Articles Issue #18
BY Nicholas BrownOctober 8, 2015
BY Nicholas BrownOctober 8, 2015
Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture is a full-scale, monochrome rendering in fiberglass, duplicated piece by piece through a mechanical process, of a totaled Pontiac Grand Am.1
The accident that wrecked the original car was a fatal one:
If ghosts existed, would they haunt the actual substance of a place or object? Or would the object’s topology, geometry, or shape be enough to hold the ghost? Unpainted Sculpture began as an investigation into the nature of a haunting. I studied many automobiles that were involved in fatal collisions. Eventually I chose a car that I felt held the presence of its dead driver. (Charles Ray 106).
It is initially difficult to imagine a non-bullshit meaning for this paragraph, whose form acknowledges its own nonsensicality. One cannot run an experiment on initial conditions that are themselves counterfactual: since ghosts are acknowledged not to exist, the success or failure of the sculpture can’t establish how they would act if they did. When one begins to examine the sculpture, however, it is hard not to be struck by a certain presence, physical (or better, indexical) rather than ghostly, in the force with which the steering wheel has been smashed in by the body of the driver, and in the tremendous crumpling of the front of the car on the driver’s side. It is hard not to narrativize this observation as a kind of shock: “Something has happened here, someone has died.”
But with this thought, the game Ray is playing becomes clear: of course nobody died in that car, because it’s not a car but rather a representation of a car. It is in this light that we should understand the fact that Ray, who often uses modifications of scale to emphasize the sculpturality of his work, employs a sculptural process that not only involves an indexical element but produces a 1:1 scale, reserving the obvious signs of constructedness — which abound on close inspection — to details like the broken taillights, as necessarily fudging the bulbs that ought to be there as unpainted statuary necessarily fudges the pupils.
Since ghosts are acknowledged not to exist, the “haunting” can be none other than the effect of presence, which the sculpture manages to produce through its “topology, geometry, or shape” rather than its being the actual site of an event. Since this representation is produced by means of a process that includes an unescapably impersonal mechanical aspect — thus carrying through a causal chain from the initial impact all the way to the sculpture in the gallery — it is closer in that sense to a photograph than to a sculpture in the traditional sense. But while one might be shocked at the photograph of an automobile accident, one would not even for an instant be awed at the fact that “something has happened here” because, as Walter Benjamin understood perfectly well, there is no “here and now” to a photograph, whose reproducibility strips “the Here and Now [from] the artwork — its unique presence [Dasein] at the place where it is.”2
When Sabastião Salgado informs us of one of his images that “a person was killed through that hole” in a window through which we view a young child, any awe that the statement elicits attaches to the hole, not to the photograph which, wherever it is, is nowhere near the hole. But as we have seen, the “here and now” of the notion that “something has happened here, someone has died” is just as much absent from Unpainted Sculpture. The “aura” or “ghost” — it doesn’t matter which, since both are proxies for the “here and now” of the awe-inducing ritual object, the physical trace of the unique moment when something happened — is as stripped from the death car by Unpainted Sculpture as it is from the artwork by the Benjaminian photograph: “Unpainted Sculpture never existed in Detroit” (106).
But unlike the Benjaminian photograph, Unpainted Sculpture does retain a certain “here and now,” the here and now of the unique artwork in a gallery. But neither is this “here and now” the point: rather, the sculpture is about two kinds of “here and now”; it thematizes — and in so doing, separates — two kinds of presence rather than serving as a mere vehicle for giving us either of them. To narrativize once more: Ray gives us the haunted object in order to take it away, but he can only take it away by first giving it to us. “Rather than a ghost, it was I who began to follow the geometry of form in space… how my sculpture sat on the ground, what detail was important, what areas should be left blank, where my sculpture begins and ends” (Charles Ray 106). The sculpture ends up insisting on its own autonomy; it ceases to be about the death car, and ends up being about its own autonomy from the death car. We recall that for Benjamin art that “rejects not only any social function, but any determination by content” (144, 224) — art that insists on its autonomy — is a mere dialectical inversion of its pre-capitalist foundations in ritual, as an “instrument of magic” (146, 225). There is nothing obviously implausible about this thesis, according to which the ontological uniqueness of the work of art upon which high modernism had insisted was, as it were, no more than a “negative theology” (144, 224). But what Ray’s sculpture demonstrates is that the opposite is true: Unpainted Sculpture produces the autonomy of the work of art not as a (negative) version of its aura, but as autonomy from aura: art stands firmly against the magical “unique presence [Dasein]” of the artwork in the same gesture by which it insists on its autonomy, its ontological difference from an object in which “something has happened.” The greatness of Unpainted Sculpture lies in the fact that it does not encounter the problem of sculptural presence as an obstacle, but rather produces it as a risk to be courted.
