Nature and Culture – Peter Halley

Just a decade ago, having ‘soul’ was said to be the cure for the alienation with which consciousness in the industrialized world was plagued. In the mechanized, repressed, bourgeois world, it was argued, people had been stripped of their vitality, spontaneity, and emotionality. Thus, an utterance that had ‘soul,’ that was endowed with spirituality, could be said to play a role in returning humankind to its oneness with nature, to its ‘essence.’

Today, however, thinking about these issues has changed, at least in the art world. Ideas like ‘soul’ and spirituality, are viewed by many as a means by which bourgeois has consolidated its position by denying its historicity. To say that a work of art is spiritual is to attribute to it universal, timeless value. It also suggests that the society which encourages and validates works with such attributes is itself timelessly and universally valid.

This radical and sudden transformation of opinion itself provokes examination. Such transformed judgments are the result of a tidal wave of intellectual change that has washed over the art world in the present decade. An art practice that had been dominant since the Second World War has been completely swept away and replaced by another.

The practice of art from World War II to the end of the last decade was dominated by ideas derived from phenomenology, existentialism, and Jungian transcendentalism. The post-war period attributed to modernism a vanguard, heroic role, not in the political sense, but in the sense that it claimed that art was capable of reuniting humans with some lost essence and that art was able, as well, to release hidden, heretofore unaccomplished potentialities in the human being.

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[…] The art of this period is overwhelmingly concerned with the situation of the individual as a perceiving and deciding entity. But before one can dismiss the production of this epoch as merely a typical manifestation of late industrialism concerned with preserving the mythic importance of the individual and of some absolute nature upon which the individual can act, one must remember that this era was formed and determined by another historical event, an event whose influence must be considered separately from the smooth progression of the stages of the development of capital.

If the art of this period can be seen as positing a relationship between the individual and nature, it is perhaps because World War II constituted an event that acted upon those who experienced it as nature. This mammoth event, although certainly caused by social forces, eventually evolved, for a considerable portion of the world’s people, into a phenomenon not very different from a devastating flood or fire. World War II constituted a ‘natural disaster’ insofar as it tore asunder the seamless web of signs that constitutes modern civilization. It left countless persons in a situation in which they were faced not with the codes that their societies had invented for them but rather with an unintended hole in the ’empire of signs.’

One has only to look at the tenets of Sartrean existentialism, which advocates so many of the same values as Abstract Expressionism, to realize the extent to which the experience of the Second World War influenced the era. For Sartre, as for the Abstract Expressionists, responsibility, action, ‘good faith,’ and the problem of inventing meaning and morality were the basic issues. It is as if to say that in the codeless world that war on such a scale had created, a world in which the usual laws of market and class – the mechanics of the bourgeois universe as it should be – were in abeyance, philosophy and art should be simply about the possible actions and decisions that a human being who has been stripped of his social role can undertake.

Why then, at the end of the 70’s, did this transcendentalist, phenomenologi-cally-oriented approach which had been dominant for thirty years abruptly disappear to be replaced by a new practice that looks exclusively to the mass media for its repertory of images, that rejects the phenomenology of art-making as pretentious and mandarin, that interprets language as a closed set without reference to extra-human reality? Why did a new practice emerge, that substitutes for phenomenological study a fascination with sociological and political reality, that rejects the positivism of both the physical and social sciences, and replaces the cult of originality with myriad variations on the theme of repetition?

And how and why, around 1980, did a group of French texts loosely referred to as post-structuralist or structuralist, which includes works written from ten to twenty years earlier by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jean Baudrillard, suddenly gain favor in the intellectual climate of the art world, influencing both artists and theorists and at the same time heralding and effecting the sudden vanquishing of nature from this world of ?

