“Confetti Death” (made of found plastic spray paint caps) – By Typoe
‘I don’t believe in art. I believe in the artist.’
‘Life becomes ideas and the ideas return to life, each is caught up in the vortex in which he first committed only measured stakes, each is led on by what he said and the response he received, led on by his own thought of which he is no longer the sole thinker.'
The question raised by the contemporary artist as a non-philosopher is first and foremost: what is the relation between the generic singularity and the artistic project as a form - content proposition? Within this question we find three basic aspects of that which constitutes the thought-space of a contemporary artist. Firstly, we have the generic singularity as a mode of existence: a human being who becomes something within a generic space of social categories. Secondly, we have the artistic project as a system of competing interests that designates how knowledge is not only embedded but also operative in the artistic agent. And lastly, we have the form-content proposition as the specific artwork-event, which designates what is actually produced and made real in institutional contexts. A generic singularity is a human being who develops his own knowledge and insights through the mode of existence, the artistic project and the actual artworks produced throughout his life: artwork-events appear, from one to thousands, that in their totality are a life’s work. All these artwork-events, which sum up the artistic output of a life lived as a gesture towards art and life in general, present their own kind of thinking in action: a non-philosophy. In three words, we can sum up the nature of this non-philosophy: self positioning, investigation and intervention. Some kind of self positions itself within the art world, some kind of investigation through a system of competing interests is carried forth, and finally the artwork-events intervene into some more or less established contexts for presenting art. Self-positioning, investigation and intervention are here understood as taking a position and emitting objects, gestures, signs, situations or environments that are received in a more or less defined context for viewing art. It is a non-philosophy because the contemporary artist thinks, but in a personalised way, through his experiences, the position he has taken, whatever artworks he has made and finally, what is stated about them.
3.1. In order to outline a fundamental ontological29 insight regarding the relationship between non-philosophy and contemporary art, I need briefly to clarify the historical background of Merleau-Ponty’s idea of non-philosophy. According to the philosopher, classical systemic philosophy reached its metaphysical endpoint with the Hegelian master-narrative of the spirit becoming absolute self-consciousness through the unfolding of the system itself. History – as the progression towards emancipation – having reached the stage of the modern democratic state, ensuring the freedom of the individual, had also come to an end in an abstract sense. This is not to say that historical events would no longer take place, but that the substance of the spirit as freedom had now become real as a rational structure within historical reality. ‘What is rational, is real, what is real is rational,’ is the infamous quote from the introduction to Hegel’s Philosophie des Rechts (1820). One of the ways for philosophy after Hegel to escape his dialectical prison was to turn him upside down by thinking about that cleavage in the system that negates this totality: the individuality of experience. In Philosophie et non-philosophie depuis Hegel, Merleau-Ponty quotes two pages from Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) where what is called ‘experience’ is defined: ‘This dialectical movement, which consciousness exercises (ausübt) on its self – on its knowledge as well as its object – is, in so far as the new, true object emerges to consciousness as the result of it, precisely that which is called experience. ’Experience for Hegel is the development of ‘new, true’ knowledge after it has been sent to the testing-ground of the real. In the encounter with something outside the system, the system of knowledge breaks apart, has to enlarge itself, and in this movement expand its understanding of the world. Experience becomes a rupture (Bruch-erfahrung): it breaks me apart and forces me to reconsider my being in the world. I am forced to interrogate the relation between the system and that which goes against it. That which goes against also holds the potential of something new. ‘The experience, that is to say, the effective assumption of a being, is capable of giving space to a dialectic, because it alone is the opening towards something that can reveal itself, that has its depths, a latency, and that can become a space for an ecstasy from where a true novelty may emerge.’ (Merleau-Ponty). By designating the possibility of such a point within the space of consciousness (and that it can be ripped apart: ‘Zerrissenheit’, Hegel is also opening a back door for those who later came to insist upon the absoluteness of experience. There are experiences that cannot be surpassed and integrated into the transcendental system. They designate a specific encounter between a subject and something other to it: concrete experiences happening to the individual. This insight will become integral to my understanding of the power of contemporary art today. Ultimately, contemporary art takes place in that corridor between the already established world of signs and conventions and that fringe of the other, the unforeseen, the virtual, that excess of being that points towards something beyond me. Contemporary art is visibility with infinite depth, because the contemporary artist has moved into the space of contingency: he has been ripped apart from the conventional space of art and into a new state of mind (epistemic rupture); he contains within himself that specific experience of being able to think himself and the world differently. And because epistemic ruptures happen all the time, opening up towards situations of contingency, we never know what exactly will happen in the space of contemporary art. In this state of mind I locate the fundamental thought-power of the contemporary artist as a non-philosopher.
