I feel the need to preface my second manifesto by informing the reader that I do not see myself as an artist. While I find questions of aesthetics and representation interesting, I like to play with their meanings/manifestations on a theoretical plane, using words as my tools and argumentative schema as my techniques. The result is not an artistic creation, but instead an interpretation (hopefully a theory one day) that, far from a definitive statement, serves only to reorganize preexisting questions in a way that leads to more questions.
I understand myself as a critic who takes in information and attempts to organize it in new ways, by pairing empirical data with different systems of thought/ philosophical assumptions/ theoretical models. In my use of the word “critic,” I refer to one who critiques e as opposed to one who criticizes. Whereas a criticism structures its understanding of that which it attempts to criticize on an oppositional scale of “good” and “bad,” a critique looks at the multiple components of that which it is critiquing and only endeavors to structure these components in a multiplicity of different ways. A critique “problematizes,” rejecting the absolute singularity for the problematic multiplicity. Consequently, I am a firm believer in the existence of many truths, and, while I have yet to discern exactly what Deleuze and Guatarri mean by it, I still attempt to understand the world “rhizomatically.”
All this being said, I currently find myself looking at the world through an anthropological lens. As such, the relationship between a work of art and the society(ies) in which it finds itself is something I find worthy of exploration. These explorations should be guided by questions regarding the cosmological, ritual, functional, colonial, individual, societal (etc.) context of the work of art in question.
My Ars Poetica is less about who I am as an artist, and more about what interests me about art/how I have come to understand art. I primarily focus my musings on Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” as I feel as though he addresses some of the aspects of art I find most interesting (spatial/temporal context, authenticity, function, reception). From Benjamin’s essay, which concludes in the projection that politics will become essentially aestheticized through the “Fascist” apotheosis of war, I will look at how understandings of art/aesthetics can influence how we look at contemporary marginalized societies still cognizant of their indigenous roots.
- The Work of Art (before) the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Prior to mechanical reproduction, a work of art had a function/value primarily founded in ritual. A work of art was unique, according to Benjamin, in that it was “inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition.” Furthermore, these unique works of art were authentic. This authenticity, in the words of Benjamin, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” From Benjamin’s definition of authenticity it can be inferred that there was an inherent authority in these works of art. They were outside of the realm of human intervention, their power and beauty were intrinsic and transcendental, founded in the relationship between the work of art and the ritual/tradition of that society. This authenticity and “permanent” uniqueness composed the “aura” of a work of art.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Art)
Original or authentic art, according to Benjamin, cannot be reproduced. Mechanical reproduction (as exemplified via photography and film) strips a work of its “aura.” In “prehistoric” (Bejamin’s term) times, there was an absolute emphasis on the cult value of art that made it into an instrument of magic (only later was it considered a work of “art”). Benjamin argues that the contemporary (1940s) world puts an absolute emphasis on the exhibition value of art, which creates a work of art with entirely new functions (one of which is the “artistic value.”) Photography and film are examples of this new function.
The combination of this emphasis on exhibition and the new technologies of mechanical reproduction (photo/film) has led to the circulation of millions of images which lack their authentic “aura.” This affects and is the effect of changing social conditions in which all previously unique and sacred institutions have become equal. As Benjamin argues, the push of the masses for mechanical reproductions is the “mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction.” According to Benjamin, as the authenticity of a work of art has ceased to be of import, the total function of art becomes reversed. Instead of art being based on ritual, it begins to be based on politics.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Politics)
In the absence of an “aura” images are reproducible and politics, according to Benjamin, faces the chance of becoming aestheticized. He finds examples of this in the Futurist writings of Marinetti, and the Fuhrer cult of Germancy, in which ritual values are produced through aesthetics rather than the opposite. Benjamin hypothesizes that war may serve to supply mankind’s “artistic gratification of a sense perception,” that the self-aleintation of man may reach such a degree as to be able to “experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order
- Mankind Able to Experience its own Destruction as an Aesthetic Pleasure of the First Order?
I want to look at Benjamin’s idea of the aesthetization of politics as the aesthetization of violence, focusing on the prominence of lynchings in marginalized indigenous populations of Bolivia. I want to create an argument in which “art” (the aesthetic) is ithe violence itself: the mutilated bodies of lynched victims. The “artist” is the mob who lynches, whose intent is to contest their marginalized status (social, economic, territorial).
The lynchings are spectacular in the grotesque level of violence that characterizes them. Victims are stoned, beaten, mutilated and burned alive in an extremely public fashion; entire communities participate in the lynchings. This spectacularization of violence, and the terror it produces, result in memories that are physically embedded in those destroyed bodies. The bodies themselves become a representation of not only the violence of the lynching itself, but also the violence that prompted it: the structural violence characterized by the assymetrical power relationships upheld by the neoliberal model adopted by Bolivia in 1985.
Another method of interpreting the lynching violence as artistic, is in its treatment as a site of mediation between global flows and local practices of tradition. Those involved with lynchings, both the perpetrators and the victims, are primarily Aymara or Quechua people who have recently moved to Bolivia’s urban areas as a result of the nationalization of the mining industry. Lynchings may be perceived as an indigenous communities attempt to define itself. It embodies both “traditional” indigenous practices such as justicia comunitaria as well as neoliberal values such as privatization (in this case the privatization of justice/security). By seizing power over life itself in such a violent and spectacular way, these communities may hope to redefine themselves as products of neither their indigenous blood and “traditional” practices nor as “ordinary” citizens of neoliberal Bolivia, but instead as sovereign and dynamic subjects.
This idea (violence as a means to transform victims of colonization into sovereign and dynamic subjects) was originally introduced to me by Achille Mbembe, in his essay “African Modes of Self-Writing,” in which he broke war into three characteristics:
- state of indistinction
- Terror; spectacularization of violenceà memory “physically embedded in bodies marked with signs of theor own destruction”
- sacrificial dimension
- Self-sacrifice and massacre; “through sacrifice, the African subject transforms his or her own subjectivity and produces something new”
- relation to life and property
- Goal is “seizure of power over life itself”
- By “upholding the work of death” people may feel themselves transformed into sovereign historical subjects, according to Mdembe.
- state of indistinction