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Morandi's Bottles, Duchamp's 'Fresh Widows', and the Tower of Babel

Presented at the XXIInd International Art History Colloquium of the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM
23 - 27 September 1998 in Queretaro, Mexico


The white in the surface in which everything is noted

Nothing is as it was anymore. Nothing is as it is. It seems a long time ago that one could simply assume that art had something to do with truth, that truth was its content. This is how it is and this is not how it is. Truth is an epistemological absolute that philosophy, and thus its component, aesthetics, can no longer guarantee. And art?
It has the same dilemma. Minimalism, perhaps, is the last episode of a passion of form and content that, step by step, follows the decay of bourgeois consciousness. The decay is happening, has happened. The question is less what remains than what is and what will be.
To be active, to do something. Reality once had to do with "realizing", with implementing through work and in material. Earlier, much earlier, the work was a kind of sanctified activity; one "worked" buildings, devices, images, and figures. And what about now, when "work" has mostly lost its value as a way of giving meaning to life? Ethics was based on it; aesthetics was based on it. Man was the working being. Work defined an important, possibly the most important part of life.
Now, in everyday life, technologization means that meaningful activity is vanishing for more and more people. The economy lets go of those who are not essential, while ever more people are active in art, whether financed by themselves or others, but less and less is said about meaning. A painter wrote denying the German phrase that art, Kunst, derives from ability, Können. Art is precisely what one cannot do; it is tireless seeking. Art cannot and never could fulfill its former aspiration to the absolute, but nor can it do without that aspiration. At least in a gap that cannot be overlooked, art is manic. It pursues something that cannot be recognized in everything we are able to recognize, and yet the aspiration remains. Those who are awake dream, wasted away, unbearably despairing. Intense, unfettered.
Is this desire today a regressive dream, an island for a few obsessives and crazies?
Today, "making art" increasingly means a limitless play of the imagination, sketches, concepts, and ephemera: playfully serious considerations, drafts, sketches, and partial realizations. Here, too, is limitlessness, but not arbitrariness. Today, for example, seeing increasingly means its opposite: leaving out, averting the glance, reduction, even if images of the disappearance of images remain images. Image-killing, extreme reduction, may succeed on occasion, but on the whole the reverse is happening. Further winding the already overwound world of images is not risky merely because it cannot release us from the given overwinding. It leads to schizophrenia. "Taking in", consuming, but also producing an excess of images leads to picture trouble. We can assume that the exchange of data via Internet has no consequences for the reality outside the "virtual circulation" (Wyss), at least not when the fictional world of images only generates itself. The goal is a system that, in the long run, is destined to eliminate the person. The extreme point is reached when only machines communicate with machines. With the true world, we have also eliminated the apparent world, as Nietzsche prophesied very early on, but it doesn't work so easily in the first or in the second case. And yet we are more and more urgently pressed by the question: What happens with the humans in a no-longer human world? What kind of a world would it be in which we can only watch what the machines produce among themselves?
We dream of paradise, forward and backward, and it's no wonder that the electronic media were early on celebrated as the pentecostal miracle of worldwide understanding and dissemination. Wolfgang Welsch said we thus regained the state prior to the construction of the Tower of Babel, and if not paradise, at least a comparatively paradisical state. It is already common knowledge that spatial distance is losing its significance. One can produce and exchange experiences from everywhere, from every site. Spatiotemporal distinctions are collapsing. And most of the knowledge at our disposal comes increasingly from these sources. Seen thus, virtualization is irreversible, just as it is certain that the difference between simulation and reality is disappearing, even if we still believe we can distinguish the one from the other.