But the idea that “something has happened here” is then not entirely false. As we have just seen, Unpainted Sculpture produces a structure that can be described as an experience; alternatively, Unpainted Scultpture produces an experience that can be described as a structure. Something does happen in the sculpture; something is, as Heidegger might say, at work in the work. This aesthetic happening is, as an empirical experience, contingent; as form, it is not. This oscillation is not unique to Charles Ray or to sculpture; it is constitutive of the work of art as such. It is, indeed, precisely what Kant meant when he described the aesthetic judgment as at one and the same time subjective and universal.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04 centrally concerns a kind of experience, one where “everything is the same but a little bit different.” 3 The book’s epigraph, borrowed from Benjamin, locates this experience as fundamentally the experience of the future: in a “world to come,” say the Hassidim, “everything will be as it is now, just a little different” (np).4 A central instance is the justly celebrated episode concerning the “Institute for Totaled Art.” Based on the actual Salvage Art Institute, the Institute for Totaled Art collects and exhibits damaged artworks that have been legally declared by the insurance industry to have zero value and therefore can no longer circulate as commodities.5 For the fictional as for the real Institute, the interest of these “totaled” works is that they are, in the words of the real Institute, “no longer art”: they have been, in the words of 10:04, “formally demoted from art to mere objecthood” (130). Once the commodity character is legally removed from an art-commodity, its incoherent claim to be art falls to the ground along with the claim to value, and we are left with the object that the art-commodity already was: the same, only a little bit different in that it has neither economic value nor the claim to artistic value for which the monetary value was supposed to have been a proxy. This is how both the real and the fictional Institutes understand their missions: the founder of the fictional Institue smashes a Jeff Koons balloon dog. “’It’s worth nothing,’” she hisses, looking “like a chthonic deity of vengeance” (132).
But the experience of totaled art is bifurcated. The protagonist of 10:04 is drawn to an “unframed Cartier-Bresson print” (132) whose damage is to the protagonist indiscernible:
[L]ike everyone else, I was familiar with material things that seemed to have taken on a kind of magical power as a result of a monetizable signature… But it was incredibly rare … to encounter an object liberated from that logic. What was the word for that liberation? Apocalypse? Utopia? … It was as if … the twenty-one grams of the market’s soul had fled. … [I]t was art before or after capital. (133-4)
If we allow for the possibility that some totaled pieces are not just art-commodities but also artworks, then the legal stripping of their commodity character leaves them “the same, only totally different” (133). Totally, rather than a little, because the crucial thing is not the damage, which can be great, slight, or imperceptible, but the artwork’s liberation from the obligation to be a commodity at all. The work’s aura, it’s “magical power” — which in the protagonist’s account is identical with its commodity character, the “result of a monetizable signature,” another version of the Benjaminian “here and now” — is stripped, leaving behind not a banal object, but rather a work: “art before or after” capitalism. Only by banishing its commodity character, here equated with the auratic presence of the signature, can a work of art assert its being as art. Against Benjamin but with Unpainted Sculpture, for the protagonist of 10:04 magic and art as an ontologically distinct category are not only separable but opposites. Under the sign of the “monetizable signature,” what is set aside is not only the unique event but also the monetary value that attaches to it: the commodity-character of the artwork stands, in 10:04, firmly with aura, magic, and event — and against art.
Back in the “mundane economy” (19) the protagonist is a member of the Park Slope Food Coop, where he “liked having the money [he] spent on food and household goods go to an institution that made labor shared and visible and that you could usually trust to carry products that weren’t the issue of openly evil conglomerates” (96). But unlike “the zealots who… looked down with a mixture of pity and rage at those who’d shop at Union Market or Key Food,” the protagonist knows that as something he “likes,” his “morally” un-trivial preference is a market choice rather than a political act: “Complaining indicated that you weren’t foolish enough to believe that belonging to the co-op made you meaningfully less of a node in a capitalist network” (95). But if his beliefs are more sophisticated than those of the “zealots,” his actions are indistinguishable from theirs. Moreover, if the zealots didn’t exist, they would have to be invented by the skeptics to act the way they do: “for most of the members I knew… insulting the co-op was a mode of participation in its culture” (95).
While the material indistinguishability of art from commodity nonetheless reveals a “total” difference (the Cartier-Bresson print), here the little bit of difference (a more or less sophisticated understanding of how capitalism works) is no more than an alibi for an essential sameness. Later, when the protagonist meets with a student who has beliefs that are the same as his but a little different in that the student takes his seriously, the student can only appear to the protagonist — and to us — as “frightening” (217). Indeed it is the hallmark of the protagonist that, neither liberal “zealot” nor “frightening” radical, he believes what the radical believes and acts how the liberal acts. He is, in effect, a Stoic in the bad, Hegelian sense of someone who substitutes his freedom to interpret the world for the possibility of changing it.6 In the world of the novel, a world of potential co-op members, it is hard to imagine political beliefs making much of a difference. On the other hand, the ostensible content of the novel is more or less a set of political beliefs, namely that of the protagonist and the multiform ways he imagines the world to come “as it is now, just a little different,” a weak Messianism that is announced in the epigraph and plays out in every episode. One cannot immediately reject the possibility that 10:04 is a pure art-commodity after all, selling us our own self-selection into the co-op of those too smart to be liberals and too sane to be anything else.
