Issue #30-31, 2008
+ (presences of art)

The End Of The Avant-Gardes And The Triumph Of The Market: Aesthetic Values And Social Values In Late Modern Times1
Claude Karnoouh

Grapheon hodos eutheia kai skolia.”2
Heraclit, Fragment 59

1. The Market As Aesthetic Criterion

In the present effervescence around art objects, of the constructions and reconstructions of museums, in the multiplication of collectable objects the symptom of a crisis of contemporary art and even culture as such becomes manifest. In the unprecedented explosion of Western exhibitions (the queues in front of the museums replaced the queues in front of the Russian butcheries), of auctions and of the prices, the art market seems stunningly febrile; the acceleration, the development, the globalisation of public bids for this or that style or artist, as well as the advertising companies rival with the world real estate market and with the interconnection of the stock exchange markets. Briefly, if it weren’t for those objects which the western tradition has credited as “art objects”, we would incline to believe that the Dow Jones of the public auctions has became the sole criterion promising to determine the aesthetic value of the artworks.

The number of galleries is increasing and a walk through the renewed districts of Paris, Brussels, Munich, Berlin, Zurich, New York or London shows how numerous they are. People of all kinds, engineers, high officials, teachers, professors, salesperons, who not long ago were displaying the most tenacious aesthetic conformism and had nothing to do with contemporary art, except for laughing at it, hurry to invest in it. The synergy of fashion and speculation compose a genre painting, with emblematic characters: from the public side, there come general managers looking for the possibility of becoming a Maecenas, showbiz stars snuffing for opportunities to revive their notoriety, toady journalists, the suite of politicians “acquainted with the new” and the newly enriched raiders or golden boys in search for respectability; on the side of the new rite celebrants there come museum conservators, gallery owners, intellectuals writing about everything they see and artists. Contemporary art museums and fashionable galleries is where the elite of the new liberal society performs the cult of the new golden calf: the art market. Nevertheless, such a spectacle is the effect or the consequence of something essential, which the naïve sociologist tries to understand as a play of social “distinction” of the newly enriched. Or, the dimension and the complexity of the phenomenon – its relations with very different streams in contemporary art, the interrelations with political and ideological inter-war movements, its relations with the most important financial groups – reserve us many surprises.

At the scale of the western world, culture is a state business, run by mass-media and powerful capitalist foundations, which engages a new alliance among museums, a new generation of conservators and collectors, which overturned the art market; they all set the value of the artists and the styles of the day, in a play resembling rather the promotion of fashion than the challenge of rival aesthetic schools. In spite of the enormous sums at stake, there is an essential difference between this type of speculation and that on the financial markets: the gigantic investments made in artworks (and often in valuing them3) does not allow the time to make them justice anymore.

The encounter of financial strategies used by powerful galleries allied with big collectors and the managers of the most important museums, as well as the cumulative expansion of the notion of culture within the social, political, eco­nomic and moral system express the new human relationships.4 No more heavy, funny or fatal fights between groups of artists defending an aesthetic in which ethics and politics are mixed. A small society rules the art market and anyone knows that prices have to increase continuously in order to provide substantial benefits.5 That’s why all auction sales are characterised by unseen media stag­ings, as if the record prices reached by the artworks are the main concern of the people targeted by the mass media; as if they wanted to anchor the morality of such speculations into consciousnesses and to legitimate some countable financial values by means of arguments extracted from aesthetic, not countable values. If aesthetic value turns an art object into an inestimable work, no pecuniary value can be equated with it. But, if this is how things work, we have to draw all the conclusions and show that money alone set the value of people and things. I shall return to this later.

