An Aesthete’s Lost War

*Originally published in Avant-Post, ed. Louis Armand (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2006) 85-113.

It is a critical commonplace to observe that, following the procession of one ascendant modernist art movement after another, today the cluttered multiplicity of artistic production institutes no single prevailing orientation. Incorporating bio-tech experiments in genetic manipulation (Critical Art Ensemble) as readily as ancient Chinese traditions of fire-work display (Cai Guo-Qiang), the contemporary art environment assimilates figurative and abstract painting right along with computer programming, encompasses daguerreotypy as much as mobilography (cell phone photography). What’s identified then as the formal and conceptual repertoire of postmodern art is more truly a restive aggregation, ramified with contending styles, techniques, devices. What’s more, at no point in history have so many resources been devoted to the institution of art: museums, galleries, curators, collectors, journals, art departments and art professors. Never, accordingly, have so many artists been generating this much art to satisfy so avid a demand. Clearly, that’s all good news for those publishing the art books and sitting on the museum boards. The boisterous heterogeneity of creative postmodernist output, as some chroniclers proclaim, may even be a fine thing for the public. Yet there’s plenty of bad news to report, if we heed the equally vociferous reproach of experts, primarily those pointing at the subsumption of the whole sprawling conglomerate of art production and consumption within the post-industrial culture complex. Postmodern art, as the customary paradox goes, has shouted down the master-narratives of modernism with its unprecedented diversity of voices only to get muffled in corporate domination.

This Frankfort School-variety of denunciation is certainly involved in the vigorous indictment against contemporary art levelled by one of postmodernism’s most influential theorists. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s unfavourable estimation of postmodern art practices appears, at first glance, irreconcilable with his affirmative appraisal of the postmodern condition of incredulity. As Lyotard has famously diagnosed it, the contemporary loss of faith in “a discourse called philosophy” is an instance of ‘good riddance.’ With our former confidence in the visionary principles of the Enlightenment now in crisis, the French philosopher judges that we have rightly dispensed with our affiliated anticipations of universal peace, fellowship and social justice. Fredric Jameson sums up Lyotard’s schematisation of contemporary scepticism as a collective resignation to the fact that,

the older master-narratives of legitimation no longer function in the service of scientific research—nor, by implication, anywhere else (e.g., we no longer believe in political or historical teleologies, or in the great “actors” and “subjects” of history—the nation-state, the proletariat, the party, the West, etc.).[1]

In other words, since we no longer bank on theology or metaphysics, dialectical materialism or the wealth of nations, we’re irreverent towards transcendental signifieds and ironic in the face of transcendental signifiers. We perpetually acknowledge the contradictions of multinational capitalism but we no longer expect the tension of these contradictions to spark the fire of salvation. Not having achieved the liberation promised by the forward march of instrumental reason, we instead have liberated ourselves from the delusion of liberation itself. And, for Lyotard, this postmodern caginess towards grand-narratives and their subsequent de-legitimisation is so positive a development that he can proclaim: “Postmodern knowledge is not simply a tool of the authorities; it refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable.”[2]

Yet, Lyotard, announcing the final demystification of legitimising myths in the postmodern present, might be premature. In his equally canonical yet contrarian view of our discouragement under late capitalism, Frederic Jameson suggests that it is more accurate “to posit, not the disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground as it were,” a subterranean strata in the culture from which these “buried master-narratives” persist in exerting an “unconscious effectivity” on our contemporary thinking and being.[3] It is also possible to suggest that this subterranean passage, this repression of the meta-narrative drive, comes back on the other side of psycho-social organisation as the return of the repressed in other areas of collective activity. One important case to consider in this regard, we believe, would be the chief partisan of scepticism himself. The repressed seems to reanimate for Lyotard in the field of aesthetics and, more specifically, in the guise of high modernism. Indeed, it is our argument that, in Lyotard’s analysis of contemporary culture, the modernist painter’s grasp at sublimity perversely becomes in itself a key legitimising scenario. As Lyotard writes: “The sublime is perhaps the only mode of artistic sensibility to characterise the modern.”[4] That is to say, the sublime becomes the transcendental aspiration of a continuous negative dialectics in the development of Western art whose “fundamental task,” as Lyotard will evangelise it, is “that of bearing pictorial or otherwise expressive witness to the inexpressible.”[5] Ironically then, Lyotard’s campaign against the grand-narrative’s constitutional demagogy will ultimately result in his own articulation of a master-narrative by other means. But let’s back up to consider the turns of Lyotard’s reasoning more narrowly.

