Editorial of Febrary 12th 2009
 


Jacinto Lageira
TRANSVALUATION AND INVALUATION

 

 

Seminar of Febrary 12th 2009

Jacinto Lageira is a professor of aesthetics at the University of Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) and an art critic. He has published, among other writings, L’image du monde dans le corps du texte, 2 vols (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 2003), L’esthétique traversée - Psychanalyse, sémiotique et phénoménologie à l’oeuvre (Brussels: La Lettre volée, 2007), and De la déréalisation du monde. Fiction et réalité en conflit (Paris: Jacqueline Chambon, 2010. He has collaborated recently on the following catalogues: James Coleman (Lisbon: Museu do Chiado/Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, 2006); Julião Sarmento (Santader, Spain: Fundacíon Marcelo Botín, 2006), Angela Detanico/Rafael Lain, Brazilian Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Claire Savoie (Rimouski, Quebec: Musée de Rimouski, 2007), Jordi Colomer (Paris: Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, 2008), and Claire Chevrier (Nantes: Musée de Nantes, 2009).

transvaluation and invaluation




        The recent enlargement of the notions of aesthetics, of what is artistic, and of what belongs to the plastic arts, which include unique objects as well as cultural processes that combine in the currents of multiculturalism and pluralism, seems at first glance an example of democratic progress so long as it does not run up against a technicality: the present and unprecedented enlargement taking place within the history of the concept of art and of its practices rests on a traditional system of values and evaluations that is unsuitable for addressing contemporary issues. If the concept of art is legitimately open, how is one to explain that its rules of evaluation would in the main be subjectivist and relativist in character? Unless one thinks that nothing in this respect has changed since the times of Greek sophistry and that that view has even been reinforced with the advent of empiricism, one must henceforth think in terms of an axiology that includes assessment, judgment, preference, evaluation, and valuing--in short, the concept of value in a truly open acceptation of the word. Under the pretext that one must henceforth “learn to live with pluralism,” to use the words of Arthur Danto (who rejects relativism and subjectivism), we risk lapsing into an aesthetic ecumenicism so welcoming that everything would be likable, validated, and possibly even valued as soon as one crosses the ontological threshold of constituting an object as an “artwork.” In this sense, “anything goes” and “everything is valid” [tout se vaut], not because everything would be equal and of the same aesthetic and/or artistic value but because every product has a right to exist and must therefore be able to circulate within the public space. So be it. Every product therefore must also be able to be judged, evaluated, appreciated, and compared to other ones within the public space--without which “anything goes,” in the primary, previously indicated acceptation, and nothing would have any importance or value. The fields of art and aesthetics would thus make themselves prisoners of the attitude Max Weber designated by the term axiological neutrality (Wertfreiheit). Our contemporary times are completely contradictory: in opening up the concept of art, values are neutralized at the same time so that all possible tensions might be flattened out by a sort of generalized laisser-faire attitude, thereby turning art, like religion, into a private sort of practice, this being due to the related fact that when something is considered to be art, it is thereby placed in a mythical domain and thus disconnected from any possibility of being tied to nonartistic or extraartistic values, as if art had no substance, no reality, no meaning. Not only do we create objects that are in their majority neutral, insipid, banal, and designed so that they might not be evaluated by the yardstick of the contemporary problematics of value, which is nothing less than the fabrication of uncriticizable objects--but, moreover, we turn art into a world apart, above all contingencies and values, a paradisaical place wherein the mysterious “transvaluation of all values” (die Umwertung Aller Werte), of which Friedrich Nietzsche spoke, has finally been performed. Now, if art is really apart, not liable to criticism qua art, it is either overvalued--but in relation to what?--or without any value at all--in relation to what?--so that anything is possible therein, even this bizarre state of not having any value other than the one, transcending all others, of being part of art. What then occurs is that fantastic tour de force that consists in neutralizing the use value, the exchange value, and the symbolic value of art both internally and externally, as if to better cut art off from “social material” (Marx) and to hypostatize, by the same movement, some sorts of supravalues that art alone would be capable of delivering. The social material of which art is in large part made becomes an inoffensive material, emptied of its moral-practical significations, the better to carry us off toward the marvelous lands of purity and autonomy. After the hot and cold media analyzed by Marshall McLuhan, in the case of contemporary art we are now faced with a third entity: lukewarm media.

