Senin, 09 Juni 2008

NOMADIC AESTHETICS : The aftermath of the End of Art

Oleh : Bambang Sugiharto[*]

At the beginning of this century, the visual arts have undergone significant changes, an unprecedented transformations in their character, identities, structures and perceptions of what it means to be an artist. Artists are plagued with doubt, and the theoretical and methodological practices of art history have been under scrutiny. At the same time, the theoretical enterprise now wields enormous institutional and cultural power as the consequence of the “dematerialization” of the arts. Artists’ theoretical strategies were as instrumental as their works of art. On the other hand, the expansion of media in the visual arts has also contributed to the alteration of the very category of “visual art”, which now encompasses everything from painting and sculpture to hybrid forms in previously unthinkable materials : the human body in performance, invisible matter (gases), energy (telepathy), large scale projects and earthworks in remote landscapes or urban centers, interventions in social and political institutions, computer and other electronic works, postcards, records, video, etc. etc.
“The end of art” is a statement that captures very well the paradigm change in the last three decades. This paper seeks to see some further consequences of the situation by linking it to today’s socio-cultural predicament so as to find out the position and the role of art within wider contemporary socio-cultural horizon.

The end of art and its corollaries
“The end of art” ( Adorno, Danto, Burgin, Kosuth, Foster, etc) is a dictum which certainly never means a literal stop to the arts. It instead suggests rethinking the significance and the role of art in real life within the total paradigm shift. In this connection Warhol is one of the many possible key-points. On the one hand, Warhol perfected the Duchampian question of “what is art”, and so brought art into philosophical self-awareness, hence the “dematerialization” of art. Or as Joseph Kosuth put it, painting and sculpture were “finished”, they are now subsumed under the general idea of “Art” (with capital “A”), that is, Art as philosophy. On the other hand, Warhol at the same time deprived art of any philosophical pretension so that art henceforth could do whatsoever. Art becomes pluralistic, its practice pragmatic, its field multicultural.
From the poststructuralist point of view, there is no more “art”, what exists is “representation” in that the history and theory of art are subsumed under the history and theory of representations, to be understood in terms of textual production and psychological reception. In terms of Marxist perspective, art is overwhelmed by the practical dominance of “the image”, the visual, the primary form of the commodity in a spectacle economy, from which art can no longer pretend to be distinct.
Corollary to the situation today is that there is no more a strong paradigm for artistic or critical practice. This surely open the way towards artistic diversity. But this also means a flat indifference, a stagnant incommensurability. Or perhaps commensurability is not important anymore for the practice as well as the appreciation of art, since art is no more an object of contemplation but a means for communication and self-presentation, an act of self-determination and self-differentiation, a process in construction. Or commensurability has taken on different forms and criteria today. At least it is not very clear whether the ambiguity or even the absence of commensurability is a curse or a blessing.
One thing is clear, however, that after since Duchamp and Warhol, art is no more an artisan production, it becomes a process of mere personal selection and a peculiar way of looking at things. The specific gaze of the artist is suffice to turn an object into an artwork. And by way of computer, video, photography, etc. everybody can become an artist. The standard and benchmark of success of the works are similar to those of a pop band. It is judged not based on some sort of historical canon, but rather in accordance with today’s level of dissemination of the product, indicated by its position in the classificatory list like Billboard Charts. Reflection is replaced by numeric-statistical assessment, words are replaced by numbers (numbers of visitors, of reviews, the finance balance sheet, recognition by colleagues, etc.). The inclusion or exclusion of certain artworks in an exhibition, museum, institutions, or gallery is no more important.
Contemporary art is the sequel of Avantgardism and Pop-art in that it bears the character of pop products, as they emphasize the discontinue and a-historic newness of hic et nunc, of the here and now, where consequently museums loses its power and significance. The history of the past is no more determinant. History becomes eternal present. Art is falling into time. It celebrates what is contextual, ephemeral and even banal. Everyday-life is the new context and playground of today’s artists, since it is the repository of the potential to subvert and transform established values. Daily activities are also significant for they are the real context that affects human relations and their evaluations, the context for the re-invention of self and subjectivity.
Today, as Hal Foster puts it, art is also living on a traumatic, spectral, non-synchronous and incongruent mode. It deals more with what has been sacrificed, castrated, silenced or marginalized as the expense of various human idealisms. It is haunted by the specter of masterpieces and lost memorabilia of the past, as well as overwhelmed by the possible catastrophic ending of the future. It has the tendency also to hold together the different temporal or contextual markers in a single visual structure, synchronizing the non-synchronous forms. The past is made use of as a repository of old sensations, private fantasies as well as collective hopes and residues of a dream world. At the same time it also complicates found things with the invented ones, or reframes given spaces, so as to make tangible the sensation of incongruence.
Apart from that I would add the transgressive character, since today art also explores borderlines to question their arbitrariness and cruelty, while believing that life and experience have no borders. This is the sort of Foucaultian transgression which transgress any kind of boundaries imposed upon us unnecessarily. The border is a no- place, a meeting point and ground for creation as well as for questioning authority or any kind of fixated dualism (high-low; public-private; pure-hybrid, in-group–out-group, etc). This then renders art “nomadic” in nature, nomadic in Deleuzian sense of the word : art is micronarrative in progress , working through rhyzomatic networks in its production and dissemination of ideas, a collective project to nurture a plurality of ideas and to nourish interrelationship.

