Tragedy, relational art

by Bret Schneider

Image: Detail from Gustav
Klimt’s Tragoedie (1911)


Originally posted on Bret Schneider’s website, quaquaqua.

Apperceptive indifference

Some “minor” artworks seem especially indifferent to society. Doubtlessly, it is this affect which exclusively distinguishes them from other artworks, and the idiosyncratic reflection in which this indifference is formed determines their quality. Rather than see indifference as nihilistic, it is a form of apperceptive reflection that is especially insightful, though, towards nothing in particular. This “nothing in particular” is what rubs people the wrong way, but for what reasons? Virginia Woolf’s theory of modern fiction, as well as the essay claimed that there is no detail too insignificant to include in the totality of the work. The philosophy not explicated further in this claim is that we do not know what our values are in the modern age, as everything is free-floating and now yet to be determined. Analogous to film, which Benjamin observed was able to focus on the marginal things which are assumed as materially constitutive of subjectivity, but not recognized as such, literary inclusions of meandering thoughts focus on those things that we know that we know, but don’t know that we know yet. Apperceptive artworks propose that the way to properly perceive the world is no longer dependent on the direct act of standing in front of a painting and straining one’s eyes out the front one’s head, which is a type of muscular reflection obstructed by obsolete moralistic efforts. Rather, apperceptive modes of reflection refine this by an almost peripheral vantage point, postulating that in order to experience something properly, one must not even really look at it. It is a form of indirect experience. Certainly, there is an element of “trying” that is required to train the mind for this type of viewing, but it is a type which doesn’t try to “get it,” or to “experience it,” or “love it,” etc., but a type which is geared towards the development of a second nature of reflection that would render these bourgeois concepts as obsolete as they have truly become, if only in ideal. The development of an adequate apperceptive faculty resides in the self-understanding of one’s perception as not merely watcher, but also watched. That is, reflection imitates the particularly modern condition whereby one is both subject and object, and in which the differentiation from mere objects is in the midst of being processed, so to speak. One grows eyes on the side of one’s head, like a fish, or develops a form of cognition like a fly’s refractive eyesight that takes in ever more distracted objects. The metamorphosis from human to insect is not entirely barbaric — it is a type of second nature. Beckett’s transfiguration of human to static object is not merely a critique of passivity and so forth, but indicates a real perfectability of reflection to a state where it can take in those aspects of nature that are denied to otherwise affirmed humanistic principled. Furthermore, the ability to perceive oneself as an object is a precondition for constituting projected forms of subjectivity.

A young Virginia Woolf

A young Virginia Woolf

The grand excavation

The broad field of human life turns into a grand excavation, the means of which are brought about by a particular form of insight that is indifferent to, and a development out of, the obsolete forms of perceptive and logical thought. A vulgar analogy comes out of detective stories: the modern detective is contrasted in his peculiar attention to details that would otherwise be overlooked by traditional methods of investigation. At times, it appears that the detective isn’t even paying attention, or is indifferent to the serious matter at hand. In pop culture, this is chalked up to a merely eccentric personality, whereas in truth their indifference is at the avant-garde of distant criticism. An immersive, immediate form of investigation into the object at hand would be hindered by standard forms of perception that take grip of the one who is critiquing the situation. In an indifferent form of cognition, there is a distance from such immediacy, almost as if the indifferent thinker has never once been privy to the laws and rules which seem to apply to everyone else. This sort of character is sanctioned and developed as an anomaly — the anomaly being a result of social refinement.

A Promethean condition

This marginal character is something of a resident alien. Kafka’s hunger artist remains the prototype. He doesn’t fit into the society that bred him; he can’t eat the food that is required for him to live. Its almost as though he shouldn’t, and yet there is something sideways about him, something autonomous about him that is so indifferent to society that it implies some other set of standards or living concepts beyond our grasp. This sort of character — or character without conceptualized character — is a historically sanctioned anomaly. So too, Prometheus: the marginal characteristics and impulses are not learned over the course of a lifetime, but are the result of a humanistic development that has taken ages. All of a sudden there is a new type of character that is born. In certain scientific modes of thought, there is the idea that diseases and syndromes are historically specific, and emerge in certain social conditions. Its not necessary to give examples, but in a way the indifferent, or marginal personality seems specifically modern.