2. Free Itinerary through the Labyrinth of Modern Art

One cannot make sense of the contemporary art effervescence and luxuriance if one doesn’t consider, in one way or another, the manners which simultaneously turned modern painting – announced by Manet, Van Gogh, Gaugain and Cézanne and continuing with Matisse, Kandinsky, the reionists, the suprematists, the cubists and the expressionists – into an explosion of techniques, materials and also a wasteland for any aesthetic axiology. The present, with its “everything’s possible” could not have emerged as a “natural” evidence, as “self-evident” until the appropriation by the museums of the most risible and grotesque objects of daily life (the non-aesthetic in the ready-made and in the so called “pop” objects) and this has happened precisely because some art geniuses used their names to mark the end of painting or sculpture as Platonic idea or Aristotelian mimesis and, what’s more, the end of any relation between the aesthetic object and its creation as a singular work aiming at Beauty, understood as Good and True; a work of a certain technique where the spirit and the substance, the art (idea) and the handicraft (making), indissolubly related, not only guarantee the (formal) originality, but also the (material) quality of the work.

The modern artist’s studio is no longer a study centre populated by armies of students sketching or finishing the works of the master. Painter’s Studio of Courbet, a scandalous painting in its time, is a place of meeting for the artist with his equals, in front of the model’s nudity, anticipates in a way the studio becoming a strange cave where both the alchemy of the lonely creation and its fashionable enactment are being played out simultaneously. Once any transcendence that could be found behind things is rejected, once the constraints of tradition are removed, the artist is no longer the human instrument of gods’ will, or the word made flesh by some almighty trinitarian God, not even the guardian of the idea. Absorbed in a lonely wake while he imposes the ideology of radical individualism, he presents him or herself as the last demiurge, as the world’s last magician.

Everything’s possible” will only occur later for its victory presupposed a prior mutation of the social engaging the triumphant radicalisation of individualism as a legitimisation of the profit and the unfolding of its reverse: the lonely crowd, organised in democracy and mass consumption. Some artists, faced with the paradox of the ideal representation of the object, started to think about the death of art precisely due to massification of the social domain perceivable in the premises of the great hecatombs of our century. Signing in their own names the theoretical manifestos or the artworks proclaiming the murdering of art as an individual adventure, the “pre-post-modern” artists left their great emancipative struggle to the game of the king-individual, in his lonely endeavour, but also to the media and financial world circus. We can easily guess the consequence of such an action. By taking this decision, the artists nurtured, in the field of aesthetics, the ideology of an absolute individual freedom which, as we know, is nothing but the submission to the established powers. Non-art, the non-original form (that of the industrial repetitiveness, its vestiges or the objects of a plural origin) does no longer exist and it is only captured or elaborated (put together, Ge-stell) by means of the signature or the name attached to it. And thus the work becomes the intention of a work, and its representation may be reduced to a piece of paper on which a signature would certificate this intention. What is left of art, whose destruction was intended, is the artist, as an individual. And does not conceptual art aim, without ever stating so, exactly at the com­pleted and empty form of individualism?

If I were to sum up the history of “classical” art in a few words, from the Renaissance on, before an audience, here is what I would say: rediscovering the Platonic standard of idea which endorses it, and transposing on canvas the formal harmony of nature and man, the Renaissance painters handed over to the next generations the quasi-absurd search of the absolute (cf. Città ideale of Piero della Francesca).6

For the large contemporary audience, these are frivolous issues. Ever since the invention of photography, people try to find in painting similarities with their immediate perceptions. An issue for which, we can rest assured, there was not and there will never be an ultimate solution, except for the case we give up every artistic representation. Let’s get over with the issue of idea, that’s the temptation and the challenge for modern artists. Or, in order to annihilate an issue, one should first suppress its premises, which in fact puts forth the idea of a possible representation of a tridimensional absolute. Giving up the eidos as the truth of things through and in representation, assuming it completely as a simulacrum, even as a risible game of things and people, this is the challenge which the avant-gardes had to deal with. They asserted, like the modern iconoclasts they were, that the absolute cannot be represented more than the Semitic God is. For that reason, they could only suggest and trace its grotesque or terrifying marks by a minimal use of colour and shadows, which define the limits of the ultimate contrast, after which there is only pure intention, with no representation: an immaculate canvas; through the play of some metaphysical and/or metonymical shifts of representation, already present in our painting history, through the accumulation of signifying-images whose construction and organisation shifts in a game of combinatorics which turns diachrony, history (a temporal causal succession, even it is about the cyclic time) into a juxtaposition, a synchrony which coagulates the great dynamics of simultaneity, of telescop­ing, of multidimensional and multidimensional syncretism where the objects, the images, the icons, the statues, the masks, the materials and the instruments on the face of the earth intertwine, relate and are undone. Then, the work of the artist will develop through the displacement of different elements in infinite combinations, just like science is opening an infinity of objectivations. In his own risible and rough manner, wouldn’t it be possible that Christo wanted to show us that beyond the dispersion, beyond the look exhausted by the staging of incoherence and madness could there be a possible – but always hidden – unity which could enwrap the entire Earth?

