The Death of Art and Transaesthetics

By Alex Kierkegaard / June 29, 2008

Regular readers will perhaps be aware of my efforts to clear up the "games as art" confusion that often causes videogame commentators to say even more stupid things than they usually do. I have approached the subject from the angle of semantics (which, by the way, is the only really valid approach), then half-jokingly from the angle of so-called "messages", and then jokingly, period, in a vain effort to shame and embarass people enough to finally shut their pieholes. Of course this didn't happen; everyone is yapping excitedly about "art this" and "art that" more than ever, all the blog-reading, half-educated, pseudo-intellectual chimpanzees of the industry (including bigwigs like Will Wright, who wouldn't know what art is if he'd been born into the Medici family at the height of the Renaissance). Occasionally, some poor soul will link one of my articles on some crummy blog/forum or other, and a few more clouded minds will briefly be illuminated by a modest wisdom which, in the perpetual darkness of the intellectual swamps they inhabit, must seem like divine revelation. But this process is so slow, that by the time it catches up with professional bloggers/journalists I'll be physically unable to enjoy the results, seeing as I'll be long dead. So I thought I'd roll out the big guns and give it one more shot. Perhaps this will help speed things up! At any rate, this is my Final Solution. At least I'll be able to say I gave it my best, and earn the right to claim with Nietzsche: "Perhaps I understand fishing as well as anyone?... If nothing got caught I am not to blame. There were no fish."

So the point I will raise here, by copy-pasting the very words of the most important philosopher of the 20th century (Jean Baudrillard), is that, even if you are not intelligent enough to understand that calling games Art (with a capital 'A') is stupid, and if you persist in insisting that they are, that still says nothing because -- guess what moron! -- Art is dead. It has been dead for several decades now, and what's left in its wake is an indeterminate matrix of what Baudrillard calls the "aesthetics of banality". So it's not like your precious little fucking videogames are better off now, you fucking moron, you dig? If games are art and art is dead then games are dead -- which seems to me a reductio ad absurdum.

Anyway. Whoever had trouble understanding my kindergarten-level semantic analysis will certainly not understand this one, so I am probably wasting my time. But hey, I got nothing better to do right now so fuck it. But before we begin let's shoot down some OTHER half-educated cultural philistines: Roger Ebert and his ilk. He likes to look down on games, does he? Well, here's the 19th century's most important philosopher looking down on 99% of his shitty-ass Great Movies, and indeed on the Art of Cinema as a whole (true -- he is talking about the theater, but the jump from theater to the cinema is an easy one if you are not completely brain-dead). Friedrich Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science (1882):

"Of the theater. -- I had strong and elevated feelings again today, and if I could have music and art in the evening, I know very well what sort of music and art I do not want -- namely, the kind that tries to intoxicate the audience and to force it to the height of a moment of strong and elevated feelings. This kind is designed for those everyday souls who in the evening are not like victors on their triumphal chariots but rather like tired mules who have been whipped too much by life. What would men of this type know of "higher moods" if there were no intoxicants and idealistic whips? Hence they have those who enthuse them even as they have their wines. But what are their drinks and their intoxication to me? Does he that is enthusiastic need wine? Rather he looks with some sort of nausea at the means and mediators that are trying to produce an effect without sufficient reason -- aping the high tide of the soul! -- What now? One gives the mole wings and proud conceits -- before it is time to go to sleep, before he crawls back into his hole? One sends him off into the theater and places large glasses before his blind and tired eyes? Men whose lives are not an "action" but a business, sit before the stage and observe strange creatures for whom life is no mere business? "That is decent," you say; "that is entertaining; that is culture." -- Well, in that case I often lack culture; for much of the time I find this spectacle nauseous. Whoever finds enough tragedy and comedy in himself, probably does best when he stays away from the theater. Or if he makes an exception, the whole process, including the theater, the audience, and the poet, will strike him as the really tragic or comical spectacle, while the play that is performed will mean very little to him by comparison. What are the Fausts and Manfreds of the theater to anyone who is somewhat like Faust and Manfred? But it may give him something to think about that characters of that type should ever be brought upon the stage. The strongest ideas and passions brought before those who are not capable of ideas and passions but only of intoxication! And here they are employed as a means to produce intoxication! Theater and music as the hashish-smoking and betel-chewing of the European! Who will ever relate the whole history of narcotica? -- It is almost the history of "culture," of our so-called higher culture."

