Reason to Destroy Contemporary Art

One of the fundamental questions of our 21st Century Theory series is whether the “correlationist thinking dominant today may perhaps be an obstacle to understanding important trends in contemporary art.” Just how much the long-standing hegemony of the aesthetic stands in the way of discovering and understanding possible non-correlationist tendencies in contemporary art is shown quite clearly in Suhail Malik’s essay. Malik doesn’t so much argue against aesthetics as mobilize an emphatic understanding of “realism” against contemporary art and its central category of (aesthetic) experience. His thesis, briefly put, is that “contemporary art is a correlationism.” He sees his speculative approach as a polemical attack on an entire aesthetic paradigm. However, unlike Ray Brassier in his recent reflections on Noise, Quentin Meillassoux on Mallarmé’s poetry, or Graham Harman on Lovecraft’s fantastic or “weird realism,” Malik does not base his arguments on individual examples, and he is utterly uninterested in searching for something like a speculative-realistic art. Instead, he envisions art as a rational exercise, the “binding force of reason directed to the real, a destruction of contemporary art as an art of indeterminacy,” or as Brassier wrote in his essay Genre Is Obsolete, which Malik touches upon: “Since experience is a myth, what do we have to lose?” Armen Avanessian (guest-editor of this series)

What does an artwork mean for you? What sense do you make of it? In the paradigm of contemporary art the answer is clear: it’s up to you. Constrained by the artwork’s subject matter (insofar as you can determine it), its material organization and presentation, and the information you can glean from the press release on what the art invokes or the artist’s “interests”, you respond to this configuration of mild injunctions. “Mild” because the parameters are open enough, loose enough, opaque enough for you to (have to) make your own way through the artwork. It asks you a question, making an open-ended assertion without definitive sense. You reply – usually not to the artwork but, in the best case, with a shift in your own system of ideas, values, even the very way you formulate your languages. You are the center of the artwork. Or, more accurately, since the artwork is not just its material being but also the sense that it makes and the values it inscribes, what is primary in contemporary art – its condition and horizon – is the art experience that is the transformation of both the subjective viewer and the artwork:

Aesthetic experience is nothing that can be “had” by the subject. The term “experience” refers to a process between subject and object that transforms both – the object insofar as it is only in and through the dynamic of its experience that it is brought to life as a work of art, and the subject insofar as it takes on a self-reflective form, its own performativity recurring in a structurally uncanny (or rather un-homely) way in the mode of the object’s appearance. 1

What philosopher Juliane Rebentisch captures very well here and affirms is that under the name “aesthetic experience” contemporary art depends upon its receiving subject, the addressee of the work who is taken to constitute it rather than arrive as late-comer after its production. Put colloquially, the art “leaves space” for the viewer, the viewer “completes” the work.

That a reality such as art can only be apprehended by the thinking or consciousness of it and that it is necessarily accompanied by that thinking and consciousness is the dependency that Quentin Meillassoux has influentially called correlationism. The problem with correlationism is that all accounts of reality are necessarily accounts of how reality is thought or known. Put the other way, reality itself cannot be known “in itself” since it is always thought or apprehended by a consciousness. Thought never takes leave from itself – if only because it thinks that departure and what is outside of it; what you know is always what you know. The many difficult self- reflexive philosophical problems that follow in establishing the possibility of a knowledge of the real for what it is independent of thought – that is, realism – will be left aside here, as will the detailed account of the various recent diverse philosophies that strive to break out of correlationism, gathered under the umbrella term Speculative Realism (SR).

What is more immediately pressing here is that in having a subject of aesthetic experience as its condition contemporary art is a correlationism.

To be clear: contemporary art as the aesthetic experience of sense and value-making, as the co-constitution of the art object and subject, assumes correlationism and reproduces it, affirms it, in every moment of its open-ended experience. The artworks and the discursive formulation of contemporary art – objects, events, performances, images, press releases, reviews, magazine essays, auction catalogues – stylize and configure a correlationism in how art is to be taken by its audience. Contemporary art calls upon, appeals to its addressee to determine the art in their own terms – including the disagreement between viewers that is the best “democratic” result; artists have an “interest” in this or that; the artwork or exhibition “explores”, “plays with”, or “shows a sensitivity about” such-and-such a topic. No more definitive or precise an account can be permitted at the cost of reducing the viewer’s own capacity to make their call on the art. Abstractions serve this expectation and prioritization of experience well. And, for all their considerable differences, experience is the key category in theories central to contemporary art: it sits on both sides of Michael Fried’s split between absorption and theatricality; it is the condition of Rancière’s aesthetic regime of art, whose political effects are the re-organization of experience; it is the term of the intractable that can only be felt or sensed through its materiality (Jean-François Lyotard), or of the singularities of affect that can be mobilized but not perceived or conceptualized (Gilles Deleuze), or events that escape the consistency and logic of identification in an inaesthetics (Alain Badiou). In their common flight from communicable thought and concept – sometimes formulated as an anti-aesthetics – each of these latter philosophies repeats the insistence that the artwork remains bound to a field of (perhaps unthinkable) subjective experience that it cannot reflect upon or rationalize without distorting itself irrecuperably. An emphasis on materiality carries the same desire of a primacy of sensory and spatio-temporal experience: matter is held to be extraneous, uncontrolled, excessive, processual but in any case against or to the side of form/concept/thought/intention; unctuous or residual matter, or emergent material organization escapes the control or command of the artist’s imposed parameters on the artwork. How else to apprehend the chromatic bounciness of the print, the light-sucking bleakness of the sculpture, the gloopy resilience of the paint in relation to the figures presented? Supposing sensory and finite experience as a condition and term of art, the artwork has an inarticulable or excessive presence in front of which there can only be an articulation – a linguistic after-effect – that necessarily misses or misapprehends it. That presence is of a material order other to language’s semantic and transferrable dimension. While Rosalind Krauss and Yves-Alain Bois proposed an art-historical mobilization of this insistent meaninglessness under the Bataillean name of the informe, the insistence on/of matter as art’s snaring of experience persists today even through digital production with the emphasis on glitches, noise, disruptions, slickness, all of which draw attention to what is produced and made manifest by the means of production “itself” as much as by its manipulation by artists as human agents.

