Here I shall attempt to set in motion a reflection on the contradictions present in art, in education and in the relationship – or contact – between them. I will use the dialectical method to investigate the materials that produce some of those contradictions, making use of some philosophical concepts, which will be briefly presented here as concept-images. By juxtaposing them to a number of image-images, I hope to spur a critical debate on the subject.
The term “dialectics” is generally used to describe a method of philosophical reasoning that involves some type of contradictory process between opposing sides. The classic version of dialectics is the one posited by Plato.
The Greek philosopher presents his philosophical arguments through dialogue or debate, usually between the character Socrates, on one side, and some person or group of people with whom Socrates engages in debate (his interlocutors), on the other.
Whereas Plato’s “opposing sides” were people (Socrates and his interlocutors), in the work of German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, these “opposing sides” depend on the subject matter being discussed.
The “opposing sides” may be different definitions of logical concepts that are in opposition to each other, or different definitions of consciousness and of the object it claims to know.
The Hegelian dialectical method is later subverted by Karl Marx, who proposes a method that is not only different from Hegel’s, but exactly opposite to it.
In the Afterword to the 2nd German edition of Capital, Marx explains:
“To Hegel, the life process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of “the Idea,” he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of “the Idea.” With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.”
(MARX, 2018, p.14.)
Despite the mysticism he denounces in Hegel, Marx gives emphasis to dialectics as the rational core of Hegelian thought. He turned Hegel’s dialectics inside out, taking the point of view of the proletariat as a concrete historical subject – agent of the possibility of becoming – and from there he elaborates his revolutionary perspective.
The foundation of indeterminacy that Marx identifies in the working class enables it to act for the dissolution of all classes and lead social relations to overcome the character of antagonism that defines them.
Marx begins to characterize dialectics not only as a way of thinking that captures the development of being-in-itself – as in Hegel –, but as the form of development of history which, when captured by thought, makes it intrinsically revolutionary.
Adorno and Horkheimer, in turn, use the dialectical method to present a fierce critique of contemporary Western society and the relationship between industrialization and art.
In the Dialectic of Enlightenment, written in 1944, during the years of exile in the United States, the authors develop a critical social theory, reading Marx as a Hegelian materialist, whose critique of capitalism would inevitably include a critique of the ideologies that capitalism sustains and requires.
The Dialectic of Enlightenment begins with a grim assessment of the modern Western world:
“Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity” (ADORNO, 2007, p.17).
Adorno and Horkheimer then reflect on this contradiction.
How can the progress of modern science and medicine and industry promise to liberate people from ignorance, disease, and brutal, mind-numbing work, yet help create a world where people willingly swallow fascist ideology, knowingly practice deliberate genocide, and energetically develop lethal weapons of mass destruction?
Reason, they answer, has become irrational. (ZUIDERVAART, 2015)
A year after Adorno’s death, in 1970, a series of essays on art written by him between 1961 and 1969 were published under the title of Aesthetic Theory. The text reconstructs the modern art movement from the perspective of philosophical aesthetics, performing a double dialectical reconstruction that tries to extract the socio-historical significance of the art and philosophy discussed. The book begins and ends with reflections on the social character of art.
To this end, Adorno retains from Kant the notion that art is characterized by its formal “autonomy”, combining the Kantian emphasis on form, with the Hegelian emphasis on intellectual import and the Marxist emphasis on the art’s embeddedness in society as a whole.
The result is a complex account of the simultaneity between the necessary and illusory character of the artwork’s “autonomy”, which, in turn, is the key to the social character of art, or for it to be “the social antithesis of society” (ADORNO, 2002, p. 8).
Adorno considers authentic works of art to be “artworks as windowless monads” (ADORNO, 2002, p. 5), whose tensions express inevitable conflicts within the socio-historical process from which they arise and to which they belong.
Those tensions integrate the artwork through the artist’s struggle with historically charged materials, and evoke conflicting interpretations that often end up confusing the internal tensions of the work with its connection to social conflicts.
But the artwork is not only contradictory in relation to its “autonomy”. According to philosopher Walter Benjamin, it has a dialectical aspect that plays a vital political role: the mutual demystification between material reality and aesthetic expression. (BUCK-MORSS, 1981, p. 28)
On the one hand,
“elements of material history were required in order to interpret artworks so that these cultural ‘treasures’ ceased to be ideological accoutrements of the ruling class. But the obverse was true as well: art provided a critical iconography for deciphering material history, so that its elements might enter into a revolutionary constellation with the present”. (BUCK-MORSS, 1981, p.28)
The dialectic relationship between material reality and aesthetic expression – commonly known as “life and art” – is also recurrent in the reflection on art, at least since the historical vanguards.
