Volume 13, Number 2 (July 2016)
Author: Joanna Straczowski
The overarching question of this paper is: Do computer generated and machine produced artworks, which are perfected to the highest degree and with the utmost precision, have the capacity to generate a feeling of the sublime? In his book The Inhuman, Jean-François Lyotard claims that, during the 20th century, the arts have given up their pursuit of beauty and replaced it with a pursuit of something that “has to do with the sublime” (1992: 135). He describes a shift in modern art leading away from the attempts to represent the beautiful, as it has been promoted in the curricula and programmes of art schools and academies in previous centuries (ibid: 90-91), towards a sublime sentiment which is emblematic for the works of 20th century avant-garde artists and which opposes the harmonizing qualities of the beautiful. Lyotard’s theory of the sublime, much like other theories on the sublime sentiment, focuses on the relation between materiality and immateriality (Shaw, 2006: 130). The role that techne occupiesin the artistic process of creation is of importance here, as it draws on precisely this interrelation of immaterial and material matter. After claiming that the feeling of sublimity stands in contrast to the notion of techne and the perfection it aims for, Lyotard then continues to argue that the sublime can only present itself by means of imperfection, incompletion and error (1992: 95). Yet, since an increasing number of contemporary artworks, e.g. in Digital Art, New Media Art and machine produced art, does not allow for errors, accidents, incompletions and imperfections during the process of creation, Lyotard’s theory that the sublime stands in contrast to techne’s perfection seems to deny these artworks any capacity to elicit sublimity. On the contrary, one would have to assume that the sublime sentiment is lost in most of contemporary art.
I argue however that that Lyotard’s theory of the sublime and its relation to techne fails to account for the sublimity that lies in the drive for perfectionism and in the notion of perfection itself, which is so characteristically visualized in the production of art by means of digital technology and computer controlled machines. I contend that the sublime can also present itself when techne allows for the illusion of perfection to be carried to its extremes. By drawing on Jean Baudrillard’s theories of simulation, illusion and seduction, I argue that sublimity arises when mechanically or digitally produced objects appear as perfect, or even as ‘too perfect’. Such objects entirely escape our mind’s capacities of determination, which gives rise to a mixed feeling of pleasure and pain. Furthermore, I will continue to argue that parallels can be drawn between Baudrillard’s concept of seduction and Lyotard’s later account of the sublime Thing. Just like the Thing is described as an elusive, indeterminable, unpresentable presence that lies within the limits of the material and which always escapes our mind’s determination, seduction, too, is an ever evasive presence that escapes discourse and representation. The seductive power that is engendered by the illusion of perfection reached within the limits of materiality lends seemingly perfect objects the capacity to elicit the sublime. For, as Baudrillard argues, our ‘mania for perfection’ not only drives us to the limits of our own existence but it also seemingly exceeds them (1994: 101), thus bringing forth the liminal experience of the sublime sentiment through the illusion of perfection. To illustrate and further substantiate my claims, I will refer to the work Balloon Venus by American Pop Artist Jeff Koons as an example. Koons’ art, I argue, exemplifies not only the results that can be achieved once the drive for perfection meets the new possibilities that technology opens up within the realm of the arts, his works also allow for the illusion of perfection to draw the spectator beyond the limits of beauty, beyond the pleasure principle, thus allowing for a sublime experience due to seemingly achieved perfection.
I. Techne and the sublime
i) Lyotard’s sublime
The term ‘sublime’ has its origin in the Latin language in which the prefix ‘sub’ stands for ‘up to’ and ‘limen’ for ‘boundary’ or ‘limit’ (Shaw, 2006: 1). In other words, ‘sublime’ literally translates into ‘up to the limit’. The first time the concept was mentioned in a written treatise, was in Peri Hupsos (On the Sublime) by the Greek critic Longinus (ibid: 4). It is of interest to note that, in his text Longinus had not yet distinguished the beautiful and the sublime from each other (Han, 2015: 25). This clear separation between the two aesthetic categories emerged later in the modern aesthetics of Burke and Kant (ibid: 26-29). Since then, the sublime is seen in contrast to the beautiful and understood as a simultaneous feeling of pleasure and pain, or pleasure deriving from pain, which arises when we are confronted with an experience that lies beyond our conventional capability of understanding (Shaw, 2006: 2). The beautiful, in contrast, is generally thought to have a merely harmonizing and pleasing effects on the subject. While the feeling of beauty can be described as somewhat comforting and reassuring, the sublime disrupts our minds free play of capacities.
Edmund Burke describes the sublime as a kind of terror that arises with the anxiety of impending death, only to be relieved by the fact that we are still alive (Lyotard, 1992: 99) and Lyotard similarly refers to it as a ‘death like’ or ‘as good as dead’ experience to our mind’s faculties (ibid: 100). While, in The Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke generally believes that it is possible to single out objective attributes of the sublime, Immanuel Kant’s theory eventually denies that the material object itself possesses any sublime qualities (Majetschak, 2007: 251). Kant’s focus is entirely on the immaterial subjective feeling of sublimity and on our mind’s capacity to rise above nature by way of reason, thus giving us a reassuring feeling after the initial shock of nature’s overpowering might (Kant, 2011: 135-136). Postmodern theories about the sublime, on the other hand, have a tendency to focus on the relation between material and immaterial matter (Shaw, 2006: 130). The paradox that always arises is that the sublime is essentially considered to be something that is unpresentable and immaterial; yet, especially concerning the creation of art, the way matter is treated in terms of techne plays a crucial role in regard to whether or not aesthetic effects, such as the sublime, can be evoked. After all, the arts generally rely on representation and the use of various materials in one way or another.
It is precisely this relation between artistic techne, materiality and immateriality that Lyotard is concerned with in his book The Inhuman. In the chapter on ‘The Sublime and the Avant-Garde’, he argues that imperfections and distortions in artistic technique may contribute to the shock effect which is the sublime (1992: 97). Perfection of artistic techne, however, stands in the way of sublimity, he writes: “Shortcomings in technique are therefore trifling matters if they are the price to be paid for ‘true grandeur’” (ibid: 95). Lyotard then continues: “The kind of perfection that can be demanded in the domain of techne isn’t necessarily a desirable attribute when it comes to the sublime feeling” (ibid). Therefore, it would seem that, from Lyotard’s perspective, the striving for perfection within artistic endeavors and the techniques and procedures used in such processes, stand in contrast to the indeterminacy and disruption that is necessary for the sublime to present itself. But before focusing on what Lyotard’s theory implies with regard to new media art and digital design, it is essential to address the question: What is techne?
The term techne originates from ancient Greek and generally refers to a skill or craft (Parry, 2014). Techne can be described as “production according to the rule” and as “organized knowledge and procedure applied for the purpose of producing a specific preconceived result” (Osborne, 1981: 8) which has, since ancient Greece, in fact been associated with the notion of perfection (ibid). The term encompasses the fine arts just as much as the practical arts, craftsmanship and other professional activities (Plato, 2007: 14-15). Techne “cover[s] any skilled activity with its rules of operation, the knowledge of which is acquired by training“ (ibid). Therefore, it can be understood as a rule for the creation of objects with the expectation of a not only determinate but also perfected outcome which is comprehensible to our cognitive faculties. In other words, techne is the treatment of any given material to achieve a perfected result (from tangible materials like wood, stone and paint to non-tangible material like language and sound). Yet, is the outcome achieved through techne truly always one that is comprehensible to our mind? And, can the perfection that techne supposedly aims for actually ever be attained?
It is undeniably true that beauty and the striving for perfection through techne have been a the main pursuit of the fine arts. Admittedly, if it is true that techne always brings forth determinate, perfected, cognitively comprehensible outcomes, it really seems contrary to the indeterminacy and the disturbance of the mind that is required for sublimity. As we have seen, this is exactly what Lyotard argues when he states that the perfection of techne does not lend itself for evoking the sublime sentiment. The kind of perfection that the completion of an artwork achieves through the final finishing, leaves no room for our imagination to be overwhelmed with something unexpected and disturbing. A perfected artwork conveys a sense of comprehensibility of that which is represented, thus it is not challenging our mind’s capacities. While art schools teach how to achieve perfection through techne as well as the ‘standards’ of beauty and taste, the sublime is, according to Lyotard, nothing that can be taught or that can be created by means of techne. It rather disrupts beauty’s harmonizing effects, only presenting itself by means of imperfection and error (Lyotard, 1992: 96) and by shocking us to a point of a ‘death like’ experience. Following this line of thought, if imperfection and incompletion, as opposed to techne and perfection, are really the only way to allow art to elicit sublimity, then surely artists who seeks to evoke it, should not aim at finishing their work or at finalizing the treatment of the material. They should rather allow for her artwork to stay in an ‘indeterminate state’, letting matter speak for itself.
With this in mind, Lyotard’s theory of the sublime nevertheless falls short of explaining any sublime experiences evoked by machine produced art. His theory seems to suggest that such artworks do not have the capacity to elicit any sublime sentiments at all. For whenever art is created by means of industrial production, it becomes impossible for the artist to stop before the final finishing. This is undoubtedly the case with artworks such as Koons’ Ballon Venus. As an enormous balloon-like figure with a shiny, candy-gloss pink colour and voluptuous curves, the sculpture inarguably stands in contrast to Lyotard’s notion of sublime effects raised by imperfectionand incompletion of an artwork. The mechanized procedure guarantees the full completion of the object and the finalized treatment of matter. Accidents and errors are thus eliminated. Moreover, the representation of a balloon figure is in itself nothing unfamiliar or shocking (we have all been to fun fairs and children’s birthday parties). Koons’ art may therefore seem to be the least likely candidate to be referred to in matters of the elevated feeling of the sublime. Nevertheless, I claim that the Balloon Venus does evoke sublime sentiments. Precisely due to its apparent perfection, which leaves no trace of a human process of creation, it challenges our capacity to fully comprehend and make sense of what we see. It is true that, due to its bright colours and its kitschy theme, the Balloon Venus might seem playful and beautiful at first sight. Yet, the sensation that arises when confronted with such highly ‘perfected’ sculptures is one that is simultaneously enjoyable and yet deeply irritating and even terrifying.
Furthermore, as previously mentioned, Lyotard claims that: “The kind of perfection that can be demanded in the domain of techne isn’t necessarily a desirable attribute when it comes to the sublime feeling” [my emphasis] (1992: 95). However, does the word ‘necessarily’ not have a relativizing effect on Lyotard’s statement? Does it not suggest that there might be exceptions and that, although perfection of techne might not be the most likely way for eliciting sublime feelings, it might not be a hindrance either? If that is the case then it would allow a possibility of sublimity despite, or maybe even because of, the perfected treatment of artistic material. It seems as if Lyotard himself did not rule out that the perfection of techne may hold the capacity of generating sublime sentiments. And still, where does this leave us with regard to artworks that are mechanically produced? And, what exactly can perfected techne bring forth? Is it really ‘just’ beauty that can be evoked by means of techne and perfection? Here, it is helpful to focus on Lyotard’s account of sublime materiality/immateriality as it is proposed in his chapter on ‘After the Sublime’. I argue that Lyotard’s theory of the postmodern sublime as the sublime Thing, in fact, allows for a further development of my theory of sublime perfection and the seductive power of perfect illusions. In order to elaborate on this, it is now necessary to take a closer look at Lyotard’s chapter on ‘After the Sublime’.
ii) Lyotard’s ‘After the Sublime’
In the chapter ‘After the Sublime’, Lyotard claims that ever since the 20th century and the height of modernism the arts are not so much concerned with the pursuit of beauty anymore, but with something which “has to do with the sublime” (1992: 135). Considering this tendency he argues that, since the sublime is impossible to depict and since the arts are always concerned with representation by means of form and matter, art must address itself towards the latter (ibid: 138). Lyotard then continues to describe the sublime as an immaterial matter which is “an event of a passion, a passibility for which the mind will not have been prepared” (ibid: 141). Lyotard names this sublime, immaterial presence the Thing: “The paradox of art ‘after the sublime‘ is that it turns towards a thing which does not turn towards the mind, that it wants a thing, or has it in for a thing which wants nothing of it. […] By matter, I mean the Thing. The Thing is not waiting to be destined, it is not waiting for anything, it does not call on the mind” (ibid: 142)
First of all, in my view, the ‘after’ in ‘after the sublime’ should not be read as a temporal marker. It rather seems to stand for an ‘after’ as in ‘being after someone’. Yet, being after something or someone does not imply that you can get a hold of whatever it is you are trying to catch. According to Lyotard, art is ‘after the sublime’, after this Thing, this immaterial matter, which nevertheless always escapes our mind’s determination (ibid: 140). The sublime Thing is therefore something that art seeks to get hold of but which always escapes it. It seems as if our attempts to get a hold of the ungraspable, indeterminable and ever elusive Thing are haunting us. In fact, Lyotard insists that it is impossible not to pursue the Thing, when he states: “One cannot get rid of the Thing. Always forgotten, it is unforgettable” (ibid: 143).
Yet, what exactly is this immaterial/material Thing? What precisely does Lyotard mean when he says that the Thing is a presence within matter but seemingly without form? On the one hand, Lyotard clearly denies that it is the actual material object that is sublime, on the other hand, the Thing nevertheless presents itself in the inherent qualities of the artistic material, such as nuances and timbres within colours and sounds (ibid: 139). The sublime Thing is therefore ‘material’ in as far as it cannot exist without matter, yet it is immaterial in as far as it is a an indeterminable presence which escapes our mind’s determination. These indeterminable qualities (nuances, timbres, etc.) are immaterial because they are an event in our mind, a strange sensation for which we are not prepared and which cannot be fully comprehended; and yet, they are material because they are inherent within the material used by the artist (ibid: 140). In addition, they are only perceivable, if we are in a ‘mindless state of mind’, in which our power of mind is suspended and the negotiating process between our mind’s faculties is stopped (ibid: 139). The fact that theThing is indeterminable to our cognitive faculty is what evokes a shock event in our mind. Yet, at the same time we are deriving pleasure from it because we feel that it alludes to something that lies beyond the limitations of materiality. Still, what role does techne play in this? Again, the treatment of the material must be crucial if it is matter that holds the key to allowing the sublime Thing to come forth.
While Lyotard does explain what is necessary for the audience to possibly experience such sublime events, namely that one must be in an ascetic ‘mindless state of mind’, this time he does however not specifically address the role of techne. This is understandable, since he thinks that eliciting the sublime cannot be taught and does not follow a prescribed process. Still, Lyotard curiously does suggest that in order to evoke the Thing within the material a very specific treatment of matter is nevertheless necessary. Here he refers to a short sentence from Paul Cézanne’s letters, which he quotes as follows: “Form is finished when colour reaches perfection” (ibid: 141). Following this quote Lyotard then goes on to explain how the application of the material, in this case colour, is not a filling out of a predetermined form but rather a careful application of one ‘touch’ of colour after the other (ibid). Form is of secondary importance in this process once the material alludes towards perfection. Yet, why does Lyotard quote this passage, after previously being so careful to separate the notion of perfection, usually associates with techne, from the sublime? Does it not imply that the sublime Thing presents itself, if a notion of perfection is introduced by means of the treatment of the artistic material, i.e. if the artist gets the treatment of the material ‘just right’/‘just perfect’? This leads to the question: Is the perfection achieved through, or at least aimed for, by means of techne after all something that goes beyond our understanding of a ‘production according to the rule’? Following this line of thought perfection would not just be a ‘determined outcome’ achieved by the application of a specific process of techne. It could then be understood as something that we desire but that is elusive, indeterminate and always out of reach, but which can nevertheless be evoked and alluded to within the limitations of the material by means of techne. Perfection would then be another name for the Thing.
In order to show how precisely perfection evokes sublimity, I will now turn to Baudrillard’s theories and his writings on simulation, illusion, seduction and the ‘mania for perfection’. I argue that the seemingly perfected treatment of artistic material leads us further than mere representation, into an order of simulation, in which we can encounter sublime illusions of perfection. I contend that the desire for perfection is not only driving us to an apparent exceeding of limits, of both mind and matter, thus evoking a sublime ‘death like’ or ‘as good as dead’ shock experience, but that the sheer indeterminacy of the notion of perfection and its unrepresentability are further prerequisites for the sublime. Ultimately, I claim that parallels can be drawn between Lyotard’s sublime Thing and Baudrillard’s account of a seductive illusion of perfection.
III. The illusion of perfection
i) Baudrillard’s theory of simulation, illusion and seduction
Now the question is how exactly perfection can evoke sublimity? Or, how can a seemingly perfect object terrify and yet please us at the same time? The answer lies, I claim, in the very impossibility to reach perfection and our nevertheless endless obsession with it. The role that new technologies play with regard to the illusion of achieving perfection is crucial, since it is their employment which allows us to treat matter in such a way that the illusion of perfection presents itself. In order to explain in what way the appearance of perfection is sublime, I will first draw on Baudrillard’s concepts of illusion and seduction, within the order of simulation. Then, I will examine Baudrillard’s account of illusion and seduction within his theory of simulation, arguing that the seductive power of illusions has sublime qualities and I will show in what way the power of seduction, despite its striving to exceed simulation, always perpetuates the creation of illusions and thus sustaining the very order it seeks to overcome. Ultimately, I argue that Baudrillard’s account of seduction, accompanying the creation of illusions, allows us not only to explain the sublimity of perfection but also to draw parallels to the material, yet immaterial, presence of Lyotard’s sublime Thing.
It is well known that Baudrillard claims that there is no real behind our world of appearances. Our reality has always been in one way or another a system of simulacra in which a profound real has either ceased to exist, or has possibly never existed in the first place (Hegarty, 2004: 51). We can never actually know unmediated reality, i.e. the real, all that can change is our perception of the appearances around us which ultimately is our reality (ibid). As Baudrillard explains in Simulacra and Simulation, this ‘loss of the real’ or rather ‘lack of the real’ came about, in the succession of four phases of the image, which are closely intertwined with one another and which relate to the changes taking place within our perception of the world: ʺSuch would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever, it is its own pure simulacrum ʺ (1981: 6).
Each of these phases designates a state in which reality, as a point of reference to the image, disappears gradually and is finally lost entirely, thus leading to the phase of a pure simulacrum without any reference to an ‘original’ (Baudrillard, 1990: 171). Still, throughout all four of these phases, we construct our world and make sense of it in a way as if to make up for this lack of the real and we continue to presume a hidden truth behind the facade of appearances. We give meaning to appearances that cannot present us with actual, unmediated reality or a fundamental truth. However, as long as we assume the existence of a fundamental truth that can possibly be revealed, we are able to constrain an otherwise unbearable ambiguity of nothingness. Nevertheless, it seems as if the more ‘profound reality’ disappears, or the more we realize that there is nothing behind the mask, the more the real’s non-existence is covered up by the creation of new simulations, hypersimulations and the illusions that they generate.
As Paul Hegarty writes: “From the basic illusion of the world we move on to create others deities, forces of nature, moral systems” (2004: 83) and we will always continue to do so, because life would become unbearable if we were really faced with the non-existence of truth (Baudrillard, 1990: 59). Yet, the possibility of there not being anything, the possibility of an all encompassing nothing, an ultimate, infinite void nevertheless fascinates us (ibid: 75). The pure simulacrum, in which there is no relation between the image and reality whatsoever, may have no recourse to truth and yet it seems to have an enticing effect on us. Somewhat paradoxically, the order of simulation seems to bring forth illusions which generate an excess of simulation itself, a creation of even more simulacra in order to compensate for the unsolvable ‘mystery’ of appearances (Hegarty, 2004: 68). In other words, there is something intrinsic to the system of simulations that always attempts to exceed its own limitations. This element is what Baudrillard calls: seduction (ibid).
Here it is necessary to examine what exactly Baudrillard means by illusion and seduction and how these two terms can be differentiated. As we have seen, since simulation has no relation to the real and truth, the only way to possibly break through the order of simulation is by way of exceeding it through the creation of hypersimulations, i.e. illusions (ibid: 82-83). Illusions offer meaning to our existence and are necessary since meaninglessness seems to be truly unbearable (ibid). Therefore, the creation of illusions is perpetual, self-sustaining and impossible to get rid of. Fittingly, seduction, too, is unstoppable and inevitable (Baudrillard, 1990: 84). Yet, while the order of simulation allows for us to keep the world of appearances in check with our understanding, seduction resists the confinements of simulation and escapes comprehensibility. It is the part of simulation that literally seduces us to take the limitation of our reality to the test. In other words, seduction is an an excess of simulation and a constant threat to its existence, yet, “[f]or seduction to occur an illusion must intervene” (ibid: 103). Thus, whenever seduction occurs it is by means of an illusion, or hypersimulation, that already somewhat disrupts the order of simulation. It appears as if it is then seduction that challenges us to go further than simulation and strive for an abolition of simulation from within simulation. Even seduction can however never entirely overcome or exceed simulation because death always remains the final limit: “[…] those who do not wish to seduce or be seduced are dead” (Baudrillard, 1990: 84). Therefore, even an excess of simulation, spurred by the seduction of simulation, will not result in reaching a profound truth or reality which is beyond the limitations of appearances. The ultimate limit of death remains inescapable.
What is furthermore important to emphasize is that seduction is always a ‘two-way-street’. To seduce is to be seduced and vice versa (ibid: 81). Or, as Baudrillard puts it: “There is no active or passive mode in seduction, no subject or object, no interior or exterior: seduction plays on both sides, and there is no frontier separating them”, (ibid); and yet: “[t]he illusion that leads from the one to the other is subtle” (ibid). While we may be under the illusion of boundlessness and infinity when seducing or when being seduced, the roles are never clear and the power subtly shifts between subject and object, seducer and seduced, causing a kind of reciprocity that truly seems to blur the boundaries of the subject/object relationship. This is why seduction possess its disruptive power. Seduction generates pleasure and pain in as far as it accompanies the illusion of boundless infinity and immortality, on the one hand, and the final loss of control and mortality, on the other. This is what lends illusions sublime qualities by way of seduction. In the case of perfection, the illusion of perfection created by means of technology gives rise to a seduction that not only proves to be a shock to our mind’s capacity of understanding, i.e. the incapability to conceive of actual perfection, it also seems as if the creation of such objects continuously challenges us to test the limits of creation even further, in an attempt to possibly exceed them. Thus the cycle of the creation of illusions and their seductive power perpetuates itself and elicits sublimity whenever matter is treated in such a way that the pleasure of the illusion of perfection and the pain of its ultimate impossibility coincide. Now, as I have mentioned above, I argue that there are striking parallels that can be drawn between the kind of sublime seduction of the illusion of perfection and Lyotard’s Thing.
It is inarguably true that the illusion of perfection and its creation has always played a key role in fundamental aspects of human life, like religion, sports, politics and especially in the arts. The notion of not only perfecting ourselves but also the desire to create ‘perfect’ objects, objects that are a result of our striving for something that simultaneously attracts and haunts us, has precisely the perpetuating effect that Baudrillard refers to with regard to the seductive power of illusions. The advent of ever new technologies has enabled us to enter a state of simulation in which it seems possible to make perfection tangible and to thus unite the immaterial idea of perfection with the material object. Even when assuming that real perfection does not exist, we find ourselves all the more trapped in attempts to get closer to something that, as Lyotard puts it “wants nothing of us” (1992: 124). We think we can attain and grasp this ‘something’ by addressing matter itself, despite material confinements, inadequacies and imperfections. Like Lyotard’s sublime Thing, the illusion of being able to reach perfection, is impossible to get rid off. However, we are constantly seduced by new appearances and our urge to create new illusions is thus sustained, especially in the production of art.
When looking back at Lyotard’s account of the Thing, it is striking that his description of an immaterial/material presence alludes precisely to an event, an instance, in which the relation between the material and the immaterial is blurred and in which our mind is unable to make sense of the occurrence. It is however only through the material that an allusion towards infinity, towards the ungraspable can be made. Hence, as much as the Thing alludes towards something beyond the limitations of matter, it is relying on the material limitations to be made perceivable. It is by means of techne, by means of treating matter in a striving towards perfection, that the seemingly infinite and indeterminate can present itself within the finite. In Seduction, Baudrillard writes: “Seduction does not consist of a simple appearance, nor a pure absence, but the eclipse of a presence. Its sole strategy is to be-there/not-there, and thereby produce a sort of flickering, a hypnotic mechanism that crystallizes attention outside all concern with meaning“ (ibid: 85). By likening seduction to a flickering presence that is simultaneously there and not-there and which ‘crystallizes attention outside all concern with meaning’, Baudrillard’s description of seduction remarkably matches with Lyotard’s theory of the sublime Thing as, as an elusive presence which wavers between the material and the immaterial, the determined and the indeterminable, something that belongs to neither the subject’s nor the object’s realm but is a flickering presence sliding and shifting between the two. Just like the Thing, seduction escapes all representation, it is essentially unpresentable, and thus it escapes the process of meaning making and discourse, thereby disrupting the negotiating process of our mind’s faculties and allowing for the necessary suspension of the mind that Lyotard held necessary for making the Thing perceivable. Ultimately, both seduction and the Thing remain ever elusive and unattainable, but also unforgettable. Just like seduction, the Thing, eludes our determination, thus also obtaining the power of a meaningless signifier (ibid: 75). And, just as much as Lyotard’s Thing is inescapable and unforgettable (1992: 143), Baudrillard’s seduction, as that which does not produce meaning, “has every reason to be never forgotten (1990: 75).
Seduction is this Thing that constantly lures you in and teases you to strive for an abolition of death and for an exceeding of all limits to achieve immortality and perfection. However, if ‘attained’, if it was truly made ‘tangible’, the Thing would be annihilated. Really grasping the Thing always remains an illusion and death and mortality remain the final limits even within simulation. Hence, again, the seemingly infinite is always limited by the finite and the infinity and indeterminacy of the sublime is only experienced within these limits. Or, to put it in ‘Lyotardian’ words: the Thing is unattainable but within the limits of the artistic material the sublime, immaterial matter will present itself, if it alludes to something beyond matter, and if the illusion of having reached perfection occurs. Then we believe to grasp something which wants nothing of us and which eludes our mind’s determination. Perfected techne, the idea that perfection can be achieved in art and through human creations, is part of this illusion.
ii) The mania for perfection and Jeff Koons’ Balloon Venus
In this last section of my paper I finally want to reflect on the ‘mania for perfection’ which Baudrillard claims has taken hold of society since the end of the 20th century. This stands, I claim, in direct relation to the type of artworks that have been emerging in the 20th and 21st century. Specifically sculptures like Jeff Koons’ Balloon Venus present a typical example for this undeniable tendency towards a technologised perfectionism. Just like Lyotard, who notices a new tendency within the arts emerging during the 20th century, Baudrillard, too, points out that something has shifted and our obsession with perfection and immortality has found its realization in the objects we create.
I agree with both Baudrillard and Lyotard and their observation of a shift within the artworld during the 20th century. While our mania for perfection and ‘perfect’ objects is arguably nothing new and a part of human nature in as far as humans naturally seek to improve their lives and living conditions and strive for innovation and progress, it is the way in which this obsession has become more and more transparent and how it has taken on a certain obscenity which is dazzling. The mania for perfection has arguably increased in intensity. This is possible, of course, through the changed means of production and the different ways in which we treat the materials at our disposal in order to create art. The employment of techne has reached a level at which precise machines and digital technologies make artworks seem almost ‘too perfect’ and at which appearances of beauty are surpassed. Yet, once something appears as ‘too beautiful’ or ‘too perfect’ it is not just pleasurable too look at, it also becomes terrifying.
