Duchamp spoke of destroying art as a Dadaist imperative (Cabane), by taking away the practice and making us think, by making art intellectual. The academic environment has advanced that model through the standardization of thinking, and now we read that great minds of the past would never have passed peer review.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is a Latin phrase found in the work of the Roman poet Juvenal from his Satires (Satire VI, lines 347–8). It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves”? Michel Foucault in The Archeology of Knowledge writes that in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized, and distributed; in his 1982 book Art Worlds, Howard Becker developed a concept that is essential for understanding how art is controlled. He coined the term “gatekeepers” to describe those who control the dissemination of art, the curators, editors, professors and artists who are networked into a global peer paradigm. They limit participation to those sharing the same outlook and language, restricting the game to believers in a cerebral practice and stifling the arts till the poor thing is nearly dead. Will art perish? Can we finally dispense with the art object and be just… you know… smart?
Most fine arts producers graduate from similar schools and share the same values, and these are reflected in their association, production, and the systems created thereby… surely a cultural blindness results from such group judgments.
Anti-Aesthetic, Unsparing, or Incomprehensible
Post-Dadaist art is difficult, conceptual, tough, unsparing… often strategically incomprehensible and purposefully irrelevant. When a cultural object is incomprehensible or irrelevant, we’re expected to be humble. Our judgment might be wrong which puts the work beyond criticism; it is art only because an artist said so and this can be qualified only by the artist, who gains praise for working the rules. What is rewarded is not brilliant art, nor understanding or technique, but a gift for marketing. The artist is now the actor reading the script and playing the role.
Obviously the meaningless, and irrelevant, the boring, tough, and unsparing do more than just shock the art world. Curators encourage the banal and boring as a counter-aesthetic strategy, and increasingly exercise their power as a curator to out-banal the next guy. This inspeak of the overlords helps shame the public with how little we know, how behind the times we are… unless one supports what few understand and fewer care about. George Soros presenting an art award said “I don’t understand what you’re doing but my experts tell me you’re the best in your field”. Susan Sontag warned of this hypertrophy of the intellect that she called the revenge of intellectuals on the artist. Voilà l’infâme qu’il faut écraser.
Does the Art World need an Aspirin?
Science says that art, beauty, and aesthetics are vital to mental health. In the 1970s Abraham Moles and Frieder Nake analyzed links between beauty, information processing, and information theory. Physicist Paul Dirac is quoted saying “if one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has really a sound insight, one is on a sure line of progress”. Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In The Art Instinct, he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. “There is evidence that perceptions of beauty are evolutionarily determined, that things, aspects of people and landscapes considered beautiful are typically found in situations likely to give enhanced survival of the perceiving human’s genes.”
What consequence awaits an art world that denies aesthetics? What form would a self-destructive collective mental illness take? I imagine it similar to the banking system in 2007. Were you to tell a bank executive that sub prime loans lead to disaster… they would explain that their yearly bonus depends on selling more of those loans. Bankers were in a fog of denial as we are today.
I have been tempted to tell a cultural worker they were soap bubble, but of course that will not do. There’s an academic language for that. Bad art is not going to kill anyone but it did produce an entire profession suffering from Dunning–Kruger effect. That’s a cognitive bias in which individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability as much higher than it really is. Dunning and Kruger attributed this bias to a metacognitive incapacity to recognize one’s ineptitude and evaluate one’s own competence accurately. In the arts the theories that contemporary practice follows are so flawed, so erroneous, so ill considered or badly thought out, that our highest minds are reduced to a sacrificium intellectus.
They Call it Slow Art.
A slowly emerging movement is best described as languid art. Four bricks bear the shame of a thin coat of paint. A large sheet of drawing paper is embarrassed by faint charcoal streaks that fail to make much of a mark. Languid art. The work quacks like a duck, looks by the book, but doesn’t draw a discerning eye. An indiscriminate practice is the realm of Thanatos, daemon of non-violent death. His touch was gentle, likened to that of his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep). This counter-aesthetic ideology discouraged talented artists from a personal creative practice, to focus on dry photographs of the dust on their bookshelves. The more one’s reputation rises in the arts the less important the work, until… (I kid you not) you can cut pictures out of art books and be hailed as a genius. Canada’s best is busy cutting out paper dolls. This being the art world, it’s his assistants cutting out the paper dolls for him. The optics are terrible; that’s why we can’t have nice things.
Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.
In a 1986 BBC interview with Joan Blackwell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his time painting was retinal, what you could see… that he made it intellectual. He also said his aim as a Dadaist was to destroy art. In a 1998 panel discussion titled “Vision and Visuality” sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, Rosalind Kraus mentioned that (except for Manet) Duchamp despised optical art and disliked artisanal work. We would be surprised to read that Shakespeare despised grammar, or that Stravinsky loathed musical notes. Optical art requires years of skill, artisanal work is done with concern; these are things to respect, not to despise.