For one moment all eye

They wept publicly at Stalin's death

In the inferno to the gap in the hedge

At four in the morning, the city belongs to no one

Virtualization as the one path. This invalidation of reality, the dematerialization is taking its course. Paralleling it, and drawing on the same resources, is a strand of enlightenment. It is becoming ever more important and its radicality is not underestimated, but prejudicially and polemically exaggerated - either positively or negatively. The issue is the apparently seamless experience resulting from the synthesis of television, advertising, consumption, technology, and knowledge. And the issue is precisely the content that, from the beginning, critical theory has fulminantly if unsuccessfully criticized as an aberration of modernity. The community of philosophers has meanwhile calmed down and grown more pragmatic. Has it grown too calm, too self-referential, too certain that it need only accompany this evolution with commentary?
Perhaps one can and must initially take a positive view. For example, "popular culture", Pop, here widely seen as a straightforward appropriation of the given and as a "paradigm of a transformation whose power will flow across the threshold of the next century", has prevailed around the world - more lastingly than is usually admitted. Pop, says Beat Wyss, is America's massive contribution to correcting the course of the Enlightenment, and it aims less at equality than at freedom, less at the will of the majority than at the "pursuit of happiness". Not politically central control, but the competition of egoisms. "Pop is the promise of participation in consumption for everyone striving for happiness; the underlying commodity aesthetics integrates all forms of ethnic culture: the slang of the rappers from the Bronx, Karaoke from Tokyo, and Soviet nostalgia." In a certain way, the gap between the First, Second, and Third Worlds is filling up. The same or at least similar music all over the world, the same products, similar advertising and, at least in the great centers, similar art following the mainstream. The "cloisters of high culture", primarily located in Europe, which long kept a strict watch over the dividing line between "serious" and "entertainment culture", have been razed and thus forgotten - almost as forgotten as the Cold War. Pop as the universal code, the lowest common denominator of all societies plugged into the global consumption circulation. It is the new high culture of urban, metropolitan culture, and is especially virulent at the peripheries - which is almost everywhere, today. Music and theater perhaps show the New more clearly than the visual arts do. The era of postmodern baroque seeks a sensualism; beauty as affirmation of the world means a new socialization, or at least the opportunity for a new socialization, says Beat Wyss. Similarly, Octavio Paz says: ever since man could no longer be defined metaphysically, but only historically, the word " be" should be replaced by "between". Man among men is asked about the ties that bind. In Pop, what is facilely pleasing and deprivatized is accessible to all. The culture of seeing and hearing is networked with the three so-called lower senses: taste, smell, and touch. Here, against the solitude of digital paradises, a solid footing remains, with people who are also tongue, skin, and nose. This is the regaining of the sensual, of the smelly and the dirty.
While the aestheticization of Modernism aspired to civilisatory refinement, including in advertising and design, though for a restricted, privileged audience, here a much more elemental message is due: "Everything is Art". Art is decoration and criticism, boot-licking, i.e. subservience to institutions, as well as rebellion, and all of it at the same time, like the confusion that molds our society as a whole. Speaking of resistance is becoming obsolete: what prevails, prevails behind the backs of everyone, including those who create art. And what is new: for the first time, art is not just a part of operations, but permeates and saturates operations as a whole. The abrupt border between producing and enjoying is broken through and more fragile in general.

Leaning against a wall, gradually leave a track

Event, art, and advertisement intersect, blend into each other, and are confounded. What was once the privilege of those taking a leisurely stroll is now routine. Billboards and advertising are an occasion for a festival of life. Nothing is meant seriously, at least not completely, but as suggestions, as a kaleidoscopic chaos. Taken as a whole, advertising doesn't make one attentive, it distracts and puts one in a diffuse state of well-being. It is an example of what has happened and is happening. Wyss expresses the New pointedly, saying the avantgarde failed because it wanted to create life using art. It attempted to eliminate triviality through artistic interventions, while Pop took the opposite path: the unity of commodity production and culture is sought and found, whereby art falls by the wayside and disappears. "Everything else is everything else. Pop is the direct, creative application of the means of distribution that the consumer culture provides for aesthetic information and entertainment." (Beat Wyss) Take Mexico, for example: in everyday life, the gringos and their culture are scorned, but on the other hand, the products and aesthetic effect of precisely the same despised culture hugely dominate all the streets and media. American lifestyle everywhere, and artificial in that what is offered is present, but not necessarily real as an actual consumer good. The steady stream renders the offered plenty abstract and, along with the possible purchasability, simultaneously demonstrates the normal inaccessibility of what is touted. Ideal enjoyment and real renunciation combine to form a stable mood of active and passive enjoyment and, according to the experts, spread feelings of well-being and melancholy. And art?
Art joins in and is part of the motor: it plays, it dances, it provokes - into the void, if necessary. On the one hand, it still wants to enlighten, and to defend its independence and autonomy. But art as art, esoteric, self-referential, plays its game with cards obviously growing ever weaker. And plays nonetheless. It plays and plays, it makes its bids, seeking what is most conspicuous, and this just barely provokes, if anyone, only the art critics and exegetes. In the interactive world, as well, it limps behind and falls by the wayside, where it doesn't unconditionally join in the fusion of design, advertising, and product.


A mirror of lights, slowly gaining speed in the curve

The provocation is obvious. On the one hand, we live in the midst of what I describe here, and on the other hand, it is precisely this overflowing and Americanization that is the offense, even if one does not view with the old eyes of cultural criticism. As fantastic as it is that popular culture has found an astonishing further development if not metamorphosis in Pop, which has made important and universal art from the "low", the folksy, the dilettante, Pop is not only a young culture, it is also a cynical one. Pigs in a sty, a high point of the most recent Dokumenta exhibition, is relatively harmless, bleeding fetuses and masturbation with a living rat more gruesome, even if they remain harmless in presentation, because the staged "excesses" are expected. Time spent in the slums is closer to reality and displays the aesthetics of horror more impressively than gallery or theater celebrations of the disgusting and evil.
On the other hand, those similarly motivated often play as naively with everyday products as if they had never digested anything but Duchamp's and Freud's popular discoveries.
In the all-consuming market, is art really a playground that brings together event and consumption in ever more self-forgotten manner? Art attenuated to events?
On the other hand, the WWW World, which demands a high degree of concentration and, with the dematerialization, an ever more abstract thinking, is still an extremely serious component, while pop culture is an open and limitless component of everyday operations. While the WWW world still works closely on the philosophy of disappearance and is a part of this process, Pop presents itself as limitlessly sensual, as opposed to the immaterial - even if it uses the latter's techniques. Hunger for life and pleasure in life, whatever these may mean concretely. And art that still faces the moral-political and aesthetic questions it cannot answer is still anchored in the one and the other and attempts to place itself in between. This is an honorable and necessary project, but at what price and with what success?

