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Some Comments on the Claims Made For and Against Painting

This is the text of a talk I gave in Vienna now about 10 years ago. It has never been published. The occasion was a conference called “The Field of Painting,” organized by Achim Höchdoerfer. Achim had curated a large show of my work at the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna in 2003, and we’d become friends.

I am going to try to account for the reasons painters have consistently felt it OK to take note of the critiques aimed at the validity of their art form but almost always dismiss them in practice. A lot of what I have to say here is well-known in the mainly unspoken way things can get well-known. So I am trying to spell out what I think many people already know, and what I believe most painters do think.

The critiques were aimed at all the traditional art forms, not just painting, but the debate has focused on painting more than on sculpture, even though the same claims have been made for both arts.

I’ll reiterate those claims, as briefly as I can (and I apologize in advance if its not brief enough). They’ve been elaborated over a long historical period, beginning probably with Vasari and concluding, or being substantially interrupted, in the 1970s.

For all that time, it was claimed that a work of art, once it attains a certain level of accomplishment, is an instance of a kind of sovereign relationship of person to world. It appears to be a concretization of an intuition of the totality of life and existence, an instance of what has been called “world disclosure.” But of world disclosure as illusion.

The argument proposes that art has no real cognitive content, it does not produce knowledge; rather it produces an illusion of the experience of having knowledge of something, a subjective exhilaration that we experience intensely and at the same time comprehend to be illusory, a phantom of cognition.

The old claim continues: the world-disclosing achievement of the artist is a model for all practical activity. Although its defenders insist that not everything is art, the methods of artistic creation, innovation, reflection, and construction are models for an emancipated relationship to activity and practicality in general and, therefore, a model for the formation of the creative individual who is able to live as a cosmopolitan world-citizen in a state of peace with himself and others. This person is the famous “autonomous subject.”

Experiences of world-disclosure are accomplished by achievements in certain long-tested forms of art—what we can call the canonical forms. These forms, like easel painting or lyric poetry, have proven over long periods of time to be the appropriate sites for this activity; but, more than that, they were practices through which the value of world-disclosure had been invented and developed through history. It was on this basis that they constituted a canon not just of exemplary works in each art, but a canon of the forms of art themselves. As such, they embodied criteria that could be effective in deciding if an activity was or was not “art.” Although the existence of the canon gave no conceptual guarantee or definition of art, it was accepted as one, de facto, based on its own history, or histories.

The critique of the canonical forms of art was an aspect of the wider “revaluation of values” initiated in the nineteenth century in the wake of the complications of Enlightenment, revolutionary culture, and the upheavals of Imperialism. It has been to a great extent a critique of that sovereign relation of autonomous subject to world. Outside this context there is no meaningful reason to concentrate any over-riding critical attention on the canonical forms as such, or in particular on painting. Unless painting has a special relationship to the modern notion of sovereignty, unless it can be said to stand as an instance of it, a model of it, it is simply one métier, one practice, among others of equal significance or insignificance.

But we know very well that painting has stood as this model, has been charged, and has charged itself, with exemplifying this relation to the world and to culture, and that therefore the critique of sovereignty was rightly very much involved with the assessment of painting as a canonical art, as possibly the most canonical of the canonical. The proponents of painting as world-disclosure, of “great art,” and the canon, by going on and on about it for centuries, were really “asking for” this critique, they really “had it coming to them.”

And it has seemed that they have really gotten it—for close to a hundred years now, from two main sources, both identified of course with avant-garde and neo-avant-garde aesthetics, or anti-aesthetics. One of these I will call the bohemian-Duchampian stream, and other the Soviet-Constructivist stream.

The bohemian-Duchampian is the most tendentious objection to bourgeois culture, made from a position self-consciously within it. It originated in experiences of personal disaffection from conformist mores in “high capitalism,” so perfectly expressed by the great French poets of the second half of the nineteenth century. The disaffection is itself an expression of an attachment to art as an exemplar of something better than the social order, a “promise of happiness,” to use the phrase coined by those poets’ forerunner, Stendhal. This promise is implicitly made to everyone and anyone, regardless of class, race, gender and so on, and so is one of the most radical claims emerging from the bourgeois democratic revolutions.

The notion of the “promise of happiness” radicalizes the old universal claims for art. It tells us that alienated individuals—that is, modern citizens—need and value art in the process of realizing their own individuality and autonomy in the struggle against their alienation. The art in question, then, has a function in the formation and care of those autonomous individuals. It is further assumed that all may achieve this state, and that it is the telos of human existence, it is Freedom.