With this we have arrived at the center of the problem that animates 10:04 which, as a novel, is a potential art commodity in the way a poem generally isn’t: “Nobody is going to give me strong six figures for a poem” (137), worries the protagonist, who is, sort of, writing the book we are reading.7 The mode in which the protagonist understands the logic of “totaled” art is, in line with the epigraph, messianic: the work of art does not resist the commodity form, but is rather, in being totaled, delivered from it. The alterity of the totaled work is therefore temporal, not historical: it represents the artwork “before or after” capitalism, art in the reconciled “world to come.”
But while capitalism will come to an end — one way or another — the reconciled world will never come. The image of a reconciled world is then an ideal category — a completely legitimate one, indeed not only a literary commonplace familiar from at least the early romantics but an allegorization of what the work of art, since the early romantics, in fact embodies — but its temporal projection is peculiar, possibly illegitimate, certainly contradictory. But whatever the case, the novel does not have the luxury of waiting for a future that will never come; it must make its way in the present. So the problem of the ahistorical future pertains to the narrator, but is not the problem confronted by the novel. The problem of the narrator is, in other words, relativized by the problem of the novel. So no matter how close Ben Lerner is to Ben Lerner, the problems confronted by Ben Lerner the narrator and Ben Lerner the novelist are fundamentally different — and this is true even if Ben Lerner the novelist understands the world exactly like Ben Lerner the narrator does.
The novel’s understanding of the work of art is, in other words, the same as its protagonist’s, just a little different. If the concept of the artwork as an ontologically distinct category emerges only in the immediate aftermath of the Kantian separation of aesthetic judgment from judgments of the good or the agreeable, a separation that is in turn conditioned by the coercive power of the state and of the market — a double thesis that would take more than a digression to establish — then art in this sense does not pre-exist capitalism and will certainly not survive it, but rather presents an unemphatic alterity to it: art is not the before or after of capitalism, but its determinate other. Whether or not this argument is correct, it is inarguably the case both for 10:04 and for its own self-understanding that it is published neither before or after capitalism, and therefore not only necessarily encounters the problem of the art commodity but, as we have seen, produces it as a temptation to be courted.
On Jennifer Ashton’s account, 10:04 presents itself as “totaled in advance.”8 Not only is 10:04 a novel, it is a novel that, in the novel, has to meet certain market conditions. Primarily, it has to include in it the New Yorker story that was the basis of the protagonist’s “strong six-figure” advance — a story that itself has, in the novel, been heavily revised to suit the editors of the New Yorker — indeed, the “section I considered the story’s core” has to be cut. The story itself is more or less what you’d expect — a finely-written vignette with a tidy epiphanic tear-jerk at the end — leavened only with some metafictional touches that read either as mainly decorative or as preparations for 10:04 itself. But since by the time we read the interpolated story many of its fictionalized elements, emotions, and turns of phrase — fictionalized from the already fictionalized but more chaotically and therefore plausibly presented versions in the novel — have already been introduced, we have in effect been trained to see the storified version as arch and stagey and the climax in particular as a completely artificial sucker-punch. But this staging-within-staging is not geared, as one might expect, toward producing a reality effect in the material outside the internal frame — the classic and as it were natural use of the technique. Rather, the staginess of the story serves to cripple the illusionistic narrative material of the book. 10:04 cancels in advance its status as the art-commodity that it is. The emotional gut-punch of a climactic kiss, for example, is not only deliberately theatrical (it involves sprinting to a train platform to take back a farewell), but “it never happened” (210) — the same phrase that accompanies the overwrought finale of the short story (81). The market paid in the “strong six figures” for a novel, and the market got a novel: the protagonist is skeptical of “’literary novelists’ who actually sold a ton of books” (154), but the author is of course a literary novelist who sells a ton of books. But the interpolated story trains us to see the market and subtract it from the work. In the work that is totaled in advance, it is not the work but the commodity character that is damaged: once you understand how the subway kiss works within the work — the immediate (“the sexiest kiss in the history of independent film” ) and architectural cues that alert us to the fact that the scene in some sense “never happened” — you realize that the main sense in which it “never happened” is that it has nothing to do with what 10:04 is trying to do and everything to do with what it has to do to assert its autonomy from the “literary novel,” just as the car that “never existed in Detroit” has nothing to do with what Unpainted Sculpture is trying to do and everything to do with what it has to do in order to do assert its autonomy from sculptural presence.