Uninhibited Pop will, one suspects, choke on its own plenty, even if its attraction remains. In contrast, the faster and more slyly virtualization establishes itself, the more it will make other experiences important again. The electronic media can grasp all objects, but only in their own way. They do what they are programmed to do and what they can increasingly program themselves to do. Virtualization remains self-referential. Even if it seems plausible that the exchange of data in the Internet has no consequences for reality outside the virtual circulation and that this increases the solipsistic feeling of omnipotence of access to the world: the desk commanders strew and surround us with images, lead us to dream or produce virtual images, while the passive, the couch potatoes, consume. An artificial world, more artificial than our everyday world, which is artificial enough. But at the same time, most participants clearly recognize that this is an artificial world, and merely one among many. It is obvious that older experiences of viewing the world are gaining plausibility, like Leibniz's or Borges's, in which what one state of consciousness regards as real could in truth be the dream images of another state of consciousness. The uncertain and permeable boundary between the virtual and the real is charged with fantasies and anxieties and is a territory into which poetry, philosophy, and art moves and must move. The virtual nourishes the longing for the real, or at least for what is more real. Put simply, the increase of virtuality, its increasing omnipresence, leads us to re-evaluate concrete, palpable materials. And our senses, whether influenced by virtual experience or not, can readjust themselves to intervals, slowness, calm, and silence or, at the other extreme, to turbulence and convulsions. Welsch summarizes it as follows: "The telematic and the physical world stand in contrast to each other. If distance is telematically vanishing today, that doesn't mean our bodies are also shrinking. If processors are growing ever faster, that doesn't mean our sensors and our motoric and psychological abilities are. If the processing capacity of the computer is becoming gigantic, that doesn't mean the same is true for our lifetimes, our reaction times, or our comprehension times." Morandi's vases, the obsession with holding fast to a single object, to a vision, to what is almost a standstill, to an almost calm, to an almost silence, are all examples of this. And are they still valid today and understandable in this intensity because they have not vanished as obsession? Because there are images, longings, anxieties, and the utopian? The endless discourse in small groups about what is permitted and what is vieux jeu rouses the suspicion that commentary becomes the executive, replacing the works themselves. And this suspicion is doubtless strengthened by the fact that critics and self-appointed aesthetic authorities themselves intervene with verdicts and grouping concepts much more directly than ever before. Not without reason. Modern art's need for commentary, the recourse of the 1950s, is less the problem today (despite the unmistakable need for orientation); hand in hand with pop culture, which only seemingly prevails so effortlessly, there is a quite obvious necessity not merely to take societal as well as scientific concepts seriously, but also to take up individual experiences right down to the basic assumptions. The cry of "intellectualization" or "overintellectualization" is too facile. But it may be that this approach may lead into a dead end, like the1960s' and 1970s' unconditional alignment with political currents. Not avoiding challenges has always been an innovative aspect of art. To the degree that it can, art bets its life on this.
The other, seemingly almost secure and thus unsafe anchor is poetry, which today has less inhibitions than ever about bringing together music, word, and image, and not only in poems. A willful, splintered poetry, breaking its word, injured, and also degraded as a vehicle of pop culture. But it will need the solitary, cantankerous, violent uncontented. It will need rage, but also the unconditionally poetic, because the underground, reliable supplier of the poetic, cannot endlessly renew itself from the ethnocultural mixture. And perhaps it is indeed temporarily important to set aside the hyper-clever suggestions. Puttering, sketching, inventing, without immediately seeking the protection of the all-veiling commentators and distributors. Watered down; willful. Borges wrote: Someone resolved to draw the world. In the course of the years, he populated a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountain ranges, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses and people. Shortly before he dies, he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines reproduces the image of his own face. And it cannot be ruled out that the same thing happens in our abstract and virtual experiments. That's no reason to jubilate; more likely a sign that things inexorably continue to go on, as long as we exist.

The traveller with the forged I.D. took years

One no longer hears shooting

The volcanos keep their eyes open

In some ways, I act as if toward a face

Bulldozer on its back

When the stillness closes up again

A child says time

The eye of the guillotine lies in the knife

Urs Jaeggi

© Urs Jaeggi  /  Website: Universes in Universe