Un Magazine 7.1

No creation but through submission

Justin Clemens




Ash Keating, Support Can Make the Difference 2006, photograph: Andrew Noble, courtesy the artist and Fehily Contemporary

Arts Research? WTF?! Who the hell would consider bringing together such antipodal signifiers unless they were a bureaucrat or a pervert or both? Under what institutional conditions could such a rebarbative oxymoron even make sense? Surely the term freights all sorts of seamy occlusions and destructions? But perhaps my surprise—even shock and horror—at the very existence of such a denomination means that I’m simply showing my age. After all, as far as I can work it out, my age is the modern age….which now makes me well over 200 years old. My parents are Immanuel Kant and a handful of Romantic poets, for whom the very idea that art and research can go together is a deleterious category mistake. Why?

In his extraordinary philosophical Critiques—the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of Judgement (1790)—Kant seeks to identify and isolate the various operations that together make up the human mind.1 As is well known, Kant’s is a profoundly ‘legalistic’ philosophy, which regionalises operations of thought and attempts to put them in their proper place. Yet, in doing so, Kant identifies the mind with life itself: not only is there ‘a life of the mind,’ but life is mind and mind is life. What a slogan.

Kant’s philosophical legalism is constructed as what is commonly known as a ‘faculty psychology’. Each faculty (das Vermögen) has its own distinctly delimited realm and particular operations. Sensibility (die Sinnlichkeit), which represents things through intuition (die Anschauung), deals with the manifold of sense data by submitting every perception to the pure and empty forms of space and time (every empirical perception must be spatio-temporally located); imagination (das Einbildungskraft) operates by reproduction and association (it enables empirical perceptions to be grouped, archived and reordered according to non-sensible criteria); understanding (der Verstand) has its table of categories (such as causation, under which worldly appearances can be given a logico-scientific ordering); and reason (die Vernunft) has its transcendent ideas (of God, Freedom and Immortality).

The faculties are fundamental jurisdictions which at once constitute regions of appearing. Yet each faculty also strains to exceed its own jurisdiction by illicitly treating phenomena that properly belong in other regions according to its own operations. This is just the way the mind works: naturally seeking to exceed itself, it drives itself into error, for example, by thinking that one can find evidence of reason in the matter of sense perception, or by thinking of qualities as inhering in things themselves. Such ‘transcendental subreptions’ are precisely what Kant’s critique sets out to analyse and correct. Do not confuse this and that! is the subjacent command of Kant’s work, for if you do, scientific, moral and aesthetic errors must inevitably follow!

Ash Keating, Support Can Make the Difference 2006, photograph: Andrew Noble, courtesy the artist and Fehily Contemporary

The first Critique accordingly sets out to justify the methods and results of Newtonian science, showing how all mundane appearances are to be properly brought under transcendental categories that enable the veridicality of empirical research into universal laws. The second Critique offers a transcendental account of the status of morality, with its famous formal analyses of the ‘categorical imperative’ (act as if the maxim of your action would be a universal law) and of the paradoxical imbrication of freedom and duty. The third Critique, the one that will concern us here, proposes a coupled analysis of aesthetics and teleology, of the operations of beauty and sublimity in the world. Here, there are a number.

As J.M. Bernstein puts it:

The central concepts of Kant’s aesthetics—aesthetic reflective judgement, genius, sensus communis, the sublime—are themselves critical interrogations of our standard epistemological and moral vocabulary: aesthetic judgement questions the paradigm of knowing as subsuming particulars under universals; the act of genius conceptualises free action as creative and legislative rather than as rule following; the idea of the sensus communis installs a notion of an epistemic community that breaks with the claims of methodological solipsism and permits a reinscription of sensibility; while the idea of the sublime provides for a conception of alterity or otherness that challenges the sovereignty of the self-determining, autonomous moral subject.2

It is above all the second of the concepts that Bernstein lists that is determining here: the notion of creative genius. Although the notion of ‘genius’ has historically received bad press in modernity as an inherently nasty, unjust and unjustifiable alibi for WASP supremacy, it really is nothing of the kind. Rather, it is only through a concept of genius that the creation of art—as formal novelty that ruptures with inherited technologies—can be justified as such. ‘Genius’ is not simply a person or personage, even if it is necessarily embodied and tagged with a proper name. Rather, genius is that which brings into the world its own peculiar but well-defined form of inexistence that is a new form itself, where ‘form’ has to be understood not as a simple Gestalt, but as the radical presentation of a complex organisation.