The mystical minimalism of Malevich, that of the White Square on a White Background, announces the end of an era which concluded with Klein mono­chrome works, also placed on a background of modest dimensions, with the vast frameless sheets of Pollock, splashed with black spots, ending there as if acciden­tally or by mistake, like an apotheosis of randomness. Art ends up to be nothing more than a gesture, the signing by the artist. A possible way, followed by so many more, which led to similar results.

After the works of Brancusi and Moore, sculpture became orphan, lacking tradition; its development cannot lead but to the repeat or refuse of any allegory of the essence, to the assertion of the simulacrum as it is. By placing the horizon of his formal search in the lines passed on by the spirituality of absolute renunciation practiced by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa, Brancusi recaptures the extreme Cycladic simplicity.7 He displaces little by little, yet inexorably, the representa­tion of the human body to that of the primordial and contemplative ovoid, ideally placed in front of the infinite column of the tetrahedrons placed in parallel and in opposition, in a unique movement to the centre of the earth and the eternal blue sky, while a scissiparous egg called The Gate of Kiss opens humanity up for the most intense embodiment in universal love: a sublime way to illustrate the truth of eidos. As for Moore, he sees redemption in the movement of the volumes linking to each other, in creating all kinds of anthropomorphous amoeba-like monsters, whose mass of marble or sanded bronze makes us think of a cryp­tic eroticism inhabited by an indecipherable desire, a spring of all human potentialities. With these two great artists, classical sculpture completed its race for eliminating all decorative asperities, searching for austerity as an enhance­ment and apotheosis of the essence; but also as an antithesis of the baroque overload or for the tame Greek references, of the academic avatars striving to conceal a frightening void. Then, railroads and recovered ironworks shall be welded together, automobile carcases from the scrap yard shall be compressed; objects shall be recovered from domestic garbage, from military residues, from materials thrown to the trashcans, on the polluted beaches, in neglected parks, on sand roads, etc. The adventure will thus reach the museum display cases, with the label of a can as the work and what can the artist do in the becoming of late modernity. Artist’s shit, by Piero Manzoni, is an emblem of our times witnesing the triumph of the insatiable West, of a greedy Europe, stuffed with everything and defecating its excess on the rest of the world in order to make money out of excrements. Duchamp reaches levels which he himself wouldn’t have dreamt of. The Philadelphia guru opened the way, so the only thing left was to exploit this lode at the scale of the infinite possibilities provided by the industrial society. Was he aware of the measure in which the unthought in his art was expressing the thought of the century which ties and transforms labour, production, consumption and their waste into the money-value?

From the Renaissance and the Greek reference, the successive generations of artists answered their predecessors like an echo and called one other. The special works and the artists cited occur thus as emblematic forms and figures of a frontier marking the end of an era and the dawn of a new one; in their intentions and manner of revealing themselves, these works reveal the break occurred between modern art (which finds its completion in the crisis of the representation of the objects) and the extinction of any aesthetic canon, between the end of the avant-gardes and the present promiscuity of the formula “everything’s possible”, between the innovation of the revolt and the novelty at any price as a bow to conformism, between the demiurge-artist and the artist as a great priest of the cult of novelty, between creation as tragedy and the frivo­lous – but how profitable – work of advertising.

