Category Archives: Art

Going Down

Once you get past all the rhetoric about diversity, all the rationalization . . . it’s pretty clear that the Western canon had to be devalued to make room for women.

The reality is that women have contributed nothing to any field of creative endeavor. Womanly virtues lie elsewhere. They are the keepers of the hearth, patrons of the decorative arts, enchantresses.

But now, for the sake of mollifying shrews, we are required to pretend that the canon is discredited by its lack of diversity, a diversity measured in crude demographic terms completely divorced from aesthetic considerations. In a decomposing culture, where virility has been undermined and displaced by technology, the canon is unable to summon defenders and is overwhelmed by the hordes of mediocre opportunists whose self-elevation depends on the debasement of what they themselves could never hope to achieve. We have to get rid of Rubens to make room for Tracy Emin.

Opening the door of the canon to women did not simply enlarge it; it destroyed it altogether, making it permeable to all the inferior, malformed, vapid, ugly things it was designed to exclude. No vessel stays afloat once it begins to admit water under the rubric of inclusion.

The West’s inability to value and safeguard its own heritage is the surest sign that it is a moribund civilization. The day of woman arrives when men have become too weak to rule her. But her triumph is short-lived because she helms a sinking ship.

The Bourgeois Avant-Garde

Modernism is a thoroughly bourgeois project, but this is obscured by the aura of transgression cultivated around it by both its promoters and detractors.

In reality, the avant-gardes did not so much set out to shock the bourgeoisie as to seduce that part of the bourgeoisie that craved recognition for its forward thinking. Patronizing the avant-garde gave this fashion-conscious section of the bourgeoisie a means to show off its rarefied taste. Without tycoons and society mavens willing to finance them, few if any modernist projects would have gotten off the ground. But the crucial role these wealthy bourgeois played (and continue to play) in the promotion of the avant-garde is obscured by the intellectual froth of critics and art historians who insist on looking at art and directing the rest of us to look at it through the blinders of its own self-mythification. A great deal of the critical genius these arbiters bring to the task involves hiding the crass reality of art marketing and speculation under a thick verbose layer of dense speculation about the connotation of essentially vacant art works produced to function as lures for just this kind of theorizing.

Far from shocking the bourgeoisie, modernism gave the bourgeoisie a means to segregate itself into a new aristocracy. The invention of modernism coincided with the invention of the liberal elite. In the terminology of Pierre Bourdieu, modernism marks the moment when economic capital finds a means to translate itself into cultural capital.

Because the avant-garde exists to cater to bourgeois progressive pretensions, it is always careful not to exceed what is liberally permissible. This takes fine calibration. From time to time, the avant-garde will even propose the abolition of art—but always as a means to ensure the continuity of the avant-garde. When the real abolition of art was achieved in the Soviet Union and elsewhere by the forceful subordination of art to the propaganda requirements of the state, the Western avant-garde either remained aloof or recoiled from this violation of art’s vaunted “autonomy.”

This alleged autonomy of the avant-garde has been its greatest and most successful lie. The doctrine of épater le bourgeois was never more than a cover for the avant-garde’s contempt for common taste. (On occasion, this contempt is disguised by the “appropriation” of the debris of mass culture, which permits the ruling class to enjoy its own propaganda as art.) Indeed, at no time in the history of Western culture, was there ever a time prior to the modern era when art so slavishly devoted itself to promoting the elite’s self-regard. In the bad old days when art served the church and nobility, it did so in ways that even the commoners could appreciate. Upper class taste did not then need to so radically distinguish itself from the taste of the commoners because the upper class was assured its social position regardless of its taste. But in the modern, democratic era, the bourgeoisie is a ruling class that is obligated by democratic pretension to justify its fitness to rule. It was for the purpose of giving the bourgeoisie a means to manifest the superiority of its discernment that the avant-garde was invented. And it is because it continues to serve this purpose that the myth of the avant-garde survives, albeit in postmodernist guise, as the myth of art’s continuing transgressive potential.


We look to form to succor us from chaos. Kristeva argues that the representation of formlessness is already a victory over the abject, a removal from it. The more immediate the threat of encountering the abject, the closer the aesthetic object will approximate the very thing it defends against. This is why in the modern period, art is driven to simulate its own absence—as the last recourse against capital’s radical desublimation of all objects by their transformation into coinage.

Capitalism is the Midas curse. The touch that turns the object to gold at the same time symbolically impoverishes it, flattening all objects into interchangeable currency and simultaneously depriving gold itself of symbolic distinction.

The world turned to gold is the world turned to excrement.

Art Reduced to Shit

In retrospect, Michael Fried’s stance against “theatricality” and the literalization of the object can be read as a last-ditch defense against the impending desublimation of the art object. While Fried’s position was perhaps vitiated by his embrace of Anthony Caro’s gentrified constructivism as an alternative to minimalist vacuity, his thoughts on the dire consequences of literalism bear rereading.