Plotting postmodernist production as a disappointing instalment in the trajectory of modern art history, Lyotard quite unabashedly favours what he sees as the rigorous modernist partition upholding what Peter Bürger calls the “autonomy of art” from the “praxis of life.” Of postmodern art and its proclivities, he proclaims: “This is a period of slackening.”[6] And throughout his article, “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?,” Lyotard bluntly advocates the escalating brinkmanship of modernist subtraction which propelled bourgeois art from aestheticism to impressionism to contemporary art via the avant-gardes. It’s a familiar chain of events—Cezanne flattens the impressionists, Picasso and Braque attack Cezanne, Malevich disposes of figuration, Duchamp breaks with painting, etc.[7] Extending this conventional sequence of art historic accretion-by-attrition, Lyotard then calls on the postmodern visual arts to take up position as the subsequent instalment in the series of consecutive insights which, he contends, has been progressively maiming the master-narratives of Western painting. It should therefore be clear that while Lyotard champions the “postmodern condition” of apprehensiveness towards knowledge, when it comes to culture he is no unconditional enthusiast of the merely postmodern. Art practices which abandon modernist principles leave Lyotard deeply troubled. Whether such counter-modernist tendencies in contemporary art are advanced in the name of postmodernism or against it, these are to Lyotard equally seen as reactionary attempts to reverse the legitimate enterprise of advanced art production, namely that the sole content of art ought to be art itself, or rather “the task of art remains that of the immanent sublime.”[8]

It follows that postmodernism in art, for Lyotard, is viewed as “undoubtedly a part of the modern” and must therefore, as he specifies it in even more emphatic terms, indicate “not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant.”[9] Carried to its conclusion, the perpetual modernism that Lyotard summons here is further defined as the project: “To make visible that there is something which can be conceived and which can neither be seen nor made visible: this is what is at stake in modern painting.”[10] It is thus in inescapably grand-narrative terms that Lyotard identifies the sublime as the supreme anti-narrative criterion for painting, invoking not only the Kantian sublime and its inferential manifestation in “formlessness, the absence of form” but also within the scriptural commandment (“Though shalt not make graven images”) since this is Kant’s example of “the most sublime passage in the Bible in that it forbids all presentation of the Absolute.”[11] One can hardly imagine more transcendental precepts erected to guide the proper ex minimis progression-by-privation in the development of modern art. So long as painting points to the sublime, writes Lyotard, it “will therefore avoid figuration or representation,” and, not hesitating to indicate even the most extreme teleology for artistic production, he continues: “It will be ‘white’ like one of Malevich’s squares.”[12] Lyotard’s references to the Kantian invocation of the Mosaic prohibition and to Malevich’s sacred squares (which were exhibited hung icon-like, “v krasnom uglu”—at the “beautiful corner” of a room), together with his enthusiasm for Barnett Newman’s representation of the sublime in such work as Stations of the Cross, all additionally point to his predilection for a theologically-inflected art of exactly the kind explicitly rejected by the avant-gardes—what the futurists heckled as “the Solemn, the Sacred, the Serious, the Sublime of Art with a capital A.”[13]

Nevertheless, it is by employing the generic avant-gardist thrust of the manifesto and its militaristic (heroic) idiom that Lyotard agitates against that strain of postmodern art which would topple the modernist sublime. “Let us wage a war on totality,” he writes, “let us be witnesses to the unpresentable.”[14] These are fighting words, not to mention they’re also the concluding words of The Postmodern Condition, so the stakes are obviously high; the anti-totalitarian course of culture itself, manifested in the “unpresentable” of sublimity, is on the line. Lyotard revisits these stakes in “Representation, Presentation, Unpresentable,” collected in The Inhuman. Here, the threat unleashed by postmodern art production is further defined as “a loosening of the tension between the act of painting and the essence of painting, whereas this tension has persistently motivated one of the most admirable centuries of Western painting.”[15] It is this ‘loosening,’ this ‘slackening’ which Lyotard claims leads to “deresponsibilising the artists with respect to the question of the unpresentable.”[16] By contrast, Lyotard’s imperishable modernism is one where: “The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself.”[17] That is to say, Lyotard promotes a revolving aesthetic revolution with the notion of the sublime at its core and various art practices as so many orbiting aesthetic manifestations representing the unrepresentable in endlessly original “new presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the unpresentable.”[18] Otherwise, Lyotard forcefully cautions, postmodern art production “brings with it the corruption of the honour of painting, which has remained intact in spite of the worst demands of States (make it cultural!) and the market (make money!).”[19]

