977), 146–178. Before closing this large volume we will take a look at “Science and Truth,” where we will read (starting at the end of the article) that the subject is founded on the “point of lack” that the phallus indicates there; and that “no language can say the truth about truth, since the truth is founded on what it speaks, and has no other means of doing this.” Coming back to Duchamp’s “individualism,” let us venture to write Q.E.D. 25 Cf. Jean-Claude Moineau, L’Art dans l’indifférence de l’art (Paris: PPT, 2001),68, 82. “The difficulty, of course, lies, when doing this, in not debanalizing the art-less and thereby transfiguring it into art.” (p. 80), etc. The extreme modesty manifested by/for these “work-less ones” will thus be constantly re-insured by the “post-artistic” critics. Here we could quote Nicolas Bourriaud’s disarming statement at the beginning of L’Esthétique relationnelle (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 1998), 7: “Where do the misunderstandings surrounding the art of the 1990s come from, if not a lack of theoretical discourse?”
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