I propose to think of the contemporary artist – who has been around for almost 100 years as a conceptual person – as a non-philosopher. As a starting point, the contemporary artist has the radical contingency of art. Art as an essential phenomenon tied to certain ideas, genres or media no longer exist. Artworks only exists as propositions about art: ‘This could be art.’ And he who makes the proposition is the contemporary artist, because it is in the act of making art that he becomes contemporary. The contemporary artist is he who proposes artwork from an absolute background of the virtual. He proposes the artwork as an offering to art, because this is the only way in which art attains a presence.40 But this absolute freedom of the contemporary artist does not relieve the artist from his embeddedness in the generalised space of human existence: a body, a social world and a being in time (the metaphysical knot). A contemporary artist is situated in life, because he exists as the specific instantiation of the metaphysical knot: as someone who has transformed his relations to a specific body (the monstrous body) appearing within a social context (the art world) at a point in historical time (historicity). Contemporary artists become generic singularities because through their life trajectories they are framed by institutional and ideological regimes of discourses, but nonetheless have a sovereign right to their individual interests, to be proactive and to develop new ideas for future artworks. Simply put, the contemporary artist exists with a right and a power to make art. And here, ‘to make art’ is understood in a narrow semiotic fashion: the ability and will to produce whatever signs, objects and events and make them circulate within contexts of viewing art. Artists can authorise their artworks simply by proposing and presenting them to an audience. From this perspective, even the most minimal, conceptual or collective art project is expressive because it originates from somewhere and has a destination. To be able to express is to have the power to exist as the ability to produce difference in a social environment.
1.5. The proposition I am trying to present here is that a contemporary artist can be seen as a nonphilosopher because from his embedded situation he is confronting contingency. From this position he develops and presents a thought-space that is personalised as a specific way of engaging with the fact that everything is possible. It is a thinking in the sense that certain aspects of an artist’s thinking can be externalised and communicated (the interview, statement or projectdescription), but most importantly, it is an operative thinking, because the artist does something in this world: he produces form-content propositions – the whatever artworks that burst into the future and one day crash into our present. This demands a level of thinking infused with some kind of knowledge and certain skills to make interesting artworks. But, it is not a knowledge that follows the same criteria as the production of scientific knowledge, such as the possibility of iteration, verification and systematic study. It can be knowledge infused with desire, memory, ambition, but also a sense of uncertainty and joy in experimenting. It can be knowledge informed with the intention of making a statement. It can be knowledge infused with a white energy of freedom and exuberance. Ultimately, it is a thinking-knowledge infused with transformed experience. Firstly, the experience of having encountered numerous artworks and projects (perceptual); secondly, the experience of producing one’s own artwork or initiating collaborative art projects (pragmatic); and finally the experience of being transformed and inspired by other artists and life in general (radical). I have lived with art, and this living in all its totality has become a complex experience that fuses with my position as an exhibiting artist. My field of experience as an artist is that of having ideas for exhibitions and projects, putting artworks on display, of presenting them to a public and receiving a response. I have experienced knowledge of how this can be done, and which rhetorical possibilities exist as to how to install, to present and to mediate artworks, exhibitions and gestures.
