At the Ends of Art

Rocking chair is still without a rocker but it’s still a chair. –Bibio


Art… over? — Hegel first proclaimed “the end of art,” and in the two centuries since, we have seen this prophecy come true. Of course, one will immediately object: but art is everywhere! Not only Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Fluxus, Pop Art, Happenings, and all the other movements– everything you find in the museum and art history– but the graffiti and the fashion on the streets, new digital media, graphic design, installations, etc. What’s more, Dick Blick is still open, along with the Art Departments and the galleries. Indeed, this seems to contradict poor Hegel’s claim. But first we have to ask: which “art,” exactly, did he see coming to an “end”? Perhaps this diversification, proliferation, and expansion of the “arts” has something to do with the “end of art” after all– that is, with the opening of art beyond the art of former times, beyond a certain type of art that has ended. Or again: perhaps it is a matter of rethinking “art” from the very beginning.

Art as mimesis of the Idea — The art that Hegel proclaimed was ending referred to a certain type of art, to a specific role or vocation that art held for a good portion of Western history: art in service to the gods or to an Idea. That is, art as the mimesis, imitation, copying, reproduction, encoding of the concept, theme, person, god, or thing that meant to be shown. That which is supposedly invisible, interior, transcendent, eternal, above (Plato’s eidos) must descend, must go “outside” itself and cast itself into some sensible, visible, exterior, immanent thing (image, sculpture, painting, song, text, etc.). Classic relationship between Idea and “form-image” of the Idea: art as the reflection, the apparition of something deeper, of some deeper meaning (logos). And in religious art, which epitomizes this logic: the visibility or becoming-visible of the Invisible itself. Understood this way, art is subordinated to what it mimes: something that is “not art” itself (i.e., God, Being, an Idea, etc.) and yet “needs” art in order to make itself known, to present itself to us, to make its presence manifest in the world, to enter into time and history. Art as mimesis of the Idea means: art subordinated to the production of meaning, history, being, etc.

Modern art — Now imagine the average bloke who stares at some abstract painting and wonders to himself, “What the hell is this?” He is asking the question: what is behind it all? What is it trying to represent? What’s the big idea here? What is its significance? We see here how modern art is escaping its religious-mimetic vocation, much to the puzzlement of on-lookers. However, we must point out that, in liberating itself from meaning, modern art was registering a tremor, a transformation that the rest of civilization is still undergoing (as are we), and which holds sway far beyond the “frame” even of modern art. These tremors are undoing borders everywhere– geopolitical ones as well as aesthetic ideal ones. For now, let it suffice to recall Duchamp’s “The Fountain”– a toilet seat exhibited as an art work. Certainly, one can force the toilet seat to signify something: a commentary on society, on the banality of modern life, or on the changing state of “art.” But in the end, it is just a toilet seat with a signature on it. That is, it is just some thing, indifferent to the measurements of meaning. (Note that Duchamp also said: “Art has been thought through to the end.”)

Man as artwork of God — Before getting to what this “end” might “mean” for us and for art, we need to try and grasp how omnipresent this mimetic logic, “productive of meaning,” really is. Take the best example: imago Dei, man as “image” of God, which has nourished so much of Western history and thought. In his spiritual conception, Man mimes God: his highest vocation is to imitate the Inimitable, to be sanctified. God is understood to be a deeper reality (intelligible, rational, pure: the logosand man to be a surface reality (material, sensible, corrupt: fallen), and the goal is to transform the surface by the depth, to make the intelligible manifest in the flesh through any number of religious exercises (baptism, prayer, etc.). This logic reaches a fever pitch with Jesus, “the word made flesh”: the verbum miraculously descends into the caro. The rift between Idea and its articulation, between purity and sin, is mended. That is why Christians say that the only way to approach God is through Jesus, because he has mimed God so perfectly that he is equal to him. Jesus is God, Articulation is Idea– eternally. And so to mime the Eternal Idea, one must mime the Eternal Articulation. Etc.