Global predicament
Now let us take a brief look at our global situation from the perspective of theory as well as the perspective of praxis. In the realm of theory, intellectuals of the new millennium are faced with radical uncertainty, since almost all basic categories which previously rendered reality intelligible are now called into question. The ideal of rational liberal humanism, the belief in progress established during the Enlightenment, the conviction of fundamental, intrinsic, and universal values, as well as the view of autonomous subjects, objects, texts and actions, all are now replaced by the contrary. Today people view everything as contingent, insufficient, and lacking transcendence; while identity and human subjectivity are no longer understood as a unified whole, but rather, as polymorphous, fragmented and without centre. The world of symbols are now considered ambiguous, arbitrary, and shifting. Culture and knowledge are constructed and determined by relationships of power. The belief in objective or absolute truth is replaced by alternatives, ranging from radical relativism to negotiated concepts of truth.
In the domain of praxis, the world is plagued with loss of coherence and erosion of consistence , but also suffers from the lack of cohesion. The decline of traditional principles in the modern world is now exacerbated by the loss of normative discourse due to the critical movement of micropolitics of identity everywhere. Worse still, the use of terror in some forms of the movements has created an atmosphere of suspicion among each other in global scale and has also stimulated the intensification of global systematic control over individuals. Like in the sixties, again the personal becomes political. What is more, today the personal is also economic, since the technology of the capitalist world, media technology in particular, is also becoming more and more determinant in shaping the interiority of individual . It even exteriorizes the most intimate interiority. The dream factories of Capitalism have brought about the totalizing effects, the illusion of liberty and satisfaction that disguises the impoverishment of individual’s self-determination. All this has put individual in the prison of many power structures, the prison of discordant polyphony of contradictory lines, hence the heterogeneity of subjectivity.

Repositioning Art
Living within many power structures has given rise to a lot of dangerous confusions. The world of today is marked by confusions, for instance, between tourisms and clandestine migrations ; global village and disinformation; global economy and barter culture; exploration of difference and intolerant construction of identity; reality and fiction, etc.etc. Art as critical interaction between experience, imagination and thought would be of a good help in bringing forth these -often hidden- confusions to collective awareness in an effective way. The sensibility towards traumatic experience and incongruence would enable an artist to delve beneath the surface, often by problematizing and playing with the very surface. But this, in turn, will call for self-awareness of the artists themselves of the complexity and the illusory side of reality. Actually this is not so much a privilege or task of an artist as a common existential exigency of today’s world.
In a world characterized by the paradox between homogeneity and heterogeneity, where on the one hand personal creativity and independence are stifled or absorbed by the ubiquitous capitalist machine of commerce, and on the other, the self is under the pressure of the heterodox vision of otherness, if there is something to celebrate it is the survival of the individual and the re-invention of identity. In such a world, however, identity is an ambiguous project. It is, in Deleuzian words, a micropolitics that embraces the global, that has to search for transversalities between the “molar” ( the macroscopic social environment) and the “molecular” (the subjective mental ecology). Identity is something to be understood within the dynamic relationship with the other, a flux with its mutations of values , a malleable entity dependent on the networks. In Foucaultian outlook, identity is merely a game, a process for promoting certain social relationships, whose power play may render certain parties left unheard . In this connection, the power of art would lie in its capacity to identify where and how contemporary subject seeks refuge and protection from the hardship of the game, how the so called “identity” (as fixated category) often merely serves as an illusory security blanket to hide powerless anger and helplessness. But in a more productive way, artists can support and initiate alternative spaces which introduce different power games and different networks, channeling new aspirations and thereby shaping an ever growing sense of self, a nomadic self. In this way, while the peculiar art world is dissolved, its essential relation with the bigger human life is resolved.


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[*] Bambang Sugiharto, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Parahyangan Catholic University, Bandung, Indonesia. E-mail :

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