1.6. Not all artists of today are contemporary artists. There are many artists still working in traditional media, who do not reflect on their art practice, who do not engage with any of the insights or breakthroughs that have happened in that massive space of art that was opened with Duchamp’s readymade. The extreme version of the non-contemporary artist, who states he is an artist but makes art in the basement without any knowledge of contemporary art and with no audience from the contemporary art world in mind, is not a contemporary artist. Thus, I disagree with the all-inclusive position on the contemporary artist: that all artists and artworks of today are contemporary, the argument being that all art being made is always contemporary, since it comes into being in time and is thus present to the time of its own making. I disagree, because I believe that to be a contemporary artist is a state of mind, the result of a specific reflective operation, and thus a change of consciousness. A contemporary artist is aware of other contemporary artists and produces art for a contemporary art-world context. So, a contemporary artist has consciousness of the contemporary as a cultural field, and also wishes to participate in that specific art world that constitutes the contemporary. Knowledge and desire produce an intention: the contemporary artist wants to make art that is presented at institutions or exhibition spaces showing contemporary art. To be a contemporary artist is to belong to a contemporary art world. A contemporary artist exists within the post-medium condition (Krauss).45 This condition has its origins in the radical contingency of art that Duchamp revealed with his readymade urinal, and that later Merleau-Ponty designated as the condition for philosophy to become non-philosophy. The post-medium condition is the situation in which the institution of art as a system allows for whatever object or event to appear and become designated as an art object. As Arthur Danto states in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: ‘Something is an artwork if it satisfies certain institutionally defined conditions, though outwardly it may appear no different from an object that is not an artwork.’ Contemporary artists might be working with certain materials or be framed by their media, such as being categorised and labelled as a painter, sculptor, photographer or media artist, but these artists are aware that other possibilities exist, and that there is no absolute hierarchy between the different material outputs. Contemporary artists are no longer defined by the material support of the media with which they are working.
These reflections presented here are an attempt to show that contemporary artists are thinking beings both through their act of being contemporary and through the way they establish their artistic projects. I believe that there is a relation between the condition of non-philosophy and that of contemporary art. Contemporary artists present a vision of the world that is equivalent to a way of thinking; a non-philosophy in action. Non-philosophy is a mode of existing that becomes a mode of vision: a gaze that entails a theory of seeing and perceiving, but most importantly is ‘externalizing a way of viewing the world.’ (Danto). Inspired by Merleau-Ponty, non-philosophy is the name I want to give to this specific way of thinking about the world, which has exploded since the early historical avant garde. In the following pages I will try to demarcate the nature of this thinking and why contemporary art has become one of the more potent sites of enacting non-philosophy. Thus this book consists of two sections. The first section, The Depth of Experience, attempts to describe Merleau-Ponty’s idea and conception of non-philosophy through a reading of his manuscripts from the period of 1957–61. Here, key ideas are the role and power of experience, the turn towards the lived experience, and Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the flesh. Thereafter, I develop my own thoughts on the body, existence, position and method of a non-philosopher. Finally, I present some thoughts on Merleau-Ponty’s actuality for contemporary art as a position and practice. The second section, Aspects of Contemporary Art, deals with the space of contemporary art in relation to institutions and the agent producing art: the contemporary artist as a generic singularity. Important aspects are the artwork as a proposition, the system of competing interests, the art of contemporaneity, the framing of art through institutions, nihilism, experimentation and the notion of systemic hysteria. These are attempts to encircle different elements of the force-field constituting contemporary art and thus not attempts to convey the absolute truth about contemporary art. I end the book by presenting my thoughts on the future of contemporary art.
I view these reflections as a presentation of a poetics for my own practice and existence as a contemporary artist and non-philosopher. They are aspirations for my life; thoughts and ideas that push me further, force me to re-consider my practice and the way I exist in the world. My writing transforms me: it feeds back into my mind as insights that I have to acknowledge are part of me and thus confront me with an understanding I did not know existed. They are the trace of an experience of thinking something beyond me. I am a contemporary artist and in the position of a non-philosopher. It is a state of mind.
Introduction from the book: NON-PHILOSOPHY AND CONTEMPORARY ART by Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen