Unreal Nature

August 21, 2017

A Struggle for Its Motor

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… It never constitutes itself as a patrimony but projects the heritage of the past into the future in order to contradict it.

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

… [Imagine that] You are not a historian of art; you are a historian of the avant-garde. Such is the name of the practices that alone interest you. The name of art and the consensus that it begs are nothing but the retrospective sanction of these practices. It makes them autonomous, and in so doing alienates them; it endorses them, and in so doing drains them of power; it affirms them, and in so doing negates their negating impetus. If the name of art arrests your attention, it does so only slightly.

[line break added] You never use it except for convenience in that larger context you call culture and civilization, or superstructure and ideology. It is the phenomenon of the avant-garde that entices you — its attitudes and practices, its hopes and conquests, its programs and achievements, its excesses and failures. All this mobilizes you, and this mobilization is, in the end, always political. You are a historian of the avant-garde, and the avant-garde sets the direction where history is to go. You want, therefore, to predict and to prescribe more than to tell and to describe.

Notice that for all that you are not necessarily an avant-garde historian. Rather, you are summoned either to advocate the avant-garde or to fight it. You are facing an abrupt alternative that allows for no neutrality. Either you make the values of the avant-garde your own and you become a militant of the political revolution, or at least of the cultural one; or else you castigate and fight these values and you also become a militant, a reactionary or at least a conservative one.

[line break added] In both cases, you place yourself in an agonistic field which is that of the very practices whose historian you are. In both cases, art — that which, as a convention or a concession, you call art — has a symptomatic value of reflection or of premonition of the state of social struggle. And in both cases, these values are essentially constituted through negation. It is the negativity of the avant-garde that stokes the conservative historian’s resentment at seeing nothing in it but a vast enterprise of dehumanization.

[line break added] It is the same negativity that enthusiastically bloats the utopian historian’s prophesies in seeing in the avant-garde a healthy clearing out before tomorrow’s victory celebration. And it is still the same negativity that sharpens the vision of the critical historian in seeing in the avant-garde a resistance to the one-dimensional flattening of “affirmative” culture.

… The only thing from which these choices cut you off is to become what the historian of art had been: the mere historiographer of an essence. They force you to espouse a philosophy of history for which there is no definition of art except the historical process through which art negates itself and comes to terms with its own negation. This process does not have an essence for its ground; rather it has a struggle for its motor. It never constitutes itself as a patrimony but projects the heritage of the past into the future in order to contradict it.

[line break added] When you call this process art, you mean that we, humans, don’t need to agree about what art is. On the contrary, we need to struggle for what art should be. Some fight for one conception of art, others for another; yet we all stake a claim to what art ought to be for all of us. When you identify art with avant-garde art and with the avant-garde exclusively, you imply that conflict and contradiction are the very fabric of art. Most contradictorily indeed, you call on the idea of a reconciled humankind to claim that the history of art will end with art’s disappearance, while you anticipate the end of history to justify art’s premature existence.

My previous post from de Duve’s book is  here.

-Julie

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