Issue 2/2015 - 20 Jahre – Zukunft

Three components of realism

Sensuousness, De-alienation, Humane resignation

Keti Chukhrov

I. Contemporary art and the moment of actuality
Hegel in his Aesthetics declared the demise of art due to its intellectualization, theorizing, abstraction, and detachment from matter and from the dimension of the sensuous. This was because in art truth could only be claimed via sensuous means. The utmost goal for Hegel was the absolute spirit; hence, he did not see the demise of art as something fatal. Therefore, he shrewdly predicted the sublation [Aufhebung] of art’s sensuous merits in favor of abstracted scientific or philosophical notions, since notions became better transmitters of truth. Aesthetics could easily be sublated in favor of truth articulated in philosophy. Although Romanticism’s tendency towards abstraction terminated with a lengthy period of realist art in the mid 19th century, art entered the 20th century with an explicit determination to abstract and theorize. In fact, modern art had been ‘art after (or instead of) philosophy’ much earlier than Joseph Kosuth proclaimed it to be such.

Meanwhile Marx, unlike Hegel, did not think that science or theory could touch upon reality better than art’s sensuous means. According to Marx’s rendering of his aesthetic aspirations in his ‘Holy Family’, it was not only logical thinking that was the goal of history, as Hegel would insist, but also the sensuous and material forming of nature and the development of the productive forces of humankind. In relation to this goal, all else – conceptual thinking, logic, and art – were simply the means, not goals in themselves. A human being in this case is affirming oneself not only via thinking, but also via all the senses and capacities.

Nevertheless, we all know what happens in modernism: on the one hand, there is the recurrence of conceptual, theoretical, and speculative values of art; and on the other, the development of affective, physiological, unconscious, and irrational practices which, although they belong to the sensations, still develop ‘under the gaze of theory’– as Boris Groys states in one of his recent texts. This means that both cognitive and sensuous aspects of art are viable for contemporaneity, but they happen to be separated. Moreover, when radical empirical phenomena are presented in artistic practice – be it the body, subversion, or forms of life – they represent certain conceptual or theoretical standpoints, at least implicitly. In the aforementioned text, Groys accounts for this: contemporary art detaches itself from the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but remains a theoretical and cognitive practice as opposed to art’s sensuous parameters as they used to be.

Interestingly, in socialist philosophy and aesthetic theory of the 1960s and 1970s (in the works by E. Ilyenkov, J. Davidov, M. Lifshitz), the sublation of art by philosophy and theory as described by Hegel was explained by the emergence of capital and the spreading of bourgeois interests and economy. The notion, the concept, the speculative parameters were obliged to abstain from the world because the capitalist economy and capitalist production did not provide an adequate material correlation with the concept. And hence it is only natural that, since the 1840s, it was the revolutionary post-romantic discourse that brought back the capacity to reclaim realism and the dimension of the sensuous in art. When using the word ‘sensuous’, it is important to keep in mind that this is not feeling, emotion, performance of something transgressive, an affect, or something sensual rather than intellectual. For Hegel, the sensuous means embodying the idea or the concept – i.e., the convergence of the conceptual parameters with the material ones, the meeting of notion or idea with the matter or thing.
There are innumerable examples of living experiences in performance and actionism to claim back contemporary art’s sensual merits. But to reiterate, the life experiences in contemporary art are represented in the frame of the theoretical mind, which in turn is less and less concomitant with the way modernism or conceptualism reified the concept. Art ‘ends’ because its essential message is constructed and produced by intellect, by the theoretical mind, but in case of contemporary art this is not even idea, mind in Hegel’s sense – it is rather intellect, speculation or theory.

However, it should be noted that the viability of many modernist, avant-garde and conceptual art-practices didn’t merely reduce its practice to theoretical mind; it also deplored such condition and subverted the inevitable totality of theory into a radical negative gesture, into the radical moment of actualization, - a critical moment of kairos.
It is in this moment that the intensity of a modernist and contemporary art-piece resided. The moment is negative because it has to do with the collapse of perception and of the hermeneutically biased capacity to understand. But by means of certain, almost impossible, cognitive leaps the understanding and misunderstanding coincide in such a “happy” moment in favor of some supra-cognitive paradoxical moment.
Actually the reason why contemporary art excelled over all other artistic genres and appropriated the right to be called art (we do not call film, theatre, music, poetry art any more) is that it compressed realization of artistic contents, of an art-work and its impact into this cognitive, critical moment, - sometimes reified, sometimes not. Modernist, as well as contemporary art-work is instantaneous, momentary, no matter how long it lasts. It is not based on perception, but on a heuristic grasping of that very conceptual instant – be it articulated via material form, conceptual statement, affective experience, transgressive act, or speculative ruminations.

