Sunday, March 16, 2008

Masterpieces of Conservative Intuition: Duchamp's Urinal

Alain Badiou talks somewhere, quite grandly, about art; a theory to art to which he does not subscribe, in which art appears as something like "the condescension of the infinite into the material abjection of the body."

There are many good reasons to talk about art. It's pleasant to discuss pleasant things. It can be a way of obliquely discussing political questions, since the distinctions between ethics and aesthetics are somewhat indefinite. Also there is a great deal of money sloshing around unrestrained by dreary market imperatives.

It is perhaps not Professor Badiou's intention here to be working through an explicit critique of political conservatism.

The infinite is certainly a category of the postmodern political aesthetic. In employing such figures such as "the statistical mysteries of GNP" one suggests the real abstraction of things; infinite displacement. But this way of looking at the world is prefigured by more ancient ideas, those of modern and precapitalist conservatism.

Conservatism has an afiliation with theology. It is nonetheless fundamentally pragmatic and emotional. Its basis is something like the idea that human institutions are justified by a series of validating operations tending to infinity. This perpective is, or ought to be, underwritten by the relatively static nature of the society in which it subsists. Several strands of distinctively modern ideology depend to an extent on the same feeling, notably evolutionary biology and political economy.



Having carefully studied Duchamp's urinal, not to mention the theoretical articles supporting it in The Blind Man, it is hard not to be convinced that the opinion of many art-school professionals, who assert that this work expresses Duchamp's personal lyricism, and that whatever such a remarkable individual designates as art is so, is not only wrong, but expresses prejudices comparable to those Duchamp attacks. The affective basis of Duchamp's work is, clearly, the conflation of the conservative paradigm, where an institution is validated retroactively irrespective of its practical usefulness (as a thing detached from its circumstances, such detachment being unacceptable), and an object of no practical usefulness as art (though with undeniable practical usefulness in itself, as Hegel was fond of saying). This is a deconstruction of conservatism, and it's odd to find it discussed in a way that conforms to the tenets of this same conservatism.

The conservative instinct is, however, very strong, meshing as it does with material interests, and can be expected to cling tenaciously to the bottle-rack and the bicycle-wheel.

8 comments:

Le Colonel Chabert said...

many art-school professionals, who assert that this work expresses Duchamp's personal lyricism, and that whatever such a remarkable individual designates as art is so, is not only wrong, but expresses prejudices comparable to those Duchamp attacks.



"Kant and the romantics made a fundamental error, which we are now in a position to see. We do not thererby mean to ignore their not inconsiderable merit in posing the problem of what was meant positively, anti-platonically, by the autonomy of art. Nevertheless they committed the error, which has persisted in all their various successors and epigones down to the decadent aestheticists of our own day, of mistaking the semantic immediacy of poetic speech for a synonymous immediacy of intuition or pure image. That is, the took the immediacy which is to be attributed to the semantic un-relatedness and autonomy of poetic speech, in other words its style qua special technical epistemological condition of poetry and art in general, for an absolutized or abstract, generic aspect of poety and art. This view rests on a hypostatic distinction between Art (as ‘form’, intuition, and so on) and non-Art. In short, they confused two things: on the one hand, a specific feature of art, which can be traced and identified critically and scientifically, namely the semantic organicity and autonomy of poetic and artistic thought or discourse; and on the other, a dogmatic, metaphysical notion of the abstract epistemological authonomy of a generic element (intuition or image) of that same poetic discourse or thought, which in fact shares with scientific discourse both intuition and concept.

"The error of Kant, the romantics and the idealists arose then from the very proper modern need to give a positive explanation of the immediacy, or un-relatedness, of poetic or artistic values and hence their autonomy. But they could not meet the need to explain this immediacy, which is perceived ambiguously by ordinary aesthetic consciousness pre-eminently if not exclusively in emotional effects, except by drawing on the modern metaphysics of transcendental subjectivity (heir to neo-Platonic aesthetic motifs) and entrusting to the general epistemological category of feeling, that is immediacy or particularity, the task of finding a solution which it could not possibly provide. Since in fact what was being sought was the solution to the problem of expressive immediacy, the answer itself could only be found in a special, technical, epistemological examination of the semantic problematic of cognitive expression – in other words of actual concrete thought. A correct explanation of the epistemological phenomenon of expressive immediacy, as opposed to the myths of metaphysics, shows us that it is not at all the same thing as cognitive immediacy. The latter is a contradiction in terms, as Socrates and Plato, not to mention Kant in the first critique, has taught us."

