translated by Barbara P. Fulks
I delivered a version of this text that was much longer, and in a different vein, in 2001 in Venice at the conference "The Question of Art in the Third Millennium," organized by GERMS (Groupe d'ƒtude et de Recherche des Médias Symboliques), under the direction of Ciro Bruni. An even longer version, in a style probably verging on sarcasm, was published in 2002 by GERMS in the proceedings of the colloquium in question, proceedings titled Utopia 3. The present version, tempered, shedding the rhetoric of Empire (overly influenced at that time by Negri's best-seller), is comprised of the essentials of an intervention at the Drawing Center in New York, made at the invitation of its director, Catherine de Zegher, for the launch of issue 22 of lacanian ink, directed by Josefina Ayerza, in which appeared the translation into English of my small book, "Of an Obscure Disaster" (D'un désastre obscur), published in French in 1991 by Aube. There will probably be still more versions. "Work in progress."
Our power of resistance and invention requires that we renounce our delights in the margins, in obliqueness, in infinite deconstruction, in the fragment, in the trembling exposition of mortality, in finitude, and the body. For the sake of the poor century which is opening, we must, and thus we will, declare the existence of what no longer exists in art: the monumental construction, the project, the creative force of the weak, the destruction of established powers.
We should oppose all those who only want the end, those cohorts of the burned-out and parasitical last men. The end of art, of metaphysics, of representation, of imitation, of transcendence, of the oeuvre, of spirit: enough! Let us declare at once the End of all the ends and the possible beginning of all that is, of all that was and will be.
Against its present decline into inconsistent multiplicity and an energy which is immoral, uncontrolled, and-if it succeeds-fundamentally non-human, the vocation of art, in all its forms, is to reaffirm affirmation.
Let us declare again, on behalf of humanity, the artistic rights of the truly non-human. Let us again accept being transfixed by a truth (or a beauty: it's the same thing), rather than calculating to the nearest penny the minor modes of our expression.
It's a matter of affirming. And this is why this draft is a manifesto of Affirmationism.
THE DOMINATION OF ROMANTIC FORMALISM
Let us call “post-modern”—why not?—any representation of artistic production made under the sign of the spectacular exposition of desires, phantasms and terrors. Under the sign of an abolition of the universal. Under the sign of the total exposition of particularisms. Under the sign of the historic equality of formal methods.
Yes, this is so: one can call “post-modern” whatever displays a capricious and unlimited ascendancy of particularities: the communitarian, ethnic, linguistic, religious, sexual, and any other particularity. And the biographical particularity, the “me,” as one imagines it can and should be “expressed.” I posit that these post-modern products represent the last form of enslavement of art to particularity. We can distinguish thus, if you will, the ethnic and communitarian products by their sexual underpinning and “me-ist” products.
The products most sought after by the gourmets of commerce are those which easily combine the two varieties: in a recognizable ethnic and sexual category, they are, however, of a quite ludic “me-ism.”
Let us not denounce anyone; to each their own.
Here is our diagnosis: revisited in a long historical perspective, the post-modern products, pegged to the idea of the expressive value of the body, for which posture and gesture give it consistency, are the material form, one might say, of a pure and simple plunge into Romanticism.
This question is of the greatest importance to us. From the vast quantity of references which the Affirmationists of the future will assemble and publish, let me isolate narcissistically one of my own texts. In the first chapter of Petit manuel d’inesthétique, I propose the distinction, in regard to the relationship between art and philosophy, between three essential systems. The first, which I call “Didactic,” claims, in a Platonic or Stalinist manner, to submit artistic activity to the external imperative of the Idea. The second, “Classical,” puts art under the natural rule of pleasing forms and confers upon it, in the manner of Aristotle or Louis XIV, the practical virtue of temperance of passion rather than a mission of truth. The third, the “Romantic,” on the contrary, sees in art the only free form of descent of the infinite Idea into the sensory, and asks thus that philosophy bow down before art, in the manner of Heidegger and of certain fascisms.
