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This additional dialogue was brought to be after I wrote the post Thantic Modernism. This was a short critique on the work of the Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl & his explorations of modern art. I also brought in some quotes of the philosopher Jean Baudrillard because of the philosopher’s ideas on “the end of history.” Baudrillard proposed an idea that society is doomed to continuously repeat & rehash the end, over & over, as with our pre-millennial paranoia, the (so-called) coming apocalypse, the (ostensible) death of painting, the (forecasting of a future) death of the novel, the end of modernism & so on. This idea of Baudrillard’s might be seen as the end of Enlightenment ideals, the end of a rational progress, the end of a rational ideal that sees history as linear. He also famously spoke of the “simulacra” (which is a consequence of the illusory end of history), as a phenomenon that replaced our notions of the real with the media-saturated image of what is “real.” The real (as Baudrillard saw it) is no longer real, rather it’s a simulacra of reality, or it’s hyper-real (more real than real). I wanted to connect Pumhösl’s art to this because it seemed that his project is primarily concerned with looking-back, repetition, re-visioning & revising modernism (“modernologies” as he has it).
My friend Reinaert de V. dropped by to comment & brought in Jean-François Lyotard, of whom I was aware of, but unable to speak of, since I hadn’t read much of his work. Now thanks to Reinaert de V.’s wonderful comments, I’m brought close to Lyotard’s thoughts & ideas. Reinaert de V. also posted this commentary on his blog.
As I later learned, Lyotard was well known for attempting to do-away with “meta-narratives” or the “grand-narratives.” Basically these are “rationalistic” leftovers, such as the idea that reason rules everything, or that we’re all moving toward progress, ad infinitum (which is slightly reflected in Baudrillard’s ideas). What we’re left with, is post modernism— & at the end of the meta-narrative.
Reinaert de V. also introduced me to Lyotard’s notion of the sublime. Lyotard borrows Kant’s sublime & updates it to mean something much more than Kant intended, thereby connecting a Kantian idea to his post-modern theory. The sublime in Lyotard’s hand helps us to see the un-representable, the unknown, that which cannot be expressed with words. When modern art approaches this sublime, Lyotard calls it the post-modern.
Of course, Reinaert de V. does a much better job elaborating on Lyotard’s idea/s & that’s why I’ve decided to post this additional exchange, sharing with you this important concept of the sublime (& much more), which I believe might help to understand better the difficult terrain of modern & contemporary art—now, then & into the future.
Where would I be, if not for the following comments by Reinaert de V.? Here are our Thantic Modernism comments:
Reinaert de V.: Nice work, I love the sentence: “[…] we learn to understand that a contemporary art of the NOW, is simply a thing of the past–gone to be revitalized later.”
It’s an interesting article, because F. Lyotard actually sees the Postmodern as a moment that comes before the Modern, and makes it possible. Lyotard describes this sublime moment in Postmodernism as disrupting the tranquility of representational art, by ‘not saying anything’, but just ‘being there’. He saw the Avant Garde movement as representing that moment…
According to Lyotard, Modernism basically capitalized on the inherent plenipotentiary of the sublime, by crafting a new Grand Narrative ‘on top of it’. But the way I see it, the Modern and the Postmodern need each other, and feed of each other. This follows from what J. Baudrillard writes: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore. What is there beyond the end?”
Even though Modernism ‘transgressed’ the postmodern moment, by smoothing over what can’t be (understood). This transgression actually harnesses the energy of that moment – or else it dissipates. Clearly Baudrillard’s statement gives demonstration of this dissipation. The momentum is gone and we awaken in the desert of the so-called real: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore.”
But it also shows Grand Narratives always tend to creep back in, under-cover, because his statement indicates we now supposedly understand and ’see everything’. This can only mean we’re caught in a new (commodified) web of meaning and Truth. It shows we’re a long way away from that sublime moment which beckoned us to make a leap…
Aurelio: Can you explain the detail on Lyotard’s notion of post-modern as “before” the modern? I understand what you’ve outlined in terms of his anti-meta-narrative as self-contradictory &c.
Reinaert de V.: Lyotard’s thinking isn’t only postmodern but also has many neo-Kantian elements within it. For example, in his aesthetic theory, Lyotard has revived Kant’s theory of the beautiful and the sublime, and made it his own. That’s what I meant in the comment above, when I mentioned the ‘sublime’ of the ‘postmodern moment’. I’ll explain in some detail below.