We can draw a parallel between the evolution of politics and that of art, without creating a play of mirrors. Some people, like Lyotard, understand and define this end of the century as the “end of the great narratives”, the end of the great modern utopias which, from Anabaptism to the Bolshevik, fascist and Nazi revolutions have always lead people to turn Earth into hell in the name of future happiness but where, among ruins, wiped out cities and villages and countless piles of dead bodies, splendid jewels of human imagination have sometimes rose as if through a godly miracle. The end of utopias and that of the avant-gardes go together, as the latter slightly preceded the former. Has anyone seen a Guernica inspired by the endless wars after the Second World War? In a sad happening, here we are content to see the My Lai photos facing Picasso’s painting at the Metropolitan Museum!8 After the last European macabre dances of our century, the concentration camps, the killing methods at industrial scale – unconceivable things for a civilization (be it Eastern or Western) claiming to found social and technical progress on the use of practical reason (subjected to the transcen­dence of the categorical imperative, the pendant of pure reason) – some thinkers decipher the meaning of our times as the era of the end of any meta­physics and, more generally, of philosophy. Tired by so many wars, exhausted by so many disasters and miseries, Western man threw himself in the vertigo of the new con­sumerism tornado and ended by relinquishing the ethical values imposed by the classical concept of progress, which implied the moral educa­tion, the meticulous striving, a balance between the technical functional, the financial and commer­cial utilitarianism and Beauty as non-utilitarian universal value.

Contemporary mass democracy, realised under the sign of the society of con­sumption – something the ventriloquists of the liberal thinking call the end of history – puts together and equals social ethics and the frantic search of the immediate material welfare in which people’s becoming translates into the management of the precariousness of the jobs, of the domestic loans, of the spare time programmed in advance. Aesthetics and, generally speaking, culture became the object of accounting on a gigantic market working from now on according to surplus value and the permanent struggle against the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. It’s a triumph of information-levelling, which reveals itself as a non-experience of the world, and of advertising, as an aesthetization of the goods. A collapse of utopias, end of philosophy, of avant-gardes, they all mark the simultaneous (and absolute) victory of utilitarianism, in its every form: that of social sciences as prophylaxis and social, economical and political ortho­paedics, that of the infinite technical development as accomplishment and precariousness of happiness, that of language, sterilized and turned into a simu­lacrum of truth of communication. Western world is caught up in a frantic effervescence, into the eye of a media storm which escapes ever more the control of those who caused it. As for the spectators, (most of us), giddy ghosts, hallucinatory phantoms and imbruted minds, they indulge in the exhilaration of multiplied things, of electronic images, sounds and noises and try to forget, in the abundance of the moment, the threat of an implacable precariousness, always present, hidden and at the same time incapable of awaking the consciences benumbed by so much cacophony. By using all kinds of cosmetic solutions in trying to overcome our limited mortal condition through the ideal of the everlast­ing youth on earth, we found ourselves, for the first time in the history of the West, confronting ourselves, like slaves force-fed with goodies and novelties of all sorts, on the brink of an unprecedented spiritual misery. Lost in the mirage of metaphysics, denying reality in favour of its ideal double, the late inheritors of the philosophy of the Enlightenment fail to look at modernity and to listen to its message in its technical and mercantile essence, in other words, as generalisation of labour as foundation of the social and politic domain and further on of any human activity including art, even though it is only its tragic or risible expression. It is exactly this establishment that late modern art brings forth, as a radical aesthetical-political expression of production, selling and consumption.

3. Art and Society

Is there any way to save the non-utilitarianism of art? As a matter of fact, is it not possible for the very risible character of it to bail us out of the spiritual misery? And does art not retain the last piece of human mystery, which the overall secularisation of the world made to disappear in favour of the experience of the progress, reduced to the things which may be measured in the most trivial quotidian situations?

Once the death of God was proclaimed, it was the artist’s fearful obligation to show the world that the presence of non-utilitarianism is the last chance of redemption. The injunctions, the challenges and the admonitions of the avant-gardes, the premonitory images signalling great catastrophes, their fury against the establishment of a generalised conformism, peculiar to a society living in abundance, forebode the victory of the “absolute vacuum” without avoiding the traps of the barbaric mercantilism. I remember the Good Friday in 1989 when, on my return from Beaubourg, I passed by the Saint Merry church where the Crossway Mess was being celebrated. I entered out of curiosity and I saw how empty the house of the Lord was. Only a few tourists and local senior citizens were listening to the priest chanting his litanies, one by one. Tens of metres away, hundreds of people were queuing to enter the temple of modern art. A sign of our times! What else could they have done?

