It might surprise readers in 2016 that we still have aesthetic philosophers who aren’t merely monkish professors, at least not in their writing. Not only that, I would argue that some of the craziest thinking committed to the page is now done by aesthetic philosophers, many of whom are shunned by orthodoxy (especially Marxist orthodoxy) and relegated to presses that (for some reason) even our most high-minded thinkers never read.
Maybe it’s because they’re communists. There is, on one hand, Jacques Ranciere, a squirrely Frenchman, not a Stalinist but a Communard, who writes about the inseparability of art and politics. After reading books like Aisthesis, we come to appreciate that every worthy aesthetic act is a redistribution of material life — of the way we see or touch or smell. In this way, art becomes an intervention into the police order, or the arrangement of possibilities that governs who can speak or who matters at all.
On the other end of the political spectrum, there is Boris Groys, a Mephistophelian trickster whose commentaries on contemporary art are as indispensable as they are profound. A Soviet who later moved to Germany, and still later the United States, Groys has two advantages over his peers: he was raised on dialectical thinking, and he has resided in the epicenters of ideology (again: the Soviet Union, Germany, and the United States). Add to this another advantage: it is sometimes said of Groys that his philosophy is delivered from the perspective of the dead. He is the philosopher as corpse.
Groys’ books, like Art Power and the woefully underappreciated Under Suspicion, are collections of essays on wide-ranging themes — the images of terrorism, religious iconography, life under the gaze of surveillance and theory — that always circle back, inexplicably, to the centrality of art in culture. And these essays are often structured like traps: before you know it, just a few pages in, you’re hooked into an argument that, prima facie, you never would have accepted.
In his brilliant new book, In the Flow, Groys again upends the expectations of contemporary art, and, yet again, he does so from the angle of death. Specifically, this go-round, Groys writes that contemporary art is designed to die, whether its makers realize it or not.
This observation may grate against those who still cling to pre-Nietzschean ideals about the longevity of great art — the statue of David, for example, derives its greatness in part because it is still around. But the more we consider contemporary art — let’s say, for example, the current mania for performance art — the more Groys’ oblique arguments straighten and form a point.
His thesis, if you let it, will begin to color your every experience of art “events.” In fact, the event-ness of art is part of the point. In Groys’ argument, all contemporary art seeks to imitate the future, and, in the future (because it is the future), all things will expire. If you see an artwork on the Internet, for example — even if you can return to it — the experience soon withers and fades. The artwork is lost to the flow or stream of events online. And the same goes for museum installations, exhibitions, and performances. In such conditions, art loses its former meaning. In one of many lines that are sure to spark disdain and controversy, Groys lets the reader in on a secret: instead of artworks, contemporary art now produces “information about art events.” It’s worth mulling over the entire section:
Indeed, contemporary art escapes the present not by resisting the flow of time but by collaborating with it. If all present things are transitory and in flux, it is possible and even necessary to anticipate their eventual disappearance. Modern and contemporary art practices precisely the prefiguration and imitation of the future in which things now contemporary will disappear. Such an imitation of the future cannot produce artworks. Rather, it produces artistic events, performances, temporary exhibitions that demonstrate the transitory character of the present order of things and the rules that govern contemporary social behaviour. Imitation of the anticipated future can manifest itself only as an event and not as a thing. The artists of Futurism and Dada produced artistic events revealing the decay and obsoleteness of the present. But the production of art events is even more characteristic of contemporary art, with its culture of performance and participation. Today’s artistic events cannot be preserved and contemplated like traditional artworks. However, they can be documented, ‘covered’, narrated and commented on. Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events.
Of course, contemporary art as “the production of information” aligns it neatly with the Internet, and much of the book is premised on this equalization: if art is just information, virtually any subject is open to the aesthetic philosopher. And so Groys maps a lot of territory. There are essays here on Wikileaks, Malevich, art activism, Google, and realism, just to name a few. There are also lines that are drafted to scandalize both the academic and the freethinker, often in reference to totality: “It is easy to imagine the dissolution and disappearance of the Internet in its totality” and “So the desire for totality is simply the desire for freedom.” And why not? Another word for totality is death, and Groys is one of our greatest thinkers of both.