Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008)
Author: Jean Baudrillard
* This paper was given as a lecture at the Whitney Museum (New York) in 1987. It also appears in Sylvere Lotringer (Editor) Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. New York: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2005:98-110.
My relationship with art and aesthetics has always, in a way, remained clandestine, intermittent, ambivalent. Probably because I am an iconoclast; I come from a moralist, metaphysical tradition, a political and ideological tradition that has always been wary of art and culture in general, that has always been wary of the distinction between nature and culture, art and reality, as something too banally obvious. I always thought siding with art was an all too direct and easy solution (the same goes for poetry and painting): no one should do art, no one should pass through to the enchanted side of form and appearance until all its problems have been resolved. And art assumes all problems have been resolved, it is not even the solution, to problems that are really posed. Ideally defined, art is the solution to problems that are not even raised. But I want to raise problems. Art is profoundly seduction, and although I have spoken enthusiastically about seduction, I do not want to fall prey to the seduction of art. That is why I have spoken about seduction more in terms of simulation and simulacra-reflecting a skeptical, critical, paradoxical position and raising a challenge to both the naive exercise of reality and the naive exercise of art. I must insist on the fact that what I can tell you comes from somewhere else, that the perspective I may have is somewhat distant, somewhat sidereal, but that it is the best one for judging contemporary art without prejudging its value. And I find some justification for speaking as an iconoclast in that art itself has for the most part become iconoclastic.
In this trajectory, which starts with Hegel when he spoke of the “rage to disappear” and of art engaged in the process of its own disappearance, a direct line links Baudelaire to Andy Warhol under the auspices of “absolute commodity.” In the grand opposition between the concept of the work of art and modern industrial society, Baudelaire invented the first radical solution. Faced with the threat to art by merchant, vulgar, capitalist, advertising society, with new objectification in terms of market value, Baudelaire opposes them from the start with absolute objectification instead of a defense of the traditional status of the work of art. Since aesthetic value risks alienation from commodity, instead of avoiding alienation, art had to go farther in alienation and fight commodity with its own weapons. Art had to follow the inescapable paths of commodity indifference and equivalence to make the work of art an absolute commodity. Confronted with the modern challenge of commodity, art should not seek its salvation in critical denial (because then it would only be art for art’s sake, the derisory and powerless mirror of capitalism and the inevitability of commodity), but it should go farther in formal and fetishized abstraction, in the fantasy of exchange value-becoming more commoditized than commodities. More than use value, but escaping exchange value by radicalizing it.
An absolute object is one with no value and indifferent quality, avoiding objective alienation by making itself more object than the object-giving it a fatal quality. (This transcendence of exchange value, this destruction of commodity by its very value is visible in the exacerbation of the painting market: reckless speculation on art works is a parody of the market, a mockery in itself of market value, all rules of equivalency are broken, and we find ourselves in a realm that has nothing to do with value, only the fantasy of absolute value, the ecstasy of value. This is not only true on the economic level, but on the aesthetic level as well, where all aesthetic values (styles, manners, abstraction or figuration, neo or retro, etc.) are simultaneously and potentially at their maximum, where any value could at once, using its special effects, hit the top ten, without there being any means for comparison or eliciting any value judgment. We are in the jungle of fetish-objects, and the fetish object, as everyone knows, has no value in itself, or rather it has so much value that it cannot be exchanged.
This is the point we have reached in art today, and this is the superior irony Baudelaire was seeking for the work of art: a superiorly ironic commodity because it no longer meant anything, was even more arbitrary and irrational than commodities, therefore circulating all the more rapidly and taking on more value as it lost its meaning and reference. Baudelaire was not far from assimilating the art work to fashion itself under the auspices of triumphant modernity. Fashion as an ultra-commodity, the sublime assumption of commodity, and thus a radical parody and radical denial of commodity. If the commodity form shatters the former ideality of the object (its beauty, authenticity and even its functionality), then there is no need to try reviving it by denying the essence of commodity. On the contrary, it is necessary, and this is what constituted the perverse and adventurous seduction of the modern world, to make this rupture absolute. There is no dialectic between the two, synthesis is always a weak solution, dialectics is always a nostalgic solution. The only radical and modern solution: potentializing what is new, unexpected, great in commodity, in other words the formal indifference to usefulness and value, the primacy given to circulation without reserve. This is what the work of art should be: it should take on the characteristics of shock, strangeness, surprise, anxiety, liquidity and even self-destruction, instantaneity and unreality that are found in commodities.
That is why, in Baudelaire’s fantastic-ironic logic, the work of art joins fashion, advertising, the “fantasy of the code” – the work of art sparkling in its venality, its mobility, irreferential effects, hazards and vertigo – a pure object of marvelous commutability because with causes gone, all effects are possible and virtually equivalent.