What is it that the cohorts of tourists admire on the museum walls? Is it a new contemplation opening a way to Damascus for the aesthetic meditation? If this is so, we should accept that people have changed and thus produced a spiritual crack which breaks the infernal cycle of utilitarianism. May this be the formidable context of such an exercise? Does the tourist vibration not appear to us today as one of the world organisation of commerce, offered by Tour operators, where through one single move brute people are taken from the museum to the pornographic cabaret? Tourism, photo cameras, luxury cars, extravagant clothing, they all take part in the frantic consumption and so does visiting museums – in its mercantile spectacularization.

What we have here is a profound change in tastes, behaviours and representa­tions, which is not a priori imputable to the artistic activity in itself, as it remains the thinking-acting of one single man, confronted with the alchemy of creating form. Or does “everything’s possible”, which is the principle of contemporary art or, as some call it, of the “post-modern” one, not express the vacuum wherein critics and dealers of the new temple submit and praise everything, with the condition that the market confirms it? Forms, matters, spaces, “everything’s possible” recreates the gesture of Klein’s gold bars in the Seine, implies the valueless materials used by the Arte povera, Basquiat’s risible graffities, the repetitive serigraphy of Andy Warhol posing as a media-fashionable magician, the gigantic packing cases of Christo and all the “post-retro” presentations-repre­sentations; does each artist not renew in his own way, more or less crafty or ironic, the artistic object regarded as a simulacrum and/or a secret?

Is art not able to trace its protective ancestors, its godsend? May the irony, the cynicism (inventiveness), the vacuum of the present, the financial frenzy of the accepted investments be the ones pushing creators towards the dullest repeti­tiveness – caricature and derision of the critical renewal – not to mention the fact that in addition they are caught up in the deadly trap of the productivity madness of the West? The times when Tinguely’s grotesque machines made us watch with intensity and thus think over the madness of the technical reason are long gone. Now, an intricate installation of gigantic candlesticks tumbled in the American desert devours riches which are denied to others, resuming, in the era of triumphant discourses on human rights, the tradition of the sumptuous waste, which many pretended that it has been assumed only by the authoritarian societies!

The social history of art showed us that absolute monarchies sacrificed people and richness for the sake of an art which aimed to glorify the master. Since then, nothing has changed, except the manner of presenting things in a discourse. The expenses were being justified by the monarch’s power, anointed with holy oil, by the generosity enhancing his greatness: a twofold manifestation of author­ity and legitimacy. In our days, the value of the work and thus of the artist is determined by his rating, in other words by the exchange value established by the large companies which organise the most important auction sales; all that is left is a market legitimacy, which guarantees and unfolds the supreme authority – money. The unimaginable prices reached by the works of certain artists still living like Jasper Jones – proportionally higher than the prices of the classical works – do not express an “aesthetic value”, but set up the truth of the world’s new idol, money, which commands everybody, be it individuals or nations, the position they have in society and on the planet. And thus, the artists and their works became, through the generalisation of the spectacle, exchange objects. The monetary fluxes crossing the world invest the objects with “art” value, opening the sanctification of a new transcendence. No matter if we talk about a culture offering itself in the form of objects or about its preservation, there is no place, no moment not to signify, within the realm of art, the same Trinitarian transcendent of commodity-objects-money.