If the honour of painting presumably survived the catastrophes of the first half of the 20th century intact, it is no small imputation to suggest that it is under the threat of annihilation today. But Lyotard detects just such a danger in the eclecticism of postmodern art production, its reactivation of the figurative, its lack of squeamishness in the encounter with popular culture. He writes:

As for the “trans-avant-gardism” of Bonito Oliva and the similar currents one can observe in the USA and Germany (including Jencks’s “postmodernism” in architecture, which the reader will do me the favour of not confusing with what I have called “the postmodern condition”), it is clear that behind the pretext of picking up the tradition of the avant-gardes, this is a pretext for squandering it. This inheritance can only be transmitted in the negative dialectic of refutations and supplementary questionings. To want to get a result from it, especially by addition, is to arrest this dialectic, to confine the spirit of avant-gardist works to the museum, to encourage the eclecticism of consumption.[20]

Squandering by addition rather than progressing by deduction, certain postmodernist artists have, in other words, disregarded the sacred modernist tenet—art’s autonomy from socio-political, economic and cultural spheres. Transgressing this consecrated border between high art and low culture, they have thereby reduced the aesthetic and social values of the spiritual aristocracy to the culture of mass entertainment and consumption, equated art with kitsch. Furthermore, the art of “addition” allows for the resurgence of figurative realism plus the unprecedented introduction of pop-cultural iconographic devices. Taken together, such infractions fritter away the contemporary artist’s modernist “inheritance,” relegating “the spirit of avant-gardist works to the museum.” Of course, it goes without saying that the art of the avant-garde was cloistered in the museums long before these alleged postmodernist ‘betrayals.’ But Lyotard is not talking about actual artworks; it is rather the spirit of the work which is now being abandoned, confined, withdrawn from cultural circulation. Objecting to the art which now ranges freely in its place, Lyotard reiterates the standard criticism of postmodernist dissolution:

What is called on by eclecticism are the habits of magazine readers, the needs of the consumer of standard industrial images—this is the spirit of the supermarket shopper. To the extent that this postmodernism, via critics, museum and gallery directors and collectors, puts strong pressure on the artists, it consists in aligning research in painting with a de facto state of “culture” …[21]

Simply put, the “spirit of avant-gardist works” has been reduced to “the spirit of the supermarket shopper.”

Warhol was probably the first target of this kind of critical indignation, attracting quite the identical protest, namely what we might label the “supermarket” affront. As far back as 1963, in her review, “Pop Art at the Guggenheim,” Barbara Rose writes: “I find his images offensive; I am annoyed to have to see in a gallery what I’m forced to look at in the supermarket. I go to the gallery to get away from the supermarket, not to repeat the experience.”[22] Such a view assumes the art gallery and museum as safe havens from the vulgarity of instrumental “means-ends” relations in the real world. More, Rose’s position normalises the bourgeois practice of relegating art (with the artists’ consent) to the cathedral, the palace, the museum, where the public can confront the sublime, the infinite, the il y a (there is) rather than have its tastes offended. But the offence, the annoyance, the indignation that Warhol inspired was, of course, right in line with the avant-garde’s project, which included among its favourite intentions the determination to épater le bourgeois. While perhaps today bourgeoisie “can no longer be ‘épaté,’”[23] at the time, the critics of pop-art were certainly susceptible to the provocation. Clement Greenberg, the high priest guarding the temple of high culture from low brow infiltrations, identified the threshold as the one demarcating the avant-garde from kitsch. He never accepted the unexpected turn of advanced art to pop-art, calling it a “multitude of fashions, vogues, waves, fads, manias.”[24] In an amazing revision of the spirit of the avant-garde, Greenberg actually wrote: “Not that the avant-garde ever really meant revolution. […] The avant-garde’s principal reason for being is, on the contrary, to maintain continuity: continuity of standards of quality—the standards, if you please, of the Old Masters.”[25] And that is of course blatantly wrong. The avant-garde’s raison d’être was revolutionary through and through. Its project was to dethrone the institution of art itself from its overbearing postures as an autonomous sphere. Thus LEF (New Left Front) and Mayakovsky called to “throw Pushkin off the steamboat of Modernity.” In this regard, Mayakovsky’s insistence that his commercial work for Agitprop, the Soviet propaganda and advertising agency, was of the highest creative quality (and he really considered it some of his best work) anticipates Warhol’s vulgar soup cans.

