Our current “event society,” as the Bamberg cultural sociologist Gerhard Schulze classified it in his book of the same title, is developing a tendency to regard almost everything as a matter of taste, left to individual preference. It is expected of all areas of life that there is an excessive range of choices from which anyone can choose according to his or her personal taste and inclination.
This hedonistic propensity leads towards a conformity of extreme individualization, which necessarily follows from the current economic system and increasingly destabilizes all areas of society. In any event, art is now confronted with the fundamental problem of what role it still has in a world so dominated by taste and exclusively interested in beautiful appearances. Throughout modernism, the practice of art developed as a continuous massive affront against everything tasteful.
Taste’s despotic character, stemming from feudal times, and its normative claim still maintained by the bourgeoisie—derived from absolute, purportedly non-aesthetic values—was considered incompatible with art’s striving for autonomy. This is precisely what modern art production’s radical rebellion was directed at in its attempt to generally negate or overcome socially valid customs, traditions, conventions, rules, and views, trying to provoke the dominant artistic taste at any one time. To defy social claims, interests and expectations about art, indeed surpassing its own tradition, was part of the program of the avant-garde. “The great aim consisted in a reaction against taste,” proclaimed Marcel Duchamp, the first self-declared avant-garde artist.
Modern artists had various different strategies to give their work an “inner necessity” beyond personal taste. What they shared was a more or less conscious intention to assert the work’s independence from the personality of the artist. While in this way the art of modernism was decisively powered by the mechanism of “inner necessity,” post-modernism—or however the paradigm shift that followed modernism should be termed—can be understood as a phase of coming to consciousness, where every avant-garde notion of necessity or absoluteness becomes transparent and dubious as a kind of creativity apparatus or Duchampian Bachelor Machine.
Only from today’s perspective can we see that modernism did not obey any “real” necessities. In this respect the allegation of deception is ahistorical as well as naive or dishonest. For this accusation is not made to question working with “higher” necessities in general; instead, the antimodernist agenda pursued by the conservative mainstream tries to suggest with its critique that it was once possible—and could now, after modernism, finally again be considered plausible—to justify artistic or other decisions with objective, real necessities. It is fatal that currently dominant art practice, lapsing behind all insights of contemporary philosophizing and experience, has fallen for this restorative ideology.
The basic difficulty for art’s future continuance lies in admitting the loss of necessities without surrendering to arbitrariness. There is no acceptable alternative to engaging with this problem: if the belief—theoretically rattled by Nietzsche at the latest and in practice shown to be absurd by modern art—that all being must recognizably have a necessary material reason for its existence and way of being, were to be maintained, then this would equal the reversal of the hitherto existing process of art’s self-enlightenment and the self-liberation of the individual, a reversal that is pursued by economism. Fundamentally not being able to make any differentiation or selection that is not purely accidental without recourse to supposed necessities would equally mean the complete disappearance of aesthetic competency and culture. More promising than any reanimation of the principle of necessity is to counter the barbarism of arbitrariness with a cultivation of pleasure as the selection criterion of taste.
The objection that pleasure is egocentric, asocial, and even destructive in its Dionysian intensification as a mixture of salaciousness and cruelty does not apply to the pleasure of the taste judgment. Because if the judgment is to be aesthetic in the Kantian sense, the choice must be made in accordance with the rule of general validity; that is, it must “take account of the mode of representation of everyone else,” and reflect his or her possible—not actual—judgments. The cultivation of aesthetic pleasure, in other words, the creation of circumstances under which it can be continued as long as possible, repeated often, and the ability to experience pleasure can be increased, enables decisions beyond untenable normativity and the arbitrary. Where else but in art is such an aesthetic education possible?
(Michael Linger | The Culture of Taste)
// Octocer 2006