Thantic Modernism Revisited
by Reinaert de V.
After reading an inspired piece on Florian Pumhösl & Jean Baudrillard by Aurelio Madrid, I decided to comment on it. These comments in turn led to a very interesting and open philosophical discussion on postmodern aesthetics and modern society. With the help of mr. Madrid, I’ve been able to formulate some of the ideas – comment by comment – that had been lingering in my mind and nagging me for some time. Most of these are connected to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s notions on the sublime. I’m glad to present to you – with my friend’s permission – a quite literal transcript of my (and his) comments thereupon, with only slight alterations and a minimal of editing. Luctor et Emergo is Aurelio’s excellent weblog devoted solely to the exposure and critique of art in its myriad of forms, be it new or old. It goes without saying I’m very grateful to my counterpart in all of this, and especially for introducing me to the challenging art of Pumhösl.
———November 27, 2009 at 4:24 pm
Nice work, I love the sentence: “[…] we learn to understand that a contemporary art of the NOW, is simply a thing of the past–gone to be revitalized later.”
It’s an interesting article, because J. F. Lyotard actually sees the postmodern as a moment that comes before the modern, and makes it possible. Lyotard describes this ‘sublime moment’ of postmodernism as distrupting the tranquillity of representational art, by ‘not saying anything’, but just ‘being there’. He saw the Avant Garde movement as representing that moment…
According to Lyotard, modernism basically capitalized on the inherent plenipotentiary of the sublime, by crafting a new Grand Narrative ‘on top of it’. But the way I see it, the modern and the postmodern need each other, and feed of each other. This follows from what J. Baudrillard writes: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore. What is there beyond the end?”.
Even though modernism ‘transgressed’ the postmodern moment, by smoothing over what can’t be (understood). This transgression actually harnasses the energy of that moment – or else it dissipates. Clearly Baudrillard’s statement gives demonstration of this dissipation. The momentum is gone and we awaken in the desert of the so-called real: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore.”
But it also shows Grand Narratives always tend to creep back in, under-cover, because the statement indicates we now supposedly understand or ’see everything’. This can only mean we’re caught in a new (commodified) web of meaning and Truth. It shows we’re a long way away from that sublime moment which beckoned us to make a leap…
I cannot thank you enough for dropping by to read this! I am happy to have made a philosophical friend.
Can you explain the detail on Lyotard’s notion of post-modern as “before” the modern? I understand what you’ve outlined in terms of his anti-meta-narrative as self-contradictory &c.
***December 6, 2009 at 7:14 pm
You’re very welcome! It’s always a pleasure to meet someone with an interest in philosophy
Lyotard’s thinking isn’t only postmodern but also has many neo-Kantian elements within it. For example, in his aesthetic theory, Lyotard has revived Immanuel Kant’s theory of the beautiful and the sublime, and made it his own. That’s what I meant in the comment above, when I mentioned the ‘sublime’ of the ‘postmodern moment’. I’ll explain in some detail below.
According to Kant’s theory of aesthetics, a judgment of taste depends on the ‘free play of our cognitive faculties’. All rational beings are capable of cognition, which requires the connectibility of two faculties: Imagination (to gather together the manifold of sense-intuition) and Understanding (to unify these representations by means of concepts). Particular acts of cognition involve the connection of particular representations to particular concepts. But these acts presuppose an indeterminate general relationship – an underlying harmony of the two faculties. Put (too) simply: Beauty produces a spontaneous harmony, without being tied to anything particular. The sublime in contrast means disharmony between the two faculties, because it is aroused by objects that seem “as it were to do violence to the imagination”. They are characterized by a boundlessness that exceeds any form. The judgment of absolute greatness is nonconceptual and noncognitive. Nothing observed by the senses permits this description, only something within: The Ideas of Reason (Vernunft), which reach beyond all possible experience…
So for Lyotard the sublime refers to the emancipation of art from both the classical role of imitation (mimesis) and the canon of the beautiful. The art object no longer bends itself to models and no longer testifies to a truth that can be conceptualized. Thus the role of (true) art should be to critique the social, and the idea of unity and communicability (of unproblematic accessibility). Speaking like a Marxist here, he thinks it should expose the inherent disharmony within social life, between the individual and society, and give witness to the unrepresentability of the Idea of ‘reality’ – so as to release the manifold of ideas. If instead, art tries to give consolation by way of establishing a sense of harmony and transparency in its use of form, it runs the danger of becoming mere propaganda. When this happens it becomes a tool in the service of something else, as has happened with ‘Social Realist’ art in Communist Russia.
Lyotard saw the Avant-Garde movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, as championing the sublime. It’s exponents were no longer interested in faithfully representing (and so reproducing) ‘reality’, instead, it was much more like an ongoing search, and an experimentation of the non-figurative kind. Even though some, like Proust and Chirico kept a nostalgic longing for a lost unity in their work (which was felt in its absence), others like Cezanna, de Delaunays, Duchamp, Mondriaan, Joyce went all the way in their celebration of this ‘disconnection’ and farewell to form.
Now, Lyotard claims, that the postmodern when it comes to art, is that sublime moment within modernity which reveals the limits of representation, but which denies itself the consolation found in the beauty of form. Put differently: It is a search for the limits of our imagination through representation, and exposing this lack in all its terrifying glory! But this radical and original artistic impulse (of releasing the full potential of art) gets silenced by modernity through the reestablishment of the rules of form: The dictates of Beauty, if you will. Curbing, or checking (or bending) this freedom of art and imagination, which by its very unrestrained nature must necessarily precede modernity and make it possible. These ‘super-imposed’ strictures simultaneously sooth our anxiety in the face of such ‘radical freedom’ – and is a recurrent theme in Existentialist philosophy as well.
Hope this was of some help to you… Better late than never, right
***December 10, 2009 at 12:45 am
Reinaert de V.,
…nice of you to follow-up with your additional insight.
