There is a fundamental link between art and politics: both are fields where the struggle for recognition is carried out. This struggle for recognition, as Alexander KojËve once defined it in his commentary on Hegel, surpasses the usual struggle over the distribution of goods that in the modern age has usually been regulated by the market. At issue here is not just satisfying a certain desire, but having this desire recognized as socially legitimate. While in politics struggles take place over the recognition of various group interests, artists of the classical avant-garde struggled for the recognition of all individual forms and artistic techniques that were previously not considered legitimate.
In other words, the classical avant-garde struggled to achieve the recognition of all signs, forms, and things as legitimate objects of artistic desire, and thus attain for them social artistic representation. The two struggles are internally linked to one another: and both culminate in a state where all people with their respective interests or all forms and artistic techniques are recognized as equal. Of course, such a state of complete equal opportunity is never truly achieved in either the political or in the artistic field. All the same, as KojËve already pointed out, as soon as the general logic of equalization behind individual struggles for recognition itself is recognized, the impression arises that these struggles have to a certain extent lost their gravity and explosive power.
This is why KojËve spoke even before the Second World War about the end of history—the end of the political history of struggles for recognition. Since then, the discourse on the end of history has come to set the tone in the art milieu in particular. Here, mention has been made over and over again of the end of art history, meaning that today “in principle” all forms and things are always already recognized as artworks. Under this premise, the struggle for recognition in art has only arrived at its logical conclusion, but by no means has reached its actual end. And indeed: the classical avant-garde has opened the infinite, horizontal field of all possible real and virtual forms, all side by side, equal in status. Images produced by so-called primitives, abstract images, and simple objects of the everyday world have one after the other found the recognition that once was only granted to certain, historically privileged images. Over the course of the twentieth century, this tendency towards extending equality to all images has increased, and images from the world of mass culture, entertainment, and kitsch have come to be seen as equal in status. In the meantime, in presenting new works for a certain art context it has become superfluous to ask for their particular justification, something that had still been common during the era of the classical avant-garde.
Instead, this presentation is today automatically justified when at issue are images that were previously underprivileged, subject to unequal treatment, excluded from the space of public presentation. Previously, in order to be recognized as an artwork, a form had to be marked as something special, worthy of recognition, something singular. Today, every form is considered a mere example of a potentially endless series of forms, each of which is equally deserving of being considered an artwork. This equality among all forms, which modern art struggled to achieve, is now often taken to task for being arbitrary.
For if all images are seen as equal in status, the artist is apparently unable to break any taboos, provoke, shock, or expand the bounds with any image, for it is no longer possible to associate any image with the claim to reveal a previously hidden truth. Instead, since the end of history, every artist is suspected of just producing one another arbitrary image among many others. In this case, the regime of equal opportunity for all images is both the telos of the logic that the history of art pursues in modernism and its final negation. Accordingly, a nostalgia for a time when individual art works were considered especially valuable, unique, and singular repeatedly rears its head. All the same, today the market remains the sole criterion for the outstanding importance of an individual artwork.
Of course, an artist can also give his work an additional meaning as a political weapon in the context of the continuing political struggles for recognition, in the sense of political engagement. But in this case, the political is inevitably understood as something external to art, as a kind of instrumentalization of art for absolutely other political interests and purposes. And even worse: the political can also be seen as a kind of advertising for one’s own art. This suspicion of commercially exploiting the media attention that political engagement brings with it undermines even the greatest efforts in the direction of political art. But most importantly, the artist is not the only one producing images today. Today’s media world is by far the largest and most effective means of producing images: much larger and more effective than today’s art system. We are constantly confronted with images of war, terror, catastrophes of the most various kind, with which the artist cannot compete with his or her craftsmanship. Politics has in the meantime also situated itself in the field of media image production: all important politicians today generate today thousands of images in their public appearances.
Accordingly, politicians are often judged aesthetically. Often, it is lamented that the “content” and “issues” of politics have disappeared behind “beautiful surface.” But this complaint is naive, for it does not take sight of the fact that politicians today show their intelligence by showing that they know how to handle images strategically. To be able to discuss certain issues and questions, the voter requires a certain knowledge that might not have been at his or her disposal. In contrast, a politician’s ability to work with images can be judged by almost anyone who has acquired a certain visual competence simply by living in our civilization. Now if images of politics and war are added to images of advertising, the commercial film, and entertainment, it becomes clear that artists, these final craftsmen of modernity, have no chance of opposing their own art as something singular in the face of the dominance of this image generating machine. All the same, the artist who stands in the heritage of the classical avant-garde has another task: to point out the endlessness of the artistic visual field, where the visual fields of power, advertising, and entertainment only represents a small segment. And that means that the genuinely critical, political function of art has by no means disappeared. Quite to the contrary: when the art system, as often happens, is seen as a small subsystem of the overall media, we overlook that this media whole for its part operates on the terrain of art, and second finds itself in a state that more or less corresponds to the state of nineteenth century salon art before the onset of classical modernism. The media visual space seems immense on first glance, and it appears almost impossible to get an overview.