They can be void as well, as we know, but it is up to the work of art to fetishize this nullity, this vanishing and draw extraordinary effects from it. A new form of seduction: no longer the mastery of illusion and the aesthetic order, but the vertigo of obscenity – who can say what the difference is between them? Vulgar merchandise spawns a universe of production and God knows if this universe is melancholy or not. When raised to the power of absolute commodity, it spawns seduction effects.
The art object, as a newly victorious fetish (and not the sad, alienated fetish) must work to deconstruct its traditional aura, its authority and its power of illusion to stand out: in the pure obscenity of commodity. It must destroy itself as a familiar object and become monstrously unfamiliar. But this foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object, it does not excel through loss or dispossession, it excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else, it excels by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.
The perspective that comes from Baudelaire’s experience of the transformation of commodities at the World’s Fair of 1855 is in (many ways superior to Walter Benjamin’s conception. In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin draws a desperately political (or politically desperate) conclusion from the decay of the object’s aura and authenticity, which leads to melancholy modernity. Baudelaire’s infinitely more modern position (but perhaps one could only be truly modern in the 19th century?) involves the exploration of new forms of seduction tied to pure events, to the modern passion known as fascination.
When Andy Warhol advocated the radical imperative to become an absolute “machine,” even more mechanical than the machine, because he sought the automatic, machine-like reproduction of objects that were already mechanical, already manufactured (be it a can of soup or a star’s face), he was following the same line of absolute commodity as Baudelaire. He was only carrying out Baudelaire’s vision to perfection, which was simultaneously the fate of modern art, even when it denied it: the complete realization of the negative ecstasy of value, which is also the negative ecstasy of representation, all the way to the self-denial. And when Baudelaire stated that the vocation of the modern artist was to give the commodity a heroic status while the bourgeoisie only gave it sentimental expression in advertising – meaning that heroism did not consist in making art and value sacred again in opposition to commodities, which would be a sentimental effect and one that continues to have widespread influence on our artistic, creation, but making commodity sacred as commodity – he made Warhol the hero, or antihero, of modern art. Warhol went the farthest in the ritual paths of the disappearance of art, of all sentimentality in art; he pushed the ritual of art’s negative transparency and art’s radical indifference to its own authenticity the farthest. The modern hero is not the hero of the artistic sublime, but rather the hero of the objective irony of the world of commodity, the world that art incarnates in the objective irony of its own disappearance. But this disappearance is no more negative or depressive than commodity. In the spirit of Baudelaire, it is an object of enthusiasm, There is a modern fantasy of commodity and there is a parallel fantasy of the disappearance of art. But you have to know how to vanish, of course. All of art’s disappearance, and thus all its modernity, is in the art of disappearance. And all the difference between the pedestrian, exultant art of the 19th and 20th centuries, official art, art for art’s sake, etc. (which has no borders and can move between figurative and abstract and any other category), the art born precisely in Baudelaire’s time, the art that he hated so much, the art that is far from dead, since it is still being rehabilitated today in the major museums of the world – the difference between this art and the other is the secret denial, the almost involuntary, unconscious choice by authentic art to disappear. Warhol made this choice consciously, almost too consciously, too cynically. But it still was a heroic choice. Official art never acts out its own disappearance. That is why it rightly disappeared from our minds for a century. Its triumphant reappearance today in the post-modern era means that the great modern adventure of the disappearance of art is now over.
Something must have happened one hundred and fifty years ago that implicated both the liberation of art (its liberation as an absolute commodity) and its disappearance. An explosive practice, then an implosive one, following which the cycle was over. We are now in an end without finality, the opposite of the finality without end that, according to Kant, characterizes classical aesthetics. In other words, we are in a transaesthetics, a completely different turn of events, a turn that is difficult to describe and delineate, since, by definition, aesthetic judgments are impossible in it.
If I had to characterize the current state of affairs, I would say that it is “after the orgy.” The orgy, in a way, was the explosive movement of modernity, of liberation in every domain. Political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation of productive forces, liberation of destructive forces, women’s liberation, children’s liberation, liberation of unconscious drives, liberation of art. The assumption of all models of representation, all models of anti-representation; It was a total orgy: of reality, rationality, sexuality, critique and anti-critique, growth and growth crises. We have explored all the paths of production and virtual overproduction of objects, signs, messages, ideologies, pleasures. Today, if you want my opinion, everything has been liberated, the dice have been rolled, and we are collectively faced with the crucial question: WHAT DO WE DO AFTER THE ORGY?