I hold that the 20th century was not really innovative in respect to the decisive connection between material gesture and ideality; that it did not really propose any new figure of art as independent thought. Here is the text:
The avant-gardes have only been the desperate and unstable search for a mediative schema, a Didactic-Romantic schema. They were Didactic, through their desire to put an end to art, through their denunciation of its inauthentic and alienated character. And also Romantic, through their conviction that art should be reborn immediately as absolutist, as integrally conscious of its own operation, as truth immediately capable of reading itself. Considered as proposition of a Didactic-Romantic schema, the avant-gardes were above all anti-Classical.
I concluded, a bit further on:
The global situation is finally the following: paralysis of the three inherited schemas (Didacticism, Classicism and Romanticism), and the closure of every effect of the only schema tried in this century, which was in fact a synthetic schema, Didactic-Romanticism.
I am convinced that the “we” to come, that of the Affirmationists of the beginning of this century, will hardly be tempted to return to this conception. Starting form it, it will design its proper and definitive affirmation in the arts.
The Affirmationists will, of course, defend the totality of contemporary artistic production against the current reactionary attacks. We will distrust all those who try to use provisional theoretical weaknesses in order to impose the restoration of our pompous heritage, or even worse. But we should not be blind to the problem we have in common: the domination in the arts of all the figures of “me-ist” or communitarian expressivity, which is nothing but degraded Didactic-Romanticism, a kind of avant-gardism without avant-garde. In a certain way, it combines with a recurring pomposity. Pomposity proposed violent technologized and grandiose decoration as affect, and it dominates Hollywood cinema and even certain sectors of architecture or multimedia design. But the artists of the post-modern circuit merely oppose it with a poor anti-Classicism whose single resource is Spinoza’s phrase: “We do not know what a body can do.” With this meager viaticum, a number of them (a majority?) continue to search in a paroxystic particularity, be it ethnic or “me-ist,” for something to affirm the ruin of both the Classical conception of art and the absolutist affirmation of subjective expression, private or public. Now, the motif of the expression, whatever its modalities might be, saturates the artistic gesture with a Romanticism whose only known variants are funereal Romanticism or ludic Romanticism, depending on whether one pronounces the morose end of the human race or one pretends to celebrate it.
We cannot understand what is gripping us and causing us to despair if we do not return again and again to the fact that our world is not at all a democracy, but rather an imperial conservatism under the guise of democratic phraseology.
What to say of today’s world? A solitary power whose army is terrorizing the entire planet dictates its law of the circulation of capital and images and proclaims everywhere, with the most extreme violence, the Duties and Rights of everyone. Behind it run valets and rivals, Europeans, Russians, Chinese… Often disagreeing on means, they never cease testifying to their basic agreement. Because they have no other idea of how to give value to the world.
Under the imposed name of “terrorism,” those most violently opposed to this hegemony of the brutal West, for which “democracy” is spiritual ornament, are in reality part of it. Some nihilist criminals killed at random thousands of inhabitants of New York. This mass crime is evidently an avatar of a contemporary pathology. It is a cold mise en scène of a hackneyed motif: the fury of inspired barbarism against sated imperialism. The American army and the “terrorists” replay the old and bloody historical scene of civilization encircled by brutes. It’s enough to remind us of Rome: a solitary power, which in its own eyes incarnates civilization, disposes art in two directions. On the one hand, a sort of flashy celebration of its own power, a morbid and repetitive drunkenness, proposed to the people as an opiate for its passivity. These are circus games, of which today professional sports and the culture industry, be it musical or filmic, give us the exact equivalent. This kind of entertainment works on a grand scale. To the names of victim and gladiator correspond today the commerce of colossal media budgets and doping in sports. This art is the art of pomp which makes of the funereal power of the Empire the material of games and fictions increasingly more allegorical and bombastic. The natural hero of this art is the Killer, the torturing serial killer. In short, the perverse gladiator.
In the other direction, a meager sophistication, itself finely wrought through a kind of formalist excess, tries to oppose to pompous massiveness the unctuous discernment and subtle perversity of people who can, without suffering too much from it, pretend to retire from general circulation. This art is Romantically morose: it expresses impotence and portrays it as nihilistic delectation. It freely reclaims great forests, eternal snowfalls, softened bodies through a native or oriental wisdom. But this art is all the while bound up with the twilight of pompous art, like the pairing of circus horns with Martial’s deliciously obscene epigrams. Or the flamboyant rhetoric of the generals with the ascetic sermon of the Christians in catacombs.