In its initial phase, the Situationist International (SI), formed in 1957 by a group of intellectuals and artists, proposed the “supersession” of art, in a simultaneity of destruction and, consequently, the fulfillment of its most profound objectives.
However, the contradictions soon became irreconcilable. Disagreements among artists within the SI became more and more evident, and the group around Guy Debord – its most illustrious leader – concentrated all of their efforts on theoretical production and on their commitment to disrupting the dominant organization of social space.
The differences between SI members grew to an extent that led in time to the forced exclusion or voluntary exit of all the artists. Starting in 1962, one rearranged and recomposed version of the group expressed its interest in art only with respect to the limits of its overcoming in the form of a social revolution.
In a context in which the production-consumption cycle rapidly accelerated while spatial barriers diminished, rapidly spreading the society of the spectacle described by Debord across the “civilized world”, images and sign systems – whether conformist or “subversive” – became the ideal “commodity” for the accumulation of capital.
Art – murdered and “superseded” several times since Romanticism – is rendered into a delusional zombie. It wanders through the mountain of commodity images produced by the cultural industry, trying to occupy the critical position it had until the mid-20th century. It assumes the interference of the world to which it refers, seeking to assert itself as a chaotic field of intersection between different contradictory planes of discourse – be them aesthetic, ethical, theoretical, historical or political.
More contradictions appear with respect to the position occupied by the artist in contemporary society. Already in 1970, North American art critic Lucy Lippard calls into attention the frustration of the artist running “up and down the stairs between the ivory tower and the streets”, in a schizophrenic movement between institutions and material reality (LIPPARD, 1984, p. 10).
Until the mid-20th century, the artist, even when immersed in power games, had two alternatives: either to play the game of his powerful patrons and agree to their demands – becoming a “court painter” – or to adopt a marginal and vanguardist position.
Today, any artistic “novelty” emerges as obsolete, as a result of a frantic and fruitless race against an inescapable market that turns everything into commodities.
Even the so-called “marginal” artistic attitudes, experiences and actions are quickly nullified by means of reification and commodification of the work and of the artist, or are emptied out through their spectacularization. The mere fact of being makes them a commodity as much as a traditional painting or sculpture.
The “marginal artist” eventually disappeared as a specific figure, since the perceptual attitude that they previously incorporated has now penetrated and impregnated historical consciousness.
Even if the artist still tries to find their lost “marginality”, they need to be aware of the articulations between art and institutions of power, be it the State – which establishes what is worthy of becoming national culture –, the media – which decides what is true, what is post-true and what is neither the one or the other – or the private or corporate economic power represented by collectors, investors and institutions – who decide who takes part of the great collections, exhibitions, festivals, etc.
These articulations are inevitable, seeing that art, at least since the Middle Ages, maintains a cordial relationship with power – first incorporated by the Church, then by the aristocracy, by the bourgeoisie and, more recently, by corporations.
Because of this, artists – just like politicians and scientists – are accountable both for their works and for their public implications.
On the other hand, every art action also involves a zone of irresponsibility, as it is still an “act of risk”.
Just like the radical political Act, artistic practice is ” is always a specific intervention within a socio-symbolic context” which, despite always being situated in a concrete context, is not entirely determined by it.
This “Act” always involves a radical risk, since “it is a step into the open, with no guarantee about the final outcome ~ why? Because an Act retroactively changes the very coordinates into which it intervenes.” ZIZEK, 2002, p. 152).
In order for the comparison between a radical political act and an artistic act not to be overly superficial or naive, I propose to think of the relationship between them in two axes of thought.
The first would be the axis of what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes as parallax:
“The parallax is not symmetrical, composed of two incompatible perspectives on the same X: there is an irreducible asymmetry between the two perspectives, a minimal reflexive twist. We do not have two perspectives, we have a perspective and what eludes it, and the other perspective fills in this void of what we could not see from the first perspective.” (ZIZEK, 2006, p. 29)
Art and politics, therefore, would be irreducible to each other, relating only through a deviation in which one would fill the gap left by the other.
The second axis for associating art and politics without the use of superficial buzzwords relates to eliminating once and for all the relationship between them and unveil what another contemporary philosopher, the Italian Giorgio Agamben, calls “contact” (AGAMBEN, 2017, p. 304).
According to him, the space of politics is delimited by pairs of elements – bare life and power, the household and the city, violence and institutional order, anomie (anarchy) and law, multitude and people (AGAMBEN, 2015, p. 272). These pairs of elements are constituted reciprocally through their oppositional relation.
