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“性”幻想-艺术的绝对评判标准 (中)

(2010-03-13 03:28:09)


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The Real in Modernism


The beginning of the post-war period is marked by the last wave of modern art. Modernism effectively implies many things, different genres, movements, materials, ideologies and so on. But a key historical version of Modern art has always been characterized by the notion of self-referentiality, or say, “art for art’s sake”. The formal quality of art becomes its own subject matter. Such formalism is, however, accompanied with something more. Spirituality, harmony, unity and inner greatness are words that appear frequently in texts by modernist critics or the artists themselves. The avant-garde artist, Hans Hofmann, who founded the influential school of painting in New York, acclaimed in the article On the Aims of Art: “The medium which is used in creating becomes the work of art if the principles and meaning, the essential nature of the medium are mastered and if the artist is intuitive in spirit. …Art is always spiritual, a result of introspection, finding expression_r_r_r through the natural entity of the medium.”[i] In his words it is not hard to take notice a clearly articulated bond between what he sees as the form of art and certain spiritual truth. This surely implies the anti-material culture and thus anti-capitalism sentiment of the avant-garde in its search for an assumed higher realm of culture and authenticity. It is obvious evident, when Raymond Williams defined the characteristics of modernist avant-garde with a clear sense of valuation of art as a sacred realm above money and commerce.[ii] No doubt, alongside the anti-bourgeois sentiment, the avant-gardism is a struggle for transcendent cultural practices in the “cultural decay” of capitalism. It is the struggle against commercial culture for genuine, authentic existence.


What is curious however is the way modernist avant-garde approaches the medium of art and its unique self-referential art practice as the proper means of achieving the spiritual realm. Pre-modern art history had never been quite able to disassociate itself from the notion of spirituality, sacred realm, the absolute and so on. What the religious figures of Medieval painting and the fruits and pots of the Dutch merchant class’s still-life have in common is precisely allusion to a transcendent unworldly realm. The modernist concern with the medium of art is therefore a contingent matter.


Modernist avant-garde is said to be the antagonistic opposite of kitsch.In distinguishing the art of avant-garde and kitsch, Greenberg underlined the immediacy of kitsch in its relation to everyday life, while avant-garde visual form is less accessible for the uncultivated seeking for such immediacy.[iii] A blank canvas, a few glass cubes and a depiction of a guitar turned into unrecognizable collage of colours indeed resist any immediate association with the objects of daily life. But this modernist non-referential abstraction devoid of substantial content and subject matter seems to resemble the experience of industrial city in a more fundamental level. 


The execess of life in industrial city is marked by a sensation of estrangement. Walter Benjamin’s Messianic optimism and Theodor Adorno’s pessimism may be antagonistically opposite. But their prophecies of the future are informed by the same unprecedented intensified phenomenon – the fascinating power of abstraction of the commodity-form. In the capitalist exchange system, content is divorced from form. That is to say the particular properties of a commodity – its use value, its colour, its shape, its function and its taste are all submitted to the universal, indifferent form – its exchange value, the absolute and only property of the commodity-form. This process of abstraction takes effect in the repetitive process of exchange. It does not innocently rests in a simple act of object exchange; it goes far more beyond. With a barbarian expansion, the capitalist economic operation flourished in every corner of the world. The indifferent international network, its process of exchange – the act of abstraction, traverses previously autonomous regions and particular cultures. Banana, China, silver, slave and armory are now all under the same universal category – the commodity-form. This violent act of abstraction results in the dissolution of all particularities – ethnic, hereditary ties, cultural, racial differences, object and human.


