Postmodernism is a fiction that covers up modernism’s abandonment of its utopian pretensions. What was involved was hardly a paradigmatic shift or rupture. It was, rather, modernism’s reconciliation with its own longstanding service to the bourgeoisie. The “post” in postmodernism asserts the supersession of modernism even as it betrays the continuity of the modernist obsession with supersession.
In the early days of its ascent to power, the bourgeoisie was a revolutionary class. This was acknowledged by the authors of the Communist Manifesto. The early avant-garde catered to this self-consciously progressive elite by accentuating the anti-canonical radicality of its artistic products.
By the middle of the 20th century, the bourgeoisie had thoroughly consolidated its power and was ready to smugly enjoy its reflection in the mirror of art. Modernism’s revolutionary pose could be dispensed with.
It was Andy Warhol’s moment, in which we continue to abide.
Art learned to glorify what exists, the ready-made, the status quo. The modernist subversion of canonicity had come full circle.
Underlying the continuity between modernism and postmodernism is a more fundamental one: the continuity of bourgeois hegemony, to whose aggrandizement modernism and postmodernism have been equally devoted. What distinguishes them is strictly a distinction between how the bourgeoisie wanted to see itself in its adolescence and how it came to see itself in its decadence. Modernism heroicized the nascent bourgeoisie’s insurrectionary will. When the bourgeoisie was safely and formidably ensconced as the new ruling class, postmodernism came along to glamorize its cold cynicism.
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.
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.
—G.K. Chesterton, Heretics
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.
When you set aside the theoretical wrapping paper, postmodernism resolves into an attempt to keep the avant-garde franchise going even after it had become apparent that the avant-garde was a spent force. The solution was to define the reversal of everything the avant-garde had stood for as avant-garde. Thus, the negation of the negation, could be made to appear, if not heroic, than at least perverse, the “ironic” affirmation of banality, subversive.