“…says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the unpresentable, ‘and this state is constant’ (Lyotard 1984, 79). The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the ‘new,’ and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”
I’ve found the above quote from the postmodernism entry at Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/postmodernism/ It also answers my question (in addition to your fine explication) on how Lyotard saw the relationship between the modern & the postmodern. Apparently the two are differentiated by the sublime (de-void of the omnipresent meta-narrative). The sublime as addressing the unpresentable (&c.), (I’ll call it an enigma, or even a kind of Buddhist myo http://www.sgilibrary.org/search_dict.php?id=1469 , generally meaning: essential mystery). T/his idea of the sublime is very useful with regard to works of cutting-edge art nowadays, with all its “difficulty,” its resistance & its unforgiving opacity.
The trouble I was having, had to do with thinking of the idea of the postmodern as preceding the modern. The issue might be resolved when we let go of this as chronological & place it in a conceptual regard. Conversely, it is worth noting that Lyotard does use Burke & Kant’s 18th century sublime to address the postmodern & this might lean toward a chronological perspective after all. The Enlightenment (sublime) was more postmodern than the modern (re: Lyotard)?
Thanks for dropping by & the smart & extensive consideration. Perhaps soon we can have more discourse, more philosophical questioning & more words.
***December 11, 2009 at 9:59 pm
Yes, your quote perfectly captures the essence of Lyotard’s thought in this regard. You’re also right in your comment about the chronology. Lyotard speaking as a Hegelian-Marxist has a teleological view of history, but with all such views there must be an underlying ahistorical principle. A dynamic principle that finds its development within history. It is no surprise we come across this hidden principle in his aesthetic theory, where the chronological view of history is suddenly transformed into an ahistorical one. Since art, being closely related to religion, simply takes the place of the former – which has been left officially ‘dead and buried’ since Nietsche. About your remark on the Enlightenment, you might also be on to something. Not in the sense of a ‘chronology’, but about it being the proper postmodern moment in Lyotard’s sense of the term, or start of the modern movement.
With all the foregoing in mind, I’d like to end by briefly returning to the project of the artist as described above. For I don’t think Lyotard would describe this art as properly postmodernist as he understood the term. Take for example the sentence: “This new art is a memorial to an idealized time gone by, now perhaps, with an unrecognized hum of nostalgia.” This clearly shows the nostalgia Lyotard accuses some modern artists of harboring when it comes to their hesitant use of the sublime. A nostalgia for an unproblematic, but unreachable – because forever lost – sense of Unity (Transcendental Totality). While the true (post)modern artist, according to Lyotard, celebrates the fracture of ‘reality’, so as to release form from its formal contraints.
Of course Lyotard doesn’t approve of Baudrillard’s commodified world, where everything is obscene and superficial, a mere play of form in the service of commerce. Where signs stop referring and become self-referential objectified comodities themselves (read: simulacra). He does want to keep (true) art focused on this inherently broken nature of modernity: the Anxiety of the Unpresentable. The fricture at the heart of modernity that keeps the engine going (forever renewing itself). But he does want them to stop longing and start accepting!
Pumhösl’s art in this respect – aside from the question of the inherent value of his work as objective visual artifacts – is clearly a step backwards, because his whole project is about a sense of loss, namely: the nostalgia Lyotard is speaking about… You could argue Pumhösl thematizes time itself or the problematic of memory & history etc, but he does it in a way that betrays the bankruptcy of the so-called ‘postmodern’ art of today. To put it differently: postmodern art seems to me to be all out of Ideas: it can only look back, in an “endless proliferation, or “necro-spective” of the past”. And this is what I meant with dissipation: by not properly harnassing the energy of the sublime as modernity did, art ultimately fell victim to big money (as Baudrillard clearly shows). For in the end art was left defenseless, not able to retreat any further, because all the big Ideas had been systematically shot down. The last of which was Lyotard’s very own: the Existentialist Heroic Confrontation with a Constant Crisis (Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”), which simply wears you down…
“Instead of first existing, works of art now go straight into the museum. Instead of being born & dying, they are born as virtual fossils.” Indeed, this is not something we should be celebrating, but a sad statement of fact. We simply have no idea what to put on display anymore.
***December 17, 2009 at 2:54 am
Reinaert de V.,
What another incredible reply you’ve written!
Once you present the idea that Lyotard might be coming to this with an ahistorical perspective, you contextualize for me, the notion that postmodern thought reflects an enlightenment sublime—re: a neo-Kantian Lyotard.
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to write about art now, 2009. Pumhösl’s name arrived in a recent review in Artforum & I thought I’d write about his interesting project. I started to look at how his art was a gesture of looking back &c. I then thought to connect the art with the philosophy of Baudrillard & Lyotard. Baudrillard seemed a good fit, since he spoke of the “end of history” & its illusions of “the end.” I couldn’t on the other hand, tie in Lyotard because it seemed out of balance & because I don’t have enough of Lyotard’s ideas within reach (I’m brought closer now, thanks to you). So, Baudrillard was workable. Needless to say, writing about art of today caused a looking back, which could not be avoided or overlooked. I was looking at time & how it reverberated through his art.
That Pumhösl is (a) post-modernist is anyone’s guess. If you go into the Modernologies link that I’ve provided at the end of the post (which was an exibit by the same name in Barcelona). Pumhösl has a podcast on his work in the exhibition. Oddly enough, I don’t think he mentions the term post-modern—he only calls his art post-conceptual. The introductory notes for the exhibit write that artists in the show are now looking to how “Modernism attempted to illustrate the experiences and ramifications of modernity in artistic forms – and in undertaking this project it was almost post-modern.” I feel the show almost had a certain shyness around the term (post modern). Perhaps it is simply out of fashion. I tried to use the term reluctantly, knowing that again, Pumhösl never uses the term post-modern. From there, we’re left outside of the term.
