Why is the aesthetics of shock ours? Why is it that we can experience it from the inside? Duchamp’s urinal, functional architecture, the bizarre fashions of the runway, the obscenity of our literature etc. are all ours, and we can’t pretend we don’t belong to them or that we experience them as belonging to someone else. Our people made these things, so they speak to a fundamental and/or vast set of experiences we have in common. Like what?
1.) The sense that the mystery of art is ineffable, and so cannot be the result of technique. This seems to be Duchamp’s reason, and it is certainly the one given by his most well-known pupil, Michael Craig-Martin. There is a universal sense that art draws its power from a transcendent realm; but if this is true, how can it be the product of human technique? There seems to be a clear contradiction between being beyond us and being under our power. The point of the art that “anyone could make” is not some democratic impulse to make art for everybody, but to show that technique, or anything under our power, can never attain to the soul of the artwork.
Duchamp and Craig-Martin (or, for Americans, Andy Warhol) give two answers here which they take to be one and the same reason. Negatively, they claim that we must recognize that the true power of art lies in a realm beyond what we can attain by mere technique. Positively, they think that art consists in whatever one wills to be art. The connection between these answers is fascinating but obscure. The negative answer is profound and reverent; the positive answer is facile and silly. The negative answer is one of the timeless insights of contemporary philosophy: it’s Wittgenstein’s concluding remark that we should pass by the things that cannot be spoken in silence or Heidegger’s claim that we should actually start not speaking about the things we say are ineffable. The positive answer is a second-hand Nietzschianism that Nietzsche himself would have double-facepalmed himself upon hearing - i.e. the sort one finds in Hitchcock’s Rope or Keanu Reeves in Matrix Revolutions. Nevertheless, what would we have to say if there was a necessary connection between the first answer and the second one? Perhaps when apophatism about ineffable things becomes to extreme, it turns only to vulgarity. To humble oneself too much before the transcendent is simply vulgar – we go too far when we deny that our being has some real kinship with the Absolute. To pass over the ineffable in silence might leave us trading in obscenities – or, what’s worse, kitche.
2.) The paideia of advertising. Almost all of our common life is tied up with, if not mediated by advertising. It might be the one art contemporary people will be remembered for. Advertising requires arousing desire in a very short period of time, and there is a limited palate of things that do this: sexual response, cuteness, irony, or the shock of extreme novelty. Contemporary art appeals to this palate of experience.
The darkside of this is that, in our circumstances, advertising is a lie. Our advertising is bait. The produce department makes adds that identify it with farmers; Mastercard appeals to families happily enjoying a ballgame (in slow motion) on a sunny day; McDonald’s invites us to identify with cheerful, thin, interracial couples smiling their way through a flirtatious, filling lunch presided over by a benevolent clown, but we all know that this is an attempt to manipulate us out of our money. We know that all this cheeriness, sex appeal, frolicking, clever irony, and appeals to integrity and wholesomeness are the facade covering a corporation that is playing you for a sucker. It is inevitable that, the paideia of advertising gives rise to and reinforces the idea that beauty, or anything appealing to disinterested or benevolent motives is really just a sham. Which brings us to…
3.) Science and the foundation of death. Science is our paradigm for the real, and it requires what can be observed under repeatable and controlled circumstances. This makes the older ideas of art impossible or ridiculous, sc.
a.) The beauty of transcendent things takes us by surprise and is outside of our control. There is nothing less like a controlled experiment than our experience of the transcendent or wonderful – even if we have this response to lab experiments. The sense that the world is meaningful or that life is marvelous or that it si remarkable that anything should exist or be intelligible at all aren’t the sorts of experiences that we can schedule in advance. If the older sort of art tried to evoke this sense of wonder, then we need a new sort of art as soon as we start believing that scientific knowledge is the measure of all truth. We need an art that will debunk the claims of beauty.
b.) If beauty is real, it must be a cause of evolution. Accounts that reduce beauty out of existence are pretty old now – beauty is really just a sign of health, or is simply an indicator of evolutionary fittingness. It’s not that anything is beautiful, there is only a desire to reproduce. As soon as we recognize some connection between our ideas of beauty and our ideas of health, we assume that health is the reality and beauty is the epiphenomenon or participated reality. The only other option is t start rewriting medical textbooks to say things like “disease si a falling away from beauty, while health is a striving towards the beautiful itself.” But that wouldn’t be science. Here again, science must debunk the beautiful as a rival claim to truth.