Unreal Nature

August 14, 2017

Where Their Universe Sets Itself to Signifying

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… in question is our culture, not the threshold nature/culture in the abstract, and our history, not that of an essence …

This is from Kant after Duchamp by Thierry de Duve (1996):

Imagine yourself an ethnologist — or an anthropologist — from outer space. You descend to Earth. Knowing nothing about it, you are unprejudiced … You quickly notice, among other things, that in most human tongues there is a word whose meaning escapes you and whose usage varies considerably among humans, but which, in all their societies, seems to refer to an activity that is either integrative or compensatory, lying midway between their myths and their sciences. This word is art.

… you postulate the existence of a universal unconscious structure that underlies the disparate corpus constituted by everything humans call art. … At the intersection of magical action and scientific knowledge, artistic making attributes a symbolic power to the things it names, at times gathering together, at times dispersing, human communities.

And you conclude that these symbols that humans exchange in the name of art must have — for them, who are perhaps unaware of this, it is a minimum; for you, who know nothing but this, it is a maximum — the undeniable function of marking one of the thresholds where humans withdraw from their natural condition and where their universe sets itself to signifying. Likewise, you conclude that the name “art,” whose immanent meaning still escapes you — indeterminate because overdetermined — perhaps has no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible. In this game of symbolic exchanges, the word “art” would be nothing but the empty square that sets them in motion.

[ … ]

Armed with all the certainties acquired over the course of this journey through ethnology, the history of art or of styles, and logical ontology, you finally plunge into your corpus in order to extract a model from it, the embodies proof of your theory, its paradigm. And out of it you pull — indeed, yes — a urinal.

… Having arrived at this stage, you are contemplating your paradigm as if it were a marble Aphrodite. It is supposed to sum up all works of art preserved as such on the planet Earth, and to reduce them to their common essence: they are called art by humans. But don’t you realize that your theoretical definition of art simply brought full circle the empirical inquiry with which you started? Aren’t you sensing the irony and the biting humor of this ready-made urinal? Aren’t you worried by the absence of freedom that is the consequence of such an autonomy collapsed into tautology?

[line break added] Don’t you feel disgusted or made ridiculous by the idea of accepting that anything whatever be made into the paradigmatic model of art’s universality? Aren’t you upset at the prospect of seeing so vulgar an object put an end to an entire stylistic heritage? If this urinal has not yet succeeded in instilling in you some sort of suspicion as to the validity of your theory, then you really must be from outer space. Perhaps you affect the detachment of the Martian observer, seeking shelter under the notion of scientific objectivity.

[line break added] In fact, you are either a blind idealist or an inveterate cynic. But if, on the contrary, you feel awkward after all the work you have done since you first imagined yourself as an extraterrestrial ethnologist, when the heterogeneity of your corpus led you to become, successively, a historian of art and a philosopher obsessed with the ontology of art, then your case is different.

… You realize that when a urinal can be art, then anything can be, provided one believes it. … When the ontological definition of art ends up being equated with the empirical description — art is everything humans call art — that was your starting point when you were an honest but outside observer, then the autonomy of art has become a caricature of itself. And when all the disparate things accumulated through the history of styles as the heritage of humanity seem to lead to an institutional definition of art that is deliberately running in circles, then humanity itself must feel dispossessed.

[line break added] And so do you. For after all, in question is our culture, not the threshold nature/culture in the abstract, and our history, not that of an essence, and our performative speech acts, not a self-defining institution. The detachment of the observer — the ethnologist’s outsideness, the historian’s overview, the logician’s neutrality — are unsuitable when the meaning of art, not just its recognition is at stake.

-Julie

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