In The Illusion of the End, Baudrillard argues that he sees a development in recent times towards ‘going to the end’, ‘exploiting all possibilities’ and ‘reaching all limits’ by ‘calling on all your resources’ (1994: 101 -102). He describes our compulsion for and our fascination with immortality as a ‘mania for perfection’, which is closely linked to the production of objects that are finalized and completed to the highest degree by new technologies. These objects, he claims, are not only the result of our striving for immortality and perfection, they ultimately evoke the illusion of perfection and the illusion of the abolition of death: ʺThis compulsive desire for immortality, for the definitive immortality, revolves around a strange madness – the mania for what has achieved its goal. The mania for identity – for saturation, completion, repletion. For perfection too. The lethal illusion of perfection: hence these objects from which wear and tear, death or aging have been eradicated by technology. The compact disc. It doesn’t wear out, even if we use it. Terrifying, this. It’s as though you never used it. It is as though you didn’t exist. If objects no longer grow old when you touch them, you must be dead ʺ (ibid: 101). In this passage it becomes once again clear that Baudrillard describes nothing less than how the ‘mania for perfection’ is a mania for the sublime as a liminal experience, an experience that is taking us quite literally to our limits (sub-limen) and seemingly even beyond them. Today, the creation of artworks that have a seductive power over us is made possible by machines and digital design. Being confronted with such works, that neither show a sign of creation nor a sign of deterioration, objects “from which wear and tear, death or aging have been eradicated by technology” (ibid: 101), are a ‘death like’ experience to our mind’s faculties. Thus we encounter an ‘If objects no longer grow old when you touch them, you must be dead’-kind-of-shock, since we are not able to bring the unpresentable (perfection) into the confinements of our limited understanding.As mentioned before, whenever our mind is not able to grasp a concept or to make sense of a representation, a feeling of pain arises when faced with our shortcomings. Nevertheless, the fact that we are after all able to, at least for an moment, feel something that is apparently beyond our mind’s understanding is a source of pleasure. We want perfection and immortality. These illusions give us pleasure but the realization that we will never be able to attain perfection, since it is ultimately indeterminable, is painful.
Again, this kind of indeterminacy, a mix of pleasure and pain, is an integral part of the sublime feeling. The illusion of perfection can however only be created within the limits and determinations of material objects. This is why the limitations of our understanding, as well as the limitations to the treatment of artistic material as techne, are essential to the feeling of the sublime because ultimately they give rise to the illusion of perfection. In fact, the sublime needs these limits, for without them it would cease to exist. Again, if we had achieved immortality and perfection then the limits of our existence, the limit of death, would be erased. However, this is not possible because illusions are and always remain unattainable. The sublime illusion of perfection and immortality, too, that is reached by means of techne, implies a striving for this Thing which is unattainable and yet impossible to get rid of.
With regard to Koons’ works, the mania for perfection has inarguably reached a certain peak. Although in interviews Koons continuously emphasizes that his work is a pursuit of beauty (Fuchs, 2012), I hope to have shown that this does not mean that his art is truly beautiful — on the contrary. Koons’ Venusdoes have both pleasing and terrifying qualities. As a distorted, oversized, glossy version of a kitsch figure, it is monstrously beautiful in its highly perfected industrial design. The irritating effect of seeing one’s own blurred reflection in this sculpture is dizzying. The high chromium steel has no welded seems, no dents and we can see no signs of creation/deterioration, in its slick surface. The complete erasure of any human trace causes an enjoyable and yet repulsive effect. We like glossy, shiny, colourful objects, we are drawn to them in our interest for harmony and beauty. But this enormous sculpture draws us a little further, beyond the boundaries of beauty, or, in Freudian terms ‘beyond the pleasure principle’. Koons’ inclination for beauty is what first attracts us to these works, yet carrying perfection to its extremes is what makes them sublime.
In this sense, his art is in line with an ongoing aestheticization which may have started with a pursuit of beauty but has lead towards a pursuit of sublimity. Rather than just wanting art to be beautiful, we now also want it to be ‘thrilling’. Yet, rather than seeing beauty and sublimity as opposing concepts, one could see both as irreversibly connected with each other. Beauty may be the striving for perfection while the sublime is an excess of it. In this sense the process of aestheticization may have taken us from favouring a sense of beauty to pursuing a feeling of the sublime. Contrary to Baudrillard, I do not think that we are truly in a time in which the process of total aestheticization has lead us to a state where nothing is beautiful or ugly anymore (Baudrillard, 1992: 10). It rather seems to me that the aesthetic sensitivity today is still testing the very limits of aesthetics. Moreover, when remembering that, in Longinus’ writings On the Sublime, beauty and sublimity were not initially conceived of as separate from each other (Han, 2015: 25) it does not seem unreasonable to assume that an obsession with beauty can coincide or develop into a an obsession with the sublime. In this sense, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the sublime seems to encapsulate the interrelation between beauty and sublimity quite well, by emphasizing its ‘overwhelming grandeur’ just as much as its ‘beauty’ (2015).