I read Fried’s notion of “theatricality” as a euphemism for perversion. The literalization of the object, its “subjective destitution” in Lacanese, is a formula for its transformation into an object that imposes itself on the viewer as a debasing physical ordeal. Of course, this “real” object of minimalism is no more real than any other object. Its stripped-down “realness” is merely the artifact of an ostentatiously performed debasement, which is the hallmark of perversion. This becomes fully evident when the literalized, debased object is the body. Literalizing the body involves subjecting it to endless masochistic indignities in an effort to establish its dissociated “materiality.” Chris Burden’s early performances come to mind. Or Marina Abramović’s. Or Ron Athey’s. Or countless others.

Why this compulsion to debasement? Likely because it reenacts what capitalism and the commodity fetish have done to art and to the possibility of symbolic production in general. It reflects the dire condition to which artistic expression is reduced when the phallus is de-mythified and can no longer function as a semiotic organ. In this condition, art is reduced to a freak show that aims no higher than to produce physical disquiet in lieu of what it cannot produce: delight, absorption, a heightened sense of vitality.

Despite what Hal Foster claimed, desublimation did not constitute a “return of the Real” because the Real is just what the frame of art rigorously excludes. Art only admits fictions and, when the efficiency of the modernist fiction of autonomy begins to wane, it is replaced by the fiction of an abolished fiction, the fiction of producing the “Real.”

Fried’s response to the alignment of art with perversion was correct in its assessment of the impoverishment that would result. The putative de-aestheticization of the art object did not bring “art” closer to “life.” It brought it closer to shit.

Readymade Fetish

The gesture of Duchamp nominating a urinal to the status of art object has to be read not as “inclusive,” but as exactly the opposite. It is a gesture that exposes a cultural foreclosure only to immediately reinstate it. Thus, the readymade reinsrcribes the cultural distribution of objects through the very act of nomination. That is the crucial step. The seemingly arbitrary inclusion of select ordinary objects into the pantheon of art formalizes the authority of the nominator and the institutional framework that ultimately ratifies these nominations. There is no dismantling of boundaries, no levelling of “high” and “low,” but on the contrary, their reinforcement.

But this, for me, is not the interesting part. What interests me is the disavowal that underlies the readymade. I am interested in what the readymade reveals when we consider it as a cultural defense against something more traumatic.

As Barthes showed a long time ago, the most common objects are aggregations of cultural codes no less dense (and perhaps a great deal more so) than the objects hoarded away in collectors’ warehouses and museums. It is for that reason that these objects of everyday use and consumption must be inducted as readymades before they can be granted a hearing. It is not that they don’t say enough. It is that they are prone to say too much. They force too close a proximity with the capitalist Real.

The readymade is a mode of disavowal, that is to say, a mode of acknowledging the truth while depriving it of effect. Through its seemingly miraculous capability of authoring vacancy, the readymade gilds everything it absorbs into itself with an “infrathin” aura that permits the banal to be consumed as the ironic. The readymade, in other words, is a fetish. It intervenes as the last barrier before the void, which it hides in plain view. For the readymade is at a certain level the void itself, the banal object. But it is also, at the same time the means to avoid encountering the void, a voiding of the void. Instead of an encounter with banality, the ready-made delivers an opportunity to be captivated by the supposed transgression of its insertion into art. The ready-made is the phallicization of the banal.

That the readymade in its various forms remains a recurring feature of contemporary art says something about the endurance of the impasse that gave rise to it. Considered as an affirmative device, the ready-made argues for the recognition that the most dynamic source of complex and engaging forms in the modern world is capitalist industry. The negative corollary of this is that art is redundant, the capabilities of even the most protean individual artist paling in comparison to what capitalism’s armies of scientists, engineers, designers, and sundry creatives can bring forth at an ever-accelerating pace. And yet, despite the creative poverty to which art is reduced in relation to industry, it remains indispensable. Why? The ready-made indicates the answer. The problem is that the dazzling forms with which capitalism gluts the world are in some way debased. This is what Benjamin was getting at with his notion of aura and its loss through reproducibility. The perfect standardization of the industrially produced object deprives it of the qualities that allow us to form bonds with objects because our ability to bond with objects derives from the presumption that the object, before it comes into our possession, was bonded to another person, and ultimately to its creator. This aura, this fullness, is the one thing with which capitalism cannot imbue its otherwise spectacular forms.

In the readymade, art simultaneously declares its poverty and its retention of a weak but indispensable power to confer aura on the otherwise inert forms produced by industry. The readymade is not an attack on art. It is not antiart. It is the only evidence of usefulness art can muster in a world in which the creative geniuses are corporations.