In composing The Rite, Igor Stravinsky was famously motivated by a desire to “send them all to hell.” ‘Them’ here being taken to mean civil society, or, we might say, a certain ‘distribution of the sensible’ in pre-war Europe. Now, the violence that Stravinsky managed to unleash in the Rite (in other ways a very conservative piece…) was shocking enough, along with the choreography, to cause a now mythologised riot.
A similar desire motivated an entire movement of ‘avant-garde’ music throughout the 20th Century wishing to unleash the ‘Real’ of the situation by destroying the semblance, by a certain expressionism of the Real – a trend that François Nicolas in his book on Schoenberg (translation forthcoming…) identifies as pertaining in essence to the scream of that which, in a structure, represents the part that cannot be accepted by that structure.
This passion for the Real as Badiou calls it (sorry to keep coming back to this!), in art is divided along two lines: firstly, is the intrinsic artistic desire to uncover new forms; secondly is the ‘extrinsic’ (I’m afraid of writing that word without scare-quotes for some reason) matter of a desire to represent, for a culture, that which is unrepresentable for that culture – that is, to reveal to a culture its social ‘truth’.
Walking around the streets of Paris’ well-to-do arrondissements, I’m filled likewise with this desire, in my art (and sometimes in my politics), to send them all to hell. These people whose whole world is in a very real sense, a semblance. The clothes they wear, the stupid things they talk about (what I can understand of Parisian French), the coffees that they drink. In a fit of ultra-leftism, I am seized by the desire to show to them the ugly truth of the foundations of their existence, to rat out all the (not so small) nook and crannies where this image breaks down, etc. I think to myself: Fuck it. Let’s make brutal art! Send them all to hell.
But, the thought then meets its necessary opposition.
Two things come up: firstly, along intrinsically artistic lines, haven’t we been making brutal art for some time now? In music, from Erwartung and The Rite, through early Boulez, Xenakis, Lachenmann, to the noise aesthetic and ‘saturation’ music still trending in parts of Europe at the moment. We have conquered such a terrain of violence that for the audience its act qua act, or gesture, is neutralised, and the audience will respond simply with – “oh yeah, that thing” (whether they associate positive or negative feelings with this ‘thing’ is not really a matter for our concern). This act being neutralised, it has the tendency to dissolve itself into aestheticism. In Berlin last year, I spoke with composer Simon-Steen Andersen, who I like very much as a person, and whose music is very good, who said that what people like Lachenmann and Spahlinger can’t understand is that he (Simon) and other young composers who use Lachenmann-esque in no way see them in the same way as their older counterparts (i.e. qua ‘real’), but simply as great sounds and materials for writing good music (which doesn’t necessarily imply a lapse into aestheticism, but it’s perilously close to it).
Secondly, in late-capitalism in the West, has not the ideological order been able to integrate so many images of violence that violence can no longer pose itself as ‘Real’? Insofar as this art is a mode of ‘critical art’ it comes up against the impasse that Rancière identifies in his wonderful The Emancipated Spectator. How can these ‘images’ of violence reveal anything of the ideological order, when the ideological order incorporates so many of these images? (I’m not sure if I’m remembering Rancière’s point exactly, but it suits my purposes here…). I’m thinking of films, TV, the news, and video games in particular, but also the arts themselves as part of this ‘distribution of the sensible’ (and this is where ‘extrinsic’ is not really a good word).
So this kind of violence is doomed on both fronts – firstly because it is a stale aesthetic form, and secondly because it is impotent in terms of its function of social ‘critique’.
Ok. Simple. Impasse identified: Critical art is artistically impotent now (which doesn’t mean any art that critiques), but art must still 1) conquer new aesthetic forms, 2) maintain a relation to the social that is on the side of its truth.
The real difficulty starts now. In a future post I’ll discuss a response that I believe François Nicolas offers in conceiving the real not as a violent irreducible point in the social order (expressionism) but instead as non-alienated labour as such (what he calls the diagonal style). (I’m here drawing upon the analysis of Marx and Lacan in the recent book of Arribas and Rouse which I look at briefly here). The consequences for art are not at all evident – one only has to read his Schoenberg Singularity to see that – but it might open up some new spaces for artistic practice.
In terms of politics, I currently don’t think this bears too much import. Critique is still important, but more important as always is the positive work of building a real movement that abolishes the present state of things. That which is called communism, and the daily work of which is far from romantic.