Ultimately, I think that both Lyotard and Baudrillard, explicitly or implicitly, noticed this development of aestheticization and the advent of an “era of liminal and subliminal pleasures” (Baudrillard, 1990: 2), even though their attitudes towards this process may differ. Lyotard is, in the end, right that art has turned towards something that has to do with the sublime. However, I contend that his theory of the sublime falls back onto rather romantic ideas of art’s ability to allow us to perceive something like perfection, despite postmodernist theory’s general rejection of transcendent higher faculty (Shaw, 2006: 115). Therefore, despite his efforts to give the sublime the immediacy of the now (ibid: 123) and a somewhat political and radical impetus, Lyotard does not manage to entirely break with the notion of a transcendental sublime and the idea that art alludes to something of a higher realm. Lyotard’s theory of the sublime still operates under the basic illusion that there is something that (avant-garde) artworks are able to achieve, in contrast to ‘ordinary objects’ and consumer products, by allowing sublimity to present itself and by alluding to something like perfection through the treatment of the artistic material.
Baudrillard, on the other hand, may claim that, in our irrational urge for perfection, we have also lost all sense for aesthetics and are in a state beyond beauty and sublimity (1992: 10). His account may apply to the ideological use of aesthetic categories, through which beauty and sublimity have been used in order to separate the sphere of the ‘fine arts’, from ‘profane’ and ‘less meaningful’ non-art objects, and it is inarguably true that, especially after Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, this illusion has become less and less convincing. However, Baudrillard also fails to recognize that actual aesthetic experiences, no matter what label we attach to them, are still a fundamental part of human experience. Aisthesis — the Greek origin of the term aesthetics — includes cognition as well as sensation and as human beings (Welsch, 1996: 10), no matter how technologically enhanced, we are still sensuous and intelligible creatures. It is difficult to conceive of humanity without this rudimentary abilities. So, how can aesthetic experience, including the sublime, ever be lost? It is one thing to agree with his claim that beauty and sublimity have lost their role with respect to what we now recognize as art, the beautiful and the sublime may have lost that monopoly. Nevertheless, this opens up the possibility to once again acknowledge that aesthetic experiences are not, and arguably have never been, limited to art. In the end, the Balloon Venus is proof that the sublime sensation of shock and awe is always to be reckoned with.
In conclusion, I agree with Lyotard that the sublime Thing, the apparent perfection achieved through techne, can be perceived when our thoughts are suspended and the process of meaning making is interrupted is therefore beyond the limitations of matter. Baudrillard, on the other hand, shows that it is not only in art that we encounter a mania for perfection. It may arguably be true that the effects of this mania become more visible in the domain of what we call art, since we still make the distinction between art and non-art and therefore possibly pay more attention to art’s aesthetic values. Nevertheless, the sublime mania for perfection has certainly not just shown its effect in Koons’s work, and Pop Art in general, but also in the design of every day objects and our preference for highly perfected, slick and smooth surfaces (Han, 2015: 9).
When, in his latest book Die Errettung des Schönen, Byung-Chul Han refers to Koons’ works has having an anaesthetic rather than an aesthetic effect, thus sedating our perception (2015: 15), I think he misses the point that the sublime as a liminal experience is precisely what brings us to our cognitive and perceptual limitations. Needless to say that the sublime sentiment is on the margins of the human register of experiences which is what makes it unpresentable and inexplicable but always attracts our attention in the search for something beyond matter. Whether it is described as a point of intersection between our perception of the world and reason, as Kant would see it, or as an immediate event, like a flash of lightening that renders us stupefied, in Lyotard’s sense, it is by definition something that even pushes the boundaries of aesthetics to its very limits. Therefore, it is not entirely unreasonable to describe the sublime as both an aesthetic and an anaesthetic experience, as something that is material, yet immaterial, as a presence that nevertheless escapes human understanding and that simultaneously stimulates and paralyzes us.
Ultimately, the sublime sentiment of perceiving something beyond limits that is always limited and unattainable can be elicited when the perfection of techne evokes the illusion of perfection. Something can be ‘almost perfect’, something can even be ‘too perfect’, but actual perfection is an illusion. It is nothing that can get ‘lost’, not even in the digital age of computer generated art, because, as we know: “One cannot get rid of the Thing. Always forgotten, it is unforgettable” (Lyotard, 1992: 143).
About the Author
Joanna Straczowski has studied English and American Studies, Art History, theArts, Aesthetics and Cultural Institutions. She is currently a PhD student at the University of Liverpool’s Philosophy Department. Her research focuses on the concept of aestheticization and its significance in the digital age. She is especially interested in the impact that digital technologies have on our aesthetic experiences and in what way they further a process of aestheticization. Her main areas of interest are: the philosophy of art and aesthetics, 18th century German philosophy, French theory, political philosophy and pop art.
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