When Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” was published in 1967 it started, and quickly, a total deflation of modernist ideals in visual arts. Art in general but most prominently in visual art and in New York. Over night the idea of an essence to art was made obsolete. An artwork pointing to itself as itself was history and instead, at least in certain circles – and powerful – art became a matter of language, clusters of references and the artwork a bundle of signs held together by the very lack of originality.
I imagine Jackson Pollock having breakfast in the house in the Hamptons and after rolling a cigarette and about to put on his stained jacket saying to his wife Lee, “Hey, I’m just going painting.” That was in the end of the 40s or early 50s but what about if Pollock would have had breakfast after Barthes’ essay was public domain? There and then I’m just going paintings might not have been such a good idea. I picture Lee starting to giggle slightly embarrassed, one of those laughs that won’t stop. When the attack finally comes to an end trying to explain to the heroic painter that “just” painting implicit a preserved understanding of essence, and that “just” simply is out of the question since there is no just in the first place. -Jackson, whatever you paint, however much it pains you, you and painting is always inscribed in a delicate network of references, skills, formats, conventions, you name it? You are not free neither is your paintings.
Had Pollock stayed alive what had to happen there in the end of the 60s was that artists and art needed to articulate if not invent some new way of justifying artistic production. The time of innocence had come to an abrupt end. Purity sailed away and spontaneity had become a laughing stock.
Come to think about it, one could also say that art in this moments, had it been a human being, that it passed from being a free individual to be an individual that had individual freedom. Art passed from being a domain carried by sovereignty to constitutional freedom which obviously has nothing to do with freedom but at best with liberty. From now on art had to earn also the illusion of its freedom.
Roland Barthes’ essay was perhaps not such a great contribution to artistic practice, not at all a welcome injection of who knows what but instead a few pages that opened the door to a huge amount of frustration. What if art couldn’t be just any more what then…
In New York in the late 60s, what could possibly offer justification to make art. Well, nobody, not even in the art scene was a communist – “they” had been made extinct ten years earlier – but everybody, at least in the art scene was a Marxist so where to start looking? What the art scene found in Marx was brilliant, critique. Marx first tool and nine years later the first issue of October came out and arts obsession with critique was consolidated.
Awesome, “Lee, I’m going over to the shed to engage in my critical practice.” Fuck “I am nature” this is critique 24/7.
But nothing says that art’s relation to critique in anyway is inherent. Art’s job since 50 years, in certain circles has been critique but it is certainly not arts calling. It goes without saying that an art informed by Roland Barthes in any case would deny the possibility for a calling. No, art is something one does and gets paid for, it’s reason, cognition and semiotics c’est tout, or?
It is this moment, this moment of crises, from which conceptual art emerges and it is tragically an unconditional surrender to arts departure from sovereignty, which means to the very possibility of aesthetic experience.
It is as easy to be posthumously clever, wise after the event as it is to be in denial but perhaps it was Pollock who was brave, devoted and faithful. Who dared go into the studio unprepared for the possibility of being carried away by sovereignty and not the conceptual boys. Were they in fact cowards, so afraid of that something unnameable in aesthetic experience that they closed the door and locked it with critique. Was conceptual art guided by a bunch control freaks so paranoid that they anathematized any form or trace of indeterminacy?