Insomnia | Essays

Transaesthetics

By Jean Baudrillard / Translated by James Benedict


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.