Now, the way that you have found to bring Lyotard in, is just right, maybe you felt his influence lingering in the ideas.
As for the nostalgia, we shouldn’t say that Pumhösl uses this as a motif–this was my interpretation of his work. His work is about remembering & with that, I feel nostalgia is not too far away. This is why I thought his art wasn’t cynical enough to bypass a slight feeling of nostalgia. However, your term (Transcendental Totality) seems to get very close to the vision of modernism as Utopian & this brings us closer to an issue Pumhösl might/would agree with. Basically looking at how the project of Modernism was over-idealistic &c. all presented in his typically dead-pan way.
Also, the last parts of your reply get to a problem with contemporary art (since the use of the word post-modern is in question) & its exhaustion of ideas. This is the core of what I’m trying to point to in the post. There are so many examples of this exhaustion in the art-world (I’ll spare you a list), I mean a sort of spiritual exhaustion that’s very close to the feelings & anxiety Baudrillard describes. Believe it or not, I’m not sure one should be too disappointed with art that is like this. If we say that art is a reflection of ourselves & that art is spiritually bereft, it is safe to say society is somewhat spiritually bereft. This observation is not new & we know this, but do we admit it to ourselves, when we look at art? Do we, allow art to be spiritually bereft, especially if it can nudge us to consider our lives & our own problems. This is part of its value. It is an expression of our condition—as mournful as it is.
…& to question all this again, I’ve found this quote:
“There shall be no mourning” (il n’y aura pas de deuil) –Jean-François Lyotard
***January 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm
I am in absolute agreement with your comment above, and I find your defense of Pumhösl more than fair.
I’ve to be honest: it was your post that first gave me an impression of his work, so shame on me for criticizing it in arm-chair-fashion But on a more serious note, this is an illustration of what you might call the general problem of ‘Art versus Art Philosophy’. They both exist and operate in a dialectical fashion. Art Philosophy always tries to analyse and orientate itself according to particular works of art and artists, that it sees as representing a certain way of experiencing or thinking about the world. Even though the particular artists in question might sincerely disagree with the labels they might get, claiming they didn’t have any such intention, or that their work shouldn’t be read that way but in a certain other way etc. Those are fair points to make, and they’re free to argue so, but for the art philosopher these objections are basically beside the point. The artwork simply exist out there as an artifact, free to be interpreted any which way that seems to fit. Of course there should be argumentation and explication, but an artwork does exist in a context and in that sense it is a certain expression or comment on that context. Of course artists in their turn, make use and comment on those theories and philosophies (that influence art & society) through their artworks, hence the dialectic.
To tie it all back to mr. Pumhösl and your excellent piece on his work. He might very well not be – or consider himself not to be – a postmodernist, I leave that up to him. But I was responding on the postmodern context he’s placed in, and how could he not be? We still live to an important extent in the ‘postmodern condition’ and he’s responding to his times, like you rightly point out.
I see my role as art philosopher to struggle with the theory surrounding art, and of course the struggle of theorizing about art itself. I don’t do this (only) for fun, but because art calls out for interpretation. They are ‘artifacts’, or man-made creations that, because of that fact, express something about “man” who made it and the society it was made in. After all, in the creation of an object, all sorts of ‘decisions’ have been made and those imply intelligibility. Art in this sense is simply a more fundamental mode of communication to me – one that reaches beyond language. This doesn’t mean my reading is the final reading, but that I should make my reading as persuasive as possible by taking as much into account as possible and bring it all to some kind of synthesis – that is: including (taking into account) reasonable views that differ from mine.
Well, I’m glad we agree on the spiritual exhaustion bit , but many out there would still disagree, or remain too attached to the ideas that make this exhaustion a fact. What I mean is that postmodern theory as it has developed, is the main culprit for the critical state art finds itself in. I’m not alltogether against postmodern theory, but when you look at what it has to say about art it won’t make you a happy camper. In fact, postmodernists content the very term ‘art’ not to mention their outright hostility towards the museum as an institution… To me postmodern art is a highly conceptualized form of ‘art’ where academics or theory seems to come first, and art a distant and pale second. I won’t go into all of that here, cuz it will take way too long to substantiate, but I’ll be writing on that somewhere else soon. In the sense that this ’spiritual exhaustion is an expression of our condition’ we should of course put every effort in changing that (postmodern) condition, and that means analysing what it means and how it can be changed, if at all…
This will be my final – and very late – remark on this interesting piece of you. I’ll surely continue reading your blog In the mean time I wish you a very successful and productive 2010!!! May it be a good and peaceful year for all.
***January 7, 2010 at 5:53 pm
Reinaert de V.,
Thank you again for another insightful & profound comment.
I agree with your point on the dialectical nature of the (Pumhösl’s) art objects as artifacts to philosophize over. I also agree that this is an aspect of a possible dialectical relationship we decide to have with the artifact/s, aside from the issue of whether Pumhösl positions himself (& his practice) as a post-modernist. After all, it is surprising that he seems to have this hesitancy with the term. As I’ve alluded to already, the term post modern (in contemporary art practice, criticism & writing) has fallen out of currency. It is not clear to me why this is. Perhaps it is simply no longer fashionable. The term nowadays has a kind of negative connotation that implies a sort of academic posturing &/or affected pretense. Please, please don’t get me wrong, we ignore the term at our own peril, since as you have so concisely illustrated, the term is very useful, especially when it is brought closer to its main philosophical advocates, Baudrillard & Lyotard.
As for philosophy & art writing, I’ve come across an issue of the art magazine “frieze,” where Jörg Heiser writes on some of the problems of this combination (art & theory) http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/sight_reading In it he addresses & questions how art & philosophy are in conflict. He also looks at how philosophers like Baudrillard & Lyotard have been aligned with the moody & often hard to pin-down art world.
