Art Without Sublation of Art.
Keti Chukhrov

The text was first  published within conference Art as Commitment, that took place in december 2013 in Ljubljana. The conference was organized by Igor Zabel Association for culture and theory and Moderna galerija + Museum of contemporary art Metelkova.  The text was translated for Praznine by Nejc Lebar.


I Contemporary art and the moment of actuality.


Hegel in his Aesthetics declared the demise of art due to its intellectualization, theorizing, abstraction, and detachment from matter and from the dimension of the sensuous. This was because in art truth could only be claimed via sensuous means. The utmost goal for Hegel was the absolute spirit; hence, he did not see the demise of art as something fatal. Therefore, he shrewdly predicted the sublation of art’s sensuous merits in favor of abstracted scientific or philosophical notions, since notions became better transmitters of truth. Aesthetics could easily be sublated in favor of truth articulated in philosophy. Although Romanticism’s tendency towards abstraction terminated with a lengthy period of realist art in the mid 19th century, art entered the 20th century with an explicit determination to abstract and theorize. In fact, modern art had been ‘art after (or instead of) philosophy’ much earlier than Josef Kosuth proclaimed it to be.
Meanwhile Marx, unlike Hegel, did not think that science or theory could touch upon reality better than art’s sensuous means. According to Marx’s rendering of his aesthetic aspirations in his ‘Holy Family’, it was not only logical thinking that was the goal of history, as Hegel would insist, but also the sensuous and material forming of nature and the development of the productive forces of humankind. In relation to this goal, all else – conceptual thinking, logic, and art – were simply the means, not goals in themselves. A human being in this case is affirming oneself not only via thinking, but also via all the senses and capacities.


Nevertheless, we all know what happens in modernism: on the one hand, there is the recurrence of conceptual, theoretical, and speculative values of art; and on the other, the development of affective, physiological, unconscious, and irrational practices which, although they belong to the sensations, still develop ‘under the gaze of theory’– as Groys states in one of his recent texts.[1] This means that both cognitive and sensuous aspects of art are viable for contemporaneity, but they happen to be separated. Moreover, when radical empirical phenomena are presented in artistic practice – be it the body, subversion, or forms of life – they represent certain conceptual or theoretical standpoints, at least implicitly. In the aforementioned text, Groys accounts for this: contemporary art detaches itself from the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but remains a theoretical and cognitive practice as opposed to art’s sensuous parameters as they used to be.


Interestingly, in socialist philosophy and aesthetic theory of the 1960s and 1970s (in the works by E. Ilyenkov, J. Davidov, M. Lifshitz), the sublation of art by philosophy and theory as described by Hegel was explained by the emergence of capital and the spreading of bourgeois interests and economy. The notion, the concept, the speculative parameters were obliged to abstain from the world because the capitalist economy and capitalist production did not provide an adequate material correlation with the concept. And hence it is only natural that, since the 1840s, it was the revolutionary discourse that brought back the capacity to reclaim realism and the dimension of the sensuous in art. When using the word ‘sensuous’, it is important to keep in mind that this is not feeling, emotion, performance of something transgressive, an affect, or something sensual rather than intellectual. For Hegel, the sensuous means embodying the idea or the concept – i.e., the convergence of the conceptual parameters with the material ones, the meeting of notion or idea with the matter or thing.


There are innumerable examples of living experiences in performance and actionism to claim back contemporary art’s sensual merits. But to reiterate, the life experiences in contemporary art are represented in the frame of the theoretical mind, which in turn is less and less concomitant with the way modernism or conceptualism reified the concept. Art ‘ends’ because its essential message is constructed and produced by intellect, by the theoretical mind, but in case of contemporary art this is not even idea, mind, – rather intellect, speculation or theory.


However the viability of many modernist, avant-garde and conceptual art-practices didn’t just reduce its practice to theoretical mind, but it also deplored such condition and subverted the   inevitable totality of theory into a negative gesture, into the moment of actualization, – a critical moment of kairos. [2]


It is in this moment that the intensity of a modernist and contemporary art-piece resided. The moment is negative because it has to do with the collapse of perception and of hermeneutically biased capacity to understand. But by means of certain, almost impossible, cognitive leap the understanding and misunderstanding coincide in such “happy” moment in favor of some supra-cognitive paradoxical moment.


