Peter Osborne

Anywhere or Not at All. Philosophy of Contemporary Art

Verso, 2013

Review Article in Swedish|18.11.13

The Challenge of the Contemporary

Robert Smithson, {ITALIC}Partially Buried Woodshed{ENDITALIC}, 1970.

Robert Smithson, Partially Buried Woodshed, 1970.

In Dagens Nyheter (17/11/13) Martin Gelin reports from ”the pop world’s greatest spectacle”, the joint party for Lady Gaga and Jeff Koons in Brooklyn, where the holy trinity of money, fame and cultural capital emerges in all its glory. That Koons somewhat offhandedly claims that “the market is the best critic” is certainly a violation that threatens the precarious balance of interests required for this new attempt at a marriage made in heaven: on a basic level he is just saying what many influential players in the art world already think, but for strategic reasons cannot say aloud (to produce legitimacy the market needs critics and theorists, but only as long as they are of no fundamental significance).

The article clearly illustrates one of the most depressing stories of “contemporary art”, in which art has become an object of investment, cultural accessory or a means to gain new market shares. That there might be a reflective, subversive, critical or in any way system-transcending dimension of art would thus be excluded from the start, except where this dimension might be exploited for marketing or for satisfying the bad consciousness of a few critics and theorists, whose production of sophisticated metacommentary is an integral part of contemporary art’s production of ever-more substanceless theoretical obfuscations.

Peter Osborne.

Peter Osborne.

The problem with this story is not that it is true or false, it is its performative and self-confirming character. If we want to talk about contemporary art in a certain way – and material for such talk exists in almost overwhelming abundance, serving as unresisting raw materials for a masochistic self-ethnography and producing a sort of sensuous shudder: après nous le déluge – then it will also eventually appear precisely in this form and make all the other conceptions seem as idealistic as they are naive. This objective cynicism has allied itself with an updated late (hyper-)capitalist version of what Adorno called “the administered world”, now in the form of a globalized art scene whose central actors are oil sheiks, oligarchs, hedge fund managers and auction houses. The story in turn produces an impossible choice between a nihilistic affirmation of the world’s transformation into a post-historical spectacle and a neo-conservative rejection of contemporary life in the name of equally imaginary as ahistorical “historical” or even “eternal” values.

It is therefore essential to formulate other narratives, other historical genealogies, if contemporary art is to be able to continue to be a place for experimental, innovative and critical thinking. Peter Osborne has embarked on nothing less than this with his new book, Anywhere or Not at All (Verso 2013), with the programmatic subtitle Philosophy of Contemporary Art. It is an ambitious attempt to restore intellectual relevance to the art that is made today, beyond all cynical descriptions, and to create a historical framework that allows us to read our own present as full of possibilities, provided that we do not surrender to objective cynicism. The book is rich in ideas and sidetracks, and here I will highlight only some of its most salient thoughts, which indeed are also those that give rise to the most problems.

If Osborne’s approach is historical, then it sets itself up from the start in direct opposition to conventional art historical models with their linear pre-post-schemas, even if such figures of thought are not completely spared. The “contemporary” means to him first and foremost a challenge to the concept of history, and it calls for a thinking that takes place in what we could call, following Benjamin and Adorno, constellations. The contemporary is therefore not only or even primarily the present, regardless of its specific temporal extension, but rather a moment of self-definition, a period that describes itself and understands itself as a question directed towards itself (many of these formulations are in principle identical with Foucault’s ideas about “the history of the present” and “the ontology of actuality”, which, however, remain curiously absent from Osborne’s exposition). In this sense, the contemporary is rather a functional category that indicates our ability to actualize the past as a problem, to recuperate the art of the other time in a transformative way.

