If the artistic production of today and its manifestations might seem chaotic or decidedly extravagant, it is widely acknowledged by both experts and insiders that contemporary art actually moves and develops within relatively stable theoretical premises. The sociological description of what Nathalie Heinich defines as the paradigm of contemporary art (1) provides a useful theoretical tool for the analysis of a kind of art born as a result of modern art criticism. The development of the contemporary art paradigm is inscribed in the artistic discourse (2). The precursors of contemporary art were historically identified in Marcel Duchamp, Allan Kaprow and the resulting artistic movements of the ’60s: conceptual art, fluxus and minimal art.
Central to this paradigm are the concepts of criticality, relativism and limit understood as a reaction to the concept of art proposed and established by the practices of high modernism. Contemporary art creates its counter-proposal to the clichés of modern art and its practices. Briefly resumed here are some aspects of modern art systematically criticized in contemporary art: the artwork as result of the individual production by the artist, the stereotypical figure of the artist in his atelier, the artwork as expression of the soul of the artist, the artwork independent from the context, the artwork separated from its mode of production or commercialization, painting and sculpture as the main kinds of art, the work of art as an aesthetic object. The contemporary art paradigm developed out of a fierce criticism of the old certainties according to a sort of meticulous destruction process.
The artistic proposal of contemporary art becomes analytical and demonstrative. The contemporary artwork is desecrated, dismembered, tortured, deconstructed, disintegrated and finally dematerialized in a demonstrative and analytical process. Fortunately, irony was not in short supply in this dissolution process – one could cite as examples of this penchant for irony Baldessarri’s and Arakawa´s bodies of works.
The theoretical premises on which the production of contemporary art is founded result from Duchamp´s artistic innovations and the huge impact of Wittgenstein´s ‘Tractatus‘ (1922) and ‘Philosophical investigation’ (1953). But also from the influence of the development of analytic philosophy, studies in semiotics, anthropology and pragmatic sociology: language becomes central in the academic debate and Wittgenstein’s legacy rules.
Quoting Thomas Mc Evilley in the preface (1986) to O´Doherty´s classic essay Inside the white cube:“It has been the special genius of our century to investigate things in relation to their context, to come to see the context as formative on the thing, and, finally, to see the context as a thing itself”. (3).
Robert Smithson’s ‘Art and Dialectics’ (4) is a one page text exemplifying this need for contextualization:
“Art critics and artists have for a long time considered the shell without the context of the ocean”.
The protagonists of this gradual cultural revolution in the decades following WWII are Wittgenstein, Barthes, Derrida, Eco, Deleuze, the re-visited Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (especially Adorno and Benjamin) and, more generally, an anti-essentialist cultural movement. Contemporary art is a direct derivative of a relativistic approach to studies related to meaning. Amanda Beech in ‘Concept without Difference’ summarizes this process as follows:
“… being Duchampian … Immaterial, enaesthetic (…) Art as the game of representing the knowledge of the limits of knowledge itself. It is an art of irony and parody at the limits of meaning (…)”. (5)
The context becomes content. In ‘Inside the White Cube’ (3) O´Doherty indicates the eye of the viewer as central element of the work of art. The work of art is in fact co-created, half created by the gaze of the viewer, as Duchamp and Warhol never stopped repeating. The artwork in contemporary art exhibits its own relative nature, negotiable and interpretable. The viewer-artwork relationship is generative, open and contingent. If this relationship in modern art was armoured and protected by frames and the almost sacred/surgical gallery environment, (where interferences seem to be painstakingly removed) in contemporary art the viewer-artwork relationship is literally exposed to a sort of perfect storm where almost nothing remains afloat. Everything counts in this relationship since everything is necessarily submitted to interactions and contingencies. Nonsense assumes a specific value in the contemporary art discourse. It is on this theoretical ground that the idea of different levels of reading of an artwork gained increasing prominence in criticism: an artwork can be approached by anybody, from naïve viewers to professional insiders. The artwork accepts all the interpretations and comments, but allows connoisseurs only to access the deeper levels of the artist´s intentions.
