Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
Author: Dr. Gerry Coulter
Baudrillard’s references to art and aesthetics run into the hundreds in his books and span his career. There are several keys to his approach to art including: a suspicion of culture, the death of the avant-garde, transaesthetics, the role of art, the relationship of art and the real, and his own photography.
Baudrillard fancied himself, with good cause, to be the contemporary equivalent of the Danube Peasant (2005b:66) . He denied having any formal training in the arts and admired in himself his brute-like joy of fascination unencumbered by aesthetic, moral, social or political judgments (1987a:28). Baudrillard maintained a deep suspicion of culture and the ways in which it is interwoven into structures of the economy (the art world and art market), and political culture. His refusal to promote contemporary culture included a courageous refusal of the celebratory embrace of the New York art world, precisely at the time when accepting it would have led him to greater fame and book sales in the United States (1997:10). Baudrillard’s thought in this respect constitutes an important challenge to an increasingly promotional art world in which the reputations of curators are staked on keeping alive the idea of an avant-garde. Baudrillard posited that the role of museums and curators in the art market side of the art world was a kind of conspiracy which saw museums and other cultural venues complicit in the generation of speculative values for art in the 1980s (2005b:25). In France Baudrillard outraged the arts and cultural establishment by calling Beaubourg (The Pompidou Centre), a monster, which, like other recent architectural monsters, “testify not to the integrity of the city but to its disintegration, not to its organic nature but to its disorganization, they reflect the satellization of urban existence” (1987b [1990:105]).
Baudrillard realized that the avant-garde died not long after the end of the second world war and that this had enormous implications for contemporary art. In his view it was still possible to see the subversive remnants of the avant-garde up to abstract expressionism (at least a form of gestural subversion). But after abstract expressionism, and certainly by the time of Warhol, we could no longer talk about the avant-garde. This is not to say that new things did not continue to happen in the arts, but that it was (mainly because of Duchamp’s influence on countless young artists since the 1950s), a form of “posthumous representation”. The result has been what Baudrillard referred to as a confused art world because all forms became simultaneously possible. This meant for him that we had passed through the avant-garde into the age of kitsch (2001:144). Art was no longer art because it had come into too close contact with the real. Art’s job, on the contrary, was to negate reality – a power art has at its disposal (1990 [1993:14]).
In the era of kitsch anything (including relatively unprocessed garbage) can be art. The aestheticization of everything removes what is special about art and it dies. With Duchamp’s ready-mades Baudrillard felt that we passed into an order of transaesthetics, or a kind of aesthetics of banality. Before long he felt this would overtake our entire culture and is well into the process of doing so by the early 21st century (2005b:75).
Baudrillard did like some contemporary art if, like Olivier Mosset’s, it deeply problematized the role of the creator in the contemporary art world (2001:139). He was also fond of Enrico Baj (2001:142) who he said succeeded admirably in resolving the monstrosity of our social existence. The only art that interested Baudrillard in recent years was that which “itself succeeds in being a monstrous act of resolving and reabsorbing the monstrosity of our lives” (Ibid.). For him a medium like painting can succeed in becoming such a mythic operator. This does not mean that we have an avant-garde but we do have some art that stands against the effort to subsume the art world into the promotional culture of late capitalism. Baudrillard was especially joyful that some readers viewed his writing to be monstrous (1993:154).
Baudrillard has attained a certain notoriety for his photographs taken after 1985 and shown in major cultural venues around the world. These were not, in Baudrillard’s mind, “works of art”, but his effort to understand how important light is to a proper image. His work with a camera is of remarkably high quality because he understands that the essence of photography is the writing of light. His photographs represent a deep challenge to digital manipulation in an era in which the light of the computer screen is the most potent force blocking out the light of the sun from the making of images.
About the Author
Dr. Gerry Coulter is from Bishop’s University, Canada
Jean Baudrillard (1987). The Evil Demon of Images. Sydney: Power Institute Publications. Translated by Paul Patton and Paul Foss.
Jean Baudrillard (1987b ). Cool Memories, 1980-1985. New York: Verso. Translated by Chris Turner.
Jean Baudrillard (1990 ). The Transparency of Evil. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1993) Baudrillard Live – Selected interviews. Edited by Mike Gane. London: Routledge.
Jean Baudrillard (1997). Art and Artefact. New York: SAGE. Translated and edited by Nicholas Zurbrugg.
Jean Baudrillard (2001). The Uncollected Baudrillard. Edited by Gary Genosko. London: SAGE.
Jean Baudrillard (2005b). The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e) / MIT. Edited by Sylvere Lotringer.