For most of human history art has been associated with religion and spirituality. This changed with the advent of modernity. Religion was one of the victims of modernity and the rise of science. In this sense science had a massive impact on society. On the other hand modern science distances itself from morality: it lends itself to Kant’s division of human faculties into rational, moral and aesthetic. Science remains in the rational divorced from the task of creating values for society. And it can argued that art follows the logic of modernist specialisation and remains in the domain of the aesthetic, also divorced from morality. This is the phenomenon we can refer to as aestheticism. Anti-aestheticism fundamentally refers to a putative attempt to release art from aestheticism, to bring it “into life”, to make it a moral force resisting the alienating, nihilistic, materialism of capitalism.
The problems facing art are concomitant with the problems confronting philosophy. Philosophy is apparently the only discourse capable of crisscrossing the zones of rationality, morality, and aesthetics. In this sense any serious consideration of modern/postmodern art must take philosophy into account. In the wake of the death of God—which occurred in its most definitive fashion on 22 November 1859 with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species (Desmond 1991: 477)—both art and philosophy were to be radically transformed. Of course the death of God was not a complete shock, he [sic] had been dying for some time. We see this in the steep decline of religious patronage for fine art accompanied by increasing interest in spiritual alternatives (romanticism) and empirical realism (nineteenth century realism and impressionism) in the arts. Nevertheless in the decline and demise of Christianity in Europe was and still remains a colossal cultural revolution.
Humanist ethics took over from Christianity. Explorations of morality were transferred to literature, philosophy, and sociology. Modern/postmodern fine art I would argue has been unable to deal with morality adequately mainly due to its abstraction and dedication to non-narrativity together with the fundamental individualistic narcissism that stems from the romantic concept of genius that still motivates the fine art system. What is surprising therefore is the almost hyperbolic faith placed in art as a moral force by philosophy which seems only explicable its own aporia, its own addiction to playing convoluted games with language and concepts. But the fact of the matter is that fine art cannot lead philosophy out of its abyss. Just because art is material and sensuous does not mean it has any more privileged connection with being, especially when we consider that the notion of being appears to be a fundamentally philosophical construct, in Deleuzian terms it is “virtual”.
We can distinguish two phases of modernity: humanism and affirmative nihilism. Central figures in the establishment of modern humanism (understood as faith in the rational human subject) Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Husserl; and key figures in the establishment of affirmative nihilism (which undermines the rational subject) are Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze, and Lyotard.
From an nihilistic perspective art is a game played by tiny (in comparison to the force fields of society and culture) individuals who are elevated into the status of genius by a fine art system fundamentally motivated by traditional notions of uniqueness and originality which function as the engine for the extraordinary monetisation of artistic products. This is not to say that art can be reduced to economics but it is to state that it cannot be disentangled from economics.
Philosophical proclamations (Nietzsche, Bataille, Heidegger, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, Debord, Deleuze, Lyotard) that the arts can transcend the alienating capitalist economic system have been grossly exaggerated. One almost comes to the point of reconsidering Marx’s contention that the cultural superstructure is determined by the economic base. Its seems only the fact that this contention sounds so vulgar (an aesthetic consideration) that we resist it. But another way of putting it would be to say that the arts have always been in the service of power, even when they resist power in the modern sense they remain implicated within the matrix of power.
When we confront the issue of transgressive aesthetics we find ourselves dealing fundamentally with ” affirmative nihilism”. Nihilism is tragic whereas affirmative nihilism is fundamentally comedic, and absurdism plays a major role in contemporary art (Creed, Cattelan, Slominski, Rhoades, McCarthy, Elmgreen and Dragset, Fischli-Weiss etc.). At the same time this nihilistic absurdism is suffused with faith in the religion of art.
Affirmative nihilism possesses a tacit “theological” character that is only emphasised by its strenuous attempts to divorce itself from theology. The “God” of affirmative nihilism takes the form of the seductive, and quasi-scientific, metaphor of a dynamic interconnected matrix of forces first identified by Nietzsche and elaborated by Bataille (general economy), Deleuze and Guattari (imminent plane of intensities), and Lyotard (libidinal economy). And one can also mention here Michelle Foucault’s concept of power as well pervasive anarchic network.
Essentially this field of forces, best expressed by Deleuze and Guattari in their concept of an imminent plane of intensities (we might technologise this to the acronym IPI), becomes the post-scientific, post-Darwinian, theos. What is most interesting about this new god is that it is mindless, which relates of course to the Freudian unconscious, a notion not only presaged in Nietzsche but also in post-Kantian romantic and idealist philosophy. We have therefore an extremely coherent and powerful set of ideas that on their own protestation should not be adhered to as if they were the doctrine. In this sense, at least, affirmative nihilism escapes the traditional modus operandi of religion.
The fact of the matter, however, is that this discourse generates a herd of believers, especially evident in the industry of academia (where one can make a career out of specialising in one or two philosophers) and art writing. In the context of fine art philosophy has become very valuable as a way of adding value to fundamentally mute, nonlinguistic, anti-narrative, objets d’art. One sees this very clearly in the mountains of literature written on art beginning with explications of modernist abstraction and segueing into even more complex explications of postmodernist conceptualism.
The art writer can be understood in many ways as an upmarket copywriter or perhaps more generously as a priest articulating the affirmative nihilist atheology of modern/postmodern art. Philosophy provides both a framework for the copy and a discourse whereby individuals can be canonised in the fine art system as great geniuses. There are various problematic aspects to this strategy not least the fact that affirmative nihilism purports to be anti-humanist, and anti-individualist, anti-subjectivist. But this contradiction is easily ignored in the sphere of writing about fine art. And very few readers complain, perhaps because the issues involved are so complicated.
Desmond, Adrian J., and James R. Moore. 1991. Darwin. New York: Warner Books.