The multiform desolation of entire sections of contemporary art comes from what is, in complete symmetry with the pompous art of commerce full of massive imagery, a Romantic formalism. Formalism, in that a single formal idea, a single gesture, a single humble craft are considered to support a differentiation from the commercial category. Romantic, in that each time one plays the trade, even in increasing anonymity, the motif of unprecedented expression, of the mise en scène, supposedly sublimely singular, assumes ethnic or “me-ist” particularities. Romantic, in that the energy of the body is supposedly the saving grace of the conceptual disembodiment. By means of which, in the ennui of precise gestures—but this time without miracle, either the linkage of art with redemptive purpose or art as suffering and radiant exposition of the Flesh—art returns as carnal construction of finitude.
To be specific, Romantic formalism has always been an artistic orientation of ensconced and terminal dominations. And it is thus in our time: that of a unique and multiform doctrine (economic liberalism and political electoralism), integrating for the first time the quasi-totality of human species in the distribution and constraint of its fortune. Yes, our time is that of the unique doctrine and of the consensus which is created around it under the strange name of “democracy.” Any unique doctrine of this type is desperate, nihilist, because it only proposes to the human multiplicity the absurd perpetuation of its obscene order. And the artistic subjectivity that it leads to is that of this nihilism and of this obscenity. It is a matter of formalizing the sublime desperation of the body delivered to the jouissance of the Unique. Lenin himself observed that, in the periods when critical and revolutionary political activity are very weak, the sad arrogance of imperialisms produces a combination of mysticism and pornography. This is exactly what, in the form of Romantic formal vitalism, is happening to us today. We have universal sex, and we have Oriental wisdom. A Tibetan pornography—this is what the hope of this age, which has yet to discover a dawn, has accomplished.
AFFIRMING THE GREAT 20TH CENTURY
Some artists have long thought that the persistent destruction of the Romantic schema and of all its naturalist and vitalist paraphernalia was the imperative of the moment. The Affirmationists demand the singularity of a critical genealogy. In all the arts in the 20th century, great artists have tried to undo the enterprise of Romantic expressivity and to give art its necessary indifference (froideur ), in the same sense in which Mallarmé reclaimed for the poetic Idea that it should arise, indifferent to neglect and to obsolescence, like a Constellation. These artists, often isolated, have slowly composed configurations comprehensible only today. They have maintained the will of an art-concept which tolerates neither finitude, nor flesh, nor redemption. An art completely allergic to obscurantist hypnosis as well as to the pornographic stupidities of festive performances. An art which is not that of Buddha, nor that of a desire torn between the festival and the morgue. An art effectively divorced from Romanticism. An art which could be the equivalent of what the poet Alvaro de Campos, Fernando Pessoa’s heteronym, called a “mathematics of being.”
The tautest and truest art of the 20th century has tried to show, as Alvaro de Campos says, that “Newton’s binomial is as beautiful as the Venus de Milo.” Which means: it has tried to grasp the real with the same impersonal rigor as that of mathematics. We could name some heroes of this attempt, constantly opposed to the succession of neo-Romanticisms, such as that of the Surrealists, and, worse yet, that of the Situationists, to say nothing of the contemporary Corporealists and Vitalists. The list—we will limit it to the disappeared—is arbitrary; it only indicates the apparent absence of contour in what outlines, in the dead heavens of the century, our constellation. The Affirmative constellation. There are the great Affirmationists, the best, not needing to know they were: those who developed by themselves, through their art, an entire configuration, in principle as well as in execution. Fernando Pessoa for poetry, Picasso for painting, Arnold Schoenberg for music, Bertolt Brecht for the theater, Ossip Zadkine for sculpture, Charles Chaplin for the cinema, William Faulkner for the novel, Merce Cunningham for dance…
But we can’t forget Wallace Stevens, who affirms the poem’s possibility of capturing being from appearing; Osip Mandelstam, grasping all the sacred signs in the immensity of the cadaver of Time; Paul Celan, who affirms the transpoetic possibility with the poem “After Auschwitz.” We celebrate Alban Berg, who affirms the integral possibility of opera beyond its evident death; and Bela Bartok, who perpetuates the experimental force, contrapuntal and rhythmic, of the string quartet. Or Olivier Messiaen, affirming the incorporation of a sort of sonorous lentitude, through subtle masses and temporal tangles, of the innocent contemplative life, while Anton Webern constructs the mystical value of sophisticated silences.