According to Kant’s theory of aesthetics, a judgment of taste depends on the ‘free play of our cognitive faculties’. All rational beings are capable of cognition, which requires the connectibility of two faculties: Imagination (to gather together the manifold of sense-intuition) and Understanding (to unify these representations by means of concepts). Particular acts of cognition involve the connection of particular representations to particular concepts. But these acts presuppose an indeterminate general relationship – an underlying harmony of the two faculties. Put (too) simply: Beauty produces a spontaneous harmony, without being tied to anything particular. The sublime in contrast means disharmony between the two faculties, because it is aroused by objects that seem “as it were to do violence to the imagination”. They are characterized by a boundlessness that exceeds any form. The judgment of absolute greatness is non-conceptual and non-cognitive. Nothing observed by the senses permits this description, only something within: The Ideas of Reason (Vernunft), which reach beyond all possible experience…
So for Lyotard the sublime refers to the emancipation of art from both the classical role of imitation (mimesis) and the canon of the beautiful. The art object no longer bends itself to models and no longer testifies to a truth that can be conceptualized. Thus the role of (true) art should be to critique the social, and the idea of unity and communicability (of unproblematic accessibility). Speaking like a Marxist here, he thinks it should expose the inherent disharmony within social life, between the individual and society, and give witness to the unrepresentability of the Idea of ‘reality’ – so as to release the manifold of ideas. If instead, art tries to give consolation by way of establishing a sense of harmony and transparency in its use of form, it runs the danger of becoming mere propaganda. When this happens it becomes a tool in the service of something else, as has happened with ‘Social Realist’ art in Communist Russia.
Lyotard saw the Avant-Garde movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, as championing the sublime. Its exponents were no longer interested in faithfully representing (and so reproducing) ‘reality,’ instead, it was much more like an ongoing search, and an experimentation of the non-figurative kind. Even though some (like Proust and Chirico) kept a nostalgic longing for a lost unity in their work, others (like Cézanne, Delaunay, Duchamp, Mondrian, and Joyce) went all the way in their celebration of this ‘disconnection’ and farewell to form.
Now, Lyotard claims, that the Postmodern when it comes to art, is that sublime moment within modernity which reveals the limits of representation, but which denies itself the consolation found in the beauty of form. Put differently: It is a search for the limits of our imagination through representation, and exposing this lack in all its terrifying glory! But this radical and original artistic impulse (the full potential of art) gets silenced by modernity through the reestablishment of the rules of form: The dictates of Beauty, if you will. Curbing, or checking this freedom of art and imagination, which by its very unrestrained nature must necessarily precede modernity and makes it possible. These ‘super-imposed’ strictures simultaneously sooth our anxiety in the face of such ‘radical freedom’ – which is a recurrent theme in Existentialist philosophy as well.
Aurelio: …nice of you to follow-up with your additional insight.
“…says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the un-presentable, ‘and this state is constant’. The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the ‘new,’ and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”
I’ve found the above quote from the postmodernism entry at Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia. It also answers my question (in addition to your fine explication) on how Lyotard saw the relationship between the modern & the postmodern. Apparently the two are differentiated by the sublime (de-void of the omnipresent meta-narrative). The sublime as addressing the un-presentable (&c.), (I’ll call it an enigma, or even a kind of Buddhist Myo , generally meaning: essential mystery). T/his idea of the sublime is very useful with regard to works of cutting-edge art nowadays, with all its “difficulty,” its resistance & its unforgiving opacity.
The trouble I was having, had to do with thinking of the idea of the Postmodern as preceding the Modern. The issue might be resolved when we let go of this as chronological & place it in a Lyotard’s terms. Conversely, it is worth noting that Lyotard does use Burke & Kant’s 18th century sublime to address the Postmodern & this might lean toward a chronological perspective after all. The Enlightenment (sublime) was more Postmodern than the Modern (re: Lyotard)?
Reinaert de V.: Yes, your quote perfectly captures the essence of Lyotard’s thought in this regard. You’re also right in your comment about the chronology. Lyotard speaking as a Hegelian-Marxist has a teleological view of history, but with all such views there must be an underlying ahistorical principle. A dynamic principle that finds its development within history. It is no surprise we come across that hidden principle in his aesthetic theory, where the chronological view of history is suddenly transformed into an ahistorical one. Since art, being closely related to religion, simply takes the place of the former – which has been left officially dead and buried since Nietzsche. About your remark about the Enlightenment, you might also be right. Not in the sense of a ‘chronology’, but about it being the proper postmodern moment in Lyotard’s sense of the term, or start of the modern movement.