For Kant, there is therefore no research in the arts properly speaking. That’s what form and genius were about, at least for Kant: they were extra-technical leaps of imagination which could receive no further explanation—only exemplification. That’s also what art was about for Kant: the genius creates a new form that is tantamount to an event, which is therefore precisely not able to be studied as one would an empirical situation, and which can’t be of itself a contribution to knowledge. Indeed, technically speaking, a ‘form’ for Kant is an inexistent objectivity which makes a claim on our affections. Which doesn’t mean one can’t have discourses about art that lead to further knowledge—what else is art history or the history of technology?—only that ‘invention’ and ‘judgement’ in the arts cannot be reduced to a research- or knowledge-based enterprise without subreption. The creation of art must be a not-knowing or an un-knowing in itself. As, indeed, is the appreciation of art (and beauty more generally): an aesthetic judgement cannot be about something that can be subordinated (‘determined by’) a cognitive or a moral judgement. Even the sublime, which is certainly not a form but a formal rupture, a failure of the human powers of representation before the inexpressible human powers of transcendence, cannot be said to exist. By definition, the sublime is precisely an index of human power-as-impotence, not of power-over-world.

These days, all this philosophical argy-bargy may as well be prehistoric, given that, as Adam Nash puts it in a recent arts grant submission:

In the age of global networked data, nearly everyone in the developed world has signed away their rights to privacy in exchange for the privilege of tirelessly working, for free, to produce content for a handful of massive global data-capitalist corporations. All that is solid melts into data, and such corporations delete none of it, ever, yet present nothing but the right-now, erasing history and context, and replacing it with an endless parade of banal distraction.3

History is bunk, said Henry Ford; History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake, wrote James Joyce. But History was the great invention of Romantic Modernity, given its greatest philosophical impetus by Kant and others (perhaps most spectacularly G.W.F. Hegel), for whom humankind’s progress was a trans-temporal developmental triumph which constantly introduced irreversible leaps into human being-together that were at once cultural and natural, and all sewn together with a species-specific red thread. Liberal Enlightenment culture, which found its philosophical concepts, justifications and modalities of action in these thinkers and their diverse progeny, is now, however, essentially defunct. Instead of modern art, then, we have contemporary art, and instead of historical time, we have the paradoxical non-present designated by the contemporary. And it is only when the contemporary has become utterly dominant as banal distraction that a term like ‘arts research’ can even make any sense. And when it does, we have to recognise that the form of life appropriate to the contemporary is the structure of the globalised real-time technocapitalist corporation. For who now talks about ‘arts research’? Corporate administrators. Indeed, we are all now corporate administrators—or at least in some form of dependency upon such administrators.

It is also against this backdrop that the claims regarding ‘arts research’ can be gauged. Only when there has been a total corruption of the institutions and environment of the art-making and -reception process that the clear operatory distinctions that Kant established can be effectively abolished. Corporate structures are inherently inimical to immanent divisions in their representative contents—in fact, they are carefully and continually redesigned to confront and undermine what Kant called the ‘autonomy’ of every faculty (whether that ‘faculty’ is of the mind, the art world, the university, or the toothpaste factory) according to operations that submit all singularity to abstract, externalised, rationalised processes independent of their material bases. As such, ‘creation’ can no longer be in principle separated from ‘reception’. The art world—just like every other world—is now subject to a technical and economic extraction process that erases the distinctions between pure and applied, hierarchy and flattening, production and reception, etc., at the very moment that it purports to preserve, proliferate and promote the rights of tiny differences. This is one reason why the avant-gardes of modernity—radical as they took themselves to be—can also now be seen as corporate shock-troops from the future, the anticipatory avatars of a deracinated middle-management class.

Boris Groys is perhaps the thinker who has best grasped the implications of these technocapitalist corporate changes. In an extraordinary essay—is there any essay by Groys that is not?—entitled ‘The Loneliness of the Project,’ he writes:

The formulation of diverse projects has become a major contemporary preoccupation. These days, regardless of what one sets out to do in the economy, in politics, or in culture, one first has to formulate a project for official approval or funding from one or several public authorities.4

Groys notes that so much time and energy goes into such proposals that the proposal itself has almost become ‘an art form in its own right’. And yet, by definition, most of these projects are rejected, being lost forever and depriving us of any real sense of the distribution of the hopes of the present. Yet why are such proposals necessary at all? The easy answer is: because things cost money and only a few agencies exist that can provide enough for projects to be actualised; the proposal is the most effective technology that permits those who manage scarce resources to economically and ideologically filter acceptable desires; a few select demons will therefore be placed in charge of selecting a few choice souls. Modern art was about creating new forms; contemporary art is about submitting the appropriate forms.