The customary question then remains whether contemporary art, voided of transcendence, can represent anything other than commercial and consumer values. Or is Lyotard correct to urge a postmodern art which evolves ceaselessly into modernism, pushing forward into the past? Certainly, one pervasive critique of the arts today amounts to the diagnosis that no art practice is capable of withstanding its integration in the culture complex of late capitalism, its participation in the cash nexus of image production and consumption. Or rather, from a more worldly perspective, might we say that today the uninhibited interpenetration between “art and life” has simply demolished modernism’s former pretensions to autonomy from commercial and political spheres? In that case, pop-art’s arrival as the post-avant-garde can be viewed as yet another bracing shift to candour, in the sense that the pop-artist openly owns up to complicity with the market, passing up the heroic stances of the modernist artist silhouetted against the backdrop of mass culture (read heroic Pollock vs. transvestite Warhol) while also foregoing the avant-gardist artist’s offensives against the institutions of art. Is it the case, then, that pop-art simply accepts both the culture and the institutions of art, works with and within them? Or can the full severity of Lyotard’s reproof apply: that pop-art obstructs the negative dialectics of art-historical advancement, thereby assaulting the sublimity indispensable for the anti-totalitarian polity?

Surely, Jameson is right to say that pop-art is not unambiguously critical of consumer society.[26] Nevertheless, it at least possesses a critical agenda directed against the late modernism of abstract expressionism. In simple terms, pop-art is out to get Pollock. Abstract expressionism at the time was fully enshrined in American universities. Action painting was academically-sanctioned art. While the abstract expressionists represented the unrepresentable sublime, pop-art typified the visual media, the everyday rhetoric of mass production and mass culture. Still, there is a gut sense in which the liberal viewer feels that Warhol just ought to be critical of Coke and of Campbell’s Soup. Otherwise, how can we like him? (Jameson sounds disappointed: Warhol is not a critic of Coke). But, of course, Warhol’s work is celebratory; it simply is not melancholic because, well, because actually, as Warhol insists on showing us, everybody loves Coke. Indeed, Warhol precisely commented on the egalitarian socio-economics of our passionate bad taste and enthusiastic mass consumption when he wrote that the very rich and the very poor alike drink Coke. Pop-art may not refine us but that’s because it is too democratic. Appallingly, it’s with us, it’s on our side; it, with its viewer, consumes images. Spectacle and spectator, breachless in this cooperative obsession, both are consuming mass icons and mass culture in unison. Moreover, for both art viewer and artwork, the consumption is that of the pre-consumed. At once a found object, the soup can or coke bottle is not a found object in itself, chanced upon in a state of aesthetic innocence, but an object already aestheticised, already art, already consumed. These postmodern nature morte are undigested like the seventeenth century Dutch still-lives of game, fowl and fish, and so they are raw, but, simultaneously, as Campbell Soup cans, they are pre-fabricated, pre-packaged, pre-pared, half-cooked, half-digested (they are conjointly the raw and the cooked).

Certainly the concatenated ecstasy of consumption in Warhol’s art is legendary. Fascinated with the real world around him and with its fascinations, he tirelessly represented them. In this, Warhol presides over the first art movement that displays reality wholly as culture, exhibits mass culture as first nature. If we take the Barthesian paradigm of the sign as a formula, we can say that pop-art grasps the very sign of mass culture as a signifier, not so much to de-mythologise it from its civic connotations and retail naturalisations, but to re-signify it within another register, an art-code, in which the accord of the sign is split and its dizzying ambiguity revealed—is this sign ironic or not? Take Warhol’s dollar paintings. Is this $ an ode to US currency or is it highly ironic?

Is this a critical statement on the contemporary conflation of art and money, art as financial currency, art as capital investment? Or is it a vulgar transgression precisely against the cultivated autonomy of the artistic sphere, valorising the collaborationist position of the artist in the realms of exchange value, in this case celebrating art as wealth? Confronted with this dilemma in Warhol, Bürger suggests that such content “contains resistance to the commodity society only for the person who wants to see it there.”[27] Still, in the $ paintings we can see Warhol’s conceptual development from Jasper John’s paintings of symbolic things, the American flags and practice targets, which remain visual onomatopoeias of emblematic objects that could really be encountered in the world. By contrast, Warhol presents the pure sign, a dollar sign (as opposed to an actual dollar bill). And he is even willing to sign dollar bills. Not turning everything into art (like the Russian futurists) but anything. Such a seizure of the anything was, in turn, to influence the whole cadre of appropriation artists who follow after Warhol: Levine, Richard Prince, Kruger, Sherman. And so, pop-art consummates the total incorporation of life and art, of art and media, the full aestheticisation of late capitalist production and everyday existence. That is to say, we’ve arrived in the artful modernity of which the futurists dreamed but the life here doesn’t rise to art. Rather, art is engulfed by the world and is worldly. Everything is down to earth, is on display and up for sale; whence the transcendent?

