Food places from which to order take-away – incomplete and inadequate – covers a portion of Queens, NYC centred on the Woodhaven Boulevard stop on the J, but also extending up to Elmhurst/Jackson Heights. Mostly these are small, high-quality businesses that should be supported, that they might be around on the other side. They deliver through usual channels or USPS.
Near a host of other Thai places, this little emporium stocks fully cooked food from various kitchens nearby, as well as a modest selection of Thai ingredients. The sausages, minced pork, fish mousse kill.
Yuri Pattison’s latest show at Mother’s Tankstation gallery explores cycles in the military-industrial-academic complex. Upon entering the gallery, viewers are faced with a computer simulation of sunrises and sunsets at the seaside. The sim runs on a single Dell rack-mounted server, which has been customised with a graphical-processing unit (GPU) made by NVIDIA. In an example of intertwined skeins of war and consumerist capital, the GPU, used in gaming consoles, is based upon vector-processors originally developed in the 1970s to model nuclear weapons tests, and used today in high-performance supercomputing. Moreover, thousands of similar GPUs power crypto farms, engaged in a perverse cycle of burning energy to solve mathematical problems, the so-called ‘proof of work’ which creates the scarcity-value underpinning trust-less distributed currencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum.
At the other end of the gallery, a Chinese-made replica of a high-end power amplifier is connected to an atomic clock, driving faintly audible sound from an electrostatic speaker. Development of this type of miniaturised clock was funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which also led development and promotion of the internet as a commercially viable proposition (the internet was originally envisioned as a distributed, node-based communication network tolerant to Soviet nuclear strikes, and was used to connect several military-academic supercomputer installations). In this case, DARPA’s clock, developed with universities such as Caltech, could be deployed on drones or computationally-enhanced field assets (such as special forces operating in urban environments, where GPS access may be spotty or actively jammed).
What might it mean to wire up a military-grade atomic clock to a fake bit of audiophile kit? To one sceptical of globalisation or an impending Thucydides trap, this is the cycle of innovation, reverse engineering, and replication that is steadily eroding centuries of Western technical and military dominance. A related cycle sees Chinese copies of western products, sometimes improved, often inferior, fed back into Western markets, paid for in borrowed-money (lent by net creditor nations in Asia like China), a contemporary version of the petrodollar recycling of earlier decades.
The overall aesthetic effect is of a complex commentary upon (much like Pattison’s 2016 Chisenhale show), if not quite a pointed critique of, contemporary capital cycles, elegantly presented through elaborately sourced and documented objects and writing. There is a muteness to the presentation that is refreshing in a time of droning, didactic voice-overs upon the evils of late capitalism. There is much to pore over and the work is not fussily set out: wires loop around and chip cards are casually placed, as if freed from the tight confines of an actual computer housing. The Dexion angle lends lightness and transparency, and alludes to the foot-lose portability of modern capital.
Some reservations remain – the three works (simulation, atomic clock, and Perspex pieces) didn’t quite come together in a single, punchy impression. In addition, the Chisenhale show also carried an affective charge in the dust and dead skin fragments within the gallery. This show felt comparatively sterile, intellectually-framed, slightly reliant on the press release for explication.
A few other elements spoke, presumably unintentionally, as much to the economy of images and tropes, amplified and accelerated through social media, within contemporary art. The Dexion angle, deployed as exhibition armature, is not so different from the galvanised building studs in Hilary Lloyd’s exhibition at Sadie Coles HQ – but in the latter case it feels more of a unified, sculpturally successful decision. WangShui at the Julia Stoschek Collection (Berlin) similarly uses mass-market bathroom fixings to host a silkworm colony, footage of which is then immersively projected within the gallery. Again, a sense of gesamtkunstwerk and conceptual unity comes across; versus a sense of product-in-gallery in the Pattison case. Lastly, the lock-lights, which reflect Pattison’s interest in locks (and echo with other locks in the installation), unfortunately correspond with the heavily-instagrammed Ghislaine Leung mushroom lights at KW Institute (Berlin).
e-flux did their NYC edition of ‘Art After Culture’ cumulative conference, after the Rotterdam, Paris and Berlin versions. These are the basically un-edited notes, full of gaps, errors and mis-interpretations. Link to the event, and to the live-stream (though the recording isn’t up at time-of-posting).
Brian Kuan Wood’s talk is best intro and key para is below, but in summary (written ex-post): Basic premise was that avant-garde has historically (pre-WWII?) been a revolt against ‘culture’ (pace Adorno). Since late-1990s, culture-industry has morphed into a juggernaut, injected with steroids of global capital & consumer technology. Crucially, culture today includes most art, as artists eagerly join a system-of-spectacles that eagerly welcomes them. Examples: (we can layer identity-driven origin stories onto any of below to enhance ‘authenticity’) zombie formalist painting, crutches-foam-liquid-and-plastic sculpture, the High Line/Shed cultureclusterfuck, or yet another AI-generated painting. Sessions’ underlying premise was that capitalism is nearing some sort of event (triggered by climatic collapse hence a question of when, not if), the denouement of which we might not be around to watch, hence have to speculate upon via the meta-tool of art. Does critical art have any scope to step outside culture, and more generally how can we criticise something we don’t really know, sitting myopically inside it as we do?
