by ALAIN BADIOU
artworks by ISA GENZKEN Installation views of 75 / 75 at Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 2023, curated by Klaus Biesenbach
A major figure in French philosophy, Alain Badiou revolutionized the field by defending universal truth, confronting existing ideologies, and offering fresh perspectives on love, politics, and art. He proposes a new definition of contemporary art as a transformative force.
I would gladly define contemporary art as the experimentation of displacement, the realization of a displacement within the realm of the sensory itself. In this case, the movement of artistic creation is twofold. First, we have something like a local event, an event that locally interrupts the repetition of the world’s law, and then we have the possible consequences of this event. Creating a place and giving a form to this part of the world in which the law of the world is currently without any effect.
The general idea of contemporary art would be this: to assert that it is possible to replace the abstract force of the law, including the scientific law of the functioning of the world, with the positive existence of new forms. I think that is what art is, in a certain sense, and always has been, but contemporary art is exposed to this.
Art is when, in reality, we substitute the abstract force of laws with the singularity of a form. When we place the singularity of a form somewhere in the order of the world governed by laws. I think it is a very ordinary experience. When suddenly, at the turn of a road, we see a magnificent church emerge on the side of a hill, it is a displacement. Something is there that didn’t have to be there, and yet, it is absolutely there. And so, a form that is recognizable and, at the same time, absolutely new stands in the space of nature and law as an exception to this law, an exception entirely supported by the power of the form. Ultimately, this new form installed in the old world, which has been exempted from its law, does not represent the future of the new world. It does not represent the new law. That, the future, the new world, is a political question. We touch here on the difference between politics and art. I would say that art always consists of proposing a localized exception to the laws of the world, while politics, at least on the level of the human world, has the ambition to change its laws itself.
That is why there is always a discordance between politics and art, which is that politics would ask art to serve the generality of its enterprise. But art cannot really do that. Art is an enterprise in a certain sense just as profound but completely differentiated, which is to install, somewhere in one of the places of the world, a new configuration that will forever remain a displacement. The work of art, as a complex of subtraction and formalization, is not the creation of a new future. However, it may be a proposal to await the future.
I think that’s what truly fascinates us in artistic contemplation. You know, when we contemplate a magnificent painting or when we hear a sublime musical work, what exactly happens? First, it is an absolutely local situation in time, in space. It is here and for a time. But what happens there is that it locally represents what could symbolically be a future that would be like a grace given to the world itself and to that place in the world.
This grace given to this place in the world — we would like to settle there and wait for the future appropriate to this place. That is why I believe that in the eyes of politics, art can have a prophetic function. A prophetic function is always a localized function. The prophet stands somewhere and says something, but in this case, this expectation of a future displaced from the dominant laws of the world is, I believe, the function of art; it is the prophetic function of the arts. In other words, the purpose of art is to declare that ultimately, a new world is possible. That is the displacement of the boundary between the possible and the impossible, which is accomplished by the work of art in a localized manner. Politics itself will be confronted, at the level of the organization of society as a whole, with the same question of displacing what is declared possible by the dominant order to what is declared impossible, but it does so at the level of the laws of the world itself, whereas here, it is done by displacing a place in which it effectively instills the formal promise that a new world is possible. Thus, the arts, I would say, open a path and provide new means to wait without despair.
The contemplation of art is always that: an expectation that is not one of despair. Politics finds it more difficult to wait. The waiting is more burdensome, and when we know that it is very long, it becomes very difficult to organize. That is why politics, particularly in the contemporary world, is subject to the law of action, circulation, and profit. Politics is often obscure, uncertain,
or absent, and it can rely on art temporarily due to art’s capacity to displace at a point, at a place, in a perception, in a moment, the possibility itself of what was held in impossibility by the law of the world.
From there, I believe that we can extract from contemporary art and the maxims of contemporary art something that pertains to ethics — an artistic ethics that would be an ethics of waiting, not exactly of the political order, but rather of what we can call a meta-aesthetics or an ethics of art itself, or ultimately an ethics of the contemporary. This aesthetic ethics of contemporary art would consist of four principles.
The first maxim would be not to position oneself — never to position oneself — on the side of the system of possibilities as it is introduced and affirmed as irreversible by the contemporary world. This is a maxim of art derived from my definition of contemporary art, but it can ultimately be a maxim for everyone, whether or not they are engaged in art. Do not align yourself with the definition of the possible and the impossible as constituted by subservience to the existing order. Put simply, do not rely on general communication; do not rely on what is universally communicated, but instead seek to interrupt this communication. According to this maxim, it is always possible, even at a single point, to interrupt the power and violence of universal communication. This is what it means to create. The imperative would be: create, where you can, something incommunicable, something that no communication can pervert or annihilate. It also means don’t be too democratic, if democracy is defined as absolute freedom of communication.
But absolute freedom of communication is, in reality, the reign of communication and thus the reign of the masters of communication.
Therefore, this maxim should push you further in the direction of realizing, as far as possible, the experience of interrupting dominant communication as a promise of new possibility. Don’t imagine that one can participate with impunity in the supposedly free play of this universal communication.
The second maxim would be a praise of abstraction against the universal apology of the concrete. Because in line with what I am saying, contemporary modern art is necessarily abstract, as I have defined it, in the sense that it abstracts from all objects, images, and languages that are subject to the dominant sharing of the possible and the impossible, and therefore subject in reality to the logic of the global market, or more simply, to financial communication. There, formalize this active abstraction at a certain point. Give form to this abstraction that is something, a creation that is subtracted from the imperative principle of general circulation and presence in the universal market.
The third point is that contemporary art, as defined, cannot demand to be constituted from a fixed starting point. There will always simply be a series of local interruptions of communication as the starting point, which may not be immediately unifiable but are all localized somewhere and, at a certain point, shift the boundary between the possible and the impossible.
In other words, there is no general starting point. This has led to a critique that I will not delve into here because it would require a separate discussion, of the old concept of revolution. The old concept of revolution is a political concept but has also existed as an aesthetic category — artistic revolution, political revolution, etc. — which consists of rallying around a universally accessible starting point, a starting point that constitutes the possibility of deploying general power. I believe that today, at least, such a starting point does not exist, and that art, instead of seeking a common starting point, should make the nonexistence of such a starting point visible, creating a void where the supposed starting point would have stood. I think this is what governs the formal principles of contemporary art. Contemporary art is also an effort to make visible to everyone’s eyes, to everyone’s thoughts, what does not exist for the dominant world and globalized capitalism. I believe it is better to do nothing than to contribute to making visible what the dominant world already recognizes as existing. Aligning oneself with dominant visibility is a point from which one should withdraw if possible.
If you make something visible, let it be something that can exist under the law of the impossible to see, from the perspective of the circulating dominant order. It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal paths if they only serve to make visible what the dominant world acknowledges as possible.
Finally, the fourth maxim would be as follows. Today, as you know, the contemporary world is ultimately assured of its capacity to control the realm of the visible, the audible, and communication through the laws governing commercial and financial circulation. And it may have come to a point where this world cannot censor anything. It cannot censor anything because it is assured that censorship is indeed useless. Its own existence, its way of organizing giant circulation, renders any restrictions essentially useless. From this perspective, a metaphor for the modern world is that a space constituted and declared as a space of freedom, unlimited exchanges, planetary camaraderie — such as Facebook — is a machine for creating the wealthiest billionaire on Earth. This should, however, raise questions about the freedom at stake in this matter.
That ultimately, all the possible exchanges that Facebook offers are even remarkably for free, so you can go ahead and say whatever you want. The final result, the financial result, the only real outcome, is to have created the world’s greatest fortune for the executives of Facebook. You enter there for free, and how is it that on the way out, you have a billionaire? What happened between the two? You were sold, plain and simple. It’s called data. You were sold, your participation in this affair was sold. Your particularities were observed. They saw how you conceived the possible and the impossible. And based on this valuable information, they can somewhat modulate the operation of their machine. But it’s a magnificent example of how control over subjectivities is somehow carried out with the consent of those subjectivities themselves. So, it presents itself as an exemplary democratic apparatus. No censorship, except for horrible things, racist things, fascist things. And even then, when you look at it in practice, it’s very weak, practically no censorship.
And thus, ultimately, this is an authorization given by the dominant power: the economic power to consume, to communicate, and to enjoy. And I believe that under the conditions of contemporary art, any art, any thought is inevitably destroyed if one accepts this authorization given by the very organization of the possibility to consume, to communicate, to enjoy, and to think whatever we want — only, of course, if you use the specific machines through which all of this, like in a vast funnel, ends up being converted into financial form for the true master of the planet. Instead of rejoicing that there is no more censorship and considering that as true freedom, freedom of opinions, I propose that we become merciless censors of ourselves, that we become our true censors, that we become the censors of our voluntary or involuntary belonging to the twilight world of financial communication, and that ultimately, in the movement by which we aim to locally and artistically displace the border between the possible and the impossible, we are deeply mistrustful of what we ourselves are. And today, all art is compelled to first be suspicious of the artist.
Excerpt translated from “Du moderne au contemporain: L’art, ou la possibilité de l’impossible” (“From modern to contemporary: Art, or the possibility of the impossible”), a Conference-recital by the philosopher Alain Badiou and the pianist Jean-Paul Gasparian, 2019, Brussels.
[Table of contents]
editor’s letterRead the article
by Daniel Pinchbeck
by Paul B. Preciado
cover #1 cindy shermanRead the article
best of the season f/w 23-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
art or the possibility of the impossible
by Alain Badiou
cover #2 milla jovovich in gucci f/w 2023-24
photography by Cameron McCool
evgeny morozovRead the article
cover #3 aylah peterson in prada f/w 2023-24
photography by Reto Schmid
cover #4 john giornoRead the article
photography by Ethan Skaates
mariko mori, the unseen power of energetic fieldsRead the article
cover #5 margaret qualley in chanel f/w 2023-24
photography by Jeremy Everett
de wain valentineRead the article
cover #6 zegna x the elder statesman f/w 2023-24
photography by Olivier Zahm
interview by Oliver Zahm & Aleph Molinari
what climate collapse asks of us
by Bayo Akomolafe
cover #7 gabbriette in guess usa f/w 2023-24
photography by Richard Kern
cover #8 minttu vesala in balenciaga winter 2023
photography by Juergen Teller
cover #9 mariana arias in dior cruise 2024
photography by Olivier Zahm
cover #10 saskia de brauw in fendi f/w 2023-24
photography by Brett Lloyd
cover #11 caroline polachek in givenchy F/W 2023-24
photography by Kira Bunse
cover #12 carsten höllerRead the article
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by Val Plumwood
anthea hamilton “mash up”Read the article
interview by Aleph Molinari
charles rayRead the article
cover #13 louis vuitton pre-fall 2023
photography by Takashi Homma
interview by Olivier Zahm & Aleph Molinari
hinako, the rubber queen of tokyo
interview by Bobbi Salvör Menuez
cover #14 hari nef
photography by Steven Klein
hour of the wolf
photography by Robi Rodriguez
the idiots revolution
by Byung-Chul Han
cover #15 melvil poupaud in dior men f/w 2023-24
photography by Ola Rindal
cover #16 marie-agnès gillot and charlotte dauphin in valentino f/w 2023-24
photography by Andrea Spotorno
cover #17 loro piana f/w 2023-24
photography by Dario Catellani
cover #18 emmanuelle lucianiRead the article
cover #19 sascha rajasalu in saint laurent f/w 2023-24
photography by Esther Theaker
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
interview by Daniel Pinchbeck
“what can the body do?” with georgia bryan
photography by Dana Boulos
fashion factionRead the article
cover #20 moncler karakorum f/w 2023-24
photography by Henrik Purienne
find each other
By The Invisible Committee
cover #21 dash snowRead the article