With all the foregoing in mind, I’d like to end by briefly returning to the project of the artist as described above. For I don’t think Lyotard would describe this art as properly postmodernist as he understood the term. Take for example the sentence: “This new art is a memorial to an idealized time gone by, now perhaps, with an unrecognized hum of nostalgia.” This clearly shows the nostalgia Lyotard accuses some modern artist of harboring when it comes to their hesitant use of the sublime. A nostalgia for an unproblematic, but unreachable – because forever lost – sense of Unity (Transcendental Totality). While the true (post)modern artist, according to Lyotard, celebrates the fracture of ‘reality’, so as to release form from its formal constraints.
Of course Lyotard doesn’t approve of Baudrillard’s commodified world, where everything is obscene and superficial, a mere play of form in the service of commerce. Where signs stop referring and become self-referential objectified commodities themselves (read: simulacra). He does want to keep (true) art focused on this inherently broken nature of modernity: the Anxiety of the Un-presentable. The fracture at the heart of modernity that keeps the engine going (forever renewing itself). But he does want them to stop longing and start accepting!
Pumhösl’s art, in this respect – apart from the question of the inherent value of his work as objective visual artifacts – is clearly a step backwards, because his whole project is about a sense of loss, namely: the nostalgia Lyotard is speaking about… You could argue Pumhösl thematizes time itself or the problematic of memory & history etc, but he does it in a way that betrays the bankruptcy of the so-called ‘postmodern’ art of today. To put it differently: postmodern art seems to me to be all out of Ideas: it can only look back, in an “endless proliferation, or “necro-spective” of the past”. And this is what I meant with dissipation: by not properly harnessing the energy of the sublime, as modernity did, art ultimately fell victim to big money (as Baudrillard clearly shows). For in the end art was left defenseless, not able to retreat any further, because all the big Ideas had been systematically shot down. The last of which was Lyotard’s very own: the Existentialist Heroic Confrontation with a Constant Crisis (Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”), which simply wears you down…
“Instead of first existing, works of art now go straight into the museum. Instead of being born & dying, they are born as virtual fossils.” Indeed, this is not something we should be celebrating, but a sad statement of fact. We simply have no idea anymore what to put on display.
Aurelio: What another incredible reply you’ve written!
Once you present the idea that Lyotard might be coming to this with an ahistorical perspective, you contextualize for me, the notion that postmodern thought reflects an enlightenment sublime—re: a neo-Kantian Lyotard.
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to write about art now, 2009. Pumhösl’s name arrived in a recent review in Artforum & I thought I’d write about his interesting project. I started to look at how his art was a gesture of looking back &c. I then thought to connect the art with the philosophy of Baudrillard & perhaps Lyotard. Baudrillard seemed a good fit, since he spoke of the “end of history” & its illusions of “the end.” I couldn’t on the other hand, tie in Lyotard because it seemed out of balance & because I don’t have enough Lyotard’s ideas within reach (I’m brought closer, now thanks to you). So, Baudrillard was workable. Needless to say, writing about art of today caused a looking back, which could not be avoided or overlooked. I was looking at time & how it reverberated through this art.
That Pumhösl is (a) post-modernist is anyone’s guess. If you go into the Modernoloigies link that I’ve provided at the end of the post (which was an exhibit by the same name in Barcelona). Pumhösl has a podcast on his work in the exhibition. Oddly enough, I don’t think he mentions of the term post-modern—he only calls his art post-conceptual. The introductory notes for the exhibit write that artists in the show are now looking to how “Modernism attempted to illustrate the experiences and ramifications of modernity in artistic forms – and in undertaking this project it was almost post-modern.” I feel the show almost had a certain shyness around the term (post modern). Perhaps it is simply out of fashion. I tried to use the term reluctantly, knowing that again, Pumhösl never uses the term post-modern. From there, we’re left outside of the term.
Now, the way that you have found to bring Lyotard in, is just right, you felt his influence lingering in the ideas.
As for the nostalgia, we shouldn’t say that Pumhösl uses this as a motif–this was my interpretation of his work. His work is about remembering & with that, I feel nostalgia is not too far away. This is why I thought his art wasn’t cynical enough to bypass a slight feeling of nostalgia. However, your term (Transcendental Totality) seems to get very close to the vision of modernism as Utopian & this brings us closer to an issue Pumhösl might/would agree with. Basically looking at how the project of Modernism was over-idealistic &c. all presented in his typically dead-pan way.
Also, the last parts of your reply get to a problem with contemporary art (since the use of the word post-modern is in question) & its exhaustion of ideas. This is the core of what I’m trying to point to in the post. There are so many examples of this exhaustion in the art-world (I’ll spare you a list), I mean a sort of spiritual exhaustion that’s very close to the feelings & anxiety Baudrillard describes. Believe it or not, I’m not sure one should be too disappointed with art that is like this. If we say that art is a reflection of ourselves & that art is spiritually bereft, it is safe to say society is somewhat spiritually bereft. This observation is not new & we know this, but do we admit it to ourselves, when we look at art? Do we, allow art to be spiritually bereft, especially if it can nudge us to consider our lives & our own problems. This is part of its value. It is an expression of our condition—as mournful as it is.
