(to be edited)
Initially, this conversation arose from two points: the first was a Museum of Care reading group on Another Art world, which took place a few years ago. The second, a discussion of Walter Benjamin’s texts and the relationship of his texts to David Graeber’s texts.
In the following, a wider conversation emerged concerning the essence of art and questions of the politicization and aestheticization of art.
Answers to these questions are especially important today.
Scott Thompson: Last reading group, we didn’t really get into what I thought we would be discussing – Timothy O’Learys interpretation of Joseph Beuys through a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction’ – it confirmed what I already thought.
I agreed with John Phillips that the essay is deeply flawed with many historical inaccuracies – understandably a product of the information available at the time. In my opinion, its importance is greatly overstated, particularly by cultural Marxists who seem to worship at the alter of Walter Benjamin.
Although I share your political aspirations for art as a form of social sculpture, where everybody is an artist, and the point is not simply to represent or critique society but to change it.
I would agree with Vassily that it is only the essays ambiguity and the confusing opposition (totally false in my opinion) that it presents between the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and the ‘politicisation of art’ that makes so many people think it has something significant to offer towards this end – in my opinion it really doesn’t.
The idea that there is a causal relationship between the aestheticisation of politics, fascism, and war is ridiculous, surely it depends on what is understood by aestheticisation – for example, in one of his essays on art activism Boris Groys distinguishes between two contradictory traditions of aestheticisation (‘artistic aestheticisation’ and ‘aestheticisation of design’) and argues that “the opposition between fascism and Communism does not coincide with the difference between the aestheticization of politics rooted in modern art and the politicization of aesthetics rooted in political design” – and on what politics is being aestheticised.
Here I actually agree with Timothy O’Leary – not every attempt to aestheticise politics is fascist – where I disagree with him is when he argues that to resist fascism it is necessary to de-ritualise both art and politics, which is equally ridiculous. I’m not convinced that the opposition has a whole lot to tell us, but I would certainly like to learn more about Joseph Beuys and discuss Another Art World further.
How does his ‘anthropological’ definition of art relate to David’s recommendation of anthropology or a ‘militant ethnography’ as a model for how a “non-vanguardist revolutionary intellectual (or artistic) practice might work”?
Nika Dubrovsky: By the way , I believe, that “political design” used by Boris is a direct translation from Russian “polittechnology” that was mostly implemented by artists. Where is he writing it? Would be interesting to check it out.
John Philips dared to criticise Walter Benjamin (that’s partly why I kept quiet) – while I agree that we shouldn’t over intellectualise things and the thrust of the essay is political, I thought it was a bit rich defending Walter Benjamin on those grounds, there were a lot of intelligent people present for the discussion, but how many of them confessed that they didn’t really understand the essay, so what good is it to the proletariat or social movements when they want to use art as a revolutionary tool when they don’t really understand what its about!?!
David and Noam Chomsky made a similar argument against poststructuralist thinking. I personally appreciated what John had to say, particularly in regard to printing
– I’m quite interested in the impact of printing in Japan – so by all means share it with him, but take it with a pinch of salt. I’m also interested in Beuys, so a reading group on that would be a good idea before Another Art World – this contact I’ve made on Chinese and Japanese grassroots theatre is also very interesting – the essay by Boris Groys that I was referring to is here – it makes reference both to Beuys and Marinetti whom “Benjamin calls as the crucial witness when, in the afterword to his famous essay about “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” he formulates his critique of the aestheticization of politics as the fascist undertaking par excellence—a critique that still weighs heavily on any attempt to bring art and politics together.“
It also touches on similar territory to Another Art World, in fact, when I was reading it I did wonder what you would think of it and whether you would entirely agree with all of what he was saying?
Perhaps I was a little bit harsh on Walt . . . there are more similarities with David’s work than I thought, although some reservations still remain!
I’m going to start writing some of my thoughts down in relation to Beuys, Benjamin, and David’s work, if nothing else it will help me to narrow down what I choose to focus on in our discussion
– I won’t be able to cover all of it because there is a lot of ground to cover and other people have got to have their say – before I do can I ask what your position is, if I understood you properly in your thread, you thought Timothy O’Leary was ‘confused’ in his interpretation of Benjamin and about the possibility of de-ritualising art and politics?
While I think we are both in agreement about the latter – as David said
“we can assume all human beings have engaged in some kind of ritual activity at some point or another, that ritual is an inherent aspect of human sociality, even if there’s no scholarly consensus whatsoever as to what, precisely, a ritual is or what it says about us that we are all in some sense ritual producing beings”
Nika Dubrovsky: My problem with O’Leary, too, is the recipy he proposed for fighting fascist art – the rejection of rituals. That’s not possible. I would just change the recipe.
Rituals are different, too, aren’t they? There are human sacrifices and there are carnivals.
Perhaps the defining feature of all fascist rituals is that they are all bureaucratized or centralized. Like Leny Refenstahl’s films are showing prescribed beauty, in contrary to the rituals shown in Eisenstein’s October, which just displays the people’s spontaneous ritualism and its clash with the “centralized” ritualism of power (Emperator’s palace).
– however, I’m not sure I agree that O’Leary is ‘confused’ in his interpretation of Benjamin, the truth is I think both of them are ‘confused’ when it comes to relationship between art, politics, and “the production of ritual value” in comparison to David, as anybody is likely be who relies on a close reading of Benjamin’s text ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction’, because it is itself thoroughly confused (if not completely contradictory).
Nika Dubrovsky: Thank you for this wonderful letter. What do you think about me posting out exchange in the “Another ArtWorld” room at MoC in preparation for the next conversation on line? It feels like it would make sense to introduce a new genre – correspondence between participants of our reading groups. Zoom conversations are a different genre altogether. One has to wait their turn in a conversation and sometimes it takes so long that the thread of the discussion is irrevocably lost by that time.