However, while the conceptual paradigm in art emphasizes the impact of the cognitive, semantic and intellectual components and tears away from sensuous contact with the reality, the conceptual procedure in it is still not an idea, since contemporary art’s episteme is not philosophy, but post-philosophy, - the art after philosophy.

In her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Rosalind Krauss made an attempt to discover a specific semiotic paradigm that defines conceptual thinking and its paradoxical dimension. She refers to the semiotic category of the index. The index represents not a mimetic, but a dynamic correlation of two elements, of two signs or of a sign and an object, - as with a pointing finger, or a trace of a bullet in the window.
The index is not in need to symbolize or resemble. No matter what the conceptual work concentrates on – pure text, documentations, interventions, ready-mades – the prevalence of index semiology makes conceptual work a machine that always preserves the gap between the two correlated elements. What is important in the indexicality of a conceptual work is this disjunctive gap, despite the act of correlation. That is, the third element – symbol, idea – that otherwise would symbolize or lubricate these two is absent. This means that in conceptualism idea is turned into a speculative proposition, paradoxical in its tautological literalness, rather closer to language philosophy, than to the idea in dialectics. Such semantic disjunctive gap causing the failure of interpretation is that very specific moment, interval, hiatus, kairos, that matters for modern and contemporary art – the moment of actualization when understanding is impossible and consciousness makes an impossible cognitive leap to grasp the otherwise cognitively ungraspable gap. This leads to the collapse of temporality that used to be indispensible for sensuous involvement in favor of that very negative instant.
The conceptual intensity of modern and contemporary, as well conceptualist art proper, resides in the speculation around this gap. But when art dispenses itself with this negative moment, then nothing remains but theoretical genealogy, positivist sociology, cognitive routine, that is neither sensuous, nor philosophic, nor conceptual, but involuntarily becomes part and parcel of contemporary cognitive capital.

II. Commitment or Autonomy?
The long-term debate between commitment and autonomy could therefore be disregarded. The reason why the issue is no more about the choice between the two options - abolition of art via political and social commitment, or art’s autonomy - is that, in fact, both of these approaches epistemologically reside in theory: the first approach is reduced to a theoretical routine – because of ignoring the instant of cognitive explosion in an art-piece, brought about by modernism; and the second loses its political and societal efficiency because of the speculative reenacting of avant-garde’s constructivist heritage in a completely anti-avant-garde political setting. So, both – engagement and autonomy – often happen to be the two sides of the same coin.
According to the accepted stereotypes autonomy is formal and engaged art practices are socially effective. One is a modernist edifice, the other is the paradigm of avant-garde. But the quasi-autonomous works of today do not fit into this kind of negativity. They are circulated, digested, often commodified even though they might be complex in form. On the other hand, art of extreme conceptual severity or of radical formal paradoxicality is hard to produce nowadays, no matter how strongly we want to retrieve art’s autonomy. Practices of circulation evict the possibility of an incommensurable semantic paradox in art.

On the other hand, the Schillerian aesthetics applied to contemporary art - as Rancière attempted to do - is only abusing the mode of Kantian aesthetics in relation to non-aesthetic contemporary art practices. The aim in this case is to endow the works with an anti-aesthetic genealogy, with the “pleroma” of a pre-modernist work of art. The reason for this is that the sensuousness of pre-modernist art does not at all presuppose its being the edifice for aesthetics.

As for the committed quasi-avant-garde art-practices, their engagement nowadays could also often be claimed formalist since the social and political phenomena are sometimes rendered in them in a detached and sensuously uninvolved way; only this estrangement is not even realized by its producers. Such social work – let’s take projects by A. Żmijewski, S. Sierra, K. Šeda – does not accomplish a dissolution in collective consciousness, or in the life of those to be monitored. Moreover, often politically engaged works retain their power due to the negative modernist ‘trick’ in them – i.e. they manage to retain in them that very instant of kairos, which the artists often do not acknowledge or realize in their positivist optimism of “improving society”.