Once a thing enters the universe of exchange value, it becomes immediately autonomous and deprived of all particularities. This is at least the view of Georg Lukacs, for whom the commodity-form is the secret villain, the absurdity of this modern scenario in which abstract and concrete have been riven apart. ‘History and Class Consciousness’ depicts a fallen world in which, under the sway of exchange-value, ‘reality disintegrates into a multitude of irrational facts and over these a network of purely “formal” laws emptied of content is cast.’[iv] To locate this abstract in the material realm of commodity is to entirely miss the true force of capitalism. Universality constitutes the basis of our capitalist civilisation, only because it (capitalism) is the formal link of abstract individuals.[v] Human enters the course of the metabolism of exchange in the form of indifferent labour. As said Marx, ‘labour which proves that it is universal social labour only by the supersession of its original character in the exchange process.’[vi] The machine of universal exchange necessitated the reduction of personality of individual to quantitive terms.


On the other hand, border-crossing became commonplace. New metropolitan cities came to be the centres of “the eponymous City of Strangers”. When capturing the new experience, Raymond William wrote: “the experience of visual and linguistic strangeness, the broken narrative of the journey and its inevitable accompaniment of transient encounters with characters whose self-presentation was bafflingly unfamiliar, raised to the level of universal myth this intense, singular narrative of unsettlement, homelessness, solitude and impoverished independence.”[vii] For the mobile émigrés, the familiar is replaced by the anonymous visual present of the steel of New York City and radical strangeness became what is shared in common.


Against this background, it is hard not to risk the conclusion that rather than withdrawing from the reality of daily life in industrial cities, the core of modernist “art for art’s sake” proposition is not only referential of, but also transubstantiates the estranged experience of industrial life. It is here we see an evident parallel between the advent of the modernist self-referential movement and the West’s increasing fascination with pseudo-Buddhist notion of the supreme empty mind. Modern art played the role of the fantasmtic screen of industrial life, covering up the ‘traumatic’ experience of inconsistency by giving absolute supremacy to the very abstraction of subjectivity. Instead of trying to assert any positive matter or concrete meaning, modernism hails to empty form, from which nothing is to be further abstracted. Amidst the contradiction and estrangement of the experience of metropolitan city, modern art finds the sublime beauty of its own history. However existing in an incoherent world, by rejecting subject matters all together, art advocates the absoluteness of its aesthetic character along with the virtue of the abstract subject. Here the question of the neutralized connection between the modernist concern of the medium of art and the transcendent realm of spirituality becomes indicative of the fantasmatic quality of the avant-gardism.


In talking about war trauma, both Freud and Lacan propose that we can properly speak about psychic trauma only when the external intrusion triggers a latent internal pre-existing psychic trauma. The Lacanian subject is neither that of liberalist self-determining individual nor certain multiple, dispersed subject-positions. Instead, it is a basic constitutive void; it is what he calls, the Real – the traumatic kernel of human psyche. This basic void, the lack, is what drives subjectivation. It demands a positive place in the symbolic network. According to Lacan, the revelation of this fundamental emptiness of the subject can only lead to a traumatic experience. It is precisely because of the basic need of the subject to avoid this emptiness – its horrifying truth of the lack of any substantial or positive identity, identification and subjectivation is demanded. Therefore, the subject as the Real is both the movement away from subjectivation - the excess that engulfs symbolic coherence in an entropic night of the world - and the very drive towards subjectivation as a way of escaping such a traumatic condition. [viii] For such human condition, the void cannot ultimately be filled out by signification.[ix] Industrial capitalist social reality like all symbolic orders whose excesses position the subject at the fringe of traumatic encounter. It is here fantasy is initiated in the attempt to avoid the traumatic encounter with the basic insubstantiality.