We can only simulate orgy and liberation now, pretending to continue on in the same direction at greater speeds, but in reality, we are accelerating in empty space, because all of the ends of liberation (of production, progress, revolution) are already behind us. What we are haunted by, obsessed with, is the anticipation of every result, the availability of every sign, every form, every desire, since everything is already liberated. What to do? It is the state of simulation where we can only replay all the scenarios because they have already taken place – in reality or virtually, it is the state of accomplished utopia, of every utopia accomplished, but where you have to live paradoxically as if they had not. Because they have been realized, and because we can no longer keep the hope of accomplishing them, we are only left with hyper-accomplishment in indefinite simulation. We are living in the infinite reproduction of ideals, fantasies, images and dreams that are now behind us and that we have to reproduce in a kind of fatal indifference.
This is true of every domain: the grand social utopia was accomplished in the bureaucratic and totalitarian materialization of the social. The grand sexual utopia was accomplished in the technological, athletic and neurotic materialization of every sexual practice. And this is true of art as well: the grand utopia of art, the great illusion, the great transcendence of art materialized everywhere. Art has thoroughly entered reality. Some say that art is dematerializing. The exact opposite is true: art today has thoroughly entered reality. It is in museums and galleries, but also in trash, on walls, in the street, in the banality of everything that has been made sacred today without any further debate. The aestheticization of the world is complete. Just as we now have a bureaucratic materialization of the social, a technological materialization of sexuality, a media and advertising materialization of politics, we have a semiotic materialization of art. It is culture understood as the officialization of every thing in terms of signs and the circulation of signs. There are complaints about the commercialization of art, the mercantilization of aesthetic values. But this is just the old nostalgic, bourgeois refrain. The general aestheticization of things should be feared more. Much more than market speculation, we should fear the transcription of every thing in cultural, aesthetic terms, into museographic signs. That is culture, that is our dominant culture: the vast enterprise of museographic reproduction of reality, the vast enterprise of aesthetic storage, re-simulation and aesthetic reprinting of all the forms that surround us. That is the greatest threat. I call it the DEGREE XEROX OF CULTURE.
With this current state of things, we are no longer in the heroic turn Baudelaire wanted to give the universe of commodity by means of art, we are only giving the world as it is a sentimental and aesthetic turn like the one Baudelaire decried in advertising. And art has become that for the most part: a prosthesis of advertising; and culture, a generalized prosthesis. Instead of the triumphant simulation envisaged by Baudelaire, we only have a depressing, repetitive simulation. An has always been a simulacrum, but a simulacrum that had the power of illusion. Our simulation is something different; it only exists in the sentimental vertigo of models. Art was a dramatic simulacrum where the reality of the world and illusion were in play. It is only an aesthetic prosthesis now. And when I say prosthesis, I am not thinking of an artificial leg. I mean those other, more dangerous prostheses, the chemical, hormonal and genetic ones that are like somatic Xeroxes, literal reproductions that engender the body, that engender it following a process of total simulation, behind which the body has disappeared. Just as people. once said that glasses would become total, integrated prostheses for species that had lost its sight, culture and art are the total prostheses of a world that has lost the magic of form and appearance.
I have said that the sublime of modern art lied in the magic of its disappearance. But the capital danger for modern art is repeating its own disappearance. All of the forms of this heroic vanishing, this heroic abnegation of form and color, of the very substance of art, have completely unfolded. Even the utopia of the disappearance of art has been accomplished. As for us, we have reached a second generation simulation, or a simulation of the third kind, if you prefer. We inhabit a perverse situation in which not only the utopia of art has been accomplished, since it has entered reality (in conjunction with the social, political and sexual utopias), but the utopia of its disappearance has been accomplished as well. Art is therefore destined to simulate its own disappearance, since it has already taken place. We relive the disappearance of art everyday in the repetition of its forms-no matter whether figurative or abstract just as each day we relive the disappearance of politics in the media repetition of its forms, and each day we relive the disappearance of sexuality in the pornographic and advertising repetition of its forms. It is necessary to distinguish clearly between these two moments: the moment of heroic simulacrum, so to speak, when art experiences and expresses its own disappearance, and the moment when it has to manage this disappearance as a sort of negative heritage. The first moment is original, it only happens once, even if it lasted for decades from the 19th to the 20th centuries. The second moment can last for several centuries, but it is no longer original, and I think we are involved in this second moment, in this surpassed disappearance, in this surpassed simulation, surpassed in the sense of an irreversible coma.