That takes care of Ebert and the film-loving pseudo-intellectuals. Let's turn now to those poor, plebeian souls who think that art is not a means of intoxication, but of education. Nietzsche again, in The Birth of Tragedy (1872):

"For, above all, to our humiliation and exaltation, one thing must be clear to us. The entire comedy of art is neither performed for our betterment or education nor are we the true authors of this art-world. On the contrary, we may assume that we are merely pictures and artistic projections for the true author, and that we have our highest dignity in our significance as works of art -- for it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified -- while of course our consciousness of our own significance hardly differs from that which the soldiers painted on canvas have of the battle represented in it. Thus all our knowledege of art is basically quite illusory [...]"

And now on to the main dish -- the death of art. I am going to first quote from George Ritzer's introduction to the English translation of Baudrillard's The Consumer Society (1970). Note that Ritzer is a moron and his introduction is rubbish, but at least in the paragraph I'll quote he does a decent job of summarizing some of the more superficial (and therefore easier to grasp) reasons for the death of art. So here we go:

"Baudrillard seeks to extend consumption from goods not only to services, but to virtually everything else. In his view, 'anything can become a consumer object.' As a result, 'consumption is laying hold of the whole of life.' What this communicates is the idea that consumption has been extended to all culture; we are witnessing the commodification of culture. This, in turn, leads to one of the basic premises of postmodernism -- the erosion of the distinction between high and low culture. Art, for example, has increasingly become indistinguishable from any other commodity. A good example is the production and sale of a large number of numbered prints. These mass-produced works of art become commodities like all others and are therefore valued in the same was as other commodities. They are evaluated in a relative manner within the same system of objects as, for example, Levi's jeans or McDonald's hamburgers. Art, jeans and burgers all acquire their meaning and their value relative to one another as well as to the entire system of consumer objects. A work of art is now consumed in the same was as, say, a washing machine. Indeed, they (or at least their signs) are substitutable for one another. Ultimately, cultural objects are subjected to the same demand for signs as all other commodities and they come to be created in order to satisfy that demand. Art, and culture more generally, come to be subject to the fashion cycle. Instead of being part of a process of symbolic exchange, art (like much else in the modern world) becomes just one more 'ludic and combinatorial practice'. Art is thus abolished by consumer society [...]"

And to conclude I quote two passages and one entire essay, titled "Transaesthetics", from Baudrillard's The Transparency of Evil (1990):

"Art has likewise failed to realize the utopian aesthetic of modern times, to transcend itself and become an ideal form of life. (In earlier times, of course, art had no need of self-transcendence, no need to become a totality, for such a totality already existed -- in the shape of religion.) Instead of being subsumed in a transcendent ideality, art has been dissolved within a general aestheticization of everyday life, giving way to a pure circulation of images, a transaesthetics of banality. Indeed, art took this route even before capital, for if the decisive political event was the strategic crisis of 1929, whereby capital debouched into the era of mass transpolitics, the crucial moment for art was undoubtedly that of Dada and Duchamp, that moment when art, by renouncing its own aesthetic rules of the game, debouched into the transaesthetic era of the banality of the image."


"One might also consider the transvestites of the aesthetic sphere -- of whom Andy Warhol must surely be the emblematic figure. Like Michael Jackson, Andy Warhol is a solitary mutant -- a precursor, for his part, of a perfect and universal hybridization of art, of a new aesthetic to end all aesthetics. Like Jackson, he is a perfectly artificial personality: he too is innocent and pure, an androgyne of the new generation, a sort of mystical prosthesis or artificial machine capable, thanks to its perfection, of releasing us at one blow from the grip of both sex and aesthetics. When Warhol says: all works are beautiful -- I don't have to choose between them because all contemporary works are equivalent; when he says: art is everywhere, therefore it no longer exists, everyone is a genius, the world as it is, in its very banality, is inhabited by genius -- nobody is ready to believe him. Yet his is in fact an accurate description of the shape of the modern aesthetic of radical agnosticism. -- We are all agnostics, transvestites of art or of sex. None of us has either aesthetic or sexual convictions any longer -- yet we all profess to have them."