We will praise Affirmation: of Malevitch or Mondrian, for the ontological certitude of geometries; of Frantisek Kupka or Mark Rothko, for their power—oh, draperies of the soul!—of the great and pure contrasts of sufficient color. We will say: Kandinsky, legitimator of the connection of signs! Jackson Pollock, enclosed effervescence of the infinite gesture! We salute you, Pirandello, fecund decision of duplicity, aptitude for the truth of the illusion! And Claudel equally, wagging tongue of conservative dissatisfaction to the summit of the heavens.
Germaine Richier’s idolatrous insects, Henry Moore’s colossal maternities, Brancusi’s pure signs!
Still other Affirmations: Woolf’s enveloped vision of ephemeral totalizations, Katherine Mansfield’s morning benediction, Beckett’s ascetic perseverance of the desire to exist. And you, brother Malraux, you who took History to the limits of its rhetorical celebration.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau, revelation of the force of dream detained by the joining of setting and lights. Orson Welles, design of tortuous poetics of visibility… Let’s end this exercise, seemingly absurd, which shows that nothing in this list is inscribed under a recognized designation by schools. It’s only that the singularity of the works shows desire, in disparate directions, against all Romanticism, and, in the eyes of the tenebrous century, for what might at last take the form of a terrestrial Affirmation.
PROCLAIMING THE MAXIMS OF AFFIRMATIONISM
By naming what we are examining and what may be of use to us, we do not intend to distribute value. We intend to make perceptible the genealogy of an axiomatic. An axiomatic which poses the following: at the dawn of the century, we should restore artistic value to its incorporeal rigor, to its anti-Romantic dispassion, to a subtractive operation through which it holds closest to the real without image, which is the only cause of art. Subtraction through which it deletes any enterprise of particularity, for the real it encounters is intended for all. Subtraction which is the modern method of integral affirmation of the universal.
Axiomatic, thus, of an art which is neither ethnic nor “me-ist.” An unlocalized art, as ambitious as it is impersonal, as naked for universal thought as the line depicting the timeless sign of a bison and a tiger drawn thirty thousand years ago in the shadow of a cave. And which, in this same nakedness, affirms forever the non-humanity of the Beautiful. The Affirmationist axiomatic states only minimal conditions, still completely abstract, but largely and actively distributed by the constellation not yet designed by artists of this century; conditions such that art may rebel against imperial power at the same time that it surmounts the Romantic duplicity of the funereal and the ludic. A duplicity that Victor Hugo used in order to reclaim the sublime and the grotesque. For if he was not pompous, the art of today is completely so: the sublime obtained by force through means of the grotesque. The sterile grimace of an absent sacralization. The insipid gesticulation of Me.
It is against these hasty colorings of an insufficient devotion to the non-humanity of the true that we attempt to restore the rights of an independent Affirmation.
1. Art is not the sublime descent from the infinite into the finite abjection of the body and sexuality. It is, on the contrary, the production of an infinite subjective series through the finite means of a material subtraction.
We affirm that there are only works in art. And that a work is always finite, finished, as finished as possible. The myth of unworking is post-Romantic, it is the ennui of the finite in the name of the vague infinite. The distinctive feature of art is to lead to an infinite subjective possibility attached to the finitude of the work. Whatever makes us still think about Aeschylus or Lucretia, using a recreated subjectivity, is good. The idea of the ephemeral is believed to be new, but it is only the alignment of art with the circulation of consumable commodities and with the usury of products, which is the material basis of Empire. To resist Empire is to affirm the work, all the while avoiding the pompous praise of its power. To affirm the powerful impotence of the work, its fragile and implacable singularity.
2. Art cannot be the expression of mere particularity, whether it be ethnic or “me-ist.” It is the impersonal production of a truth addressed to all.