Marcel Duchamp created his brand as a Dadaist by rejecting the Impressionists, aesthetic beauty, and artisanal technique. While he said that he wanted to destroy art, he destroyed his own ability to make art. The ready-made assumes that a factory-made or found object is as good as any work by the artist. If you say that art is not worth making and you say it often, you eventually lose interest in making art. He encouraged the mythology around that ‘stopping’, “but it was not like that… it was a broken leg”, he said, and retired to play chess. Duchamp’s philosophy is dominant today, we’re awash in paper dolls.
At the start of the 20th century new technologies displaced the old and Dadaists danced on the rubble of art. Why are we still trying to shock the bourgeoisie? What level of cultural maturity are we stuck at? We all own art but how many have a urinal hanging in their living room? Picabia wrote: “Art is a pharmaceutical product for idiots.” Art replies; “speak for yourself”. We don’t have to gawk in awe at everything we’re told, and we do need to reassess the values we inherit from Dada. Cleverness and toilet humor get tiresome after a while and those who truly believe art is to piss in should now leave the field to those with higher values. Dada is past its shelf life and a hypertrophy of the intellect is throttling the arts.
Deconstructing Walter Benjamin
Recently an adjunct professor of art history was referencing The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. “For Walter Benjamin”, he said, “what makes certain authentic works of art great is that they contain an inexplicable ‘aura’, an element of mystery”. Benjamin actually said the opposite, that the art of the proletariat sweeps away illusions like aura and authenticity.
Benjamin writes “The art of the proletariat, the art of the working class…brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery”. He asserts the purpose of art is to reproduce reality, film and photography do a better job of it, and the only meaningful goal of art is political propaganda since aesthetics is for pussies. Among other misconceptions Benjamin wrote that “from a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the ‘authentic’ print makes no sense.” 80 years later an authentic Ansel Adams or Edward Weston, printed by the artist, sells for over $80,000. Walter Benjamin failed his reality check; as a Marxist he had to believe and assert the Party line. We should now update our history.
At the core of Benjamin’s argument is “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” Books are made by mechanical reproduction, yet stories and authors retain their aura as much as any work of art. For example Munch’s The Scream is known from reproduction yet remains haunting, as haunting as any Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door. Without its aura, an image is an illustration, not a work of art. Benjamin’s error comes from a materialism which says the only meaning of art lies in an accurate rendition of reality, the essence of art is pictorial reproduction. In fact art consists of hinting there’s more than the obvious.
Some find Benjamin complex and difficult; there’s reason for that but not what we’d expect. When we read something that contradicts our expectations we generally skip that sentence; here we eventually find ourselves with shreds of doubts and hanging chads. The difficulty in reading Benjamin is not intellectual comprehension, it is in matching what we read to what he’s supposed to have said; we must censor the text to meet our expectations. Many of us stop reading when unable to reconcile such contradictions between fact and fiction, and so we leave Benjamin behind as “difficult”. It is near impossible to interpret Benjamin according to the mythology woven in his name.
Walter Benjamin has been praised as an early Marshal McLuhan, a social scientist able to discern objectively the cultural effects of media. Yet on reading the text we find a political message that strays from the truth and then ignores it. Where we thought “The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction” was pure research similar to today’s academic scholarship, it is in fact Marxist propaganda. History reminds us that Marxists saw truth and accuracy as useful when convenient; we cannot read Benjamin innocently when the work has political priorities.
John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was my introduction to analytic thought yet when he bases his writing on Benjamin he repeats the same mistakes. We remember that both were Marxists. Georgy Pyatakov, who was twice expelled from the Party and eventually shot, wrote that a true Bolshevik is “ready to believe [not just assert] that black was white and white was black if the Party required it.” In George Orwell’s book 1984, O’Brien proclaims this very doctrine – two plus two is really five if the Party says it is – which he calls “collective solipsism.”
A communist writer who later left the party disillusioned was Arthur Koestler. In The God That Failed and The Invisible Writing he describes the logical contradictions and resulting sacrificium intellectus that Communist writers suffered. The resulting emotional damage may well explain Benjamin’s catastrophic failure of morale and his consequential suicide in a moment of crisis.
Arthur Koestler writes of meeting Benjamin in 1940, France. “Just before we left, I ran into an old friend, the German writer Walter Benjamin. He was making preparations for his own escape to England. He has thirty tablets of a morphia-compound, which he intended to swallow if caught: he said they were enough to kill a horse, and gave me half the tablets, just in case. The day after the final refusal of my visa, I learned that Walter Benjamin, having managed to cross the Pyrenees, had been arrested on the Spanish side, and threatened with being sent back to France the next morning. The next morning the Spanish gendarmes had changed their mind, but by that time Benjamin had swallowed his remaining half of the pills and was dead.”