Such an answer, despite its plausibility, misses something essential. For Groys, something else is at stake: the condition of socially-endorsed solitude. As he proposes, ‘It is commonly accepted that writing a book, preparing an exhibition, or striving to make a scientific discovery oblige the individual to avoid social contact without automatically being judged a bad person.’5 But there still has to be a pay-off or pay-out. The artist who can never show the work, or the writer who cannot finish the book, shade into madness; yet the completion of the project is itself a loss of the sanctioning that supports the artist as artist, that is, as somebody who lives in a virtual future separated from the commons by his or her lonely project. Completion of such a work is equivalent to the return to and of a common time. For Groys, the proposal is therefore the belated representative of avant-gardism in the present, a future-oriented pre-project which affirms that there must be a link between the individual and the society, however paradoxical.

Yet there is more. For

this is why the approval process is so highly unpleasant to a project’s author: at the earliest stage of its submission, the author is already asked to give a meticulously detailed description of how this future will be brought about and what its outcome will be. While the project will be turned down and refused funding if the author proves incapable of doing so, successfully delivering such a precise description will also eliminate the very distance between and author and the others—a distance critical to the entire development of the project.6

The ‘socially-ratified solitude’ that grants allegedly make possible is thereby rendered impossible in and by the grant process itself. The misery is complete: short-term projects, dedicated teams, the painstaking and time-consuming bowing-and-scraping to managers, the concoction of content under such headings as ‘Aims and Significance,’ ‘Methodology,’ ‘Impact and Outcomes.’ Even worse, whether or not anybody believes in the virtue of such headings—let alone the bumpf that fills the empty spaces beneath—you still have to fill them in. Which not only means you don’t have to believe in these forms or the actual project you’re proposing—but you must not believe what these forms seem to ask you to believe, given their patent contingency, inconsistency and pointlessness. But this further means that the filling-in of forms is an assault on the very bases of human creativity, for there can no longer be any earthly reason for filling in these forms other than money itself. Perhaps even worse: the forms are themselves contributors to the ungrounding of all non-economic behaviour. They don’t only say you mustn’t believe in our terms, but also: you mustn’t believe in our terms—but only on our terms. Administrative forms now set the terms in which we can’t believe.

As such, the consequences of such ubiquitous form-filling entail a generalised practical cynicism. Artists have been transformed—without anybody really noticing how deep (or shallow?) the implications go—into grant-writing and grant-acquitting machines. Great contemporary artists are just better at form-filling than their rivals. Great critics are no longer outstanding figures like the much-abused Clement Greenberg; they are essentially anonymous bureaucratic cliques that meet to assess proposals. Great curators, if ‘great’ is even an adjective that can be applied without contradiction to curating, function more and more like administrative tyrants, squatting like trolls over their fiscal and territorial jurisdictions; the content that curators deliver is meta-content, a presentation of their own bureaucratically-ordered selection procedures. Above all, this emphasis on proposals means that the proposals themselves have become far more important than the putative outcomes. Everybody knows that the more you successfully propose, the more you succeed, given that success is now identified not with having a great show—who’s to judge that? and there are so many shows anyway!—but an impressive sequence of successful grant submissions. If ‘the sublime’ still has any pertinence in the contemporary situation, it is in the failed grant proposal: a representation unable to live up to its Idea.

Of course, this total domination by grant proposals is a disaster. When an institution has no rationale but money it can only destroy, becoming a vast industrial extraction device feasting on human souls. But it is also the case that people regularly mistake who their true enemies really are. Human beings love to react against what their mediators proffer, rather than against the vitiated principles—the quality of the environment—that corrupt what’s proffered. Like a teenage kid hating maths because of her rebellion against the structure of schooling and the degraded form of its delivery, instead of recognising that the maths is incredible, one can end up harming oneself and others in a long-term way by rejecting it tout court. Don’t hate the art, no, sorry, I mean the maths. Rather, it’s vital to recognise that what’s proffered is the good in a corrupt form. The real rebellion would be for the teenager to take on the maths as an absolute good in itself, that is, as an inherently inventive process ultimately independent of any calculable gain. That’s my suggestion, then, for artists filling out the immutable and interminable forms of today: the artistic task today is to assault in order to recreate this contemporary corporate corruption of the nexus between the project of art and its actualisation as Idea.

Justin Clemens teaches at the University of Melbourne.

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. P. Guyer and A. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Critique of Practical Reason, trans. M. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Critique of the Power of Judgement, trans. P. Guyer and E. Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). 

  2. J.M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (Cambridge: Polity, 1993), p. 8. 

  3. A. Nash with C. Dodds and J. Clemens, Distributed Empire, unpublished submission to ISEA, 2013. 

  4. Boris Groys, Going Public (New York: Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 71. 

  5. Groys, Going Public, p. 73. 

  6. Groys, Going Public, p. 76.