Issue #28 The Time That Remains, Part I: On Contemporary Nihilism

The Time That Remains, Part I: On Contemporary Nihilism

Sotirios Bahtsetzis

Issue #28
October 2011

Art is the distinctive countermovement to nihilism.

—Martin Heidegger1

In the late 1970s Aldo Rossi wrote: “Now it seems to me that everything has already been seen; when I design I repeat, and in the observation of things there is also the observation of memory.” Ever since the neo-avant-garde assumed a position of dominance in the 1960s—a period that eventually coincides with the canonization of modernism and the entrenchment of mass culture—art doesn’t necessarily have to appreciate “good” taste. However, it should be able to fully embrace its perverted double: that is, bad taste. Surrealism, Pop art, and diverse schools of painting from the Fauves up to today endorse this view.

Lady Gaga performing at the L.A. MOCA's 30th anniversary, on a grand piano painted by Damien Hirst.

A critical application of taste against the grain thus becomes the conceptual tool of the modernist artist. In other words, artists have internalized Madame de Sevignés’ over-sophisticated attraction toward bad taste. Let us think of Dada as delivering the epiphany of such a constitutional change. That change is exposed nowadays not only as the self-reflective appropriation of low culture in art, but also as the appreciation of tasteless advertising, pop songs, and banal decorative items within appropriation art. The blasé, eccentric, post-Warholian man of taste is actually an artist of deliberately bad taste, precisely because his or her officially acquired and publicly acclaimed tastefulness functions, primarily, to assert taste in a negative manner. In this case, it is the work of the artist as someone who applies his or her taste criteria in order to make art—in reality, a critic or the critic as an artist—that is charged with identifying bad taste, thus creating a canon of good taste by way of its absence. This is a canon that can never be openly presented or argued as such; it is not a normative canon but rather its hidden negative and often deliberately ambiguous counterpart. And, since the 1960s, the conceptual training offered to artists in art-world academia is synonymous with the professionalization of this coy and self-reflective attitude of self-promotion as a tastemaker within this particular set of rules concerning aesthetic judgment within negativity. For art audiences, the almost schizophrenic dichotomy of being presented with both art films and commercial, mass-produced blockbusters of bad taste—this “most painful split”—is reflective of the predicament of the contemporary man of taste who is exposed to modernism’s alienating forces, even as he is nurtured by them. Marx himself was similarly exposed to these forces while he was in the process of demonstrating the vulgar and superstitious nature of modernism’s fetishes.2 The radicalism of the 1960s has attacked the effects of culture industry and the neoliberal worlds of consumption and spectacle, while the postmodern appropriation of the 1980s has embedded their terms into the jargons and protocols of recent art. If bad taste is the recurring double of good taste, then it is there in order to somehow purify art to a mere Kantian aesthetic enjoyment. Within the fragmented, playful and incoherent flux of aesthetic modernity, it is exactly the exposure to the trivialities of the commodity that secures the purity of our aesthetic norms. After the Hegelian declaration of art as a thing of the past, art exists only as aesthetic judgment, such that any work of art functions as an occasion that urges us continually to distinguish between art and non-art, and thus allows for a continuous scrutiny of the status and definitions of art. Pop art and its variants assert this condition, and aesthetic production consequently becomes the reproduction of an aesthetic canon that is simply another opportunity to exercise judgment, “a privileged occasion to exercise …. critical taste.”3 Contemporary art’s various conceptualisms bear witness to this fact.

Dash Snow, Hamster Nest, 2009. Performance.

But in doing so, they also establish another understanding of both value and history. Modern art finds its true ratification in negative determinations, either in its aesthetic norm or in its cult of form and early modern traditions (such as the dogma of radicalism and its fetish for novelty). Modernism constantly demands that the maker resituate the work in a historic line while declaring such a historically situated culture to be insignificant—at least for his or her own work! Over time, the constant introduction of aesthetic-political utopias and ruptures resulted in a decoupling of art from any direct and real-world consequences, and served to turn every instance of artistic production into yet another chapter in the history of art. In this respect, the contemporary role of the artist as a historiographer is an indicator of what Agamben, drawing on Hegel, has identified as “the dialectic of honest and cowardly consciousness—which is in its essence the opposite of itself, so that the first side of the split is permanently destined to succumb to the second’s frankness.” And he concludes:

but what is interesting to us here is that Hegel, wanting to personify the absolute power of perversion, chose a figure such as Rameau’s nephew, as though the purest form of the man of taste, for whom art is the only form of self-certainty as well as the most painful split, would necessarily accompany the dissolution of social values and religious faith.4

The fetishization of taste as the absolute ontological horizon of the modern liberal bourgeois subject has enormous consequences for the psychology of contemporary artists and viewers. Such a culture of not making a choice, the culture of “everlasting discussion of cultural and philosophical-historical commonplaces” that perpetuates the cultural status quo could be easily aligned with Carl Schmitt’s conservative political vocabulary as a state of “radical indecisionism.”5 For the political theorist, it is because the bourgeoisie is unable to cope with social conflict that it always defers to the rule of the proper sovereign, who, in Schmitt’s definition, “is he who decides on the exception.”6 The relation between the individual and the common (or subjective and objective—the main problem in Kant’s Critique of Judgment) is significant as it touches on the question of the transition from aesthetics to politics and vice versa. The Kantian criteria for the beautiful and the sublime in fine art come from a reference to a constantly presupposed “sensus communis,” a community of taste, which as Derrida observes, Kant refrains from ever analyzing.7 The argumentative horizon of Kantian aesthetics remains the persona of the “genius,” the talent to generate aesthetic ideas. The community of taste is thus the outcome derived from the decisive figure of the man of taste—paraphrasing Schmitt: the one who decides the exception. The initial conflict between reason and nature seen by Kant is similarly resolved through the synthetic activities of the man of taste as the representative of aesthetic objectivity in general: a magnificent edifice of political decision-making! The perverted, late capitalist version of such an engagement with art—the disinterested attitude, Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience—always demands its pre-validation not by the historical Other (for Kant the ahistorical, subjective-universal judgments posed by the genius), but by contemporary society’s proper neosovereign rule: that is, the globalized and institutionalized managers of taste, the individuals nurtured by a depoliticized and fiscalized society.

Dan Colen and Nate Lowman, Wet Pain, 2008. Installation.

It is through this perversion that the contemporary “homo aestheticus” is born. The new non-Promethean artist, a mixture of Faust and the clown Falstaff, is an artist of absolute “open-mindedness, endless appropriation, and flexible Witz.8 He exists hand-in-hand with a narcissistic viewer of self-indulgent and smart cynicism. Both figures obviously represent the most common strategy for survival in the present. This is a fundamentally modern technique in which life is reduced to a novel claim to a mode of subjectivity distinct from that of Romanticism and totally alien to the ancient world. The homo aestheticus must continuously examine a subject matter that is mundane, and exercise—not exorcize—bad taste. Duchamp and Warhol are, for different reasons, the major precursors for this mode of being. The privileged material and content offered for artistic treatment in this case is simply the artist’s own presence, a value-generating presence, or—in the vocabulary of the late-twentieth century—the artist’s own “performance.” The formal conceptualization of performance contained in the notion of artist as persona—understood both in aesthetic and, most importantly, in economical terms as both self-presentation and economic efficiency—inevitably insinuates art into the commercial discourse of self-promotion. Artists as different as Warhol and Beuys concur on this point. The persona of the professionalized artist of endless reinvention, the bureaucratic corporate artist who renders himself an institution, is in this way completely immune to any form of institutional critique applied to him. And this is precisely the “conspiracy of art,” that Jean Baudrillard questioned: the privilege of the art world to not critique itself as established during the twentieth century by its own practitioners.9 Interestingly enough, the only possible critique within the contemporary art world is often a subtle type of self-censorship, silently established by the rules of the market. The reason is simple: the figure of the contemporary artist offers an extremely direct means of translating personal performance to both monetary and symbolic value. Warhol’s statement, “I want to be a machine,” is a statement that has been internalized by the self-assertive persona of the corporate artist (itself an image of bad taste) who has shed modernism’s concern with the manufactured status of the work of art in the industrial era. Instead, this statement lays bare a kind of indifferent subjectivity derived from the instrumental rationality that produces artworks, which are now understood primarily as monetary assets. In this regard, the financial credibility of an artist is pivotal in the era of “casino-capitalism,” because the symbolic and even the ethical value of a work of art is triggered and sustained mainly by financial speculation. In Warhol’s jargon: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.10 Warhol’s machine statement is thus best understood as, “I want to be an ATM.”11 Nihilism is another name for society’s drive to repeat itself and perpetuate its structure and ideology.12 The tendency to historicize is the emblematic symptom of this condition. Stock markets attuned to contemporary art, the explosion of contemporary museums and their satellite branches, corporatized displays of private art collections and the growth of art fairs since the 1990s all fixate symbolically and financially on the aesthetic conditions of “now” while simultaneously historicizing them. Historicization is most significantly evident in architectural postmodernism’s tendency toward stylistic eclecticism and replication. If we look at architecture in the endless metropolitan sprawls around us, we see only reiterations of the heroic age of modern architecture. Historicizing modernism means conspiring against its own existence while creating a consumable “cultural heritage” that serves only corporate clients of the “neo-International Style of the type of Sir Norman Foster.”13 (How symptomatic it is that examples of early modernist architecture, such as power plants, industrial complexes, and so forth turn into the most advantageous and accommodating containers for the public exhibition of contemporary art once they are deprived of their original function.) Yet, beyond the highlights of star architects, architecture in our everyday streets consists of boring, prefabricated, not-really-functional but functionalist, high-tech blocks of concrete, iron, and glass! These blocks make visible what is somehow concealed in our museums: that we already live with “future ruins!” The only way to survive within this condition of vulgarized architectural modernism is to continue romanticizing these future ruins, to speak with a tone of sentimentality about the “patina of time” engraved in the concrete modernist blocks of the streets of Manhattan or any Western European city and its global replicas! This type of architecture is exactly the symptom of this forced and inauthentic historical memory. And it is precisely the repetition, the figure of the undead, that, as Agamben observes, describes the actual ontological condition of contemporary architecture and art:

Art does not die, but, having become a self-annihilating nothing, eternally survives itself. Limitless, lacking content, doubled in its principle, it wanders in the nothingness of the “terra aesthetica,” in a desert of forms and contents that continually point it beyond its own image and which it evokes and immediately abolishes in the impossible attempt to found its own certainty. Its twilight can last more than the totality of its day, because its death is precisely its inability to die, its inability to measure itself to the essential origin of the work.14

Is this passage not only a succinct account of contemporary art, but also an ideal description of the very essence of the ideological system of our times, that is, a description of capital? It seems that contemporary art and late capitalism derive from the same ontological conditions: accumulation, consumption, and continuous repetition, which come together to create the promising phantasmagoria of an ahistorical present.

Reena Spauling's website image.

Modern nihilism operates on a specific dimension of temporality: the absolute way to accumulate is to promote a constant renewal, a repetition that preserves only those parts of the past that serve the transient needs of the market, while simultaneously conceiving that past as a causal sequence of events mechanically leading up to an oblivious present. Historicizing a lifeless past goes hand-in-hand with prolonging the present into the future. Contemporary art, the trans-conceptual and trans-historic artistic idiom of our time, thus manages the replication and variation of an immediate past, preserving only the ruins of modernism. Historicizing then becomes the mirror image of an atemporal historical condition. However, it is important not to confuse the messianic temporality, as understood by Agamben, with the atemporal clutter of the abolished present: in other words, the theology of capital. (The abolished present refers always to an atemporal fetish: in political Islamism it is God; in tectonic fascism it is Race; in Gnosticism it is Evil; and for neoliberal capitalism it is capital. Contemporary credit rating agencies [CRA] are the only remaining theological instances of modernity that measure our credos in the form of credit: the act of belief is only possible as an act of trust understood in financial terms—fiat currency turning to acheiropoieton gloss?) We can twist the argument even tighter by finding the historical moment at which this kind of temporality was initiated, at the dawn of modernity: Hasn’t this circle between the modern and ruin already happened? Indeed, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, which describes life in the mummified Paris of the nineteenth century, is the perfect setting for such a reading of history.15 Benjamin’s concept of history—as an angel that always looks backward while being pushed on the wind of progress—perfectly captures the condition of our own nostalgic cultures. But we should also add that the movement of the Benjaminian angel is not linear, but circular: a constant, repetitive revisiting of the same through different periods. Benjamin’s concept of historicism runs parallel to his concept of a compulsion for historicizing and repetition that seems to derive from aesthetic considerations.


Martin Heidegger, Nietzsche, Volumes One and Two, trans. David Farrell Krell (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 73.


We can also argue that, rather than simply denying commercialism and the industry of the spectacle, the ‘conceptualism of bad taste’ engaged—at least in the best-case scenario—with them in an attempt to avoid the alienation of working within a rotten system by actively occupying a place of negativity within the same system. To embrace the fascination that the commodity engenders doesn’t necessarily mean simply to be uncritically fascinated by this absolute fetish, ‘the idol of the marketplace,’ but rather to mirror the previously described dualism or polarity that roots modernity’s formative schism between bad and good taste: art as commodity versus art as critique of that commodity. Actually it was Karl Marx himself who claimed that commodity is something very like a work of art, contemplating on its mystical, enigmatic character and its transcendent being. Bad taste can expose the triviality and alienating nature of commodities, only if it takes seriously its mysterious life and aura. Bad taste has an investigative, almost hermeneutical character. Marx himself is a ‘man of taste,’ which claims for him the right to uncover the scintillating nuances of commodity between alienating fetishism and truth. See Karl Marx, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), I:71.


Agamben, ibid, 41.


Agamben refers to Rameau's Nephew, an imaginary philosophical conversation written by Denis Diderot, in which the figure of the protagonist functions as a man of extraordinary taste and at the same time “a despicable rascal.” Agamben, ibid, 26.


Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Cambridge Mass: MIT Press, 1988), 65; Stathis Gourgouris, Dream Nation. Enlightenment, Colonization and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996), 21.


Schmitt, ibid., 5, 12.


Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 35. Talking with Derrida, within the entirety of the surrounds of the work of art (frame, title, signature, museum, archive, reproduction, discourse, market) the most significant one, the predominant “parergon,” remains the aesthetic judgment.


Agamben, ibid, 19.


Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art. Manifestos, Texts, Interviews, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2005).


Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again),(New York: Harvest, 1975), 92.


Indeed, it seems that Nietzsche’s take on composer Richard Wagner can be seen as a crucial critique of art’s condition today that links conceptually Wagner’s profile to the one of Warhol: “In his art all that the modern world requires most urgently is mixed in the most seductive manner: the three great ‘stimulantia’ of the exhausted – the brutal, the artificial, and the innocent (idiotic).” Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Case of Wagner,”,in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1968), 622..


The advent of nihilism with the man without content should be associated with what Jacques Lacan has called the fundamental tendency of the symbolic order to produce repetition, which has been terminologically fixated as modern society’s “death drive.” The death drive for Lacan doesn’t mean the same as it does for Sigmund Freud. It means the prolongation of the already existent and monetary accumulation is its symptom.




Agamben, ibid, 56.


It founds its precursor in the reading of seventeenth-century Baroque as a critical moment in the eruption of modernity and its successor in the avant-garde artistic movements of the twentieth century. Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity (London: Sage, 1994), 4.

Aesthetics, Modernism, Contemporary Art
Temporality, Subjectivity, Nihilism
Return to Issue #28

To be continued in “The Time That Remains, Part Two: How to Repeat the Avant-Garde”

Sotirios Bahtsetzis is a writer, curator and educator based in Athens and Berlin, with a PhD in Art History (Technical University of Berlin). He is an adjunct professor in history of modern and contemporary art (Architecture Department, Patras University, Architecture Department, Thessalia University and Hellenic Open University). Between 2002 and 2004 he has taught History of Culture and Visual Culture in the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at the London Metropolitan University, UK. Between 2005 and 2006 he has been researcher at the Athens School of Fine Arts, Greece. In 2009 he was a Fulbright Art Scholar at Columbia University, NY in the United States. Curatorial work includes "Paint-id" (2009), an exhibition on contemporay painting in Greece, "Women Only" (2008), the first exhibition on post-feminism in Greece, "Open Plan 2007," the first international curatorial project of the Athens Art fair, and the exhibition "An Outing" (2006), the first major exhibition on contemporary young Greek art.

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