Kuspit’s Pascalian Wager

Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art is a sustained defense of aesthetic experience, not from the standpoint of the aesthete, but from point of view of one committed to furthering "personal autonomy and critical freedom" through art in a world overwhelmed by the commercial, the trivial, and the ephemeral.

When works of art become consummately commercial — when commodity identity overtakes and subsumes aesthetic identity, so that an expensive work is uncritically accorded aesthetic significance, not to say spiritual value — they become everyday artifacts, thus reversing the ‘esthetic osmosis’ that Duchamp thought was the essence of ‘the creative act’. Aesthetic osmosis makes works of art evocative and engaging and even creates them, for it transforms ‘inert matter’ into a phenomenon the spectator is willing to call a work of art — a ‘phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically’, that is, to take seriously. [14]

Kuspit’s text is a call to seriousness as he brings to our attention the serious condition into which art has fallen. He joins with others in declaring the end of art.  But he must believe it’s an end in appearance, not in fact — a failure of contemporary imagination and commitment.  Kuspit is making what no doubt seems to him a last ditch attempt to recover from the remains of modernism an understanding and approach to art that enables "the aesthetic transformation of everyday experience of reality" [28], that resists "the resentment and repudiation of beauty" [31] — a dialectical beauty which never loses touch with the ugly inherent in all substantial beauty and on which it depends — that never loses its connection to "artistic contemplation" as "a way of caring for one’s psyche". [37]

When one looks at Otto Dix’s horrific images of trench warfare, his aesthetic transmutation of death and destruction into a weirdly beautiful scene gives us a certain perspective on it that is more critically effective — more consciousness raising, as it were — than any journalistic rendering of it. It is also more soul-saving, for it has a cathartic effect that no war photograph can have. The photograph may move us, but it will not rescue us from the unpleasant feelings it arouses in us, which is what Dix’s aesthetically brilliant images do in the very act of evoking such feelings.  The photograph shows us the devastating scene, but Dix’s images not only show its devastation, but involve us with it, in a complex dialectic of identification and disidentification — shocked attachment and resolute detachment — similar to the dialectic of subject matter and form.  In short, aesthetic autonomy is a prelude to personal autonomy, even a basic part of it.  Human beings are not fully human without aesthetic experience. [37f]

I trust this very brief glimpse at Kuspit’s argument gives a sense for what he thinks may be lost during this age of "post-art".  In the central chapters he gives an historical account of the rise of nihilism and entropy in the art of the 20th century, as well as the "turn inward" as a refuge from the debilitating effects and anomie of modern society. Kuspit presents a bleak, but realistic, assessment of the situation we find ourselves in today.  The "crisis in criticism" discussed in our previous posts is symptomatic of a crisis in contemporary art as a whole.  The prospects of survival on Kuspit’s view and from the position of one who has been at the center of, and active in, the artworld for most of his adult life, are not good.  But he accepts, albeit implicitly, a Pascalian wager, recognizing that while the likelihood of preserving art’s power to deal with what often seems a tragic and meaningless existence may be vanishingly small, the only hope is to assume the possibility of some measure of success and to do what you can to achieve it.

The question is to what extent one accepts Kuspit’s analysis and shares his values.  What does he capture that’s "essential" and where does he go wrong?

Kuspit, “The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation”

This past week I re-read Kuspit’s The End of Art. Those familiar with the book know it focuses more on the reception, marketing, and institutional setting of art today than on the role of modern and contemporary criticism.  But, as usual, Kuspit’s approach is relevant, insightful and, thus, instructive for our discussion and anyone interested in re-examining art criticism today.  Before commenting on The End of Art and its defense of the "New Old Masters", I want to turn, for background, to an earlier piece — "The Subjective Aspect of Critical Evaluation" — which focuses on aesthetic experience and subjectivity. [Originally published in Art Criticism (Winter 1985/86).  Reprinted in Donald Kuspit, The New Subjectivism: Art in the 1980s, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.]  The subjective (and intersubjective) plays a crucial role in Kuspit’s theory of art and criticism and provides a useful supplement to his argument in The End of Art.

