February 11, 2006
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??