Thus, autonomous art is digestible, democratized, whereas committed art often reproduces the political agenda tautologically or formally: it neither alienates social and economic alienation as Lyotard demanded (because it doesn’t want to be in the Adornian modernist paradigm any more); but it is not able to de-alienate either because that would require the act of “metanoia” – involving one's life and fate with what happened in reality.

III. Genealogy of Anti-modernism
Let’s now refer to the former socialist interpretation of certain issues of Hegel’s aesthetics, accounting for why sensuousness was regarded as indispensible for art. I refer to the theory of realism of Michail Lifshitz.
In his work “Aesthetics of Hegel and Contemporaneity,” Lifshitz, an apologist of realism, defines art as the sensuous consciousness of truth, when the truthfulness of art derives not from “the artist’s consciousness, but from a lively sense of reality.”
Implying Hegel’s aesthetics, Lifshitz uses the term “Human Resignation” borrowed by him from Russian literary critic V. Belinsky. This term is a paraphrase or synonym to some extent to Hegel’s notion of “Sinnlichkeit”, sensuousness.
A realist act, as Lifshitz understands it, would be not so much to just naturalistically document or depict - the denigrated or oppressed for example, but rather to enter into the (miserable) life sensuously.
But to repeat again, sensuous involvement would not mean the nominal presence in the problem zones. It is not so much about any empirical sharing of certain experiences or rendering them, but rather about the evental [ereignishaft] encounter with the phenomena or with the happened (the event) that changes the producer in some sort of metanoic transformation imprinted afterwards in the art-piece.
Realist art never refers to itself. It happens to be artistic only in order to become no more and no less than the means to touch upon life. It doesn’t need to reflect on itself. Actually the notion of the “classical” that often stood in socialist aesthetics for the realist doesn’t so much presuppose the order, but rather that very “humane resignation” which can only unfold as Hegelian sensuous engagement with reality. The big paradox here is that modernist art that is addicted to its own self-abolition is permanently preoccupied with itself, whereas realist art that actually makes use of explicitly artistic (non-naturalistic, non-documentary, gnomic) means is never overtly showing that it is artistic, because its preoccupation is the genetic bond with reality. Realist art articulates and reveals the event extrinsic to itself, and only thereafter becomes a work of art, while modernism as a whole and often even the avant-garde are constructed in terms of themselves being their own event— the event residing in their own languages, methodologies or activist procedures.
By the term “Humane Resignation” Lifshitz criticizes “the pride and arrogance of the bourgeois-democratic finite consciousness” that rises up against certain phenomena with the aim of resolving the contradiction, but without observing and experiencing the true complexity of the circumstances.
Another very important aspect is how to treat alienation, because since Romanticism alienation except for realist experiences is aestheticized, cherished, appropriated by art and its critical claims.
Resisting alienation with either a mere criticism of it, or with intensifying the alienation to its extreme became a focal point of a modern and contemporary art’s praxis of resistance. Alienation was the complement of capitalism long before the emergence of modernist art, and the question that socialist aesthetics asked was why the realist artist was making an effort to search for art’s de-alienating potentialities despite the harsh alienating conditions, whereas the modernist artist rejected such potentiality altogether. Maybe, because paradoxically, the modernist or contemporary artist not only despises the alienated world in rhetoric, but also unconsciously or even consciously finds libidinal attraction in it, - a key double-bind in Western art since Baudelaire.
Such an approach blocked out any effort to conceive the situations or existences that could have been exerting the logic of de-alienation. Constructing de-alienation in the conditions of social and economic alienation was often regarded in contemporary art as kitschy, poppy, un-critical, - as an affirmativeness of ideology. However, even when de-alienation is not possible socially and economically in realist art it can nevertheless evolve sensuously, i.e. artistically. Actually, sensuous relation to reality already generates the potentiality of de-alienation. Radical empathy presupposes it. Any intrinsic need in the common is already the need of de-alienation. It is clear that existence cannot be fully de-alienated. But claiming de-alienation is not lubricating social impossibilities, it rather emphasizes the gap between the present situation and the social ideal. Projecting such an ideal is no less immanent for our existence than any other empirically biased practice. Not only might this ideal be imagined, but it can also be exerted performatively - almost as a dramatic, staged construction or analysis of such a potentiality.
Therefore the argument of the anti-modernist theory developed in the frame of socialist ethics was that regardless of capitalist economy the possibility of de-alienation retains relevance for art, although it might require incredible ethical efforts.
For Hegel, the human being expresses oneself in the objective world, and returns to himself on another level, i.e. for him, the objective world and its alienation are to be sublated in consciousness. In this case the process of alienation and its sublation is the speculative process not residing in objective reality. The sublation of alienation is the sublation of the objectified world by means of spiritualization, by means of turning world into a spiritual phenomenon.
According to Juri Davidov, to sublate alienation Hegel brings the outer world in harmony with the inner truthworthiness. Marx on the contrary brings the inner truthworthiness in accord with the sensuous contact with the objective world. The senses, the sensuousness should be objectified. Abstraction without sensuousness is not valuable. Logical categories are only the “money of spirit” endowing with the abstract value something that has real meaning only in the sphere of the sensuous appropriation of the world by man.
This is because for Marx, the main form of human activity is not thinking, but labor, which generates alienation of various forms, and thus makes the objective world alienated by definition. Alienation of labor and private property are the grounds for all other types of alienation. But in this case, alienation cannot be sublated via mind, speculative process or thinking, thinking is not able to overcome the division of labor and private property. Because the dialectical movement is not residing merely in the thought on reality, but it is in the dialectical development of the reality itself, in the historical process. This is the commonplace issue from Marx.
But what happens in the latest interpretations of alienation – in Adorno, or psychoanalysis, Zizek, etc. – is the following: Hegel is announced the philosopher of difference, i.e. the issue of sublation, of negation of negation is ignored and the dimension of negativity and of alienation becomes the focal point. Imagining the sublation of alienation would presuppose a totalitarian redemption, or imagining utopian pictures of non-capitalism in the midst of capitalist alienation. Or it would presuppose disregarding of the initial and insurmountable estrangement of existence.
But another issue to be disputed here would be: if reality is estranged and capitalist, would it not be unrealistic to invent its de-alienated alternatives? And here emerges the argument of Lifshitz that the classical art produced by representatives of the bourgeoisie is less bourgeois than the protest art produced by the explicitly left. And that even in the midst of harsh alienation there remains a horizon of the de-alienated social constellation. The realist artist intervenes sensuously exactly into this painful gap between the alienated reality and the potentiatliy of de-alienation. Actually this is the issue about the dialectics of the inward and external; when the inward world becomes socialized and the external one is felt and suffered as one’s own. Whereas in case of the apology of alienation the external world is even more externalized and the internal world preserves its individuality unsocialized and solipcist.