In this essay, Kuspit gives a psychoanalytic account of the role of modern art criticism.  He makes the case that one of the things one typically looks for in art is substance, significance, and permanence. In particular, he links our desire for art with "enduring value" to a fundamental human need for meaning and psychological stability. Art and life are related, albeit not in the postmodern sense that there is no real distinction between the two, but in the modernist sense that art is a refuge apart from the banal and crushing demands of everyday life.  On this view, art is understood as a fictive realm in which the conflicts of life can be explored, often as a search for an underlying unity and coherence. [550]  This characterization, highly contested in the late 20th century, has important implications for criticism, the avant-garde, and the role of the art critic.

Kuspit claims that we can "recognize" in the experience of art a fantasy of immortality, or, to use a less dramatic characterization, a desire for that which enduresCritical evaluation is an attempt at determining the enduring value of a work and opening up the viewer to the qualities that support such evaluations.  Thus, it is the task of the critic to show what is "mortal" and what "immortal" in a work, since every work is a mixture of both.  It’s important to note that this critical conflict between the enduring and the ephemeral parallels the subjective tension between, and resolution of, one’s fantasies of omnipotent selfhood and the demands made by social norms.

The work of art has charismatic power because it seems to satisfy our needs, to give voice to feelings that seem ineffable, even to put in socially presentable form attitudes that seem transgressively anti-social if not outright criminal.  We expect the work to mirror us, and when it doesn’t, our relationship to it becomes tragic.  We feel abandoned by our last hope for an "understanding" relationship…. This psycho-dynamic symbolic function of art…tends to be obscured by the militantly cognitive response to art.  Discussion about whether  an art is stylistically or ideologically innovative or conservative tends to mask an emotional, even characterological, "prejudice" in favor of the innovative or conservative.  Much debate about the critical value of an art is a kind of allegorical warfare to defend certain preexisting, characteristic "points of view" or "outlooks". [552]

Thus, Kuspit claims, the responsible critic must help one engage the work on this level while resisting banal quibbling over categorization. "[I]f criticism is to be serious it must be motivated by a mature sense of the conflicts that motivate life, and especially of the conflict which shows us life at its maturest". [548]

While Kuspit’s approach is deeply informed by Freudian psychoanalytic theory and practice, he questions the adequacy of Freud’s understanding of art.  For example, in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims that art offers three "palliative remedies" to the difficulties of life.  The compensations offered by art are:

1. "powerful diversions of interest, which lead us to care little for our misery;
2. substitutive gratifications, which lessen it;
3. and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it." [552]

On this view art offers a substitute gratification for our basic needs.  It is, as Freud said, a ‘phantasy-pleasure’, a ‘sublimation of the instincts’ ‘frustrated by the outer world’, the ‘transferring of instinctual aims’ into a direction in which they cannot be frustrated.  Art is a civilized kind of satisfaction of instinctual aims, ‘but compared with that of gratifying gross primitive instincts its intensity is tempered and diffused; it does not overwhelm us physically.’  It seems to be possible to say that from Freud’s perspective art can also be regarded as a powerful diversion of interest and an intoxicating substance. [552f]

According to Kuspit, this orthodox Freudian view is too limited.  There are other, more "psychologically primitive needs" — existential and psychic needs — that can and should be addressed by art and criticism that enable human beings to feel more "at home in the world". 

It is by putting ourselves ‘in the psychological position of the person who has lost unity with nature as a result of his specific human qualities, and seeks to recover that unity’, that we can understand not only ‘authentic human needs’ but the critical role a relationship to art can play in satisfying them, or rather, in giving us the illusion that they can be convincingly satisfied.  Art…presents itself as the permanent satisfaction of psychic needs.  The illusion of permanent satisfaction is the grandest of the grand illusions — the most fundamental illusion necessary to magical survival.  It is the expectation on which all the other satisfactions art affords are built.  It is the most unconscious expectation we have from art. [554]

It’s precisely this expectation and the subjective value of aesthetic experience that is compromised by today’s "post-art" and "post-artists".  And it’s around this issue that one can begin to appreciate the profound differences separating Donald Kuspit and Arthur Danto — both theorists of "The End of Art".