Each genre has its advantages. But in personal correspondence there is time to check references, to think about your answer. If we make it public, you can discuss it with others later and check your opinion. I absolutely agree with you that the line between the politicization of art and the aestheticization of politics is very fluid and is constantly being re-interpreted by the people involved. One of the main examples for me that I thought about a lot is Stalinist social realism VS German Nazy art Some people think it is very similar, but I once wrote a long text that compared Sergei Eisenstein’s film October, which formed a visual series of the universal view of what is revolution, with Leni Refinstal’s film Olympia. To me these two films very clearly illustrate the difference between aestheticization and politicization of art. Also, October is very much about myth. This film is based on a theatrical reenactment of the Russian Revolution that was commition by bolsheviks from Nikolay Evreinove. Probably this is a conversation for the future. Although, if you agree to publish our correspondence, it will be possible to put references. What do you think?
Scott Thompson: You know what I’m like Nika, I tend to be quite private, introvert, unsociable, and uncommunicative at the best of the times, so I would probably be better at that kind of correspondence, rather than zoom conversations, because I need time to process what has been said before I give a response, if I was going to make my thoughts public I would want to rewrite them and add a little bit more detail, which I’m happy to do (the discussion is not until the 23rd ). so I’m sure I can put something together in good time before then which would still give people a chance to read it and respond). Interesting that you mention Stalinist social realism vs German Nazi art – I’m not an expert on either but I have recently acquired a copy of Boris Groys’ book on ‘The Total Art of Stalinism’ – because in ‘Fire Alarm’ Michael Lowy brackets the period in Benjamin’s work between 1933-1935 (when the artwork essay was written) calling it an ‘experimental period’ and ‘contradictory’ – “Benjamin’s thinking in this period is quite contradictory: he sometimes shifts very quickly from one extreme to the other – even in a single text, as in the famous essay on the work of art.” – because he was ‘won over’ (“somewhat uncritically”) by ‘Soviet productivism’ (“an uncritical adherence to the promises of technological progress”), a ‘Stalinist variant of communism’ (“perhaps as a reaction to the triumph of Hitler’s Fascism in Germany . . . ”) that he only distanced himself from between 1937 and 1938, and a more ‘classical’ form of historical materialism (in comparison to his later theses ‘On The Concept of History’), which he suggests explains its popularity with more orthodox Marxist interpretations (ie Christian “starts with Marx and ends in communism”). This is, of course, very evident in the preface and the first three sections of the artwork essay, which bases a new materialist theory of art and human perception on historical circumstances and the crude Marxist distinction between a material substructure and ideological superstructure (“a perverse form of idealism”) that David would unquestionably take issue with – it might be worth looking at his critical review of the Italian Autonomists in ‘The Sadness of Post-Workerism’, because many of the admittedly ‘harsh’ criticisms levelled at them also apply to Benjamin here in this essay and relate to the possibly of life as a work of art, even if at the same time I sense a smidgen more appreciation for his later thesis ‘On The Concept of History’ in the penultimate section ‘concerning the fullness of time’, although I still think there are significant differences between their respective approaches to history.
After I had expressed reservations to you in a private message about Benjamin’s essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproduction’ and the reverence with which it and the author are held by ‘some’ Marxists, it was quite refreshing to come across Alison Ross’ book on ‘Walter Benjamin’s Concept of the Image’ (2015), where she actually engages with him critically, as opposed to the ‘sacralising approach’ she identifies in the introduction – so I’m not the only one who thinks it – as the ‘normal practice’ amongst Benjamin commentators who ‘assume that his entire oeuvre is and ‘write on their topic with the objectivity of a fervent believer intent on deriving meaning from the pronouncements of an oracle.’ Take Michael Lowy, for example, who in ‘Fire Alarm’ (2005) identifies three main interpretations of Benjamin, ‘the materialist school’ who overstate his Marxism and downplay his theology, ‘the theological school’ who overstate his Jewish messianism and downplay his Marxist historical materialism, and ‘the school of contradiction’ who basically argue that he failed in his attempt to reconcile Marxism and theology, and then ‘modestly’ proposes a fourth interpretation where Benjamin is considered such an ‘unusual’ thinker that in his theses ‘On The Concept of History’ (1940) – ‘the most significant document since Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach’ – he was somehow able to reconcile the irreconcilable (not only Marxism and theology, but German Romanticism, French Surrealism, and Neo-Kantianism just to mention a few) through some sort of ‘alchemical fusion’ to produce ‘philosophers’ gold’: ‘he reinterprets these conceptions, transforms them and situates them in a relation of reciprocal illumination that enables them to be articulated together in a coherent way.’ The problem for Ross with this kind of uncritical approach – to criticise Benjamin is ‘irreverent’ or ‘sacrilege’ – is that it makes it very difficult to arrive at any kind of consensus about what his most important works are, what there key themes, influences, and problems are, as well as its contemporary relevance. She agrees with Habermas that Benjamin is one of ‘those thinkers on whom it is not possible to gain a purchase’, that the difficulty of his work is due to a lack of ‘systematicity’, and therefore despite offering valuable insights he was not a philosopher: ‘Benjamin’s writing has neither the rigour nor consistency of systematic treatment of a specific topic that, I think, would need to be accepted as the minimal standard for works of philosophy.’ It is this anachronistic tendency that I find particularly frustrating when reading Benjamin – although David had a similarly ‘fragmentary’ and ‘meandering’ style, I think he was far more consistent in his development of key themes, in fact, many of the themes explored in ‘The Dawn of Everything’ were already present in ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’. Ross argues that the tendency amongst Benjamin scholars to ‘oversystematise his thinking as if it did yield a coherent philosophy’ is ‘to wilfully overlook the contradictions in his writing.’ This doesn’t mean that he wasn’t an insightful thinker or that we shouldn’t engage with him ‘critically’, the best way for her to bring out both the continuities and fissures in his work is through his concept of the ‘image’, by comparing and contrasting how it was used in his early work, particularly in his review of ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (1922), which she considers to be his most important early essay (‘as an essay in literary criticism it is peerless’) and not the ‘Critique of Violence’ (1921) written around the same time, with his later conception of the ‘dialectical image’ in the ‘Arcade Project’ (1927-1940) as well as his theses ‘On The Concept of History’ (1940).
Considering that her book is the most comprehensive treatment of Benjamin’s concept of the image, it’s noteworthy that she doesn’t focus all that much on his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1935), in fact, this is what she has to say about the artwork essay in one of the footnotes: ‘This latter essay is, however, encumbered by its attempt to find a satisfactory resolution to the ‘fascist aestheticisation of politics.’ It does so by defending the unwieldy thesis that film promises a new mass art that would inculcate a distracted, collective relation to non-auratic form. This relation would supposedly amount to an effective riposte to the fascist ‘aestheticisation of politics’ with its ‘politicization of art.’ If the overall thesis of this essay is unconvincing, the specific points Benjamin makes are insightful.’ She clearly doesn’t think that the essay is one of his best works, which kind of begs the question why it is one of his most reproduced, or that the antidote offered to the proletariat in order to counter fascisms’ ‘aestheticisation of politics’ is a satisfactory one, in fact, in a more recent book ‘Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin’ (2019) she points out that ‘it is possible to be definitive about the abortive prospect of the thesis of the emancipatory potential of cinema. This thesis is basically restricted to this essay’ and that ‘the best scholarship is critical of the details of its argument regarding cinema, even when it is enthusiastic about the essay’s attention to this media.’ Although I personally have misgivings about the promise of ‘a new mass art that would inculcate a distracted, collective relation to non-auratic form’, particularly after reading Michael Lowy’s ‘Fire Alarm’, where even he argues that the period between 1933-1935 should be bracketed (I would probably question his motives for doing so for the sake of his argument) because it was an ‘experimental period’ and ‘quite contradictory’ – ‘he sometimes shifts very quickly from one extreme to the other – even in a single text, as in the famous essay on the work of art’ – as a result of Benjamin being ‘won over, somewhat uncritically’ by ‘Soviet productivism’, a ‘Stalinist variant of communism’, and a more ‘classical’ form of historical materialism, which he suggests might explain its appeal to more orthodox Marxist interpretations (‘it starts with Marx and ends with communism’). I’m less interested in the technical details or historical inaccuracies, and more concerned with why the overall argument of the essay seems unconvincing (even contradictory) to me, especially the opposition between the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and the ‘politicisation of art’. Here, I actually agree with Timothy O’Leary when he says ‘we should remember that Benjamin’s antidote to fascism’s aestheticisation of politics is, in fact, another such ‘confusion’ of politics and the aesthetic’ and that ‘thisopposition, between ‘aestheticised politics’ and ‘politicised art’, is to an extent false’, even if I strongly disagree with him (and Benjamin if his interpretation is accurate) that the only way to avoid a fascist application of aesthetics to politics is to de-ritualise both art and politics. This seems neither necessary, desirable, or possible to me, as David said: ‘we can assume all human beings have engaged in some kind of ritual activity at some point or another, that ritual is an inherent aspect of human sociality, even if there’s no scholarly consensus whatsoever as to what, precisely, a ritual is or what it says about us that we are all in some sense ritual producing beings’. Although Ross doesn’t address it directly in her book, I do think that her analysis of Benjamin’s concept of the ‘image’, particularly in its relation to ritual, myth, and the aesthetic field can help to elucidate why the artwork essay is so confused, and why anybody relying on a close reading of it to understand the relationship between art and politics – Buchloch, Michaud, and O’Leary – is liable to end up confused themselves. Following Ross, however it might be worth looking at his early work more closely, because it brings out more starkly some of the ambiguities that are perhaps the cause of this later confusion in the artwork essay.
Alison Ross describes Benjamin’s review of ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (1922) as ‘one of the key works of his entire career’ and ‘a polemic against the treatment of human life as if it were a work of art’ – this, of course, would put him somewhat at odds with the work of Joseph Beuys, because, as O’Leary points out, ‘one could say that the greatest ‘work’ which Beuys undertook was his own life, or rather the myth of that life’. According to Ross the essay has been mostly overlooked or misunderstood when cited by other scholars, who are either trying to understand the opposition between divine and mythic violence – Ross argues that the essay on ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ is hermeneutically prior to the essay on ‘The Critique of Violence’, and that in order to understand the violence essay properly it is necessary to understand the series of oppositions Benjamin develops more clearly in the Goethe essay – or looking for additional material to supplement a theory of art criticism, completely missing the main point of the essay, which is its explicitly ‘negative assessment’ of the ‘aesthetic field’. Michael Lowy even goes so far as to reference the essay in support of his theory of an ‘alchemical fusion’ (an ‘elective affinity)’ between redemption and revolution in Benjamin’s later philosophy of history, yet, as Ross argues, the whole essay is built on a series of binary oppositions – the logos versus the demonic nature, the ethical life versus the mythic life, morality versus bourgeois free choice, language versus silence, essence versus semblance, character versus fate – based primarily on the opposition between ‘revelation’ and ‘myth’, which she identifies as ‘two opposed ways of marking the significance and meaning of nature’s forms’. Due to his theory of modernity, which constitutes a new historical and conceptual stage, marking a complete or ‘total break’ from everything that came before – later in the artwork essay Benjamin will argue that what makes this new historical stage ‘unique’ is technology or ‘mechanical reproduction’ – the ‘collective experience’ of tradition, based on ritual and myth, is banished to the past, or as Jacques Rancière put it in ‘The Archeomodern Turn’, he basically ‘locked all the treasures in the magic grotto and burned them, remaining empty handed, to endow the thinking of modernity with the unique task of being faithful to an irretrievable loss.’ Obviously David would take issue with this ‘ruptural’ approach to history, such as in the review of a talk given by leading Italian Autonomists on art in 2008 at the Tate Modern – ‘The Sadness of Post Workerism’ – I think many of the admittedly ‘harsh’ criticisms levelled at them also apply to Benjamin in the artwork essay. Essentially, the problem he then sets himself is how to create a ‘collective experience’ under the conditions of modernity in order to counter the individualising conventions and values of bourgeois society, without recourse to ritual and myth, which has an entirely ‘negative’ valuation for Benjamin in the modern context, as its function is merely ‘aesthetic’. For example, he criticises the main aristocratic characters of the novel for their ‘aesthetic’ preoccupation with the shaping of their environment or the up keep of their country estate – particularly when they completely disrespect the tradition of their ancestors by digging up some headstones in order to render the path through the cemetery more attractive – as well as the interior of their bourgeois lives through the arrangement and attachment of symbolic meaning to heirlooms, trinkets, fabrics, and engraved cups. This might surprise some (it did me) who are more familiar with Benjamins later work on the collector, as well as Hannah Arendt’s claim that the influence of Goethe’s ur-phenomena was behind his ‘passion for small things’ and their capacity to evoke a whole ‘constellation of ideas’ – Benjamin does later admit himself that his concept of ‘origin’ is far more similar to Goethe’s ur-phenomenal than he had previously realised and that it basically amounts to a transposition of ur-phenomena ‘from the domain of nature to that of history’ – but as in this essay, as Ross points out, his treatment of the concept is entirely critical:
‘Nowhere did [Goethe] ever attempt to found a hierarchy of the ur-phenomena. The abundance of their forms presents itself to his spirit no differently than the confused universe of sounds presents itself to the ear . . . If, then, in this most extreme sense, even the “word of reason” can be reckoned to the credit of nature, it is no wonder that, for Goethe, the empire of the ur-phenomena could never be entirely clarified by thought. With this tenet, however, he deprived himself of the possibility of drawing up limits. Without distinctions, existence becomes subject to the concept of nature, which grows into monstrosity.’
My understanding is that with his concept of ur-phenomena Goethe presented a more holistic and participatory way of perceiving and knowing the world – somewhat similar to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (although I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a panpsychist) – where human and non-human forms of nature are interconnected and participate in a shared experience that can only be understood through a sort of creative ‘synthesis’ of reason and imagination. Goethe was both a poet and a scientist – it is worth bearing this in mind when we come to Beuys’ ‘expanded concept of art’, because he was influenced by Goethe through the work of Steiner, and not only does his artistic activity cross over into politics, but it also takes in anthropology and science too, in fact, as O’Leary points out, he saw his artistic activity as ‘a sort of science of freedom’ – although he heavily criticised Newton, it was not so much for his rationalism, but for his overvaluation of rationalism and scientific practice to the exclusion of all other human faculties and activities (including non-rational perception). However, contrary to what Lowy argues in ‘Fire Alarm’, Benjamin here clearly rejects this ‘new science’ for its lack of ‘empirical evidence’ and conceptual ‘clarity’, as well as for its resistance to criticism (funny that), calling it a ‘monstrosity’ that gives too much ‘credit’ to the concept of nature (‘the fiercest cry of passion to the gentlest word of reason, it is nature alone that speaks”) and makes it impossible to establish ‘limits’ and ‘distinctions’, or to found a ‘hierarchy’. For Benjamin, the submission of human life to the authority or domination of nature amounts to a ‘mythic life’ – myth draws upon the sensuous forms of nature and gives them a human face or voice to speak on our behalf about what is important or vital in human life, and enabling us to feel at home in what is essentially an ‘alien’ world – any life that empowers nature over humans and is guided by the ‘infinite’ and ‘ambiguous’ meaning of symbols, what Benjamin calls ‘the chaos of symbols’ or the power of the ‘demonic image’, which is concerned merely with the ‘semblance’ or ‘appearance’ of things, will inevitably result in a fateful existence of fear, anxiety, guilt, uncertainty, and a total lack of moral action or responsibility. Not only does he criticise the novel for its ‘mythic power’, and the main characters within it for their ‘mute’ and ‘aesthetic’ compliance with bourgeois society, he argues that the novel itself is an expression of ‘guilt’ and ‘suffering’ on the part of Goethe himself for the ‘aesthetic life’ that he was living as a poet in the service of nature, as well as his ‘self-mythicisation’ as the Olympian ‘hero’ of German literature. To support his argument he quotes a passage from Goethe’s autobiographical work ‘Poetry and Truth’ which ends by saying ‘I tried to save myself from this fearful thing, by taking refuge, as usual, behind an image.’ According to Ross, ‘human life is the work of the Creator’ and for Benjamin ‘cannot be considered on the analogy of a work of art’. Only revelation through the word of God (the logos) is capable of articulating the ‘truth’ and ‘clarity’ necessary to produce moral character, and to live an ‘ethical life’ in the face of an unfathomable nature and the free choice of bourgeois society. He explicitly opposes the ‘linguistic’ meaning of theology to the ‘symbolic’ meaning of myth – when meaning is sought in sensuous forms through images, rather than through words, human life is held captive by the demonic – his deeply theological conception of language, developed in an earlier essay ‘On Language As Such and On The Language of Man’ (1916), rejects the conventional use of signs as a reference to things, and instead provides direct access to the essence of things in themselves. It is only ‘language’ and ‘faith’ in god that can transcend the immanent and relational meaning of the symbolic field, as well as the aesthetic organisation of the sensuous form, providing a ‘transcendental exit point’ that allows the moral character to escape the fate of a mythic life and the ‘empty ritualised existence’ of bourgeois society. Note that for Benjamin in this essay an authentic experience of community doesn’t come through a restoration of ‘tradition’, or even Communism (Lowy says Marxism didn’t become a part of his thought until 1924), but through what is essentially an ‘individual’ subjective experience based on ‘introspective reflection and personal responsibility before God’. Later, in ‘Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin’ Alison Ross will argue that the transposition of an ‘individual’ subjective experience, whether that be faith in God, the wish fulfilment of the child, or Marcel Proust’s ‘memoire involuntaire’, to his theory of historical knowledge and the ‘collective experience’ of revolution in his later writings, is conceptually ‘problematic’. Once again, ritual in the modern context for early Benjamin merely serves as a ‘programme of appeasement’ that fatally attempts to make sense of the world in the absence of the transcendent moment or ‘caesura’ of revelation. One of the main arguments of Ross’ book on Benjamin’s concept of the image is directed against the tendency in contemporary Benjamin scholarship to present him as if he was ‘a thinker of immanence’, where as she contends that the main ‘impulse behind Benjamin’s work is his fear of forces of totalisation’, for example, the same theological imperative behind the meaning of revelation in his early work is transposed to the ‘weak messianic power’ or ‘messianic arrest of happening’ in his later writings on history, as well as on the ‘dialectical image’, which allows the recipient to escape the historicism of progress through the fulfilment of past revolutionary struggles. Of course, underlying this theological reading of history (‘the angel of history’)’ is the ‘triadic messianic structure’ of paradise, the fall, and redemption, which is precisely the kind of myth (‘the garden of Eden’) that David rejects in The Dawn of Everything. Personally I would push back against Christian’s claim in the discussion with Aya Cubuku that David was ‘always looking for a way out’, because this describes Benjamin far more than it does David, who never recognised historical stages, myth, nature, the aesthetic field, bourgeois society, or capitalism as ‘total systems’ to begin with, so there was never any need for him to look for a way out – his approach was prefigurative rather than ‘ruptural’ where ‘each historical period forms such a total system that it is impossible to imagine one gradually transforming into another’ – not only did communism ‘already exist’ for David, as well as artistic ‘enclaves’ where people ‘can experiment with radically different, less alienated forms of life’, but some form of ‘baseline communism’ had always existed:
“that the very notion that we exist in a totalizing system is itself the core ideological idea we need to overcome. Because that idea makes us willfully blind to at least half of our own activity, which could just as easily be described as being communistic or anarchistic. These are the other worlds already present in our daily life. But we don’t acknowledge them. We don’t call acts of sharing, or the state-supported industries all around us, communist, even though key aspects of them clearly are.”
It might be worth considering briefly how Benjamin’s polemic against the ‘mythic life’ and the ‘analogy of life as a work of art’ differs from Joseph Beuys who, as O’Leary points out, constructed his own ‘myth’ – after crashing his plane in 1943 during the Second World War, he was rescued by Crimean Tartars who covered him in fat and wrapped him in felt to keep his body warm and begin the healing process, however, once he had recovered he turned down an offer to join their tribe, and instead went on to use the fat and felt as the primary materials for his ‘Theory Of Sculpture’ where as a ‘shaman artist’ he sought to ‘heal’ the world – and attempted through his ‘expanded concept of art’ to undermine the boundaries between art and life, artist and non-artist, subject and object, human and non-human, society and the environment. Where as Benjamin in the Goethe essay argues that myth or the ‘mythic life’ can only result in a fateful existence of fear, ambiguity, and immorality, Beuys, as a ‘mythic healer’, believed that myth could be used to enhance human well being, meaning, creativity, and spirituality. This is how he responded when he was asked why he continued to use animals in his work when their mythological meaning was no longer valued:
“It has certainly died out to a large extent. But in order to prevent its total extinction one has to work in the opposite direction and simply show that in these biological phenomena there is something that goes beyond nature. With these formulations from the world of animals I mean to say something about the connected meanings in nature, in the environment, the connected meanings of the forms of life which live with man and which we know as little as we know ourselves. Nowadays people know little about the essence of things, and they don’t know much any more [sic] about the meaning of life and the meaning of the whole world context. That’s why there are so many people now who can find no meaning in life and who kill themselves. All the connected meanings are missing. Using the example of an animal you can get to an answer to the question: what is the human being, how is he meant?”
Although Beuys, like Benjamin in the Goethe essay, was clearly interested in the phenomenological question of human interpretation and meaning – how humans are meant – as well as going ‘beyond nature’ and accessing the ‘essence of things’, in terms of his valuation of myth and tradition he was working in ‘the opposite direction’.
Unlike, Benjamin he thought that myth was capable of penetrating beyond the ‘appearance’ of the natural world, through a non-rational (auratic) perception, and although he wasn’t trying to return to ‘the old ways’ of the shamanistic tradition, he did think that it was possible in the modern context to reclaim their knowledge and understanding of the natural world as a process of ‘material flux’ and ‘transformation’. According to O’Leary, it was this more dynamic materialism – with its ‘continuous movement between the poles of chaos and order, or between undetermined and determined states’ – rather than the ‘hypostatised’ materialism of capitalism, that Beuys integrated into his ‘Theory of Sculpture’ through the passage between warm organic form (melted fat) and cold crystallised form (hard sculpted fat). For Beuys ‘art is a metaphor for the principle of movement which ensures that neither the state of chaos nor the state of order become hypostatised.’ Through his ‘expanded concept of art’ he then transposed the transformative possibilities of substance to people and society, which are equally subject to form giving processes and capable of being transformed, essentially turning all of human life and material reality into a form of ‘social sculpture’: ‘I am really convinced that humankind will not survive without having realised the social body, the social order, into a kind of artwork’. For Beuys, this was a process that everybody can and should participate in – ‘everybody is an artist’- and he adopted an ‘anthropological definition of art’ that stressed ‘human creativity’ and ‘human work’, where everybody as an artist was responsible for creating themselves, as well as each other, and their natural and social environment, as opposed to the more conventional notion of the artist as a painter or sculptor who merely produces works to be consumed by others, or that are pleasing to look at, which is ‘a restriction that never existed before.’ Through his ‘expanded concept of art’ Beuys wanted to ‘facilitate the healing of the social organism’ by establishing connections, rather than ‘limits’ or ‘distinctions’, between people, place, and the environment. This, of course, sounds similar to something David would say – ‘humans are projects of mutual creation’ and ‘the most important work we do is the work we do on each other’ – in fact, one of the reasons I think that he might have taken issue with Benjamin’s artwork essay, besides its ‘classical’ form of historical materialism, is its reliance on the crude, old fashioned, Marxist conception of society (‘a perverse form of idealism’) consisting of a material substructure and an ideological superstructure, because it overlooks the most powerful insight of Marx’s work, which is that ‘the world does not consist of a collection of objects at all, but actions and processes . . . a genuine materialism would not promote a material sphere over an ideal one. It would begin by acknowledging no such ideal sphere exists.
Enable us to stop focusing on the production of material objects and focus more on understanding the equally material process by which people create and shape one another.’ At the end of ‘Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value’ he even ‘hints’ at a theory of ‘social pleasure’ that would have made ‘perfect sense to a seventeenth century Iroquois’ (and Beuys perhaps) where ‘beauty and pleasure were seen above all as a matter of overcoming those obstructions that prevent the self from opening itself and expanding into the surrounding world and entering into communication with others . . . involving not just the effacement of self, but the degree to which that effacement partakes of a direct experience of that most elusive aspect of reality, of pure creative potential (whether biological, social, or aesthetic—though the best sorts I suppose partake somewhat of all three).’
Although he follows this with a warning that such an experience, ‘if one is entirely unaware of the larger social context in which it takes place’ can ‘also produce unparalleled misery’, unlike Benjamin in the Goethe essay, he doesn’t exclude the ‘aesthetic’ from the experience of social creativity and pleasure, neither does he limit such an experience to it – I’m sure he would agree that social creativity doesn’t simply mean ‘moulding society for aesthetic effects’ – in fact, ‘pure creative potential’ overcomes obstructions and partakes in the social, biological, and aesthetic (‘all three’), much in the same way that O’Leary says for Beuys social sculpture meant ‘the social and political realm, as much as the aesthetic realm, should be a site of experiment, transformation and creative production.’
One of the main arguments in ‘Towards An Anthropological Theory of Value’ is that social creativity is so fundamentally ‘social’ and ‘elusive’ – ‘social structures’ are ‘really just patterns of action’ – that it is very difficult, if not ‘nigh impossible’, to draw and maintain ‘precise boundaries’ (‘It’s because you have that static notion of structure that you have to have rupture’).
This is the issue for Buchloch and Michaud, whose arguments concerning the ‘danger’ of art entering into politics, according to O’Leary, are motivated by a ‘philosophical anxiety’ regarding the relationship between aesthetic activity and fascism. I agree with O’Leary that it is clearly not true to say that any infringement of art into politics is ‘inherently’ or ‘logically’ fascist, but I am not convinced by his attempt to exonerate Benjamin from a similar criticism – ‘all efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war’ is equally untrue – by arguing that what distinguishes a fascist application of aesthetics to politics – the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ – from a non-fascist application – the ‘politicisation of art’ – is the production of ritual values, and I certainly don’t agree that the answer is to ‘de-ritualise both art and politics’.
There are clearly non-fascist applications of aesthetic activity to politics in the contemporary context that are also based on ritual and myth, for example, in David’s essay on ‘The Phenomenology of Giant Puppets’, where the puppets revive ‘the sacred and unalienated experience’ of the carnivalesque and can be used to ‘defuse’ situations of potential violence: “A situation that is sort of like nonviolent warfare becomes a situation that is sort of like a circus, or a theatrical performance, or a religious ritual, and might equally well slip back at any time.”
In the preface of the artwork essay Benjamin argues that ‘the processing of information in the fascist sense’ is based on an ‘uncontrolled application’ of ‘outmoded concepts’ emerging from traditional forms of auratic art – “creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery’ – that are ‘brushed aside’ by his new materialist theory of art, introducing new concepts that are ‘completely useless for the purposes of fascism’, where does this leave the life and work of Joseph Beuys, or David’s work on ‘social creativity’, are they both based on an ‘outmoded concept’?
The irony or ‘paradox’ of the Goethe essay, for Ross, is that Benjamin ends up using an aesthetic form in order to communicate his counter perspective, not only by contrasting the moral character and decision of the lovers in the novella – who risk their lives by throwing themselves in the water (‘faith’) and are not only saved, but affirm their love for one another (‘a defiant feeling in the face of natural forces’) – with the bourgeois aesthetic life of the aristocratic characters in the novel, but also through the use of an image of a fallen star from a sentence in the novel (‘hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star’) as a symbol for redemption and ‘hope for the hopeless’, despite or in spite of his negative assessment of the aesthetic organisation of forms and his overt attempt to distinguish morality from the demonic power of the image. Basically, she argues that he ends up contradicting himself – ‘it is more than a little ironic that Benjamin’s stunning argument against the use of the work of art as an analogy for human life takes the form of a literary analysis that relies on using literary characters to ‘represent’ the moral seclusion of the human being in its relation to God’ – both his use of the lovers in the novella and the image of hope and redemption she says are ‘framed in aesthetic terms’, and if that is the case, ‘the opposition between ‘myth,’ as Goethe’s ‘aesthetic’ approach to life, and the Revelation, as its antidote, would unravel’. She also argues that the opposition he develops between the ‘symbol’ and ‘allegory’, as if they belong to two different spaces of signification – one embodies what it signifies and the other points beyond what it signifies – with allegory being ‘good’ and ‘symbol’ bad, is problematic, because ultimately both are ‘images’ that like J. Z. smith’s ‘sacred space of ritual’ depend on an ‘aesthetic space’ to mark or signify meaning ‘relationally’ rather than ‘substantively’, in order to distinguish them from the unremarkable way things or events happen in the profane: ‘What kind of space determines such meaning in Benjamin’s writing? Despite the critique he intends to make of the ‘image’ and his use of allegory to show the limitations of the aesthetic, the space in which allegory works is, in fact, like the space of the symbol to which it is opposed, an aesthetic space of meaning. To be more precise, allegory is the anti-aesthetic form within the aesthetic space.’ For Ross, Benjamin’s whole body of work marks a gradual erosion of the early opposition between revelation and myth in the Goethe essay, towards the more positive concept of the ‘dialectical image’ in the ‘Arcade Project’, where ‘history decays into images, rather than stories’. The question she then asks is what does the word ‘image’ mean in his later conception of the ‘dialectical image’, given his polemic against the image in his early work, why does he even choose to use a concept of the image for a new theory of materialist historiography, one that is supposedly not only capable of making the revelatory ‘truth’ of the nineteenth century ‘graphically perceptible’ in the twentieth century, but if recognised by the recipient, of motivating a ‘collective experience’ of revolution that fulfils the wishes of past revolutionary struggles?
