Who is the Avant-Garde Spectator?
In his book ‘Secret Publicity’ Sven Lütticken outlines an account of artistic and intellectual movements to the (desired) forging of a new or radicalized public sphere in relation to the ‘marginal’ or intimate events and appearances of counter-strategies. The avant-garde dream of effecting actual socio-political change through the art-life paradigm is the central point of debate in his thought, especially considering that many contemporary art practices are contingent on an ethos of re-enactment of sorts, of such ideals, forms and modes of distribution located within avant-garde tactics. Lütticken firstly reinvigorates the term ‘publicity’, which has now becomes synonymous with advertising or PR, to it’s original connotation, which is what we would now name ‘public-ness’. He calls on this double significance of the term to address both the public sphere and the media driven apparatuses in becoming ‘visible’ within said sphere. Historically speaking, the efforts of Bataille (and, often, the surrealist project) are of particular focus, in his going underground, forming of secret societies and obscure publications – in the words of Lütticken, Bataille used “secrecy as a weapon rather than a retreat”. Further, Bataille grew spitefully critical towards the Surrealists in their inability to actually ’surrealize’ (and perhaps ’sacralize’) an increasingly consumerist and rational public sphere. What Secret Publicity investigates and questions, in the most general way, is the operativeness of the marginal, semi-private activities, images and discourses and their affect (or not) on what Lütticken names the creation of ‘counter-publics’.
What is left hanging in the discussion is the situation of the spectator within an avant-gardist aesthetic strategy. If the avant-garde’s desire is to tangibly infiltrate the sphere of the lived, and effect change therein (and not the bubble of an art-world) what is the presumption as to the plight or potentiality of the spectator? Does the inability of the avant-gardist project to effect real, social change outside the discipline of art and intellectual circles, (to a large extent), point to an inherently flawed depiction (or under-evaluation) of the spectator herself? Lütticken, does argue that, to some degree, the avant-gardist project completely succeeded, in the sense of infiltrating the real-life spectacular society, where contemporary art is no longer so easily distinguishable from fashion, pop-media and the like – artists often use such every-day modes of disseminating their work outside of a conventional gallery structure – this is already old news. The ‘success’, of the avant-garde, in this sense, is, of course, a cynically perverted one. The large question begets the artist as to what sort of assumptions one places on her prospective audience or spectator? Could this form of relationship with a presumed and largely, imaginary spectator constitute an ethical seat of the authorial act, the authorial gesture.
Rancière’s ‘Emancipated Spectator’ (the full length book, and not merely the Artforum article), which argues to a large degree from the perspective of the ‘Ignorant Schoolmaster’, and Jacotot’s ‘experimental pedagogy’, obviously has a lot to offer to this trajectory of discussion, but I’ll have to save that for a later date once that text is properly digested. Nonetheless, there is a strong Kantian bond in the perception of the spectator – one taken up by Hannah Arendt in her ‘Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy’, that could be mentioned here, that re-examines the ‘activity’ of the spectator and spectating. Kant takes up the old philosophical debate: If the actors are acting how are they able to perceive what is it they are doing? How can they perceive of their own affect when they cannot observe themselves? This is a simplified paraphrasing, but it’s hopefully sufficient to get the point across. Kant’s position on the matter, is purely in the court of the spectator:
“The general viewpoint or standpoint is occupied, rather, by the spectator, who is a “world citizen” or, rather, a “world spectator.” It is he who decides, by having an idea of the whole, whether, in any single, particular event, progress is being made.” – Arendt 1992: 58
“…in Kant the common distinction or antagonism between theory and practice in political matters is the distinction between spectator and the actor, and to our surprise we saw that the spectator had precedence: what counted in the French Revolution, what made it a world-historical event, a phenomenon not to be forgotten, were not the deeds and misdeeds of the actors but the opinions, the enthusiastic approbation, of spectators, of persons who themselves were not involved.” – Arendt 1992: 65
Arendt’s interest in pursuing the Kantian spectator is towards the development of a concept of freedom contingent on the faculty of thought that occurs in the formation of judgement – an argument that presupposes a ‘sensus communis’ (a fundamental plurality, a common ‘sense’), a judgement which ‘…weighs the possible judgments of an imagined Other…”.
I realize that these are very unfinished thoughts (typing while thinking so to speak), and with so much discussion placed on the spectator, one cannot of course forget to mention the co-dependent relationship between both actors and spectators – there must be indeed something to spectate in order to activate the possibility for judgement and communicability that creates a community of sense. Nonetheless a point of departure for more in depth reflection to come. But one that starts to pull me in the direction of seeking a perception of the spectator, outside of the ‘normalized’ futility of the ‘culture of critique’, as a wholly contingent, and often neglected, character in the theatre of appearances, a figure that must be imagined and accounted for in any authorial gesture.