Autonomy is realized and formalized socially in the categories of citizenship and the legal definition of the individual as a person separate from the state or clan, a person who can be no-one’s property, a person as an end-in-him-or-herself. We can call this the “surplus value” of the legality of citizenship in the bourgeois-democratic concept of society and culture. This surplus becomes an essential aspect of the notion of culture and art after Romanticism, and is the foundation on which the notion of autonomous art is created. Autonomous art is legal autonomy in the form of world-disclosure.

The problem is that capitalism and bourgeois culture, and bourgeois democracy itself, have no fixed relation to this surplus. Cultural development is too rapid and complicated, there are too many new energies emerging from the modernization process itself to assure any predictable status for “surplus quality.” There’s a constant creation of apparently new values, more practical and popular, that suggest the possibility of a culture that can do without much of that “surplus quality,” and a type of citizen who does not know much of, or, finally, does not have much need for, that surplus, and will not miss it when it disappears, this new citizen having adjusted to the limitations, or characteristics, of the new mass culture.

The problem for the avant-garde is how to guarantee or validate—or simply keep alive—the notion of surplus quality under contemporary conditions. There is no self-evident validation available, since the attachment to the surplus depends on an already-existing, but vague and even antiquated notion of the “good life.” And although modernizing society does recognize the value of moral and sentimental education, many of its leaders understand that the world may function quite well with a minimum of that sort of thing, and, for many people, with a very bare minimum, administered by various public and private agencies and, increasingly, by the mass media and entertainment industries, where the notion of surplus is reduced to that of (relative) prosperity.

This is the foundation of the famous bourgeois mediocrity—the reduction of the notion of surplus to a functional minimum, compatible with the capitalist cycle and the good order of conformist culture. This mediocrity is the great threat to the canonical arts and their standards of quality and meaningfulness, and is the subject of avant-garde art and critique from Flaubert’s and Baudelaire’s time through Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939, to Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory and Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” in the 60s.

The most consistent artistic response to this was the occultation of art, to use a term favored by the Surrealists. A counterposition of what we call “depth” or “excellence” to the surrounding mediocrity and numbness of an increasingly instrumentalized culture.

And, to complicate matters, the surplus cannot be protected by anything but innovation, by the New. New conditions, with all their threatening features, have to be encountered and somehow transformed, tested in terms of the occultation of art made necessary by the destructive direction of overall cultural development. In this way, the romantic notion of universal emancipation and consciousness-raising is placed in a state of emergency by about 1920—and has remained there ever since. The emergency situation has become permanent. We are arrested, held fast at the stage of preservation of the cultural surplus, our efforts continually undermined by the success of the mass culture forms, which attract the attention and interest of artists, mainly because they are the site of the most striking innovations and newness. This sense of runaway newness just keeps getting bigger, more extensive, and artists seem to keep falling further behind. And as this happens, the viability of autonomous art, especially in its canonical forms, appears to weaken.

It is more and more difficult to resist the claim that newness and significance is essentially the province of technological change and a mass culture that has to a great extent absorbed many of the characteristics of “difficult,” occulted high art. Pop Art was of course the watershed moment for this.

But the Readymade is more important here than Pop Art, and moreover predicts it, and that is why I’ve added the name “Duchamp” to this stream, rather than the name “Warhol.”

The Readymade is an occultation taken to the extreme and turned inside out, appearing as a popularization, a making-available of art to anyone and everyone. A popularization as provocation—the formula of avant-garde scandal. The magic of the Readymade is that it achieves a Mallarméan sense of difficulty while apparently rejecting the interiority of “difficult art.”

It accepts the technological and social transformations of the modernization process and substitutes them at a stroke for the métiers of canonical art, opening the door for any and every process and method—and any and every person with any and every skill or lack of skill—to practice and succeed at art. It concretizes that Romantic concept that anyone can be an artist, but does so in a way devoid of all romanticism. Duchamp’s gesture sums up all the uncertainties about the canon and its relation to the modernization process.

There are many other things to say about the Readymade and its effects, but the most significant point in this context is that, although it raised and answered new questions about the nature of art, and appeared to suggest an altogether new kind of art, and even though some commentators (and to an extent, Duchamp himself) claimed that it instituted a negation of the existing concept and definition of art—it did not after all manage to negate or invalidate anything. It was able only to add an apparently infinite range of new possibilities by removing the long-held criteria for excluding them, by showing that the canons were not binding concepts of art, but only examples of it.

But although the Readymade was familiar to every informed and sophisticated artist, at least in Europe, by 1920, it was not a major factor in avant-garde thinking until after 1960, when it is in turn radicalized by conceptual art. Painting and sculpture, in the hands of Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, or Mondrian were still such powerful models for art that they muted the intellectual implications of the Readymade gesture for about 40 years.

The conceptual reduction of art to a bare statement of that statement’s validity as a work of art is the conclusion of the discourse initiated by the Readymade. The conceptual reduction reiterated the impossibility of excluding any object, gesture, or event from the designation “art,” and it did so in a way that overcame any of the ambiguities in Duchamp’s stance. Over the years between 1920 and 1960, hundreds of artists had gotten used the grandeur of “great modern art” and had even gotten a bit tired of it. That made the art itself look a bit tired, and in that atmosphere younger artists had gotten more intrigued by the open field suggested by Duchamp’s invention, and in that process the conditions matured for what we can call the current postconceptual condition.

The most important characteristic of the postconceptual condition is that it leaves the validity of all the forms of art, the most ancient and the latest, intact, and equivalent. This entire avant-garde stream, then, has found no way to establish criteria for invalidating any art form, or creating any new hierarchy of significant forms.

Even if it were feasible to think of the Readymade as a negation of other forms of art, we would still have to conclude that the avant-garde wasn’t able to do anything with this negation. It’s probably very Duchampian—this “negation” that doesn’t negate anything and that leaves everything just as it was before the negation was enacted. And in recognizing that having opened the field so radically to an infinity of new forms and possibilities was the most significant innovation of the period since 1920, we still are obliged to admit that none of this did anything to reduce the validity of the canonical forms.

The most challenging of the new postconceptual positions is what I would call an art of pseudo-heteronomy, an art that creates a mimesis of non-autonomous or post-autonomous art from within the institutional and categorical framework of autonomous art. This is art that declares its intention to escape the limitations and framework of autonomous art by means of an imitation or inclusion or quotation of extra-artistic activities, methods, situations, etc. It enacts an escape but it never actually escapes. It creates a fascinating uncertainty about whether it wants to escape.

The only step further than this would be actual, realized, post-autonomous art, authentically non-autonomous art, and there is only one significant model for that: the one originating with and modeled on Soviet-style Constructivism or Productivism.

The concept and criteria of that Constructivism also depend on a critique of bourgeois culture, but this time not from within it. Its foundation is Marxism and more specifically, Leninism.

Leninism makes two proposals that are relevant here:

First, it insists that bourgeois democracy is essentially an instrument of class rule, maybe the final form of it, the most sophisticated form of class dictatorship. Democracy’s virtues, if it could be said to have any, are irrelevant for Leninism, minor issues of little significance. Bourgeois democracy is just something to overcome.

Second, it asserts that the proletariat was brought into being by mass industry and is identified almost ontologically with the modern industrial process. From here follows the claim that the proletariat’s cultural life and all its possible cultural achievements will all be rooted in that relation to mass industry. Furthermore, since the proletariat is the precursor to the universally emancipated humanity to come, its roots are the roots of all future civilization.

These tenets are reiterated in all aspects of Soviet-era Constructivism, and have become familiar over the past nine decades as we have learned more about that context, and as the basic principles have been adopted and experimented with by generations of artists, both within and outside of the Soviet world of “Actually Existing Socialism.”

The framework established by Leninist Constructivism makes it clear that the bohemian avant-garde is essentially a protest movement and that it has no means of going beyond the limits of capitalist property and legal relations and their corollary, autonomous art. Constructivism aims at more than protest; it aims at reconstruction and “re-functioning” of the category of art altogether (I use an English translation of a favourite Brecht-Benjaminian term of the 1970s). This is an ambitious aim and I have been continually surprised by the fact that, 90 years later, it has achieved so little. The art of the last 90 years is overwhelmingly autonomous art with some important instances of pseudo- or mimetically heteronomous art.

Nevertheless, the theory, or the discourse, or the model, of post-autonomous constructivist art retains some serious status, even if there are almost no artistic examples to point to. It does so because it is essentially the only counter-model to autonomous art, the only one that seems to have grounds to propose a really different kind of culture, one in which autonomous art is no longer of any great importance.

And it may be that an authentic post-autonomous art will emerge from this mimetic process; that possibility is one of the most intriguing issues in the contemporary discussion. If that does happen, it will do so in the usual unpredictable way. There is only one aspect of this process that we can speculate about with some sense of concreteness. That is the question of the internal problems of the Leninist-Constructivist formulation and why it is not likely to play a part in the next phase of artistic evolution.

