THIS IS A PART OF A DRAFT INTRODUCTION TO A BOOK I AM WORKING ON, ANY COMMENTS ARE WELCOME
Transgressive aesthetics is ostensibly distinguished from aestheticism, l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake), by the incorporation of an ethical dimension. Upon examination, however, the relationship between ethics and transgressive aesthetics is profoundly equivocal. Aesthetically, evil and injustice are ultimately more interesting than goodness and justice. Without injustice and “evil” there would be no literature and there would be no political art. Surreptitiously aesthetic practice feeds on injustice and evil. Transgressive aesthetics can even become antiethical as is evident in the surrealists’ fascination with the Marquis de Sade and the philosophical and literary elaboration of sado-masochism in the writings of Bataille, we can also add the ethical aporia evident in the contemporary fine art of Paul McCarthy, Jason Rhoades, Gregor Schneider, Santiago Sierra to name but a few.
In the sphere of fine art a fascination with evil is intimately implicated in the fabric of transgressive aesthetics in a manner that raises questions regarding its alleged ethical dimension. We might refer to this phenomenon as the aestheticisation of ethics, where evil becomes a vehicle for spectacular production. We see this most blatantly in commercial filmmaking in the genres of horror, crime and the thriller; but it is also evident in so-called high art where it becomes interpreted in terms of sublime-sounding thematics such as alterity abjection and the uncanny.
Another key problem confronting the discourse of transgressive aesthetics lies in the surprisingly recent realisation that fine art is intimately implicated in the web of capitalist commodification. I say “surprisingly” because modern/postmodern avant-gardist art has always been intimately entwined with the commercial gallery system. We can see this in Picasso’s portraits of his dealers Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Ambroise Vollard both of 1910. The reason why this has become an issue in contemporary art theory is due to the foregrounding in the 1960s of the avant-gardist project to “bring art into life” which began in earnest in Dada and Surrealism; but the ideas informing this project can be traced back to romantic aesthetics.
One fundamental problem with the project of bringing art into life is that its goals and presuppositions have never been clearly articulated or interrogated. This is particularly evident in Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avant-Garde (1974) which foregrounds the project of reconciling art with life-praxis [Lebenspraxis] in the work of Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism and, impressively, connects this particular trajectory of modern art with the rise of postmodern art practice in the second half of the 20th century. But despite the sophistication of Bürger’s analysis of transgressive aesthetics he fails to address what reconciling art with life praxis might actually entail. We need, accordingly, to pose the question: what does bringing art into life actually mean, and is bringing art into life fundamentally antithetical to capitalist commodification as Bürger argues? The usual argument is that mass media successfully brings art in life but it is not emancipatory, it is fundamentally an apparatus of social conditioning. But from an ethical perspective we can ask the question: what is emancipation? Is it as Lyotard claims the issue of justice for all? And if this is the case is transgressive aesthetic art actually emancipatory or more concerned with playing with the aesthetic possibilities of ethical aporia? Indeed could the same question be tabled with regard to Lyotard’s ethico-political aesthetics, and poststructuralist aesthetics in general? Considering transgressive aesthetics from a critical perspective we very quickly enter into an ethico-aesthetic thicket and it will be the task of this book to explore this thicket.
The concept of transgression which has come to dominate avant-garde aesthetics in the 20th century is putatively a critique of a colonising rational subjectivity. But if we examine the discourse of transgression we uncover a negative image of that subjectivity: an irrationalist colonising subjectivity the terminus of which is ethical aporia. Take for example the concept of genius which will be dealt with in a chapter in this book: however transgressive art practice may portray itself, the focus on extraordinary creative individuals that is prevalent in the world of fine art can be understood as a mirror image of the sovereign bourgeois individual.
I will argue that the emphasis upon individual genius in the fine art institution effectively makes the strategy of bringing art into life impossible. Indeed, it leads us to question the fundamental validity of such a strategy. One of Bürger’s key arguments is that with Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism methods of art making were developed that literally anyone could use. Such techniques include automatism, cut-and-paste, the Readymade and chance. The institutionalised discourse of genius, however, ensures that these methods remain firmly located in the possession of a sovereign individual: the exceptional artistic genius. Fine artists are infamously egotistical, in fact chutzpah plays a key role in the formation of a successful artistic persona. But there is a serious ethical problem inherent in this institutionalised egotism which will be addressed in the chapter on genius via Levinas’ ethics of alterity. Alterity and “the other” are of course buzz words in the world of fine art, but it is easy to pay lip service to a theoretical notion and pursue an entirely antithetical trajectory in practice.
I will argue that the fundamental problem confronting the project of bringing art into life is not necessarily the commodification of art, because we cannot escape commodification due to the fact that we are encompassed by capitalist culture. The key problem is the hypocrisy of proclaiming that “everybody is an artist” when the person who is making a proclamation is in fact a privileged artistic genius. We are referring in the case of this statement, of course, to Joseph Beuys. From an ethical point of view it might be best if fine art simply gave up its pretensions to bringing art into life and became reconciled with the role ascribed to it by history which is to be fundamentally concerned with genius and the precious objects produced by such genius. That, at least, would be more honest.
