January 27, 2009

Transgressive Aesthetics Version 2

Filed under: Uncategorized — Graham Coulter-Smith @ 11:22 am


This book is an attempt to explore in depth the issues raised by Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. The term “transgressive aesthetics” in the context of this text refers to the shift in modern art perceived by Bürger from late romantic aestheticism, l’art pour l’art, to a mode of art that acquires an ethical dimension and which Bürger describes as the “reintegration of art into the praxis of life” (Bürger 1984), which we will shorten here to bringing art into life. A fundamental problem with the project of bringing art into life as described by Bürger is that its goals and presuppositions are not clearly articulated or interrogated. Bürger’s analysis is also suspect in the sense that it suggests a paradigm shift which is not borne out when we examine the movements which he suggests initiate that shift: namely, Dada and Surrealism.

Bürger claims that Dada and Surrealism represent a shift from art for art’s sake represented by late 19th century aestheticism, most evident in the symbolist movement, towards a more ethically inclined art practice. There is some truth in what Bürger claims, is certainly the case that Dada and Surrealism were concerned with society. If we investigate this concern, however, we find that it is deeply influenced by the legacy of Romanticism. It will be argued here that it is romanticism that constitutes the paradigm shift not Dada and Surrealism, and the latter are fundamentally neo-romantic discourses in which ethical concerns become deconstructively entangled with aestheticism.

Where Bürger is correct is in his identification of an intimate connection between Dada and Surrealism and transgressive postmodern art which began in earnest in the 1960s and became the dominant discourse in fine art throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the turn of the millennium. And it is certainly the case that the concept of bringing art into life is central to postmodern art. We see this for example in attempts to escape the hegemony of the art museum in art of the 1960s and early 1970s and most recently in Nicolas Bourriaud’s analysis of art of the 1990s in terms of the concept of “relational aesthetics”.

But against optimistic and even utopian accounts such a Bourriaud’s the argument presented here is that the project of bringing art into life is disrupted by an incommensurablity between ethics and aesthetics. Immanuel Kant who founds modern aesthetics is only able to reconcile ethics–what he refers to productively as “practical reason”–with aesthetics via the classical connection between beauty and goodness. But in the modern/postmodern context this reconciliation is unacceptable. It is unacceptable because it is based upon an idealised concept of humanity which has been thoroughly deconstructed not only by the most violent century in history–the 20th century– but also by the increasing awareness of the sublimity of unconscious forces within the mind and within society.

When Bürger posits a paradigm shift from late romantic aestheticism to the project of bringing art into life he effectively suggests that the romantic project comes to an end in Dada and Surrealism. But if we consider romanticism as the genuine paradigm shift that founds modern art and more particularly modern aesthetics then it is less easy to simply dismiss it. The argument presented here is that aspects of romantic aesthetics continued to inform art practice to this day. The reason for this lies in the sophistication of romantic aesthetics which is intimately intertwined with German idealist philosophy. Romantic aesthetics developed three very important and enduring notions: the unconscious, the sublime, and genius. All of these notions are wrapped up in Dada and Surrealism and transmitted into transgressive postmodern art in the second half of the 20th century. Fundamentally we can understand Dada and Surrealism as a significant elaboration of romantic aesthetics rather than as a paradigm shift away from it.

Where the argument against Bürger’s position really gains momentum is in the consideration of poststructuralism which became the de facto aesthetic ideology for postmodern Art in the late 20th century and into the new millennium. The argument presented here is that poststructuralism is shot through with strands of neo-romanticism which resonate strongly with the condition of art at the turn of the millennium. As is the case in Dada and Surrealism this leads to a situation in which attempts to engage with practical reason devolve into aestheticism.

Despite the sophistication of Bürger’s analysis of transgressive art practice with particular reference to Dada and Surrealism 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? The problem with the Marxist concept of emancipation that motivates Bürger’s analysis is that it presupposes a totalised condition of repression and alienation. But this is certainly not the case within the context of capitalist culture. As Foucault has pointed out “the system” is both repressive and productive. The system is not homogenous but heterogeneous, and the totality, if we can speak of such a thing, is fundamentally anarchic with local pockets of hierarchy that are not intrinsically stable. For Foucault “the system” may be characterised by a proliferation of disciplinary technologies but it is also characterised by forces of disruption. As we shall see in the course of this book what we have here is a model very similar to concepts of complex systems evident in contemporary science.

The ethical dimension of poststructuralist philosophy is antagonistic to the notion of practical reason because poststructuralism is fundamentally counter-rationalist. And in this sense we can understand it as an extension of the legacy of romanticism. Indeed if there is a foundation for poststructuralist philosophy it can be found in the writings of Nietzsche who stands in between the legacy of romantic philosophy, in particular the work of Schopenhauer, and what might be referred to as a postromantic turn.