Comments on Kuspit

In response to Dan, JL, and George’s comments to the previous post, I think it’s both unfair and unwise to dismiss Kuspit’s analysis as “narcissistic posturing”. Kuspit distinguishes the historical, contemporary, ideological, and critical aspects of art to sharpen our focus on the way one’s experience can be either enhanced or limited by active engagement, on the one hand, or reductive categorization on the other. He’s using the notion of the “historical” not to dismiss it, but rather to question the way it intervenes in one’s encounter with art, shortcircuiting the psychodynamic process that Kuspit believes is at the center of our experience of modern art. We can disagree with his position and characterization of this experience, but not without giving it a close and careful reading.

I don’t think Kuspit is dismissing the historical and the value of consistent, coherent, and necessarily selective accounts of artistic works, movements, and styles embedded in a larger framework of social and material forces. His point is that a fruitful engagement with the work of art depends on our keeping it “in play” and not fully determined. To be affected by it, we must remain open to the unexpected. That entails finding ways to take “out of play”, to whatever extent possible, prior assumptions about the work and its cultural and historical significance, not because they are inherently illegitimate, but to keep them from “conditioning” and, thus, limiting our response. It’s those preconceptions that he refers to as “ideological”, and that he associates with the historical, that diminish a certain kind of productive and critical encounter with art, the value of which is to “further personal autonomy and critical freedom, strengthening the ego against the social superego as well as the instincts, both of which stifle individuality with conformity”. [From The End of Art, Cambridge University Press, 2004, 14.]

So it’s not a question of eliminating history all together, but rather one of relegating the “historical” and the “contemporary” (or “critical”) to those moments in our engagement with art where they can do the most good.

Now it may be that too sharp a distinction between the “historical” and the “contemporary” obscures the ways in which our knowledge of the work might help to open it up for us. (This may be relevant to George’s concerns about “the present”.) Perhaps this is true only for works that rely on a strong conceptual component. I’m thinking here, for example, of Daniel Buren’s early work which, on first encounter many years ago, was utterly opaque to me until I did a bit of research and learned more about his concern for drawing attention to the “rules of the game” — the practices of display and “consumption” of art. Kuspit might place such works as Buren’s in another category entirely — cognitive rather than affective. And, of course, that raises other issues…

The Perpetually Unsolvable Puzzle of Contemporary Art

Much has been written in the last several years about the
turning point in art and culture that occurred in the mid-’60s. Arthur Danto characterizes it as a shift from
the modern to the "contemporary". If we accept this distinction and assume we have a reasonably clear idea
what falls under the concept of the modern, one is inclined to ask what is
brought into focus through the concept of the contemporary. What does it mark other than the indexical
"now" or "the mythological present"?

In a recent essay entitled "The Contemporary and the Historical", Donald Kuspit argues that the contemporary is that which precedes, resists, and lies outside history, that is, a history constructed
according to the criterion of narrative coherence—a fitting together of events
and objects in such a way that each finds its unique place in relation to an
overall configuration. On Kuspit’s view, history is the solution to a puzzle wherein the parts fit together in a clear and satisfying way—"a consistent narrative integrating some of these events in
a system or pattern that simultaneously qualifies and transcends them by giving
them some sort of purposiveness, appropriateness and meaning, thus making them
seem fated" or inevitable. [Kuspit’s essay has also been the subject of discussions by Dan and JL at Grammar.police.]

Kuspit’s analysis of the contemporary, which makes no
mention of Danto, is similar in many respects to the latter’s conception of the

I think of posthistorical art as
art created under conditions of what I want to term “objective
pluralism,” by which I mean that there are no historically mandated
directions for art to go in…. Objective pluralism…means that there are no historical possibilities truer than any other. It is, if you like, a period of artistic entropy, or historical disorder.
[Arthur Danto, from a lecture given at SVA, 18 February 1993.]