I’d like to also thank you for presenting Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime in aesthetics. Any diligent reader should learn something from your excellent explications of the philosophy. That the sublime in art can bring us closer to understanding fracture, confusion, un-reason, impossibility & the unrepresentable, is key to having a better understanding of art today.
I am looking forward to reading more of your aesthetics & philosophy. From what I can see you are in Amsterdam which has plenty of cutting-edge art to think about & experience.
Please continue…the future is bright!
***January 14, 2010 at 3:55 pm
Ok, I admit I just couldn’t resist it, but this will be my final response! Just wanted to clear some stuff up.
First off, I dont mind if you have a negative (or positive) opinion about postmodernism, since everybody is entitled to his or her opinion. My own feelings on postmodern philosophy are rather ambigious… So feel free to write whatever you like. In fact the more honest the better! In the ‘arena of ideas’ the most valid will (hopefully) win out in the end, and of course an ‘ideological battle’ will ultimately be won with the soundest, most convincing arguments. Anyways, the points I wanted to clear up had to do with the ‘chronology’ or ‘ahistorical perspective’ of Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime and a ‘nascent postmodern moment’.
I was perhaps a bit too hasty in my analysis on that point, by ‘explaining it away’ as a hidden Hegelian-Marxist principle working in the background of his philosophy. I think, his idea of postmodernity as a moment that is closely linked to the modern, is in fact one I would subscribe to and find very illuminating (even though I don’t agree with everything he says). The Enlightenment was in a sense the ‘postmodern moment’, even though Lyotard himself clearly restricts this notion to art only, not society. Not only was it the birth of modernity, but as such it was a highly creative and liberating moment in western history. Of course Burke’s and Kant’s “sublime” were in important aspects very different from Lyotard’s use of the term, but Kant did furnish the conceptual basis for it (more so than Burke). Secondly, Lyotard as I read him, clearly illustrates the close symbiotic link between modernity and postmodernity as being two sides of the same coin. Like I tried to show in the beginning, I think his mistake is in discarding the modern as being a mere fossil of a dynamic postmodern principle. My idea is perhaps closer to Kant’s orginal idea, because I think the one needs the other. You can’t have pure ‘postmodernity’ (in Lyotard’s sense) nor just fossilized ‘modernity’, instead they should be working in tandem!
A useful (Kantian inspired) aesthetic theory by Luigi Pareyson’s will demonstrate what I mean by this. He makes a distinction between forma formata and forma formante, or ‘formed form’ and ‘forming form’. According to Pareyson when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to its own form, its forma formata so to speak, or to put it differently: the rule that’s incapsulated in its objective form, that ‘informs’ its form. But also, we shouldn’t exclude criteria external to the work of art, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explain why (or how) the artist decided to alter or change aspects of the work during the creative process (the forma formante). This engenders a dialectical process similar to the problem of ‘art vs art philosophy’ I mentioned above. Society influences (both directly and indirectly) the creative process of the artist and thus the created artwork, but once the work of art is created and ‘out there’ it exists in opposition to society and because of that fact – and its social origin – it is able to ’speak’ to society indirectly, also because it’s essentially a useless ‘object’. This is also an important idea in T. W. Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In both cases, the work of art falls under a rule that is established with its very creation, even there where it becomes something it ‘didn’t want to be’.
Coming back to the relationship between modernity and postmodernity: I think their relationship should be viewed along similar lines. First, with the establishment of modernity the influence of religion and tradition falls away, so too the ‘givenness’ of things. Humanity no longer has a direct line to the ‘things in themselves’ but is from that moment on fundamentally cut off (from the cosmos). “Reason” found itself confronted with a blind, uncaring, and ultimately absurd – because inhuman – outside world (beginnings of psychology). This pocess of secularization or desacralization – which led to an endless (analytical) fragmentation of everything – has been slow and painful, but the dicisive blow fell with the Enlightenment. Well, the “split” Lyotard mentions and posits in the ’sublime of the postmodern moment’, is basically a process of alienation. Even though artworks ‘liberated’ themselves in one sense (mainly from the ‘referent’), becoming everything they wanted to be, they also ran the risk – by that very fact – of becoming nothing (meaningful) at all. Since in essence art’s ‘unconscious’ rebellion was against meaning; that is against making sense of the whole, by being dominated by the ‘referent’ (or referring to something outside of itself = meaning). Thus freeing the ‘object’ of art.
So modern art is a very complicated and unique phenomenon to say the least, but maybe not a very healthy one… Lyotard is of course right in signalling that this tension or split, is a huge source of creative energy and has the potential to endlessly inspire and motivate artists (like the famous Rorschach test). At the same time though, if ‘modernity’ dissapears from the scene completely this energy dissipates, or perhaps you should say, the energy isn’t even used. Because without a creative project, we can’t have a creative process, so as to create something. Modernity was such a project…
Humanity is ‘doomed’ to make sense of the whole/world, even if it can’t. The artist has a need, corresponding to that of humanity, and that is finding meaning in everything around him and the means to do that, is subjecting the ‘object’ in art to his will. Of course this isn’t even a choice we have to make, because we cannot not do it. Which brings me back to what’s wrong with postmodernism as it exist now: Baudrillard’s philosophy shows the logic of our age and exposes the lie – or denial – that is postmodernity’s Cloaked Grand Narrative.
Like you said: art reflects our current situation. Civilizations come and go, when cultures grow jaded and become retrospective… (read this excellent article!) Yet the fact we’re now experiencing a lack of inspiration doesn’t mean we are dead, it just means we’re on a dead track and should get back on track – to use a nice modern metaphor.