But in opposition to this, the contemporary cannot remain completely without temporal markers, and two play a particularly central role: the 1960s and its expansive ideas about artistic techniques and materials, which would then incorporate video, film, digital techniques and the virtual world, and then, on the geopolitical plane, the political events after 1989 and the new theory of globalization that followed the narratives of the Cold War and the modern contra the postmodern. The contemporary is characterized by a shift towards the “transnational”, the mobility of global capital with the migration of labor-power as its underside, the ascension of new economic centers, and the uncertainty of identities and belongings. Against this, an art has responded that has rid itself of traditional categories such as medium, material and authorship, that makes use of new forms for production and distribution, and that intervenes in questions and debates far beyond the formal dimensions that were previously attributed to the arts.

Sol LeWitt, {ITALIC}Sentences on Conceptual Art{ENDITALIC}, 1969.

Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1969.

Notwithstanding these chronological markers, the concept of the contemporary is equally critical, and it should result from a judgment: Osborne emphasizes that everything that is done now is by no means contemporary, in the word’s trivial meaning, and one of his key objectives is to reclaim the philosophy of art’s power of judgment. What is important, as one might formulate it, is not what art is in general, but what we should call art in a qualified sense right now, and which arguments we can muster for this. Art that can be called contemporary, writes Osborne, must take a position towards the “socio-spatial ontology of its own international and transnational site and relations,” which can be located in the extension of institutional critique from the 1960s and 1970s, but with the difference being that these places and relations today cannot be limited to galleries, museums and their internal power relation, but must rather be thought in relation to capitalism as a geopolitical order.

The tension between these two versions – the modal, for which the contemporary is judgment, and the historical, for which it starts at a certain point in time – is inevitable, but Osborne seems, despite everything in the main part of the book, to lean towards the more conventional chronology, not in the least in his determination of contemporary art as “post-conceptual”. This, on the one hand, signifies a certain principle relation to the craft, media and material that can be connected to many aspects of the 20th century’s early avant-gardes, most obviously Duchamp, but also parts of Russian constructivism, at the same time as it, on the other hand, introduces a decisive reference to the American debates of the late 1960s. This determination is in itself well-founded in an art historical sense, and hits many traits of our own present, though by no means all, but has the obvious disadvantage that it situates the present in relation to a past against which it must continually define itself, and therein is not so distinct from the concept “postmodernism”, which Osborne in accordance with the present consensus emphatically rejects. (The difference between the modal and the historical versions of the contemporary also can be found in the two versions of the postmodern that Lyotard has given us, one in The Postmodern Condition, where he localizes the breakthrough to the period around the 1960s and 1970s, and the second in later writings where he talks about it as a futur antérieur that actually precedes the modern and that cannot be inserted into a chronology other than at the cost of itself becoming “modern”. Lyotard figures, however, only in passing for Osborne, and only in connection with the sublime.)

Renée Green, {ITALIC}Partially Buried{ENDITALIC}, 1997.

Renée Green, Partially Buried, 1997.

That our own present is understood as “post” something else that precedes it appears, in certain cases anyway, to deprive it of its own specificity, in the sense that its own problems, which should allow it to reactivate new aspects of the past, tend to only become available as echoes of past revolutionary moments. This also becomes obvious in the choice of examples. Osborne polemicizes rightly against a certain kind of philosophical mobilization of art history, not in the least within recent French philosophy, where theoretical subtlety coexists with the recycling of canonized work, largely from early European modernism, which fundamentally ossifies a certain image of history and prevents us from catching sight of our own present. (Something similar could be said about Adorno, whose Aesthetic Theory is the basis for many of Osborne’s arguments. It is striking that Adorno, in the moment where he sums up his experience of the 20th century avant-garde, seems so foreign to that which is being created around him. Not only to developments in the visual arts, which he had never shown more than a distracted interest, but above all to music – both the development of the serialism of Stockhausen and Boulez, but also the later informal structures in Cage, Ligeti and others, were foreign to him.) But despite his call for a philosophy that approaches the contemporary from the problem of the singular work, Osborne soon returns – in a series of analyses that certainly are excellent and full of insights both concerning artistic practice and deficiencies in earlier critical reception, the later though sometimes becoming somewhat quarrelsome – to the hackneyed paths of Robert Smithson, Gordon Matta-Clark, Gerhard Richter and Sol LeWitt, artists who all belong to the stage that marks the start of the post-conceptual phase, and in relation to which contemporary responses necessarily appear regressive (a typical example is the comments about Tacita Dean’s and Renée Green’s “re-enactments” of Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed on page 105).