…& to question all this again, I’ve found this quote:
“There shall be no mourning” (il n’y aura pas de deuil) –Jean-François Lyotard
Reinaert de V.: I am in absolute agreement with your comment above, and I find your defense of Pumhösl more than fair.
I’ve to be honest: it was your post that first gave me an impression of his work, so shame on me for criticizing it in arm-chair-fashion But on a more serious note, this is an illustration of what you might call the general problem of ‘Art versus Art Philosophy’. They both exist and operate in a dialectical fashion. Art Philosophy always tries to analyze and orientate itself according to particular works of art and artist, that it sees as representing a certain way of experiencing or thinking about the world. Even though the particular artists in question might sincerely disagree with the labels they might get, claiming they didn’t have any such intention, or that their work shouldn’t be read that way but in a certain other way etc. Those are fair points to make, and they’re free to argue so, but for the art philosopher those objections are basically beside the point. The artwork simply exist out there as an artifact, free to be interpreted any which way that seems to fit. Of course there should be argumentation and explication, but an artwork does exist in a context and in that sense it is a certain expression or comment on that context. Of course artists in their turn, make use and comment on those theories and philosophies (that influence art and society) in their artworks, hence the dialectic.
To tie it all back to Mr. Pumhösl and your excellent piece on his work. He might very well not be – or consider himself not to be – a postmodernist, I leave that up to him. But I was responding on the postmodern context he’s placed in, and how could he not be? We still live to an important extent in the ‘postmodern condition’ and he’s responding to his times, like you rightly point out.
I see my role as art philosopher to struggle with the theory surrounding art, and of course the struggle of theorizing about art itself. I don’t do this (only) for fun, but because art calls out for interpretation. They are ‘artifacts’, or man-made creations that, because of that fact, express something about “man” who made it and the society it was made in. After all, in the creation of an object, all sorts of ‘decisions’ have been made and those imply intelligibility. Art in this sense is simply a more fundamental mode of communication to me – one that reaches beyond language. This doesn’t mean my reading is the final reading, but that I should make my reading as persuasive as possible by taking as much into account as possible and bring it all to some kind of synthesis – that is: including reasonable views that differ from mine.
Well, I’m glad we agree on the spiritual exhaustion bit, but many out there would still disagree, or remain too attached to the ideas that make this exhaustion a fact. What I mean, is that postmodern theory as it has developed, is the main culprit for the critical state art finds itself in. I’m not altogether against postmodern theory, but when you look at what it has to say about art it won’t make you a happy camper. In fact, postmodernists content the very term ‘art’ not to mention their outright hostility towards the museum as an institution… To me postmodern art is a highly conceptualized form of ‘art’ where academics or theory seems to come first, and art a distant and pale second. I won’t go into all of that here, cuz it will take way too long to substantiate, but I’ll be writing on that somewhere else soon. In the sense that this ’spiritual exhaustion is an expression of our condition’ we should of course put every effort in changing that (postmodern) condition, and that means analyzing what it means and how it can be changed, if at all…
Aurelio: I agree with your point on the dialectical nature of the (Pumhösl’s) art objects as artifacts to philosophize over. I also agree that this is an aspect of a possible dialectical relationship we decide to have with the artifact/s, aside from the issue of whether Pumhösl positions himself (& his practice) as a post-modernist. After all, it is surprising that he seems to have this hesitancy with the term. As I’ve alluded to already, the term post modern (in contemporary art practice, criticism & writing) has fallen out of currency. It is not clear to me why this is. Perhaps it is simply no longer fashionable. The term nowadays has a kind of negative connotation that implies a sort of academic posturing &/or affected pretense. Please, please don’t get me wrong, we ignore the term at our own peril, since as you have so concisely illustrated, the term is very useful, especially when it brought closer to its main philosophical advocates, Baudrillard & Lyotard.
As for philosophy & art writing, I’ve come across an issue of the art magazine “frieze,” where Jörg Heiser writes on some of the problems of this combination (art & theory). In it he addresses & questions how art & philosophy are in conflict. He also looks at how philosophers like Baudrillard & Lyotard have been aligned with the moody & often hard to pin-down art world.
I’d like to also thank you for presenting Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime in aesthetics. Any diligent reader should learn something from your excellent explications of the philosophy. That the sublime in art can bring us closer to understanding fracture, confusion, un-reason, impossibility & the un-representable, is key to having a better understanding of art today.
