Absolutely-Too-Much

Contemporary art is an easy thing to hate. All the meaningless hype, the identikit openings in cities that blur into one long, banal, Beck’s beer fuelled anxiety dream from which there is no escape. The seemingly endless proliferation of biennials—the biennialization or banalization of the world. One begins to think that everything aspires to resemble the opening of a Frieze art fair and every culture wants its own cheeky Damien or spunky Tracey. Glamour, celebrity, business, and radiant superficiality blend together to give each location the patina of globality with just a frisson of local color. People talk excitedly of what’s hot and what’s selling for millions. Capricious and seemingly tyrannical übercurators wander around quickly with their assistants talking on cell phones. The sharp eyes of eager young gallerists track them like prey, waiting for the moment to pounce. Everyone is either on the make or wants to be on the make. Contemporary art has become a high-end, global culture mall, which requires very little previous literacy and where the routine flatness of the gossip allows you to get up to speed very quickly. People with the right connections or serious amounts of money or sheer stubborn persistence or who are prepared to do anything can quickly gain access to what has the appearance of a cultural experience. God, it’s awful isn’t it? And I haven’t even mentioned how this art system is fed by the seemingly endless proliferation of art schools, M.F.A. programs, and the progressive inflation of graduate degrees, where Ph.D.s in fine art are scattered like confetti.

It is difficult not to be cynical about contemporary art. Maybe the whole category of the “contemporary” needs much more reflection. Maybe it needs replacing. When does the contemporary cease to be contemporary and become something past? When did the modern become the contemporary? Will the contemporary one day become modern or will there, in the future, be museums of postmodern art: MOPMAs? Why not call contemporary “present art” or “actual art” or “potential art,” or, better, “actually potential art” (APA)? At least it sounds more Aristotelian. But, then again, why use temporal categories at all? Why not use spatial terms instead? Some have spoken of visual art as spatial art, which is an attractive idea. Whichever way one approaches it, however, the categories need to be seriously rethought through research that is historiographical, institutional, and anthropological. The problem with contemporary art is that we all think we know what it means and we don’t. As a consequence, the discourse that surrounds it is drastically impoverished.

But despite such confusions of reference and the horrors of the contemporary art business model—or perhaps even because of it—I want to defend contemporary art, up to a point. It is simply a fact that contemporary art has become the central placeholder for the articulation of cultural meanings—good, bad, or indifferent. I am middle-aged enough to remember when literature, especially the novel, played this role and when cultural gatekeepers were literary critics, or social critics, often from literary backgrounds. That world is gone. The novel has become a quaint, emotively life-changing, and utterly marginal phenomenon. The heroic critics of the past are no more. I watched this change happen slowly when I still lived in England in the sensation-soaked 1990s and recall, as a kind of cultural marker, the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 and immensely long lines queuing up to see a vast spider by Louise Bourgeois in the Turbine Hall. It was clear that something had shifted in the culture.

Even more, the contemporary artist has become the aspirational paradigm of the new worker: creative, unconventional, flexible, nomadic, creating value, and endlessly travelling. In a post-Fordist work paradigm defined by immaterial labor, artists are the perfect entrepreneurs and incarnate the new faux bohemianization of the workplace. Being a contemporary artist looks like a lot of fun, like being a rock star in the 1970s, except you get to live a little longer.

Perversely perhaps, what I admire about much contemporary art is the negotiation of its own relentless commodification, the consciousness of its capture by the circuits of casino capitalism. To work in a university is to be aware that money is changing hands, but the money is hidden and professors like myself can still give themselves the illusion that they are clean-handed, authentic educators and not money-laundering knowledge pimps. But artists do not have that luxury, which gives them a certain honest edginess and less chronic institutional dependency than academics.

The question is whether art is simply a symptom of the rampant capitalization of the mind or whether it can still engage a critical space of distance and even resistance. This might not be the autonomy of Greenbergian modernism, but is closer to what Liam Gillick calls “semi-autonomy.” Not fully free, but not fully compromised either. A space between critical abstraction and commodification. One thinks here of a project like “No Ghost Just a Shell,” by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe from the early 2000s, which flaunts its commodified character with a manga character bought for 46,000 yen, but manages to subvert it as well. Maybe there is a certain dialectical inversion at work here, where the compromised character of contemporary art also occasionally permits the opposite to come into being.

One might also note the odd way in which the vocabulary of contemporary art, in particular those tendencies that one associates with the brand “relational aesthetics,” with its emphasis on collaboration, participation, and community, has crept into contemporary forms of radical politics. A friend of mine worked on a book about OWS that is prefaced by an aerial, two-dimensional plan of Zuccotti Park. Looking at it, I thought “Jesus, this looks like an installation.” More specifically, it looks like the kinds of wonderful transient structures built by Thomas Hirschhorn, complete with a kitchen, a media space, a library, a discussion space, and so on. So, if there is a rampant commodification of contemporary art, on the one hand, then there is also the bleeding of art practice into novel forms of sociality and politics on the other.

What might “contemporary” art be doing that it is not doing? I have a modest and uncertain proposal to make. Art should not be comfortable. It should be a blow to the back of the neck, as Bruce Nauman says. But what might that mean now? How might that blow be administered?

Let me shift briefly here into a more philosophical register. In Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, he makes a passing, but suggestive set of distinctions between the beautiful, the sublime, and the monstrous. The beautiful is the free play of the imagination and understanding, when everything seems to hang together, rather like driving a humming-engined expensive German car through the California desert. The sublime is what is refractory to the formal harmony of the experience of beauty, something formless, indefinite, and mighty, but still containable within the realm of the aesthetic. For Kant, the sublime is “the almost-too-much,” and is distinguished from the monstrous understood as “the absolutely-too-much.” That which is monstrous defeats our capacity for conceptual comprehension. Kant simply asserts that the monstrous has no place in the realm of aesthetics. The great aesthetic danger is the moment when the tamed terror of sublimity—the Alps or Mount Snowden for the English Romantics—might tip over into the monstrous. Indeed, in the founding text of philosophical aesthetics, Poetics, Aristotle makes an analogous gesture when he makes a distinction between the fearful (to phoberon), which has a legitimate place within tragedy, and the monstrous (to teratodes), which has no place at all.

To put this in other terms, we might say that a certain dominant strain in the history of philosophical aesthetics might be seen as trying to contain a dimension of experience that we might call the uncontainable. This is the dimension of experience that Nietzsche names the Dionysian, Hölderlin calls the monstrous, Bataille calls the formless, and Lacan calls the real.

But what might art be when it exceeds the relative comfort of the almost-too-much of the sublime or the fearful and moves toward the absolutely-too-much of the monstrous? What happens when the uncontainable can’t be contained? When art bears at its core something unbearable? At this point, art becomes anti-art and we experience discomfort—the Naumanian blow to the back of the neck. I would argue that this is what has been happening for the past century or so in various arts and media as a way of dealing with our presentiment of the unbearable pressure of reality, however we want to capture that experience—the shocking trauma of the First World War, poetry after Auschwitz is barbarism, or whatever—has been the experimentation with what we might call an art of the monstrous. Examples proliferate here, from Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, to Bataille’s holy disgust, to Hermann Nitsch’s blood orgies and the theatre of Heiner Müller, even through to that most jaded and overworked of academic tropes: the abject.

It seems to me that if we look back at much of what is most radical and interesting in the art of the last century, we can see that we are no longer dealing with the sublime or indeed with art as the possibility of aesthetic sublimation, but with an art of de-sublimation that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.

Here is my modest proposal: beyond endless video montages and the cold mannerist obsessionality of the taste for appropriation and reenactment that has become hegemonic in the art world, the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect, namely disgust. Disgust here can be thought of as the visceral register of a monstrosity that can no longer be excluded from the realm of the aesthetic, as it was for Aristotle and Kant, but should be its arrhythmic heart, its hot and volatile core. It is important to keep in mind the link to aesthetic judgments of taste or gustus, which gives us the “gust” in dis-gust, the ill wind in the soft-flapping sails of revulsion. Dis-gust is an aesthetic judgement of dis-taste.

What I am calling for, then, is a new art of monstrosity which is able to occupy a certain semi-autonomous distance from the circuits of capture and commodification. Art now must fix its stare unblinkingly at the monstrous, the unbearable, the unreconciled, and the insanely troubling. The disgust that we feel might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.

It is a question of how we think through and deploy the essential violence of art, and perhaps understand art as violence against the violence of reality, a violence that presses back against the violence of reality, which is perhaps the artistic task, thinking of Hamlet, in a state that is rotten and in a time that is out of joint. I think of Francis Bacon. When he was asked to reflect on the purported violence of his painting. Bacon said,

When talking about the violence of paint, it’s nothing to do with the violence of war. It’s to do with an attempt to remake the violence of reality.

He goes on,

We nearly always live through screens—a screened existence. And I sometimes think, when people say my work looks violent, that I have been able to clear away one or two of the veils or screens.

Existence seems to me ever more screened and distanced. This is the risk of a shallow shadow-world whose ideological pancake patina is an empty empathy for a suffering that we do nothing to stop and everything to abet in our passivity, dispersal, and narcissism. None of us is free of this. Maybe art, in its essential violence, can tear away one or two of these screens. Maybe then we’d begin to see. We do not see as we are seen because we are wrapped in a screen. Art might unwrap us a little through its violence.

But what is it that disgusts us? Ay, there’s the rub. I remember giving a Halloween sermon called “How to Become God” in the Cabinet space in Brooklyn a couple of years back. I was dressed as a priest and my friend Aaron was clad as a kind of Satanic elf. We sat on 15-foot-high chairs while on a wall behind us a film of Nitsch’s blood orgies played in gory and graphic detail. Punters happily sipped their cocktails and smiled benignly as they gazed at the spectacle. There was even some playful heckling.

The problem with disgust is that it is a moving limit. What outrages one generation—Bacon, say—becomes slothful banality to the next. The problem here is that art, which is meant to enable or produce some kind of experience of the real in our pushing back against it, might finally be a protection against that experience and end up as a kind of decoration. Perhaps, then, art has to become the enemy of aesthetic experience. In which case, we should become the enemies of art in order to reclaim it. Here anti-art becomes true art in a constant war of position with the degeneration of art’s critical potential into the lethean waters of the contemporary.

More Articles by the Author

Simon Critchley