The following interview with Kalan Sherrard, the 23-year-old self-described “anarcho-naïvist” performance artist originally hailing from Seattle, took place over the course of a series of e-mails exchanged for a few weeks between myself and Sherrard last month. I first encountered Mr. Sherrard outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where he was going through one of his set interactive pieces entitled “Discourse on the Other.” Recognizing that this probably in some way related to the Levinasian/Derridean vein of recent French theory, I approached him with questions regarding his vocation as a leftist artist, whereupon he referred me to his official website, The Enormous Face. From there I set up a correspondence with Sherrard, the fruit of which is the interview (and counter-interview) that is reproduced below.
It is my hope that this engagement will form a part of an ongoing occasional series of interviews/intersections with parts of the artistic Left, both Marxist and non-Marxist alike. My intention is to problematize the political aspects of the artist’s relationship to himself, to his work, and to his world. In these ways do I believe that I can challenge the politics of the artist through an ethical, logical, and pathical examination of their existence, in keeping with the Aristotelian rhetorical schema of ethos/logos/pathos. I aim to encourage the subjects with whom I’ll be dealing to understand themselves at a critical and historical level, in order that they might situate themselves more properly to the various discourses and practices in which they take part.
It is my personal belief that contemporary art stands at an historical impasse, especially in its expression of politics. As the opportunities for revolutionary political change have dwindled, so have the prospects for genuinely revolutionary artistic innovation. Increasingly, art has struggled to deal with its own incoherence, an incoherence which has arisen historically in proportion to the incoherence of the social order out of which it has emerged. Art and politics, which have for so long struggled in common with the utopian business of imagining another world (different from our own), have arrived at a point at which they have become untethered from the transcendental basis of their own possibility. These problems of contemporary art, and especially contemporary political art, I intend to elicit through my interviews.
With respect to the present interview specifically, I should like to highlight several of its peculiarities. First of all, I would like to make clear that Mr. Sherrard, upon receiving my interview questions, proposed that he should write his own meta-interview questions to me, in an attempt to interview the interviewer. This I happily agreed to, though I will hardly be making this a standard practice or general requirement of my inquiries going ahead. Second, I have chosen to leave Mr. Sherrard’s written answers in the form in which I received them, rather than polish them up as for a more formal publication. I feel that their jagged character reflects the quasi-academic, schizoid, and confused nature of his answers in all their original urgency. I am not sure as yet if I will make this a broader policy of my interviews or if it will be observed only in certain instances. Either way, this is the form in which the interview (and counter-interview) will be published for now.
Interview (interviewer: Ross Wolfe; interviewee: Kalan Sherrard)
1. I believe that it is best to begin with the most Platonic, the most metaphysical of questions. Hence: How would you define “art”? Do you believe that the definition of “art” — its general meaning, its social role — has shifted historically? Or has art remained in all ages the same?
[Platonic, read: essentializing/fascist?] To begin with a disclaimer: Although I do locate the linguistic as the only plausible semiotic center of our social-reality, I more often than not balk at the common strictures and (statist?) perameters of the definition-mongers, a la Bill Clinton. Harboring, confining, or otherwise cementing meaning in a definitive headlock can, I belive, often do more to restrict than assist actual or wholistic comprehensions of philosophies – or languages themselves. Further, the crux of the linguistic-center experience is, I think, one of a decentered diffuse center: the language that is dynamic, ever-moving, always-in-play. Words and Ideas and Things and their Relationships are better navigated through the metaphor of a series of fogs or blurry Venn Diagrams, thick or opaque in their midsts, where their “definitions” are most secure and agreed upon, and thinning out towards the edges where they cross-fertilize and breed with other words, ideas, things, and relationships. In that sense, I am interested to work within the frame of a milieu-vocabulary, who considers the shifting planes and dance of differences between su/objectivities.
Recently talking about your questions with a friend of mine in Vermont, and wishing to answer as transparently and approachably as I could, we got to chatting about how many people have historically taken the greatest of pleasure in denying the status of art to various objects and artistic pursuits. The old “That’s Not Art!” cliche has been rounded out time and time again, by such silly reactionary trogladites that most thoughful minds nowadays are hesitant to “define art” partly for fear of being camped with the backwards and shutter-minded. My friend floated the idea that any exclusive definition of Art was wrong; which sounded gamey but appealing. I am going to offer an array of possible definitions of a/Art, and end by Not Defining it.
Art is: any elitist perpetuation of class/culture difference hidden under the clever guise of liberatory bohemian expressivity, pretty stuff, an anti-utilitarian pursuit who is valuable mostly because of its opposition to the survival-mode utility-oriented mainstream, stupid or ironic stuff, an array of actions events sounds or objects arranged intentionally, a perception/criticism/analysis/interpretation/visage of said items, ugly stuff, skilled or unskilled work or production…
That said, I think the idea of an art-definition is in perpetual shift, or is a perpetual shifting and interrogation, and in that sense, has remained static in its dynamism ["in all ages'], but that overall, the definition-obsession, especially where ‘art’ is concerned, seems a reductive, passe-making anti-activity.
If it does admit of a transhistorical definition or possesses an eternal essence, what is that essence? Conversely, if you feel that the meaning of art is historically mediated, then how has the role of art in society changed over time and what is its most important mission today?
Even though some/most art is essentialist and totally outside of any contextual referent, it is anti-essentialist and anti-historiographical static. It admits of neither the possibility of any transhistorical items, nor the possibility of any eternal essences. Today on the show, art’s mission is to: (again, nothing) destroy its possibility, look pretty/ugly, parasitically reproduce itself and discourses & commentary around itself ad infinitum (both altruistically and as an embedded limb of the industrial-capitalist rape machine), make people consider/question/feel insecure about themselves or their ignorance/knowledge around its discourses, open/close social or cultural possibilities, draw conversation, nostalgically reflect on the lost possibility of revolutionary utopia and act as a kind of pathetic critical mass wheezing out puffs of what could have been, work towards a proliferation of pockets of weirdness in an always-too-banal [noun]-scape….and finally again, nothing: art is not an evangelist.
2. Following up on the previous set of questions, what do you think are the main problems confronting the artist in the formulation, composition, and execution of his work? If you believe that these problems are timeless and common to all ages, please explain what these perennial difficulties in the artistic process have always been. If, however, you feel that the problems of art vary from epoch to epoch, then what are the specific obstacles and practical exigencies confronting the artist today?
Now there are no problems. In fact, there have never been problems.