In order for the avant-gardes to unfold, once the ties making the artist the artisan of a tradition broke, the demiurgic character of the artist was determined to hit the walls of an aesthetic orthodoxy established with a unique formal and semantic value by the leading classes and institutions which dominated the cultural production in society. That this academism sometime presented itself as bourgeois decency or as a defence of the prevalent value of the “proletariat” or the “race” – each of these denouncing in its own way the modern art degeneration – it was always about imposing some techniques verified long time ago and about glorifying a new subject of history as central point of representation – the national hero of a history on the crest: the social virtues of the “sovereign” people, the worker (or the collectivist peasant), the demiurge of the industrial progress of the soldier sent to conquer vital space. Censorship did its work for the benefit of an idealised realism (liberal, socialist or national-socialist), aware of the everyday horror which couldn’t get enough of proclaiming its conceptions as a crowning of Beauty, Good and Truth. All these were in fact degenerated versions of Platonic Ideas offered to the vociferations of mass culture, about the rehabilitation of a new idealistic conformism picturing what the spirit of the time considered to be virtues; national or international heroes, muses of modernity. The novelty of technical modernity came up as an aesthetic which radicalises the academism of the past century, against which the post-modern had risen: Manet, with his frequent references to the old models, installed in the desire of present time (Breakfast on the Grass), the impressionists, with their hallucinations of light in the slum pubs, with the purpled chicks of the easy young women, Van Gogh, with his Harvesters9 working in a golden light, already threatened by the miasmas of the urbanization proceeding unhindered, finally, Gauguin, praising, against the moral of his time, the poor Breton peasant women and the ordeal of their everyday work, defying the colonial arrogance by celebrating Polynesians.

The avant-gardes have inherited and developed this sense of disrespectfulness and iconoclasm, ending up, after a couple of decades, to exhaust the area of revolt possibilities. That’s why the end of the avant-gardes and the occurrence of “everything’s possible” reflects a genuine crisis in contemporary art – maybe even its death – at least in the forms inherited from the Renaissance until the end of the ’40s. The avant-gardes signed their own death sentence exactly through their central will to be a part of the denial of limits, enounced in the famous formula of Apollinaire: “Be modern!” What we have here is a manner of adapting modern arts to the notion of progress, of subordinating them to a program, of marking a way for them, more exactly, of a series of parallel ways leading towards the same limitless horizon. Art is put in the service of perma­nent innovation, either by the deliberate mutations of forms (capturing foreign Western traditional forms) – the discovery of “primitive” arts, as a solution for problems related to the representation of the objects –, by using some explicitly non-aesthetic objects, of industrial products or wastes, finally mixing tech­niques, materials, instruments, activities. Or, in the golden time of the avant-gardes, between 1905 and 1950, all constructions and deconstructions have been attempted and accomplished, and all the iconoclasms, too. Within five decades, from cubists to Malevich, from Duchamp to Klein, from Moholy-Nagy to Tinguely, from Calder to Manzoni, modern art completes and exhausts its possibilities. Many of the future artists simply carry on, repeat, on a small or a large scale, more luscious or more austerely, the labels traced by these exceptional artists, engaged in searching for the limits of a world which science had long ago placed outside any limit.

The end of the avant-gardes was contemporary to that of the realist idealism (whatever its objects were) regarded as an ultimate aesthetic canon of objective truth which university institutions, academies and even entire states have fought for. Nevertheless, we are inclined to think that such a mutation is not without relation to that undergone by the industrial society, which excluded from con­sumption most producers of wealth and which now chains them to it. Progress and consumption present themselves thus as two interchangeable notions which dominate all human activities, including the artistic activity. The consumerist frenzy adopted the slogan “Be modern!” proclaiming that all that is new is good, in other words profitable. The advertising industry has aesthetized the representation of the best consumer goods, while the industry reclaims avant-garde forms to aesthetize the goods delivered to the consumers. Eventually, the “Be modern!” of aesthetics gets confounded with that of the technics, present­ing itself, in its turn, as another “everything’s possible” of the machine of levelling whose essence is none other than commodity-objects-money.

What we are facing is the source of a new academism (or, if you wish, of a non-conformism), a more perverse one, which abolishes the explicit censorship of the bourgeois decency, of the “singing future” or of the “ one thousand years Reich” in favour of artistic and technical innovations regarded as something salutary as long as they bring on sells and purchases and on condition that they are approved by authorised voices – critics, ministers, publicists, intellectuals.