Giving God the finger — The point here is not endorse any of this, but to render its logic transparent. When Hegel writes that art is the “sensible presentation of the Idea,” we hear echoing what Origen once said of Christ: “visible image of the invisible God.” Theologians and apologists rightly point out that only Jesus makes such a radical claim– that he is “one” with the Eternal Idea, the absolute artwork. All the others retain a space between God and his messenger(s), and usually they institute a prohibition on images to prevent anyone from mistaking anything for God. Christianity does the opposite (at least until Protestantism), as anyone who glances at the history of painting can see. Just like believers, Christian art mimes Jesus’ own mimesis of God. Here, “art” is “mankind”: representations of the divine, fingers pointing to the moon– about which it is said that most of us only see the finger! At the end of art, we might say, this finger gets turned around, stops pointing

The ends of reference — Now, we can discuss all this in non-theological terms just as well, and give a very simple name to this operation: reference. As the story goes, there is the referent and then there is what is referred-to. Word and thing, signifier and signified, form and content. What gets set up here is an “ideal” relationship between one thing standing in for another thing that is “realer,” more important. Man is there, but his being refers to God. Likewise, the statue of Zeus does not refer to marble, but to Zeus himself. Hopefully the logic is clear: we have something external (statue, man, material, signifier) that refers back to something that transcends (Zeus, God, eternal, signified). Corporeality enchained, in service of the incorporeal. Here, I’m taking the “art” that Hegel says has ended to refer to this whole operation, this service of the sensible, this subjection of things and signs to meaning and transcendence. This enchainment allows the master discourse and linear history to be established, along with its whole teleology productive of meaning, whether it’s understood as salvation, progress, profit, or wisdom. Everything must refer to something that will either restore, improve, or augment it. Sign up here for work…

Registering the mutation — With the “end” we are discussing, this enchainment begins to fail, its operation exposed. A hole gets torn through the unified system, the network of meaning buzzes and goes haywire. “Alienation” becomes apparent, an awareness of suffering unavoidable. We start to experience society itself as an illness, and we’re forced to pose anew the question of what all this work refers to. Art no longer does what it’s supposed to do, transgressing its mimetic subordination in search of what makes it possible in the first place. The study of light, rhyme, scale, and organization cease to be mere means to an end and become ends in themselves. Likewise, experiment begins to take the place of knowledge. The unconscious “comes to light” and becomes a key area of research– that is, thought becomes aware of its own blind spots, its own unchecked biases and excesses, its own conditions of possibility. And so it “transvalues,” becoming in turns critical, nihilistic, revolutionary, material, practical, linguistic, existential– if not simply disenchanted, bored, or commercial. (One could probably find an “art” to go along with all these modes and their countless mixtures. I pass no judgment on anything, just as Warhol has taught me: we are all now textural machines…) In short, with ever more intensity and urgency, things themselves give the “Idea” the finger. God dies, the Crystal takes revenge. Of course this seems to occur “slowly,” since civilization resists admitting its own barbarism. Even art, literature, and philosophy register it only in fits and starts, vacillating between exiting and re-entering the mimetic function. And it’s true that it’s less a matter of “escaping meaning” than it is of thinking (weighing, feeling) what makes it possible. What is really at stake here is a mutation in the very relationship between what we once upon a time all-too-easily called “appearance” and “reality,” “ideas” and “things.” Which calls into question the very frame not only of “art” but of humanity, of the world, of we ourselves.

Say “here” when I read your name — To really grasp the implications of what is “ending,” we should go a step further and consider the phenomenon that corresponds and, in a certain way, gives the “logic” of our entire history: the voice and its enchainment to self-presence. Here is how this story goes: when I say something, I exteriorize my “internal” self (soul, idea, reality) in words (sounds, things, apparitions). You hear the sound, but really you hear me, my being, my meaning. “My” voice is this imagined, ideal unity through which I make my presence known (including to myself). If I don’t speak and tell my story, it is almost as if I was never there. Inside-goes-outside and outside-comes-inside: I hear/understand myself. What we want to observe here is how this silent “self” needs the audible “voice” in order to “be itself,” even though it constantly thinks itself superior to the “mere sounds.” (To disrupt this hierarchy is to return to the “materiality” of the “signs” I use to express “myself”: it is to give up on all constituted self-identities for the sake of exposing what makes them possible.) Witness the essential ambiguity of the whole mimetic logic: inside-outside, above-below, intelligible-sensible, idea-articulation necessitate their “opposition” (which always implies a hierarchy between the two); and yet they’re utterly confused, “lost” in each other. And yet, it is not enough to be corporeal (since that is sin!): according the logocentric, phonocentric logic, I must be recognized as “incorporeal spirit” also, or in more contemporary terms: I must acknowledge myself as a being with a linear history, whose “life” is “meaningful.” I have to signify, produce something (ultimately “myself”). Because otherwise I am just a lump of clay, lacking the breath of God, and so lacking character– lacking everything.

Artifice of Revelation —  How strange all this seems to us once the operation is laid out transparently! We raise the volume of our voice so that we’ll be recognized, but we forget that we are conjuring up the thing to be recognized in the same gesture that we’re imagining we’re revealing it. We dream of inner secrets, but there is only this “surface” operation, a materiality, a texturality that precedes every dream (the navel). And yet, still I imagine myself going from absent-quiet to present-audible, unmanifest to manifest, non-existent to existent– and otherwise: anxiety. Metaphysics of presence: my whole being and substance (supposedly) depends on this articulation whereby I make sensible (visible, audible, exterior) this ideal self (intelligible, interior, immortal)– this self-idea that, no matter what, has no consistency whatsoever, and gets lost instantaneously in the sensible texturality. We say that one must speak to be heard, but what is implied is that one must hear oneself speak in order to “be” in the first place. Cruel obligation: produce yourself, show yourself, speak up. Psychotic, blameless, embryonic artifice of self-revelation…


Now, to proclaim the “end of art” is to proclaim an end to this entire logic of imitation, of linear-progressive history, of ideal self-presence. Hegel’s proclamation opened up the possibility of a deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence– of logocentrism and so of Christianity. It begins (1) by acknowledging that the material articulation and suprasensible Idea– visible and invisible– are “codependent,” inseparable, one; (2) that these opposites are themselves ideal, ideas, “phantasmic,” that is, structural; and (3) that there is nothing “behind” the presentation of the Idea– that nothing is presented, nothing is there to be revealed or made manifest. (Not the mystical Nothingness of negative theology, the abyssal power of God that still seduces the dialectic with the promise of Meaning and Glory.) That there is nothing to present means that there is nothing but a presentation that doesn’t “refer” to anything, but simply “happens,” arrives and passes. In other words: existence without essence. Being without ground, action without product, bodies without significance, history without telos, life without need of being saved. A world of ecotechnics, and we in it, us all, arriving and passing, springing forth and withdrawing. Nietzsche registered the mutation this way: that appearance and reality are one– and both lies. That the “truth” is what happens, is what presents itself, beyond true/false, right/wrong, God/man, and without presenting anything “hidden.” Amor fati:

6. The real world—we have done away with it: what world was left? the apparent one, perhaps? … But no! with the real world we have also done away with the apparent one! (Noon; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; pinnacle of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

In other words: being and appearing, intelligibility and sensibility, idea and articulation, are forever on the same footing. And they always have been. This is what must be thought at the end of “art,” although in truth art has always been much more than the mimetic service it rendered to the sacred.

No more ideas/images, or rather, both surfacing on each other. This calls for a new practice of texturality altogether. It’s time to be sensible. After this “end,” it is time to think past the dichotomy of hidden and visible, transcendent and immanent. Time to rethink mimesis and this doomed-to-fail logic of “self-imitation”– which, we should add, imitates nothing. Time to think beyond the supposedly transparent operation whereby an ideal self/subject would impose himself in the world through his speech and his actions. Time to rethink the self beyond the rational-juridicial-humanist subject endowed with rights and duties (without abandoning these advancements either, which should be obvious). To think, therefore, of reference beyond its mimetic role of referring-to: in the direction of an infinite referral, or rather, an infinite transference of each one to the other, suspended over the challenge of “no referent.” To think being-with: a self whose “origin” is not in-itself or in-God (same thing!)– a self whose “origin” is not one, but multiple, as diverse as all the things, thoughts, and experiences that pass through in the world. A self that does not come from itself, stay itself, or return to itself, but is lost in “becoming,” lost in being-exposed, coming-withdrawing. A self suspended in the surprise of this infinite event. Eternal return of the “same” différance, effacement, and dispersal. Indeed! it has been “time” for this “for years” (doesn’t it start before we notice it, by definition?), even if we have barely begun to think it.