The artwork thus comes to be seen as a kind of multidimensional distributor of interpretations for everybody. The contemporary art paradigm finally opened the door to the opinion and the doxa as infinite possibility of renegotiation of meaning and interpretation in a subjectivist, democratic, infinitely debatable and indeed joyfully and properly capitalist way.
The drift of contemporary art into its most neoliberal, speculative (linked to the global market) forms contrasts with the duchampian and earlier conceptual propositions. The intention of Duchamp and earlier conceptual artists (6) was to set up a reaction against the established codes of the art world and their capitalist dynamics; the dematerialization of the art object was to function as the disintegration of the very possibility of its commercialization. The art system easily found a way to overcome the obstacle and sales contracts of conceptual artworks became the tragicomic symptoms of the paradoxical tension between anti-commercialization efforts and market needs. The gradual acceptance of the contemporary art paradigm by the world´s artistic community occurred during the ’60s and the ’70s: at the Venice Biennale of 1964 the Grand Prize for painting was awarded to Robert Rauschenberg.
2 /// The gradual acceptance of this paradigm seems to be based on the direct and indirect application of logic and the scientific approach in philosophy and art. The understanding of this cultural influence is essential in order to identify the theoretical basis of contemporary art and thus effectively overcome the contemporary paradigm itself. Conceptual art integrated analytic philosophy in a very specific way, this cultural legacy is direct. Indeed, Kosuth goes as far as to claim that:
“if one realizes the implications of Wittgenstein´s thinking, and the thinking influenced by him and after him, <Continental> philosophy need not seriously be considered here” (8). Kosuth underlines this cultural legacy by ultimately defining art as an analytic proposition:
“Works of art are analytic propositions. That is, if viewed within their context < as art > they provide no information whatsoever about any matter of fact. A work of art is a tautology in that it is a presentation of the artist´s intention, that is, he is saying that that particular work of art is art, which means, is a definition of art. Thus, that it is art is true a priori (which is what Judd means when he states that if someone calls it art, it´s art“ (8).
Indeed the artwork is a tautology, a self-defined comment on the nature of art itself and its own limits. In this vicious cycle, the definition of what-art-is is unnecessary because the ultimate definition is the artwork itself and in its various relations: relations to the artworld, the art contexts, the art gallery and art gallerists, the art market, the artist, the curator, the transport of the artwork, its taxation, the collectors, the museum … what else? To technology, science, philosophy, art schools etc.
During the last century analytic philosophy, sociology and logical positivism have massively integrated logic and the scientific method into the philosophical discourse. Particularly in English-speaking societies this integration has led to a subordination de facto of philosophy to science. Conceptual artists used the vocabulary of analytic philosophy, applying the mechanisms of logic and the power of description of science to artistic creation. But before that, analytic philosophy (by the heritage of Carnap and pragmatic philosophy) used positivism as a method of philosophical inquiry. Let me provide a short introduction to the story of analytic philosophy and its powerful rise in American society. In his Analytic Philosophy in America, Scott Soames wrote: “(…) starting with the pragmatism of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and (later) Clarence Irving Lewis, and continuing through the great immigration of philosophers of science, philosophical logicians, and logical positivists from the turn of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War II. With the absorption of this stream of philosophical talent, center of philosophical logic and analytic philosophy grew at the City College of NY, the University of Chicago, Berkeley, UCLA, and elsewhere. By the early 1950s, the first great analytic department in America had emerged at Harvard under the leadership of Willard Van Orman Quine, and by the mid-1960s the analytic tradition had become the dominant philosophical force in America”. (emphasis added), and:
“The young Wittgenstein saw his achievement as effectively ending philosophy. Of course it didn’t, though it did play a large role in influencing the next stage(s) of analytic philosophy”. We can easily trace the genealogy of this branch of philosophy: Frege, Russel, Wittgenstein, then Carnap. Bertrand Russell famously claimed:
“Philosophy is that part of science which at present people chose to have opinions about, but which they have no knowledge about. Therefore every advance in knowledge robs philosophy of some problems which formerly it had and will belong to science”.(9)
And Carnap´s <1934> Manifesto sentenced:
“Philosophy is to be replaced by the logic of science, that is to say by logical analysis of concepts and sentences of the science”. (9_2)
In short, in the early ’60s science indirectly invaded these other two spheres of knowledge. The cultural scene in which contemporary art developed is marked by this massive invasion. The second battlefront is directly produced by science itself through what has been called the Cognitive Revolution (10). The Cognitive Revolution represents the very attempt at a definitive paradigm shift whereby art and philosophy are incorporated within science. The dynamics of this type of epistemological revolution (epistemological paradigm shift) are described in Thomas Kuhn’s famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (11) and are the same used to develop the concept of contemporary art paradigm.
