Critical Art

[Art apparently draws light from darkness, dispels the clouds of habitual perception and wards off the prospect off a living death. In short, it enlightens. At the same time, however, rather than simply opposing or sublating the figures of darkness, habit and death, art encounters these exterior threats within itself and becomes caught up in their operations. Art discovers its own inner estrangement, which infinitely complicates the hope for enlightenment.]

[My aim is to question the complacent sense of a critical art and to acknowledge the vital/deathly space of the uncritical within art.]

Art is associated with making things visible. The notion of visibility serves here as a metaphor for a work of revealing (Heidegger employs the Greek term, aletheia1) that can take all manner of sensible and conceptual forms. How are we to make sense of this revealing ? Does it involve tearing away the veils which obscure an underlying truth or, on the contrary, staging the display of truth by fashioning further veils? In some ways there is no need to decide, because even in the form of veiled display, art preserves a sense of unveiling. Even in the guise of dream and illusion it insists upon the possibility of revelatory awakening. The hope that art genuinely entails, particularly within modernity, is of becoming aware, coming into perception and consciousness, coming into vivid lived experience. Within this context, the aletheia of art gains meaning precisely in contrast to its opposite – the habitual character of ordinary experience; the latter’s dimension of blindness, unconsciousness, automation and death.

Consider, for instance, Russian Formalist, Viktor Shklovsky’s, theory of estrangement (ostranenie). Shklovsky associates aesthetic experience with a renewed affective perception of the world. Our ordinary experience of things is disrupted so that it can suddenly appear in a new light. This is in contrast to modes of everyday experience, which he regards as habitual and semi-automatic. For the most part, he argues, we recognise things in terms of their general characteristics – their approximation to generic constructs – rather than in terms of their perceptual specificity and novelty. He contrasts a generic, “algebraic” mode of thought to a perceptively open mode of being. He links algebraic identity, despite its conceptual abstraction, to a sense of nothingness and unconsciousness. Here he quotes from Tolstoy, who relates a story of having cleaned his house and forgotten whether he had dusted the sofa: “[I]f I had in fact dusted the sofa and forgotten that I had done so, i.e., if I had acted unconsciously, then this is tantamount to not having done it at all.” The general lesson that Tolstoy draws from this is that “[I]f the complex life of many people takes place entirely on the level of the unconscious, then it’s as if this life had never been.” Shklovsky introduces his notion of ostranenie precisely as an alternative to habitual life: “[A]nd so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art.” In its crucial role of renewing perception, of revealing the genuine complexity and potential of the world, art functions then to fight off the ever present risk of unreflective, automatic experience – life abstracted, life as death.2

[The notion of estrangement retains a persistent force within modern and contemporary art. However, it can hardly be said to constitute anything like a universal aesthetic principle. Medieval art, for instance, is full of stock types and standard modes of representation. It constantly mingles aspects of recognition and revelatory wonder. Elements of conventional iconography and impersonal craft-based process appear as the vital foundation for spiritual-aesthetic experience. Indeed all manner of traditional and contemporary cultural forms depend upon repetition, recognition and de-individualised craft. Difference and change need not be deliberately deployed. They occur within the grain of repetition itself, within the impossibility of pure repetition. Although popular, typically oral, cultural forms tend to be devalued, they arguably represent a much more nuanced relationship between issue of novelty and continuity, unconscious process and reflective insight, than is found within the modernist conception of aesthetic estrangement. It is finally worth noting that Shklovsky’s fear of algebraic experience is very much linked to a negative, modern conception of the habitual – of the apparent unconsciousness and loss it entails. Unconsciousness, loss, absorption within larger iterative patterns can also be regarded more positively as constitutive means of coming into being, of engaging with the ambiguous, evanescent nature of manifestation and identity.]

Andrei Rublev, The Trinity, 1410

[And things become even more wayward after here…]

It is not such a big step from the demand for perceptual revelation to the demand for critical revelation. The Russian Constructivists, for example, regarded perceptual transformation as a crucial basis for revolutionary political transformation. In this manner, the terrain of visibility, of revealing, comes to extend beyond the senses as such to encompass every dimension of experience. The contemporary emphasis on the ‘critical’ potential of art indicates this conception of art’s capacity to prod one awake from the uncritical death of ordinary existence.

The problem, of course, is that the relationship between the blindness of unconscious everyday life and the revelatory critical sphere of art is awkward and complex. The two are not simply opposed. Some obvious examples: Nietzsche’s sense of the coupling of Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in Greek tragedy; the Surrealists’ concern with dreams, automatic writing and revelation; Georges Bataille’s parodic inversion of the Hegelian dialectic (in which moments of insight becomes indistinguishable from moments of sacrifice and convulsion and in which in which the reflective, meditative serenity of the sun is reinterpreted as an exploding anus); Maurice Blanchot’s notion of an orientation towards blindness within art (art’s impossible concern to render that blindness properly); Jacques Derrida’s efforts to chart the critical aporia within the tradition of western philosophy; and Roland Barthes’s characteristically modern dilemma in the Pleasure of the Text: “So, nothing happens. This nothing has nonetheless to be expressed. How can one express nothing?”

So where is this leading? Towards arguing for an acknowledgment of the place of unconscious process in art. Towards questioning the conventional sense of art as totally oriented towards revelation and insight. More specifically, towards recognising the intimate relation between the dimensions of habitual, unconscious process and dimensions of art-making. More specifically again, to acknowledge the relationship to mechanism – the inhumanity, the alterity of mechanism – within aspects of art-making itself.

[This also necessarily involves re-conceiving the relationship to whatever it is that art is said to provide an insight into. Very often, for instance, art is positioned as a means of reflection on something or other, or revealing it properly so that it can be judged and assessed. This is certainly how much critical technological art is positioned. In this manner, art never dares to risk a genuine relation to technology, which explored more thoroughly has the potential to threaten art’s complacent sense of self-identity – precisely because technology inevitably appears as figure of darkness, habit and death. Paradoxically, following Blanchot, what is needed to enable new species of insight is perhaps the risking of insight altogether.]

  1. Heidegger, M. 1993 “The Question Concerning Technology” (originally published 1927) Basic Writings, Harper Collins, USA
  2. Shklovsky, V. 1991 “Art as a Device” (originally published 1929) Theory of Prose, Dalkey Archive Press, Illinois State University. pp.5-6
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