As the traditional left goal of economic equality was abandoned, it was superseded by emphatic allegiance to “human rights”, which is now taught in school as a veritable religion. The vague notion of human rights was somehow associated with the “free movement” of everything and everybody. Indeed the official EU dogma is protection of “free movement”: free movement of goods, people, labor and (last but certainly not least) capital. These “four freedoms” in practice transform the nation from a political society into a financial market, an investment opportunity, run by a bureaucracy of supposed experts. In this way, the European Union has become the vanguard experiment in transforming the world into a single capitalist market.
Why the idea of art survives: Because even a dead horse can be put to use. It breeds maggots. It facilitates social activity.
At any given art opening, I find myself gazing at the more flamboyant of the attendees far more than the work on display. When relational aesthetics became the vogue in the ‘90s, it validated what had been happening in art since the ‘60s, if not earlier: the occultation of the work of art by the art milieu. Warhol appears to have fully grasped the implications of this when, at the end of the ‘70s, he came up with Shadows, a work that once adorned the walls of Studio 54. As usual, he was ahead of his time. He did not need to wait for Bourriaud to inform him that the production of art had become ancillary to the staging of an art scene.
Why is Duchamp intent on abolishing “retinality”?
Explanations that dwell on his animus toward painters and painting miss the point.
I would suggest that underlying Duchamp’s opposition to retinality and his invention of the ready-made is the realization that the aesthetic qualities of the art object no longer determine its value in a society in which exchange value has supplanted every other value. The ready-made is, perhaps, the boldest demonstration that rarity is the fundamental determinant of exchange value and that rarity can attach itself to any object by the mere fact of its being nominated (signed) as unique entity. Significantly, Duchamp, took care to refrain (like central bankers who are cautious not to overexpand the money supply) from conferring the status of ready-made promiscuously. The ready-made would seem to confer upon the nominating artist the power of the Midas touch. But a wise Midas knows not to make gold common.
Like Nietzsche in relation to the Christian god, Duchamp does not kill the aesthetic object as much as reveal it to be already dead. The aesthetic object cannot survive the commodity form because once the latter envelops the aesthetic object, it is the worthiness of the object to function as an instrument of financial speculation that comes to the fore. And this worthiness is conferred by the irrational whims of speculators not by qualities intrinsic to the object. It is the activity of speculation itself that this privileged object comes to embody. A debt, a house, a work of art—anything at all can function as a speculative instrument if it can be made to embody the possibility of speculative profit.
The ready=made is art’s abrupt and traumatic recognition of this truth. Authorship of the art object no longer belongs to the artist. It has been seized by the larger forces that determine its speculative value. It is is in this very precise sense that a death of the author occurs. The artist remains the originator of the work but reduced to the lowly status of one of Duchamp’s bachelors in the Large Glass, whose ejaculations can only reach the Bride via the interpretive mediation of the viewer. The prominent role assigned to the viewer as co-creator in Duchamp’s work and that of other anti-authorial authors should really be understood as a sophisticated understanding of how the commodity form functions. The emptier the object, the better it can operate as pure commodity
Duchamp’s desublimation of the art object updates realism to encompass not merely “real” objects but more importantly the network of social relations in which they participate as tokens of exchange.
The hysteric injunction to “question authority” turns out to be the most effective contemporary means of preserving authority, for the emphasis on questioning (castrating) defers indefinitely the project of erecting, the project of decisively replacing one authority by another. Today, everybody is a rebel. No one is a revolutionary.
Barthes’s death of the author long ago assumed the character of a Western myth. The pretense of granting readers co-authorship rights appealed to democratic sentiment. And yet, the initiative always remained with the author. Books didn’t write themselves, paintings didn’t paint themselves, nor movies produce themselves. In every case an author set things in motion and the text retained evidence of a paternity.
What purpose then did this myth of the disappearance of the author serve?
It has allowed authors to hide. It has, superficially at least, dephallicized texts. In this way, it has made them more … palatable to a hysteric audience. Delicate readers have been spared encounters with an authorial desire that might unduly arouse their own. Instead, they are treated to clever texts that invite clever interpretation.
In practice, these supposedly open-ended, multivalent, collectively authored works never actually yield radically different interpretations. A fashionable consensus quickly envelops them. From that point on they function strictly as tokens of intellectual snobbery.
What has disappeared is not the author but the author’s courage. And the reader’s.
Buchloh’s notion that appropriation is confiscatory and re-enacts a devaluation the signifier has already suffered through commodification ignores the dimension of appropriation that connects it with speech. Speech is always an appropriation, since it relies on a language the speaker did not invent, and yet the subject is able to make use of it to gain recognition for its singularity.
The emptying out of the signifier that Buchloh claims appropriation repeats is actually the condition for the signifier’s “capture” by another discourse. Appropriation does not repeat this “depletion.” It takes advantage of it to direct the depleted signifier toward a different connotation. The anology here is to the use that dreams make of the day-residues. As Lacan, following Freud, tells us,
These [day-residues] are, within the dream, the stray forms which have become for the subject of minimal importance—and are emptied out of their meaning. … The signifying material … is constituted out of forms which have forfeited their own meaning and are taken up again within a new organization, thanks to which another meaning finds a means of gaining expression.
What is involved in this oneiric appropriation is a discourse that “takes hold of a discourse that is apparent” to gain recognition for otherwise inexpressible desires. This desiring dimension of appropriation is what Buchloh leaves out, or, more accurately, only considers when the desire he detects meets his political criteria. Every other kind of desire eludes him. When he claims that Pop is a ritualized re-enactment of the devaluing of the signifier, all he is revealing is his devaluation of the desires that Pop delivers as contraband.