Boris Groys, “The Museum as the Cradle of Revolution”
We can’t have a meta-position on the world, being in and of it. Museum as one of few things in our world that is not quite fully contemporary & offers something like a meta-position. They are meta-objects, heterotrophic spaces.
Artwork is what remains after a culture disappears. As anti-commodity – not meant to be used/consumed, whereas art is prevented from being destroyed. Remains alien as it passes down to a future culture.
Art confronts us of history of losses, not one of progress only.
Benjamin Angelus Novus on apocalyptic condition leads us from future to past via present, and the direction of travel (as we hit the eschatological boundary, a zero-bound in monetary policy metaphor?).
We are like time at end of 19th c, when there nascent national consciousness (i.e. today’s identity obsession), oligarchy, hypertrophied financial sector. For the reactionary class (white in the West but also applies to India, Turkey, China) past becomes genealogy and decides present position. Need to think about post-humanity, for cyborgs technologically produced identities are more important than inherited ones.
Nietzsche view of world – reaction to end of history of Hegel. American superman is a slave of sorts (winning or a compulsion to win is a sort of slavery) – he is helping all the time. Nietzsche’s übermensch is indifferent to living or dying (‘…he plunged into the market=place, an eddy of arms and legs….[Zarathustra says] “You have made danger your vocation, in that there is nothing contemptible” ‘).
In bourgeois society everyone is measured by his usefulness. Contradicts enlightenment ideas of Kant – man cannot be useful, howsoever laudable the societal goal posited for that usefulness.
Only when image & text loses its informational characteristic it becomes artistic. Defunctionalisation.
Avant-Garde creates meta tools, not informational but transformational.
Independent Group first exhibition of pop art – art found as the archaeology of a lost civilisation. Art placed amongst rocks & ruins.
We live in a time that erasure of information/content is the erasure of our selves, but while we can think we erase the info, it never disappears. Our role is only as content providers – another form of universal slavery. Hence the Avant Garde is impossible today (BG’s students reckon).
Looking at, or touching it, painting create subject-object relationship. Can go back to look at it countless times, it doesn’t degrade (notwithstanding Duchamp in Chatelet via Gillick) Looking at digital images creates a data trail, viewer becomes part of it & is recorded/monetised.
AI and fear of death as central to our thinking. ‘Human should produce something better than him’ -Nietzsche. Fukuyama ‘end of history’ is mis-understood – as one influenced by Alexandre Kojève foresees a fusion of man and machine. This is still the fascist idea of self-improvement. We are still fascinated by a feudal past (Game of Thrones etc.). Feudal ideas are being brought into AI.
Obsolescence – what happens to a cyborg tomorrow? What to do with obsolete human machines. World, and humanity, become cabinet of curiosities – obsolete things constantly being generated.
Second issue is deterministic answers of a computer. Only machines which mis-behave – do not do what they are supposed to do could be an AI/cyborg
Hito Steyerl, “A Campfire Story”
AI neural network that is trained on fire, and predicts the next few frames in the animation. Fire as metaphor for technology (Prometheus, but also Plato’s cave [see below]). And helped create society through cooking, required co-operation to keep it safe, shaped landscape by burning forests, etc.
Culture is predictable whereas art should be more unpredictable. Art is the digestion of the unpredictable so we can understand – combination of unpredictable with something familiar as a way in for the viewer.
Divination in traditional non-western society as way for inviting contingency into the a bleak terrifying present rather than contemporary (modelling, statistics, simulation) prediction & risk-management. Pyromancy was divining through fire in Renaissance.
The GUI attached to the fire neural net has its controls named after socially critical things like 0.14% female job success factor. Most of the GUI is not operational, a few controls change the look of the fire.
Productive apparatus of ruling class is a predictive apparatus.
Yana Peel‘s ownership of bete-noir Israel surveillance company NSO is an awkward and messy affair, basically an object lesson in much of the conference’s themes.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Pleasure, Desire, and Evolution”
The animating presence of the entire thing.
Capitalism is based on permanent desire & endless postponement of pleasure. Deleuze & Foucault disagreement on the term, Baudrillard has commentary on this distinction. Bifo has spent 40 years writing about desire, only recently does he note the difference with pleasure, onset of senescence (if not the senility he professes – sharp as tack).
We think ‘[our] life is private property’. Carlo Rovelli thinks fear of death is an evolutionary mistake. We must taken an epicurean approach to death.
Today we are not seeing fascism – this was thing of young, energetic, will to power. No one expects a bright future today. ‘No future’ is conventional wisdom now. Futurism (in Italy anyway) was a movement that felt nation, family etc. and to some extent allied with fascism to develop a plausible ‘national’ narrative. Today we see hopeless nostalgia, impotence, desire for revenge (against reason) – supremacism is ‘old people’s fear’. Voting demographics in US and UK are major exhibits (tho fair number of young nutters abound). Racism is today a fearful reaction rather than an expansive thing (the colonial and imperial projects were expansive, controlling, active) – rear-guard not vanguard. Don’t mention the left – neoliberal left has given up on transformative change and reason (instead becoming servant of yet another financial algorithm). See Horkheimer & Adorno ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.