The postromantic turn retains certain aspects of romantic philosophy: a privileging of the unconscious and a fascination for the sublime and an ethical dimension based upon the liberation of desire. However, it also amplifies the transgressive force of romanticism by removing the residual classical element contained in romanticism that is its humanism. In Nietzsche classical and Christian humanism are deconstructed in favour of an expanded concept of the human not as an essential, sovereign state of being but as a state of becoming. And this turn to becoming as opposed to being is fundamental to the ethical dimension of poststructuralist philosophy.

When we consider such notions we begin to travel far away from the philosophical foundation of Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde. Bürger’s analysis is fundamentally informed by Frankfurt School Marxism and its most recent instantiation in the writings of Juergen Habermas. Habermas remains faithful to Enlightenment concepts of practical reason and emancipation whereas poststructuralism enters into a new territory which is beyond the human, beyond commonsense. What is most interesting about the philosophy of Nietzsche and poststructuralism is its relationship to science. There is a distinct isomorphism between Nietzsche’s central concept of an interconnected network of prehuman forces–which is continued in the philosophy of Foucault, Baudrillard and Deleuze and Guattari– and notions of complexity and emergent behaviour in postmodern science. And this relationship between Nietzsche and science becomes foregrounded in his interpretation of Darwinian evolution which several commentators argue is central to his articulation of the groundbreaking concept of will as power, which is actually a deconstruction of the humanist concept of will as the will of the conscious sovereign subject. In its place is a flux of prehuman forces that construct what we take to be conscious willing. In this sense Nietzsche provides a philosophical prelude to Freud.

From the point of view of practical reason a transition from the dimension of human relationships to a transhuman field of nonhuman forces is problematic. How is it possible to construct an ethical perspective on the basis of the nonhuman? The poststructuralist answer to this question is that any attempt to define the human is totalising and essentialising. This is certainly an important consideration but at the same time it does appear unproductive to completely ignore the dimension of practical human interaction which takes place in the space of common sense. The metaphysical orientation of poststructuralist philosophy is certainly valuable but at the same time it is necessary to return down to earth and deal with the mundane and everyday level of human interactions. In other words there is an important role to be played by the sociological dimension when considering the problems encountered when art attempts to interact with “life”. When we consider the problem of bringing art into life we are really considering the problems of commonsense, habitus, the social construction of identity, and everyday life. Where poststructuralism becomes useful is in its delineation of a sublime substrate to everyday life and commonsense wherein lies the possibility of disruptions to what appear, from the human commonsensical perspective, to be “natural” states of affairs.

The fundamental problem therefore consists in bringing these two dimensions into a productive interaction in art practice. And this problem was not solved by Dada and Surrealism or by any other major art movement that has followed in its wake.


  1. From where I sit this version is much better. Less dense and more explanatory of the basic issues therefore more accessible. The more porous the account the more traction can be gained by the less technically minded. I can read this text having had the benefit of a degree in political economy with Socilogy of Art and literature as a major subsiduary then several years personal reading around the subject; even so I can only just follow the drift without having to recourse to wikipedia!!I think there is a real need for writing at this -and possibly a notch down in terms of dense technicality and a notch up in terms of narrative and accessibility-I would hate to guess what the fleisch readability score of this textis Graham-probably not too high- but there is the beginnings of a compromise here at least.

    Comment by mike Horsnall — January 27, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  2. As an unapologetic artist working via transgressive media (through non-narrative immersion installation)i applaud the recognition of the ‘romantic’ aesthetic. to bring art into life it is essential to question the ethics of both. to break from the traditional paradigm so as to harness new significant meaning, to enrich our cultural and intellectual contribution to society is certainly a worthy ideal. the apex of aesthetic and theoretical developments over the past 50 yrs makes it appear naive to ignore prior, true transgressions of church & state. the history of the romantic project extends beyond the barriers of the visual and the textual. blues, jazz & rock & roll onwards have all made significant rebellious inroads when it comes to the ‘status quo’. Metal music -/death/heavy/grind/speed are based soley & purely in the romantic genre, as to punk, gangsta rap and alt country. cinematically ‘citizen kane’ was unashamedly baited in the same context, as Tarantino did yrs later. the list of transgressive aesthetics is long and varied. the notion that bringing art into life is ‘antithetical’ to capitalist commodification runs counter to capitalisms progress. new emmerging digital technologies are the fiscal tools of the 21C. and they are extremely important too, & capable of as yet still to be discovered transgressive applications. if the human status is always in a state of becoming so too are its infrastructures, the nonhuman elements we are so reliant upon. if we take the concept of ‘consilience’ theory(the acknowledgement that information is nested within other information; physics in chemestry in biology in physiology in neurology in psychology in philosophy in humanities hence; a significant sense of meaning, which has created new allignments of study ie. from early psychoanalysis through to psycholinguistics, neuropsychopharmacoloy etc) seems a genuine alternative to post-structualisms ‘end game’. if truely transgressive aesthetics are able to introduce an ethical dimension i believe it must break from predetermined knowledge skills and apply theory to practise. for what better reason than redressing the frailty of the human condition(notebly recognised as steeped in trauma)to initiate a transgressive operation. if deconstruction has left any legacy it is to reconstruct(poststructualism), with new knowledge, technologies, philosophies and from a multiplicity of perspectives. a ‘heteroglossia dialogue’which resists a hierarchical index in favour of many linear agencies pooling resources. as Graham noted poststructualisms capacity to ‘interfere’ with the ‘natural order’is its strong hand. i contest however that the ‘natural order’ no longer exists outside fictional (capital driven)contexts but is based well within the peripheral margins. Derrida refered to this site as one of slippage, where differance creates significance, however i believe it could more accurately signified as INFERANCE, which is governed by neurologically based imperatives. why has the romantic blossomed in the face of all adversity? why do humans persist to resist? the ‘natural’ states of affairs call for a knowing reunification of the sacred with the natural. perhaps such a reunification may afford us a more ethical context within which a more ethical construct may begin to become.