If bourgeois democracy is just class rule, then the legal status of the subject of bourgeois democracy—the person’s autonomous relation to the state and state power—is insignificant. Therefore, any form of expression of that autonomy is no more than an ideological reflection of the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” The autonomous person is a phantom of bourgeois ideology and its non-entity is exposed in ideological critique. Now, turning to art in this spirit, we must make the obvious move to the incrimination of autonomous art and its canon, and thence to the notion of art having to go “beyond autonomy” in order to participate in the revolutionary reconstruction of society. The forms required for this reconstruction will be the post-autonomous forms conceived on the Constructivist model.

These forms are most suitably realized in the new media generated by modern industry. There is no compelling justification for retaining older media because they are the residue of the dictatorship of the old ruling classes and cannot but drag consciousness back to servile attitudes, which are “obsolete,” and “objectively reactionary,” to use terms that were popular in both the 1920s and the 1970s. The genuinely New will emerge from the artist’s transcendence of both artistic autonomy and the handicraft nature of the art of the studios and ateliers.

Here we have a way to reinvent art based on the most developed state of the productive forces and division of labour, a way to spread creative approaches into every conceivable social domain with unpredictable results, an unprecedented openness to the future.

This is an attractive alternative to the permanent emergency and the exhausting task of preserving “surplus quality,” an alternative to the besieged condition of the old-school type artist, endlessly worn down by the simple momentum of overall change and the apparent restrictions of the canon.

However, in order to justify the rejection of the canonical, autonomous arts one has to accept the abrogation of legal personhood, tacitly or otherwise, on the basis of the Leninist critique of bourgeois democracy. Historically, most if not all critiques of Leninism have concentrated on this, seeing in it the justification for authoritarian, even totalitarian forms of rule, as a self-defeating form of revolution, one leading from old-world authoritarianism to new-world totalitarianism, social disaster and regression.

This sort of argument against Leninist categories was not taken seriously during the 1920s and then again, in the 1960s and 70s; the “progressive consensus” was that they were reactionary and irrelevant. But that consensus has disintegrated in the light of the disappearance of the USSR, the contemporary confusion about the nature of socialism, and in the new recognition of the global significance of individual rights and legal personhood.

Without analyzing this further, we can recognize that there was no valid foundation for the kind of negation of personhood and sovereignty insisted on by Leninism. And therefore, by extension, none either for the negation of autonomous art and the dismissal of its canonical forms to some dustbin of history.

If the Leninist stream was wrong about sovereignty, it has to also have been wrong about autonomy.

If it was wrong about autonomy, it has to have been wrong about world-disclosure, and about artistic quality, and about the judgment of taste.

If it was wrong about all that, it has to have been wrong about painting, too, just as it was wrong about all the canonical arts and their status and value in the present, then as now.

But, when we say “it was wrong,” this doesn’t mean it contributed nothing of value. The impatience with autonomy, sovereignty, and the canon is real and expresses important reservations about all of these matters. This impatience has become a cultural norm and has been popularized to the point that it now has mass-cultural, pop art forms. It is a permanent, irreversible, element of how art now develops. In this sense, in art nothing is wasted, nothing is irretrievably obsolete, nothing is simply “reactionary.”

The world-disclosure framework of the canonical arts remains valid in the same terms and context that its apparent antithesis, the neo-constructivist, anti-autonomous framework, has gained its own validity.

This means that painting is what it always has been in modern times (and maybe in all times); that its special relation to that sense of sovereignty cannot be dissolved by the critiques that were devised for that purpose. But, while those critiques failed in dismissing painting, they played a major part in legitimating and fostering the evolution of the newer forms of art. Once we articulate this new relationship through a critical leave-taking from the dogmatic Leninist terms of the 1970s, we are obliged to recognize that the canonical arts and the new forms that work counter to the canon are not in an ideological-critique-type antagonistic relationship with each other. Rather, the legitimacy of both the canonical arts and the newer forms is rooted in the complexity and aliveness of the concept that binds them together, that of autonomous art. The new post-autonomous, non-autonomous or even anti-autonomous art forms, should they actually step over the boundary of the pseudo-heteronomous, will be an outcome of the intricacy and expansiveness of the concept of autonomous art itself. They will not be able to leave it behind without any memory-trace or mark, nor, at best, will they wish to do so, for their own sake.

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