Cognitive science postulates and tests the very possibility of reducing all human activities to their description from a cognitive perspective. According to cognitive science the mind-world can be inscribed into the physical-world through the concepts of information, computation and feedback. In this scenario I would like to observe that analytic philosophy has already transformed philosophy, and neuroscience has already proposed a scientific investigation of art; the works of Semir Zeki (12), Ramachandran (13), Jean-Pierre Changeux (14) and Antonio Damasio (15) are symptomatic of this specific attempt. To complete this landscape I would like to invite the attentive reader to find around her/him examples of artworks, exhibitions, events, curatorial propositions, art publications, art texts, art articles etc. that relate art and science or art and technology nowadays. Does anything come to mind?
In this context the relationship (and the differences) between disciplines are fundamental. But is this conflation of art and philosophy into science unavoidable, fruitful or even necessary? Following the proposition of Gilles Deleuze and Guattari (16) in What is Philosophy? will allow us to draft a possible systematisation of this problem: philosophy, science and art create three different and distinct forms of thought. Deleuze and Guattari go to great critical effort to warn us about the danger of introducing the scientific approach into the fields of philosophy and art. The attempt to apply logic and the scientific discourse in art and philosophy are not only improper, but also based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the limits of the scientific method. Deleuze and Guattari describe the difference between art, science and philosophy following a functional discrimination. Science creates functions through which mathematics can describe the relationships between different applied variables, art creates percepts and affect (not to be confused with perceptions and feelings) and philosophy creates concepts (16). Deleuze and Guattari in ‘What is philosophy?’:
“Conceptual art seeks an opposite dematerialisation through generalisation, by installing a sufficiently neutralised plane of composition (the catalog that brings together works not displayed, the ground covered by its own map, disused spaces without architecture and the <flatbed> plane) so that everything takes on a value of sensation reproducible to infinity: things, images or clichés, propositions-a thing, its photograph on the same scale and in the same place, its dictionary definition.
However, in the latter case it is not at all clear that this way leads either to the sensation or to the concept, because the plan of the composition tends to become < informative>, and the sensation depends on the simple <opinion> of the spectator who determines whether or not to <materialize> the sensation, that is to say, decides whether or not it is art. This is a lot of effort to find ordinary perceptions and affections in the infinite and to reduce the concept to a doxa of the social body or great American metropolis”. (16_2)
Using Deleuzian terminology, I can say that the massive application of Functions in the field of philosophy and art generates an impoverishment of both concepts of art and philosophy.
If accepted, the demonstrative or analytical approach to art and philosophy entails an implicit subordination of art and philosophy to science.
Both are reduced to their descriptive ability and skills. Philosophy is reduced to the description of the mechanisms related to knowledge (epistemology) and of what is real (metaphysics and ontology), while art is reduced to the description of the mechanisms of perception and meaning. But Deleuze warned us: the creative power of the three disciplines is maintained precisely and necessarily through their independence; the intersections between philosophy, art and science are possible only at a developed stage.
If conceptual art brought an enormous contribution, how deeply should we agree with Deleuze`s warning?