The way this is all presented to the recipient in the ‘Arcade Project’ through a montage of ‘citations’ is ‘ambiguous’ to say the least, but this is not all that surprising given that Ross argues that in the dialectical image Benjamin brings together two perspectives – revelation and myth – that were previously (‘ambiguously’) opposed to one another in his earlier work. What was important about revelatory ‘truth’ or knowledge in the early work is that it emancipated human life from the guilt and anxiety of demonic nature – the absence of ‘truth’ in myth is what leads to guilt and anxiety – yet despite Benjamin’s continued ‘allergy to the vocabulary’ of the aesthetic, image, ritual, and myth in his later work- such as in the ‘Motifs in Baudelaire’ (1940) essay where he argues that ‘the essentially distant is the unapproachable; and unapproachability is a primary quality of the ritual image’ (he says something similar about ‘auratic perception’ in the artwork essay) – she argues that in terms of its ‘practical functions’ the dialectical image ‘may be related to those theories of myth which treat the allied form of myth as the form that answers vital questions of life’, such as in the work of Hans Blumenberg: ‘the resources of myth are not, as he had insisted, antithetical to his conception of the practical functions of the dialectical image. In fact, the latter can be understood as a species of Blumenberg’s conception of the humanisation that myth provides within an otherwise unapproachable environment.” In the nineteenth century Parisian arcades Benjamin saw the promise of human emancipation from history – the iron and glass embodied the hopes and dreams of humanity (‘technology attains the same status that nature had in myth’) – the work of the materialist historian (akin to the mythologist) was to track down the revelatory evidence deposited in the ‘image’ or form of the arcade, as well as its characters (the flaneur, collector, prostitute etc) and its commodities, and turn it into texts and citations that are then legible to the recipient in the twentieth century, where ‘if’ they were recognised or experienced as collectively significant they might culminate in a ‘singular’ revolutionary moment (‘messianic irruption’). Of course, this didn’t happen – as Ross says ‘the fundamental concepts of his theory of historical knowledge rivet his ‘materialist historiography’ to the nineteenth century . . . once the dialectical image of the nineteenth century flashed in the moment of danger without being taken on, it disappeared forever, and along with it, the ‘revolutionary moment’ – but what is clear for Ross is that if Benjamin sought an ‘experienceable’ truth of history in ‘images’ and not ‘stories’, then the concept of the dialectical image ‘needs to draw upon the hermeneutic relation to images that he had excoriated in his his early work under the label of ‘myth’’ Finally, she asks ‘does this mean that Benjamin’s polemic against the aesthetic form unravels?’ and, if she is engaging with him ‘critically’, she has to answer yes, ‘at times, it seems that the way the polemic is staged raises objections of logical contradiction.’
How much of the ambiguity and confusion of the early polemic against the ‘demonic image’, aesthetic form, ritual, and myth in the Goethe essay, carries over into the opposition between a fascist ‘aestheticisation of politics’ and a non-fascist or communist ‘politicisation of art’ in the artwork essay? Although in the artwork essay the ritual function of magic and religion is preserved to some extent in the modern context through the ‘aura’ of the original work of art – ‘it is highly significant that the artwork’s auratic mode of existence is never entirely severed from its ritual function’ – the change in human sensory perception or aesthetic taste (‘the desire to bring things closer’) brought about by mechanical reproduction gradually results in a ‘loss of aura’ that ‘emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’, and with it no longer based on ritual the ‘whole social function of art is reversed’ and comes to be based on a ‘practice of politics’ instead. Maybe I’m wrong, but this line of argument or historical approach seems very similar to that of the Italian Autonomists that David criticises in ‘The Sadness of Post Workerism’, where he basically says they begin with ‘a very narrow version of what things used to be like in the past’ and then ‘compare it with how things are now in the present’ in order to identify something that makes our historical period ‘unique’ – for Lazzarato we had moved from a society of discipline to one of security, for Revel, from formal to real subsumption of labor under capital, for Bifo, from an age of connection to one of conjunction, and for Negri, contemporaneity had replaced post-modernism – only to then argue that things are now ‘completely different’ (coincidentally they each come with their own theory of art), but does mechanical reproduction and the ‘politicisation of art’ really mark a ‘total break’ from the past? Is that not like saying the traditional art of the past based on ritual was never political, what about the use of wampum by the seventeenth century Iroquois to negotiate war and peace, that David describes in ‘Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value’, was that not an art based on both ritual and the practice of politics? He even argues that ‘politics is very similar to magic, which in most times and places – as I discovered in Madagascar – is simultaneously recognized as something that works because people believe that it works . . . If so, for the art world to recognize itself as a form of politics is also to recognize itself as something both magical, and a confidence game—a kind of scam’ (perhaps Beuys understood this more than most?).
