Number 2 (July 2006)
Book Review: Less Stupid Than the Show
Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Translated by Ames Hodges. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005
(Chicago, Illinois, USA).
Perhaps the reason Baudrillard stirred up so much controversy with his 1996 essay The Conspiracy of Art was due to the clarity of his attack. Most theorists of his stature resort to dispassionate and rarified expressions that make even the most educated reread with caution. Baudrillard, despite his claims of disinterest, took off his gloves and made a direct blow to the leviathan the art market has become. Nonetheless, it seems to have had little effect except to damage Baudrillard’s reputation, which is possibly why he has allowed to be published a compilation of his essays under the same title, offering a defense of his theories.
Baudrillard claims to have been as surprised as anyone from the art scene embracing his theories, and the subsequent uproar from his rejection of it. Most of his ideas were laid out years before, and this book demonstrates that he was never an enthusiastic supporter of contemporary art.
I was first introduced to Baudrillard in art history at graduate school. We read The Evil Demon of Images, which made a lasting impression simply because he was, by far, the least confusing, for me, of the postmodern French theorists. But I never heard anyone so much as mention his “scandalous” essay, “The Conspiracy of Art”, even though it would have made for a more relevant and lively class discussion. Maybe it was just long enough, about five years, for the anger to subside; or perchance the criticism had been absorbed, digested, and returned as new forms of art. Either way, it seems only fitting that the article was never assigned, as it merely furthers his notion of a conspiracy!
Rhonda Lieberman, on Art Forum’s website, has attempted to reduce Baudrillard’s argument to an attack on the capitalist nature of the art market. She deflects his popularity with hipsters by suggesting the majority of those who attended Baudrillard’s New York book signing had probably never read his work. She may be right, but it seems she did not read him closely either, or else she would have taken solace in his attacks, much of what are directed towards the those in the art world who follow blindly.
Baudrillard refers to supporters of the contemporary art market as “the inside traders, the counterfeiters of nullity, the snobs of nullity, of all those who prostitute Nothingness to value, who prostitute Evil for useful ends”.1 His reasoning legitimizes Warhol, as opposed to the school of Warhol that has subsequently imitated the artist’s sense of irony and repetition. His description of the art world is cool and rational, yet unforgiving, stating, “artists have a commercial strategy of nullity, one to which they give a marketable form, the sentimental form of commodity…”
Baudrillard’s accusation of a conspiracy is not so much a plot but the result of failure, preventing even critical judgment: “Therein lies the conspiracy of art at its primal scene, transmitted by all of the openings, hangings, exhibitions, restorations, collections, donations and speculations, and that cannot be undone in any known universe, since it has hidden itself from thought behind the mystification of images”.
Baudrillard sees himself as a peasant and plays “the role of the Danube peasant”.2 And he does it well, stripping away the layers of pretension until he concludes, “through the bluff of nullity, to force people a contrario to give (art) some importance and credit under the pretext that there is no way it could be so null, that it must be hiding something”.3 Thus, Baudrillard calls contemporary art what it has been called for decades by the public, bullshit, albeit in slightly more respectable terms. His writing, however, is what makes his ideas so accessible. Unlike so many of his fellow philosophers (Deleuze and Guattari readily come to mind), Baudrillard is straightforward and can be understood by most on the first read. This does not make his ideas unchallenging; instead he follows a logical line of thought and rarely gets diverted.
The choice and organization of essays in the book is another matter. In the same subsection as Conspiracy are essays on politics from 1997 and 2002. Both discuss Le Pen, the leader of the extreme-right Front National du France, and how the left have reacted to his methods. Baudrillard offers an interesting glimpse into the politics of France at a time when Paris has experienced riots; it seems France might just be as, if not more, racist and xenophobic than America. (Recently interviewed by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times, Baudrillard dismisses any such idea, explaining that France is a country and America a concept, which is why, in addition to the US being founded on immigration, his country has encountered difficulty reconciling the Muslim with traditional French culture.)
Initially the political essays seem unconnected to the main topic of art, based on the name of the subsection Provocation, it appears Baudrillard is similarly attempting to rouse the political left to address their own actions. Calling them blind imbeciles, as he does, should do it. Nevertheless, these essays can be applied to politics here in America. Baudrillard describes how the left has discriminated against the extreme-right, and therefore by “locking Le Pen in a ghetto, the democratic left is locking itself up.” This is similar to the American left’s negation of the Bush administration and the Neo-Conservatives.
The book includes several conversations, including “Art Between Utopia and Anticipation” from 1990. In it Baudrillard further defines his opinion of contemporary art. It can be summarized by the question from Ruth Scheps, his interviewer, “Hasn’t art in the second half of our century largely renounced the pretensions it had to change life?” Baudrillard replies: “Personally, I find art increasingly pretentious. It wants to become life”.4 He then discusses destiny and how art used to be moving towards a utopia, but now only anticipates. The difference is significant, according to Baudrillard. Art, like politics, used to have a purpose. Neither do any longer. They only serve to make us feel better about the aesthetic and political filth no one else can deal with. Art only looks to the future and creates new aesthetic styles, only to be quickly reinvented, like technology that is designed to be outdated so that it must be repurchased.
