South of Heaven: On Art and Cynicism

by Philipp Kleinmichel

Towards a radicalisation of the cynicism that pervades the (art) world

Christopher Wool, Blue Fool, 1990, enamel on aluminium, 274.3 x 182.9 cm © Christopher Wool

IN THE LAST DECADE, the art world has increasingly been described as a cynical place. At least since the 1980s, and as a result of a long tradition of critique, all sublime beliefs in art have been deconstructed. As heirs of avant-gardist art practices, we have only just begun to understand that all criteria used to distinguish between good and bad artworks in regard to their aesthetics and to their political and critical essence are gone. The same tradition has also led to a sublation of all notions identifying the artist as genius or as author. The potential effects of beauty are understood as being utterly limited in this regard; so too are the attempts to enlighten people through the use of aesthetic shock tactics and other avant-gardist procedures. As a result, many of the key players in the art world have lost their illusions about art as a practice through which to actively and critically engage with the contemporary world. it’s therefore no surprise that beauty and avant-garde procedures have become rather questionable categories – and it is precisely for this reason that they have been at the centre of many discussions, be it the discourse about the neo-avant-garde by Peter Bürger, Benjamin Buchloh and Hal foster, or the discursive hype about the return of aesthetics and the work of french philosopher Jacques Rancière in the last decade.

in this general development of the art world and its institutions, all images, objects and things can potentially be understood as art – a fact Boris groys has described as “aesthetic equality”. This development – determined by the immanent dynamic of the art world as well as by its external relations to other social fields – has increasingly generated a cynical consciousness, finding its form in an inconvenient suspicion: if everything can potentially be understood as art, if all criteria to differentiate between good and bad art and, accordingly, all attempts to refer to qualities of authorship seem to be deconstructed, then those who make it in the art world do so not because they are more skilled or intelligent, or because they have the ability to produce a beautiful or sublime artwork, but because of the inherent corruption within art institutions and their networks. more neutrally stated, networking has become not only the main way of garnering attention in contemporary art but also an object of interest itself that is increasingly exhibited.

in many ways, it can be argued that this aspect of the contemporary art world is a phenomenon central to contemporary Western society in general. in the early 1980s, when Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason was lauded as a perfect example of post-modernist theory, there already seemed to be no place left for illusions. By then, the idea of communism as providing the possibility of a playful life without economic and state repressions had, in one way or another, lost its magic and persuasion. on the contrary, for most people in the West, it increasingly appeared as a rather dangerous and naïve utopian illusion. However, the successful ideological critique of the progressive political movements based on this very idea was nonetheless successful in destroying and deconstructing all other illusions.

And so, through the great critics of religion, we have learned to look at religion as a functional illusion: god and the church functioned to enable political power. A little later, it was shown that the belief in a reasonable progress of history and enlightenment had turned into its opposite: progress became seen as irrational. But more humiliating and more effective for our understanding of our very selves was psychoanalysis’s disillusioning discovery. Proving that we are never really ourselves, never really the moral untouchable heroes and enlightened reasonable beings we are supposed to be according to our moral and ethical ideals, but that we are driven instead by unconscious and irrational desires, psychoanalysis undermined any moral and ethical understanding, and thus the core concepts of the enlightenment. This belief was already made explicit, when the older, disillusioned freud noted, with quite some cynicism, that it would be better not to teach children such incorrect ideas and morals about the inherently good and trustworthy essence of human beings. instead, children should learn to always expect the worst from the other to prepare themselves for society and be spared some of the worse disappointments and later life crises.

As a result of this long chain of disillusions, cynicism was, as Sloterdijk believed, no longer a possible subjective point of view; rather, it had become an objective reality of Western culture, simply because every single individual of the democratised Western world had, by the 1980s, always understood how things really work. These kinds of cynicisms and disillusionments had become part of a common consciousness in all fields of social life – religion, science, politics – and were ready to be identified by theorists such as Peter Sloterdijk. if no realm of life, not even the most ethical and morally conditioned realm, seemed to be free from cynicism, today, a few decades later, there is no doubt it has reached the art world as well.