Salvini simply continuing Marco Minniti’s policies as interior minister of the PD – left & right very similar. See Blair, Clinton, etc.
Donna Haraway says human extinction would not be a tragedy. Extinction is core of today’s political position – how do you rebel against extinction? Bifo points out extinction isn’t the worst thing – compared to a long-lasting, drawn-out agony of a slow starving, suffocating death (Soylent Green).
Catherine Malabou . Psychology has been taken over by sex & language – but today’s problems are brain problems not mind. Evolution must be rethought. How can the brain, conditioned by desire, find pleasure at this stage in history.
Talk dedicated to Nanni Balestrini the dead poet (Who never wrote [anything new?], simply recombined what he found in the world, heard on the street, saw in flyers)…
Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Shared Meaning Beyond Representation?”
Arendt ‘lebenswelt’ (world-in-common). Replacement of community by mass society results in alienation. Guattari’s loss of relationality. Collective psychic collapse is the other side of ecological collapse. Arendt saw loss of world in common leading to fascism.
Today we have mass mood swings managed by a corporate state – identifying 1% and immigrants as the two forces that are taking away from ‘us’ (substitute for the pronoun: U.S. [white] middle class, ‘true’ Russians, touchy Hindus, proud Turks, etc.).
Art 1990s onwards became identity thing where artists would (or rather, could) only talk about themselves (often just about appearance), covering contradictions & conflicts with thin veneer of humanism. Art as something that is trans-historical, trans-geographical went out the window (albeit returned as homogenised mass-culture today). Today culture is either management tool for mass society or art as merchandise. Critical artists have been forced to criticise the globalisation system – this is the replacement for vanguardist position. Both merch & representation create a non-universal , non-common meaning. Both instrumentalise art – e.g. art culture wars become litmus tests for how ‘democratic’ a place is (Serrano Piss Christ is old example).
Despotic empathy rules. Artists is martyr seeking representation as spectacle, and his/her story/image is more tragic/powerful/intense/worthy-of-attention than all the others. Reified subjectivity & alienation. The world is divided between wretched of the screen & those privileged to watch them as spectators.
Laika pads silently by.
Debord: what has come between human relationships are images & representation.
Actions are only made meaningful by spoken word – according to Arendt. But only makes sense in ‘being-with’ (in a community). Despotic empathy destroys the in-between.
In decolonisation context need ‘incommensurability’ (presumably because hard to rank different culture’s works without context of their histories and contemporary realities, though comparisons perhaps can be drawn)?
Don’t confuse relationality with relational aesthetics (Glissant angle?).
Capitalist society is a foreign power with which it is impossible to interact.
Mary Walling Blackburn, “Technologies of Ancestor Phantasy for a Final Generation: from the Gnome’s Genome to Trash DNA”
Lovely talk, sadly no notes….
Wood convenes panel with Berardi, Emmelhainz, and Blackburn
Celebration of extinction – pornographic triumphalism as (in a fiction Wood read) humanity having trashed earth, decides to use rockets to nudget it to some other galaxy. He quips, ‘once you’ve done that, why not fix the NYC subway?’
Bifo: we see today the end of ‘courtesy’ (in Italian, ‘cortesia’ connotes/implies [perhaps via Castiglione??] the ability to ‘linguistically elaborate desire, sex’). But today the screen intermediates everything. He says ‘a loss of definition’ is inability to (linguistically) deal with bodies of others.
Emmelhainz: Buffalo skinners were people who existed pre-formation of Western U.S. states, didn’t want state to coalesce as that might result in regulation. They were tribe-less people & escaped slaves – marginal people who benefited from being marginal in a marginal place (pre-state).
Anjalika Sagar (Otolith): you don’t learn empathy by hanging out with humans. It is learnt by pets, traumatised horses (what Emmelhainz does as a job), gardening. Maksha concept – Bifo responds there is nothingness, but only before and after consciousness, Mentions a Lebanese film where 12 year old denounces his parents for bringing him into the world during the kali-yuga.
Bifo: optimistic vs pessimistic brain. We are actually close to best of possible worlds, elimination of labour. But we cannot actualise it – the majority cannot think in terms of equality, solidarity & freedom from work, we cannot imagine moksha or freedom from samsara. Nor is it his place to preach, he is open to unpredictable. ‘We have to watch out for the unavoidable, but it rarely occurs anyway because the unpredictable intervenes’ -John Maynard Keynes.
To long winded question about ancestors: Bifo says his main project is to forget his ancestors, to betray his ancestors. ‘Community & identity are totally fake today’. ‘We must understand identity but must get away from falseness of community, of ancestors, but embrace singularity, the nomadic. ‘ Hito: story of a Bosnian immigrant in US who misses roasted lamb but can’t find a lamp, so must buy it in pieces & staple it back together to have an integral lamb. We too have lost the original lamb.
Bifo: Increasingly AI, swarm intelligence, neurology are intersecting (Malabou again) so we must think if intelligence as a social brain, a network brain. Can a changing social brain thinking about the transformation in itself?
‘Sovereignty is an efficient fake’ it starts with Machiavelli & (usually male) potentate taming (female) fortuna or nature. Doesn’t apply now because situation is too far gone, and in climate collapse, nature would seem to have won. Bifo reckons we might get to the utopia of autonomy, but first will be the trauma of collapse [St Augustine’s ‘God make me pure, just not yet’ followed by some vigorous whoring] .
