Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, and the Post-Structuralist Nightmare (Part 1 of 2)

Posted: October 31, 2011 in My moral code, On Beauty
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

It was 1978 when I began to attend California Institute of the Arts as a music composition student. From the standpoint of money making capacity I’m quite certain that was not the best decision. I’d probably have lots more money if I’d done something like a business degree at Harvard (a program and a school which I’d never have gotten into anyway and at least I acknowledge it). But from the standpoint of critical thinking skills and the broadness of experience, I will never regret the time I spent at that institution that I so deeply love.

I don’t know now, but 30 years ago CalArts was an entire institution devoted to modernity. Dancers danced modern dance. Filmmakers made experimental animation. Painters were abstract painters. Theater directors directed modern plays. And, in the music school we had no Jazz program but we had a world-class 20th century music ensemble, an amazing percussion program, 3 analog electronic music studios, and some of the world’s most respected faculty like Mort Subotnick, Mel Powell, Nick England, Lucky Mosko, Barry Schrader, Lee Hambro, and on and on. In other words, we were ALL about contemporary art.

One of the greatest things about CalArts was that you could not get out of there without learning about disciplines other than your own. You couldn’t get a music degree just by studying music. You virtually HAD to be interdisciplinary in some way. In my case, I spent part of my time in the film school with Gene Youngblood, Michael Scroggins and Ed Emschwiller; and some of my time with John Brumfeld and his “Topics in the History of Photography” class. I also had the very great honor of working together with, the now well known conceptual artist, Stephen Prina on a project that the institute funded precisely because it was interdisciplinary. But, in addition, one of the basic premises of the institute was that, regardless of your specific discipline, everyone had to take these classes called “critical studies”. That meant that you couldn’t be a filmmaker, or a painter, or a sculptor, or an animator, or a dancer, or a musician, without knowing the basic history of every discipline in 20th century art. This is why CalArts was such an amazing place to learn to be a critical thinker. I remember well that the first paper that I ever wrote for a critical studies class was (very pretentiously) called “Anti-Teleology in Modern Art”. Of course it did not take a genius to discern that the 20th century was an entire generation devoted to the destruction of teleological art. That was easy. What was more difficult and more surprising was to learn everything else that had been destroyed during that century. I think it’s telling (in, to my mind, a bad way) that the 2 texts I most remember from those days were called “Marxism and Art” and “The Social Construction of Reality”.  Just the titles of those 2 textbooks should tell you where I’m heading here!

Among other things, the greatest mode of “destruction” of the 20th century was the transformation of the romantic notion of “art as inspiration” into the ultimately postmodern notion of “art as an anti-realistic, anti-rational expansion of creative process”. In painting for example, Picasso, was arguably the greatest master of composition in the 200 years surrounding his life. But, 20th century aesthetics let that fact be, not only necessary but also, sufficient for him to be considered a great “artist” not just a great “painter”. In literature, Joyce’s “Ulysses” (which I admit that I love even though I’m using it as an example here) is considered a great “novel” even though it purposely has a trivial plot about trivial people on a trivial day in a trivial world and is built from virtually incomprehensible language. By virtue of contemporary aesthetics, Joyce’s “creativity” and “imagination” (both arguably valid aspects of Joyce’s work) permitted those characteristics to be, not only necessary but also, sufficient for him to be considered a great “artist” not just a unique “writer”.  Later in the century, John Cage’s 4″33″, better known as “silence”, was actually considered, by virtue of 20th century aesthetics, to a viable piece of “music” even though it was nothing at all. (now I have to admit that it’s the one piano piece that I can play well. But…. who cares!) Along the way, many very beautiful things were created. But, in the 20th century, “beauty” was an “artifact” not an “objective”.

This brings us to the words “not” and “objective”. Which brings us to the word “subjective”. Which brings us along a path from a Kantian to a Post-Structuralist worldview. Which means, I propose, that the 100 year transition from beauty and inspiration to ugliness and manic-depressive, cynical, despair is the result of the intellectual flow from Kantianism to Post-Structuralism – or stated more personally – from Kant to Lyotard and Derrida and Foucault. I’ll honestly admit that I like much of the art that has occurred along the path. But when we’ve ended up with people preserving sharks in formaldehyde and calling it art, I have nightmares about the future.  I’m not sure whether philosophers would call these phenomenological nightmares, semiotic nightmares, hermeneutic nightmares, or aesthetic nightmares. But they scare me and, for better or worse, I blame that fear on the acceptability of irrationality, of subjectivity, and of philosophies that promote constructing reality based on linguistics rather than on sense perception. In other words most of what I fear is the fault of Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, and their followers.

In part 2 of this post, I’ll share what the Post-Structuralists say and do and, specifically, why I don’t like it. Stay tuned.

  1. The 20th century opened with a heady feeling of progress into utopia. there was nothing we wern’t going to be able to do. The entire century has been a nightmare. If art is to be great it has to tell us not soothe us with romantic beauty, however much we love it.

    History is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake. – Marx

    I find Foucault accurate and inspiring about the future, not where it is going, but how to play our part in it now that he has lifted the veil from our faces. He himself was extremely active. Bernard-Henri Levy is active. Zizek is active. DeLillo is active. And they are all post modern thinkers. And they are all different.

    It is good you have nightmares about the future. That is the realistic way to look at the future that is rushing towards you. Don’t kill the messengers.

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