To start with, it is impossible not to recognize that the generation of artists responsible for this upheaval is the first to be born after World War II and that, conversely, the significant figures whose work was formed by the experience of the war have gradually disappeared. Consequently, the existentialist values of the World War II generation have faded away, while the younger generation which (in the Western world, at least) has never experienced such a situation, in which all the rules are found inapplicable, has become fixated on rules, that is, on language. […]

Or perhaps, unless one would seek an explanation in a formalist theory that connects the development of intellectual trends to the necessary lag in the translation of crucial texts, or that explains artistic change by the inevitable entropy of intellectual movements, one must return to a discussion of socioeconomic factors which links cultural change to events in the development of industrial society and of capitalism. From this point of view, structuralism and the new art both reflect a transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society; from a society of expanding markets to a society of stagnant growth in which wealth is more redistributed than created; from a in which production, innovation, and individualism are mythologized in the name of creativity to a society that stresses the manipulation of what already exists, be it capital or cultural signs. This is the that structuralism describes or which can at the same time be said to create structuralism. The conditions of such a post-industrial society have existed in Europe since the end of World War II, when the first structuralist texts appeared there. In the United States, the conditions of post-industrialism have only appeared in the last few years, in the wake of Vietnam (with the curb it imposed on American colonial ambitions), and of the oil crises of the ’70s, which effectively brought to an end the growth of the American economy. Along with the arrival of post-industrial conditions, a new structuralist-oriented art practice has appeared in the United States.

The advent of post-industrialism has also seemed to make obsolete the very concept of nature, giving rise to a critique of the reign of nature in art. If the industrial period represents the era in which nature was viewed as real, society can today be seen as entering an era in which bourgeois is severing its bond with this nature and completing the process by which it has established its own mode of thought, its own consciousness, as referent. Increasingly, the important ‘others’ of the industrial period have been eliminated – wilderness is bracketed by law, while tribal and folk modes of social organization have been almost completely assimilated (there remains only the difficult question of the unconscious), f. . . ]

Bourgeois is increasingly seizing the opportunity to ‘simulate’ (in Baudrillard’s terminology) the crucial powers that were assigned to nature’s dominion – the power of thought, repeated in the computer, which ‘realizes’ bourgeois dualism; the ability to create life, accomplished chemically and mechanically; and the ability to create space itself in the binary circuitry of computer-animation devices. Thus the circle of bourgeois thought is finally completed; the bourgeois world is made to refer back only to itself. Recently even the human heart, perhaps the most natural of objects in the old order, has been reconstituted according to the thought processes of bourgeois consciousness.

Advertising’s recent appropriation of the vocabularies of nature and post-war modernism makes apparent the extent of this change, which is a triumph of the market over nature. That beer, detergent, and makeup are now called ‘natural’ is significant. Today the name ‘Nature Valley’ refers to a kind of breakfast cereal; cigarettes have been given such transcendentalist labels as ‘True,’ ‘Light,’ and ‘Now.’

Yet a number of troubling questions are provoked by recent structuralist art practice. First, there is the question of how artists can address the world of the simulacrum. If indeed the post-industrialist world is characterized by signs that simulate rather than represent, how can an artist communicate this situation? Is it possible to represent a simulation? If not, it only remains for the artist to engage in the practice of simulation himself or herself. But by so doing, an uncertain situation is set up. The practice of simulation by the artist can be seen as an endorsement of the of simulacra. But one wonders if such an endorsement is desirable if, as Marxist critics believe, post-industrial constitutes a further level of social alienation. Artists who subscribe to a serious structuralist practice still seem to be in the process of answering this question. But, as Hal Foster has pointed out, the work of the so-called neo-expressionist artists clearly validates the new social conditions by its simulation of the modernist notion of the masterpiece.

Fredric Jameson has observed that cultural analysis is today dominated by two separate trends. On one hand, there is the theory of the simulacrum, as developed by Baudrillard. On the other, there is the work of Michel Foucault, which sees contemporary not as a shimmering surface of autonomous signs, but as a place in which the technologies of surveillance, normalization, and categorization have ever broadening control over social life. In contrast to Baudrillard’s vision of the detached signifier, Foucault finds hidden behind the various signifiers of contemporary society the veiled signified of power, in the form of the consolidation of class position. One questions why artists and art theorists today have been attracted so exclusively to Baudrillard’s rather than to Foucault’s interpretation of social relationships. One wonders if perhaps Baudrillard’s brilliant world of surfaces is not more seductive than Foucault’s bleak excavation of the spaces of regimentation. And one wonders if artist and audience, seduced by this shimmering world have not been deflected away from the investigation of crucial issues about society’s structure.


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