3. If they can be at all localized, what would you say are the central themes of your artwork? Is there an overarching, recurring meta-signifier in your work, a Wagnerian leitmotif? If so, what does it signify? What are you trying to express through your performances?
Gosh, maybe it’s a sort of fluffy rage at the idea of overarching recurring neta-signifiers and Gestkampkunstwerk motifs themselves. Nah. Wagner and the Nazis aren’t all bad, I don’t mean to say that. But there are recurrant themes and prominent strains in my work, especially around semiotic collage, detournment, anarchist political theory-praxis, and a particularly hell-bent valorization of extremes of the uncanny. I almost always produce a great deal of text with my work, from manifestos to allusive catalogs of refferent possibilities, and other commentary, and it’s mostly pointed at signifying-or-not-signifying as an imperative [non]performance. Pejoritively, I could say I’m trying to expound around the “it’s so complicated!” cliche, or juxtapose the Romantics’ tried and true ‘undescribability’ motif with a theory-as-practice suggestion. In terms of my street puppet shows in particular, one of my other main directions is to deny context, to act as a blip on the radar of the reality, the alien other writing html onto the collective understanding.
Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle of ethos-pathos-logos can be as much applied to art as it can be to oration. This connects with the previous question, in terms of artistic “expression.” How do you parse the relationship between your own person as the artist (ethos), the audience as witnesses of your art (pathos), and the actual content or substance of your art (logos)?
To elaborate: Is it important to you that you effectively convey to the audience the ideas or symbolisms that you understand to be at work in your performances? In other words, how crucial is it that the audience pathically comprehends the logic of your artwork? I ask this because in recent times there has arisen the unfortunate cliché that the artist is merely performing for his own sake, in order to satisfy his own “irrepressible creative drive.” Usually this corresponds to a professed indifference of the artist to the audience’s reception of his art, as he is simply content to “let them take away from it what they want.” If there is, however, a specific message you intend to get across or a certain reaction that you intend to provoke, what measures do you take to ensure that your artistic intent is intelligible to the audience?
ideally the triangles feed into eachother and prop each other and build off one another and layer up. though i share a vision of it as basically enabling and lowest-common-denomonator, the libertine’s artistic pedagogy of “it’s about whatever you think it’s about” is especially useful and discursively productive to non-narrative street puppetry. i do a lot of interactivity spect-acting stuff – everything from crawling on “audience members’” (what a phrase!) bodies, shooting them with water-loaded and ego-loaded guns and remote controls, talking to people, giving out cards and zines etc…i’m always looking for new ways, and the audience feedback has a huge effect on the work both in the moment and reflexively. one of my favorite things is when folks start narrating a story, trying to make some linear sense out of what i’m doing with the dolls and bones – it’s almost the pinnacle of interactivity – they enter into and share with my theoretical framework and start hacking it up from the inside. i think about interpretation often also in terms of my drawing and art:text relationships, where captioning and embedded texts play a very important role, but it’s always a struggle to walk the line in terms of obvious semiotic locators and mere suggestion, preserving enough ambiguity not to slam shut all the possible doors of reference, but not ushering in a total free for all of interpretative license [actually, on rereading, maybe i am more okay with this, as long as i get a turn to fire the gun too, afterwards]. in my performances i try to do this on the chalkboard, with written phrases like: “hipster jihad”, “gay marriage as bourgeoisie assimilationist apology :D go capitalism!”, “CHUDVBISHE: vuelta analfabetica”,”if anarchism were such a naive doctrine”, “i hate myself and i want to die :D”, and what you saw “discourse around the other” – that is to say, i invite and relish participatory narration and theorizing, but try to set some general parameters of vocabulary and shape the discursive sphere somewhat beforehand. i also do carry a small stack of explanatory of pseudo artist statement zines with me. i’d love to hear other ideas of ways to focuse and heighten that discursive capacity though – to me the discourse is far and above the most impotant object of the work and i do often feel like it’s not connecting with most people as it might. i guess i should also say that i worry about the ivory tower division: the implicit isolation of the artiste-academician from the lumpen and nonlumpen masses [even a'la "the main effected purpose of 'schooling' is to isolate the intelligensia from the otherwise populace" idea] and try to offer several stratum of accesability to differently interested and educated lookers, so you can be a “fuck, that’s insane, what the hell?”/”i’m dismissing that, it’s impossible” person, or a “yea let’s talk about how this relates to or ?-enacts derridian textual tropes” one (i guess that’s you?). My dad and I actually have a similar ongoing conversation about Biblical populism and christian philosophy – where he maintains that even though (we both agree) the miracles of christ are irrelevant and magically banal, they and the other narratively presented stories in the book communicate a cohesive (and he thinks productive) philosophy to adherents, whether they delve into depthy exegetical analysis or no. So hopefully there’s a possibility like that for me too, and I can access worldviews at different layers through different layers.
Okay, on the irrepressible creative drive… Yea: it’s true that I feel sometimes, as a friend of mine put it, that art comes out of me like pee. And sometimes I want to say also that I don’t care what people think of me. But such feelings have always proved temporary, if recurrant; a sort of blip on the philosophical landscape of art-interactivity. More dangerous and prominent, I think, is a sort of artistic class war where artists increasingly want to present and promote their work only in high-art high-educated high-class circles, to the condescending exclusion of the “proles”/”plebes”/” (which i guess is an increasingly fuzzy and quazi-irrelevant category for me)
I feel like I could go on for a long time on this question. Let me know if you want more.
5. It is obvious from some of the language you employ and some of the figures listed on your site that your work is influenced by French theory. Can you cite some of your main theoretico-philosophical influences, and explain what role their ideas play in your artistic outlook? Is there a single underlying conceptual basis or foundational set of concepts that unifies all of your different artistic excursions? Or are there rather many disparate, disconnected sources that inform your artistic practice, as pastiche?
Deleuze is immediate and probably my favorite. I have a big list of influences (a little outdated now, I’ve been about to update it for a little while) listed on the friends section of my website. It’s probably fair to say that there is a fragmentation of unities. Culture is both pastiche and unified flow. Rhizomatic structures are a very important concept for me especially in terms of ideological and artistic mapping: so, again, both-and.
6. One of the most fundamental problems of aesthetic theory has always been (at least since Plato’s Republic) art’s relationship to reality. The nature of this relationship, and hence the problematic, has been reconfigured over time, however. For Plato, art served a merely mimetic function, and since visible reality was for him only a dim, shadowy reflection of the eternal Ideas, art was doubly worthless as a “copy of a copy.” And it remained for many centuries an acknowledged fact that art must look to reality for its subjects, its ideas, and its representations. But there then arose, within art, an impulse to figuratively, representationally, or performatively transcend the given reality, opening up the possibility of new worlds and new vistas of experience. Hence the Freudian sense of the “uncanny” or the “otherworldliness” of some art. Still, even if art possesses this utopian capacity to anticipate the vision of an emancipated future, its touchstone, its irrevocable point of departure, must remain the present reality, as well as the historical forces that congealed to create it.
So the questions resulting from this overlong preface are as follows: To what extent do you feel that art is rooted in and bound to reality, and to what extent do you believe it may fulfill a utopian function? Is there a sense of artistic duty responsibility to one or the other? Might this not also be tied to history? If so, in what way?
Here’s where i say “There Is No Reality!” and everyone shits all over me, right? Platonic thought is objectifying, alienating, fascist and wrong. I work to valorize communities of difference – a kind of polyamorous animism if you will (and lets err on the side of metaphor and exegesis rather than New Age faux-called Spiritualism, which mostly seems like secret code for “agnostic” waffling and selfish metaphysical bet-hedging). Mimesis is definitely a concept i’m very interested in playing with, inverting and exploring, but I’m more keen to Fuck With “reality” than enact some kind of weird obsessedly religious recreation of what’s already there (read: Muslim artists’ inability to aproach the graven image as blasphemous idolatry, a mockery of creatistic theism) – though that’s of course made tough and complicated by the fact that I almost exclusively work in an expanded field collage of garbage objects. I’m really into the uncanny, partially as another agent of social disruption or thoughtful evocation, and partially as your otherworldliness, or a half-hopefully transcendentalist[->escapist?] element. This latter i see as doubly useful (beyond its obvious counterrevolutionary potentialities) both in terms of offering a temporary critical mass of “utopian visionaryism” and as a respite from the harranguing droll greyscale of exploitative normality. In terms of realistic roots, I could say “to what degree do you feel utopian projects are bound to or rooted in reality,” or “to what degree do you feel utopian projects fulfil an indulgent mastrubatory urge” – but all told, nobody contemporary is about assert context-independence, if even because the suggestion creates an automatic etymological void. The artist can function in a milieu of acceptable ways, with allowance and disrespect for historical norms and older ideologies, and at least discursively, most of them are in some sense productive to consideration. If you’re asking about me personally, I guess I can detail my own relationships.
7. Intimately related to the last group of questions is one of Adorno’s crucial insights in his opus postumum, Aesthetic Theory:
“The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from. What takes itself to be Utopia remains the negation of what exists and is obedient to it. At the center of contemporary antinomies is that art must be and wants to be Utopia, and the more Utopia is blocked by the real functional order, the more this is true; yet at the same time art may not be Utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation. If the Utopia of art were fulfilled, it would be art’s temporal end. Hegel was the first to realize that the end of art is implicit in its concept. That his prophecy was not fulfilled is based, paradoxically, on his historical optimism.”
Art’s utopian function places it into a negative relationship with the presently prevailing conditions of the world. It portends a future world with which the present is pregnant, and yet it must not betray a positive representation of the future by trying to forecast its precise specifications. Thoroughgoing negativity is the only force that can induce labor so that the present society can give birth to the qualitatively new. However, in a realized utopia, insofar as it would strive to eliminate all antagonisms, to erase the contradictions of capitalist society, will art not be doomed to perish? For art thrives on conflict, tension, and drama. These could only belong to the unfree past of an emancipated present. So hypothetically, again, if utopia is actualized, will art become superfluous? Or, in realizing utopia, might art and reality, art and life, finally be conjoined? Marx set out to “make the world philosophical” through revolution. Might it not also strive to “make the world artistic”?
Hence the consistant population of artist-radicals, yes. But fundamentally, the artistic can be the utopian immediate. I’ll claim utopianism in the same breath as anarcho-naivism, but obviously that’s not what anyone wants. There are definitely certain social changes I’d like to see [abolition of wage-slavery, mass ecological involvement and automation of alienated labor, municipalized libertarian civic engagement, localization of media-feeds, etc etc etc] but the lubrication of an easy conflict-free socius directly connotes exponential levels of ennui and suicide. And I actually don’t think population control is really one of humanity’s formost problems: that takes deep backseat to so-called (in actuallity long departed or even recuperated!) [fasco-?]capitalism.
Reitteratively, it’s possible that any revolutionary fervor is analogously self-anihilating: “so hypothetically, again, if utopia is actualized, will [utopia] become superfluous?” Yes. It always-alread will. The Spanish Civil War and Revolution is a prime example, whose primary base-level critique as far as I’m concerned is that an altruistic anarchist society is only possible where there’s something to combat. “War is a Force That Gives Life Meaning” again. That’s a distinct possibility.
I don’t mean to be evasive, but it seems like your question has too many or not enough limbs. Of course the Mar[t]xist analog can be drawn – and I don’t mean to say it’s unproductive, but at this point realistically (heh heh), I’m more sold on the model of Art-As-Adjunct-to-Medical-Industrial-Complex: a liberal provision to tide people over, to keep folks just barely lit up with enough hope and “humanity” to not hop in front of the next bus, etc. And I also oscilate. I do find myself plagued by being always-against, or creating a basically negative identity, and I think that’s a serious problem in all our communities, and a real thing to grapple with. We need to embed and consider ourselves a part of, not outside of, the culture – partly because the polar perspective is a dogmatic self-deceit. I want you to rationalize this: “Thoroughgoing negativity is the only force that can induce labor so that the present society can give birth to the qualitatively new” in the context of Barack Obama’s campaign slogans.
8. In one of the fragments linked to on your site, “Peeling the Skin off my Face,” you wrote the following:
“Writing fictions or any extremely external objectifying text is a cowardice to those who are unable to write honestly of themselves, to confront the deep troubles within.
When there is the ability to create a perfect, candid puppet show, whose indulgences rip from Left to Right and the spectrum is tragic, then we can talk of the possibilities at hand, what is at risk. If only I could devote himself to it. Consider self-control as control over others, not as discipline, but as Power.”
Is all fiction therefore a form of escapism? A retreat from the Delphian imperative? Also, you capitalize both “Left” and “Right,” a gesture that usually carries with itself political implications. Is this a political reference? If so, can you expand upon its meaning?
Anything can be a form of escapism. Poetry is a hard thing to unpack, and it can seed different cadences and thoughts. I’m often typical in my objections to simplistic political analytics or linearized left-right or circular-spherical schemas of representation. It’s fruitful to conside the quantum mechanics of the political Natural Law, worm holes, dark matter… and even to capitalize off of Capitlaization….//….To an extent of most of my writing in the associative milieu this comes from is self-criticism and personally psychanalytical, some paganist venn diagram overlapping emotional matrices with theoretical production (political factioning and prescriptive analyses…) and it’s sometimes more difficult for me to parse for myself. I’ve asked my friend stef to take a swing at this question for me:
STEF – Yes anything that is not merely breathing, eating, shitting, and arguably fucking is a form of escapism from the fact (and therefore idea) that our basical survival needs have been met. Once again, everything we do of course has a political implication. It is impossible to escape political implications even when trying to decide what to eat in the morning.I think the explanation is obvious but – the manifestation of power is politics I do not buy into the idea that “writing fiction is a cowardice” however as much as it is a necessary form of escapism. An artificial landscape one creates in order to re-try survival. We can give ourselves and eachother limitations and inhuman struggles through the use of fiction and therefore create conflict and struggle that is arguably important to experience even if in an intellectual level. Its all masturbation in the name of need.
We we also talking the other day again about the idea of utopianism and the artistic imperative, obsoletion, or ability to generate or prefigure meaningful (even essential) struggle, towards the conclusion that art is potentially and usually generative of its own problems, solutions, dialectics, and discourses around them. So I don’t mean becoming-arts (srsly?) should or will necessarily isolate or approach a self-sufficience of conflict-models, but that at the very least that they are potentially capable of such steps. And even “escapist”, “fictitious” works could, at least theoretically, generate their own internal politic and radicalism.
[as an aside, in terms of Leftist/Rightist two-dimensional political cartographies, I'm increasingly interested in the aboriginal group, the Kuuk Thaayore I think, who have no subjective directionalities, and whose greeting and salutations consist of exchanging precise locomotive descriptions, from their extremely specific eighty-word vocabulary of cardinal directions. Anyways...]
9. The relationship of politics to art has always been a tricky one. How would you describe yourself politically? Insofar as politics involves the notion of the just governance of society, do you feel that art has a political obligation? To what extent is art still able to be “subversive,” that old concept from the New Left? Or can art more bombastically or more delicately address the question of politics?
I’m an anarcho: I’ve a preference for horizontalist (nonhierarchical) social organisms, voluntary association, localized rhizomes of mutual-aid governance and community accountability. In the past I’ve made enormous lists of all the things I’m against. I could do a new one for you if you want it (everything from reciprocation-economics to standing armies and gay marriage) – if you want I could probably make a list of things i’m “for” too. That seems less productive though somehow, doesn’it it? Our role is to tear down, not to erect! To criticize, not to theorize false positives! (yikes. there’s the old demons of nonsense.) But in terms of imagining an activist obligation within the arts sphere, Gawd… I mean it’s different for different people. I’m really torn on prescriptivity. On the one hand, I’m adamant about valorizing communities of differ[a/e]nce and that evolutionary fracture and diffusion that protects against social potato famines. “A Diversity of Tactics” – but there’s a big part of me that longs for dynamically (read: “revolutionary/social Movement”) cohesive platformism, and I am ceaselessly critical of many people who overlap with my communities but map onto my praxes in was i feel are selfish, nostalgic, naive, shortsighted or destructive. To me, the thing about historicizing subversivity is that, in microcosm, nowadays most Americans I talk to still think the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was a “racist hate-group” – that is to say, the tremendous majority of the population is blind deaf and mute to every microbe of New Leftism, and as far as I’m concerned, our national political ensemble has, since the prevalence of that epoch, moved itself so much to the New Right that almost any pseudo-alternative Lifestyle is simultaneously subversive and banal. It would be nice to bring the versivity aboveground too thought, but I do feel a serious historical fatalism where that relationship is concerned.
It is fascinating to experiment and analyze the seemingly consistant coordination of artistic and political struggles, whose perpetual back-and-forth may have to do with the etymology of active-ist modes and thoughts, where groups of academics and intellectuals continually cross-fertilize ideas, and I am interested in the almost constant corelation especially of puppetry and the radical left (why is that?!), but while I’m often infuriated by the abscence of social critique running through most of the so-called art world, I also think that much overtly politicized art sucks. It’s just bad. And it’s important to play those strings and connections with nuance instead of plunging blindly into a partisan rage. Nonetheless, i do think almost every deviant act is potentially on the edge of a very progressive code-breaking that could easily translate into a political programme.
10. At one point you explained that, with regard to your art,
to me the discourse is far and above the most impotant object of the work and i do often feel like it’s not connecting with most people as it might. i guess i should also say that i worry about the ivory tower division: the implicit isolation of the artiste-academician from the lumpen and nonlumpen masses.
Later, in the next paragraph, you voice your concern that
More dangerous and prominent, I think, is a sort of artistic class war where artists increasingly want to present and promote their work only in high-art high-educated high-class circles, to the condescending exclusion of the “proles”/”plebes”/”
It seems that in both of these excerpts you are expressing something akin to a sort of “guilty conscience” when it comes to the intelligibility of your art to average people. Trained as you have been in ideas of theory and philosophy, many of the higher-order concepts you wish to reference or evoke may well be unfamiliar to the audiences you wish to engage. Here there would seem to be a pathic disconnect between the logical content of your performance. To what extent do you want to cultivate a more inclusive, less alienating rapport with your audience, in order to make it more intelligible to them? But at the same time, how much do feel it’s necessary to challenge your audience, to force them to think in new and unexpected, unprecedented ways about the world, the Other, and so on?
There is, of course, an opposite danger from the one you describe. Inverting the relationship of art to the masses, the demand that art be immediately intelligible to the average member of society (or even to the lowest common denominator) can lead not only to an perverse vulgarization of art, but can also harbor a distinct anti-intellectualism, a sort of militant philistinism. The most pernicious historical example of this is, of course, socialist realism as manifested under Stalinism. Considering abstract avant-garde paintings too highbrow for the working masses, Stalin, Zhdanov & co. enforced a moralistic and propagandistic code of artistic production in which simple representationalism, optimism, and conventional symbolism were made mandatory. So while one might be concerned with alienating mass audiences by not communicating to their less educated elements, how can one ensure that he does not fall prey to the opposite tendency — facile workerism?
Mostly I use those terms ironically, or to designate what I think are wrong conceptions of a conceptually vertical architecture of class. Everyone wants to be Durruti and Kropotkin. Can I put “I don’t want to be an elitist” and “I only want to hang out with smart people” into a monogamy? As I said, I do think pretentious self-aggrandizing concepts within contemporar[t]y philosophy can be accessed on different strata, with and without fake++ vocabularies. The perfect fusion is to move towards several simultaneous linguistic modes of song or motion, variously comprehensible and accessably interpretable on different strata of onlookers. This brings up for me also the in-your-face-ness of a lot of the stuff I do on the street – where I (mostly) want folks to be able to engage with it at their own pace, and am generally very happy to talk about things with them.
In general though, it’s something I’m untimately and fundamentally concerned with – and complicated by the part of the performance that is fundamentally interrested in semiotic dislocation, anti-contextualization, confusing people. Of course I’m interested in trying to amplify the scope of the audience relationship in general: more confusion, more comprehension, more accessibility, more discourse. I’d like to think i’m very challenging for my those audiences who dig a little.
There Are No Average People, said Mr. Rogers. Is the the old Social vs. Lifestyle Anarchist “unbridgeable chasm”? hmmm…. what do you think? You’re right that this is an important problem. Do you have ideas of ways to approach it?
11. In describing your vision of a more emancipated society, you list some of the changes you would want to see brought about, but then immediately afterwards maintain that such a utopia would necessarily give rise to dystopian elements:
There are definitely certain social changes I’d like to see [abolition of wage-slavery, mass ecological involvement and automation of alienated labor, municipalized libertarian civic engagement, localization of media-feeds, etc etc etc] but the lubrication of an easy conflict-free socius directly connotes exponential levels of ennui and suicide.
This seems to run counter to some of the sociological data on suicide, which, at least since Durkheim’s groundbreaking studies, have usually been attributed to some sort of societal anomie or “uprootedness.” You seem to be suggesting that suicide would arise directly out of the boredom of a life free from conflict. Might some of this dissipated Baudelarian ennui be mediated or somehow palliated by art? Not only through the experience of viewing art, but in the activity of creating art?
No, you’re right. I don’t mean to be so hasty and flippant. Maybe it’s anarchist neurosis from constantly being called naive by other people. All the places in the world I describe as Utopic (Vermont, maybe? Kuna Yala?) are places I want to be in, and am sometimes annoyed by when I get surrounded by parliaments of irritatingly happy people. Maybe that’s the Other again. Or the self as Other in the Other. I want to refer to Stef and my conversation from one of the previous questions: art discourses are capable of generating problems and semiotics of their own; both of generating microcosmic utopic prefigurations, and of problematizing and counteracting the potential ennui of said experiments.
12. In your response to the first of my questions, you state the following:
Even though some/most art is essentialist and totally outside of any contextual referent, it is anti-essentialist and anti-historiographical static. It admits of neither the possibility of any transhistorical items, nor the possibility of any eternal essences.
Some of the terms in your response seem to be fundamentally at odds with one another, perhaps even deliberately so. This could be for any number of reasons. The question is, are these antinomical sets (i.e., is essentialist/is anti-essentialist) to be understood paradoxically, dialectically, or as irreconcilably contradictory?
On the one hand, you say that some or most art is “outside of any contextual referent,” implying independence from spatiotemporal or sociohistorical specificities. In other words, it would remain the same regardless of historical circumstances, thus implying that art would be a transhistorical object. By that same token, its meaning or significance would not fluctuate according to modified existential conditions, since of course these would be contextual referents. This would imply that its import would remain essentially the same amidst existential flux.
Yet on the other hand, you immediately deny the possibility of art obtaining a transhistorical status or containing an eternal essence. How do you understand these apparently simultaneous oppositional terms in their relation to one another? Must art strive to be both “for all times” and yet “address the prevailing issues of its day”? This is an example of what I meant to by the “problems” or “dilemmas” facing the artist in the second question.
Again, I’m sorry for flippancy and irreverance. I am interested in contradiction, internal and external – though i think important to distinguish it from hypocrasy. I’m too interested in enacting transhistorical cliches in my body to believe in a transhistorical essential meaning or any transcendental signifiers. In general, I am more interested in discourses around art maybe than the “art’ itself (though again, I don’t think it’s really safe, generous, or pro-active to parse the two apart), and art can be pulled and drawn in manifold directions to serve disparate ends by agile lawyers and rhetoriticians – ultimately, that is to say that individual art discourses can be posed as transhistorical essentials, or as discourses liberated from contexts, if you’re for some reason interested in fusing dada with Russian Formalism. Art is interested in different descriptions of itself, maybe because that accumulation of commentary strengthens it and lends it transmogrifacory [?] possibility. To the latter of your questions here, probably yes.
13. What do you hope to accomplish as an artist? Not just in the sense of attaining fame or notoriety, but in terms of influence, both artistic and extra-artistic? Do you see art as your “calling”? Your permanent vocation?
Word. I mean I can describe it as a pretty nihilistic pursuit. I guess I can describe anything that way though. Doctors just treat symptoms, politicians are mostly inherent sellouts, maybe hackers, priests and vigilantes do okay. In some ways, I think it can be productive to reproduce and promulgate artistic discourses, to abet but also to interrogate the already monstrous culture-machine. It’s hard for me to chart the course of my life. I’m pretty cynical about any possibilities of traditional systemic resistance, but i still undertake it on a daily basis. In some ways, I do think I have an effect on people I meet, though more as a “lifestylist” than an “artist” (“you really hitchhike everywhere and eat out of the garbage?! you’re so free!” whatever). At this point, it seems like I will probably keep on doing this kind of thing, even if not as a central aspect, for the forseeable future – I’m good at it, it’s where a large part of my expertise lies, and is in that sense pragmatic. I don’t want to have an identity based on opposition, and I think it’s important to situate myself with at least some regularity within my time and culture. This is a hard question. Yea, I want to have an effect.
Counter-Interview (interviewer: Kalan Sherrard; interviewee: Ross Wolfe)
1. how do you fulfil the cliches of “marxist-intellectual” (personally and politically)?
I suppose that I fulfill the standard image of the “Marxist intellectual” in a number of ways:
First, most of my time is devoted to research. Though some of the greatest Marxists (Lenin, Trotsky, Marx himself) were devoted to research throughout their lives, they were each motivated in their studies by definite practical developments in the life of an internationally organized anti-capitalist movement. There is no such movement today. Though some fragmentation indeed took place within global socialism — the splits between Marx and Bakunin, Luxemburg/others with Bernstein, Lenin/others with Kautsky — there is nothing today even approaching the workers’ movement as it existed then. I have no illusions. Though I am interested in theorizing both the history of the Left and our contemporary political moment, my research has no “immediate” practical application. The main factors behind the focus of my studies are both my own personal interests and the scholarly career I am pursuing.