But in actuality, the multiplicity of images that circulate in the media spaces of mass culture is highly limited. To be effectively spread and valued in the commercialized mass media, images must be easily recognized by a large audience. This makes the mass media extremely tautological. The variety of images that circulate in the media is much less than the immense variety of images kept in museums, for example. And this means: the formal equality of all images corresponds by no means to their actual inequality in the context of today’s commercialized mass culture. Most images remain excluded from media circulation.
Or to put it more precisely: an infinite number of images remain excluded: for as I said there is an infinite variety of forms that can be used as artworks. Today’s art, like today’s politics, thus operates in the gap between formal equality and actual inequality. This gives the artist the opportunity to refer to this endless number of equal, but excluded images in his art. Just as the politician of our times—from the Left or the Right—unavoidably comes to refer to the silent majority of the unequally treated and politically unrepresented persons, today’s artist refers to the invisible, but infinite majority of non-represented images, examples of which he or she presents in his art. The artist of the ancien rÈgime sought to create a masterpiece, an image that stands on its own, that is not part of any group of images, that distinguishes itself in relation to all other images because it makes a singular truth visible that remains hidden in some sense from all other images. The artist of modernism instead presents examples from an endless series of images: Kandinsky’s examples of abstract compositions, Duchamp’s examples of readymades, or Warhol’s examples of mass cultural icons. The explosive power that these examples have for us originates not in their exclusivity but rather in their very ability to be mere examples: in so doing, they present not just themselves, but refer to the endless series of images, in which they are equal elements.
It is just this reference to the excluded infinity that lends these individual examples their fascination and their significance in infinite contexts of political and artistic representation. The artist today refers not to the “vertical” infinity of divine truth, but the “horizontal” infinity of images equal in status. Of course this indexing of the unbounded character of the artistic visual field should be strategically thought through and mobilized to achieve an impact in the particular context of representation. For example, some artists place images that point to their special ethnic or cultural origin in the context of the international art scene: these images thus relativize the normative power of the currently dominant international mass media aesthetic that ignores the regional. But at the same time, other artists use mass media images in the context of their regional cultures, where in the name of a certain cultural identity everything having to do with the mass media, the international, the current, or the cool is excluded.
These two artistic strategies seem to run contrary to one another, for one emphasizes the images of the national, cultural identity, and other in contrast engages in increasing the importance of the very mass media that promote the undermining of this identity. But these two strategies only seem to oppose one another. In both cases, the same point is made—that something remains excluded from a certain cultural context. In one case, the regional image, in the other, mass media images. And in both cases at issue are merely examples that point to the endless field of what can be artistically legitimated. There are similar examples of this: for example, the attempt is made to bring “lower” forms of art into museums and art halls, and in the media context to establish high art in the media context. Or: the importance of craftsmanship is insisted upon where the readymade technique has already established itself, and, conversely, the struggle against craftsmanship comes to the fore where craftsmanship is still equated to art. Or: images of humanity are mobilized against the excesses of nationalism, war, intolerance, but horrific aliens, vampires, or genetically modified monsters are thematized wherever humanity itself is understood as a unshakeable norm. All of these examples could suggest the false conclusion that contemporary art is always merely situative and acts ex negativo, in that it in every situation as a reflex takes a critical position for the sake of critique.
But this is not the case, for all of these examples of the critical position point ultimately to the one and only quite positive, affirmative, and emancipatory vision of an infinite field of images equal in status. Hence, these apparently contrary and purely negative strategies basically follow the same strategy. The artist today finds himself in the gap between the equality of all images established by radical modernism and the hierarchies, privileges, and norms that dominate today as ever in the final representational space of our culture. At issue here is an emancipatory perspective that is genuinely artistic in nature, that does not come from the outside, but at the same time makes it possible to question and modify the constitution of all concrete visual fields, including those visual fields where current politics situates itself. Each time, the artist has the chance to present his images as examples of the endlessly excluded in a finite visual context.
These examples can here be read as being of two kinds: as harbingers of a definitive dissolution of a certain infinite context, as a “sign on the wall” that announces the end, or as a sign of the appropriation, domestication of the Other, the excluded within the established order. In each case, this judgment is controversial, and there are no external criteria allow us to pronounce a well-founded verdict. All the same, it can be said that the factor of time plays a decisive role in such cases. Images that initially seem explosive lose with time their ability to point to the outside, the endlessly other. Then the time comes to set a new sign under the conditions of a changed topology of the respective representational space. But the fact that the field of equal images is endless guarantees that the possibility to place such new signs always remains.
// Octocer 2006