***January 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm
This will be my last ‘final’ response, since I still left some loose threads…
I must say my friend Aurelio, that I really enjoyed our philosophical conversation! Even though I’m very critical of postmodernism (perhaps even biased to some degree), I do think every tradition and every artform deserves its recognition and is entitled to the best defense. Something you did with flair and an open mind in your piece on Pumhösl’s art. I’ll also try and answer your email-question on Lyotard’s “Differend” and how I think it’s related to his notion of the “Sublime”.
The loose threads I mentioned, have to do with Luigi Pareyson’s (Kantian inspired) aesthetics, which instead of clarifying my point, confounded it (since I left it untied to my main argument). His ideas of the “forma formata” (formed form) and “forma formante” (forming form) fit in perfectly with Kant’s (obviously) and Lyotard’s philosophy. If you see the ’sublime of the postmodern moment’ as an “event” that essentially disrupts the space-time-continuum (forgive my spacy choice of words ), it thereby shows the inherently broken nature of our experience of reality. When you define “reality” as that which can be shown to be true (through scientific method), than it can never be in harmony with the Ideas, because these ‘Ideas’ always have to do with the totality of things, in this case the ‘world’ we inhabit. But it can also refer to other essentially unrepresentable things. We can only suggest such Ideas, for example: standing at the foot of the pyramids of Giza, gives you the impression (and sensation!) of grandeur, ‘the infinitely big’, and a feeling of being over-powered. These are characteristics of the sublime. It is related to the feeling of fear, in that the sensation is over-powering, absorbing, too much to register, and/or because it’s a force that assails you (think of horror and disaster movies). Yet at the same time it gives a certain form of pleasure, because you are able to experience all these sensations safely. But more importantly: because it shows that these Ideas are bigger than everything that effectively surrounds us, bigger than everything we can make or think of, even ‘bigger’ than that our cognitive capacity is able to process (at that moment) and yet we can still “sense” them, despite or because of that! This is how Kant’s famous dictum must be understood:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.” – Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
It always reminds me of Monty Python’s excellent “Live Organ Transplants” sketch in “The Meaning of Life”, where you get more-or-less, tongue-in-cheek the same logic (albeit a bit perverse). Where the gruesome, mindless murder of the husband is (perhaps) too much for the wife to take in, and the ‘doctors’ use Kant’s notion of the enormity of ‘the starry heaven above’ to legitimize, trivialize, and even distract from the absurdity of the moral-disaster taking place in the living room.
Anywayz, the point is (as I explained above) that with the advent of modernity (= the Enlightenment) this ‘rupture’ took centre stage. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t noticed it before that time, but it didn’t use to be such a problem traditionally. Remi Brague throws some unexpected light on this problem, in his fantastic and meticulously researched book “The Law of God”. He traces it back to the (r)evolution – and ultimate fracture with the arrival of physics – of the concept of law within the Classical & Christian traditions. Confrontation with this ‘rupture’ (“which beckons us to make a leap”) used to be experienced as a mystical rapture, which led to a reaffirmation of God. But as Existentialism has shown this is only one of the possibilities, namely a solution theorized by S. Kierkegaard. A. Camus on the other hand saw this confrontation as one that one shouldn’t try to overcome by reaching a synthesis on a higher level ( Aufhebung ). According to him: the modern mind should acknowledge the ultimate meaningless chaos that is life, and therefore shouldn’t jump to conclusions to alleviate its fear of the unknown, but accept the boundaries of science. With science one should always remember that to do science one can’t explain everything, but one has to break a problem down to manageable pieces and focus on solving those one at a time. So science in its endless specialization is fractured as well, and it admits that it can’t give us the meaning or purpose of life. Some people even consider these notions (to be dangerously) nostalgic, and others, of a more positivist nature, would say a notion of God is meaningless to begin with, since it cannot be proven nor disproven. Well, with the first blow, the cracks slowly spread wider and wider…
If we agree on this fundamental “break” (being cut off from tradition) or “fracture”, we can see how it animates modernity’s program of the progress of reason, by slicing up everything in manageable pieces. Postmodernism on the other hand can be understood as an endless, ahistorical “now”, namely the repetition of this moment of fracture throughout history: a moment of existential crisis on a personal or cultural level, and of endless creativity. A crisis which can be (re)solved in many different ways… Modernity and its program being just one of those solutions. Modernity kept close to its source of origin (the moment of rupture), by endlessly repeating it, trying to pin it down or perhaps to get over it, and yet at the same time fundamentally alienated by it, because of its rationalist attitude.
This turned into quite a little story I see, lol. Let’s bring in Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetics now and close off with Lyotard’s “Differend”. If what I said above is more or less correct, it follows that modernity and postmoderity are closely linked and have a certain structure. Now, the sublime is the postmodern “moment”, and reveals itself as such, but in order to recognize it for what it is (a rupture) you’ve to have a clear and steady gaze, and not make the ‘leap over the abyss’ too soon. The idea of the “formed form” is essentially ‘the postmodern’ from the perspective of the critic, applied to art: “when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form”. In other words: don’t jump to conclusions but let the object of art speak for itself. But more importantly: there’s a structure that’s revealed, namely one that follows from its own form, and that revealed structure corresponds to modernity… This “forming form” is the effective force that moves us in a certain direction – without us consciously knowing it – and follows from the original form of the postmodern moment. Which modernity’s progress by constanly repeating it, has slowly but surely led us to recognize or acknowledge, namely: that the moment of fracture is the postmodern within modernity – animating it throughout… Thus the question should be: what comes next? Is it possible with this insight to renew modernity, or jump-start some other “program”, or does it only work when it’s working in the background, structured unconsciously? Are we now able to ‘jump’ wherever we like, as if in one big creative experiment, limited only by our imagination? These are the interesting and important questions I believe, because postmodernism itself is essentially a never-ending “now”, beckoning us to make that leap, and start something…
Finally, to come back to Lyotard’s “Differend” and what it means. Basically it’s a fundamental difference of opinion or a controversy. According to Lyotard such a dispute cannot be resolved through consensus as the parties speak radically heterogeneous languages (a sublime characteristic). To translate or paraphrase the terms of such a dispute would therefore prejudge the issue for one party (creating a false harmony). The only way out of this conundrum is by making use of Kant’s notion of the “Reflexive Judgment” which is similar to the idea of the “formed form” (since the second is inspired by the first). This means taking the time and effort to judge, in this case the competing language-genres (like science, rethorics, erotics etc) according to their own form. It is the capacity to detect the commonalities on basis of what is given, but in a critical fashion: by not neglecting the irreducible differences. Lyotard believes like Kant, that it is essential for people to develop this (moral) capacity or sensibility, by remaining open for the eventualities and slight – but important – nuances of language. He suggests that this “Bildung” (through literature and the Humanitas) of a cultured person is necessary, but under serious pressure from the modern capitalist economy. Since economy is about winning time (efficiency) and thus not taking the time to develop (culture). The capitalist mentality of making money is at odds with some of the other genres and slowly taking them over, creating a “differend”. With enough time the other language-genres are judged on its terms and by its rules only, something they can never win. “Money” is the sign of the time-won and turns into the measure of everything, meaning that only those genres which have the potential to make money have value on that account. So, as with Baudrillard, Adorno, and Marx, Lyotard focuses on the levelling and indifferent character of money.