The schema of the expression supposes that each one, as artist, is a kind of ineffable singularity. As they say today: “I want to be myself”—or, the tribal version: “We want to create, to recreate, our own culture.” Unfortunately, this wish is predetermined, and the “myself” which appears cannot be distinguished at all from the “everyone.” And “cultures” are nothing but restored products, recycled old things. All this is desperately average. Established powers only love statistics and polls because they know that nothing is more innocent and incapable than the average. They know that each one, anyone, is only an interchangeable animal. We affirm that this animal, through artistic labor, provides the transfixed foundation for a universal address. The human animal is not at all the source, but only the locus, or one of the loci. The artist as individual is only living matter lent to a subject which, because it is a sensory subject, in the form of the work of art, needs such matter. But once the work-subject is completed, we can forget entirely his individual transitory support. Only the work is affirmative. The artist is the neutral element of this affirmation.
3. The truth of which art is the process is always the truth of the sensory, as sensory. Which means: transformation of the sensory into event of the Idea.
What, among the processes of truth, is singular to art, is that the subject of truth is brought there by the sensory. While the subject of truth in science is deduced by the power of the letter, in politics by the infinite resources of the collective, and in love by sex as differentiation. Art makes event of that which is the epitome of the given, sensory indistinction, and this is how art is Idea: through the changing of what is there into what should happen to its own finiteness. The Idea, in art, is imposed by the transformation of the manifest into an improbable imperative. One is constrained to see, as if it were almost impossible, what otherwise is obviously visible—this is, for example, painting. Art affirms that at the very point of an impossible-to-feel, the Idea takes place, is felt again, in the sensory effect of the work.
4. There is a necessary plurality of the arts, and whatever the imaginable intersections might be, no totalization of this plurality is, itself, imaginable.
This applies only to the way in which the manifestation is required to be distributed in the sensory. Nothing unifies the sensory except the individual animal subject and its organs. But this empirical unification is indifferent to art, which deals with the sensory region by region and produces its own universal non-empirical and non-organic subject. It cannot thus have sensorily indistinct art in it. We affirm that the multimedia motif of a multisensorial art is a motif without true destiny. It only projects in art the obscene uniqueness of commerce, the monetary equivalence of all products.
5. All art comes from impure form, and the purification of this impurity shapes the history and extent of its artistic truth.
Form is what gives sensible manifestation a new tremor, so that it dissipates its manifestness and changes it to a fragile ought-to-be. It is always at first impure, because it is suspended between the initial manifestness and its tremor, between recognition and misrecognition. For a long time, this is the way figuration was: this is a bullock, but not quite, and what’s more, it was necessary to see in order to believe. After which, art will strive to purify the impure, to dedicate itself more and more entirely to its duty to make visible, against all visible evidence.
6. The subjects of an artistic truth are the works which compose it.
Otherwise there would be the authors and their manifestations or their expressions. And thus there would not be any duty, any universality. There would only be the reflection of “me-ist” or ethnic particularities. The only true subject is what appears: the work, after which the manifest is suspended. The affirmative subject of the non-manifestation is the work, and it alone.
7. This composition is an infinite configuration which, in the artistic context of the moment, is a generic totality.
We are speaking here of subjects initiated by an historical event of art, or the complex which comprises works of an innovative series. Like serial works in music, or the classical style between Haydn and Beethoven, or the years in which cubism was alive, or the post-Romantic poem and thousands of other things. There are subjective collections, or constellations of works that we call configurations, which are the real figure of artistic truths. A configuration is that which was neither nameable nor calculable in the situation anterior to the art under consideration. It is what happens unexpectedly, unpredicted. This is why the totality thus produced is generic: it affirms, in a given moment, art as pure universal genre, exempted from any preliminary classification.
8. The real of art is ideal impurity as immanent process of its purification. In other words: art has as its first material the purely descriptive contingence of a form. Art is the second formalization of the advent of an unformed form.
This statement only restates the preceding from another angle. At first there is a formally impure idea which changes a manifestation of the perception or of the interior intuition into a problem, an imperative. Then, there is the refinement of the impurity, a detachment, wider and wider, of the form. This is why one can say that the future of an artistic configuration, or of a truth, is made by a second formalization, eliminating its impurity in the impure form, eliminating the unformed, or making form of the unformed itself. Until the moment in which nothing of the real is retained, lack of the manifest, lack of impurity. When a configuration loses its affirmative power, it succeeds.
