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#1- 25: What is the use of art?

Keti Chukhrov /// On the Use and Harm of Art for Life

It is a commonplace that art is useless, that art is not utilitarian. This is in fact the case. However, art’s anti-utilitarianism often implies elitism, while, on the contrary, the resistance to elitism often results in the instrumentalization of art, in the application of its idioms towards one or another practical end.

It is a commonplace that art is useless, that art is not utilitarian. This is in fact the case. However, art’s anti-utilitarianism often implies elitism, while, on the contrary, the resistance to elitism often results in the instrumentalization of art, in the application of its idioms towards one or another practical end.

In the former case, art turns into a sacred institution for the chosen few. In the latter, it functions as a form of social therapy or cultural production.

In the twenty-first century, each of these vectors seems to have run its course. Why? Because in the near future we will be more and more often confronted with the retreat of art from the places we traditionally have found it—concert halls, museums, theaters, galleries, etc.—and its reappearance in arbitrary, unpredictable places.

This means it will no longer be necessary to report back to the high priests of various artistic guilds and, therefore, to present oneself in those representative places where legitimation in literature, music, theater, and art is conferred.

Many cultural and intellectual figures accuse succeeding generations of a lack of culture and memory. This, no doubt, is quite often the case. But if we take a closer look at these “omniscient” devotees of culture and art, we will discover their flagrant cultural and artistic ignorance—of course, that is, if we hold art and culture to be a history of humanity’s creative breakthroughs, not narrow professional mastery. We will find that musicians know nothing of contemporary art; that contemporary artists have no clue about the history of music or the history of painting; that writers are unacquainted with philosophy, while philosophers have no faith that real art continues to be made. (This is not to mention so-called professional writers, composers, artists, and actors. These Neanderthals are in need not only of education, but also of medical treatment.)

In other words, there is no scholar, historian or critic of art who knows art in general, as a totality. Such figures as Hegel, Benjamin, and Adorno aspired to this kind of knowledge, but even they had their limitations. For example, Hegel and Benjamin had little understanding of music, while Adorno in all likelihood had a poor grasp of photography, cinema, and the contemporary art scene.

I have no wish to affirm that one should know and remember everything. It is just that, if this is impossible, then we should not pass off the machinery of cultural circulation for memory. There is the domain of culture; there are scholarly studies that expand the archive. But there is no such thing as universal cultural memory. This is because memory belongs to the individual, and the individual will remember mainly what she finds meaningful, whether that is Dante, Shakespeare, the Wanderers or Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh. And that is why culture is not universal. Its archive is enormous, but it remains captive to particulars.

The miracle is that art has access to this kind of universality. Unlike culture, art has the potential to seize all potentialities. Because it takes for granted the existence of many different expressive idioms, it is greater than and superior to these idioms. It is entirely possible that art has now reached the stage of emancipation from the fetters of genre and craft. But I don’t at all have in mind a Gesamtkunstwerk.

Deleuze and Guattari gave a precise description of this universal potential in Anti-Oedipus:

 

[P]ure positive multiplicities where everything is possible, without exclusiveness or negation, syntheses operating without a plan, where the connections are transverse, the disjunctions included, the conjunctions polyvocal, indifferent to their underlying support, since this matter that serves them precisely as a support receives no specificity from any structural or personal unity, but appears as the body without organs that fills the space each time an intensity fills it; signs of desire that compose a signifying chain but that are not themselves signifying, and do not answer to the rules of a linguistic game of chess, but instead to the lottery drawings that sometimes cause a word to be chosen, sometimes a design, sometimes a thing or a piece of a thing.

Such is their immanent analysis of the creative process.

This is exactly how it is: creative inspiration is a lottery in which one thing, and then another pops out, for everything is given. Everything is given to everyone. Art is not situated in genre, method, artwork or the consciousness of a particular “artist,” but in the space between everything and everyone. The selection will no longer be made the way we traditionally imagine it—via the construction of the artistic product from a combination of the conceptual, the aesthetically beautiful, the politically problematic, the personally lyrical, the stylistically fine-tuned, and (most important) the generically determinate. This is when poetry can consist only of verbal components and cannot intermingle with song or cinema; when sculpture must not recombine dynamically with elements of choreography or actionism; when dance cannot be a concept, and video cannot be combined with acting, etc.

No. The choice will be made in the artistic mode of human beings, in that way and to that degree that it is potentially open to each individual, and to the extent to which previously incompatible things and signs—images, sounds, video recordings, speech, reflections, acting, song—can be accommodated within this choice.

Professional communities and institutions of success and careerist accumulation, which stifle the possibility of creative risk and experiment, obstruct the recognition of this reality. The role of such a stifling “guild” is often played by the presumption that a strictly observed continuity of artistic experience exists—who inherits what from whom. We need to forget all these fantasies. There is no need to toss anyone or anything from the steamship of contemporaneity. We simply need to understand that everything is given to everyone. Otherwise, the existence of life on earth has no meaning.

And the history of culture is not a universal given, but merely a barrier erected to keep out all these masses. For it is this defensive scab that either profanes all the great art produced before our time by calling for a postmodernist mingling of the intensive, the heroic, the half-baked, and the petit-bourgeois; or, on the contrary, turns the history of art into a moribund archive and a mausoleum. For art, these conservative institutions and positions are the same thing as the institution of monarchy for a society.

Warhol, Beuys, Guy Debord and the Situationists—to different degrees, under different conditions, and, perhaps, operating with different (not always compatible) worldviews—already foresaw the potential of art’s universal openness. (Beuys, for example, had the ontological and political openness of art in mind when he said that anyone could be an artist. He likewise proved the world’s variety and difference could penetrate the work of art.) However, their prophecies were quickly overturned by the valorizing gestures of contemporary art, and hence all these aspirations reappeared as the self-representation of an exclusive individuality.

Nowadays, despite the sheer number of cultural institutions, the quantity of artistic potentials that can be thought within them is quite meager.

Therefore, of course, while we have to use the funds and capacities of these institutions, we should not do so at the price of losing a multiple perspective on the world and castrating unpredictable creative processes, the possibilities and multiplicities in whose absence art becomes barren. We have entered open waters. Full steam ahead.

 

Translated by Thomas Campbell

 

Keti Chukhrov is a poet, philosopher, and art critic. She lives in Moscow.

 

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