    Comment by Allen Ray Furlong — March 6, 2009 @ 1:03 pm

  3. Gosh!

    Comment by Mike Horsnall — May 4, 2009 @ 9:10 pm

  4. You write:

    “Where poststructuralism becomes useful is in its delineation of a sublime substrate to everyday life and commonsense wherein lies the possibility of disruptions to what appear, from the human commonsensical perspective, to be “natural” states of affairs.”

    Presumably you are well aware of Foucault’s “A Preface to Transgression,” on Bataille, included in the English compilation *Language, Counter-Memory and Practice.* It goes in exactly the direction you indicate, but names the sublime substrate as the dimension of multiplicty, “a multiplicity of speaking subjects” that composes, yet also overflows and disperses individual self-sovereignty. I have been trying to think which artists would really correspond to that today, and who theorizes them. It is a pity to merely critique such superficial work as Bourriaud… Check out some of Suely Rolnik’s work (and you might find Guattari is not so thin as you make him out). Concerning artists, I would say if you look to some of the more anarchist Spanish artists, the ones involved in social practice like Santiago Cirugeda, or an English guy like Jeremey Deller, there you have some strong examples dealing directly with social multiplicities, the K Foundation is even better! It would be great to find a language, philosophical yet not overblown with grand references or on the contrary, normalized by the university, in order to unfold the dimensions of transgression and dispersal as they really happen, in art work that always borders on being non-work (often unemployment too). I guess I did try that in some early texts, especially one called “Face Value,” but then politics and social theory took the upper hand and I never really developed the aesthetic dimension. Anyway, good luck, great project, hope it succeeds.

    Comment by Brian Holmes — December 12, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  5. Actually, I thought a bit more about this while walking around the city. As I am sure you must be quite well aware, Foucault says: “Transgression, then, is not related to the limit as black to white, the prohibited to lawful, the outside to the inside, or as the open area of a building to its enclosed spaces. Rather, their relationship takes the form of a spiral which no simple infraction can exhaust.” This kind of spiral relation is what has always interested me, not only in art and language, but generally in human subjectivity. Foucault goes on to say of the philosopher:

    “In a language stripped of dialectics, at the heart of what it says but also at the root of its possibilities, the philosopher is aware that ‘we are not everything’; he learns as well that even the philosopher does not inhabit the whole of his language like a secret and perfectly fluent god. Next to himself, he discovers the existence of another language that also speaks and that he is unable to dominate, one that strives, fails, and falls silent and that he cannot manipulate, the language he spoke at one time and that has now separated itself from him, now gravitating in a space increasingly silent. Most of all, he discovers that he is not always lodged in his language in the same fashion and that in the location from which a subject had traditionally spoken in philosophy – one whose obvious and garrulous identity has remained unexamined from Plato to Nietzsche – a void has been hollowed out in which a multiplicity of speaking subjects are joined and severed, combined and excluded.”

    On the one hand, Foucault saw sexuality as the locus of power in the body, and therefore, as the primary site for the spiral relation of transgression. But his work never ceased to probe all the ways that individuated subjects bring social norms into the very process of their individuation, and also (perhaps less obviously) how they grapple with that paradoxical relationship and transform it, without ever achieving a clean break but instead a sort of perpetual recombination that is at the same time, perpetually fragmented, exposed to multiplicity and dispersal… What seems to me interesting in art today is how people do exactly that, particularly with the extremely pervasive norms of contemporary capitalism, expressed and developed through all kinds of vectors including infrastructure. I did once try to get at this tension or spiral relation in a text that is about subjectivity and infrastructure, and that also includes some sustained discussions of art work. Given the vastness of the infrastructure at stake, this is very much a “sublime substrate,” an everyday vastness, seemingly manageable on a road map but also terrifyingly huge, overwhelming, very much a locus of power. I would be curious what you think about it and also to read your discussions of work you think of as transgressive in the particular sense you are talking about. The text I refer to is here:

    best, Brian Holmes

    Comment by Brian Holmes — December 12, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

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