“No Nostalgia for Old Aesthetic Values” from 1996 was written shortly after “The Conspiracy of Art”, and in a defensive tone. His first line, “The misunderstanding, which I am not trying to avoid, is that art, basically, is not my problem”. This is perhaps the most confounding and, as a conservative American politician might say, “French” statement he makes. He tempers it: “I am not aiming for art or artists personally. Art interests me as an object, from an anthropological point of view: the object, before any promotion of its aesthetic value, and what happens after. We are almost lucky to live at a time when aesthetic value, like others by the way, is foundering. It’s a unique situation”.5
Baudrillard continues to assume art will cease to have a purpose. He states, “Art is a form. A form is something that does not exactly have a history, but a destiny. Art had a destiny. Today, art has fallen into value, unfortunately at a time when values have suffered”.6 Baudrillard believes in destiny and to not have one is what’s wrong with art. Yet he does not accept the idyllic view that art deserves a “special privilege”.7
He attacks history and the overburdening of objects with discourse (ironic for a theorist, it might seem). Similarly, he attacks aesthetics as it hides the “proper value” and prevents us from knowing the actual object.8 This is in line with his more famous theories of simulacra and simulation, in that reality has been taken over by images and signs and ceased to exist in its original form. (Not to be mistaken with Plato’s allegory of the cave, although it often feels like a modern version of it… redux, if you will.)
One of the most defining essays of this collection is “Too Much is Too Much” from 2001. The title originated as early as 1978 in an essay about politics. In the more recent one he makes his clearest statements, including his belief that art no longer “confronts evil.” For Baudrillard, art worked with reality, offering an alternative reality through challenge as opposed to escape via hyperreality. Initially, this reads as being problematic, as if he is advocating for a hyperreality – a synthetic creation from art and reality. But he makes it clear by stating, “too much is too much”, and “I believe a limit does exist”.9 He references what Francesco Bonami, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago Curator and 2003 Venice Biennale, said to him: “How can there be too much? You can never have enough of a good thing.” Baudrillard countered: “And obesity? You don’t think there is a pathology in there, do you?” “The more body, the better it is,” Bonami replied.10 Baudrillard scores twice in this exchange for me as he proves his point while making a respected art figure look as if he has a fat fetish.
For Baudrillard, culture can only take so much waste and abuse before it either loses all value, ceases to be, or is forced to change. For him, it seems, he expects to see a change as he repeatedly uses the metaphor of what happens after an orgy, but a new seduction.
Baudrillard was more pointed in the 1980s. In the following decade and thereafter it looks like he became more cynical, yet tried to come to terms with the state of art. In a 1987 essay he accuses art as being the DEGREE XEROX OF CULTURE.11 The art market is merely a system for aesthetic storage, exhibition and recreation, where culture no longer offers an illusion, only the memory of illusion.
By 1995 Baudrillard had not let up on this point and taking it further, expecting an infinite retrospective, sounding like a Mies van der Rohe’s reincarnation mourning the loss of his motto: “we have forgotten in modernity: subtraction brings force”.12 A year layer, Baudrillard apparently had had enough, and published “The Conspiracy of Art”, making sure his thoughts were shared with the art world.
In his most recent essay he describes an art market that is pointless, existing merely to justify its own existence. “Painting is now about being a painter.” “The less there is to say about art, the more we must talk about it.” Here he begins to tie his interests in art and politics together. Politicians, according to Baudrillard, “relieve us of the bothersome responsibility of power;” whereas art is nonsense, relieving us from the grasp of meaning.13
Baudrillard is a very constructive cynic. His opinions are all very pessimistic, yet contrast with his regrets of lost opportunities and misdirections. It is highly doubtful his claims of what art and politics were at what time are true in any sense; it sounds more like the words of one who is past his own reconciliation with the present. Yet in the end, it seems not to matter. He convincingly describes how art and culture appear to be today. By doing so, he is explaining how culture could be.
Many of his most cynical ideas, such as politicians being the worst sort of creatures, and that contemporary art is pointless nonsense, are shard by large segments of the population. Yet Baudrillard makes them sound less familiar, even fresh. Perhaps it is because he simultaneously describes alternative possibilities. Contemporary art, without a purpose or a reason to exist, is nothing more than decoration, and in that sense, less desirable than most things that are not considered art.
But he also offers these alternative reasons for the continued success of the contemporary art market: “Either the viewers are immersed in the nullity of the show and take pleasure in it as they would from their own image, one with a fresh facelift for the occasion. Or they take pleasure in feeling less stupid than the show – and therefore never tire of watching it”.14
1 Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and Translated by Ames Hodges. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:27.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)