and that is that!
***January 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm
Wow, more incredible ideas, you’re in a rapid-fire philosophical pace now!
…& as we keep saying, this’ll be my last comment.
Starting with Lyotard as neo-Kantain, (again & after/during our discussion), I’ve come upon a couple of salient points in reference to the sublime & Kant. In “The Sublime & the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard writes: “Even before romantic art had freed itself from classical & Baroque figuration, the door had thus been opened to inquiries pointing towards abstract & minimal art. Avant-gardism is thus present in germ in the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime.”
Before Kant we had Burke, Longinus & others of whom Lyotard draws on for the sublime. When I wanted to look at art of the NOW, I had to look at the unavoidable past (a kind of obvious paradox of the new). I like that you do not want to disregard Kant’s influence. This is perfect, because we can still find value in the genius of Kant for his sublime, as differentiated from beauty, the sublime as the sensation of awesome grandeur & so on. Lyotard also says that Kant compared the sublime to the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…,” to this Lyotard writes: “optical pleasure when reduced to mere nothingness, promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity.” Amazing, now we’re at the Bible, geez, who would’ve guessed? But we’re also at an understanding that’s very today, now, of the moment, questions of representation of the profound, & representing faith (as contrasted or understood with reason).
Now, you also have me thinking of Pareyson & I’m wondering if there is any phenomenological thread in his work? From the little I’ve found, he’s hermeneutical & with what you’ve written here, I’m slightly hesitant to compare him to Clement Greenberg (the well-know art critic who championed formalism). His writing basically tried to strip the art object down to its basics—the clarity of form, any thing outside of that was moot. He wrote on postmodernism too, but I’m not sure he was all that much in favor of the term, in fact I think he was disdainful. He wanted to appreciate the medium, the shapes, and the forms of art, but he became too rigid & bossy in his later years & was dethroned as the ultimate expert, the last word was no longer his. His famous term was “post-painterly abstraction.” Following Greenberg was minimalism which moved into form with wild abandon & in fact we see minimalism’s spirit in Pumhösl’s forms.
As for Pareyson’s notion that the work of art should be judged only by it form, this idea is intriguing, I’ll have to look out for his work. From what you’ve described I want to read more…
Some of my abstract work was very formal, with respect to materials as the “subject.” It was a way of looking at the object (hanging on a wall) with attention to the structure of the physical object, but I was also aware of the “meaning,” as subordinate. The art object is first an object, and then it’s art (when finished by the viewers/audience gaze). So writing about all this, makes me want to create with a newly informed enthusiasm. I suppose I’m doing that right now as I write—this is the (post-modern) creative act, we are right here–taking a ride though the sublime, approaching the unrepresentable!
I’m very interested in your comments where the sublime/post modern art object threatens to become meaningless—which is where a lot of people still would argue, that this IS the state of art today. But, it is valuable for us to see & observe the mysteries of life—or that mystery is essential & fundamental. It is in this arena that art can summon energy–& it does. It’s a kind of courage one has to face, when faced with the unknown, the unexplainable, and the outer edges of logic (reason). Contemporary art is always on this borderline, this rupture, the absurd, ironic, cynical, offensive, & yes, just outwardly insane.
I agree with you that these are stressful times & that the art object is not always an answer, rather it’s usually a question. How am I regarded, how far can I push an idea, or how far can I push the imagination & how far can I push a convention (a norm)? Everyday culture doesn’t know how to regard this troublesome art, because it’s challenging them to think & react in new ways that are uncomfortable & highly specialized. Philosophy can help with this since some of its job is to look at perception, judgments of taste, aesthetics &c. &c.
“From the sublime, springs a lot of reflection” –Longinus
…we’ll speak again
***February 6, 2010 at 11:53 am
Our “never-really-last-comments” seem to be in Baudrillard’s words: “continuously repeating & rehashing the end”
But what you said in your last reply started to make me think again (thanks) and here are some of my thoughts…
Your hesitance in comparing Clement Greenberg’s “formalism” to Luigi Pareyson’s theory of “forms” is more than justified. Greenberg successfully launched the careers of such prominent modern artists as Jackson Pollock and – our very own Dutch – William de Kooning. Their abstract-expressionist style Greenberg considered to be Avant-Garde. According to Greenberg, this “abstraction” – as you might well know – begins when the artist turns away from the subject-matter and concentrates on the medium of art itself. So the very processes and disciplines that were once used to imitate or represent external reality now become the “subject-matter” of art, hence releasing the “object” of art. Or, to put it differently: focusing on the “objectivity” of art as a discipline, thus becoming “self-conscious” and more importantly: self-referential. Which means art was freed from the “referent”, from what lies outside of ‘art proper’: its traditional subject-matter. Greenberg went so far in his dogmatism to celebrate a rarefied and purified abstractionism, for which there are only two norms or conventions: flatness and the delimitation of flatness that underlines the painting’s existence as a two-dimensional object. This heightened “self-awareness” is, I believe, typical of postmodern philosophy. You can recognize it in the role Paul Cézanne accords in his post-expressionism to the so-called “Painter-Researcher” as “to make seen what makes one see, and not what is visible”. Thus creating an “Ah-ha” moment similar to the working of a mirror. The moment you stop focusing on what lies beyond (the mirror-illusion) and suddenly become aware of the effect of the medium itself, namely: that what you’re actually looking at is a reflection of yourself (Mirror of Art). Put most clearly and concisely in Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum: “The Medium Is The Message”.
If you compare this to Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetic theory you’ll see enormous differences. Just for the record, I’m new to his thought myself. I came across Pareyson by reading another interesting (Catholic) Italian philosopher named Gianni Vatimo, who is writing from a hermeneutic-phenomenological position (also check Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben ;-) . Anyhow, Pareyson’s “forms” are much, much more inclusive than Greenberg’s formalism. You could even say that they are all-inclusive, since: “all human life is the invention and production of forms. Everything mankind does, whether on an intellectual, moral, or artistic level, results in forms–full-fledged, organic, autonomous creations, endowed with a comprehensibility of their own”. So Luigi’s “forms” are of a different, Kantian inspired order. In fact, apart from the borrowings mentioned earlier, some of Luigi’s thinking seems to resemble Kant’s distinction of the realms of noumena and phenomena, between “how we perceive things” and “how they truly are in themselves”. The word noumena is associated with the Greek word for ‘mind’ (nous). Kant believed the only way we can begin to understand the idea of a noumenal realm, is through the mind (or intellect). For instance, although people can experience the same object as having a different shape, colour and texture, depending on where they stand in relation to it, this does not change the fact that (logically) the object must have a true form, independent to the way they perceive it. Of course, this thing can never be experienced in the “noumenal realm” due to the fact that we are only capable of attaining knowledge of things as they appear to us as phenomena, that is: indirectly.
This more or less lays the groundwork for Luigi’s ideas on “forms”, as being “autonomous creations, endowed with a comprehensibility of their own”. But they are also “organic”, in the sense that they must grow and adapt to changing circumstances or wither away. Meaning that they must take on a “concrete form” to come into existence (everything starts with a detail). Once in existence they are able to exert pressure on their own “by simply being there” (as part of the furniture) furthering their “formal” development. This is the result of their “logical-noumenal” form (the rule that informs its form) on the one hand, and the influence of the “concrete form” (or style, of the human intervention) they took on, on the other. It’s like the difference between the “synchronicity” of a hidden logical system (or algorithm, if you will) which can be inferred, and its “diachronic” or accidental development through time, which makes this inference possible. Happening one step at a time and sometimes getting lost in the process, having to start all over again… This allows for a sheer infinite amount of possible variations on the theme of a “form”, without it losing its “logical-identity”. Though this “formal-law” can only be retrieved or made available as the sum total of its concrete manifestations and cannot be put on display “in itself”.
Thus the “sublime of the postmodern moment” can only bear witness to this ‘form-principle’ indirectly. Our awareness of its ever-pervasive efficacy has been the result of the accidental-organic development of modernity already mentioned (in which it expressed itself most clearly). This form-principle or mechanism, is what Luigi describes as “matter”: the “restraint imposed by the obstacle” (“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…,”) forcing the artist into a “dialogic activity”. The “restraint imposed by the obstacle” is that part of existence “which will not bend to our will”. It is at the source of that profound experience to which I’ve alluded with different terms: fracture, split, rupture, break, etc (each time accentuating a different aspect). The “object” of art is of course the prototypical obstacle, forcing the artist to adapt to its rules and make those his own. The creative process will gradually bring those rules (its “formal-law”) to light, but in the artist’s own unique style. Thereby setting a precedent calling out for imitation and further elaboration, creating an artistic tradition.
For Pareyson’s theory this means “forms” can and must be used for ulterior purposes, they must become part of something bigger, namely: “meaningful contexts” or vehicles able to communicate, elaborate and transmit them. Sometimes unintentionally disfiguring, distorting, or disguising them. “Forms” are in constant need of a “translation” into different media (delimitating their dimensions), since they are only able to express themselves in concrete accidental forms. Over time forming layers of, what you might call ‘historic sedimentation’, patiently awaiting our response… Only in this continuous historic process of translation and interpretation can these sedimentations “resist” and exert pressure: unconsciously forming us, while we’re responding to and grappling with them. Since : “all human life is the invention and production of forms”, our interaction with them forms our evolving horizon. Conversely, if it were possible to fully express a formal-law in its “logical-noumenal” form as it were (“how they truly are in themselves”), there wouldn’t be any more tension or restraint (all would be said). Those fully expressed formal-laws would perhaps simply be adopted as facts of life, dead letters, like one and one is two. Leading them to become static and stale, stopping further development. As a living “form” it would wither away and die, having nothing more to say: being fully digested and absorbed… Or perhaps they would continue to exert their influence in new forms of being, who knows…
If this somewhat Hegelian reading of Pareyson is correct, it favors my interpretation of Lyotard’s postmodern sublime. Hegel’s dialectic is basically “Kant in action”, so it makes a certain kind of sense. But I don’t think Pareyson’s aesthetics calls out for a so-called sublime form of art, even though it explains certain aspects of the phenomenon. For if we focus on the “noumenal-logical” side of the “form”, its “formal-law”, we get a slightly different picture. Luigi claims that “everything mankind does” is basically a “form”, and that these forms should develop through our continuous interaction with them, that is: humanity as a hermeneutical community. In other words: Luigi’s theory seems to imply that every form of art (and non-art) is equally valuable and should be brought to fruition. It also means he has a favorable attitude towards tradition. With the “canon of the beautiful” or “laws of beauty”, the inherent part of the different artistic disciplines, being valuable in themselves as “full-fledged forms”. Artistic traditions, by staying vital and thus meaningful, form the material support for the “forms” to find expression in. It resembles Lyotard’s defense of the different language genres, but without his insistence on their incommunicability. Which brings us back to postmodernism.