Second, I come from a largely academic family. This is a stereotype among Marxist intellectuals. As can be expected, my family’s political background has tended toward the Left, with varying degrees of moderation and radicalism. Most of them would agree with some of Marx’s assessments of modern society, even if they would not don the mantle of being an official “Marxist.”
Finally, I come from a mostly secularized Jewish background. For over a century this has been a prominent association, and has fed many of the anti-semitic myths out there about “International Jewry” and Bolshevism, etc. The list of prominent Jewish authors involved in Marxist thought over the years is too extensive to even begin naming them all.
2. as a Marxist, where do you locate the theory’s biggest theoretical failing or gap (e.g. as an anarchist, i often think the one of the biggest holes in anarchist theory is the possibility that it functions oppositionally – against franco in spain etc)?
Self-criticism has long been enshrined, sometimes perversely, within the Marxist tradition as “autocritique.” And this may seem like a specious criticism to make, but I would say that Marxism (as it has been historically practiced) has failed to adequately reflect on the connection between theory and practice. This is ironic, since the unity of theory and practice in “praxis” has been such a central motif of Marxism since its foundation. The formulation of this problem has as its starting-point Marx’s own famous declaration in the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach (1847) that “the philosophers have hitherto only described the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Ever since that time, the accepted wisdom among most orthodox Marxists has been that as follows: from a proper theoretical description of the world immediately follows a practical prescription informing a course of political action.
But this has become extremely problematic over time, especially as truly revolutionary possibilities or junctures in time have dwindled considerably over the last century or so. Rooting themselves in one dogmatic mode of Marxist thought or another, one of the countless Trotskyist sects or popular strains of Maoism, most self-identified Marxists today proceed as if all of the theoretical work needed to understand our own historical situation has been laid out in advance. With constant recourse to their own separate canons of “authorized” texts (Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky-etc., or Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin-Mao-etc.), they interpret the world within the framework of ready-made categories and slogans handed down from the past. This is not to say that all the diagnoses and conceptual devices developed by the great Marxists of the past are useless, but merely to suggest that the application of these concepts today must be done very carefully. A recognition of subsequent developments within capitalism and within the ideologies of the Left must be taken into account.
Particularly, I would say that the biggest failing of Marxism in recent times has been its inability to come to grips with the utter hopelessness of the current state of affairs. The anti-capitalist consciousness within elements of society has regressed considerably. There is no international working class movement pushing for a postcapitalist society. The unions, having long since made their peace with liberal bourgeois democracy, stand today as shells of their former selves. In order for the Marxist Left to be reconstituted, it must step back and take thorough theoretical stock of the conditions that presently obtain. Rosa Luxemburg’s largely forgotten statement in her 1915 Junius Pamphlet applies more than ever today:
“In the midst of this witches’ sabbath [of political anarchism] a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated. To deceive ourselves about it, to cover it up, would be the most foolish, the most fatal thing the proletariat could do. Marx says: “…the democrat (that is, the petty bourgeois revolutionary) [comes] out of the most shameful defeats as unmarked as he naively went into them; he comes away with the newly gained conviction that he must be victorious, not that he or his party ought to give up the old principles, but that conditions ought to accommodate him.” The modern proletariat comes out of historical tests differently. Its tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey — its emancipation depends on this — is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.“
3. anarchists often align at least nominally against marxism authoritarianism after severally citing its markedly authoritarian elements – both in abstract theory and historical actuality. do you feel any need as a marxist to justify this? (i mean do you like alain badiou? zizek?)
I feel that the “authoritarian” elements within Marxist theory have been severely overstated, but this has been largely the fault of Marxists themselves. Historically there can be no doubt that political attempts to implement Marxism have often almost always taken sharp authoritarian turns, but nearly all of these can be traced back to the original authoritarian betrayal manifested in Stalinism. The tragic proportions of the turn toward Stalinism — the abandonment of socialism’s international program, its brutally coercive attempt to realize “socialism in one country” (the old slogan of “социализм в одной стране”), its cultural and intellectual barbarism — can hardly be overstated. The entire rest of the twentieth century was lived in the wake of this catastrophe, and we are still living in it today.In terms of the idea of there being an inherent theoretical authoritarianism within Marxist thought, I can say a few things in passing. At its core, Marxism as I see it only has two authorities: 1. historical reality, and 2. its dialectical methodology. Though I believe that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is still eminently relevant and correct, as Georg Lukács pointed out in his 1920 essay on the question, “What is Orthodox Marxism?”, Marxism’s revolutionary character would remain in its critical and dialectical approach to the world even if Marx had been completely wrong:
Let us assume for the sake of argument that recent research had disproved once and for all every one of Marx’s individual theses. Even if this were to be proved, every serious ‘orthodox’ Marxist would still be able to accept all such modern findings without reservation and hence dismiss all of Marx’s theses in toto – without having to renounce his orthodoxy for a single moment. Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx’s investigations. It is not the ‘belief’ in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a ‘sacred’ book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism.
Such a Marxism will not restrict itself to the realities as strictly predicted by figures from the past. Rather, it will approach reality with the same critical method that its founders did, ever-renewing the question, constantly keying on the central contradictions of society. It is not dogmatically beholden to golden phrases or dicta transmitted from history. I take Marx’s, Lenin’s, Adorno’s, etc. interpretation of reality seriously, mostly because I think they were brilliant and correct about a number of issues. But by no means do I take them at their word.
Just briefly, I will also try to dispel a common myth about Marxism, and more specifically Marxism-Leninism. The principle of “Democratic-Centralism,” whereby there is initial, centralized debate within the party and then uniform acceptance of the decision arrived at in the end, and whereby membership is limited to a number of “professional, conspiratorial revolutionaries,” was an outgrowth of the political situation in Russia at the time. An autocratic, absolutist state, Russia tsarist police had already infiltrated large sections of the RSDP by the time Lenin wrote What is to be Done? in 1902. It was not advocated as a position that other socialist parties in different nations should universally adopt. Lenin pushed for its adoption by other (non-Russian) socialist parties only during the height of the Civil War, during which chaos reigned, and the agents of imperialism were literally trying to destabilize the Bolshevik regime by whatever means were available. The contentious decision to put down the sailors’ mutiny at Kronstadt in 1921, a point of sharp disagreement between many Marxists and anarchists, was also a result of this desperation. I personally believe the British were probably involved in sparking the mutiny.Oh yes, and with regard to Žižek and Badiou, I’m somewhat receptive to the former. Of all the “celebrity” theorists out there, he’s easily the smartest, even if his whole personality has been somewhat reduced to a gimmick. I’d take him any day over Hardt and Negri, Rancière and Balibar, or “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe. I care less for Badiou, and for Maoism in general. The Kasama Project does some interesting things, but I generally steer clear of most Maoist thought.