3 /// The most recent waves of this long philosophical debate produced the emergence of a contemporary philosophical movement that approaches the problem of the relationship between philosophical and scientific knowledge from multiple perspectives.
Art naturally and enthusiastically invited itself into this debate. The different theories that have been grouped together under the label of new materialism or speculative materialism (17) question the possibility of a reconciliation between continental philosophy and science.
Their philosophical inspirations among others are the works of W. Sellars but also Heidegger, Husserl, Whitehead, Latour and Deleuze. Levi R. Bryant describes this new philosophical movement thusly:
“Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. (…) Meanwhile, the new generation of continental thinkers is pushing these trends still further, as seen in currents ranging from transcendental materialism to the London-based speculative realism movement to new revivals of Derrida. As indicated by the title The Speculative Turn, the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself”. (17)
Unlike analytic philosophy this philosophical movement seeks to reconcile the typically idealist and <correlationist> (18) continental tradition with scientific knowledge. Christov-Bakargiev’s ‘dOCUMENTA 13’ invited and published contributions by Grahan Harman (19), and became a platform for the ideas of ‘OOO’ (Object Oriented Ontology). Svenja Bromberg describes the phenomenon as follows:
“The exhibition´s curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev left no doubt as to the enormous impact object-oriented ontology had had on the development of her aesthetic. Since dOCUMENTA there has been a real explosion in art exhibitions that explicitly centre around objects and articulate a relation to the philosophical strand of Object-Oriented Ontolgy (OOO) / Speculative Realism (SR)”. (20)
Quotes from Harman and Meillassoux’s work have proliferated in texts by artists, critics and curators. As example I report here several significant quotes indicative of the influence of this philosophical turn towards objects in the art world.
ArtReview: “it´s hard to ignore how speculative realism offers new challenges for Art-world thinking – curator Nicolas Bourriaud, for example, name-checking Harman in his current Taipei Biennial. Gaining traction among a second generation of young academics, speculative realism´s influence – for better or worse – is growing fast”.
Svenja Bromberg: “What do we see when we linger for a moment on what is now celebrated as the turn towards objects in the overlapping spaces of art and philosophy? At first glance, a colorful potpourri of theories that have gained wide recognition in an extremely short time span, especially through their presence in both the blogosphere and the classical academic sphere.
The thinkers featuring most prominently are Graham Harman with his ‘Object-Oriented Ontology’, and Quentin Meillassoux, who became best known for coining the critical term corelasionism in his first major work After Finitude.
In this term Meillassoux summarises the generalised antirealist stance of all of continental philosophy in its understanding of all perception as being always already correlated with a human, and therefore subjectivist, perspective”. (20)
Suhail Malik: “Correlationism consists in disqualifying all claims, to consider the spheres of subjectivity and objectivity independently from one another.
So intersubjectivity, the consensus of a community, was destined to substitute to the adequacy of representations of a solitary subject to the matter itself, as a case of authentic criteria of objectivity, and more especially of scientific objectivity”. (21)
Speculative Realism becomes an ally for new artistic practices pushing for an overcoming of the paradigm of contemporary art. Harman’s ‘Object-Oriented Aesthetics’ provides the basis for a possible overcoming of the tiresome-suffocating contemporary art tautology proposition. Although this attempt is still uncertain, it seems to bring the practice of art to its original nature advocated precisely by Deleuze.
At best it could lead to a mature and certainly less critical and cynical artistic discourse. What Arthur Danto calls some necessary conditions (22) to the existence of a work of art are called into question here, and yet those necessary conditions still seem to apply. The ‘Object-Oriented Aesthetics’ is symptomatic of the need to challenge an old paradigm. Only the artists practices will indicate if other possibilities are already at work.
Besides, speculative materialism is far from having escaped the invasion of scientific discourse in art and philosophy, on the contrary many participants call for a more extended influence of science. I would also like to point out that many critics of speculative realist philosophy come from the philosophical front itself (23).