I am looking forward to reading anymore of your aesthetics & philosophy. From what I can see you are in Amsterdam which has plenty of cutting-edge art to think about & experience.
Please continue…the future is bright!
Reinaert de V.: First off, I don’t mind if you have a negative (or positive) opinion about postmodernism, since everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. My own feelings on postmodern philosophy are very ambiguous… So feel free to write whatever you like. In fact the more honest the better! In the ‘arena of ideas’ the most valid will (hopefully) win out in the end, and of course that ‘ideological battle’ will ultimately be won with the soundest arguments. Anyways, the points I wanted to clear up had to do with the ‘chronology’ or ‘ahistorical perspective’ of Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime and a ‘nascent postmodern moment’.
I was perhaps a bit to hasty in my analysis on that point, by ‘explaining it away’ as a hidden Hegelian-Marxist principle working in the background of his philosophy. I think, his idea of post-modernity as a moment that is closely linked to the modern, is in fact one I would subscribe to and find very illuminating (even though I don’t agree with every thing he says). The Enlightenment was in a sense the ‘postmodern moment’, I think (even though Lyotard himself clearly restricts this notion to art only, not society). Not only was it the birth of modernity, but as such it was a highly creative and liberating moment in western history. Of course Burke and Kant’s “sublime” were in important aspects very different from Lyotard’s use of the term, but Kant did furnish the conceptual basis for it (more so than Burke). Secondly, Lyotard as I read him clearly illustrates the close symbiotic link between modernity and post-modernity as being two sides of the same coin. Like I tried to show in the beginning, I think his mistake is in discarding the modern as being a mere fossil of a dynamic postmodern principle. My idea is perhaps closer to Kant’s original idea, because I think the one needs the other. You can’t have pure ‘postmodernity’ (in Lyotard’s sense) or just fossilized ‘modernity,’ instead they should be working in tandem!
A useful (Kantian inspired) aesthetic theory by Luigi Pareyson’s will demonstrate what I mean by this. He makes a distinction between forma formata and forma formante, or ‘formed form’ and ‘forming form’. According to Pareyson when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form, it’s forma formata so to speak, or to put it differently: the rule that’s incapsulated in its objective form, that ‘informs’ its form. But also, we shouldn’t exclude criteria external to the work of art, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explain why (or how) the artist decided to alter or change aspects of the work during the creative process. This is a dialectical process similar to the problem of ‘art vs art philosophy’, I mentioned above. Society influences (both directly and indirectly) the creative process of the artist and thus the created artwork, but once the work of art is created and ‘out there’ it exists in opposition to society and because of that fact – and its social origin – it is able to ’speak’ to society indirectly (also because it’s a ‘useless’ object). This is the forma formante, and also an important idea in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In both cases, the work of art falls under a rule that it established by its very creation, even there where it becomes something it ‘didn’t want to be’.
Coming back to the relationship between modernity and postmodernity: I think their relationship should be viewed along similar lines. First, with the establishment with modernity the influence of religion and tradition falls away, so to the ‘givenness’ of things. Humanity no longer has a direct line to the ‘things in themselves’ but is from then on fundamentally cut off (from the cosmos). Reason was now confronted with a blind uncaring, and ultimately absurd – because inhuman – outside world (beginning of psychology). This process of secularization or de-sacralization – which led to an endless (analytical) fragmentation of everything – has been slow and painful, but the decisive blow fell with the Enlightenment. Well, the “split” Lyotard mentions and posits in ’sublime of the postmodern moment’, is basically a process of alienation. Even though artworks ‘liberated’ themselves in one sense (mainly from the ‘referrent’) and becoming everything they wanted to be, they also ran the risk – by that very fact – of becoming nothing (meaningful) at all. Since in essence art’s ‘unconscious’ rebellion was against meaning; that is against making sense of the whole, by being dominated by the ‘referrent’ (or referring to something outside of itself = meaning), thus freeing the ‘object’ of art.
So modern art is a very complicated and unique phenomenon to say the least, but not a very healthy one… Lyotard is of course right in signaling that this tension or split, is a huge source of creative energy and has the potential to endlessly inspire and motivate artists (in the sense of the famous Rorschach test). At the same time though, if ‘modernity’ disappears from the scene completely this energy dissipates, or perhaps you should say, the energy isn’t used. Because we need a creative project, so we can have a creative process, so as to create something. Such as the project of modernity…
Humanity is ‘doomed’ to make sense of the whole/world, even if it can’t. The artist has a need, corresponding to that of humanity, and that is finding meaning in everything around him and the means to do that, is subjecting the ‘object’ in art to his will. Of course this isn’t even a choice we have to make, because we can’t not do it. Which brings me back to what’s wrong with postmodernism as it exist now: Baudrillard shows the logic of our age and shows the lie – or denial – that is postmodernities Cloaked Grand Narrative.
Like you said, art reflects our current situation, and civilizations come and go, when cultures grow jaded and become retrospective… (read this excellent article!!!) Yet the fact we’re now experiencing a lack of inspiration doesn’t mean we are dead, it just means we’re on a dead track and should get back on track – to use a nice modern metaphor.
(Between these two comments we had an e-mail exchange where I asked about Lyotard’s term the differend & how it relates to the sublime.)
Reinaert de V.: I must say my friend Aurelio, that I really enjoyed our philosophical conversation! Even though I’m very critical of postmodernism (perhaps even biased to some degree), I do think every tradition and every art-form deserves recognition and is entitled to the best defense. Something you did with flair and an open mind in your piece on Pumhösl’s art. I’ll also try and answer your email-question on Lyotard’s “Differend” and how I think it’s related to his notion of the “Sublime”.
The loose threads I mentioned, have to do with Luigi Pareyson’s (Kantian inspired) aesthetics, which instead of clarifying my point, confounded it (since I left it untied to my main argument). His ideas of the “forma formata” (formed form) and “forma formante” (forming form) fit in perfectly with Kant’s (obviously) and Lyotard’s philosophy. If you see the ’sublime of the postmodern moment’ as an “event” that essentially disrupts the space-time-continuum (forgive my spacy choice of words , it thereby shows the inherently broken nature of our experience of reality. When you define “reality” as that what can be shown to be true (through scientific method), than it can never be in harmony with the Ideas, because these ‘Ideas’ always have to do with the totality of things. In this case the ‘world’ we inhabit, but it can also refer to other essentially unrepresentable things. We can only suggest such Ideas, for example: standing at the foot of the pyramids of Giza, gives you the impression (and sensation!!!) of grandeur, ‘the infinitely big’, and a feeling of being over-powered. These are characteristics of the sublime. It is related to the feeling of fear, in that the sensation is over-powering, absorbing, too much to register, and/or because it’s literally a force that assails you (think of horror and disaster movies). Yet at the same time it gives a certain form of pleasure, because you are able to experience all these sensations safely. But more importantly: because it shows that these Ideas are bigger than everything that effectively surrounds us, bigger than everything we can make or think of, even ‘bigger’ than that our cognitive capacity is able to process (at that moment) and yet we can still “sense” them, despite or because of that! This is how Kant’s famous dictum must be understood:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.” – Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
It always makes me think of Monty Python’s excellent “Live Organ Transplants” sketch in “The Meaning of Life”, where you get more-or-less with tongue-in-cheek the same logic (albeit a bit cynically). Where the gruesome, mindless murder of the husband is (perhaps) too much for the wife to take in, and the ‘doctors’ use Kant’s notion of the enormity of ‘the starry heaven above’ to legitimize, trivialize, and even distract from the absurdity of the moral-disaster taking place in the living room.
Anyway, the point is (as I explained above) that with the advent of modernity (Enlightenment) this ‘rupture’ took centre stage. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t noticed it before that time, but it didn’t use to be such a problem traditionally. Remi Brague throws some unexpected light on this problem, in his fantastic and meticulously researched book “The Law of God”. He traces it back to the evolution – and ultimate fracture with the arrival of physics – of the concept of law within the Classical & Christian traditions. Confrontation with this ‘rupture’ (“beckoning us to make a leap”) used to be experienced as a mystical rapture, which led to a reaffirmation of God. But as existentialism shows this is only one of the possibilities, namely a solution theorized by S. Kierkegaard. A. Camus on the other hand saw this confrontation as one that shouldn’t be overcome, by reaching a synthesis on a higher level (Aufhebung). According to him: the modern mind should acknowledge the ultimate meaningless chaos that is life, thus it shouldn’t jump to conclusions to alleviate its fear of the unknown, and it shouldn’t overstep the boundaries of science. With science one should always remember that to do science one can’t explain ‘everything’ but one has to break a problem down to manageable elements and focus on solving those one at a time. So science in its endless specializations is fractured as well, and it admits that it can’t give us the meaning or purpose of life. Some people even consider these notions (to be dangerously) nostalgic, and others, of a more positivist nature, would say a notion of God is meaningless to begin with, since it cannot be proven nor disproven. Well, with the first blow, the cracks slowly spread, wider and wider…
If we agree on this fundamental “break” (cut off from tradition) or “fracture”, we can see how it animates modernity’s program of the progress of reason, by slicing up everything in manageable pieces. Postmodernism on the other hand can be understood as an endless, ahistorical “now”, namely the repetition of this moment of fracture through history: a moment of existential crisis on a personal or cultural level, and of endless creativity. A crisis which can be (re)solved in many different ways… Modernity and its program being one of those solutions. Modernity kept close to its source of origin (the moment of rupture), by endlessly repeating it, trying to pin it down or perhaps to get over it, and yet at the same time alienated by it, because of its rationalist attitude.
This turned into quite a little story I see, lol. Let’s bring in Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetics now and close off with Lyotard’s “Differend”. If what I said above is more or less correct, it follows that modernity and postmoderity are closely linked and have a certain structure. Now, the sublime is the postmodern “moment”, and reveals itself as such, but in order to recognize it for what it is (a rupture) you’ve to have a clear and steady gaze, and not make the ‘leap over the abyss’ too soon. The idea of the “formed form” is essentially ‘the postmodern’ from the perspective of the critic, applied to art: “when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form”. In other words: don’t jump to conclusions but let the object of art speak for itself. But more importantly: there’s a structure that’s revealed, namely one that follows from its own form, and that revealed structure corresponds to modernity… This “forming form” is the effective force that moves us in a certain direction – without us consciously knowing it – and follows from the original form of the postmodern moment. Which modernity’s progress by constantly repeating it, has slowly but surely led us to recognize or acknowledge, namely: that the moment of fracture is the postmodern within modernity – animating it throughout… Thus the question should be: what comes next? Is it possible with this insight to renew modernity, or jump-start some other “program”, or does it only work when it’s working in the background, structured unconsciously? Are we now able to ‘jump’ wherever we like, as if in one big creative experiment, limited only by our imagination? These are the interesting and important questions I believe, because postmodernism itself is essentially a never-ending “now”, beckoning us to make that leap, and start something…
Finally, to come back to Lyotard’s “Differend” and what it means… Basically it’s a fundamental difference of opinion or a controversy. According to Lyotard such a dispute cannot be resolved through consensus as the parties speak radically heterogeneous languages (a sublime characteristic). To translate or paraphrase the terms of such a dispute would therefore prejudge the issue for one party (creating a false harmony). The only way out of this conundrum is by making use of Kant’s notion of the “Reflexive Judgment” which is similar to the idea of the “formed form” (since the second is inspired by the first). This means taking the time and effort to judge competing language-genres (like science, rhetoric, erotics etc) according to their own form. It is the capacity to detect the commonalities on basis of what is given, but in a critical fashion: by not neglecting the irreducible differences. Lyotard believes like Kant that it is essential for people to develop this (moral) capacity or sensibility, by remaining open for the eventualities and slight – but important – nuances of language. He suggests that this “Bildung” (through literature and the Humanitas) of a cultured person is necessary, but under serious pressure from the modern capitalist economy. Since economy is about winning time (efficiency) and thus not taking the time to develop (culture). The capitalist mentality of making money is at odds with the other genres and slowly taking them over, creating a “differend”. With enough time the other language-genres are judged on its terms by its rules, something they can never win. “Money” is the sign of the time-won and turns into the measure of everything, meaning that only everything which has the potential to make money has value and counts as something. So, like with Baudrillard and Marx, Lyotard focuses on the leveling and indifferent character of money.
…and that is that!
Aurelio: Wow, more incredible ideas, you’re in a rapid-fire philosophical pace now!
…& as we keep saying, this’ll be my last comment.
Starting with Lyotard as neo-Kantain, (again & after/during our discussion), I’ve come upon a couple of salient points in reference to the sublime & Kant. In “The Sublime & the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard writes:
“Even before romantic art had freed itself from classical & Baroque figuration, the door had thus been opened to inquiries pointing towards abstract & minimal art. Avant-gardism is thus present in germ in the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime.”
Before Kant we had Burke, Longinus & others of whom Lyotard draws on for the sublime. When I wanted to look at art of the NOW, I had to look at the unavoidable past (a kind of obvious paradox of the new). I like that you do not want to disregard Kant’s influence. This is perfect, because we can still find value in the genius of Kant for his sublime, as differentiated from beauty, the sublime as the sensation of awesome grandeur & so on. Lyotard also says that Kant compared the sublime to the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…,” to this Lyotard writes: “optical pleasure when reduced to mere nothingness, promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity.” Amazing, now we’re at the Bible, geez, who would’ve guessed? But we’re also at an understanding that’s very today, now, of the moment, questions of representation of the profound, & representing faith (as contrasted or understood with reason).