4. How do you see the relationship of art and politics: why do they share such a consistent familiarity, and do you believe a programmatic, disseminatory, or otherwise politically centered focus would be productive for the twain? how would that pairing look, ideally?
The relationship between art and politics is a difficult topic to parse. Art, throughout most of its history, played a role subservient to religion, the state, or the ruling classes. Paintings depicted biblical figures, busts and statues portrayed Emperors and patricians, portraits were commissioned by the Enlightenment aristocracy. Art sometimes registers political and socioeconomic developments; I generally believe (for example) that Hieronymus Bosch’s and Pieter Bruegel’s horrific depictions of reality, shot through with monstrous medieval religious symbolism, captured in artistic form the historical drama that was unfolding before them. The social world of feudal Europe was rapidly crumbling all around them. The old relationships of production were swiftly losing their meaning. Long-established institutions were collapsing or being practically outmoded, so that they continued to exist only as a shadow of what they had once been. Bosch’s and Bruegel’s paintings registered the chaos and absurdity that comes with a world turned upside down. Later the Dadaists would similarly express the absurdity of bourgeois society in the moment of its most acute crisis, during the Great War. Nothing made sense. Distorted, mutilated figures were depicted.Generally, however, both art and politics have in recent decades lost their moorings. The sphere of political discourse has become increasingly circumscribed and constricted as the possibilities for realizing a different society from our own have shrank. No longer does a world built upon fundamentally different principles than the present seem imaginable. Only variations on the status quo are offered. Likewise, art — which had already been thrown into question by the subjectivity of Romanticism and the various avant-garde movements that followed, which had since that time attempted to establish and enunciate firm theoretical principles to ground their aesthetic approaches — became even further untethered, no longer even searching for any justification for why this or that was “art.” Anything and everything became qualifiable as “art,” whatever that meant.The points at which art and politics have intersected, almost universally on the “Left” (whatever that means, also), have become increasingly meaningless artistic gestures at the political, or the duty of progressive politics to entertain pretensions to art. Protest culture has embraced the pseudo-Situationist art of the spectacle, empty theatrical antics designed to shock or outrage the “prevailing order.” But very few are upset nowadays by these harmless attempts at being political. Art feels the need to attach itself to the political out of a fear of its own irrelevance; politics feels the need to attach itself to art out of a fear of its overwhelming philistinism. Art as well as politics becomes mired in what Adorno sometimes described as “actionism.” In his Aesthetic Theory he thus wrote:
Artworks that want to divest themselves of fetishism by real and extremely dubious political commitment regularly enmesh themselves in false consciousness as the result of inevitable and vainly praised simplification. In the shortsighted praxis to which they blindly subscribe, their own blindness is prolonged.
5. are you interested in describing a world as made by Marx? you could link on this one if you want to. I know there’s plenty of post-utopia fiction around.
No. Marx deliberately left such a world undescribed. His refusal to positively portray such a world in its particulars is itself telling. Here it is again Adorno who recognized the importance of this resolute negativity. He wrote, “Marx and Engels were the enemies of utopia for the sake of its realization.” It is important to “imagine otherwise,” as Marxist thinkers such as David Harvey, Susan Buck-Morss, and Žižek have put it, but this is always done as a negative image of the present, never a positive image of the future.This does not mean that there hasn’t been interesting work done on utopianism by Marxist thinkers. Outside of the founders themselves, who mostly examined utopian social and political movements of their day, such later theorists as Ernst Bloch and David Harvey have interestingly investigated the concept of utopia. The former’s 1918 The Spirit of Utopia, along with his later three-volume work on The Principle of Hope, as well as the latter’s recent study of Spaces of Hope are all good. I myself have authored a long essay on “The Transformation of Utopia under Capitalist Modernity.”
6. since the 70s, there has been a mixed nostalgia around absent activist/theorist cohesion and directed action on the left. historiologically, can you identify a moment when hope died? how do you parse modernism/post-modernism and the movement/fragment situation in contemporary political organizing or theoretical circles?
The way I see it, there is no single instant that can be pinpointed as the moment at which “hope died.” There have been, nevertheless, a number of crucial junctures at which the failure of the Left to fulfill its historical mission have led directly to its regression, both practically and theoretically. These can be disaggregated in several ways. It is important that when doing this, however, that one does not make the mistake of viewing this melancholy history as something that was somehow inevitable — that the forces of reaction were always too strong, that there was never any chance that revolutionary hope could have succeeded against the power of the State, the Right, etc. I believe that the Left should be held accountable for its seemingly chronic inability to transform the fundamental basis of society. For the defeats of the Left cannot be attributed solely to the strength of its enemies, but rather must be seen as arising (at least partially) due to its inadequate theorization of its own historical situation, or its practical failure to effectively carry out what was demanded by theory.
Selecting the concrete moments as the points at which specific historical opportunities were missed can seem like (and to some extent is) a highly arbitrary exercise. If I had to choose some of the more important dates, then certainly the drift toward Bernsteinian revisionism in the German and French social-democratic parties and “Economism” in the Russian were nodal points where the Marxian Left was substantially weakened. This did not, however, permanently foreclose any chance it might have had to execute global revolution. It is difficult today, in the absence of a vibrant international workers’ movement or a politically organized leftist front in the major capitalist nations. But at this time, the social-democratic movement was substantially mobilized in France, Germany, Russia, England, and throughout Eastern Europe. Even Italy, which had been historically dominated by anarchism, claimed a large Marxist contingent before the rise of fascism in the early 1920s. The next very important date is undoubtedly August 1914, when Karl Kautsky and the German Social-Democratic Party capitulated to German imperialism by supporting the motion to buy war credits. This betrayal undoubtedly contributed largely to the failure of the German revolution four years later, in 1918-1919, in which the SPD actively collaborated with the German Supreme Command in crushing communist uprisings throughout Germany.
As far as the major moments of regression that have taken place since then, I feel that the Platypus Affiliated Society has done an excellent job in examining the most crucial dates in their retrospective on “The Decline of the Left in the 20th Century.”