"We see Art proliferating wherever we turn; talk about Art is increasing even more rapidly. But the soul of Art -- Art as adventure, Art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality, for setting up an 'other scene' in opposition to reality, where things obey a higher set of rules, a transcendent figure in which beings, like line and colour on a canvas, are apt to lose their meaning, to extend themselves beyond their own raison d'etre, and, in an urgent process of seduction, to rediscover their ideal form (even though this form may be that of their own destruction) -- in this sense, Art is gone. Art has disappeared as a symbolic pact, as something thus clearly distinct from that pure and simple production of aesthetic values, that proliferation of signs ad infinitum, that recycling of past and present forms, which we call 'culture'. There are no more fundamental rules, no more criteria of judgement or of pleasure. In the aesthetic realm of today there is no longer any God to recognize his own. Or, to use a different metaphor, there is no gold standard of aesthetic judgement or pleasure. The situation resembles that of a currency which may not be exchanged: it can only float, its only reference itself, impossible to convert into real value or wealth.

Art, too, must circulate at top speed, and is impossible to exchange. 'Works' of art are indeed no longer exchanged, whether for each other or against a referential value. They no longer have that secret collusiveness which is the strength of a culture. We no longer read such works -- we merely decode them according to ever more contradictory criteria.

Nothing in this sphere conflicts with anything else. Neo-Geometrism, Neo-Expressionism, New Abstraction, New Representationalism -- all coexist with a marvellous facility amid general indifference. It is only because none of these tendencies has any soul of its own that they can all inhabit the same cultural space; only because they arouse nothing but profound indifference in us that we can accept them all simultaneously.

The art world presents a curious aspect. It is as though art and artistic inspiration had entered a kind of stasis -- as though everything which had developed magnificently over several centuries had suddenly been immobilized, paralysed by its own image and its own riches. Behind the whole convulsive movement of modern art lies a kind of inertia, something that can no longer transcend itself and has therefore turned in upon itself, merely repeating itself at a faster and faster rate. On the one hand, then, a stasis of the living form of art, and at the same time a proliferative tendency, wild hyperbole, and endless variations on all earlier forms (the life, moving of itself, of that which is dead). All this is logical enough: where there is stasis, there is metastasis. When a living form becomes disordered, when (as in cancer) a genetically determined set of rules ceases to function, the cells begin to proliferate chaotically. Just as some biological disorders indicate a break in the genetic code, so the present disorder in art may be interpreted as a fundamental break in the secret code of aesthetics. By its liberation of form, line, colour, and aesthetic notions -- as by its mixing up of all cultures, all styles -- our society has given rise to a general aestheticization: all forms of culture -- not excluding anti-cultural ones -- are promoted and all models of representation and anti-representation are taken on board. Whereas art was once essentially a utopia -- that is to say, ultimately unrealizable -- today this utopia has been realized: thanks to the media, computer science and video technology, everyone is now potentially a creator. Even anti-art, the most radical of artistic utopias, was realized once Duchamp had mounted his bottle-dryer and Andy Warhol had wished he was a machine. All the industrial machinery in the world has acquired an aesthetic dimension; all the world's insignificance has been transfigured by the aestheticizing process.

It is often said that the West's great undertaking is the commercialization of the whole world, the hitching of the fate of everything to the fate of the commodity. That great undertaking will turn out rather to have been the aestheticization of the whole world -- its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization. What we are witnessing, beyond the materialist rule of the commodity, is a semio-urgy of everything by means of advertising, the media, or images. No matter how marginal, or banal, or even obscene it may be, everything is subject to aestheticization, culturalization, museumification. Everything is said, everything is exposed, everything acquires the force, or the manner, of a sign. The system runs less on the surplus-value of the commodity than on the aesthetic surplus-value of the sign.

There is much talk of a dematerialization of art, as evidenced, supposedly, by minimalism, conceptual art, ephemeral art, anti-art and a whole aesthetic of transparency, disappearance and disembodiment. In reality, however, what has occurred is a materialization of aesthetics everywhere under an operational form. It is indeed because of this that art has been obliged to minimize itself, to mime its own disappearance. It has been doing this for a century already, duly obeying all the rules. Like all disappearing forms, art seeks to duplicate itself by means of simulation, but it will nevertheless soon be gone, leaving behind an immense museum of artificial art and abandoning the field completely to advertising.

