In the wake of Marcel Duchamp’s celebrated and oft-misunderstood debunking of the myth of the sacred artwork, is it still possible to ask what “Art” signifies in our contemporary cultural context? That is to say, is art necessary in a globalized and confusing world? Does art name an external object of perception (“objet d’art”) as unattractive as it might appear to its contemporary spectators and consumers as Duchamp’s “Fontaines” still do? Or, rather, does art (to borrow the expression of my avant-garde fashion designer friend, Ilanio) express the “visceral experiences” of its creators and viewers? True, such questions are not new and asking them, in general, would not necessarily amount to undertaking an intellectual revolution. Yet, this does not at all mean that asking them in a specific socio-cultural context would not be critically necessary or even revolutionary.
In San Francisco, the oft-overrated capital of contemporary American cultural “radicalism,” asking such questions is most pertinent for a variety of reasons. In a 1950 letter, addressed to his friend and poet René Char, George Bataille wrote, “Literature, when it is not indulgently considered a minor distraction, always takes a direction opposite the path of utility along which every society must be directed.” By “literature,” Bataille was referring not only to writing novels but also to all serious art which names the sovereign activity that “conforms to the devil’s motto”—“I refuse to serve” (Non serviam in Latin).
Defined rigorously, true art cannot be made to serve a “master.” That is why, as Bataille put it amusingly, art is “diabolical,” but above all, “sovereign” in character. Indeed, it is in the very nature of art to designate a “movement that is irreducible to the aims of social utility.” Admittedly, after the emergence of post-World War II consumer society, terms such as utility and consumption have acquired connotations that differ from how Bataille employed them in his 1950 text. Yet, Bataille’s essential point remains valid. That is to say, art cannot be understood adequately if its movement—which could potentially result in the creation of an object-work—is subordinated to an end other than that of be-speaking the supreme “privilege of humanity.”
Today, this means that all high art must actively contribute to the liberation of the self from the necessity of undertaking productive labor in the struggle to preserve one’s existence in an external world of homogenized objects. This movement of liberation from different sorts of limits (psychological, social, political, etc.) is what Bataille terms sovereignty and constitutes the ultimate aim of all human existence. In historical terms, this means that, in the wake of the decline of Christianity and the public execution of the its last absolute vicar, Louis XVI, the ultimate aim of each individual and collective will must be the joyful celebration of life’s fragile and free nature. After the death of Louis XVI and the abandonment of the “God-Head” whom he had traditionally embodied, high art no longer had, at least in principle, a “master.” Be it the king or anyone else.
After this shift in power, high art’s only legitimate ambition seems that of expressing man’s “measurelessly divine desire” for eternal being—a “deep joy in being” to echo Nietzsche’s famous poem. Can high art be expected, more than two centuries after Louis XVI’s dramatic beheading, to subject itself to what Bataille calls “downward pull of self-interest?”
The self-interest in question has been, historically, that of the traditional and oft philistine American and European bourgeoisie for whom art was either a minor distraction or a means of self-promotion. Yet, in present day Northern California, the historically illiterate nouveaux-riches, the intellectually under-educated, or upstart cultural actors have also managed to debase the inspiringly unproductive expenditure of excess wealth (which the exhibition of high art requires) by devising a system of “petty displays.”
In San Francisco, such petty displays are not necessarily those of expensive art objects. Rather, the term here denotes the stultifying overestimation of oneself and one’s actions, which frequently bedevils the entire socio-cultural context of the region. For example, a mere reference to the Franco-American artist Suzanne Husky on the much-hyped Wendi Norris Gallery’s website dared to style itself an essay whilst referring to the “sophisticated US media-cracy” as a “persistent topic” of Husky’s “media practice.” N’est pas intellectuel qui veut, a well-read observer might have thought after encountering such pretentious dabbling in a cultural context as allergic to serious theoretical reflection on high art as that of San Francisco’s vaunted art institutions.
Nonetheless, Husky’s work has the great merit of examining the contemporary sense of our productive relation to nature by placing that relation in the historical lineage of the “Physiocrats,” an 18th Century school of French economic thought. One might not share her fascination with the practices of those who purport to live “off the grid,” but her manner of underscoring the complexity of the contemporary sense of our productive relation to nature stimulated much-needed theoretical reflection on the inherent limits of all production. In a film entitled Wash, Husky portrays the unorthodox bathing practices of members of the so-called counterculture. The film portrays people who don’t use regular tap water and have drawn on other methods of heating and using it. As alternative as these methods might appear to outsiders, their profound implication was perhaps as simple as the French neoclassical painter François-André Vincent’s depiction of the 18th Century bourgeois’ education in his piece The Plowing Lesson, which Husky replicated in a work with the same name. Animals do not transcend nature and self-preservation. In contrast, our trajectory veers towards pleasure in self-transcendence. Only humans would heat water and wash themselves in a bathtub. Such washing is, above all, a pleasurable act of self-purification. Strictly speaking, washing in a bathtub filled with hot water is not just pouring water on oneself for it amounts to as uselessly indispensable a luxury as all high art. Yet, Husky’s fashionable, Northern Californian ecological “primitivism” (reflected in her over-emphasis on alternative objects made to address man’s needs) tends to obscure this unique trait of man’s creatively sovereign interaction with nature.
This same confusion permeated the display at the Legion of Honor’s important exhibition, “Treasures of the Louvre Museum: From Louis XIV to Marie Antoniette.” The well organized and historically informative exhibition featured objets d’art that the Louvre Museum in Paris has lent to the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Among these, some have been displayed outside of France for the first time.
I thought it a pity that, despite its laudably detailed character, the catalogue of the exhibition made no reference to the “uniquely sovereign” character of the patronage of the art which Louis XIV’s boîte à portrait (the king’s portrait encircled by large diamonds and given as a gift to foreign diplomats) exemplified. Far from being a luxurious objet d’art used to impress the Sun King’s foreign equals, its highly symbolic construction was meant to convey a novel notion of royal sovereignty in Europe. Indeed, the image of Louis XIV at the center of the boîte à portrait suggests the equidistance of the King in relation to the surrounding diamonds (perhaps various rival factions of French society).
Of course, today, the absolutist kingdom over which Louis XIV ruled no longer exists. Yet, the profound signification of the objet d’art that celebrated it transcends its history. It reminds us that the movement of sovereign transcendence of man’s finite existence, namely high art, exceeds its historically specific utility. Much like the eclipsed but irreducibly contiguous backdrop of Louis XIV’s portrait, sovereignty oft lets itself be spoken by an objet d’art. Yet, no matter how spectacular or expensive the objet d’art may turn out to be, the transcendently sovereign movement of its creation—high art—typically exceeds its social value. For such is the accursed privilege of all high art. As the enduring expression of the appearance of sovereignty in history, high art must, as Bataille put it, “prevail over the political and the financial consequences of its manifestation.” Will the practitioners of tiresome petty displays of art ever begin to understand this simple truth? I would say, lucidly, that it is high time for them to do so. But when I say this lucidly, this also means, to quote Bataille again, “without the least hope.”
by Simon F. Oliai