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February 11, 2006

Joyce versus Baudrillard

A few days ago in a class lecture, Dr. Preston Houser, was talking about Joyce’s philosophy of aesthetics and desire, art and pornography. According to Dr. Houser, Joyce claims that porn incites desire for the object whereas art liberates us of the desire for the object. Through art we transcend desire.

I started thinking, is this really true? I remembered the writings of Jean Baudrillard who claims that through advertising and mass media pornography has ceased to exist because “it is virtually everywhere.” Art, too, has ceased to exist because the definition of the art object has been blasted wide open to include anything and everything and the only reason art presumes to exist still is because of the institutions that support it. Baudrillard says in the Conspiracy of Art:

The illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion. In porn, nothing is left to desire. After the orgies and the liberation of all desires, we have moved into the transsexual, the transparency of sex, with all signs and images erasing all its secrets and ambiguity. Transsexual, in the sense that it now has nothing to do with the illusion of desire, only with the hyperreality of the image.

The same is true for art, which has also lost the desire for illusion, and instead rases everything to aesthetic banality, becoming transaesthetic.

The transaestheticism of art, then, was actually predicted by Joyce as he writes in Portait of the Artist, As a Young Man:
Can excrement or a child or a louse be a work of art? If not, why not?

Now we have seen excrement and pornography elevated to the status of art, so where does that leave us? Can art liberate us still? Or does art cease to be art when its motive is to shock the viewer into experiencing the visceral emotions of rage and lust?

Stephen Dedalus, the main character of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, explains to his friend Lynch that Lynch’s sexual impulses toward the work of art is nothing but a physical reaction to a stimulus, but that the work of art itself, or the work of the artist transcends that.

-”You say that art must not excite desire,” said Lynch. “I told you that one day I wrote my name in pencil on the backside of the Venus of Praxiteles in the Museum. Was that not desire?”

-”I speak of normal natures,” said Stephen. “You also told me that when you were a boy in that charming carmelite school you ate pieces of dried cowdung.”

Lynch broke again into a whinny of laughter and again rubbed both his hands over his groins but without taking them from his pockets.

-”O I did! I did!” he cried.

Stephen excludes Lynch’s actions from the realm of “normal natures,” but as I see it, this impulse to elevate so-called base bodily functions into the realm of fine art is now condoned and funded by institutions of art. Through this elevation, however, art has paved the way for its own eradication.

In contemporary art, the Lynches rule. Art no longer transcends anything, not even toast. Baudrillard tells us that art glorifies and proclaims its own “nullity.” It has nothing to do with beauty as Joyce would like. The secrets of aesthetics Stephen Dedalus tries to reveal are meaningless in the media-saturated, “hyperrealist, cool, trasparent, marketable” world Baudrillard says we live in. In that sense, art has outlived its function for transcendence and merely operates out of habit.

the Venus of Praxiteles’ backside. What does it incite in you??

4 Responses to “Joyce versus Baudrillard”

  1. jdoolittle said:

    Would you consider blissful afterlifes to be transcendent? Because all I have to say is that’s one heavenly ass.

  2. apc33 said:

    I think art is, for the most part, a totally subjective and contextual experience. What is transcendent for one is mundane for another. If one morning you experience some deep insight or intutive understanding from feces, that feces is art in that very moment. If another person walks up and sees the feces, it’s just shit.

    I’ve spent hours at art museums and have seen few works of art. For me, art is more of an event that it is a static entity.

  3. nstanchfield said:

    I think the phenomenon of feces in art is actually a play on the attitudes people still have about art, that spring from this Joycian view that when viewing art, one will experience transcedence. If you’re in an art gallery where the piece de resistance is a turd, you may feel inclined to be disgusted and feel all sorts of, as Joyce calls it, “kinetic” feelings toward the piece, but one will resist these because of the context. Artists who employ these shock tactics are almost creating an art event in itself by showing, “Look at all these art people appreciating our feces.” And people will remember them for it! Gilbert and George, for instance, are infamous for documenting their poops. Jeff Koons, too, in presenting as art paintings of him and his wife having graphic sex.
    So in a sense Joyce is still right, because as long as something is presented in the context of art, most people will transcend their impulses to be repulsed, sexually aroused, or enraged simply BECAUSE it is art. This is the “conspiracy” that Baudrillard talks about. We really aren’t looking at static art objects, the art lies in the manipulation of the audience (and the institution) into believing its art. It’s all kind of an in-joke that most people aren’t let in on.

  4. Natalie Stanchfield » Art and the Everyday said:

    [...] In a previous post there was a discussion about the purpose of art and whether it still reaches for transcendence or is entrenched in the mundane. Nadine Wasserman defends the mundane, offering the argument that art as an expression of everyday things is, in other words, art inseparable from life, a tradition that reaches back into tribal cultures. [...]

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