I will end this short essay by indicating a singular pictorial work that seems particularly significant in this context: Gerhard Richter’s, 1966, <Ema (Nude on a Staircase)>. This painting appears at a time when conceptual art is experiencing a meteoric rise… Duchamp is triumphant.
<Ema> has a special power because it almost looks like a reactionary gesture, and yet, given its connections to pictorial history, it is revolutionary. Warhol was painting the Marilyns, the de-personalization and de-materialization of the aesthetic experience anticipate the digital era. Images become disintegrated, fragile, tenuous, forced to repeat themselves and recur constantly in order not to evaporate.
Instead, Richter painted an oil-on-canvas nude with an almost academic technique: a painting of a photo of a nude of his (pregnant) wife descending a staircase.
Richter was hinting precisely at a Duchamp painting that marked the conceptual breakthrough. He seems to be saying <Here, Herr Duchamp, my answer to your bare-cubist-futurist concept>; Trés bien. Richter takes one step back and two steps forward. Just as Duchamp with his Dadaist proposition, Richter presented the avant-garde (in this case the conceptual avant-garde) with the possibility of its own overcoming just at a time when it ruled the artworld.
(1) ‘Le Paradigme de l’art contemporain. Structures d´une révolution artistique’, Gallimard, Paris, 2014.
(2) ‘L’Archéologie du savoir’, Gallimard, Bibliothèque des sciences humaines, Paris, 1969.
(3) ‘Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space’, Brian O´Doherty, 1976; Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1999.
(4) ‘The Collected Writings’, Jack D. Flam., Robert Smithson, University of California Press, 1996.
(5) ‘Concept Without Difference: The Promise of the Generic’, Amanda Beech.
(pdf version here)
(6) ‘Six years: the dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972; a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries’, Praeger, New York, 1973.
(7) ‘The Artworld’. Journal of Philosophy LXI, 571-584, Danto Arthur, 1964.
(8) ‘Art After Philosophy’ in ‘Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings’, Joseph Kosuth, 1960–1990.
(9) ‘The Philosophy of Logical Atomism’, 1918, In Bertrand Russell and Robert Charles Marsh (Ed.),‘Logic and Knowledge: Essays, 1901-1950’ (1988), 281. (9_2) Page 292 of ‘The logical Syntax of language’, , (London : Kegan Paul).
(10) About Cognitive_revolution
(11) ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, Kuhn, Thomas S., 1st edition, University of Chicago Press, 1962.
(12) Semir Zeki, Neuroesthetics
(13) Vilayanur Ramachandran
‘Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Neurobiology, Neurology and Art and Aesthetics’, watch the video, from CARTA.
(14) About Jean Pierre Changeux
(15) Antonio Damasio, ‘Evolutionary Origins of Art and Aesthetics: Art, Music, Emotion, Love and Human Evolution’ from The Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny* (CARTA), watch the video
(16) (16_2) ‘Qu’est-ce que la philosophie?’, Gilles Deleuze et Félix Guattari, 1991; ‘What Is Philosophy?’, 1994, Translation by Burchell and Tomlinson
(17) ‘The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism’, Bryant, Levi, Graham Harman, and Nick Srnicek, Melbourne: Re.Press, 2011.
(18) ‘Après la finitude. Essai sur la nécessité de la contingence’, Quentin Meillassoux, Seuil, Paris.
(19) ‘Graham Harman, The third table’, Hatje Cantz, 2012.
(20) ‘Documenta-Leiterin Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev: Über die politische Intention der Erdbeere‘, Svenja Bromberg, Institute for the Unstable Media, op. cit., p.26 and Kia Vahland.
https://www.sueddeutsche.de/ ; Object-Oriented Philosophy
‘The anti-political aesthetics of objects and world beyond’, Svenja Bromberg, 25 July 2013.
(21) ‘Realism Materialism Art’, Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, Suhail Malik (Eds.)
(22) ‘What art is. Kant and the work of art’, A. Danto, p.134.
(23) ‘Those Obscure Objects of Desire‘, Andrew Cole on the Uses and Abuses of Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism.