Works of art and ordinary things. A commentary on Vilém Flusser
- In his discussion of a lecture series delivered by Vilém Flusser in São Paulo during the late 1970s Rodrigo Maltez Novaes describes in broad terms the great semiotician’s grand thesis: »Flusser suggests that our times may be characterized by the term ›program‹, in the same way as the 16th century is loosely characterized by the term ›virtue‹, the 17th by ›nature‹, the 18th by ›reason‹ and the 19th by ›progress‹«.
- Flusser’s lectures are emblematically representative of a 20th century thinker. But even as the 21st century has already set its colors as well as its array of dreads, one can think of »program« as our epochal characteristic, our collective »notion-typos« (George Lukács), our fate.
- »Apparatus«, a term Flusser brilliantly discussed in his conferences, may be another possibility to delineate a collective-typos of today. From smart-phones to drones, from apps to clouds, contemporary anthropology attests that more than ever we are what we use, that we are becoming the gadgets which we use.
- To what extent can contemporary aesthetics respond to such notions? Is there an ›aesthetic program‹? What is an ›aesthetic apparatus‹? An ›aesthetic apparatus‹ only exists in function of a program. To address such questions regarding our epochal ›aesthetic apparatus‹, we need to delve into its program, its regulatory system, its set of conditions.
- The ›aesthetic program‹ is historically and specifically modern. It coincided historically with the rise of modern aesthetics, with the invention of a »speculative theory of Art« (Jean-Marie Schaeffer) that was conceived under the spell of »reason« and »progress« in the 18th and 19th centuries and finally ended up as an ideology in the 20th century: Art.
- Flusser in »Post-History«: »What characterizes programs is the fact that they are systems in which chance becomes necessity. They are games in which every virtuality, even the least probable, will be realized of necessity if the game is played for a sufficiently long time.«
- The ultimate goal of the ›aesthetic program‹ is the transformation of ordinary things into works of Art. Its most effective consequence is thus the Ready-Made. This truth was already at work in Goya’s etchings, in Watteau’s Cythera, in Turner’s storms of light, in Blake’s hallucinations of heaven. To paraphrase Foucault: if the Ready-Made is the ›aesthetic domaine‹ that accomplishes its program, all works of art produced under its premises constitute its »archeological territory«.
- By transforming ordinary things into works of art the ›aesthetic program‹ unceasingly feeds its apparatus, Art. But Art, as it becomes ideology, necessarily reaffirms and reproduces the difference between works of art and ordinary things. Because in every ideology – Marx dixit in »The German Ideology« – »humans and their relationships appear inverted, like in a camera obscura, this phenomenon responding to its own vital historical process, seemingly to the way objects inverted in our retinae correspond to their vital physical process.«
- Art is a phantom, an illusion. Art is an ideal being, an attribution, a generic category to which any object, any ordinary thing will be set in comparison. Art is an ad-nauseam endless and groundless paragone.
- As an ›aesthetic apparatus‹ at the end of its ideological contradiction, Art has contributed to an equalization between its void, empty continent and each and every object that can be labeled as such: as Art, as work of art. All tensions, disjunctions and disproportions between Art and works of art disappear, once works of art have become simple samples of Art.
- Works of art as samples of Art neutralize themselves into a form of ideological annihilation, which is largely dominant, today, over the spectrum of the Art World.
- The difference that Art as ideology produces between works of art and ordinary things belongs to the sociologic order of »distinction«. This »distinction« functions as separation and contributes to the establishment of hierarchies of judgment-value, therefore commodification and finally dissolution of any aesthetic value into market value.
- The ›aesthetic apparatus‹, or Art, at the end of its ideological historical transformation, through the delusional and sociological production of ›distinction‹ between works of art and ordinary objects, at the paradoxical peak of their mutual tautological relationship, has become the very opposite vis-à-vis the ›aesthetic program‹ that happens to be its arkhè: It continues to deal with ordinary things as works of art, but only to the extent that it reproduces again and again their absolute difference, their inconsolable ›distinction‹.
- Can we truly avoid Art? Once the program has produced it – chance becoming necessity – is it inevitably our fate? If every material particle in the Universe has an antiparticle, their eventual contact must result in their annihilation. However, the world exists because matter and antimatter respond to slightly different laws. Metaphorically, Art can be said to be the antimatter of works of art. If they can follow a slightly different pace, they could escape the void of their ideological neutralization. This might result in a new »program«: de-ideologizing Art.
- In order to dismantle the ideological dimension of Art, one could think of a post-artistic mission, a new ›aesthetic program‹ that transforms works of Art back into what they have always been: ordinary things.
- The transformation of works of Art back into ordinary things will not be as simple a program as the transformation of ordinary things into works of art, like the Ready-Made. A program that transforms works of arts back into ordinary things will be an un-programmatic ›aesthetic program‹.
- Works of art considered as nothing more than ordinary things will be marked by a temporal asymmetry vis-à-vis Art: They act in belatedness, their effect is slower, their endurance stronger, their duration longer than that of Art. Works of art as ordinary things are singularities. To avoid their annihilation as Art, we should invent modes of speaking and writing – this is our urgent un-programmatic ›aesthetic program‹ –, that stress their incommensurable singularity, that allow us to conceive them as fields of agonistic tension, disproportion and undetermined differences, as realms for the unclassifiable, as things of beauty.
Luis Pérez-Oramas (born 1960 in Caracas) is a Venezuelan poet, art historian and curator. He is the author of eight poetry books, four essay collections and numerous museum catalogues. He directed the 30th Bienal de São Paulo (The Imminence of Poetics) of 2012 and the Brazilian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennal. Since 2006 he works as The Estrellita Brodsky Curator of Latin American Art in the Department of Drawings and Prints at MoMA, New York.