That is exactly what is happening today, with a little delay, in the former Soviet Union, where this fact presents itself in a depurated form. For the old dissident writer Lev Rubinstein, the situation is clear: once the perestroika occurred, no other orthodoxy could impose its norms10; all styles were already shaped and now are available to everyone, with no restrictions; each can follow his or her way perfecting what others have already explored. In a few years, some have followed our way, they have come to the limit of the Western experience and they enthusiastically installed themselves in the civilisation of that Remake which makes more actual than ever Nietzsche’s aphorism characteriseing modern culture as being a theatre’s props store: each wears different masks and costumes, according to the circumstances, thus creating and recreating what has already been accomplished somewhere else.

The indefatigable domination of the innovation as commodity has brought us the era of neo or a perpetual post. Neo-realism, neo-romanticism, neo-expressionism, neo-avant-gardism (a funny expression), neo-abstractionism, neo-minimalism, neo-hyperrealism etc. Those using a pen are neo-novelists, neo-philosophers. Within the social version we will find neo-bourgeois, neo-rich, neo-poor, neo-liberals, neo-capitalists, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, neo-populists, neo-puritans etc, and maybe, soon, neo-communists. In the realm of commodity, everything is always new, although everything keeps repeating itself. If in the past totalitarianism made President Mao younger, the commodity does a much better job in concealing the essence of capitalism. If there is no God, Dostoyevsky wrote, man cannot tell right from wrong and the freedom which he faces announces his own annihilation; some people know, more or less clearly, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The end of the avant-gardes was decided when the aesthetic freedom started to work on itself, without rebelling against some order, so that, facing the void of infinite freedom, freedom itself was losing its essential meaning, that of confronting any predetermined public order. But, paradoxically, the infinite freedom conceals the absolute power of a new conformism, the more powerful, the more it claims to be an aesthetical one. The masses of modern and contemporary art museum visitors worship this very conformism, bowing before the dollars each of the paintings costs. A global cult opening the way for the manipulation of opinion (one we call “public”, just like the women on the streets) and which destroys every aesthetic reference for the benefit of one single value – that which, in the last resort, claims to be “the Spirit of the World” and which assigns to each of us and each nation the deserved place in the paradise of Beauty, Good and Truth: that of money.

4. The Portrait of the Artist As World Magician

Even since the 19th century, from the time of Delacroix and Turner and after the utterance of the opening and magisterial formula of Goethe, the modern artist regards and assumes him or herself as demiurge of the secularized world, devoid of gods, of the Trinitarian God of a world in which metaphysics reaches climax and signs its own death sentence by unfolding the essence of knowledge as objectivation generalised through calculus and of technics as autonomous wear of the planet; of a world in which new ideas represent and make emblematic, to caricature, a generalized nihilism, which is best illustrated by the moment per­formance in sports, that of the fugitive beauty of the superstars, of the political power of the moment, of the stars of journalism – all of which are regarded as “eternal” values.

Until the turn of the 50s, when the avant-gardes were the expression of revolt, the artist placed his activity within a space opposing the utilitarian reason, stating in front of the world: “Here is my universe; you’re welcome to it if you feel able to! I ask you to change your glasses so as to share with me the reality you are about to see, which is more real than the materiality of the objects you use everyday!”

Many do not respond to this invitation and slander him. In our times, the empathy is not greater but many devote themselves to the cult of permanent innovation under the auspices of the market. The rich buy, speculate, and gather extra­ordinary benefits; the others queue in front of the museums. They are caught in the pleasure of those working for other’s pleasure and whose glance doesn’t get stolen by that unknown brightness of love. Losing oneself in and through the glance on the work of art means entering it, going beyond the glass protecting it, abandoned to wonder and indefinite concern, even as we emerge in the spectacle of the great human catastrophes (let us remember the mani­festo of Dadaism, drafted in the harshest moments of the First World War).

Nevertheless, it is exactly such objects that some artists bring to contemplation, but this may be their last possibility to show the truth to the world – the vacuum of the immanence of things.

It is the way chosen by the most radical artists of late modernity. He who introduces into the museum Artist’s Shit makes us realise the truth of the surplus value in the grotesque and cynical emptiness of the object itself. A paradoxical way, of course, but one which shows us – just like the word of the ancient myths –, the ones capable to understand where does the real power, which is powerful enough to let itself mocked – for a fee, of course – lay.