However, this very relation that unites them at one and the same time presupposes them as unrelated. The relation thus has an essential ontological role, because the very structure that presupposes language expresses itself through it, a primordial relation between being and its being said or named.
Agamben concludes that the access to a different figure of politics – which is a problem of the utmost urgency for the contemporary world – would have to take the form of what he calls a “destituent potential” (AGAMBEN, 2017, pp. 266-279), namely that which calls into question the very status of the relation, which is confronted with the fragile being that is language, so difficult to know and to grasp.
A “destituent potential” would be one that, that is capable of always deposing ontological-political relations in order to cause a contact solely defined by an absence of representation.
According to Agamben, “where a relation is rendered destitute and interrupted, its elements are in this sense in contact, because the absence of every relation is exhibited between them”. There is nothing between them, only “the nullity of the bond that pretended to hold them together” – and yet, at the same time, they remain separate (AGAMBEN, 2017, p. 272).
In this axis, the “relation” between art and politics would then be eliminated.
For Agamben, artistic practice has become the place where the problematics involving the identification between human existence and what he calls form-of-life is demonstrated.
If, in ancient times the artist’s activity was defined exclusively by his work, and he had a “residual” status in relation to it, in modernity it is the work that constitutes an embarrassing residual of the artist’s creative activity and genius (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 246).
In attempting to define himself by the very operation, the modern artist is, in fact, “condemned to confuse its own life with its own operation, and vice versa” (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 247).
” If artistic practice is the place where one is made to feel most forcefully the urgency and, at the same time, the difficulty of the constitution of a form-of-life, that is because in it there has been preserved the experience of a relation to something that exceeds work and operation and yet remains inseparable from it” (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 247).
According to the Italian philosopher, a form-of-life is not defined by a praxis or by a work, but rather by potentiality and inoperability, that is, the way a living being maintains contact with pure potentiality, wherein life and form, private and public, enter a threshold of indifference.
An artist is not, therefore, “the sovereign subjects of a creative operation and of a work. Rather, they are anonymous living beings who, by always rendering inoperative the works of language, of vision, of bodies, seek to have an experience of themselves and to constitute their life as form-of-life” (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 247).
They are not the work’s author (in the modern, essentially juridical sense of the term) of the work nor the proprietor of the creative operation. These latter are only something like the subjective remainders and the hypostases that result from the constitution of the form of life” (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 247).
For Agamben, form-of-life can neither recognize itself nor be recognized because it is “above all the articulation of a zone of irresponsibility, in which the identities and imputations of the juridical order are suspended (AGAMBEN, 2007, p. 248).
But how can there be a place within schools – museums and institutions – for this articulation of “zones of irresponsibility”? How can an educational institution encourage students to take irresponsible positions and at the same time demand that they respect the rules? How to offer a territory for the investigation of cracks and folds in the system, encouraging risky initiatives that make explicit the contradictions of art-making without provoking the outrage of society’s conservative sectors?
From these statements, it is clear that the artist’s education is also contradictory. At what point is the artist “formed”? Is he not just the dis-formed, the unformed or the deformed of society?
In order to discuss the concept of “formation” in art in the Brazilian context, I think it is important to quote writer Antonio Candido and his book Formation of Brazilian Literature, from 1959. Candido defines literature – art – as
“a transposition from the real to the illusory through a formal stylization of language, which proposes an arbitrary type of order for things, for beings, for feelings. In it, an element of attachment to natural or social reality and an element of technical manipulation, indispensable to its configuration, are combined” (CANDIDO, 1972, pp. 803-809 [our translation]).
In his 1959 book, he refers to the formation of literature as the foundation, development and consolidation of a “literary system” (not of a writer or a piece of writing), that is, of the articulation between author, work and public, with historical continuity (tradition). Literature is hence an articulated system that excludes isolated, unresonant manifestations.
In the case of Brazil, Candido frames the emergence of Machado de Assis in the last decades of the eighteenth century as the moment when the “literary system” was fully constituted. From then on, the formation of a Brazilian literary system would have reached its apex, with a Brazilian literature proper coming into existence.
The concepts proposed by Antonio Candido start to become a thermometer for local literary criticism, as they contribute to the evaluation of works and help to determine the authors who would become part of this “system”.
For Candido, these authors are the ones who use literature as a basis for reflection about society. The analysis presented in his book was extremely important both for the creation of paradigms for local literary criticism, and for the development of systems antagonistic to them.
The Brazilian concrete poet Haroldo de Campos, for example, disagreed with Candido’s statements and conclusions, considering them a mere “theoretical construct based on a logic of exclusion and inclusion of texts”. According to him, the viewpoint presented in Formation of Brazilian Literature is problematic because it is based on a “metaphysical conception of history, marked by an evolutionary linearity” (POLÊMICA, 2019).