Postmodernism basically has two opposing sides, represented by Lyotard and Baudrillard, when it comes to dealing with art, culture, and society. You could of course use G. Deleuze or J. Derrida to successfully explain postmodernism, but Lyotard and Baudrillard represent its two opposite poles. Lyotard having one foot in modernity due to Kant’s influence, represents the diachronic dimension or historical development of postmodernity. While Baudrillard’s philosophy, being fully disconnected, describes and analyses the laws of this new postmodern “form” of being, and represents the synchronic dimension or hidden systemic logic. But both their postmodern philosophies “ran into a wall”, that is: they got stuck on the freed “obstacle” in art. So their philosophies developed different strategies to deal with this problem: Lyotard by focusing on the sublime in art, the inherent split in society, its irrationality, incommunicability, disunity. While Baudrillard developed his cultural logic, best encapsulated in the phrase: “everything goes”…
Now, the “illusion of a beyond” is the sublime projection created by the “obstacle”, and is the dynamic principle in art. Meaning that the only way to revitalize art is I think, to act on this principle (instead of meditating on it). For if we don’t, there’s the danger that this “obstacle” – experienced as a fracture or split – will ultimately bring us to a complete stand-still, binding us with its spell. For the sublime to work its magic, demands of us to make a leap of faith. Perhaps similar to a suspension of disbelief, since postmodernism is essentially about demolishing the “fourth wall”. Art as it exist today doesn’t seem to particularly like ‘distinction’, artistic traditions, nor its disciplines. Like you said: “the art object is not always an answer, rather it’s usually a question. How am I regarded, how far can I push an idea, […] convention (a norm)?”. The postmodern sublime is highly cerebral in nature, a seeming obsession (or self-obsession) with questions of the perplexed: “From the sublime, springs a lot of reflection” (Longinus). Since the object, once it is released from the ‘confines of meaning’, confronts us as an insolvable puzzle, a radical other, forever out of our reach. Thus throwing us back on ourselves (self-referential). An object before which we hesitantly pause – or grind to a miserable halt. The sense of heightened “self-awareness” I mentioned earlier, fits into this general profile: it creates a situation where we are no longer able or willing to act, out of fear of the possible effects it might have… Instead we end up infinitely reflecting on endless possibilities and their arbitrary (unjustifiable) nature. Leading to indecision or indifference. Closely related to this postmodern ‘state of anxiety’ is a symptom I call: “taal allergie” (language allergy). Of course I’m now only talking about the extreme, but telling cases…
The emotion corresponding most closely to the “sublime” is I believe a state of excitement, which is actually an intense form of interest. Usually arising in response to novelty or challenge, and in this sense is mostly a thinking state, rather than an emotion which carries us away. Hence a clear invitation for empty gestures and intellectual posturing. However, it is true that matters that start out as interesting can become emotionally exciting, when changes happen quickly or are challenging, unexpected, or novel as in some true (post)modern art. Excitement also bears a close relationship to fear… But art in its myriad “forms” can express so much more, excitement is just one aspect of its immense repertoire. Art has throughout history been closely related to sensory pleasures (visual, tactile, olfactory, auditory, gustatory), feelings of contentment, warm uplifting feelings, kindness, compassion, gratitude and wonderment, but also ecstasy, even sensations of relief following excitement (not to forget amusement). Putting it differently: I too find postmodernism’s experiments exciting, but not its dogmatic and domineering attitude. A leftover I think, of its (over)reaction to the caricature it made of modernity. Some of postmodernism’s insights are undeniably highly valuable and illuminating, but not to the exclusion of everything else.
When you say: “Pareyson’s notion that the work of art should be judged only by it form”, he doesn’t just mean material form, because he counts everything as “form”, even such immaterial things as morality, perhaps even ideas of beauty… Though it’s an interesting experiment, and your artwork looks very intriguing, certainly worth further investigation, it should not mean traditional concepts and forms of beauty are to be superseded, or neglected. Instead all these forms and traditions should inspire, motivate, and unite us. The irony of Baudrillard’s ‘mercenary solution’ to the postmodern condition, is that art does regain its freedom, but in its new found freedom reestablishes older artistic traditions, developing them further in surprisingly new and unexpected ways… and this is how it should be! This unintended process of returning art to the people, is reinforced by postmodernism’s mission of self-destruction carried out by our “anti-establishment establishment”, resulting in the disappearance of the distinction between low and high art. As Friedrich August Hayek clearly illustrated in “Road to Serfdom”: money itself isn’t ‘evil’ but an indication of people’s values and priorities in life, and thus a symbol of our freedom to make individual choices (put your money where your mouth is). Even though Lyotard is absolutely right to warn of the danger a dominating paradigm of efficiency might entail. After all, we wouldn’t want money to be the highest goal in life, symbol of ultimate value. Similarly freedom is crucial, but freedom to do what exactly?
All in all, you could perhaps say Pareyson has somewhat of a phenomenological streak. Since he speaks of living and developing “forms” – similar to M. Heidegger and H. G. Gadamer, regarding language as the ‘house of being’ (Heidegger, 1959).