Auguste Rodin, La Belle Heaulmière (1885)

Auguste Rodin, La Belle Heaulmière (1885)

Surplus insight

This misdirected or a-directed insight — insight with no particular end — might also be considered unusable insight, at least immediately. It is society that turns this insight into dead matter by not knowing what to “do” with it. To try to make use of it would be wrong, and would subvert those very enigmatic and special things that their indifference points back into the realm of rationalized and repressed experience. It is of course a paradox that society breeds something that it can’t use. In this way social structures that breed indifference to those structures are unconsciously creating new needs. In a sense, this unusable insight can be also be termed a surplus of insight. It is social impulses and the current state of impoverished theory that turns an insightful indifference into benign art-for-arts-sake. In other words, it regards what is a new development in consciousness with obsolete theories. Minor artworks — those that excavate the tiniest fragments of thought — are a special part of the overripe productive forces, analogous to technological innovation, but obviously and remarkably different. The image of the minor artist is that of a person who wanders away from a roundtable discussion — not because they despise it or have any direct polemic against it, but because it is their place to do so. Analogously, Kafka’s hunger artist does not hate or revile food, but is merely physiologically incapable of stomaching it. Food is irrelevant to his disposition, but “enlightened” society, since it cannot comprehend the meaning of indifference, has made it his centrally defining characteristic. The history of humanity is also the history of wasted potential. In minor artworks, the inveterate indifference that comprises them reaches a pitch that forces the issue of wasted potential in ways previously unthinkable.

Doing unknowing

There is nothing the state of the art can “do” to combat this social abuse of indifferent art. Certainly, trying to do something would hinder the quality of its refined indifference. An indifferent artist wouldn’t be able to think in such a way. Indeed, the more regressive society becomes, the more need there is for an apperceptive indifference to a certain state of overtly directed thought. At the same time, society puts art in a situation of direct combat, a situation whose directness jeopardizes insightful indifference. The best art can be in this situation is automated or intensified. Current conditions stamp minor insights — which are in truth broad-reaching insights — with a certain quality different than modern minor works. While it seems that the decay of aesthetics or the ignorance of theory is a lamentable fact of barbaric life, this state of affairs is not entirely negative, for it fosters the possibility for the refinement of a long-developed art of unknowing. Modern artworks were so constrained to develop their unknowing that it often jeopardized their ideal of unknowing and indifference. Today, all one needs to do is look around and imitate the real forms of unknowing that exist on every street corner to portray unknowing in its most inchoate, ideal form.

Gustav Klimt, detail from Tod und Leben (1911)

Gustav Klimt, detail from Tod und Leben (1911)