In the present context, in which the transnational flow of capital, cultural contamination, social networks and complex systems – originating from simple patterns – determine new time-space relationships, any vertical and historicist construction becomes arbitrary or even alienated.
What, then, would be the alternative for a ‘formation’ or ‘ education’ in art not marked by an evolutionary linearity?
According to another contemporary philosopher, Alain Badiou, education is a mediator between philosophy and art. Art produces truths – just like politics, science and love – which are unveiled by philosophy through the intermediation of education.
In Handbook of Inaesthetics, Badiou discusses this interweaving between art, philosophy and education through three schemes – didacticism, romanticism and classicism.
“In didacticism, philosophy is tied to art in the modality of an educational surveillance of art’s purpose, which views it as extrinsic to truth. In romanticism, art realizes within finitude all the subjective education of which the philosophical infinity of the idea is capable. In classicism, art captures desires and shapes (éduque) its transference by proposing a semblance of its object. Philosophy is summoned here only qua aesthetics: It has its say about the rules of ‘liking'” (BADIOU, 2005, p. 5).
For the philosopher, the three schemes were saturated during the 20th century and ended up producing “a kind of disentanglement of the terms, a desperate ‘disrelation’ between art and philosophy, together with the pure and simple collapse of what circulated between them: the pedagogical theme” (BADIOU, 2005, p. 7).
Art – as well as politics, science and love –
“is pedagogical for the simple reason that it produces truths and because ‘education’ (save in its oppressive or perverted expressions) has never meant anything but this: to arrange the forms of knowledge in such a way that some truth may come to pierce a hole on them…” (BADIOU, 2005, p 9).
And in practice? What is the truth established through the knowledge available in art schools?
There, students learn market insertion strategies, “revolutionary” procedures, traditional techniques and historical determinations, learning to be “young artists”.
The term “young artist” – frequently used in public calls, residency programs and presentation texts for exhibitions or curatorial projects – means much more than a period in the life of someone who makes art.
It is not simply the same thing as James Joyce’s “artist as a young man”.
The latter is described in the first novel by the Irish writer, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, from 1916, in which he narrates the “formation” of his alter ego Stephen Dedalus. As the character matures, Joyce changes the text style, creating a reflection/mirroring between content and form.
The book is considered a “formation novel” (Bildungsroman), that is, a novel in which a character’s physical, moral, psychological, aesthetic, social or political development process is exhibited, which in this case confuses itself with that of the author.
While the term “artist as a young man” is a retroactive denomination that presupposes the existence of a work made by someone who makes art (the artist), the nomenclature “young artist” dispenses the actual artwork. It establishes a category that exists before art, a venture that may or may not succeed, depending on whether the art increases in value.
Art schools launch “young artists” as often as fashion brands launch their new collections.
Then there are the “young artists-commodities” that supply the capitalist demand for the “ever-always-the same”. The truth that is established in art schools is, therefore, the total prevalence of the phenomenon Marx called commodity fetishism:
“All objects and all acts, as commodities, are equal. They are nothing but greater or lesser amounts of accumulated labor and thus of money. The market brings this homogenization about, independently of the subjective intentions of the agents involved. Commodity rule is terribly monotonous and even devoid of content. An empty, unchanging, abstract form, a pure quantity without quality – money – gradually imposes its hegemony on the infinite, concrete multiplicity of the world” (JAPPE, 2012).
The relationship between art and education, therefore, reveals a range of unresolved contradictions. This is because both are in “contact” with politics, science and love, bringing to mind the memory of a series of ambiguous interruptions, the déjà-vu of a forgotten, erased revolution, which never fully accomplished itself, as it gets entangled and confuses itself with the social structures of capitalism (MEDINA, 2010).
How to present knowledge in a way that art’s “truth” is established?
Perhaps we can start by trying to create conditions for the appearance of zones of irresponsibility.
Zones in which the hierarchical divisions of the perceptible are refuted, politics is replaced by a configuration of the sensible world and the promise of emancipation remains on the horizon (RANCIÈRE, 2005).
These zones of irresponsibility may in due course create cracks and folds in the system that can only be identified retroactively and which, in this movement, will change the very coordinates where they arose.
They can make promises for the realization of a new world transpire, brought into being by the negativity that spreads in the contradictory violence of contemporaneity (BENOIT, 2004), and which for this reason are impossible to be fulfilled in the present.
Some of those promises may eventually be called art. Or politics. Or even education.
Dora Longo Bahia
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