IV. Humane Resignation as Ethical Edifice
The term “humane resignation” in the writings by M. Lifshitz emphasizes the ethical dimension of Hegel’s notion of sensuousness. But at the same time it was aimed to dispute the approach to emancipation exercised by avant-garde’s constructivist wing and to blame it in the exaggeration of the role of biopolitics and social engineering: in the constructivist practices the issues of organization, systemic arrangement, or biopolitical management prevailed over the very procedures of life or reality. Even though the avant-garde made its own attempt to merge art with life when disputing modernism’s nihilism and hermeticism, it instead often rather superseded life with itself, turning life into creative production, but without first taking the time to see what life itself might have actually consisted of.
The logic of constructivism was the following: if life consists of exploitation, injustice, and humiliation, isn’t it preferable to eradicate these phenomena immediately, to recode and to reorganize them, rather than reflect, live through, or observe and study?
As a result, reality was often taken for an artificial project of constructing that very reality. In this situation there can be no such thing as objective reality. In its project of construction and modernization, constructivism and productivism superseded the temporality of a given reality with a technical reorganization of the social surrounding as if it were matter in the hands of a demiurge; so that reality itself became no more than infrastructure or an art-practice. Here we confront a strange paradox, much discussed in the prose of Andrey Platonov, which belonged to the avant-garde’s proletcult wing and in 1920s shifted to the new early anti-Stalinist Soviet realism.
What Platonov depicts in his novels is precisely the outcome of this kind of reconstruction and engineering. People who engineer and construct consist of flesh, of soul, of a yearning for love, of exhaustion, of loneliness and anguish, of a fear of the mechanized labor, and of the senselessness of existence. As a result of this interweaving of the organic and the inorganic it transpires that the real is not a construction at all but a painful convergence of a big future project and frail bodies, exhausted by labor. And all of this is not seen as just a demiurgic project undertaken by artists, engineers and inventors, but an inseparable point of contact between those objective processes of life that tragically surpass the technical plan, and the technology of its implementation. The question that Platonov puts is whether art’s dissolution in life should be a new project of organization, or an act having the afore-mentioned sensuous and metanoic impact.
The sensuous rather than constructivist attitude is precisely what is meant by Lifshitz as the merit of realist art, paraphrased as humane resignation. This attitude presupposes self-refusal, self-resignation, an act of modest withdrawal, even humbleness.
Humane resignation leads to a strange understanding that when individual personality recedes, then reality is revealed, and that reality cannot be reconstructed or changed unless there is an effort to understand and sense it.
Resignation in this case does not imply abstaining from battle, but instead the rejection of an arrogant attitude to the contradictions inherent in the real, - not supplanting them with personal desires, biography, senses, methods, traumas, psychologies, etc.
Now, if we return back to contemporary situation, the question would be whether art should go on to be biased by the theoretical mind, putting forward intelligences and cognitive and technological know-hows, which by now lost their instant of kairos? At the same time in the absence of a general program of social and economic de-privatization, practices that today stand for the continuation of emancipatory avant-garde aesthetics in contemporary art are part and parcel of cognitive capitalism’s modes of production. But the problem is also that the speeds of circulation and exchange of contemporary capitalist economy are in fact more subversive, creative and paradoxical than art’s interventions into it. So, when following the cognitive path art cannot but be subordinate to cognitive capitalism’s accelerative stream. Art that is based either on intervening into social infrastructures or generating machines of intelligences lags behind in comparison with the contemporary economy, because the capitalist economy has appropriated so many components of speculative maneuvers: it is more machinic, more externalized, more speedy in terms of circulation, more creative in terms of both generating infrastructures and then subverting them. It excels over artistic practices exactly in those fields that art appropriated as its own at the expense of getting rid of sensuousness and metanoia, but as well ignoring its negative modernist genealogy, too. So that the difference between art and capital would be in art’s specific ethical responsibility, but it is exactly the ethically motivated sensuous involvement that art dispensed itself with, in favor of either competing with the technocratic efficiencies of progress or in favor of profaning capitalism’s alienation with even harsher estrangement.

