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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
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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
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