Lukewarm Media

       The structure and operation of such lukewarm media are not unreminiscent of what Herbert Marcuse called affirmative culture--that magical space of possibilities in which what real society and real life reject or prevent from occurring is realized--with, however, the following difference, that, boosted by the neoliberal economy, the culture industry comes to have a powerful impact on our lived world by rendering both accessible and acceptable the idea of a maximization of our aesthetic states while minimizing art’s meaningful effects though its excessive, indeed exclusive, completely unrestricted, and pure autonomization, since, according to this ideology, art is born only of art. Understanding that art henceforth cannot claim to make one dream of a better world beyond the facticity of existence, lukewarm arts media directly aestheticize existence, which not only yields something more concrete but, in addition, generates substantial benefits. For, aestheticizing our ways of living and doing brings in money. If the theory of a homo oeconomicus guided solely in all things by his interest alone must be tempered by placing his motivations, urges, passions, and acts back within the social field in which he is inserted as one of its innumerable phases, it must be recognized that his existence is to a large extent contaminated by the maximization of a plastic and/or aesthetic state, whether it be individual or that of a group. That the valuing and value of such an aestheticization would not only be artistic but also go hand in hand with the process of capitalism is strikingly obvious when one notes that the above-mentioned aestheticization of life concerns only 20 percent of the world’s population, which owns 80 percent of the world’s wealth. The three billion people who subsist on less than two dollars per individual per day are in no way thinking about care of self through aestheticization, since their only care is to know how to remain alive for the next hour. This literally deadly distribution of real and cultural wealth reminds one of a somewhat cynical quip: “In life, there are two sorts of people: those that think that there are two sorts of people, and the others.” This quip, though cynical, is terribly true, given that “the 225 richest people in the world have an annual income equivalent to that of nearly the poorer half of the planet’s individuals, which yields the following strange equation: the assets of less than 300 is equal to the assets of three billion.”(1) Whereas the presently and currently used term market economy tends to homogenize one’s view of globalization, as if the latter were accepted as obvious to all, these sorts of situations show that there still exists a minority of owners of capital and that in this respect capitalist thought is in no way dead or even moribund. These individuals, who are subject to the owners of global capital, are the ones who are moribund, undoubtedly already dead even as one reads these words.
       If one thinks that those at the summit are the only ones responsible for the misery of half the planet, for the casualization of the labor of the other half and for their impoverishment, one forgets that the pyramid has a base and huge intermediate sections that are called the middle class, which also helps to keep the weak and the deprived in the state they are in. Any CD, computer, or camera, any pair of pants or sneakers, which the West has in abundance for pathetically cheap prices, is a flourishing market built on the literal and figurative ruin of billions of human beings who sell their labor power, when they are not selling their children, their own organs, and therefore, in the short run, their lives. No one can miss the fact that globalization extends also to the contemporary arts and that exportation into most of the corners of the earth can occur only when heavily supported by the owners of global capital who are also the owners of global contemporary art. To make a simplistic statement that is at least true on the economical level, present-day art, even if it exists on a small scale compared to heavy industries, is neoliberal in character. And even when, contrary to the market economy, its material value or its use values can spring up in poor or emerging countries, its symbolic value or its symbolic capital inevitably is linked to neoliberal culture. Whether one exhibits one’s works at the Havana Biennale, in Shanghai, in Tunis, or in London, contemporary art is sustained by neoliberal culture, which gives form to the roles, goals, and means of this kind of art. What, for example, could doing contemporary, avant-garde, or innovative art totally outside of neoliberalism mean? Without going so far as to say that criticizing art’s neoliberalism is still a branch of neoliberalism, it is clear that the values one evokes to struggle against the latter stem in large part from the system to be criticized.
       It is henceforth economic-market thinking, and more precisely financial capitalism, not the values of art, that regulates the aestheticization of life. Art no longer seems to be apprehended today for itself, as a “finality without an end,” a disinterested game, disinterestedness par excellence. Its autonomy is a facade, its liberty a front, its criticism a sweetener that is easily soluble in any ideology. Do its values still exist? Do they still have a meaning in the time of “aesthetic capitalism”(2) and the “liberal cultural revolution”?(3) The traditional values of art--though not essentialized values--have recently been able to be upended or transvalued so as to be annexed to instrumental operations. The pluralist, subjectivist, and relativist ideas peculiar to the kind of aestheticization that maximizes our well-being, as easygoing and tolerant as they might be, are still and always sustained by economic structures, networks, and values. Money is in many things the sinews of war, and this is particularly the case in art, whatever the civilization, age, or place. What has come about or does come about in art is not based solely on money and wealth, just as the defenders of pluralism, subjectivism, or relativism are not automatically the fiends of Big Capital, worshipers of stock-exchange values, fanatic supporters of unrestrained free trade, or idolaters of total deregulation. Yet it remains the case that the economic interests of the individual, which go hand in hand with the quest for aesthetic maximization, are to be found again today in various forms of self-actualization and all kinds of hedonism, which culminate in the idea of “self-enterprise.”(4)

