Kuspit’s Pascalian Wager

Donald Kuspit’s The End of Art is a sustained defense of aesthetic experience, not from the standpoint of the aesthete, but from point of view of one committed to furthering "personal autonomy and critical freedom" through art in a world overwhelmed by the commercial, the trivial, and the ephemeral.

When works of art become consummately commercial — when commodity identity overtakes and subsumes aesthetic identity, so that an expensive work is uncritically accorded aesthetic significance, not to say spiritual value — they become everyday artifacts, thus reversing the ‘esthetic osmosis’ that Duchamp thought was the essence of ‘the creative act’. Aesthetic osmosis makes works of art evocative and engaging and even creates them, for it transforms ‘inert matter’ into a phenomenon the spectator is willing to call a work of art — a ‘phenomenon which prompts the spectator to react critically’, that is, to take seriously. [14]

Kuspit’s text is a call to seriousness as he brings to our attention the serious condition into which art has fallen. He joins with others in declaring the end of art.  But he must believe it’s an end in appearance, not in fact — a failure of contemporary imagination and commitment.  Kuspit is making what no doubt seems to him a last ditch attempt to recover from the remains of modernism an understanding and approach to art that enables "the aesthetic transformation of everyday experience of reality" [28], that resists "the resentment and repudiation of beauty" [31] — a dialectical beauty which never loses touch with the ugly inherent in all substantial beauty and on which it depends — that never loses its connection to "artistic contemplation" as "a way of caring for one’s psyche". [37]

When one looks at Otto Dix’s horrific images of trench warfare, his aesthetic transmutation of death and destruction into a weirdly beautiful scene gives us a certain perspective on it that is more critically effective — more consciousness raising, as it were — than any journalistic rendering of it. It is also more soul-saving, for it has a cathartic effect that no war photograph can have. The photograph may move us, but it will not rescue us from the unpleasant feelings it arouses in us, which is what Dix’s aesthetically brilliant images do in the very act of evoking such feelings.  The photograph shows us the devastating scene, but Dix’s images not only show its devastation, but involve us with it, in a complex dialectic of identification and disidentification — shocked attachment and resolute detachment — similar to the dialectic of subject matter and form.  In short, aesthetic autonomy is a prelude to personal autonomy, even a basic part of it.  Human beings are not fully human without aesthetic experience. [37f]

I trust this very brief glimpse at Kuspit’s argument gives a sense for what he thinks may be lost during this age of "post-art".  In the central chapters he gives an historical account of the rise of nihilism and entropy in the art of the 20th century, as well as the "turn inward" as a refuge from the debilitating effects and anomie of modern society. Kuspit presents a bleak, but realistic, assessment of the situation we find ourselves in today.  The "crisis in criticism" discussed in our previous posts is symptomatic of a crisis in contemporary art as a whole.  The prospects of survival on Kuspit’s view and from the position of one who has been at the center of, and active in, the artworld for most of his adult life, are not good.  But he accepts, albeit implicitly, a Pascalian wager, recognizing that while the likelihood of preserving art’s power to deal with what often seems a tragic and meaningless existence may be vanishingly small, the only hope is to assume the possibility of some measure of success and to do what you can to achieve it.

The question is to what extent one accepts Kuspit’s analysis and shares his values.  What does he capture that’s "essential" and where does he go wrong?

2 thoughts on “Kuspit’s Pascalian Wager

  1. This “end of art criticism” [LAT] and “the death of art” is problematic because of its narrow point of view. Philosophies arriving at conclusions which defy common sense and fail to correlate with history should probably be rethought.

    So reexamine the post-toasties parameter that “anything can be art” If this assumption is strictly viewed, it is entropic in the sense that art must be viewed as just another part of the gray ooze of mans production. Culture is antientropic. It increases order, in the sens e iron ore is fashioned into a bar of steel. Where the steel bar rusting back to iron ore is entropic. Philosophical positions which drive the discourse towards entropy are on a path to self destruction, this makes no sense.

    What is implied by “anything can be art.” While this is what we say, I think what is meant is that a requirement for the form of art does not need to be historical. This also suggests it cannot exclude the historical forms. What we called the “plastic arts” have a long tradition of historical criticism and connoisseurship. If the critical community accepts “anything can be art” then it has a responsibility to derive the critical distinctions which separate this art from the gray ooze on Staten Island

    The advent of photography demo cratized the means of image production. It didn’t eliminate or negate the specialists in image production but it has made it possible for more individuals to participate. What was once the province of a single individual has now become a multibillion dol l ar industry. What is the real question here, what is the requirement for art? What is an aesthetic experience, at least Kuspit is attendant here. It appears that just the ability to create an image is not a necessary requirement. It can be a part of the process but something else makes it art, what is this?

    Next, the idea that “the contemporary” is extra-historical is not quite right. I understand what is desired from this viewpoint but I would suggest that, ultimately, all art product ion will be viewed in an historical context. If this is the case then there will need to be a reconciliation between the liberties taken by art criticism and the discourse of art history. In other words, it we allow “anything to be art” then the critical community must build the foundations for the nascent forms, that’s their job.

    “I trust this very brief glimpse at Kuspit’s argument gives a sense for what he thinks may be lost during this age of “post-art”…” This is an interesting observation but I believe it wil l se ttle historically as an artifact of the boundary condition between the historical and post historical (in Danto’s sense). Nothing is lost, to the contrary, the boundaries have been expanded and require new critical approaches.

    ” When w orks of art be c o me consummately commercial”[DK] I’m not so sure this is a new issue. Past history might offer some other comparative situations where power and money influenced artistic directions. In the current case, I would not be quite so worried about th e influence of money on aesthetics. In the short term, money can influence the outcome (i.e. Fr academy in 1870) but over the longer term both finance and art are self-righting. Auction markets can reach extremes of valuation but they nearly always tend to revert towards fundamental value (the statistical mean). Wait until the next good recession for a financial and critical reevaluation.

    “But he [DK] must believe it’s an end in appearance, not in fact…” This seems right, I sense what has occurred here is simila r to a race horse running with blinders, it’s getting to the pole by ignoring the actual surroundings.

    I would like to hear more of your thoughts on this “… rise of nihilism and entropy in the art of the 20th century, as well as the “turn inward” as a refuge from the debilitating effects and anomie of modern society…” Is the angst of the present so different from the past? Wars, famine, disease, all have been ever present. On the other hand a man walked on the moon in 1969.
    › t

  2. This “end of art criticism” [LAT] and “the death of art” is problematic because of its narrow point of view. Philosophies arriving at conclusions which defy common sense and fail to correlate with history should probably be rethought.

    So reexamine the post-toasties parameter that “anything can be art” If this assumption is strictly viewed, it is entropic in the sense that art must be viewed as just another part of the gray ooze of mans production. Culture is antientropic. It increases order, in the sens e iron ore is fashioned into a bar of steel. Where the steel bar rusting back to iron ore is entropic. Philosophical positions which drive the discourse towards entropy are on a path to self destruction, this makes no sense.

    What is implied by “anything can be art.” While this is what we say, I think what is meant is that a requirement for the form of art does not need to be historical. This also suggests it cannot exclude the historical forms. What we called the “plastic arts” have a long tradition of historical criticism and connoisseurship. If the critical community accepts “anything can be art” then it has a responsibility to derive the critical distinctions which separate this art from the gray ooze on Staten Island

    The advent of photography demo cratized the means of image production. It didn’t eliminate or negate the specialists in image production but it has made it possible for more individuals to participate. What was once the province of a single individual has now become a multibillion dol l ar industry. What is the real question here, what is the requirement for art? What is an aesthetic experience, at least Kuspit is attendant here. It appears that just the ability to create an image is not a necessary requirement. It can be a part of th e process but something else makes it art, what is this?

    Next, the idea that “the contemporary” is extra-historical is not quite right. I understand what is desired from this viewpoint but I would suggest that, ultimately, all art product ion will be vi ewed in an historical context. If this is the case then there will need to be a reconciliation between the liberties taken by art criticism and the discourse of art history. In other words, it we allow “anything to be art” then the critical community must build the foundations for the nascent forms, that’s their job.

    “I trust this very brief glimpse at Kuspit’s argument gives a sense for what he thinks may be lost during this age of “post-art”…” This is an interesting observation but I believe it wil l s e ttle historically as an artifact of the boundary condition between the historical and post historical (in Danto’s sense). Nothing is lost, to the contrary, the boundaries have been expanded and require new critical approaches.

    ” When w orks of art be c o me consummately commercial”[DK] I’m not so sure this is a new issue. Past history might offer some other comparative situations where power and money influenced artistic directions. In the current case, I would not be quite so worried about th e influe nce of money on aesthetics. In the short term, money can influence the outcome (i.e. Fr academy in 1870) but over the longer term both finance and art are self-righting. Auction markets can reach extremes of valuation but they nearly always tend to revert towards fundamental value (the statistical mean). Wait until the next good recession for a financial and critical reevaluation.

    “But he [DK] must believe it’s an end in appearance, not in fact…” This seems right, I sense what has occurred here is simila r to a race horse running with blinders, it’s getting to the pole by ignoring the actual surroundings.

    I would like to hear more of your thoughts on this “… rise of nihilism and entropy in the art of the 20th century, as well as the “turn inward” as a refuge from the debilitating effects and anomie of modern society…” Is the angst of the present so different from the past? Wars, famine, disease, all have been ever present. On the other hand a man walked on the moon in 1969.
    › tt

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