For Sloterdijk, this condition leads to a new stage of civilisation’s discontent. for despite the cultural atmosphere of disillusionment, there were, and there still are, moral and ethical values, serving not only as guidelines and principles for human behaviour, but also forcing us to behave in a certain way, to follow the rules of law, which are controlled by all kinds of state institutions. Western educated individuals – already enlightened about the constraints, the injustices and structures of their own social reality – still live in a system that, according to its structural material, economic and moral foundations, has no potential to ever be fundamentally changed. in his devastating analysis, one of the key questions Peter Sloterdijk tries to answer is how we should position ourselves if we have no choice other than to be cynical.

His answer is relatively clear: we have at least three options. despite, and at the same time, because of our disillusionment, we can affirm the world as it is, as a given necessity, never to be fundamentally changed. in this way, we can continue to behave in accordance with the prevailing morals and ethical facades, since we understand these as the best way to become successful and to achieve social recognition and positions in the social fields – be it as managers, brokers, philosophers, artists or political activists. in other words, if we corrupt ourselves, we become as corrupted as the world, and by establishing our careers we reproduce the very corruption that destroyed our illusions and ideals in the first place. Sloterdijk calls this most attractive and common position a “diffuse cynicism”.

The second option would be to take the opposite stance and to refuse social life and its institutions altogether, to refuse culture with all its values and rules, with all its fashions and trends. in other words, this would entail reducing the potentiality of our individual life to a sad minimum. For Sloterdijk, the culture of the 1980s was characterised by both positions, each an expression of a cynical consciousness, which he defined famously as an “enlightened false consciousness”, a consciousness disabused of illusions, but nonetheless still wrong. Wrong because, driven by such a cynical consciousness, one either affirms the wrong corrupted world, the wrong corrupted life as objectively given, and reproduces its social structures, giving up at the same time all attempts to transform the world into a happier, funnier and more lustful place – or, if one refuses the cultural developed world altogether, one not only gives up on trying to making the corrupt world a better place, but also dismisses the very potential every human carries to become a fulfilled person and human being.

But despite such an “enlightened false consciousness”, Sloterdijk saw a third possibility: there is also the chance to radicalise the predominant cynicism. To build a theory of such a radicalisation would be, as Sloterdijk believed, the last task of philosophy after it has already come to its end. in order to radicalise cynicism, he argued, one has to understand its philosophical core and return to its origins in the ancient tradition of the kynics. As a radicalised version of the cynic, the modern kynic does not have to give up their differences with the world, nor affirm the wrong world, but should be able to attack and criticise shallow facades and moral, ethical and cultural values with humour and irony. A systematic philosophical attack would be, according to Sloterdijk, something like nietzsche’s gay science, which systematically understands, recognises and reveals the instances of a world and time out of joint.

Given the options outlined above about how to position oneself in a cynical disenchanted world, awareness of the situation of the art world can equally be seen as a cynical enlightened consciousness. once we can see past the illusions of the art world, there is nothing left but art business. Under these conditions, nothing matters more than the appearance, or the fetish, as Adorno would doubtlessly say: what counts is the number of exhibitions, the reputation of the venues where the exhibitions take place, the people with whom one has exhibited, and the prominence and number of critics who have discussed the work in certain more or less prestigious magazines. The art world has become the place of networked algorithms. if we are to be cynical, we might say that this is the place where a vital careerist and opportunist can make it. But according to Sloterdijk’s analysis, one does not need to be cynical, because the options available are not limited to becoming a careerist artist, curator or critic or to give up one’s existence in the art world altogether – it is also possible to develop a good, functioning kynical art practice. it is, however, entirely possible that this has never really existed and never will. What exactly would such a practice entail?

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