7. sometimes when i talk about historicized anarchist revolutions or hear people say “i feel attracted to anarchism/anarchist theory but i still haven’t read enough” and i say “when there have been anarchist revolutions in the past, they haven’t been revolutions of literati, but regular people. these ideas are easy, intrinsic, and can be arrived at by people on their own, without high-minded Theorists” (although often such movements were in actuality precursed by up to 150-year-long campaigns of popular education)… how do you see the relationship between the theorist, the ivory tower acolyte, and the people?
A sound theoretical perspective and appraisal of society is vital for any emancipatory political project. Of course, as Lenin pointed out in What is to be Done?, your average worker or layman can hardly be expected to be well-versed in all the fine points and subtle nuances of revolutionary theory. They are far more concerned with, sometimes problematically, their immediate goals and needs — living from week to week and so on. This is why Lenin proposed a vanguard party, not out of some sort of anti-democratic elitism, but as a thoroughly practical measure to keep up the theoretical comprehension of society at level unattainable for the average worker, constrained as he is by quotidian concerns.
As every Marxist will be quick to point out, there is no abstract group in society that is clearly identifiable as “the people” en masse. “The people” must be broken into distinct classes for proper analysis. These classes, both working-class and capitalist, are constituted by bourgeois society. This is what originally separated, say, Georgii Plekhanov and the Russian Social-Democrats from the narodniki, or populists (the anarchists in Народная воля, the People’s Will), who preceded and continued to co-exist alongside them. Although one’s worldview is clearly not determinable on any sociological basis (i.e., a worker’s consciousness is often not anti-capitalist even though he’s a worker), there are nevertheless groups which are clearly separable on an objective basis according to their quantitative ability of exchange, even though everyone under bourgeois society is formally/abstractly “equal.”
Since social consciousness does not strictly correspond to class, I feel I can make some blanket statements about ideological tendencies that have arisen in recent decades. First of all, the general notion of the possibility of a future society erected on a foundation different from the one we are currently living under, has by and large vanished from sight. The very concept of “anti-capitalist consciousness” has become fuzzy of late, even on the part of the Left (or what remains of it). Those that do often proclaim themselves to be anti-capitalists often haven’t the faintest idea about the way capitalism operates. This goes for activists and university professors just as well as it does the working-class. They believe that the problem is simply “corporate greed,” government corruption, and generalized avarice, caused at their root by bad lifestyle choices on the part of the few brooding, manipulative, and sociopathic fatcats “at the top.” The error in this belief is that it seems that the it treats the problem as if were solvable by just changing the personnel of those in charge. Such a belief misses the necessity of the fundamental restructuring of society, of a revolutionary transformation of existing institutions.
8. what is your interest in interviewing me specifically?
Some of your antics (tactics?) seemed odd, and thus caught my surprise. I was also interested by the crudely markered-in flap of cardboard that read “Discourse on the OTHER,” which you had in front of your suitcase as you performed. Being familiar with the language of post-Heideggerian French philosophy, I guessed that this must have been some sort of reference to Levinas or Derrida, or perhaps someone working in the Lacanian tradition.
I thus walked up and asked you, with rather aggressive brusqueness, “What is all this?” To which you responded to me: “That’s unfair.” You handed me a pamphlet, which I quickly glanced over, but finally you gave me a card directing me to your site. I found the site’s presentation somewhat deliberately eccentric and obscurantist, but your theoretical self-understanding as an anarchist artist intrigued me. So I thought it might be interesting to hold an interview with you.
9. why are you interested in definitions of art?
I am interested in definitions of art because I believe that art today has radically called into question the idea of whether art can be defined as anything (or nothing, conversely). The attempt to classify art, in its various incarnations, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Starting, say, between the 1790s to 1825, there began a formal attempt to build philosophies of art, or aesthetics, in which different forms of art could be classified, and the ways in which the viewer/audience relates to the work of art.From Kant’s Critique of Judgment in the early 1790s there followed the Schlegel brothers’ inquiries into literature and drama, Schelling’s Philosophy of Art, finally culminating in Hegel’s massive Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, delivered in 1825. In this work, he announced the “death of art,” as art had culminated in terms of its social and historical importance in Antiquity, and had been thereafter superseded by the “representation” of the afterlife in post-pagan religions (Christianity, Islam, etc.). He also believed that the problem of Romantic art was precisely of the subjectivity and interiority of the artist’s expression of his emotions, which were believed to exceed the general formal laws of artistic composition in the name of passionate creation.
This revolution in the way art was understood, both theoretically and philosophically, was in turn succeeded by a technical revolution in the creation of the daguerrotype, and subsequent photographic improvements. Here was a device that could reproduce reality with exact verisimilitude, which was moreover infinitely reproducible. This revolutionized the visual arts, which now could not possibly keep up with the precision and detail now available in cameras, since at least the 1840s. The same effect would take place later with music with the invention of the gramophone in the late 1870s. Film technology, starting from the 1890s, similarly had an effect on live theater. With all of these rapid technical revolutions, along with the prior questions of the artist’s subjectivity and art pour l’art, the basis of art came into question. What was art’s purpose? And what were its fundamental principles? These were the fundamental questions taken up by the various artistic avant-gardes, starting with romanticism, impressionism, and symbolism through expressionism, cubism, futurism, dadaism, suprematism, neoplasticism, purism, constructivism, etc. all the way down to surrealism, abstract expressionism, and finally minimalism and conceptualism.
Hereafter, I believe, art died a sort of “second death.” The project of modernism in art, which had been its own self-transparent theoretical basis and understanding for the creation of new works, was abandoned in favor of a vaguer, more inchoate conception of the “avant-garde” as anything that was shocking or seemingly “cutting edge.” This combined with a sort of neo-Situationism in art-as-spectacle, with particular emphasis on performance art. All this can be loosely categorized as post-modern, “contemporary” art, which avoids definitions and scoffs at any attempt to derive a theoretical “systematicity” underlying their work.
10. what specific artworks are you particularly drawn to or moved by? why?
I appreciate a number of different styles. It’s a mostly historical sense of appreciation. I can’t really say I’m particular to this or that avant-garde. Quite a lot of Renaissance and early Enlightenment paintings, portraits, and landscapes appeal to me in their abundant luminosity and rationality, reflecting the divine light of reason. But I also am enchanted by the drama of baroque art, with its shadows and rich chiaroscuros, from Caravaggio all the way down to David’s Death of Marat. Some Romantic art impresses me. Baudelaire was right that Delacroix was a master. I recognize many works of impressionism, pointillism, and Art Nouveau to be hypnotically elegant. But by that same measure, I love their historical negation and fragmentation in abstract painting and cubism. As for music, literature, drama, etc. there are too many works for me to name, really. Not much recent art has really clicked for me.