There are countless witnesses to this trembling already, this mutation of meaning, humanity, and being-in-the-world. Let us cite one of the most rigorous, Antonin Artaud:

The point is that my thought no longer develops either in time or in space. I am nothing. I have no self. […] There is no point in my looking for images. I KNOW that I shall never find my images. That nothing in me will ever rise to the degree of mental firmness, of inner compression that would enable me to meet or recover myself. […] I am not here. I am not here, and I never will be. It is serious because it is not a question of the gratuitous work of writing, or of images for their own sake, but rather of the thought itself, that is to say, the life. The same vacuity possesses me in relation to every circumstance of life. […] I am quite aware that I bore everyone, that no one is interested– but what am I to do, since I am alive? Short of dying, there is no solution. —Letter to René Allendy, November 30th, 1927

There are two ways to read such a statement. The most common, indeed the only rational response, would be to say, “This man was clearly suffering from a grave disorder. How can someone claim to be both aliveand to not be? That he will never “be here,” even though he thinks? This psychotic behavior is why asylums and medicine exist.” Indeed, later in the letter, Artaud begs Dr. Allendy for medications. But at the same time, we cannot dismiss his experience as a clinical anomaly. We can read Artaud asking: what has happened to the relation between substance, being, ideal self-presence, and thought, life, experience? What are we to make of this rift/compact between reality and appearance, when the relationship between idea and image is ruptured/sutured for good? When we can no longer distinguish inside from outside– or him from us? When the dialectic of presence-absence has broken down along with the transparent functioning of the sign– not “abstractly”, but down to the marrow, le pèse-nerfs? And what about his concern with the theater and the body? Artaud–

artaudI am he who can dissolve the terror
Of being a man and going among the dead,
For is not my body the miraculous ash
Whose earth is the voice of the speaking dead?

No, the finger no longer points to any divine– but not as if we’d lost anything. It’s simply that the “divine” is no longer to be deciphered or uncovered. The divine is precisely “humanity” at its limit/presentation, precisely at the “it is happening” constantly surprising-exposing us, constantly throwing all things back into play. Nothing is disclosed but this in-common.

Divine is that there are fingers, that there are faces, that there are toads, roses, drawbridges, sequins, and motors, all equally “present-ing,” all equally “with-drawn.” Nothing simply equal-to-itself, everything more-than-one. Asymmetrical symmetry. And always another “face” of something, posed and deposed, un-knowable. What’s divine is that we do not and none of this needs to point anywhere. Nothing needs to be insisted upon. Things, just as they are, exist. That is what we have to think: them outside their meaning, without judgment.

And so we can acknowledge that the words I write no longer have their source in “me,” in any present being, equal to itself, preserved over time. In truth, they never did. Same goes for everyone, equally. Likewise, I can no longer say whether I “am” or merely “appear to be,” if I am alive or dead. Or rather, at each instant, one is both: born/dying instantly, over and over without anything being repeated. It’s time for another texturality, another feeling of the self. Time to be sensible. Sure, “since the mechanism of the mind has been destroyed in its continuity, I can no longer think except in fragments.” But to think this as a loss is to remain stuck in the old logic. One can be sure of just this: here are my fingers, here are my words– for now. And that is enough: existence is not tied to any mimetic operation, no linear history, project, or goal. No self-imitation at any point! No duplication– not even of God. No voice! But a rocking chair without a rocker is still a chair. Even still: air moves through it.

(“Still”: a thought at peace…)

This dispossession of self, this cut that dismantles all simple presence, can be contemplated tragically or comically. In truth, those who bear witness to it, those who experience it, pass by both ways, including Artaud. Just like everyone, dying to live. In one fell swoop, we’re reduced to “nothing” and taken up in a movement that extends and will extend far beyond “ourselves,” outstripping any simple unity. At once: rendered meaningless and learning how to organize this. Learning how to add: freed from the measurements of signification, freed to the immeasurable. Overwhelmed-elated, crushed- liberated, instituted-deconstituted. And even in the span of una hora. I weep for joy, alive, knowing I will never/only have been.

We’re dealing here, at the ends of art, with the strangeness of our passing through. Of the passerby, the footprint, the trace, coming-and-going, ever transferred elsewhere. Of transport, plain and simple. Die Niemandsrose. Existence, experience, life, madness, reason– no longer tied to any “given,” any demand for meaning, any invisible back-world. Only in this world, our world– and we just passing through.

And so, art after the end of art “is” not. Not a work, not a production, nothing one could simply and unquestionably frame. At the ends of art, “everything” is art-iculation without I-dea. Art now traces a step, traces our stepping-through. It is the simplest remnant, the simplest remark, each on par with the other, each absolute. Threshold after threshold, fragilekey after fragilekey. Keys/doors to nowhere. To nowhere but opening.

We ought to reread the whole “tradition” of art outside its subordination to the Idea. Even the first cave drawings do more than represent primitive spirits: they outline an experience of the world no more or less advanced than ours. In this new territory, it is very difficult to even speak of “advancement” as all. Or rather, the advance is singular, total, insubordinate. Each line, each tone, each color, each shape opens man up to the arrival and passage, to an encounter with what he will never be able to appropriate, but nevertheless experiences, leaving here and there a trace of this encounter, of his experience of passing-through.