But the concept of genius developed by Romantic philosophy in the wake of Kant’s Copernican revolution cannot be reduced to egotism due to the fact that romantic genius privileges the unconscious over consciousness. Herein lies the contradiction at the heart of the romantic theory of genius. Privileging the unconscious is the metaphysical conjecture informing apparently absurdly romantic statements such as “everyone an artist”. The notion informing such statements is that the unconscious mind possesses remarkable creative capabilities. There is some truth in this, and it is also the case that the activity of the unconscious mind can be described in terms of transpersonal forces a notion that leads us into the philosophy of anti-humanism, the inhuman (Lyotard) or the transhuman (Ansell-Pearson) and, indeed, alterity (Lacan and Levinas).
The beginning of the story of modern aesthetic transgression lies in the romantic reception of Kantian aesthetics in the late 18th century which laid the groundwork for modernist aestheticism. The turn from aestheticism to anti-aestheticism begins with Nietzsche. And with Nietzsche we also have the beginning of anti-humanism: the notion that human consciousness is the effect of inhuman forces. For Nietzsche underlying the phenomenal world are dynamic quanta whose “essence lies in their relation to all other quanta, in a relation of tension to all other dynamic quanta” (Nietzsche 1968: 635). What is particularly interesting about Nietzsche’s theory of transpersonal forces is that it is influenced by science. And as Nietzsche’s philosophy foregrounds aesthetics such aesthetics can be framed as quasi-scientific; which makes a Nietzsche’s aesthetics particularly modern. Moreover this transhuman trajectory is continued through Freud, Bataille, and most recently Deleuze and Guattari–who speak in terms of “desiring machines” and the “machinic”.
From an ethical perspective one might be worried by the notion of the transhuman because it reduces social praxis to a quasi-mechanistic model that is only distinguished from scientific mechanism by its metaphysical characteristics. In the chapter on Nietzsche’s intense dialogue with Darwinian evolution it will be shown that he pursues a fundamentally vitalist metaphysics of genius. Genius is figured as the “overhuman” (Übermensch) motivated by a metaphysical “form-shaping force” that is the will to power.
Nietzsche’s vitalist-mechanist metaphysics combined with Freud’s thermodynamic model of mind (inspired by Gustav Fechner’s psychophysics), impacts on modernist art practice in dada and surrealist metaphysics of chance realised via artistic tactics such as automatism and the Readymade. We can also mention Bataille’s general economy of ego-destructive excessive expenditure, which forms the basis of Baudrillard’s discussion of capitalism in terms of the disappearance of the allegedly revolutionary proletariat into a general economy of hyperrealised potlach. We can also mention crypto-surrealist movements in literature that foreground the free play of language such as stream of consciousness and the epitome of which is Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: the literary equivalent of Duchamp’s urinal. What Bürger misses in his treatment of such avant-garde strategies is the fact that they are technologies for communicating with unconscious cognitive processes. They are not therefore primarily directed towards bringing art to life. They are much more metaphysically oriented. And this offers another explanation for why such strategies remained in the hands of an artistic elite rather than being disseminated to the broader community.
Bürger is somewhat reductive in his description of such techniques as “recipes” and because they are not actually recipes they are instead metaphysical instruments. It also has to be added that when placed in context such techniques are fundamentally dangerous from a social perspective. From an ethical point of view one would be wary of suggesting that they be promulgated into everyday life. In order to support his Frankfurt School-inspired argument Bürger strategically omits to mention that when such “recipes” were developed by Dada and Surrealism they were accompanied by experiments with hypnosis, mad love, and drugs. The aesthetics of chance as developed by Dada and Surrealism cannot be reduced to “ recipes” because it is a fundamentally motivated by what Arthur Rimbaud referred to as a “derangement of all the senses”. Chance is athe doorway into the noumenon, the Kantian thing in itself beyond the senses, and that became the core notion informing romantic notions of genius and the sublime.
The conflation of vitalism and mechanism in Nietzsche’s philosophy is unsurprising. If we need any reminding of the awesome powers of natural forces we only need to consider the fact that they created the consciousness that we prize so much. Science has to pull back from vitalism and metaphysics in order to maintain an objectivity essential to its methodology. Some scientists transmute this methodological necessity into a rationalist-mechanistic philosophy. Other scientists manage to balance their methodological objectivity with a more personal belief in the spiritual forces of nature. The point I am really making is that there are two kinds of mechanism one is physical and the other is metaphysical. It is metaphysical mechanism that is the subject of transgressive aesthetics.
But even metaphysical mechanism can be accused of dehumanisation. Indeed this becomes one of the fundamental counter arguments against Nietzsche, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari. Performative social praxis focused on human agents is replaced by a matrix of transhuman forces. But we can balance the two dimensions by arguing that one operates on a macro and the other on a micro level. Which is to say when human interactions reach a certain quantity, the quantity beyond which interpersonal communication is impossible, they cease to be “human” and become meta-human. Gesellschaft is meta-human and Gemeinschaft is human. It is not really been necessary to speak in such terms until the advent of modern mass society. What becomes interesting is that the post-Nietzschean overhuman as elaborated by Bataille projects Gesellschaft into an isomorphism with mythology and religion. And in Capitalism and Schizophrenia Deleuze and Guattari suggest an isomorphism between Gesellschaft and metaphysical mechanism.