Religion, Politics, and The Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 4, Art

This post is part of our ongoing review of Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins’ book Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. The book is available for purchase here.

As with the rest of the book, this chapter is more a manifesto than anything else; the analysis of the history and contemporary situation of art offered here are offered towards the possibility of a revolutionary praxis of art. As my predecessors have done, I’ll briefly trace the argument before offering a reaction.

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson, in this chapter, are concerned, of course, with materiality. Under what material conditions is art done, and what material function does art perform? The authors argue that there is a certain natural conceptual linkage between art and religion; both are concerned with “materially unjustified but existentially vital representation.⁠1” Premodern is characterized according to this narrative as a reproduction of the divine nature. It is thus characterized by tendencies toward representation and order. The important break occurs, as with so many things, with Kant.

According to the Kantian paradigm, beauty is still linked with the apprehension of “design,” but this apprehension is characterized by a sort of free play in which purpose becomes directly linked to the act of striving toward it, rather than to a fixed representation of the divine. The history of art assimilates this orientation, and art becomes the privileged site of this striving, displacing roles that had traditionally been the domain of religion. Traditional understandings of representation are also displaced, as this emphasis on the striving act privileges aspects of apprehension over the thing-in-itself, and lead to the characteristic “decomposition” that characterizes the passage of 20th century art towards abstraction.

Since the concept of beauty privileges representation by necessity, the notion of the sublime gains primacy in modern art. The sublime, rather than privileging harmony of representation, is the site of a disjunction in this harmony, opening up a field in which reason is forced to step in and make a moral decision. The sublime is both attractive and repulsive, resisting re-inscription in meaning and sense, such that any re-inscription passes a certain responsibility onto the viewer.

Attempts at an art of the sublime (Dada, Surrealism, etc) are all plagued by a similar problem. Capital is an adaptive beast, and easily absorbs any new opening of the sublime as a form of spectacle, which can always be commodified. The challenge for a revolutionary practice of art thus emerges: what kind of revolutionary sublime can “free subjectivity from the force of capital?”⁠2 Given that the capitalist sublime dissolves all forms into raw material for the relations of capital, what kind of form resists this interpellation?

Crockett, Robbins, and Wilson marshall Felix Guattari and Terry Eagleton to create a synthesis that might point the way. From Guattari, they want to take the notion of sensible ruptures that produce a more life-affirming collectivity. Part of this is a form of shamanic vanguardist practice of art, one in which the position of the artist lends a certain subject-supposed-to-know aura to the artist’s critiques. From Eagleton they want to take the identity of form and content in the socialist sublime; a form of practice so determined by its content that it would be irreducible to formal description; thus an alternative kind of sublime, but one by definition (as that form which resists) is always shifting to oppose capital’s attempts at re-inscription. Revolutionary art, then, constantly rematerializes against capitalism; “in the streets, the networks, the institutions, and the bodies of the artists themselves.”⁠3

The question that arises for me in this chapter, then, is why art? What kind of work is maintaining the identity of art as such doing for the revolutionary? It may seem in some sense like a naive question, and the fact that I have a paper draft that I’m actually getting graded on to do mean that I unfortunately don’t have time to fully unpack this thought, but it seems to me that the kind of identity described between the content and form of revolutionary art are such that it becomes necessarily hard to separate revolutionary art from any other part of revolutionary practice. After all, what is the real distance between the subversive aesthetic practice and the tactical practice of, say, guerilla gardens? I don’t bring this out to criticize the indistinction per se (my girlfriend is a mixed media “artist” who doesn’t think art is a word that is doing any non-ideological work for us anymore) but it seems like in reality all we’re left with is the artist as cultic personality, as subject-supposed-to-know; but if we can’t disjoin the practice of art from any other part of revolutionary practice how can we even identify that role?

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