The Canadian Art Database

Miklos Legrady

Walter Benjamin and semiotic art in the age of digital comprehension

[ 1,441 words ]

Published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Summer/Fall 2015.

As artists we’re now too sophisticated to delight in eye candy but we’ve taken the austere to an extreme; we’ve become anti-aesthetic culturati educati! One wonders at art that embraces boredom and rejects sensuality like a Protestant Reformation.  That movement dispensed with stained glass windows to free us from the seduction of the senses. Without distractions we now sit in a room of white walls the better to think about God. The libido or energy from sensation was channeled to intellect, producing a development of intellectual and scientific thought in the 17th to 19th century also known as “the disenchantment of the world”. Today we read that people think too much and have lost touch with their instincts, especially so in the arts where this situation is highly praised.  A review of the current cultural topology says that’s just plain wrong. 

It is no accident that Damien Hirst is a top predator in art ecology. Or that we innocently follow Walter Benjamin forgetting that for a communist writer truth and lies were a matter of convenience in the propaganda written for the masses. So it is today when we are often asked to admire art chosen not for being admirable but to satisfy nepotism or ideology or a curator or jury’s comfort zone.  This can only happen when a field has been hijacked and subverted. Art lost its premise; a loss of instinct typically follows a hypertrophy of the intellect.

Art is a subclass of psychology just like religion. We know that few religious people have had a truly numinous religious experience, now so rare it might as well be extinct. How many cultural workers have known a powerful Eureka moment? Or burned their hands in the lavaesque flow of creativity erupting from unconscious depths? The risks are great.  Nietzsche’s superman fell off his high horse. he cut off his own roots when he denied his dark side. Mistakes were made. Sensibly, few will now rise to heights, plumb their depths, quantify the darkness of their shadow or walk the razor’s edge.  Depths and heights are extremes hard to find in the conformity, standardization and academic leveling of the playing field. Therefore we subscribe to almost anything peer reviewed and superficially consistent even if meaningless, resulting in much art and writing that is lavishly praised and quickly forgotten.

Rob Storr (Dean of Fine Arts at Yale and formerly curator at MOMA) in an interview at Yale University Radio said he doesn’t think an American version of French theory or a Frankfurt school in contemporary art criticism is of much use to anybody. Semiotics founder Charles Sanders Peirce is known as "the father of pragmatism".  Peirce considered himself first and foremost a logician.  He saw logic as the formal branch of semiotics, which foreshadowed the debate among logical positivists and proponents of philosophy of language that dominated 20th century Western philosophy. 

Semiotic analyses are geared to define the known, tools to understand the modality of language, its elements, construction, templates, and relationships.  Yet we read in psychology that intellectual thinking is primarily pre-conscious, does not originate in consciousness, and that our awareness of our own thoughts is secondary. Thoughts are a priori, produced in the depths of the mind by intellectual, emotional, intuitive or other functions, after which those ideas pop into consciousness. This leads to a controversial observation that meaning is hard wired and not something we impose on an empty sign as stated by Peirce. Instead a sign is the concrete form of meaning shaped and altered by events through history, recorded as ancestral memories.  If meaning is not an interpretation but emerges ready-made then consciousness is a superstructure in a larger organization whose members are not all visible yet they are certainly highly active.

Grounded in logic, linguistics theory is therefore inadequate in explaining creative activity, which consists of unknowns characterizing uncertainty and leading it to probability, far from logical because creativity is incalculable.  Art history often shows newer art movements as antiphrasis to the previous; an enantiodromia… when things get to their extreme they turn into their opposite, suggesting a blind spot. Imagine ten thousand graduate painters with a degree in Abstract Expressionism just as Pop Art hit the popchart.  When the ruling principle reaches perfection its antithesis gains ascendancy.  

Logical art was also Walter Benjamin’s baby. He described the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction as an object created by a worker for a consumer, rejecting “outmoded and unrealistic concepts of creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery”.  When people say that genius and spirituality are outmoded this is the quote they usually refer to. Walter Benjamin wrote that personal expression is reactionary since meaningful art is exclusively by and for the collective, the lowest common denominator.  Did anyone really believe that back then, could anyone believe that now? Benjamin described a theory of art "for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art." He assumes “the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value” making art subservient to politics.  Just as the colorblind do not fear red, yellow, and blue, the logician denies feelings, emotions, or traditional values that were never dispensed with, hard as we tried. 

On Facebook a "natural healing cancer" website said apple cider with honey is both a powerful painkiller and a cure for cancer. If you think about that it's ridiculous and deceitful... yet those who shared that page were intelligent people whose critical faculties had disengaged. How did that happen? "Natural, healing, cancer, cider, honey". When associated with health we have feelings attached to those words. One becomes less critical, more forgiving, more accepting, so accepting that someone will believe that eating carrots heals broken bones... until they realise what they’re saying and then they will hate you; you've burst their god-bubble.

Marxism was a foundation for some older artists and professors who now suffer sentimental pangs at seeing gods cast down to the gutter. I'm sorry. Walter Benjamin is a brilliant writer dealing with difficult subjects in a sensible way like a communist ought to. He illuminates historical facts of major portent until you admire how he saw a linear history in a sea of events that confused others. In fact Benjamin is seductively brilliant, we are caressed in the science of his logic unless we have reason to sit up, take notice and ask a few questions.

Someone complained on Facebook of his students objecting to Walter Benjamin. I replied: ”Perhaps your students slag Benjamin because like Marx he’s no longer relevant.  You should surf that wave to avoid being left behind when ideologies bloom and fade. Ideas are answers to local problems but times change and solutions grow stale, corrupt and worn, then die and are buried along with the past.  So your students got wise to Walter Benjamin?  Don't be disappointed but grow with the times else you grow old before your time. You should make an effort, you're not too old to learn...”

Although I hate to hurt anyone’s feelings, Benjamin’s tale consists of flawed assumptions twisting facts and fiction to fit political theory. Benjamin denies individuality; blind to the significance of art he defaults to illustrating Marxism. The contradictions, errors, and leaps of faith are obvious. A historian will remind us that communists saw honesty, truth, and accuracy as decadent bourgeois fallacies, useful but disposable in our goal to instruct the masses. As a communist, Walter Benjamin was responsible to the Central Writer’s Committee and his work had to follow the party line. Although Benjamin’s brilliance and original contribution shines through, he may well have had to denounce such deviationism in self-critical meetings as communist writers did to maintain their standing in the party. Whereas we read “Mechanical Reproduction” as academic scholarship and pure research, in fact it is a severely constrained political marketing tool denouncing individual creativity and promoting the dictatorship of the working class. Steam engines once amazed us but they belong in museums along with the political pretentions of that era, no matter how seductive. One should read Nostradamus with caution. 

Art based on political expediency may rule temporarily yet will be highly unstable and liable to revolution.  Too much simmers behind the scene. As with the communist manifesto, a specter is haunting the art world today - the specter of outmoded thinking. Global culture is in denial but the contemporary art world already has a hole in it big enough for a Roman chariot to drive through carrying Martin Luther waving 99 theses and a church door. Times like these are usually periods of rapid upheaval.  

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Text: © Miklos Legrady. All rights reserved.

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