A dizzying eclecticism of form, a dizzying eclecticism of pleasure -- such, already, was the agenda of the baroque. For the baroque, however, the vortex of artifice has a fleshly aspect. Like the practicioners of the baroque, we too are irrepressible creators of images, but secretly we are iconoclasts -- not in the sense that we destroy images, but in the sense that we manufacture a profusion of images in which there is nothing to see. Most present-day images -- be they video images, paintings, products of the plastic arts, or audiovisual or synthesized images -- are literally images in which there is nothing to see. They leave no trace, cast no shadow, and have no consequences. The only feeling one gets from such images is that behind each one there is something that has disappeared. The fascination of a monochromatic picture is the marvellous absence of form -- the erasure, though still in the form of art, of all aesthetic syntax. Similarly, the fascination of transsexuality is the erasure -- though in the form of spectacle -- of sexual difference. These are images that conceal nothing, that reveal nothing -- that have a kind of negative intensity. The only benefit of a Campbell's soup can by Andy Warhol (and it is an immense benefit) is that it releases us from the need to decide between beautiful and ugly, between real and unreal, between transcendence and immanence. Just as Byzantine icons made it possible to stop asking whether God existed -- without, for all that, ceasing to believe in him.

This is indeed the miraculous thing. Our images are like icons: they allow us to go on believing in art while eluding the question of its existence. So perhaps we ought to treat all present-day art as a set of rituals, and for ritual use only; perhaps we ought to consider art solely from an anthropological standpoint, without reference to any aesthetic judgement whatsoever. The implication is that we have returned to the cultural stage of primitive societies. (The speculative fetishism of the art market itself partakes of the ritual of art's transparency.)

We find ourselves in the realm either of ultra- or of infra-aesthetics. It is pointless to try to endow our art with an aesthetic consistency or an aesthetic teleology. That would be like looking for the blue of the sky at the level of infrared or ultraviolet rays.

In this sense, therefore, inasmuch as we have access to neither the beautiful nor the ugly, and are incapable of judging, we are condemned to indifference. Beyond this indifference, however, another kind of fascination emerges, a fascination which replaces aesthetic pleasure. For, once liberated from their respective constraints, the beautiful and the ugly, in a sense, multiply: they become more beautiful than beautiful, more ugly than ugly. Thus painting currently cultivates, if not ugliness exactly -- which remains an aesthetic value -- then the uglier-than-ugly (the 'bad', the 'worse', kitsch), an ugliness raised to the second power because it is liberated from any relationship with its opposite. Once freed from the 'true' Mondrian, we are at liberty to 'out-Mondrian Mondrian'; freed from the true naifs, we can paint in a way that is 'more naif than naif', and so on. And once freed from reality, we can produce the 'realer than real' -- hyperrealism. It was in fact with hyperrealism and pop art that everything began, that everyday life was raised to the ironic power of photographic realism. Today this escalation has caught up every form of art, every style; and all, without discrimination, have entered the transaesthetic world of simulation.

There is a parallel to this escalation in the art market itself. Here too, because an end has been put to any deference to the law of value, to the logic of commodities, everything has become 'more expensive than expensive' -- expensive, as it were, squared. Prices are exorbitant -- the bidding has gone through the roof. Just as the abandonment of all aesthetic ground rules provokes a kind of brush fire of aesthetic values, so the loss of all reference to the laws of exchange means that the market hurtles into unrestrained speculation.

The frenzy, the folly, the sheer excess are the same. The promotional ignition of art is directly linked to the impossibility of all aesthetic evaluation. In the absence of value judgements, value goes up in flames. And it goes up in a sort of ecstasy.

There are two art markets today. One is still regulated by a hierarchy of values, even if these are already of a speculative kind. The other resembles nothing so much as floating and uncontrollable capital in the financial market: it is pure speculation, movement for movement's sake, with no apparent purpose other than to defy the law of value. This second market has much in common with poker or potlatch -- it is a kind of space opera in the hyperspace of value. Should we be scandalized? No. There is nothing immoral here. Just as present-day art is beyond beautiful and ugly, the market, for its part, is beyond good and evil."