Kuspit also acknowledges pluralism as a mark of the
postmodern, i.e. the "unlimited expansion of the contemporary". He
claims that this "radical pluralism…has made a mockery of the belief that
there is one art that is more ‘historical’ than any other. Thus history has
become as absurd and idiosyncratic as the contemporary."

In words that echo Danto’s defense of "the end of
art", Kuspit says

There may be a history of modern
art and a history of traditional art, but there can be no history of postmodern
art, for the radically contemporary can never be delimited by any single
historical reading…. In postmodernity…[there] is no longer any such thing as
the judgment of history, only an incomplete record of the contemporary…. Art
history’s attempt to control contemporaneity—and with that the temporal flow of
art events—by stripping certain art events of their idiosyncracy and
incidentalness in the name of some absolute system of value, was overwhelmed by
the abundance of contemporary art evidence that proposed alternative and often
radically contrary ideas of value…. In attempting to establish certain art as
more legitimate and necessary than other art, history writing implicitly
privileges some art as more creative and ideologically correct than other art.

By contrast, according to Kuspit, the extra-historical
nature of the contemporary makes possible a plurality of interpretations that
keep the art work alive and "in play", rather than fixed, resolved,
the puzzle solved. "This enhances its contemporaneity, that is, the more
communication about and interpretation of it, the more contemporary it seems,
that is, the more alive in the present, as it were, and thus in less and even
no need of permanence." As soon as
historical status is claimed for an art object, "it withers on the
contemporary vine, losing its creative resonance…."

When the contemporary object is cast in stone and projected
into the future as art of historical value, it becomes "a fetishized
product, as though the creative process that brought it into being is beside
its point. In fact, the process is completed by its creative interpretation,
which is ongoing—a perpetual re-becoming and thus de-reification and
dis-establishing of the art product."

Only when there is nothing left to
interpret and communicate is the object complete, that is, resoundingly
concrete, which means that it is a product that has lost the vital resonance or
aura it had when in process—a resonance or aura that can be restored by a
rejuvenating injection of dynamic interpretation. It is perhaps inevitable that
art history misplaces the concreteness of the work process that is art, for art
history is subliminally concerned with the legitimacy of objects, and only
reified objects are legitimate from the perspective of history. History
writing, then, is necessarily an act of reification, and reification goes hand
in hand with idolization — the antithesis of critical consciousness.

Thus, the contemporary, for both Danto and Kuspit, marks a
space within which critical questions and interpretations are always in play,
always engaging, forever reinventing what we see in the works and through them.

The logic of Kuspit’s position seems to suggest that the
"contemporary" is more of an attitude than a temporal marker — a
critical state of mind that governs one’s engagement with an art object,
keeping its contingency in play. In principle, one could approach an artwork
from any historical period as a "contemporary" work, i.e. make it
"contemporary" by applying one’s creative imagination to the
interpretation of the work and one’s critical consciousness to one’s own
theoretical framework, unencumbered by "history".

This clearly differs from Danto’s view of the contemporary
which makes modern and pre-modern works alien in some fundamental way —
aspects of another "form of life" governed by a different structure
of art criticism — another paradigm which we understand, at best, from a
psychological and existential distance.

Since at least 1977, in a memorable essay published in Artforum entitled "Art Criticism:
Where’s the Depth?", Kuspit has been arguing for a "revitalized
idealistic criticism" and the necessary role of criticism in enabling the
work to endure by transcending its particularity. His argument extends to the ontology of art
when he claims that a critical engagement is necessary to complete the work.  Critical
consciousness is needed to constitute a (whole) work and its "aura".
Only then is the work fully realized and knowable. Only then do the relevant details emerge and
enable description of the whole and its parts. "In the last analysis the
presence of the work — its way of being present — depends upon critical
reflection of it, and criticism’s effort to formulate general ideas is an
effort to ground the particular work is such a way that it will have a durable
presence." ["AC", Artforum,1977]

Given the prevalence of a largely descriptive and
compromised art criticism in today’s media, one would do well to re-examine
Kuspit’s theory and practice for ways out of the current impasse.