Actually the reason why contemporary art excelled over all other artistic genres and appropriated the right to be called art (we do not call film, theatre, music, poetry art any more) is that it compressed realization of artistic contents, of an art-work and its impact into this cognitive, critical moment, – sometimes reified, sometimes not. Modernist, as well as contemporary art-work is instantaneous, momentary, no matter how long it lasts. It is not based on perception, but on a heuristic grasping of that very conceptual instant – be it articulated via material form, conceptual statement, affective experience, transgressive act, or speculative ruminations. But while conceptual paradigm in art emphasizes the impact of the cognitive, semantic and intellectual components and tears away from sensuous contact with the reality, the conceptual procedure in it is still not an idea, since its episteme is not philosophy, but post-philosophy, – the art after philosophy.


In her book “Originality of Modernism and other Myths” Rosalind Krauss [3] made an attempt to discover a specific semiotic paradigm that defines conceptual thinking and its paradoxical dimension. She refers to the signification system of Charles Sanders Peirce in which Index is the second category in the triad of Icon-Index-Symbol. Index represents not a mimetic, but a dynamic correlation of two elements, of two signs or of a sign and the object, – as with a footprint, or a pointing finger, or a trace of bullet in the window.


Index is not in need to symbolize or resemble. No matter what the conceptual work concentrates on – pure text, documentations, interventions, ready-mades – the prevalence of index semiology makes conceptual work a machine, that always preserves the gap between the two correlated elements. What is important in the indexality of a conceptual work is this disjunctive gap, despite the act of correlation. The two correlated elements point at each other but remain disjunctive. That is, the third element, symbol, idea – that otherwise would symbolize or lubricate these two is absent. This is to be said just to emphasize that the conceptual paradigm and its indexality is not an idea – since idea is something that needs to unfold dramatically, dialectically, antagonistically, i.e. needs sensuous embodiment. This means that in conceptualism idea is turned into speculative proposition, paradoxical in its tautological literalness, rather closer to language philosophy, than to the idea in dialectics. Such semantic disjunctive gap causing the failure of interpretation is that very specific moment, interval, hiatus, kairos, that matters for modern and contemporary art – the moment of actualization when understanding is impossible and the consciousness makes an impossible cognitive leap to grasp the otherwise cognitively ungraspable gap. This leads to the collapse of temporality, that used to be indispensible for sensuous involvement in favor of that very negative instant.


The conceptual intensity of modern and contemporary, as well conceptualist art proper, resides in speculation around this gap. But when art dispenses itself of this negative moment, then nothing remains but theoretical genealogy, positivist sociology, cognitive routine, that is neither sensuous, nor philosophic, nor conceptual, but involuntarily becomes part and parcel of contemporary cognitive capital.


II Commitment or Autonomy?


The reason why the issue is no more about the choice between the two options – abolition of art via political and social commitment or art’s autonomy – is that, in fact, both of these approaches epistemologically reside in theory: the first approach is reduced to theoretical routine – because of ignoring the instant of cognitive explosion in art-piece, brought about by modernism; and the second – because of speculative reenacting avant-garde’s constructivist heritage in completely anti avant-garde political setting. So, both – engagement and autonomy – often happen to be the two sides of the same coin.


According to the accepted stereotypes autonomy is formal, and the engaged art-practices are socially effective. One is a modernist edifice, another is the paradigm of avant-garde.


On the other hand, the autonomous art–objects had always been claimed by its adherents as symptoms of the economic and social context. The more aesthetically opaque and complex they were the more they could in this oblique way diagnose the historical and social context of the capitalist contemporaneity. And this was the argument of Adorno as well as of Lyotard.  But such bond with the reality had to be nihilist and negative, and could be sustainable only in its radical indigestibility as opposed to capitalism’s libidinal economy. Again, such indigestibility is constructed not by aesthetisizing formal merits, but via inserting that very moment of kairos into the piece. And here Adorno often contradicts himself. On the one hand he tries to preserve the mimetic merits for an autonomous art-piece: it should be an antithesis to capital, but nevertheless remain in the bourgeois interior dialectically, sublating this interior via the intensity of the specific formal particularity of an art-piece. On the other hand when he refers to the examples in new music his negative dialectics becomes not only negative, but nihilist and anti-mimetic. I.e., the truly modernist negative move can only be self-destructive, can only bring to the hush-up, to zero, to end, to the end of the artistic; because the capital can only allow the impossibility of the artistic, its collapse, and the negative mimesis of that might also in the end become an attraction, unless the negation is complete.