For all the anti-conceptuality and experiential primacy of these approaches, of the paradoxical anti-philosophy of contemporary art as a post-conceptual practice (Peter Osborne), they are in every case correlationist. As such, they are to be rejected by any rigorous realism. (Such a realism here is not to be confused with realism as a style or genre of art committed to “accurate” representations of pre-existing reality, such a genre already assuming representation as an interval from a real elsewhere.) Aesthetically determined and organized, contemporary art has nothing to offer non-correlational realism. Put the other way, realism can readily dispense with art as it now stands without loss or limitation. From yet another angle, realism’s provocation to art is the undoing of aesthetic experience as a condition or term of art, even in the avowal of art’s ineluctable materiality. Which is to say that realism speculatively indicates the conditions for another art than contemporary art.

But it is important in this regard to proceed with some caution in the dimension of realism. For, as documenta 13 amply demonstrated, mobilizing the object oriented approaches of SR within contemporary art is a trivial if not conservative undertaking: the relation of objects amongst themselves, in which the human supposedly has no particular privilege, fits very well with a formalist, perhaps proto-modernist notion of art that privileges its objects and their composition – internal and mutual – over the external eye and ear of an observing, knowing subject but which nonetheless calls upon a distributed notion of subjectivity in which the human participates on a supposedly equal footing. The artist or viewer can appear as a mediator in this relation but is not necessary to it. Other versions of this logic include immersive art, networked art, systems art, and so on. While the emphasis in object-oriented approaches on the (non)relations between all objects themselves “equally” challenges the primacy of the human subject as a prerequisite for their mutual (in)comprehension, an equality between the art object and the human maker or addressee fits very well with any number of clichés just exposed on the primacy, obduracy, or excess of matter and of objects to human control.

While revoking the primacy of interpretation it is nonetheless a generalized variant of the co-constitution of object and (sometimes) human subject that is the aesthetic experience of contemporary art.

Contrast this to the variant of SR whose argument is that the real or absolute is apprehended without anthropomorphic, anthropocentric, or noocentric distortion only by rational thought. The primary model here is science (for Meillassoux, in the restricted form of mathematically organized science; for Ray Brassier, in the general form of the explanatory power of the naturalistic technosciences; for François Laruelle, as the intertwining of thought and the real without a decision in favour of the former) and the demand here upon contemporary art is strictly non-trivial: it removes subjective interpretation or experience as a condition or telos of the artwork, and therewith collapses the entire edifice of the contemporary art paradigm. While this need not be a direct concern for contemporary art since rationalist SR need have no bearing on art (and should in fact rightly disregard or dismiss contemporary art as a lost cause), such a rationalism puts firmly destructive pressure on the current operating, artistic, intellectual and ideological paradigm of art, a pressure that is much needed as contemporary art now continues to all-too-happily recycle standard tropes of anti-foundationalist critique, ethical piety, apolitical politicality, and cultural hegemonization. While contemporary art can be dismissed by a rationalist SR without consequence for the latter, nonetheless bringing it to bear on art forces a series of demands and criteria for art in terms other than those of contemporary art. The speculation it invites is what an art other than contemporary art could be, not as a capricious flight of imagination or a frustrated wish but rationally known.

We can begin that speculation at once: the critique of correlationism made by rationalist SR is not the generalization of aesthetic experience but, to the contrary, the demonstration that there can be a knowledge of what has never been experienced (for Meillassoux, such is the arche-fossil or the God arriving tomorrow; for Ray Brassier, it is the death of the sun; for Iain Hamilton Grant, it is the natural, non-human concept). An art responsive to this theoretically-led imperative would be indifferent to the experience of it, an art that does not presume or return to aesthetics, however minimal or fecund such an aesthetics might be. The condition and horizon of such an art is not that it be felt, appreciated in vague ways, or made sense of as contemporary art is, affirming in each case the viewer in her or his sensitivities and capacity for judgment. Indifferent to aesthetic experience, it is an art of rational knowledge. “Knowledge” here means that if there is an experience to be had, it can be not only formulated with a coherent logic and reasoned (even if its results are historically irrational) but also that it is subject to the predictive and generative exercise of reason qua new organizations of matter, thought, and experience.

This is but one, minimal example of the demands rationalist SR places upon art. That this injunction for reason against the primacy of experience as condition or destination for art is itself a theoretically-philosophically derived demand does not present a problem since it is itself rationally constituted. There is no need to find artists, curators, critics making “SR art” to justify, ground, or lead the investigation. What it imposes, and what corrodes the interpretive paradigm of contemporary art as well its concomitant soft heroism of artistic, curatorial, or interpretive anti-systematicity, is art as a rational exercise that eviscerates all lingering experiential conditions. Concept not feeling, rational and formalized not wanton and uncaptured, indifferent and impervious to you: such is the binding force of reason directed to the real, a destruction of contemporary art as an art of indeterminacy.

1) Juliane Rebentisch, October 130, Fall 2009

Introduction t r anslated by James Gussen

Suhail Malik is a writer and co-director of the MFA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, London, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, New York, and co-editor of Realism Materialism Art (CCS/Sternberg, forthcoming 2013).

Read an introduction to the "21st Century Theory" series from Armen Avanessian here.

This text appears in the Spike Art Quarter N° 37 and is available for purchase at our online-shop.