And so it is no longer a question of “what” or “who” we are, or of bringing to light some secret truth, but of picking up on the traces as they are, of meeting each other and everything as we stand. Raw stamping out of this: that we are there, and that that alone is meaningful. And that they, all beings, animate and inanimate, vegetal, molecular, quantum, are there also. The tracing out of this, this facticity of the gift of the world, each time absolute, each time singular. That alone gives the meaning, gives the truth.

And so: no meaning to add, no sense to make, no work to produce. Nothing to bring to light or to the table. Instead, opening: a coming that’s traced, outlining a rough-hewn shape, a design reaching elsewhere (indeed, for its form, its eidos), written-erased, exposed to all elements, arriving without staying, adding without accumulating, being without leading, at peace but not sleeping– exhausted, overjoyed, overwhelmed, expended… And doing so endlessly. Life, language, love, thinking: infinitely finished off.


Strangeness of the passerby, of everything passing through. Strangeness… of bodies:

Then you will teach him again to dance wrong side out
as in the frenzy of dance halls
and this wrong side out will be his real place.

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4 Responses to At the Ends of Art

  1. Jake Riley says:

    “Only in this world, our world–and we are just passing through”

    “Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it”
    — Cormac McCarthy, The Road

    Great post, Tim. From those of us who are doomed to make a little bit of sense for the sake of a career (rather than to be sensible), its a refreshing reminder.

  2. tmlavenz says:

    When I read your comment initially, I felt the need to contradict myself in spades– to complicate my own sayings, to disinscribe my truth– by playing on your comment a little bit:

    The only sensible thing we can do is make a little bit of sense– no matter how little, in fact. (Perhaps it demands littleness, an attention to the fine details, a technical appraisal of rogue objects…)

    The demands career-paths hoist on us seem all but insensible. What makes sense is to be sensible about it. It helps to encounter teachers who have navigated the waters to some success– the extent to which they’ve been able to “float above” the nonsense and, in many cases, been able to change things– even if it is only in one department in one university, that’s really all that matters (thinking locally: since that’s all you can do). I think we hold to people less for their ideas than for the mark they make on us– the mark being the idea that can be excavated and revisited eternally (revisiting the mark: resurrecting the person/idea). And as Greg Ulmer might say, what we’re really paying attention to here are gestures– and learning how to take up our own. It is the gesture that matters: there is the mysteriousness. As Baudrillard says, the only rule is to return reality back to reality a little bit more enigmatic and strange than you found it.

    By “being sensitive” — attentive, curious, creative– one can surmount the rather rough sensibilities of academia (I think, I hope). It’s all a matter of how to learn to play the difference– with the sense: to somehow establish a rigor sensitive to multiple demands, often contradictory. Obscure contradictions are less observable, but more important than the blatant ones, and the danger is to get tied up with the surface fiasco (in the social) instead of just “ignoring” it for the deep fiasco (in thought). But this turns your “sensitivity” back around on yourself– back around to your sense of things, your sense of the matter. (Isn’t it true, that your sense of the matter “is” the matter?) This is the maxim of social navigation, and it’s why developing relationships is of primary importance– the first being between yourself and yourself, which is already a difference in sense (originary relation: ones spirit)– and the second has to do with sensing the difference(s) in sense(s) elsewhere– in others: oneself as another/others in oneself. Ergo: listening vigilantly to ones-other-self inside and out– within, in others, and in all things. That senses, is sense, and makes sense– “all at once.” (In an old language, spirituality: ability to read everything as a challenge in sense– pointing vertically.)

    In this post, I argued that it’s no longer a matter of making sense but rather of acceding to the sense(s) that confront(s) us, that we encounter and let pass through us. But this is just a sweet way of talking about “experience.” This is the difficult thing to learn, maybe: experience makes sense — in at least two senses: just to be is to be “making sense” already (humans are beings of sense, driven “by nature” to make the jump out of their “nature”; and this “leap out” — replayed, resent, returned– is sense); but also, it makes sense to focus on experience as the very “locus” of sense. In other words, it makes sense to pay attention to experience.

    And with that bottom line, I’ve successfully reached my Wittgensteinian moment and stated the simple– Now it is time to shake off the ladder and live.


  3. Pingback: Vulnerable Remains | fragilekeys

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