9. The only maxim of contemporary art is to not be “Western.” Which means also that it should not be democratic, if democratic means: conforming to the Western idea of political liberty.
Here we enter the present situation. Yes, the only problem is to know if the artistic imperative can be detached from the Western imperative, which is that of marketing and communication. Western democracy, in effect, is marketing and communication. Thus true art is that which interrupts marketing, that which communicates nothing. Immobile and incommunicable, this is the art we need, the only one that addresses everyone, not circulating according to any pre-established network and not communicating with anyone in particular. Art should augment in everyone the non-democratic strength of one’s liberty.
10. A non-Western art is necessarily an abstract art, in the following sense: it abstracts from all particularity and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.
In order to combat expressivity, to combat Romantic formalism, there is only the dynamic of abstraction. This is a very old rule, but it is especially required in our situation. It all comes to this: to invent a new sensory abstraction. It is true that we hardly know how. The work of science, and particularly of mathematics, may instruct us. It is, after all, this route that those of the Renaissance took, as well as the painters from the beginning of the century: they turned toward geometry. And we also should turn toward geometry, which has changed a lot. Because it is less a matter of substitution for the forms of its schema than for the logic of the invariants hidden in their complete distortion. We should affirm, in art, the idea of intelligible distortions.
11. The abstraction in art which is and which is to come does not consider any particular public. This art is tied to a proletarian aristocracy: it does what it says, without needing acceptance from anyone.
We affirm that all sociological and institutional speculations about the audience for the arts must be abandoned. Sociology, and criticism itself, is only and always the auxiliary of Western democracy. Art should not have to worry about its clientele. It is inflexibly addressed to all, and this address has no empirical meaning. Art is made, says what it makes, makes what it says, according to its own discipline, and without consideration for the interests of anyone. This is what I call its proletarian aristocracy: an aristocracy exposed to the judgement of all. The great French director Antoine Vitez had a lovely expression to designate the art of the theatre. He said: “elitist for all.” “Proletarian” designates what, in each, through the discipline of work, belongs to generic humanity. “Aristocratic” designates what is protected, in each, from any evaluation by the average, the majority, similarity, or imitation.
12. The art which is and which is to come should be as solidly united as a demonstration, as surprising as a night attack, and as elevated as a star. Here is what these three images as abstractions confirm.
The work to come should be as solidly united as a demonstration, because it should oppose to the perpetual market mobility of the imperial world an inflexible principle of consequence. The work to come spurns relativisms and suspects doubt. It explores its affirmation to the very end.
The work to come should be as surprising as a night attack because it makes an event of the ignored real. It imposes this real violently, this piece of the real on whatever it seizes. It does not make it circulate, it does not communicate it. It imposes it, with a necessary small touch of terror.
The work to come should be as elevated as a star because it desires non-temporal indifference to its invented form. It is not fraternal, corporeal, it does not install itself in the lukewarmness of sharing. The work of art to come is detached from imperial commerce.
The difficulty of art today is that there are three imperatives, not just one. There is the imperative of consequence, the logical imperative, that of the mathematics of being. There is the imperative of surprise, the imperative of the real, or of the exception. And there is the imperative of elevation, the imperative of the symbol, or of distance. Often, works are received according to one or two of the three imperatives. But the great problem of form today is to join the three. This is what will decide the work to come. We leave the three last sentences in their conclusive nakedness.
13. Art can only be made today about what, for Communication (the medium and commerce), does not exist, or hardly exists. Art constructs abstractly the visibility of this non-existence. It is what orders, in all the arts, the formal principle: the capacity to render visible for everyone what, for the medium and for commerce, and thus also for everyone, though from a different point of view, does not exist.
14. Convinced of controlling the entire extent of the visible and of the audible through commercial laws of marketing and the democratic laws of communication, contemporary power no longer needs censorship. It says: “Everything is possible.” Which also might mean that nothing is. Abandoning itself to this authorization to jouir is the ruin of all art, as well as all thought. We should be our own pitiless censors.
15. It is better to do nothing than to work officially in the visibility of what the West declares to exist.
Art: Graciela Hasper - Untitled - (detail), calcareous tiles, 2004
courtesy Galería Ruth Benzacar