I recently read the book The Conspiracy of Art by Jean Baudrillard. He’s a French philosopher who shocked the art world by declaring that art has ceased to exist and it was a big conspiracy. I just had to read it, even though he admits he’s terribly contradictory. But hey, his ideas on reality helped shape The Matrix. Go figure. So here’s what he says in case you find contemporary art as baffling as I do…
How did we get to this point?!
So, modern art had good intentions. "Let’s liberate the art object! Let’s embrace abstraction!" But by liberating the object it chained the object down to a hidden structure, one even stricter. We paradoxically moved to even more reality with our efforts to unveil elementary structures…something more real than real. With abstraction we moved towards the analytical exploration of an object, to find the truth of it and shed the mask of figuration. But art is a super illusion, not a progress toward analytical truth. Oops.
Then Duchamp signed a urinal…The readymade was a point of no return, rather than the point of departure that most thought it was. The readymade gave us a double curse…the immersion into reality and then conceptual absorption. Now there are no more apples, just the reconstruction of apples by the appleologist of what an apple once was. Art became ideas, signs, allusions, concepts.
…and modern art exploded! There was an explosion of movements in the 20th century (which Baudrillard calls an orgy), a liberation in every way. All possibilities exhausted. Modern art shed everything justifying its existence as art. Wheeee! We explored all the paths of production, fantasies, dreams, and ideals. But then Baudrillard asks, "What do you do after the orgy?"
Finally, Warhol killed art. Warhol was responsible for completely renouncing art by turning commodity into art. It was more like an anthropological event. He successfully abolished the subject of art, the artist, and the creative act. (He was a busy man.) The avant-garde had wanted to occupy nowhere…so Warhol took it there. In a way, modern art was a great disappearing art…to make art disappear. Baudrillard thinks art is now in an irreversible coma, almost like art survived its own suicide attempt.
And aesthetics is dead, too. Duchamp caused the banality of the world to pass into aesthetics…hence aesthetics became banal…hence traditional aesthetics is over. This means critical judgment isn’t possible, because how can you argue with art that declares itself meaningless and banal? He calls the current incarnation of aesthetics transaesthetics.
So, what IS art now?
Art is a conspiracy…because art has ceased to exist in the traditional sense. It’s a tacit agreement we’ve all made in the art world where we’re still upholding privilege but simply going through the motions. The mystification of images has allowed art to hide itself from thought, and enjoy the critical disillusion and commercial frenzy. Good luck trying to challenge or denounce it, because as soon as you enter the system you are automatically a part of it. (Viscous cycle!) The viewer is now a consumer who moves through it all to test their enjoyment/ non-enjoyment of the works. They don’t understand anything most of the time, they simply consume.
Art is democratic…hence no longer special. Paradoxically, the effort to democratize art only reinforced the privilege of the idea of art. By allowing everyday objects to ask the same insoluble questions as those formerly reserved for aristocratic artworks now makes everything equal…villagers rejoice! Everything is art! So now there is no more art object at all, only the idea of art. But we no longer take pleasure in it, only the idea of it. Since anything is art and since anyone can join, there’s nothing special about it anymore.
Art is stuck in the past, stuck recycling itself. Since art has closed its circle of evolution, it now lives in its own little self-referential world. It seems destined to recycle itself endlessly (like fashion styles) as an infinite retrospective of what preceded us. The avant-garde used to project itself into the future, but finding itself displaced in the past it now it creates a regressive utopia. With transcendence gone, contemporary art has this general melancholy about it as though it mourns the image and aesthetics. The art objects only exist in relation to each other in a closed system of signs.
Art is null, reduced to nothing. Since art is recycling all its past ideas anyway, it only makes sense that waste, nullity and insignificance are fashionable. Galleries now manage art byproducts with waste as a prominent theme both in materials and styles. Artists tried to see things for what they really were by nullifying them, and as a result art has confiscated banality and mediocrity as values. Which I think is a shame.
Art is banal…it IS reality. Art is now SO immersed in reality that it is reality. And reality is art. (Oh, double talk!) Before, art was about inventing something other than reality through illusion. Art and reality would potentialize each other, but now that they are not differential poles they have lost their force. They’ve cancelled each other out. There’s no need for the art object to present the worlds reflection back at itself, since the world has swallowed its double. We’re now in this meaningless hyper reality that’s completely transparent and marketable. (But hypervisibility can just extinguish sight…) Art is now all disillusion rather than illusion. It can only now make a paradoxical wink, like reality laughing at itself.
Art is a performance. Since art is reality and there are no art objects, art is now what’s discussed in the artistic community that frantically stares at itself. Each person engages in their own virtual performance in this closed circuit, contributing to the general suffocation. When art embraced the infinite and deregulation, these things lead to the death of it by raising art to the level of performance.
Art tries and fails to be ironic. Artists claim to transcend, to see things twice removed, to be null, to be "true simulators" of pure appropriation…but they’re simply sly and pretentious. Today our irony is worn thin like an advertising gag and has lost its playfulness and kitsch. The innocent nonsense of Duchamp is over. Art has become quotation, simulation, and reappropriation. Painting sadly now denies itself, parodies itself, and then spits itself back out.
Art is indifferent. To be an authentic contemporary painting means it has to be as indifferent to itself as the world has become. Art no longer regards you as the viewer, and it no longer pays attention to you. Instead of being seen, the art is being absorbed and consumed. Strangely, our indifference has become a true social bond.
Art is useless. Thanks to Duchamp, by making any object useless makes it art. (Hence the waste theme only reinforces the notion, "Look, I’m useless!") But it’s a contradiction…because uselessness has no value in itself! The art market is making a spectacle of nonsense and using it for capital! Brilliant. Ironically, when every object is a so called aesthetic object then nothing will be an aesthetic object. Go figure. And older things, coming from the past and therefore useless, automatically acquire an aesthetic aura.
Art is excess. Lack isn’t the problem…it’s surplus and obesity. There is too much of art and simply too much of too much. With new technologies art became all preparation, manipulation, and multi-media hybrid mixing. But more is not better! We have forgotten that subtraction brings force and that power is born of absence.
What should art do?!
With all this pessimism, does Bauldrillard offer any hope? Enigmatically. He calls for a new illusionist to create the emptiness where pure events can happen. Since art is confronted with commodity in modernity, he thinks art should seek salvation in critical denial, go further in formal and fetished abstraction, and escape exchange value by radicalizing it. (Umm, how do we do that?)
Unfortunately he doesn’t dish out any real hope for the future of art. But one of the few optimistic things he said was, "Ideally, art is the solution to problems that are not even raised." That’s enough hope for me!
I’m gonna go make some art right now.
PS--If you actually like this aesthetics stuff, I wrote a summary of The End of Art by Donald Kuspit in a past blog in case you wanna check it out.