Dead matter

The Nietzschean theory of history observes that all progress occurs because there is some sort of sacrifice — e.g. the pain of the ascetics’ self-flagellation is not atonement, but a means of inculcating cultural memory. Artworks do not participate in this manner of progress, at least not directly. The recognition by the German Romantics and Idealists that they would never live up to the whole perfection of Ancient Greek culture is not merely a lament: it recognizes, however tacitly, that what makes art unique is its otherness from a certain phenomenon of social progress, but an otherness that is nevertheless sanctioned by this progress in enigmatic ways. Artworks are negative to a positive — and now positivized — social progress, in their otherness to them. It is in this negative image that they offer different glimpses of possibility. These negative images pile up, so to speak: since, as Robert Pippin has noted, in art one cannot say that there are real advances made — for instance Ibsen ought not to be seen as “better” than Shakespeare — artworks don’t really die because they are not sacrificed. This isn’t to say that there is no developmental aspect to the history of art, however. Instead it should be said that we don’t exactly know what that development is, and in a certain sense lawfully cannot know — the development is negative. The naturalized idea that certain things must die is not relevant to art, which is indifferent to such natural laws. Such a killing impulse is projected on art from without — it bothers people that certain types of artwork are alive and well mainly because it does not jibe with their naturalized expectation of sacrifice. This isn’t to say, though, that certain artforms ought to be considered obsolete, or inadequate to meet the needs of an era. Today, for example, we can peruse the entire catalog of art history and say that such-and-such is “dead,” but what that means is that it ought to be dead, but cannot be. The way art deals with death is rather different, in that art history is the history of perfecting a mode of inquiry that wherein death in the routine sense is nullified and subverted into developing a history of obsolescence. Artworks don’t kill other historical works so much as give them new meaning — giving new meaning to what would otherwise be dead — analogously to how scientific advancements do not obsolete previous ones so much as delineate what their limits are, giving them new historical, and hence practical meaning. E.g. Newtonian physics was not “killed” by Relativity, but instead is foundational and has new practical value. What is at issue is why certain things are pulled whole out of the dustbin of history repeatedly. Why is it that “abstraction” keeps being extracted, played with a little bit, and put back into its rightful place? What about certain idioms demand our attention, as opposed to all the other dead ones that lay beside them? What about them demands that we intellectually “play” with them, and in so doing to alter them? And what is it about our own pathology that absent-mindedly, but meaningfully, keeps failing to change these historical moments by understanding them, and thus obsoleting them? In a sense, minor artworks become weird monuments because they are idiosyncratically un-killable. All artworks become unkillable because there remains something transhistorical in need of recovery — the Pyramids are the great symbol of all artworks’ appeal, in their resistance to being toppled. In modernity even monuments of smaller and smaller scales become lawfully un-toppable. Courbet and the Communards’ destruction of the Vendôme Column was resurrected only because some telos that is refracted through it remains to be discovered. In modernism even the tiniest fragments of thought become indestructible monuments of an undelivered telos.

A thought written down is dead. It was alive. It lives no longer. It was a flower. Writing it down has made it artificial, that is to say, immutable.

— Jules Renard

Art is no more dead now than it ever was. If anything, it is more alive, and problematically so. Art is death — the death of nature and its transition in into a second creation to which art itself is an encumbrance. The only art that mattered was that art which once understood something of its own history as a socially sanctioned murderer. Understood itself, that is, as a nexus between the prehistory of a humanity that dominates and masters nature through art, and that imminent moment in which such forms of crude mastery will be shown obsolete. Artworks were always “dead,” the deadening of that natural life which ought to finally extinguish, and yet can’t purely through artistic reflection. Minor artworks emerge to reflect this undelivered death, and to unencumber themselves from those false artworks that seek to entrench themselves in a persistent nature that art has always been enmeshed in, though not purely beholden to.

One thought on “Tragedy, relational art

  1. This is good, but there’s a very conspicuous absence – Adorno, for whom the artwork’s indifference to society was of course a crucial aspect of its self-critical commodity character. Each artwork is a ‘second nature’: if in Kant natural beauty was the model for the genius artist, for the moderns it was second nature, reified society.

    As J.M. Bernstein puts it “Modernism and the Paradox of Nominalism,” art deadens the materials it ingathers, but at the same time, that very deadness serves as a placeholder for the truly new. Artworks can’t get beyond exchange, but they can dream that beyond by way of the abstract form with which exchange equips them. The modernist works that, rather than adopting medium conventions, generate their own, both make use of and subvert the logic of instrumental rationality. Dissonance gives art’s pretensions to integrity the lie: this undermines the work’s commodity character, while simultaneously mourning its failure to be a sensuous particularity, first nature.

    Adorno liked to use Penelope’s weaving as an allegory for this: “Homer’s story of Penelope, who every evening pulls apart what she wove during the day, is an unconscious allegory of art: what the cunning woman does to her artifacts is what art actually does to itself. Ever since Homer’s poem, this episode is not what it is easily mistaken to be, an addition or vestige, but rather a constitutive category of art: through this category art absorbs the im- possibility of the identity of the one and the many as an element of its unity. Art works, no less than reason, have their form of cunning.”

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