January 23, 2009

Transgressive Aesthetics

Filed under: Aesthetics, Genius, Art into Life — Graham Coulter-Smith

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.


  1. links from TechnoratiTransgressive Aesthetics

    Pingback by David Bruce Studios — January 23, 2009 @ 3:41 am

  2. In all of this we need to ask what the phrase’bringing art to life’ is for. Is the phrase an empty slogan or does it have any meaning-anything vital or any life within itself? Certainly it is a folly to proclaim that everyone is an artist…lets face it being an artist isn’t really so great anyway. Except for a few being an artist really means struggling within a cotemporary feudal framework to promulgate oneself Nor does being an artist rate abnormally high in the estimate of things in the overrall schema of things again with the exception of the few sufficieantly capapble of illuminating our shared existence-it might be bette than working in Asda but then again it might not!.

    We do understand further that art as impulse cannot IN FACT be reified from life anyway-only the abstraction-that is the theorising about art can talk of reification because the ptocess of theorising itself involves abstraction at one remove. Personally I think it is an arrogance to assert that ‘art’ is in any case’seperate’ from ‘life’ in the first place..are not artists human? do they not come from the same roots as us all , are they not as one with being human themselves? So then how can art be seperate from life?
    In similar vein when we examine commonly encountered artistic genius-rembrandnt in the classic sense for example-what we see is a looking glass held to the human condition not an absctraction from that condition-the same could also be said of Rothko and perhaps even Gormley-the striking of a chord in the deeper psyche which the artist has somehow articulated.
    So of course we have the artist reching down into the subconscious -into the pit of myth..where else do human beings live? This is in fact the nub of the matter- human beings do not live at the level of socio economic theorising-they dwell in fact beyond the reach of the theorist who, conscious of personal exile yet unabl to admit of the condition, proffers instead a theory of alienation or reification. The whole notion of ‘bringing art into life’ is itself a conflation of worldviews-a voice speaking plaintively and querulously from the cell of its own narcissism.

    Then can the same quesion be asked of poetry…does poetry need to be brought into life? Of course not!! the very notion exposes the folly of the argument-poetry springs from our deep humanity -our humour-our sense of fun- our quirkiness and our delight-our travail and ourgrief…Poetry is the great english obsession and deeply ingrained in its psyche…
    Yet contemporary art too is poetices when all said and done- but beacause of its links with capital and ownership of the object there is an extra chink for theorising to gain purchase and leverr the subject off into abstraction…how interesting to note that in this the great era of institutionalised art and the ascendency of the curatorial obsession with getting punterrs in and appealing to ‘the people’-that visits to art galleries in the main are in decline while visits to Cathedrals rocket….the gallery is dea, long live the gallery.

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — January 25, 2009 @ 6:28 pm

  3. One wonders precisely what it is about ordinary life that theorists tend toso despise and why there seems to be such a terrible hatred of the simple relational and organic links of existence. Whence the terrible need to take these simple and beautiful attachments and render them down into impersonal ‘transhumanics? Roger Scruton in his excellent essay on the decline of musical culture speaks tellingly of the nihilism of Marx and Nietzche as stemming from their attaching culture to the wrong roots and erroneously analysing culture and society in terms of power relations when in fact society is formed from:
    “the natural elaboration of a first-person plural which expresses itself in the first instance through religious forms and a conception of the sanctity of places and times,persona and offices, customs and rites….a culture is grounded in religion, develops with the religion and grows away from it only to mourn its loss” Scruton p133
    Though scruton agrees with Nietzche and Marx in that he positions the notion of ‘taste’ as arising out of privelege. Scruton however argues that this seeking to perpetuate the ‘higher state’ is in itself the gift of religion which:
    “heals the divisions of rank and class, an releases the highest aesthetic inspiration into the voice of society” Scruton p133
    It is of course unavoidably the case that postmoderrnism as a concept is essentially irreligious simply because the implied lack of continuity is by definition atheistic. The insistence upon what scruton terms the life of the present moment is a life by definition exclusive of the mystey behind those fleeting and vicarious moments. Without the murmurings of time washing underr the moment and stripped away from the unity of the sacred aspects of the psyche Postmodernism demands that we all live in the thin slice of now…about this infintesimally and dismally skinnily flensed slice of experience not much can be said so anything can be said that can be said-this Scruton terms:
    “The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera”
    I came across an excellent example of this disconnectedness today at a crematorium where I was attending the funeral of a friend. The place was jam packed -bursting at the seams with standing room only. My friend was greatly loved by many and had been taken early by a virulent cancer so thee was a degree of fear and bewilderment among the crowd. The hymbooks were nervously passed around and one could see the discomfort of those unused to the common rites of passing-wanting to join in but unable through neglect. Life lived only in the present scoffs at faith and its ties- cocks a snoot and sneers at tradition and digs its snout into the moment -until the need for solace comes and the scoffer becomes awkward penitent and uneasy guest-soothed by the sung lament yet unable to recognise their own genuine need and somehow ashamed or resentful that this need be so fulfilled by the tradition of others.
    This true alienation from the fulness of ‘ordinary’ life I think relates well also to art. Of course ‘art’ is seperated from ‘life’ if one predicates arguments based upon the tenets of Marx and truth this is a self fulfilling prophecy-those who seek exile come upon it easily and those who enter the desert soon find themselves beset by a terrible thirst yet unable to accept a simple balm.Divisions of human and ‘meta-human’ will do us no good and neither will weasel words ever obscure our need of God.

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — January 26, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  4. the ethical turn in Foucault’s work can be understood to transgress the limits of humanism through a critique of and an alternative to self-subjugation. according to Deleuze after the impasse of HISTORY OF SEXUALITY whereby attempts at liberation reinforce repression. In addition to power and knowledge, Foucault speaks of an ‘ethical relation’ to oneself, whose corresponding mode of subjectification is an aesthetic of the self, which has recourse neither to knowledge nor to universal law. perhaps within Foucault’s ‘ethical relation’lay a partial key to bringing art into life. look forward to reading more. i agree with M.Hornsall that this version is more precise.

    Comment by Allen Ray Furlong — March 6, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

  5. I think you need to situate your discussion historically.

    The avant-garde project - as Burger makes explicit - was NOT about “bringing art into life” but of eroding the difference between art and life - that is, rendering the concept and category of “art” - the specialized practice of imaginative expression - obsolete so that “poetry can be made by all.” This is where the political motivation of the avant-garde (Surrealism, at least) is clearly explicit. Transgressive aesthetics, in the context of the historical avant-garde (again, Burger’s term) was INTENDED to problematize the the “ethico-aesthetic”. And as for “fine art giving up it’s pretensions to bring art into life” - well, FINE ART - again, as a historical category and practice - has never made any claim to the AVANT-GARDE project of leveling the difference between art and life.

    You cannot possibly have any knowledge of art history to be making these kinds of astonishing errors. I suggest you stick to theory - for which you obviously have a real affinity - and leave art history out of it - as it does of course require some knowledge of ART HISTORY.

    Thank you.

    Comment by reader — July 9, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  6. Graham, you suggest that ‘Chance is athe doorway into the noumenon, the Kantian thing in itself beyond the senses…’ and I see your point, but chance encounters through the flux of life (think of Rauchenberg or Spoerri), are also the oposite of the real or thing beyond appearance, since they are mere appearances of what cannot appear.

    Comment by David Akenson — October 28, 2010 @ 5:43 am

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