Maximizing One’s Aesthetic Well-Being

       The maximization of our aesthetic state is assuredly a matter of autonomy concerning our choices, preferences, tastes, and practices, on the condition that one make room for the significations and contents, and eventually the goals and purposes, of this sort of well-being. If we blissfully contemplate artistic objects that plunge us for an indefinite period of time into an oceanic state, well, then, any happiness pill would work just as well, and art accompanied by the ecstatic, sublime, or hedonistic states it is supposed to deliver to us would become useless. As concerns the content implicit in aesthetics and in economic liberalism, and despite efforts to reject this strange idea shared by both fields, not being able to derive an “ought” from a factual “is”--therefore, an aesthetic judgment, norm, or prescription from a plastic or artistic fact--consists, in the economic domain, in the deregulation of the market economy, where it is also maintained that one cannot derive a value from a fact, a state from a morality, an “is” from an “ought.” This encapsulates the willfully amoral sphere of neoliberalism’s radical current (Friedrich Hayek, for example): facts about which or according to which no value--in the moral-practical sense--is posited. Indeed, like an empiricist aesthetics, for which there exists a “standard of taste” (David Hume), deregulation includes rules, and the amoralism of the market is such only within the context of certain factual rules. Why, then, would one prohibit this view from extending to art, which could be conceived as an internally but not externally self-regulated world apart, a pure, autonomous sphere from which all morality, all ethics, and every norm and value would be banished? But even if one could detect all that therein, those norms and values would not pertain to the moral-practical sphere, they being only within the work of art.
       The autonomy of art generally presupposes a neutrality of moral-practical values, or at least an undervaluation of their consequences, or, still again, a complete transformation, a veritable transvaluation of their contents which would lose their force inasmuch has they have become those of art. Considered as art, they would no longer have hardly anything in common with acts, facts, descriptions, or obligations of today’s everyday ethical existence. On account of its fictional structure, the artwork would be a world in which wholly aesthetic values would be detached from all practice and thus canceled out, invalidated, and in this precise case invalued. The two spheres communicate within the work and would even constitute its nature: because they are transvalued in the work, values are necessarily invalued. What remains are only pure artistic and aesthetic values. From the moral-practical and aesthetic points of view, this is a false, dangerous, even irresponsible form of reasoning. May one not fall back into the self-interested calculations of rational-choice theory, so dizzying are the balancing equations of aesthetic maximization and so tangled, though with different polarities for valuing, the use, exchange, and symbolic values. What differentiates, for example, the bourgeois conception of art from neoliberal thought is that the former granted a greater importance to the symbolic value of art and much less to its exchange and use values, which were nevertheless not ignored. One revered the symbolic value of art, the modern (and therefore also bourgeois) tradition of its autonomy setting at a distance and already neutralizing its other functions and stakes. In neoliberal practice, the symbolic value of art is still present, but it is empty, for it is subject to commercial utility and to a use value that is imbricated within its exchange value. The autonomy of art is devalued to the benefit of its use and exchange values. It suffices to see how international fairs, biennales, and exhibitions bring their full economic weight to bear upon the use value and the symbolic value of art by eradicating as much as possible its autonomy--which is quite logical, since if a high degree of autonomy were recognized it could not be integrated into the market-economy process. Let us, moreover, underscore, while taking up again the old oppositions that also pertain to distinctions in the economic sphere, that “mass art” and “elite art” are situated at the two extremes of use value: in today’s mass art, use value is inordinate, being essentially perceived as entertainment, whereas its symbolic value is nearly nonexistent and its exchange value is placed at a discount, free time not being free; in elite art, its use value is that of one’s socioeconomic position, which places more importance on exchange value if one is a collector but to the detriment of symbolic value, and more importance on symbolic value if one is a penniless art lover. For the first group, art fits into one’s life as a distraction; for the second group, art is a way of relaxing--but with the following point in common, axiological neutrality. Different causes, yet similar effects. Axiological neutrality, because one must be amused; axiological neutrality, because art must remain art and art is not real life. Use value is therefore clearly neutralized in both cases. This attitude necessarily goes hand in hand with an autonomization of the field of art grasped as a source for the maximization of aesthetic well-being. In short, with these kinds of aesthetically self-interested and utilitarian calculations--which instrumentalize art for nonartistic ends, in that one aims mainly at the aesthetics of one’s own self or one’s group or at the plasticism of one’s own self or group, we are finally mature enough for aesthetic governance.
       Aesthetic governance is one of the numerous neoliberal tools for controlling the political and moral-practical spheres. And one must really open one’s eyes about a basic point here: such aesthetic governance operates in a rational manner--so rationally that it presents this very rationality itself as aesthetic. When you rationalize your aesthetic being as aesthetic and rational, the calculation is quickly done: you cannot help but maximize your well-being, ameliorate the plasticity of your life, increase your aesthetic capital, and therefore show an aesthetic surplus value. As Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval have strongly underscored in La Nouvelle Raison du monde. Essai sur la société néolibérale(5), one must really understand, in relation to the “nature of the governmentality” of neoliberalism, that the latter, “before being an ideology or an economic policy, is first and foremost a rationality and that, in that capacity, it tends to structure and organize not only the actions of those who govern but also up to and including the very conduct of the governed themselves.”(6) Art and its more or less subversive practices could not escape therefrom, even through an affirmation of irrationality, madness, or total and complete difference. In the state of aesthetic governance, even apparently irrational choices, preferences, tastes, or practices are rational, for they are rationalizable--starting with the fact that defending a subjectivist, relativist, or pluralist position in aesthetics is perfectly rational. To affirm that one is beyond norms is still to posit a norm, be it only negatively. We thus come back to choice theory, in economics as well as in aesthetics, which implies that no preference, penchant, or taste is irrational, at least never irrational to the point of not being rationalizable. The whole problem is obviously what rationality or rationalities we are talking about. But aesthetic governance is there watching over, decreeing that there exists only a single rationality, instrumental rationality, from which neither anything nor anyone escapes.

Aesthetic and Immaterial Rationality

       Art should neither serve nor be enslaved. We are therefore at the crossroads: either developing more and more intangible [immatérielles] values (forms of knowledge, kinds of science, aesthetics, and sensibilities) or yielding to the strong pressures of neoliberalism, which seeks to capitalize on those intangible values and to channel them into the current market economy. Intangibility would become materialized, therefore measurable, quantifiable, and capable of entering into the current economic channel of material exchange and use values. Taking an interest in intangible values while remaining disinterested in a moral-practical, and therefore also economic, way is nothing less than the definition Kant gave of beauty in art as a “finality without an end.” Art has no practical goal; it is not useful. But it is interesting in that it develops our intangible capacities, our individual and social value, our intangible human value--here, too, in the Kantian and Marxian tradition wherein the individual is no longer a means or an instrument for the other but an end in itself. The same goes, therefore, for democracy as against neoliberalism. We therefore enter into politics through an unprecedented, very concrete, and effective reversal of values: liberalism has contributed to the various advents of democracy, but neoliberalism destroys democracy piece by piece in order to grow and multiply.
       Intangible value would therefore be one possible rampart. Yet a sizeable problem remains: we cannot all exist through and with intangible values, which really relate to “value-supports” (Max Scheler), namely, the concrete and material conditions, operations, and existences of things and objects on the basis of which intangibility is constituted. For, the intangible really does--and here we have the entire paradox from which neoliberalism profits--rest on concrete things, effective actions, flesh-and-blood persons and individuals, one of the embodiments of which is, so to speak, the Japanese notion of “living treasure.” It must not be forgotten that the notion of intangible value still and always implies, precisely, a value. Such value is derived from, attached to, and indexed (by relating to it) upon a physically nameable and concrete object that possesses a material value, therefore a trichotomy of exchange, use, and symbolic values that opens up a breach in the market-economy system where everything is bought and everything is sold. If an art object, which is therefore a physical object or a formal process in the physical world or the world of forms, is existent as an intangible value, indeed an inestimable one, the latter is necessarily inscribed within some form in order to appear as intangible value within or on some material.
       In seeking to materialize intangible value, neoliberalism reinforces the coinage of individuals, their cognitive labor power, therefore, unavoidably, the value of persons. For, all persons producing some sort of intangible labor that gives rise to intangible capital in the field of intangible value are not of the same value. Neither in material terms nor intangibly are they so. Or else, then--paradox of paradoxes--everything being intangible in an egalitarian and equal sort of way leads to all intangibles being of the same value. Now, there exists a hierarchy of intangible values. Here, cognitive capitalism’s attempts at quantification are markedly and clearly perverse: it can place on the same economic level scientific knowledge, advertising knowledge, and artistic knowledge, and, among artistic products, the intangible value of middle-of-the-road pop music, contemporary classical music, jazz, rap, and traditional music, while making different evaluations according to the needs, contexts, and demands of the moment. There is indeed a rule: it is that of the “double standard.” One then understands better why there is recourse to a mixing up of exchange, use, and symbolic values and what advantage one can draw from the relativist, subjectivist, and pluralist positions, which could have passed for a democratic and in certain respects subversive idea, for all this plays into the hands of neoliberalism. Bursting apart, fragmenting, dissociating, and separating activities and significations is a way of breaking up society, the group, the individual, and subjectivity, the better to manipulate them and enslave them. If such positions were able to be an advance in the processes of subjectivation and autonomization, they can now no longer be innocent, can no longer be valid only within their conditions and parameters, and can no longer present themselves as axiologically neutral as soon as one goes beyond their boundaries.
       The immense difficulty, for an advocate of some kind of aesthetic rationality who defends there being a space for reasons, a necessary argument about values, even if that person navigates with the help of indeterminate concepts and aesthetic ideas for which one can furnish no objective proofs, is that if works possess or can in principle all receive intangible values one cannot avoid their being compared, distinguished, separated, and therefore evaluated. Everything is intangible but not everything is valid [ne se vaut pas] according to this very criterion or condition of intangibility. I value more the intangibility of five top film makers or visual artists than the intangibility of twenty very good advertising executives. This is an aesthetic, plastic, and artistic evaluation, but also and especially a semantic one. These objects are not of the same value in intangible terms because they do not have the same intangible signification. There can be no dichotomy between facts and values, for the significations we give to facts and to values are tied to the twofold nature of semantics, which is at once material and intangible. One should therefore not oppose the (alleged) irrationality of art to the rationality of neoliberalism, but rather another form of rationality to this other rationality that is the neoliberal machine--which, for its part, continually seeks to devalue moral-practical, sociopolitical, and ethical facts and values in order to attain total and unfettered, full and complete, though also suicidal, free trade. Let us constantly keep in mind that neoliberalism has already chosen for us the supreme value: global suicide.

Notes


1. See Danny-Robert Dufour, Le Divin marché. La révolution culturelle libérale (Paris: Denoël, 2007), p. 153. The author cites figures in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Reports.
2. Olivier Assouly, Le Capitalisme esthétique. Essais sur l’industrialisation du goût (Paris: Cerf, 2008).
3. Dufour, Le Divin marché.
4. See Bob Aubrey’s essay L’Entreprise soi (Paris: Flammarion, 2000).
5. Pierre Dardot and Christina Laval, La Nouvelle raison du monde. Essai sur la société néolibérale (Paris: La Découverte, 2009).
6. Introduction, ibid., p. 13.
7. Numerous works defend democracy against neoliberalism, such as André Gorz’s L’immatériel. connaissance, valeur et capital (Paris: Galilée, 2003), Marc Fleurbaey’s Capitalisme ou démocratie? L’Alternative du XXIe siècle (Paris: Grasset, 2006), Benjamin R. Barber’s Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2007), and Dardot/Laval’s La Nouvelle Raison du monde.


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