Tag Archives: Art

Borgesian Fields

Anselm Kiefer, Bohemia Lies by the Sea, 1996, oil, emulsion, shellac, charcoal, and powdered paint on burlap, 191.1 × 561.3 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, prophecies are recast, ghosts live in blades, and the constraints of time are broken. Among this magic, which is distinctly of the era of capitalism, stands an understated image of silent plains. A narrator tells us that one could be like any other: “No two mountain peaks are alike, but anywhere on earth the plains are one and the same.”1 The narrator travels to the future, where he speaks to a nameless, elderly man. The nameless man looks upon the plains shortly before he chooses his own death: “The man now turned his back to me and looked out the windows. Outside, the plains were white with silent snow and moonlight.”2 A fog of ambivalent catastrophe hovers. For whom or what was civilization? The story’s future setting does not cast off the troubles of our moment. This failed escape into the future is accentuated by that society’s abandonment of excursions into space: “‘It’s been hundreds of years since we have done any of that traveling about—though it was undoubtedly admirable. We found we could never escape the here and now.”3

In “The South,” a character ventures out of the city in order to enter an “older and more stable world,”4 to ameliorate the strain of being a Modern, for whom the passage of time is a reminder of the task of history. The character instead seeks to live in the ever-now that animals inhabit, outside of human time. Traveling into the country, he seeks the “fact of being,”5 but Nature does not simply reveal itself: “All was vast, but at the same time intimate and somehow secret. […] Dahlmann accepted the walk as a small adventure. The sun had sunk below the horizon now, but one final splendor brought a glory to the living yet silent plains before they were blotted out by night. Less to keep from tiring himself than to make those things last, Dahlmann walked slowly, inhaling with grave happiness the smell of clover.”6 Dahlmann mistakes animal being as a desirable form of freedom, but the silence of the plains reveals the onlooker’s apprehension. He cannot recreate magic, but he must create his own belief in magic—a path which reason maddeningly blocks.

The plains are silent and homogeneous, but they spoke in the past, each with its own language. This mute presence reflects an irrevocable transformation within humanity’s consciousness. Nature had greeted humans as they expected—mythologically. Borges’s characters express something of this lack: “There is an hour just at evening when the plains seem on the verge of saying something; they never do, or perhaps they do—eternally—though we don’t understand it, or perhaps we do understand but what they say is as untranslatable as music…”7 Nature, which became a category through the development of society now riven through with contradiction, recedes beyond the grasp of reason. A symptom of this reification is anxiety about Nature’s silence. Without a theory that could give historical meaning to this anxiety, the trajectory of Spirit falls into question.

1. Jorges Luis Borges, “A Weary Man’s Utopia,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 460.
2. Ibid., 464.
3. Ibid., 463.
4. Borges, “The South,” in Collected Fictions, 176.
5. Ibid., 176.
6. Ibid., 177.
7. Borges, “The End,” in Collected Fictions, 170.


Recently at a gallery, a lauded music critic was asked about operating in her newly acquired position at a media conglomerate. The questioner was specifically curious if she felt an increased difficulty in covering “more authentic bands,” given her new environment.

“Ha!,” the music critic laughed. She continued, saying something like, “As if only bands are authentic. That leaves out so many other musicians. Many male music critics are only interested in the production qualities of music. Because of that, we don’t have any working in our office.” The room applauded.

The ground of the music critic’s denunciation of a search for authenticity also betrays concurrent devotion to the concept at a different register, namely that certain people appear more authentic than others. The horizon of the music critic’s judgement, shared by most, has been narrowed to a pinpoint. The death of any viable Left reduces politics to psychological struggle and moral posturing, neither of which could overcome the crisis of society. That identity politics today is neoliberal can be seen in the way that the music critic’s department now toes the party line as it covers the presidential election campaigns.

The music critic’s victory in a small fraction of a conglomerate’s hiring demographics may have anemic merit, but her acceptance of the job is a liquidation of any “punk” laurels that might have adhered to her. The cruel truth, however, is that the music critic was never an outsider to the all-consuming industry that accounts for even the hermetic hobbyist. Her participation is a symptom of the streamlined integration demanded by mass society.


[Left:] Marble Torso of a god or Athlete, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)

[Left:] Marble Torso, Roman Imperial, ca. 1st or 2nd century AD; [Right:] Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1964-67)

In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno writes:

The truth content of art, whose organon was integration, turns against art and in this turn art has its emphatic moments. Artists discover the compulsion toward disintegration in their own works, in the surplus of organization and regimen; it moves them to set aside the magic wand as does Shakespeare’s Prospero, who is the poet’s own voice. However, the truth of such disintegration is achieved by way of nothing less than the triumph and guilt of integration. The category of the fragmentary—which has its locus here—is not to be confused with the category of contingent particularity: the fragment is that part of the totality of the work that opposes totality.1

In the modern sense, the fragment is no longer a dissociated piece of the whole. Rather it is the particular object that tasks the totality brought about by the farreaching consequences of the crisis of the commodity form. Contingent particularity would be the healthy dialectic of particular and universal in bourgeois society that has since then become antinomical. Particularity in our time is no longer an effect of freedom in social practice, but rather the marker of damage already inflicted on all. At the register of psychology, we can look to Freud, for whom neurotics are just like everyone else, but more so. Integration today rather becomes a terrible adaptation to an irrational totality. But from the bourgeois view that expects the world to follow discernible reason, the moments of unreason are felt as ugly accidents that might have been avoided. The fragment opposes the totality only insofar as it reveals this accident to be a historical necessity.