Reza Negarestani, “APNE: The Art of Making Intelligence”
‘What is the art of making general (ie qualitative) intelligence?’ Sensory, perception, comprehension are 3 pillars of AGI.
Riddle of perception arises from Nelson Goodman (riddle of induction in ‘fact fiction & forecast). Observation & perception are never neutral – ‘how do we know what we perceive at the same time as experiencing it is a sensory state’ Projectiles: complex predicates (material props, linguistic props, perceptual props). Reality is a construction where we project. See this.
Can we see what is in front us?
APNE construct new perception by re-arranging it’s perceptual (sensors?). One wor(l)d can be many according to its mode of diversification and many wor(l)ds can be one according to mode of integration. APNE has aesthetic that is neither pro- nor anti-representation & is concerned with building topoi that intervene with world at multiple levels.
Only thing I got out of Reza’s talk: we see emeralds as green up to time t, and blue afterwards (but we don’t actually see them). This would be same as grue emerald, where predicate ‘grue’ encapsulates this colour/perception variability. It’s how a machine might see not encumbered by our entrenched descriptors. Feels in CS terms, something like a variable or encapsulation, where colour (which is bound to our experience), is abstracted or wrapped within another word (object, variable, etc.) that incorporates mutability. Didn’t get how this connects with anything else, see link above or Intelligence and Spirit.
Charles Mudede, “There Can Be No Advanced African Technologies Without the Angel of Death”
He recalls a curious image – watching filming of rubbish film ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ at Great Zimbabwe. African men in suits, working in the financial district, would arrive as extras (one had to be connected to be an extra on a Western film), and be promptly dressed up in grass skirts to fit the cinematic image.
Colonials said Great Zimbabwe could never have been built by mere Africans, they obviously don’t have the technology. Mudede reckons in a sense this is true, the technology disappeared and contemporary Zimbabweans couldn’t built it.
Great Zimbabwe was forgotten – this gives the lie to Hegelian narrative of steady progress of humanity, of Geist. Hegelian narrative/continuum is really a capitalist one, only about 400 years from Dutch times – constant technological progress. In the West there hasn’t been a societal collapse (Zimbabwe, Persepolis, Bronze Age Collapse).
Cultural and social are not identical.
Azrael the angel of death that destroys in order to rebuild – this is capitalism narrative according to Joseph Schumpeter – moving capitalism forward in time. Not sure this seemingly creative destruction, supposedly good in the long run, took account of what we call an externality – climate change. Abbadon as the angel who truly destroys.
The Otolith Group, Nucleus of the Great Union
Single shutterstock image as backdrop alternating with green-screen, black-screen. Lots of simple 3D rotating scaling of flat images in space but they were basically exploring a certain (Yale?, digital) archive for a photographic exhibition. Richard Wright (1953 trip to Gold Coast) in Ghana are the images. Commissioning email is part of the work – desktop is deeply embedded & repeated and syncopated on the when. Random quotes that confounds meaning, held together by powerful voiceover in parts almost like a speech has been intervened, stopped stuttered like DJ. desktops floating in space create physicality . No distinct start. Images are slow and repetitive. Almost Japanese flute playing adds dissonant note. Kodwo: green screen (acts as non-image) alternates with black screen – walk diagonal of existence of images as TIFFs and archival images.
Plato cave is akin to a cinema with fire (ref Hito’s pyromancer) projecting light. Wood talks about how containers (archive, video) are porous to that which lies outside it, a virtual space.
Kodwo: ‘platformalism’ when platform becomes formalism – ‘TIFF is the artefact that you have and you have to work with that – taking seriously the digital object’. To theorise enslavement is to already be somewhat free from slavery. Cold War and colonialism transition into capitalism – Brathwaite poem – United Fruit Company worked with CIA created a Guatamelan coup, these are the limits of decolonisation since capitalism still manages to roger the South. TIFF is weightless by virtue of its reality as data – this is the promise & threat of the digital.
Anjalika: there is no past or future, just a now imminent / immanent(Vedanta)
Reza: 2 functions of the cave, a political and an epistemological one. Epistemologically, he mentions a drawing Plato describes in a preceding dialogue, 2 lines creating 4 zones – (….),(….),mathematical, Forms. In order for us to see/perceive something (say the Forms) we need something that preceded it (mathematics). The political angle – Plato based the cave on Syracuse, apparently his ideal city. You can only get to the good, but need the imagination to be able to see it (??)
Couldn’t stay for remaining sessions on Keller Easterling, New Red Order and Ruanne Abu Rahme/Basel Abbas (abstracts above)
Who in Italy will have not noted her reliquaries? Vast collections grace even the humblest hamlet — carefully provenanced thumbs, teeth, hair, thorns, fingernails, arms, jaws — all held captive in exquisite vitrines of greenish glass.
Tourists file dutifully past these things, a guilty giggle suppressed – ‘Popish idolatry’. Yet to go to the Basilica of Sant’Antonio di Padova is to see not merely a display of specimens, but sacred objects in use. Tearful pilgrims crowd the back of the chapel, touching the Saint’s sepulchre, some knocking their heads on cold stone. Meanwhile the less devout visitor gingerly steps around them to find the Tullio Lombardo relief. The contrast is stark – desperation born of sickness, juxtaposed with the Instagram-ready culture vulture, ticking off a tourist itinerary.
From what source then derives the power of the relic, and its cousin, the icon? We are assured that Christ and the Virgin Mary were safely lifted into the empyrean through the Resurrection and the Assumption, respectively. Thus, in a historical echo of the Arian Controversy, the question of Christ’s physical remains does not arise and may border on blasphemy. For these principals, it is usually secondary objects — thorns from the crown, nails from the cross, the Mandylion of Edessa — that are venerated.
A supply-demand imbalance presents itself, leading to a panoply of martyr’s remains. Between the years 360 AD to 430 AD, the early Church sought to resolve its foundational disputes, through a string of synods, councils, and diets. It became theologically acceptable to divide up bodies of martyrs, thus causing an extraordinary efflorescence in relics across the empire. In the historian Cyril Mango’s words: ‘regions that had an excess [of relics] could supply those that suffered a deficiency’.
Not only bodily remnants attracted veneration. At Rome’s church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, the Empress Helena (c. 246/50-330 AD), mother of Constantine the Great, brought back pieces of the True Cross, and a great quantity of blood-soaked soil from the Crucifixion. Alexander Nagel, theorising the connections between contemporary land/installation art and Medieval chapels, sees this church as ‘an ancient earthworks project…a piece of transplanted territory, a bit of Jerusalem installed in Rome’. An age of effortless travel makes it difficult to appreciate the impact — most in the congregation would never make it to the real Jerusalem — this was an opportunity for them to visually and phenomenologically project themselves to Golgotha.
Nagel, discussing Robert Smithson’s Non-site works (c. 1968), shows a 6th-century reliquary held in the Vatican Collections. A wooden box contains rocks and a splinter from the Holy Land, inscribed in faded Greek: Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives, the citadel on Mount Zion. The artefacts rest in ossified mud, presumably from Palestine, whilst the cover, designed to slot into the box, features five tiny primitive paintings from Christ’s life. This, the obverse to Santa Croce: instead of an architectural environment transporting the faithful, here a small, rather crudely-made object acts as a visual and haptic aid to the viewer’s imagination.
Neither dismembered bodies nor transplanted land fully satisfied the proselytising needs of an œcumenical church; hence Roman painting was pressed into service. Larger, mobile, and above all, unambiguously narrative, the painted picture could reach far more people, even the dim-witted and unimaginative. Yet, the early Church had inherited the Judaic prohibition on holy images. Over the years, a variety of justifications were proposed: some didactic, others citing as precedent L’evangelista Luca, pittore. Canonical guidance held that religious paintings could be efficacious in intermediating with the Divinity, and could even perform miracles, speak, bleed, and exude oil. Paintings were to be done from life — that is, from direct observation of the saintly subject. When it became obvious that this wasn’t always practicable, a welcome theological flexibility, anticipating the Jesuits, ruled it acceptable to copy from a faithful likeness, subject to certain pictorial conventions being observed. Needless to say, the issue was periodically revisited, not least in the First and Second Iconoclasms (726-787 AD and 814-842 AD respectively), yet the sacred image was never proscribed for long. The drastic contrast between Christianity’s attitude to images, and that of say Islam and Judaism, led the essayist George Steiner’s to observe that ‘Christianity…is a form of polytheism…charged with an awareness of the symbolic, allegoric and the imaginary’.
So far then, the venerated thing, whether relic or icon, derives its agency from physical and temporal proximity, or else a mimesis, to a holy site or person. But how does one go from a smallish, intricately-worked panel covered in a jewelled carapace, and made for private, perhaps rare, worship, to large mosaics and frescoes on church walls? Such architectural decoration is at one remove from the font of spirituality, neither divinely touched nor a directly-painted likeness. Further, large scale makes them expensive, while site-specificity is inseparable with the local population’s ethnicity, customs and politics. Hence we see that the raw, early belief of a besieged sect, Edward Gibbon’s ‘poor and simple’, needs step aside, in order to make way for an established religion, that practiced by the Imperial house — as well as the merchants, bankers, and generals who formed the body politic of, and funded, a far-flung and multi-ethnic Empire. These worthies sought to commemorate their presence, and perhaps, having lived lives of distinctly imperfect ethics, hedge their bets on eternity.
In the exarchate of Ravenna, there was Julius Argentarius, financier of San Vitale and Sant’Apollinaire in Classe. Possibly commemorated in the Justinian mosaic, he lent his name to distinctive long flat bricks known as giulianei. Nearby, in Padova, we find the patron Enrico Scrovegni, fearing for the soul of his usurer father, endowing a small chapel for public use. On the Scrovegni Chapel’s Last Judgement, the torments awaiting moneylenders are exquisitely rendered under Giotto’s hand.
In another Byzantine theme, Sicily, one comes upon the most moving, and visually explicit, of such donative works. At Palermo’s Church of the Martorana, there is George of Antioch, admiral of King Roger’s fleet and successor to the protonotarius Christodulus. George resembles a glittering, cowering turtle, posed as if handing up a tiny model of the church to the Virgin. A similar motif is replicated in Constantinople, at the monastery of St Saviour in Chora, as well as in the Hagia Sophia.
Why these curious images? Are the donations of Late Antiquity a type of contract? Not in the strict sense — after all, two contracting parties should be roughly equal in status, and at a minimum, a contract needs to specify actions by both parties, and penalties for breaches. We would have to wait until the dawn of the Renaissance to see contracts per se: by the 1500s, much Italian religious art appears to have been made on commission, with a written, notarised contract stipulating precious materials, timing, milestones, while leaving, perhaps surprisingly, the precise subject matter somewhat open to development.
More plausibly, one may view these images as covenants, in the Judaic sense. It would appear that the church is being dedicated, financed, indeed physically offered upwards, in exchange for a promise, that of salvation, handed down by a benevolent deity. We do not know how these donations were documented, but contemporary sources give some clue — in the early Byzantine world, charity became a way for an increasingly wealthy Christian class to retain control over society as well as increase social status. The great Bishop of Constantinople St John Chrysotom (c. 396 AD), baldly writes that alms ‘quickly raise human beings to the heavenly vaults’, and constitute ‘ransom from the bondage of sin’. One suspects that a transactional view of charity, and organised religion, was possibly all the more pronounced in the Byzantine milieu owing to caesaropapism: an institutional unity of the secular and spiritual authorities — perhaps discernible today in Russia, heir of Byzantium.
In summary, as the sacred image grows larger and more complex, organisational and pecuniary needs place it in the warm embrace of patronage. The source of its efficacy becomes more bureaucratised and less authoritatively steeped in apocryphal antiquity. From sacred object to devotional image to architectural decoration – religious art in the Late Antique can be seen to be circumscribed within an arc of gold. That arc stretches from the time of Attic tragedy and the pre-Socratics, becomes increasingly secularised and financialised through the ages, and comes down to us as Adorno’s culture industry, insipid and pervasive. The art object, no longer embedded in a people’s belief, metastasises into its own autonomous reality, becoming reliant on global markets in luxury goods and academic theories for value and justification. Against this world where the medium has indeed become the message, a dull knocking of heads on Proconnesian marble, as in Padova, dimly memorialises the archaic and performative origins of art.
Nagel, Alexander Medieval Modern: Art Out of Time New York, London: Thames and Hudson, 2012, p. 112
Mango, Cyril (ed) The Oxford History of Byzantium Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 108
The 2016 quincentennial of Jeroen von Aken’s death has given rise to two major exhibitions – at the Noordsbrabant Museum (’S-Hertogenbosch) and at the Prado (Madrid). Rather than add to the excellent reviews already written, this essay considers the Prado’s Garden of Earthly Delights primarily as a political object. Three 20th-century European theorists of the state frame the work’s patronage, interpretation, and provenance: Giorgio Agamben, Carl Schmitt, and Alexandre Kojève.
The triptych has long obsessed its aristocratic owners and puzzled historians studying it. Unlike its Netherlandish antecedents, The Garden‘s exterior is painted in precise grisaille, enigmatically depicting either the third day of Creation or the aftermath of the Flood. Inside, the left leaf presents a magical Eden, seemingly at the instant following Eve’s emergence from Adam’s rib. Christ, in common with some of Bosch’s other paintings, looks out, firmly yet gently, at the viewer. The central panel’s formal garden is inhabited by a multitude of fruitophages, naked yet guile-less, both black and white, diverting themselves amorously around a lake, surrounded by vegetal pink towers, blue orbs and a host of friendly animals. The less jolly right-hand leaf, a vision of Hell, is centred upon Bosch’s eponymous ‘tree-man’, below whom a diaphanous devil, seated atop a bog-throne, simultaneously ingests bodies and defecates souls. Yet a parsimonious description omits much: what is it about those monsters that grips us so? Why do we, eagerly if slightly shamefully, stare at those scenes of evisceration, limbs being rent asunder, indiscriminate fornication? The scatological merges with the eschatological, leading the viewer to ask – what was El Bosco up to?
Patronage and Image
Bosch’s images, combining detail, vividness and sheer weirdness invite scrutiny and disputation. Yet, owing to a lack of clear evidence or contemporary accounts, it is hard to establish why, or even when, he painted what he did. It has been proposed that Garden may simply have been a moral allegory. Others have perceived an alchemical theme in the work, while the historian Wilhelm Fraenger saw a primitive and promiscuous Adamite cult at work in the painting.
A more interesting interpretation suggests it may have been commissioned, as a teaching aid, by Engelbert II, the syphilitic Count of Nassau for his nephew and heir Henry III. A cultured man, Engelbert had brought Henry to Brussels, and sought to give him a princely education from the Burgundian court’s own excellent library. Books for rulers-to-be are one of the oldest veins of political writing: prior examples are Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (Greece, 370 BC), Chanakya’s Arthshastra (India, 150 BC – 125 AD), or Machiavelli’s Il Principe (Italy, 1532 AD). As befitting the practices of his sumptuously ornate, performative, and visual court, Engelbert may have wanted to supplement his charge’s education with a magnificent image. Falkenburg links the hermeneutics of the image with the content of a travelling library, which included Augustine’s City of God, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. These, and other texts, are documented as accompanying Duke Phillip the Fair, on his journey to Spain, where he would assume, via marriage, his Spanish possessions.
Moreover, Garden was not a static wall-hanging – it was active object of theatre. First documented by Antonio de Beatis in 1517, it is described as a bizarre thing, calculated to induce stupefaction at the intricacy and variety of its contents. One imagines that the austere grey-black leaves would open in front of the astonished viewer, revealing for an Augenblick a tableau of coloured wonders, only to be slammed shut again, leaving him befuddled as to what was actually glimpsed.
So why do I belabour the origins of a 500-year old painting? Because it begs a question raised by Giorgio Agamben on the role of art today. Whereas in the past art fulfilled a clear spiritual vocation, today it has lost this potency, neither threatening the established social order nor bringing forth truth from the shadows. Agamben also discusses the importance of the patron as a co-creator, rather than merely a source of funding. He specifically points to Popes Julius II and Clement VII as being intimately involved — commissioners, collaborators, tormentors — in the Sistine and (Florence’s) Medici Chapels, respectively. In the same way, one imagines senior members of the Burgundian court, documented as reciting poetry to each other, guiding, even hectoring, Bosch to bring to fruition his phantasmagoric work. In our age, when we have neither courts nor court artists, that crucial transmission channel between audience and artist is much more diffuse, largely mediated by the market, mass-culture, and the ideological proclivities of curators and other tastemakers. Thus the artist must create, seemingly ex nihilo, without any urgent and personal connection to a single figure of authority and patronage. Thus, art has been diluted to a matter of tepid aesthetic appreciation on the part of a great mass of ‘culture vultures’: some more, others less, well-schooled in art theory and history.
Who is my Enemy?
One of Agamben’s philosophical antecedents was the conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt, from whom we get a second perspective on Bosch. Schmitt, immensely influential in political philosophy, had a decidedly chequered record in practical politics. Yet his thought cannot be stripped from its context – the fatally-flawed Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, combined with a decadent Berlin, which, while perhaps admired today with the distance of nostalgia, was in stark opposition to the Zeitgeist of a defeated, occupied, and bankrupt Germany. In his world, Schmitt perceived looming revolution, apocalypse, the eschaton; indeed, it is (Christian) theology that drives his conception of the political.
Schmitt’s Hobbesian view on man’s nature correlated with his interest in Bosch, the demon-painter par excellence. The jurist, commenting on Hobbes’ Leviathan, writes: ‘[Bosch’s] devils are ontological reality, not the products of a fantasy or horror; the landscape is hell, whose fire in many places breaks through the veil of earthly colours…’. In his Gombrich lectures on Garden, Joseph Koerner starts with Schmitt’s relationship with this painting. In 1947, as a prisoner awaiting possible trial at Nuremberg, Schmitt is described by Koerner as reviewing and critiquing Wilhelm Fraenger’s iconological analysis of the triptych. In response to the American interrogator’s question ‘Wer bist du?’ (‘Who are you?’), Schmitt responds with his own ‘a priori “Who is my enemy?”’. For Schmitt had built his very definition of politics around the friend/enemy distinction, with its implicit threat of violence amongst groups or nations, without which ‘life…would be shallow, insignificant, and meaningless’.
So, who was this enemy that so exercised the old man from Plettenberg? His writing states that it is liberal society, cosmopolitanism, the consequent dissolution of all values – a possibility he perhaps perceives in the licentious, gluttonous frolicking in The Garden of Earthly Delights. But can we be more specific? Returning to Bosch, in works such as Christ Crowned With Thorns (London, 1479), or Christ Carrying the Cross (Ghent, 1515), we cannot but miss the apparent, yet not definitively identified, presence of Jews and Muslims. Or, in the triptych Adoration of the Magi (Prado, 1500), we see an enigmatic, partially-unclothed, pseudo-monarch (see image below) with an unattractive leprous sore on his leg. This figure is variously identified as the Antichrist, an alchemical representation of lead, or the Jewish Messiah. The ambiguity in these examples illustrate Schmitt’s point that the enemy is not a factual or objective category, therefore an outsider cannot recognise the enemy. It is a classification made subjectively by a group. Logically then, how does the sovereign, or any outside observer, distinguish between the merely different Other (perhaps living alternatively, but ultimately in a reconcilable and law-abiding manner), and the irreconcilable enemy (who acts outside the law in the name of a radicalised religion). It has not been possible, for the purpose of this essay, to establish to what extent Schmitt had seen or written about these particular paintings while developing his theory of the enemy, but one hopes Prof. Koerner will analyse this point in an upcoming book on the enemy in Bosch and Brueghel’s art.
Schmitt also seems haunted by the katechon, an obscure figure from early Christian theology. Katechon, ‘the restrainer’, who keeps Antichrist at bay until the Apocalypse, is never explicitly identified in scripture, and has had many interpretations over the ages. Schmitt himself refuses to specify who the restrainer is, merely citing as one example, the last Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. He seems to view it as a category that, in every age and in various guises, has been a bulwark against chaos.
The nature of katechon is important, because it leads to Schmitt’s other major conceptual contribution – the definition of the sovereign. For if the state is not to descend into chaos, it may be necessary, from time to time, to suspend its normative workings (namely the constitution), and impose rule under an exception. In Schmitt’s words: ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception’. In this sense, the sovereign, by preventing chaos through the instrument of exception, might act as restrainer, in a practical if not necessarily theological sense.
Schmitt’s thought has acquired renewed relevance, in part because other philosophers have built upon it, but also because governments post-9/11 have adopted policies that seem to reference him. Moreover, although Schmitt viewed the exception as a temporary condition, governments have increasingly relied on states of exception or emergency as the ordinary course of business, so to speak. Lastly, Schmitt’s view of a nation and a state that are organised around a friend/enemy distinction, if ever it made sense, throws up particular problems in a multicultural, tolerant society, which the US, UK, EU, and India (to take the most populous examples) identify as. To summarise, while some left-wing commentators therefore view his thought as incompatible with modern democracy, others find a degree of Schmittian influence impossible to avoid, as a practical matter of how a democracy negotiates pressures from competing groups.
Europe’s Unbridged Chasm
To establish our third vantage point, we must step away from Bosch’s paintings themselves, to examine the milieu in which they were created and still exist: namely, a Continent that remains divided between North and South, notwithstanding the EU’s foundational vision of an impartial, technocratic state that would rise above national, linguistic, and ethnic differences.
This post-war environment found a Russian emigrè, Alexandre Kojève working in France’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, planning what would become the Common Market. At a conceptual level, Kojève felt the era of the nation-state was over, and would be supplanted by one of international alliances. In a quixotic yet prescient 1945 memo to General Charles de Gaulle, he predicted Germany as likely hegemon within the new Europe. He also felt that Germany would inevitably fall into an Anglo-American orbit. Germany’s population advantage, proven technological and organisational skill, a Weberian appreciation for work as highest good, and finally a cultural affinity for England, would reduce France to an impotent ‘dominion’ state. He proposed a counterweight – a Latin Empire that would comprise Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy – Greece presumably being left to fend for itself. He next raised a mirror-image of the Schmittian question – what glue would bind the peoples of the proposed Latin Empire, if not ethnicity, nor language, nor religious fervour (France having long become a secular republic), nor a common monarch, nor colonies, not even a rampant American-style capitalism?
Kojève’s answer was a secularised Catholic Church. He envisioned the Church as the historical fountainhead of all European culture, having risen, by the time of the Renaissance, above narrow theology to realpolitik and patronage of the arts, as exemplified in the Janus-faces of the Papal State. Were it to shed its remaining Italian and theological baggage, it might become a unifying cultural force, and thus live up to the full dictionary meanings of the words catholic and œcumenical.
Writing before the messy denoument of France’s own colonial escapade in Algeria, Kojève was relatively silent on how to accommodate non-Catholics – by axiomatically defining a secular Church, he seemed to wave away the question of how Muslims, and others, such as Jews or Gypsies, were to be integrated.
The idea might have remained a curious footnote in the proto-history of the EU. However, in 2013, amidst a continuing crisis in Greece, Giorgio Agamben resurrected the concept of a Latin Empire. Agamben’s provocation caused a predictable firestorm in the German media, to which he gave a rejoinder of wry surprise. Yet, the notion is not as fanciful as it might first seem – although not couched in the grandiose, quasi-theological terms of a Latin (Catholic) Empire, the structure of a ‘two-speed’ Eurozone has become increasingly credible.
What has this to do with Bosch’s painting? At the most simplistic level, the central garden panel may evoke the (apocryphally) care-free Mediterranean life. But the subtlety lies in the left-hand leaf where Christ’s eyes meet those of viewer. Falkenburg extensively comments on this as the spectator being drawn into the speculum of the painting – which one could think of as a personal relationship being created between the viewer and Christ. This, in turn, is essentially the message of the Reformation: direct salvation, with a generous lashing of original sin, bypassing the malefic intermediation of Popes, Saints, indulgences or any of the other panoply of Roman Catholicism. In this light, it is notable that not even a God, seated atop a nimbus of angels, graces the triptych’s interior. Thus this work, painted about 40 years before the Reformation, foreshadows a humanist and anti-institutional perspective on faith.
Provenance also illuminates the North-South divide. In 1567, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba and Spain’s greatest general, was sent to the Netherlands by King Phillip II to crush a growing civil and religious insurrection. Alba’s action in the Netherlands would inaugurate the Eighty-Years War, ending in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia, which of course was the starting point of Carl Schmitt’s analysis of the nation-state. The result of the War are still visible: Protestant Flanders and The Netherlands, Catholic Wallonia and Luxembourg. Koerner, perhaps employing poetic license in his Gombrich Lectures, depicts (Spain’s own) Iron Duke, obsessed by this painting, as declaring a state of emergency primarily to acquire it. Eventually though the triptych ended up in Philip II’s collection. One imagines this most Spanish of monarchs, alone in his monastery-fortress at El Escorial, grimly signing warrants for The Inquisition’s autos-da-fé, his days lightened only by the Apocalyptic visions of an obscure Netherlandish painter.
Notes & References
1) Hieronymus Bosch’s family seems to have come from Aachen, though his name was eventually Latinised and linked to the town in which he worked, ’S-Hertogenbosch. Source: Laurinda Dixon, Bosch (London/New York: Phaidon Press, 2003), 20.