A strict dictionary definition of pretentious shows that I’m not pretentious. I do not possess even an iota of dignity, as a dialectical materialist I am aware that I, myself, am not terribly important. I’m pompous, that I accept. But I am not pretentious. The only reason I’m highlighting this, aside from whatever vanity is hidden behind it, is to highlight the importance of appearance. This post is concerned with the appearance of art. This post & this post are probably useful to read before delving into the main body of text below.
A comrade of mine (you may find his blog here) recently offered the observation that art appears – to those not engaged in its production – to be both esoteric & accidental. Whilst there is a certain validity in this, it is not adequate apply these terms as an immediate representation of the whole. Considered as a whole, art does not appear to be esoteric & accidental. On the whole, art appears as something very common to us: a commodity.
Art, as a product of human labour, appears to be a commodity bought & sold like any other. Its distinguishing feature, what warrants its identity as a specific field in human thought, is that it only fulfils a human need – possesses a use-value – if it is culturally relevant – i.e. if it reflects the (generally) hegemonic attitude of the class consuming it. ‘Therefore, that which is produced in the sphere of art is a reflection of human relationships: the nature of art is, inarguably, social.’ It is not esoteric in this way, as that would negate its purpose. To the consumer, an artistic product is not esoteric.
There is, however, a contradiction. 1stly, we must recognise that production & consumption are intimately linked. The exist in a dialectical unity. 2ndly, whilst the artistic product itself does not appear esoteric, its production is profoundly alienated from this consideration. The production of art appears to be utterly incomprehensible, as if 1 were dealing with magic. The production of art appears to be esoteric. Equally, this esoteric appearance to the production of art – the artistic labour – creates the appearance of accident. If artistic production itself is incomprehensible, the individual/group engaged in this production cannot be understood as acting consciously. Instead, those dealing with the “magic of art” are doing so by accident; they are “divinely inspired” & their labour is purely spontaneous. In more or less equal measure to its appearance as esoteric, the production of art appears to be accidental.
It is this contradiction in the appearance of artistic product & artistic labour that is central to an understanding of art in general. The contradictory appearance of art in our society is what leads artistic discourse – especially discourse regarding art-as-protest – astray, down into dead alleyways filled by decadent & rotting idealism.”Artists” themselves resolve this contradiction – as the mode of productive artistic labour cannot appear mythical to them – by assuming an air of supreme importance, propagating the notion of art-as-accident in order to preserve the notion of art-as-esoteric.