1. Theodor Adorno, “Situation,” in Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 45.

Art Stolen, Art Broken

Last month I visited the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago for a panel on archeological looting with Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, and Lawrence Rothfield, professor of English at the University of Chicago. “The Past for Sale” is an ongoing research project facilitated by the Collegium, and its goal is to better understand the black market of looted items. In addition, there is the problem of the deliberate destruction of historical artifacts by ISIS.

[Left:] Jeff Koons, Red Balloon Dog Ed. 51/66; [Right:] Description of item and its damage

[Left:] Jeff Koons, Red Balloon Dog Ed. 51/66 (1995); [Right:] Description of item and its damage

After the panel I visited the Collegium’s gallery, which was hosting the Salvage Art Institute’s exhibition No Longer Art. The show consisted of damaged pieces of art which were no longer considered worthy of being shown normally. Given the status of the works, the viewers were allowed to touch them, but it still felt too strange to break that taboo. The damage to these items changed them, and yet they were still products from respected artists. Presented informally as catalogued damage they take on a different appearance. Their inscrutable veneer of a finished product is lost and their materials become more apparent.

[Left:] Robert Rauschenberg, Soviet American Array IV, 12/55; [Right:] Description of item and its damage

[Left:] Robert Rauschenberg, Soviet American Array IV, 12/55 (1988-89); [Right:] Description of item and its damage


At a recent panel at SAIC put together Platypus titled “The Many Deaths of Art,” artist Ruslana Lichtzier noted that since we in Platypus had run a similar panel a couple years ago in New York City, we too find ourselves stuck in the present as Art itself seems to be: stuck in the process of dealing with the past. Lichtzier is right, of course. And this isn’t a revelation with regard to the self-conception of Platypus, which recognizes itself as a part of the dead Left. It’s necessary for us to work through the past. It can’t yet be forgotten.

The Danger of Art History for the Artist

Nietzsche writes,

It is the most unjust condition in the world, narrow, ungrateful to the past, blind to dangers, deaf to warnings, a little living whirlpool in a dead sea of night and forgetting: and yet this condition—unhistorical, contra-historical through and through—is the cradle not only of an unjust, but rather of every just deed; and no artist will paint his picture, no general achieve victory nor any people its freedom without first having desired and striven for it in such an unhistorical condition. As the man of action, according to Goethe’s phrase, is always without conscience, so he is also without knowledge; he forgets a great deal to do one thing, he is unjust to what lies behind him and knows only one right, the right of that which is to become.1

It is obvious that the standpoint of the museum is primarily retrospective—that of maintaining the past in the present. How daunting such a place is for today’s artists. Comparing the grandeur of the works of the Ancients with those of a 21st century art-student is clearly unfair. The entirety of the past is weighing upon the scale in favor of the Ancient, even if we know it too once was new. But now it stands before us, ready to affirm our self-doubts. In hindering today’s student this way, Art History damages the work of the budding artist. And yet the new and the different ought to come about. The student must have the resolve to forget, so that becoming be allowed to come forth into the world through new work.

The sphere of Art History often confuses itself in its perspective, getting lost in its own methodology and the fruits of its investigations. The reified appreciation of art becomes stretched backward in time so that the unique position of today’s artists loses its quality.

It should be noted, of course, that we can’t completely forget history. To do so would be to regress to the level of the animal. Playing with history and one’s own place within it may be another art in itself. When history might affirm your efforts, then look back and pull from it the potential in it.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980 [1874]), 11-12.

To My Artist-Friends

The back cover of the CD case of William Basinski's Disintegration Loops (2002)

The back cover of the CD case of William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops (2002)

Despite the present conditions, you remain important. Experience of the world bounces off of you prismatically, even if you don’t want that.

You are particular, fragile prisms. Even your most melancholic allow light through. You’ve seen the glow illuminating Mark Rothko’s paintings. But sometimes I worry you might break if presented with the wrong world. There is a necessary nostalgia you’ve held for so long. It was with you in the furnace, imbued in you like an alloy—strengthening you in some ways, and weakening you in others. That alloy is the residue of Romanticism.

Nietzsche saw this in you. His admiration found those fragile points:

Of course, the philosophy of an artist does not matter much if it is merely an afterthought and does not harm his art. One cannot be too careful to avoid bearing any artist a grudge for an occasional, perhaps very unfortunate and presumptuous masquerade. We should not forget that, without exception, our dear artists are, and have to be to some extent, actors; and without play-acting they would scarcely endure life for any length of time.1

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974 [1887]), 155.