Osborne’s book is not only an attempt to ring in the contemporary in terms of the post-conceptual, but it is also an ambitious attempt to see our problem in relation to the philosophical breakthrough that occurred in German idealism. Osborne wants to break with an influential tradition that locates the beginning of modernity with Kant and the liberation of the judgment of taste from cognitive and ethical judgments – the statement “x is beautiful” expresses for Kant a disinterested pleasure that cannot be reduced to moral judgments, a conceptless pleasure that cannot be reduced to cognitive judgment, a purposiveness without purpose that differs from a judgment of useful objects or tools, and finally it appeals to a sensus communis, a community in sense that remains a transcendental idea, but that also is incumbent on us to produce. Osborne rightly emphasizes that Kant’s statements about taste in no way relate to the concept of art, but rather more often relate to nature, and that the true philosophy of art in the emphatic sense begins with the Jena romantics and their successors, where the question of the ontology of the artwork is posed for the first time. It is this “speculative” alloy between art and philosophy that gives the modern its kinetic energy, and gives art its ability to also question the inherited categories of thought, for the first time probably in Schelling, where art’s role as “organon” of thinking was highlighted.

From these starting points, two traditions would develop: one that emphasizes the problem of aesthetic judgment and can be followed up through all sorts of modern formalisms, and one that emphasizes the work as a singular event, which is at once, in Osborne’s words, transcendental, metaphysical and dependent on empirical-historical events. The speculative line is that which Osborne wants to continue, against contemporary thinkers who claim that we must, if not dissolve, then at least relativize, the “suture” between art and philosophy (Alain Badiou), or return to an empirical analysis of individual artworks that does not hold them hostage and demand from them answers to historical-philosophical problems that have not grown out of reflections over art (Jean-Marie Schaeffer).

Peter Osborne, {ITALIC}Anywhere or Not At All{ENDITALIC}, Verso, 2013.

Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not At All, Verso, 2013.

The question is to understand how the analysis of the contemporary, post-conceptual art should be connected to what once was the approach of German idealism. The underlying problems may appear to be separated by an abyss: in one case, the question of intellectual intuition, the absolute subject and the relationship to nature as alterity; in the second, the post-medium condition, virtual worlds and global capitalism. It is here that the idea of the contemporary, not least as Osborne formulates it in relation to Walter Benjamin, at once shows its power and its inherent problems, in that “the experimental method of montage” can be taken as the very ”means of production of historical intelligibility” (p. 55). In an analysis that reads Schlegel’s Athäneum fragments and Sol LeWitt’s initial formulations of the program of conceptual art alongside one another, Osborne wants to show how the series and the project, understood as a way to offset the specific concept or object, are concepts that create a bridge between the two historical moments. But regardless of the analysis of individual subtleties, the distance between Jena and New York is still too large (it also must be noted that LeWitt is represented by a text, not a work, a difference that the artist himself is careful to point out) for some sparks to jump between the poles. The problem does not only concern this specific analysis, but the approach as such: the experimental montage can certainly provide new insights, but by making it into the central “means of production” for historical knowledge one gives it a weight it cannot bear.

This does not mean that the relationship between German idealism and post-conceptual art does not exist, only that it demands more mediations in order to become more than an elegant rhetorical construction. Peter Osborne’s book takes several steps towards establishing such a relationship, and compared with most of what is written on “contemporary art”, it is on a completely other level of sophistication. That it then does not always reach its goal is only an indication of the difficulty, as well as the urgency, of the task.

Translation: Jeff Kinkle.

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