No word better captures the fantasmatic quality of bourgeois aesthetic better than Eagleton:


‘The work of art, in short, comes to the rescue of a commodified existence, equipped with everything in which the commodity is so lamentable lacking – a form no longer indifferent to its content but indissociable from it; an objectifying of the subjective which entails enrichment rather than estrangement; a deconstruction of the antithesis between freedom and necessity, as each element of the artefact appears at once miraculously autonomous yet cunningly subordinated to the law of the whole.’[x]


The kinship between the absoluteness of modern art’s self-referentiality and the empty form of spirituality is articulated between these lines. Modern art’s fantasmatic quality rests in it being an empty surface for the projection of desire: ‘the fascinating presence of its positive contents does nothing but fill out a certain emptiness.’[xi] Retiring from subject matter or content, dwelling on the unique property of its own medium, not only avant-garde artist and poet able to maintain the high level of his art in the expression_r_r_r of the absolute, he is also able to make sense of his destiny – the spiritual realm amidst the inconsistency of journey, estranged cityscape and the relativity of cultures so prevalent in the experience of industrial capitalism. By alluding to a transcendent empty realm of inner greatness, modern art provides an answer to the primordial, traumatic lack. Modern art reassures the subject of capitalism the substantiality of existence, (the spirit), and identity. Modern art is ‘an imaginary solution to real contradiction’[xii] .


It is also here the white cube becomes more curious a phenomenon. It not only provides modern art with a matching autonomous space for display, it also draws the viewer to his or her very senses and phenomenological experience. In his extensive analysis of the white cube, Brian O’Doherty noted: “Do we not, through an odd reversal, as we stand in the gallery space, end up inside the picture, looking out at an opaque picture plane that protects us from a void? As we move around that space, looking at the walls, avoiding things on the floor, we become aware that that gallery also contains a wandering phantom frequently mentioned in avant-garde dispatches – the Spectator.”[xiii] Is not the above-analyzed fascination with empty spiritual emptiness a good entry point for understanding the obsession of the minimalism’s quest for the intensely phenomenological experience of the viewer and the request of Rothko’s painting in evoking meditation without any realist matter?


This tells us an important aspect of ideological fantasy. Borrowing Kantian notion of the sublime, the object beyond the capacity of perception, in ‘The Sublime Object of Ideology’, Zizek points out that for any ideology to function efficiently, it must afford to accommodate what appear to exceed itself.  He calls this excessive point a ‘trans-ideological’ kernel[xiv]. For subjects to believe in an ideology, it must have been presented to them, and been accepted, as non-ideological indeed, as True and Right, and what anyone sensible would believe. Zizek is alert to the realist insight that there is no more effective political gesture than to declare some contestable matter above political contestation. This transideological kernel is outside the grasp of the subject’s capacity to fully understand. We perceive it as non-ideological. It may appear as the failure of the ideology. But in fact, in a twist, the very failure to grasp the ‘trans-ideological’ kernel’ becomes the testimony of the transcendental truth of the ideology itself. He also insists that not only there is no ideology without a non-ideological, ‘authentic’ kernel, but also rather that it is only the reference to such a ‘trans-ideological’ kernel that renders ideology ‘workable’.[xv] This is precisely how the avant-garde conveys its power.


The transideological claim of the authentic and spirituality is articulated by modernist appeal to the precepts and senses, instead of the intellectual. Such transideological quality is the very effect of fantasy in its dubious relation to ideological edifice. It is, contrary to its claim of the authentic, the integral part of ideological operation. The self-referential art of modernism conveys a sense of the absolute abstraction while bestows the spectator the sublime experience of his own supreme emptyness escaping his and her grasp. The viewer is made aware of his impossible relation to the transideological, and therefore the transcendent power of his world. Sitting on the throne of sacred realm of culture, the transcendent realm of spirituality, modern art is prepared to help us elevate the experience of relativities and contradictions in the industrial city, however the complete meaning of such elevation seems to be inaccessible.


This reveals to us the working logics of modernist self-referential aesthetic. It is here the claim that modernism is the force divorced from the world of capitalism, and above its ideology looks too fragile and self-referential in its own proposal. Reflecting on the philosophical important of modernist art in comparison to previous history, Lukas claims, ‘on the contrary, with a few exceptions the actual artistic production during this period cannot be remotely compared to that of past golden ages. What is crucial here is the theoretical and philosophical importance which the principle of art acquire in this period.’ And by this so-called ‘philosophical acquisition’ of its own medium art disassociates with daily activities and enters the realm of the sublime. The bourgeois indulge themselves in this transcendental empty realm materialized by art even that the real of social reality is aloof.  Modern art with its fantasmatic quality preserves the subject’s ontological consistency and his sense of destiny within the inconsistent industrial life. Again it is evident here how fantasy in the form of art fixes the subject in the given reality of his world. What claims to be transcendent and anti-capitalism is only a fantasmatic remedy prevent the subject from wakening from the dream of his symbolic universe. The transcendent is here the supportive framework of the reality.



Fantasmatic Solution to Real Abstraction (2)


Of course, the fantasmatic sublime is not the sole property of the bourgeois society. Two other ideological edifices parallel to the bourgeois’ world of exchange and abstraction also function with reference to the sublime ‘trans-ideological’ kernel. That is Stalinism and fascism, which are in fact also facing the same historical conditions – the broken links between subject and object, form and content, sense and spirit. Stalinist indifferent totalitarian control and its society of labour camp are unlikely to deliver a sense of unity with which the subject desperately tries to cover up the nonsense of Stalinist social reality and his innate desire for the impossible fulfilment of libidinal satisfaction. Stalinist solution exemplifies fantasy in its most standardized notion that horror is obfuscated with the imaginary fulfilment of desire. Socialist Realism, a teleologically-oriented style of realist art, supposes to truthfully capture the proletarian struggle for social progress. Although it already knows the outcome, the future, but it carefully conceals it in the depiction of reality. In such an endeavour the future gains its sublime quality by remain undepictable. This is the sublime ‘trans-ideological’ kernel of Stalinism, which affirms the transcendent truth of its ideological edifice.


But a somewhat different means of materializing the ‘trans-ideological’ kernel is adopted by Nazism. If aesthetic is what Jacques Ranciere defines as the ‘distribution of the sensible’, the ‘reconfiguration of the world of experience’[xvi], it works at its most powerful in the custodian of Nazism. Instead of simply being obsessed with projecting an ideal future on the fantasmatic screen, it is more interested in projecting catastrophic horror – the Jews, who is the incarnation of Evil. In Nazism, the whole aesthetic concern with sensation, as Adorno argues in Minima Moralia, ‘was the absolute sensation… in the Third Reich the abstract horror of news and rumour was enjoyed as the only stimulus sufficient to incite a momentary glow in the weakened sensorium of the masses’[xvii] . However this political spectacle is only part of the story. Far from simply uniting sense and spirit through aestheticization of the shock-value of the horror, the fantasmatic projection of the Evil presence, Nazism is able to promise a sublime future with permanent deference of its realization. Zizek points out the presence of the Jews in fact comforts and reassures, it guarantees us the consistency of the ideological edifice by translating the impossibility of it into an external obstacle.[xviii] Here we see fantasy is not a simple matter of staging a scenario of the realization of desire, it is also fantasmatic support of ideological edifice at locations and by means we least expected.

[i] Hans Hofmann, The Fortnightly, (Campell, CA, vol 1, no 13, 26 February 1932), pp. 7-11.

[ii] Raymond William, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformist (London, 1989), p. 34.

[iii] Charles Harrison & Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000 (Blackwell, 2003), pp. 543-547.

[iv] Georg Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London, 1968), p. 155.

[v] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (The MIT Press, 1992), p. 162-3.

[vii] Raymond William, The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformist (London, 1989), p. 34.

[viii] Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London, 1999), p. 159.

[ix] Ibid, p. 264

[x] Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford, 1990), p. 324.

[xi] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (The MIT Press, 1992), p. 8.

[xii] Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford, 1990), p. 324.

[xiii] Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube (London, 1999), p. 39.

[xiv] Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright, The Zizek Reader (Blackwell Publishing, 1999), p. 97-8.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2006), p. 12.

[xvii] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (London, 1974), p. 237.

[xviii] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry an Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (The MIT Press, 1992), p. 134-5.


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