Do quasi–autonomous works of today fit into such negativity? – No. They are circulated, digested, often commodified. Even though they might be complex in form. The art of extreme conceptual severeness or of radical formal paradoxality is hard to produce now, no matter how strongly we want to retrieve art’s autonomy. Practices of circulation evict the possibility of an incommensurable semantic paradox in art.


On the other hand, the Schillerian aesthetics applied to contemporary art – as Rancière attempted to do this – is only abusing the mode of Kantian aesthetics in relation to non-aesthetic contemporary art practices.[4] The aim in this case is to endow the works with anti-aesthetic genealogy, with the pleroma of a pre-modernist work of art. Only what goes unheeded in this case is that the sensuousness of pre-modernist art does not at all presuppose its being the edifice for aesthetics.


As for the committed quasi avant-garde art-practices, their engagement could also often be claimed formal since the social and political phenomena are sometimes rendered in them in a detached and sensuously uninvolved way, only this estrangement is not even realized by its producers. Such social work – let’s take projects by A. Žmievsky, S. Sierra, K. Šeda – does not accomplish dissolution in collective consciousness, or in the life of those to be monitored. Moreover, often politically engaged works retain their power due to their negative modernist ‘trick’ in them – that very instant of kairos, which often the artists do not acknowledge or realize in their positivist optimism of  “improving the society”.


Thus the autonomous art is digestible, democratized, whereas the committed art often reproduces the political agenda tautologically or formally: it neither alienates social and economic alienation as Lyotard demanded (because it doesn’t want to be in the adornian modernist paradigm any more); but it is not able to de-alienate either, because that presupposes the act of metanoya – involving one’s life and fate into the Real.


III. Genealogy of Anti-modernism.


Let’s now refer to the former socialist interpretation of certain issues of Hegel’s aesthetics, accounting for why sensuousness is indispensible for art. I refer to the theory of realism of Michail Lifshitz.


In his work “Aesthetics of Hegel and Contemporaneity,” Michail Lifshitz, the Soviet theoretician of realism, defines art as the sensuous consciousness of truth. However the truthfulness of art derives not from “the correctness of the artist’s consciousness, but from a lively sense of reality.”[5]


Implying Hegel’s aesthetics Lifshitz uses the term “Human Resignation” borrowed by him from Russian literary critic V. Belinsky. This term is a paraphrase or synonym to sensuousness.


A realist act, as Lifshitz understands it, would be not so much to make a declaration against the oppression, nor to just naturalistically document or depict the denigrated, but rather to enter into that miserable life sensuously, so as to bring this up to the level of the general forces of humankind. But to repeat again, sensuous involvement would not mean the nominal presence in the problem zones. It is not so much about any empirical sharing of certain experiences or rendering them, but rather about the evental encounter with the phenomena or with the happened that changes the producer in some sort of metanoiac transformation imprinted afterwards in the art-piece.


Realist art never refers to itself.  It happens to be artistic only in order to become no more and no less than the means to touch upon life. It doesn’t need to reflect on itself. Actually the term classical that often stood in socialist aesthetics for the realist doesn’t so much presuppose the order, but rather that very “human resignation” which can only unfold as Hegelian sensuous engagement with reality. The big paradox here is that the modernist art that is addicted to its own self-abolition is permanently preoccupied by itself, whereas realist art that actually makes use of explicitly artistic (non-naturalistic, non-documentary, gnomic) means is never overtly showing that it is artistic, because its preoccupation is the genetic bond with reality. Realist art, by contrast, articulates and reveals the event extrinsic to itself, and only thereafter becomes a work of art, while modernism as a whole and often even the avant-garde are constructed in terms of them themselves being their own event— event residing in their own languages, methodologies or activist procedures.


By the term “Human Resignation” Lifshitz criticizes “the pride and arrogance of the bourgeois-democratic finite consciousness”[6] that rises up against certain phenomena with the aim of resolving the contradiction, but without observing and experiencing the true complexity of the circumstances.


Resisting alienation with its criticism, or with its more extreme form alienation became a focal point of a contemporary art’s praxis of resistance. However such an approach blocked out any effort to conceive the situations, existences, that might have escaped the logic of alienation —those that might have been de-alienated. Constructing de-alienation in the conditions of social and economic alienation was often regarded in contemporary art as kitschy, poppy, un-critical, – as an affirmativeness of ideology. However, even when de-alienation is not possible socially and economically it can nevertheless evolve sensuously, i.e. artistically. Actually, sensuous relation to reality already generates the potentiality of de-alienation. Therefore the argument of the antimodernist theory developed in the frame of socialist ethics was that regardless of capitalist economy the possibility of de-alienation retains relevance for art, although it might require incredible ethical efforts. However positing de-alienated interests means not just utopian reproduction of the imaginary states of de-alienated situations. Not only should the artist produce the conditions of the experience of life in a de-alienated state, but s/he has also to sensuously live them and thus enforce the intersection of the experience with the idea. [7]


Generally speaking, sensuousness in art is about the existence of other human beings, whereas the negative moment of kairos touched upon above is about reified concepts.


Alienation was the complement of capitalism long before the emergence of modernist art, and the question that socialist aesthetics puts is why the realist artist was making an effort to search for art’s de-alienating potentialities despite the harsh alienating conditions, whereas the modernist artist rejects such potentiality altogether. Maybe, because paradoxically, the modernist or contemporary artist not only despises the alienated world in rhetoric, but also unconsciously finds libidinal attraction in it, – a key double bind in Western art since Baudelaire. That is the reason why post-Stalinist socialist artistic practices in cinema, literature, and drama were shifted onto realist experiences. In such paradigm the style, form, and methodologies were not particularly innovative or original. What was specific to this art was the depiction of concrete situations of de-alienation in the society, in human relationships, and the sensuous involvement into them. Quite the contrary was the case in modernism, where the contents collapses, while the subjective methodologies and languages become the constantly innovated matter.


It might seem that the avant-garde’s focus on the renovation of the means of production was completely irrelevant in post-Stalinist Soviet art. But in fact, the reverse is true: it was ethical behavior, that became a much more crucial means of production than innovated technical means or aesthetic devices. This stance paradoxically refers to both – the avant-garde’s as well as early Marx’s – aspiration to initiate change not only in the technology and infrastructures that society produces outwardly and externally, but also by implying such change in the human being and human society inwardly, i.e. via sensuous parameters, – the transformation of consciousness.


Interestingly in the Russian avant-garde’s sublation of art – along with the initial tendencies to merge life and artistic production – there was an important discovery that the artistic subject is collective, this collective subject is proletariat and that one needs to undergo the sensuous transformation into that collectivity: i.e. such transformation has to take place eventally.


IV. Human Resignation as Ethical Edifice


The term “human resignation” in the writings by M. Lifshitz had to emphasize the ethical dimension of Hegel’s notion of sensuousness. But at the same time it was aimed to dispute the approach to emancipation exercised by avant-garde’s constructivist wing and to blame it in the exaggeration of the role of biopolitics and social engineering: in the constructivist practices the issues of organization, systemic arrangement, or biopolitical management prevailed over the very procedures of life or reality. Even though the avant-garde made its own attempt to merge art with life when disputing modernism’s nihilism and hermeticism, it instead often rather superseded life with itself, turning life into creative production, but without first taking the time to see what life itself might have actually consisted of.


The logic of constructivism was the following: if life consists of exploitation, injustice, and humiliation, isn’t it preferable to eradicate these phenomena immediately, to recode and to reorganize them, rather than reflect, live through, or observe and study.


As a result, reality was often taken for an artificial project of constructing that very reality. In this situation there can be no such thing as objective reality. In its project of construction and modernization, constructivism and productivism superseded the temporality of a given reality with a technical reorganization of the social surrounding as if it were a matter; so that reality itself became no more than infrastructure or an art-practice. Here we confront a strange paradox, much discussed in the prose of Andrey Platonov, which belonged to the avant-garde’s prolet-cult wing and in 1920-s shifted to the new early anti-Stalinist Soviet realism.


What Platonov depicts in his novels is precisely the outcome of this kind of reconstruction and engineering. People who engineer and construct consist of flesh, of soul, of a yearning for love, of exhaustion, of loneliness and anguish, of a fear of the mechanized labor, and of the senselessness of existence. As a result of this interweaving of the organic and the inorganic it transpires that the real is not a construction at all but a painful convergence of a big future project and frail bodies, exhausted by labor. And all of this is not seen as just a demiurgic project undertaken by artists, engineers and inventors, but an inseparable point of contact between those objective processes of life that tragically surpass the technical plan, and the technology of its implementation. Platonov was exactly the figure that used to be that part of the avant-garde project, which took the program of art’s dissolution in life not so much as a new biopolitical assignment, but rather as an ethical act of becoming the proletarian by middle class intelligentsia. Becoming was necessary as long as there remained any workers, any proletarians at all and as long as any division of labor sustained. So apart from biopolitical motivation there was the ethical motivation for Russian avant-garde’s entanglement in life. The question that Platonov puts is whether such dissolution is a new project of organization, or an act having the afore-mentioned sensuous and metanoiac impact.


And this sensuous rather than constructivist attitude is precisely what is meant by Lifshitz as the merit of realist art, paraphrased as human resignation. Such attitude presupposes self-refusal, self-resignation, an act of modest withdrawal, even humbleness.


What Lifshitz means here is that truth in art can never be consciously planned or implied, but nor is it a product of the uncontrolled unconscious. In art intention recedes in the face of realization, which is much more dependent on objective reality, than the personal imaginary. The artistic image (hudozhestvenni obraz) deals with reality, and often does so often across the head of the producer, even contrary to the producer’s intentions.[8]  The truth is not in the head, it is in the world.


Anyone adhering to leftist standpoints would counter this: how can art, and artistic gesture imply humbleness and quietism? However, the realist artist does not deal with resistance by imitating or mimicking the languages and intonations of protest. To engage in resisting procedures it does not suffice to imitate images, forms or actions affiliated with the way resistant spirit is imagined, but rather to carry the cruel data of life through mind and senses.


For this reason, Lifshitz even defines revolution not in terms of a romanticized breakthrough of sovereignty, and not as the act of a protesting subjectivity rising up against history, but as an act revealing the rules of objective historical development. He writes: “Revolution is a lightning, interrupting the quantitative potential line with the appearance of actual infinity. It confronts the consciousness with what exceeds its limits and gives a human being an understanding of one’s deeds.”[9]


Human resignation brings a strange understanding that when individual personality recedes, then reality is revealed, and that reality cannot be reconstructed or changed unless there is an effort to understand and sense it.


This is exactly what is meant by human resignation. Resignation in this case does not imply abstaining from battle, but instead the rejection of an arrogant attitude to the contradictions inherent in the real, – not supplanting them with personal desires, biography, senses, methods, traumas, psychologies, etc.


The capacity to step aside from one’s subjectivity inherent in human resignation amounts to an indispensable ethical act, that enables to show how others are, and to mark out not only what is to be done but also what has happened – what was the event extrinsic to the work of art. This has nothing to do with the absence of the author in post-modernist literature. The matter at hand is a different kind of resignation, which gives priority to the expression of the event at the expense of recession of the self, and which does not proclaim the supremacy of a particular artistic method as the pivot of historical development. Instead, in realist art (or classical art, as Lifshitz would put it), this modesty is the starting point. For example, a contemporary artist, despite critical convictions, very explicitly exposes a personal strategy with pre-packaged and resolved concepts, with utter self-confidence, and with an awareness that the work encompasses a whole range of problems of contemporaneity. In the framework of this strategy it is forbidden to doubt one’s own activity, even when the artist claims complete negation of art as a strategy, or claims one’s own frustration and failure.


The realist artist, by contrast, considers his or her own artistic activity by ousting and disregarding it, and remaining quite aware of the futility of artistic means to address reality. The art is futile, it is not able to emancipate and it is exactly the desperation of realizing its futility that can bring to the hope for emancipation. That is because event and reality always exceed any work of art. But, nonetheless, the work of art is inevitable, because only art is the means to refer to the event.


Now, if we return back to contemporary situation, the question would be whether art should go on with the paradigm of theoretical mind, putting forward intelligences and cognitive and technological know-hows, which by now lost their instant of kairos? At the same time in the absence of general program of social and economic de-privatization what today stands for the continuation of emancipatory avant-garde aesthetics in contemporary art is part and parcel of cognitive capitalism’s modes of production. But the problem is also that the speeds of circulation and exchange of contemporary capitalist economy are in fact more subversive, creative and paradoxical than art’s interventions into it. So, when following the cognitive path art can not but be subordinate to cognitive capitalism’s accelerative stream. Art that is based either on intervening into social infrastructures or generating machines of intelligences lags behind in comparison with contemporary economy, because capitalist economy has appropriated so many components of speculative maneuvers: it is more machinic, more externalized, more speedy in terms of circulation, more creative in terms of both generating infrastructures and then subverting them. It excels over artistic practices exactly in those fields that art appropriated as its own at the expense of getting rid of sensuousness and metanoia, but as well ignoring its negative modernist genealogy too. So that the difference between art and capital is in ethics, but it is exactly the ethics that art dispensed itself of, in favor of either competing with the technocratic efficiencies of progress or in favor of profaning capitalism’s alienation with even harsher estrangement.


If pre-modernist components are not possible to be revisited at all, if on the other hand the radical moment of kairos is removed from contemporary art practices too, then art dissolves in various modes of creative activities and capital in its own turn becomes more and more artistic. Therefore today the watershed would be not so much between art’s political commitment and autonomy, but rather between the episteme of contemporary art (which in its striving for biopolitical efficiency fell into the trap of unconsciously reproducing capitalism’s interfaces and its infrastructures) and the evental and sensuous rendering of the happened that contemporary art had voluntarily discarded.



However, if we remember that the episteme of contemporary art had emerged from art’s paradoxical survival in the conditions of its complete withering and impossibility, it is more likely that along with the false democratic and populist spread of contemporary art practices there appear the new radicalizations of art’s overtly negative genealogy. Only they will either have to evolve on the margins of global democratized art, or disguise their negativity or subversive intensity by goodwill rhetoric.

As for  the episteme of sensuousness it will further remain detached from cognitive and technocratic fashions and develop somewhere in the shadows of contemporary practices since all artistic edifices – from theatre/dance to film will try to abide as much as possible to the episteme of the withered but  none the less sustainable contemporary art institute.


[1] Boris Groys, ‘Under the Gaze of Theory’, in e-flux 35:


[2] See Valery Podoroga. Kairos. Critical Moment. Moscow, Grundrisse, 2013. “The Importance of  kairos is in the fact that it actualizes time, casting it away from  the habitual paths. But even more important is its instantaneity, which defines the moment of actualization, always explosive and sudden, opening the rupture, the breach in the world. This happens even when kairos breaks forth to us via complex form or via artificial obstacles. Kairos is interesting by its dubiousness: as the occasion, and as the act-instant, as the principle of actualization of an artistic gesture.”. P. 12.


[3] Rosalind E. Krauss. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 1985. Ch.2. Towards Post-modernism. Notes on Index.

[4] Jacques Rancière. Aesthetics and its Discontents. Polity Press, 2009. Chapter “Antinomies of Modernism”. Pp.61-107.

[5] M. Lifshitz “Aesthetics of Hegel and Contemporaneity”. In: Michail Lifshitz.  On Hegel. Moscow: Grundrisse, 2012.  185-249.

[6] M. Lifshitz. On Pushkin, Letter to Friedlender, 1938.

[7] Actually the convergence of the idea and the sensitivity was exactly the merit of the pre-modernist art to which we now ascribe the quality of the classical.


[8] E.g,. Andrey Rublev was making icons and depicting sanctity of holy characters, but de facto he revealed something that Lifshitz calls “disinterested benevolence” in human character and human beings, – thus transmitting the sensitive experience of real existence instead of establishing the canon of the sacred. M. Lifshitz. “On the Arguments on Realism”. In: Michail Lifshitz.  Ancient and Contemporary Mythology. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1980. 498-545.


[9] Ibid. 134.