There is an enlightening moment for art, the moment it loses itself. There is an enlightening moment for simulation, the moment of sacrifice, in a way, when art falls into banality (Heidegger did say that the fall into banality was the second Fall of humanity and therefore its modern destiny). But there is an unenlightened moment when art learns to survive with this very banality – something like a botching of its own suicide. A successful suicide is the art of disappearance; it means giving this disappearance all the prestige of artifice. Like the Baroque, which was also a high point in simulation, haunted by both the vertigo of death and artifice. Nevertheless, many of those who bungled their suicide did not miss out on glory and success. A failed suicide attempt, as we all know, is the best form of publicity.
In sum, to use Benjamin’s expression again, there is an aura of simulation just as there is an aura of authenticity, of the original. If I dared, I would say there is authentic simulation and inauthentic simulation. This wording may seem paradoxical, but it is true. There is a “true” simulation and a “false” simulation. When Warhol painted his Campbell’s Soups in the Sixties, it was a coup for simulation and for all modern art: in one stroke, the commodity-object, the commodity-sign were ironically made sacred-the only ritual we still have, the ritual of transparency. But when he painted his Soup Boxes in ’86, he was no longer illuminating; he was in the stereotype of simulation. In ’65, he attacked the concept of originality in an original way. In ’86, he reproduced the unoriginal in an unoriginal way. In ’65, he dealt with the whole trauma of the eruption of commodity in art in both an ascetic and ironic way (the asceticism of commodity, its puritanical and fantastical side-enigmatic, as Marx wrote) and simplified artistic practice by the same token. The genius of commodity, the evil genius of commodity produced a new virtuosity in art – the genius of simulation. Nothing was left in ’86, only the publicizing genius that illustrated a new phase of commodity. Once again, it was the officially aestheticized commodity, falling back into the sentimental aestheticization Baudelaire condemned. You might reply: the irony is even greater when you do the same thing after twenty years. I do not think so. I believe in the genius of simulation; I do not believe in its ghost. Or its corpse, even in stereo. I know that in a few centuries there will be no difference between a real Pompeian villa and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, and no difference between the French Revolution and its Olympic commemoration in Los Angeles in 1989, but we still live with this difference and draw our energy from this difference.
Therein lies the dilemma: either simulation is irreversible, there is nothing beyond simulation, it is not even an event anymore, it is our absolute banality, our everyday obscenity, we are definitively nihilistic and we are preparing for a senseless repetition of all the forms of our culture waiting for another unpredictable event – but where would it come from? Or there is an art of simulation, an ironic quality that revives the appearances of the world to destroy them. Otherwise, art would do nothing more than pick at its own corpse, as often is the case today. You cannot add the same to the same and the same, and so on to infinity: that would be poor simulation. You must rip the same from the same. Each image must take away from the reality of the world, something must vanish in each image, but you cannot fall into the temptation to annihilate, definitive entropy. The disappearance must remain alive – that is the secret of art and seduction. In art – and this holds for both contemporary and classical art – there is a dual conjecture and thus a dual strategy: an impulse to annihilate, to erase all the traces of the world and reality, and a resistance to this impulse. As Henri Michaux said, the artist is someone who resists with all of his or her might the fundamental impulse to leave no trace.
I said I was an iconoclast and that art itself had become iconoclastic. What I meant was the new, modern iconoclast, the one who does not destroy images but who manufactures them, a profusion of images where there is nothing to see. In most of the images I have seen here in New York, there is nothing to see. They are literally images that leave no trace. They have no aesthetic consequences to speak of except for the professionals of the profession-but behind each image, something has disappeared. Therein lies their secret, if they have one, and therein lies the secret of simulation, if it has one.
If we think about it, the problem was the same for the Iconoclasts of Byzantium. The Iconolaters were subtle people who claimed to represent God for His greater glory but who in fact simulated God in images, dissimulating at the same time the problem of His existence. Behind each image, God had disappeared. He was not dead, he had disappeared; it was no longer a problem. The problem of the existence or non-existence of God was resolved by simulation. But one might think that it was God’s own idea to disappear, and precisely behind images. God used the images to disappear, obeying the fundamental impulse to leave no trace. Thus the prophecy is carried out: we live in a world of simulation, a world where the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and to mask this disappearance at the same time. Art does nothing else. The media today does nothing else. That is why they are destined for the same fate.
I will change perspective to end on a note of hope. I placed this analysis under the sign “after the orgy” – what do we do after the orgy of modernity? Is simulation all we have left? With the melancholy nuance of the idea of a “vanishing point” and the “degree Xerox of culture”? I forgot to say that this expression – ” after the orgy” – comes from a story full of hope: it is the story of a man who whispers into the ear of a woman during an orgy, “What are you doing after the orgy?” There is always the hope of a new seduction.