You also have me thinking of Pareyson & I’m wondering if there is any phenomenological thread in his work? From the little I’ve found, he’s hermeneutical & with what you’ve written here, I’m slightly hesitant to compare him to Clement Greenberg (the well-know art critic who championed formalism). His writing basically tried to strip the art object down to its basics—the clarity of form, any thing outside of that was moot. He wrote on postmodernism too, but I’m not sure he was all that much in favor of the term, in fact I think he was disdainful. He wanted to appreciate the medium, the shapes, and the forms of art, but he became too rigid & bossy in his later years & was dethroned as the ultimate expert, the last word was no longer his. His famous term was “post-painterly abstraction.” Following Greenberg was minimalism which moved into form with wild abandon & in fact we see minimalism’s spirit in Pumhösl’s forms.
As for Pareyson’s notion that the work of art should be judged only by it form, this idea is intriguing, I’ll have to look out for his work. From what you’ve described I want to read more…
Some of my abstract work was very formal, with respect to materials as the “subject.” It was a way of looking at the object (hanging on a wall) with attention to the structure of the physical object, but I was also aware of the “meaning,” as subordinate. The art object is first an object, and then it’s art (when finished by the viewers/audience gaze). So writing about all this, makes me want to create with a newly informed enthusiasm. I suppose I’m doing that right now as I write—this is the (post-modern) creative act, we are right here–taking a ride though the sublime, approaching the un-representable!
(click on image to enlarge)
I’m very interested in your comments where the sublime/post modern art object threatens to become meaningless—which is where a lot of people still would argue, that this IS the state of art today. But, it is valuable for us to see & observe the mysteries of life—or that mystery is essential & fundamental. It is in this arena that art can summon energy–& it does. It’s a kind of courage one has to face, when faced with the unknown, the unexplainable, and the outer edges of logic (reason). Contemporary art is always on this borderline, this rupture, the absurd, ironic, cynical, offensive, & yes, just outwardly insane.
I agree with you that these are stressful times & that the art object is not always an answer, rather it’s usually a question. How am I regarded, how far can I push an idea, or how far can I push the imagination & how far can I push a convention (a norm)? Everyday culture doesn’t know how to regard this troublesome art, because it’s challenging them to think & react in new ways that are uncomfortable & highly specialized. Philosophy can help with this since some of its job is to look at perception, judgments of taste, aesthetics &c. &c.
“From the sublime, springs a lot of reflection” –Longinus
…we’ll speak again
Later, I asked Reinaert de V. about his studies now & he sent this:
“The thesis I’m writing is on Pragmatism and Critical Theory, and using their major proponents (John Dewey & Theodor W. Adorno respectively) with the purpose of arriving at a new synthesis.
Well, I won’t go into the technical details and the immense work that it turned into… I’m not sure if you need to put all that into my bio. You can leave it at me majoring in philosophy, specialized in the subject of aesthetics. You can of course mention these two important currents in modern thought as being of special interest to me. But my love for philosophy reaches across the centuries and isn’t clearly demarcated. I love the 16th and 17th century in philosophy with it’s clear prose and socialcontract theorists, but Postmodern philosophy can also be very exciting in its sometimes obscure and convoluted way (it goes without saying that the Greeks are of great inspiration as well.
Why Aesthetics? I can be very honest with you, and you might be very surprised 😉 I always had a love of cultures, customs, religions and books. Early on I used to read big books in English, these were mostly fantasy novels (starting with JRR Tolkien), and though of course I also read serious literature. But my love for fantasy used to run deep! Except the books would always end and then it would be back to reality… Now, the thing I love about philosophy is that you can use your imagination to create new ways of seeing and thinking about the world, but in order to do that forces you to struggle with the (real) world. So, even though I love escapism in all its forms (and don’t think it’s unhealthy), I’m also very pragmatic in my thinking, probably due to my upbringing and Dutch culture. Nothing is so exciting as trying to follow someone’s wild fancies (like Lacan’s) and see them slowly crystallize into something new and meaningful, or gawk at a crystal clear deliberation of great thinkers like B. Spinoza or T. Aquinas.
Thus I chose aesthetics, because I think it’s one of the more practical branches of philosophy. Not only because the battle in philosophy at the moment is basically a cultural battle (Postmodernism, Crisis of Western Identity), but also because philosophy (and imagination) has the most freedom to operate in a domain like art. The role of philosophy as a way to orientate oneself (and speculate and meditate) will never go away as long as we remain human, and even though it isn’t a ‘science’ humanity can never do without it because of that. In the end we’re all naïve philosophers, like we’re all naïve psychologists, since we all have access to the same ‘material’, namely: our human nature. Which means the domain of art will always be free of science and thus always be a last bastion for philosophy.”