In this dead world, where the commodity-queen abolishes all limits which could stand in its way, there is nothing left of the heroes but the ersatz of some fabulous seals (Hollywood stars, football or tennis players, TV anchormen). That’s why our world stands open for infinite potentialities, convertibility, transformations, processes, simultaneities allowed by the objectifying language of science, technics, and advertising. And that’s how the reign of the ephemeral establishes and enforces itself in the generalised reification. Only a few artists stand awake to hallucinate the immanence of things, liberating the though before them (Gelassenheit zu den Dingen), and thus calling, by putting nothingness, the almost nothing or the excrement before our eyes, the presence of the being of modernity in the transcendence proper to it – money. Here is the truth of out time: nihilism!

Ten years ago, Beuys challenged his contemporaries by naming a mammoth skeleton Kunst = Kapital.11 This leads us to the essence of nihilism, to its power to “consume being through exchange value”.12 Beuys is dead, but his work stands, inside the museum crypt, with the aura of the gold it represents, as a proof (as if it needed one) that nothing, not even revolt, can escape the destiny of the Conjuration-Com(-)position (Gestell).

Translated by Alex Moldovan


1. This essay represents the development of a communication I presented at the second edition of the French-Hungarian Days, dedicated to the National and Inter­national Avant-gardes, organized by the Literature Institute of the Hungarian Science Academy, IMSECO-CNRS and the French Institute in Budapest, with the help of the Soros Foundation. The meeting took place in Budapest, November 1–3, 1989. I thank Zádor Tordai for his friendly suggestions which were put to use.

2. “The way of the painters is straight and curb.”

3. The third series of works meant to turn the Bordeaux warehouses into a contem­porary art museum raised in 1991 80,944,393 French francs.

4. Along with sports turning into a mass spectacle and a source of gigantic profits, this is a symptom which allows us to see the degree to which the Western democracies are the inheritors of the totalitarian regimes, whose culture-based and mass sports profits were essentially political and moral.

5. During the debate which followed after the presentation of this material, Jacques Leenhardt noted that there is still an estimation inferior to the usual course of contemporary painters works, which does not ensure the profitability of the capital invested. Briefly, it should be added that this devaluation is very well controlled and doesn’t counter-balance the general rise of artworks price (and also of some modest baubles), which overcomes the medium inflation level in the Western countries which – solely – determine the market values. Other artist, the firemen of the Third Republic, which I thought doomed to remain forever the poor illustrators of the history books dedicated to our war epopees and to the luxury at the end of the century, start to regain their prestige. That’s why, we should properly “welcome” the staging at the d’Orsay Museum which, by putting them next to the impressionists, counts on proximity to weaken the renewing force of the latter: thanks to this conflict-free and struggle-free simultaneity, the firemen regain their aesthetic dignity and financial value which the occurrence of the avant-gardes made them lose.

6. Erwin Panofsky, Idea: Contribution à l’histoire du concept de l’ancienne théorie de l’art, Paris, Flammarion, 1983.

7. A common error made by most commentators is to understand Brancusi’s work as a transposition of forms inspired by Romanian folk art. Cf. Radu Varia, Brancusi, New York, 1989.

8. Cf. Art Workers Coalition, Demonstrations in front of Picasso’s Guernica with My Lai posters 1969, in Adrian Henry, Total Art: Environments, Happenings and Performances, Oxford University Press, 1974, p. 178, photo 145.

9. The version of the Harvesters that I refer to belongs to the collection Auguste Rodin and dates from 1888 (Rodin Museum). Another representation of the same subject occurs in Summer Night, Fields in the Sunset, property of Wintehur Kunstmuseum.

10. Lev Rubinstein, “Déboulonner le stéréotype”, in Les Nouveaux Cahiers de l’Est, Paris, no. 3/1992, pp. 40–42.

11. Christie’s Galleries, 1979.

12. Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Postmodern Culture, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, Ch. 1. “An Appologia for Nihilism”.