Baudrillard: Contemporary Art is Worthless

By Corinna Ghaznavi and Felix Stalder

Note: This little polemic was written for LOLA, a Toronto-based independent art magazine. The usual copyright stuff applies, so just in case, get in contact with Corinna or me.

"Two situations, both critical and insoluble. One is the total worthlessness of contemporary art. The other is the impotence of the political class in front of Le Pen [popular French neo-fascist politician]. The two situations are exchangeable, and their solutions are transferable. Indeed, the inability to offer any political alternative to Le Pen is displaced to the cultural terrain, to the domain where a Holy Cultural Alliance prevails. Conversely, the problematization of contemporary art can only come from a reactionary, irrational, or even fascist mode of thinking." [1]

Consternation spread through the cultural community roughly a year ago when Jean Baudrillard proclaimed contemporary art to be utterly worthless. Considered a major cultural critic by many artists and theorists the denunciation came as a slap in the face. Having written prefaces for catalogues of visual art shows, and having exhibited his own photographic work, Baudrillard's condemnation appeared full of unexpected contradictions. Was this a rude awakening or simply rude?

Primarily it was a radical delegitimatization of his own position as a cultural critic. If indeed Baudrillard has accepted this consequence one possible motive for his new stand is that it will realign him with what he considers a credible position: this time within the French political scene where he claims the only effective player to be Le Pen. Is he still being taken seriously? A notable exclusion from Catherine David's "Documenta" book is Jean Baudrillard, although almost all influential theorists since 1945 have been included. Was this in recognition of the fact that there is no substance to his discourse anymore? Was it the exclusion from the French intellectual circle that moved him to such a hefty reaction? "The Precession of the Simulacra" remains impressive, if somewhat exaggerated (did it really take him that long to discover the remote control?).

Over the years he has developed the emphasis of his thoughts layer by layer, and we sadly suspect that Baudrillard may have fallen victim to his own theories and is no longer able to differentiate between discourse and artistic creativity, as he claims one can no longer differentiate between the illusion and the real. The concept of complete simulation is, after all, such a seductive one. Having exhausted his 'excessive theory' he has arrived at a point where even the most stubborn modernist will begin to understand his point that theory, or, as the less radical would say, at least his theory, has become 'just' poetry. But what irony, the imagined pure play isn't, after all, that easy and sitting in the sandbox is no fun at all.

Suddenly Baudrillard finds himself in a most distasteful position: he has become an artist. Even worse, an artist still spear-heading the glorious progress (or fatal demise, if you prefer) of culture, an avant-gardist denouncing the avant-garde (which is, in itself, quite a passé cliché). Poor Jean sits in the hand-crafted dead-end where any further rhetoric will only make things worse. Here, at last, his claim can be taken seriously. Having become an artist, a poet, he realized that his own doings, burning his baroque verbal pyrotechniques, will not save him, no, they are utterly worthless as a way out of his dilemma. What options does he have? Cry for help! As the true avant-gardist he cannot have the faintest faith in his peers since he, leading the way, was formerly where they still are. Well-meant understanding - get out of my way! Serious analysis - he did that in the seventies, when socialism was still, as we would say today, the next big thing. Despising his peers because they remind him of his former sins, he turns full circle: Please, you sturdy fascists, he begs, show me some reality! Still the old megaloman he demonstrates that what is good for him will be even better for France: the political system has to be saved just as he himself must be. We can happily take it as a sign of this very megalomania that the rest of the world, seen from Parisian heights, is so utterly backward that we don't even deem mention. When he claims that the problematization of contemporary art can only come from the 'reactionary ... even fascist mode of thinking' there can be little doubt as to what he meant with the 'melancholy for societies without power that gave rise to fascism' that overdose of a powerful referential in a society which cannot terminate its mourning [2].

Could that be a self-description? Not of course the mourning, himself being a cool thinker, but the image of the melancholy of a powerless theory that gives rise to the yearning for power seems particularly fitting. When all books do is turn in circles, a solid boot-in-the-face will strike through all the epistemological vagaries and clean out the ontological despair. A true hero of the simulacrum he has realized this consequence. He wants out of what elsewhere he referred to as 'the ecstasy of communication' a place of 'the cold universe: ecstasy, obscenity, fascination, communication ... hazard, chance and vertigo.' [3] It is here that 'passion disappears' which would explain the remote place that Baudrillard now finds himself in. We must assume a heavily burdened conscience, cracking under the drag weight of miles and miles of opaque theory, to appreciate such a ridiculous claim that the situation of contemporary art (see Baudrillard's poetry) can only be renewed by Le Pen: we can almost hear the tenured professor begging: passion, one last time in my life I want passion.

But discourse has a nasty tendency to develop its own dynamics and spiral around its own arguments, to become separated from the reality of production or creation which it claims as its subject. Instead of worrying about the defection of a great cultural theorist we should dispense with him quietly and wave goodbye to granddad. There is life behind the TV screen, and to understand this life, today, art is still one of the best ways to go. -

Corinna Ghaznavi - Felix Stalder

[1] J. Baudrillard, "A Conjuration of Imbeciles" in CTHEORY: 3; originally "La conjuration des imbeciles" in Liberation, May 7, 1997

[2] J. Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra" in Wallis (ed). Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York, Boston, The New Museum of Contemporary Art and David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc., 1995, 1984: 269

[3] J. Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication" in Faster (ed), The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, Seattle, Washington, Bay Press, 1993, 1983: 132

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