- Galvano della Volpe, Critique of Taste

catmint4 said...

this "is not only wrong,"

the adhd was kicking in a this point. The righteous tone of "this is wrong!" - should really be saved for worse excesses than dopey artschool teachers. Gaza, you know.

Though perhaps designations such as "secularised religious" would be taken less as slander as a tangent for developing the next thing etc.

catmint4 said...

I will look up della Volpe, though its rare to see the old Verso books. Interesting. Thankyou.

catmint said...

My impression is that romanticism isn't really a strong value in modern life. It even seems absurd to express it in these terms, now. It's drifted somewhat. If it has become more prevalent among intellectuals this is maybe because the field in which they orient themselves has tipped slightly, the pressures are different. "Socialist politics" especially, has a different set of connotations. The "flavour" of Agamben, for instance, belongs to today.

Romanticism is an intellectual movement (notwithstanding it being a "feeling" intellectual movement). It can look after itself as far as I'm concerned. I'm more interested the vast unexplored sphere of an art whose practitioners were not also its theorists: municipal statues of Queen Victoria, war memorials, that sort of thing. And later the world of "consumerism".

traxus4420 said...

"My impression is that romanticism isn't really a strong value in modern life."

i'd say the biologists and biology commentators who go on about memes and self-organization and evolutionary determinism (the people we're blabbing about on my wordpress blog) are doing something at least reminiscent of romanticism -- maybe an updated vitalism?. and contemporary technofetishism has invoked romantic tropes at least since william gibson.

if i had to pick some general category to characterize the contemporary intellectual affect (the Agamben readers anyway) it would probably be something like high modernist pessimism.

welcome back to posting, btw

catmint said...

cheers

yes, self-organisation "community" - finding perfection in the apparently unformed, this impulse would have an affiliation with "romantic" thinking. The theological side. De Quincey says somewhere "even as orthodox a theologian as Coleridge..."

"high modernism" - I wonder if this doesn't misconstrue the methodology or affective basis of French modernism, alloying it with ideas rooted in the traditions of the English or German speaking countries themselves more permeated with the ideas of Romanticism. Italy remains enigmatic, from my perspective at least.

I enjoyed your rolling discussions concerning "Speculaive Realism", evolution, language theory. I sometimes like things I don't quite understand.

Perhaps Romanticism is more prevelant than I admit. Certainly one shouldn't confuse popular ideas with popular ideas in the media.

traxus4420 said...

"I wonder if this doesn't misconstrue the methodology or affective basis of French modernism, alloying it with ideas rooted in the traditions of the English or German speaking countries themselves more permeated with the ideas of Romanticism."

that seems probable.

"I enjoyed your rolling discussions concerning "Speculaive Realism", evolution, language theory. I sometimes like things I don't quite understand."

so do we, i think.

catmint said...

... I think the thing is that French Romanticism was premised a diferent conception of individualism, the political environment in which it existed differed from that of Britain. Its protagonists were men of affairs.

I don't have any particular antipathy to GA as a romantic writer, a writer with this particular notion of individualism. I'm sure he's a very fine one. I may myself be suspected of these tendencies I criticise. I unfortunately find his political ideas unsound.

The genre he writes in is a kind of industry. It depends on novelty. This novelty serves to sublate a generalised abstraction, which come to think of it is very modernist. It's put together in a way that differs from materialist history of any political stripe. I think its possible you could get something like a "Dr Zhivago" out of this genre, with this icy brilliance dissolved into a more traditional historical account. This may be what GA was aiming at but I don't think it really comes off.