In his essay on the ‘Politics of Installation’ Boris Groys argues that ‘Benjamin shared high modernist art’s belief in a unique, normative context for art’ and that the ‘main problem’ to be found in his thinking is that ‘he perceives the space of a copy’s mass circulation – and mass circulation in general – as a universal, neutral, and homogenous space’. This ‘questionable’ presupposition means that if an original artwork loses its ‘unique’ and ‘original context’, it loses its aura ‘forever’, and any attempt to ‘re-auratize’ an artwork, would ‘require a sacralization of the whole profane space of a copy’s topologically undetermined mass circulation — a totalitarian, fascist project, to be sure.’ Where as Benjamin’s argument is premised on modernity as a total homogenous space with technology capable (in theory) of producing a ‘perfect reproduction’ (so much so that there is no longer anything to distinguish between an original from a copy other than its ‘aura’) and inculcating a distracted public en masse, Groys argues that the topology and technology of the contemporary world, in the age of the internet, is much more ‘heterogeneous’ and ‘democratic’ (although he seems to argue that even these democratic spaces are subject to the authority or ‘sovereignty’ of the artist as their ‘legislator?) where images or copies occupy their own unique site or address, and circulate from one context or medium to another, constantly being transformed in the process and becoming new originals: ‘The topology of today’s networks of communication, generation, translation, and distribution of images is extremely heterogeneous. The images are constantly transformed, rewritten, reedited and reprogrammed as they circulate through these networks— and with each step they are visually altered . . . Benjamin suggests that the new technology is capable of producing copies with increasing fidelity to the original, when in fact the opposite is the case. Contemporary technology thinks in generations— and to transmit information from one generation of hardware and software to the next is to transform it in a significant way.’ For Groys, because the concept of the aura is essentially a ‘topological’ or ‘situational’ one – the aura doesn’t belong to an artwork (‘substantively’) but is perceived as meaningful (‘relationally’) within a given space or context, much like J.Z Smith’s ‘sacred space of ritual’ – in the heterogeneous and democratic space of the contemporary world, it is perfectly possible to ‘re-auratise’ an image by re-situating or ‘re-territorialising’ it, and thereby turning it into a new original. In fact, this is essentially what installation art and documentation does for Groys – ‘In general, the installation operates as a reversal of reproduction. The installation takes a copy out of an unmarked, open space of anonymous circulation and places it—if only temporarily—within a fixed, stable, closed context of the topologically well defined “ here and now”’ – and something Beuys would do himself, for example, after visiting the sacred site of the Tomb of the Kings, at Newgrange, Ireland, in 1974 (where there is that famous photo of him stood in front of the Great Stone with his felt hat and fishing jacket on) he made a drawing of the Celtic symbols of the spiral, split cell, and diamond, which he interpreted in the light of his ‘Theory of Sculpture’ as the movement between the warm organic form (the spiral) and the cold hard form (the diamond), and then later creatively redeployed them in a different context, where they took on new meaning on the blackboards of the lecture actions that he gave as part of the exhibition ‘A Secret Block for a Secret Person in Ireland’. As Groys puts it: ‘Because the distinction between original and copy is entirely a topological and situational one, all of the documents placed in the installation become originals. If reproduction makes copies out of originals, installation makes originals out of copies. That means: The fate of modern and contemporary art can by no means be reduced to the ‘loss of aura’. Rather, (post)modernity enacts a complex play of removing from sites and placing in (new) sites, of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, of removing aura and restoring aura.’ (If I understood him properly, I think Vassily was getting at something like this?). As a result of this ‘complex interplay of dislocations and relocations, of deterritorializations and reterritorializations, of de-auratizations and re-auratizations’, there are no ‘eternal copies’ or ‘eternal originals’ – ‘a copy is never really a copy; rather, a new original in a new context’ – it all depends on the how the image is recognised within a given context. Where things get a little bit confusing for me, and perhaps for Groys too, is where as here in the ‘Politics of Installation’ essay from ‘Going Public’ (2010), he presents the argument as if it was a criticism of Benjamin, in another essay ‘Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation’ from ‘Art Power’ (2008), he basically presents exactly the same argument as if it was part of Benjamin’s concept of the aura and his rejection of ‘eternal value’ all along, which suggests to me that he isn’t quite sure himself one way or the other? Even if I’m not entirely convinced that this heterogeneous and democratic form of ‘art communism’ is what is being advocated in the artwork essay – Ross does point out that in footnote 8 Benjamin contests ‘the unidirectional nature of Hegel’s thesis of the impact of secularisation on the arts’ and allows for an ‘oscillation’ between ‘the enchanted space of aesthetic contemplation, and their religious veneration as objects of worship’ – I certainly prefer it to O’Leary‘s solution of simply de-ritualising art and politics, and I would have thought it has more in common with APARTART than the more homogenous space and mass inculcation of the ‘official art’ of the Soviet Union?
You have written so much that I will have to go through the text later and insert my comments in various places.
And then try to structure our dialogue.
Here is what I have to say now:
I very much appreciate the references to
Boris Groys’s “politics of installation.”
I agree with him (and with you) that Walter Benjamin’s claim that the work of art loses its aura in the age of mechanical reproduction is incorrect.
Groys suggests that Benjamin’s argument is based on modernity as a total homogeneous space with a technology capable (in theory) of producing “perfect reproductions,” whereas, in fact, images are constantly being transformed, rewritten, edited and reprogrammed as they circulate in these networks – and with each step they visually change…”
and here’s a listen to Seikilos epitaph, the first known recording to mankind of a musical melody written by a husband who had lost his wife. Someone recorded this tune in the game Minecraft, designed the music video and made the arrangement.
But there are endless variations of Seikilos epitaph playback.
In the case of an abstract symbolic structure, detached from concrete situations and human relations, the same thing is possible as Groys writes about: the work is transformed, rewritten, edited and reprogrammed as it is reproduced.
The tune is no longer a story of the pain of a husband who has lost his beloved wife; it has nothing to do with the place of performance nor even with the instruments being used.
If we compare musical notes with cash that can be lent to strangers by accurately calculating the interest on the loan if we compare musical notes with the mathematical laws of the golden ratio with which the ancient Greeks described “Beauty and Eternity,” it is clear that we are talking about the same thing everywhere: using technology to abstract and scale away from specific social relationships.
David writes that the emergence of these abstractions, appearing almost simultaneously in different parts of the world, was accompanied by an unprecedented rise in the sciences, philosophies, and arts and, at the same time, a surge of incredible violence and wars.
Yesterday we read chapter 11 of The Debt of 5000 Years and it seemed to me that when David wrote his last book on War, it was this chapter that he planned to develop and finish.