If pre-modernist components are not possible to be revisited at all (these components being de-alienation, realism, resignation, sensuousness), if on the other hand the radical moment of kairos is removed from contemporary art practices too, then art dissolves into various modes of creative activities and capital in its own turn becomes more and more artistic. Therefore today the watershed would be not so much between art’s political commitment and autonomy, but rather between the episteme of contemporary art (which in its striving for biopolitical efficiency fell into the trap of unconsciously reproducing capitalism’s interfaces and its infrastructures) and the evental and sensuous rendering of the event (of the happened) that contemporary art had voluntarily discarded long ago.

However, if we remember that the episteme of contemporary art had emerged from art’s paradoxical survival in the conditions of its complete withering and impossibility, it is more likely that along with the democratic and populist spread of contemporary art practices new radicalizations of art’s overtly negative genealogy will appear. Only they will have either to evolve on the margins of global democratized art, or disguise their negativity and subversive intensity by goodwill rhetoric.
As for the episteme of sensuousness it will further remain detached from cognitive and technocratic fashions and develop somewhere in the shadows of contemporary practices since all artistic edifices – from theatre/dance to film – will try to abide as much as possible to the episteme of the withering but none the less sustainable contemporary art institute.



1 Boris Groys, ‘Under the Gaze of Theory’, in e-flux 35:
2 See Valery Podoroga. Kairos. Critical Moment. Moscow, Grundrisse, 2013. “The Importance of kairos is in the fact that it actualizes time, casting it away from the habitual paths. But even more important is its instantaneity, which defines the moment of actualization, always explosive and sudden, opening the rupture, the breach in the world. This happens even when kairos breaks forth to us via complex form or via artificial obstacles. Kairos is interesting by its dubiousness: as the occasion, and as the act-instant, as the principle of actualization of an artistic gesture.”. P. 12.
3 Rosalind E. Krauss. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985. Ch. 2. Towards Post-modernism. Notes on Index.
4 Jacques Rancière. Aesthetics and its Discontents. Polity Press, 2009. Chapter “Antinomies of Modernism”. Pp. 61-107.
5 M. Lifshitz “Aesthetics of Hegel and Contemporaneity”. In: Michail Lifshitz. On Hegel. Moscow: Grundrisse, 2012. 185-249.
6 M. Lifshitz. On Pushkin, Letter to Friedlender, 1938.
7 Generally speaking, sensuousness in art is about the existence of other human beings, whereas the negative moment of kairos touched upon above is about reified concepts.