On top of Letna Hill, overlooking the Vltava River and the Prague city centre, stands the seventy-five foot Metronome created by Vratislav Karel Novak. This prominent, kinetic sculpture was erected in 1991 to inhabit the vast base (vacant for thirty years) formerly occupied by the colossal sculptural ensemble that included the largest ever (30m) effigy of Joseph Stalin—it stood facing Prague, surveying the city, daunting it. In an age when “contemporary public art has turned to the monumental abstraction as its acceptable icon,”[28] the abstract, streamlined, constructivist arm of the Metronome certifies the Czech nation’s official passage from the repressive era of compulsory socialist realism to the democratically-sanctioned modernism. Every aspect of the Metronome can be seen to defy the totalitarian sublime of the Stalin statue it supersedes. Built for eternity, the long-ago annihilated Soviet monolith, in its granite permanence and dinosaur monumentality (the thing was so massive and sturdy it could not be disassembled and had to be blown up with explosives) is still contrasted with the perpetual movement of the modish, up-to-date Metronome. The teleological temporality of proletarian revolution affirmed by the Stalin figure is accordingly rebuked by the pure, “neutral” passage of time through which the metronome marks out the incessant tempo of history. As the arm sways from one side to the other, it charts the skies offering the infinity of the universe as a contrast to and commentary on the Stalin assemblage, a parable of a fallen colossus: the messianic sublime of Communism is trumped by the infinite sublime of time’s “natural” current. Indeed, this inhuman, metronomic indifference to history does not differentiate between human events; it is equally impartial to tyranny and to democracy. Its function is not even to keep track of time—that is the work of the public clocks (the medieval Prague Orloj just below makes an obvious counterpoint)—it signifies only sheer time, marks its continuance. A prominent public spectacle, the Metronome thus serves to iterate and reiterate in perpetuity the plain indubitable fact of time marching on. It offers both Praguers and tourists the relief of conciliation. It says “time changes everything” but it does not moralise or memorialise, or mourn, or protest. And, so, the Metronome’s commentary on the history of the site and on the course of history itself is concentrated entirely within its meta-narrative, formal, art historic registers, signalling the shift from one aesthetic exponent of the sublime to another, from the triumphal idiom of socialist realism to the negative dialectics of abstract modernism.

A postmodernist perspective on the Metronome suggests an additional critical issue. Seen in relation to Claus Oldenburg’s superlative rescaling of trivial objects (a titanic safety-pin, a behemoth button, a building-sized lipstick), the Metronome employs the same technique of monumentalising a diminutive contrivance. Oldenburg’s surrealistically immense gadgets and utensils deterritorialise their surroundings by dwarfing their vicinity in a newly imposed relativity of scale.

Monumentalising the mundane, as it turns out, ironises monumentality itself as a category. Novak’s gigantic Metronome, on the other hand, succeeds in symbolically magnifying the instrumental function of this tempo-setting device while projecting it onto the surrounding city. That is to say, while the tempo assimilates all historical epochs within its “neutral-natural” time flow, it, nevertheless, somewhat to the contrary, simultaneously suggests the enforcing rhythm of the new capitalist order in a manner reminiscent of the chronometer’s introduction into the workplace to quicken the pace of performance, escalating the labour-rhythm of production, tightening work discipline on the shop and factory floor. With the fall of the Communists, the meat-lines would disappear (“meat-line” was, incidentally, the unofficial epithet used for the Stalin statue’s double file of granite subordinates lined up behind the dictator) but the Czech citizenry would definitely have to pick up their pace in the rate of production (and in their consumption).

Such artistic collaboration with the ascendant ideological and economic order seems an inevitable outcome in most every critical account of the contemporary culture of multinational capitalism. Our analysis of the Metronome attempts to illustrate specifically how opposition to one repressive aesthetic paradigm, such as state-sanctioned socialist realism, may simply lead to the rigid valorisation (à la Lyotard) of yet another potentially hegemonic and co-opted aesthetic persuasion. Today, we could easily claim that it becomes unproductive, even conformist, to counter the figurative gigantism of the totalitarian past with abstract modernist monumentality. The negative dialectics of aestheticism and formalism and the whole plastic research into the sublime has ended up yielding very “positive,” very profitable results in the field of commercial manipulation. The avant-garde, irregardless of artists’ intentions, serves, in the words of Thomas Crow, “as a kind of research and development arm of the culture industry.”[29] Or, as W.J.T. Mitchell bleakly observes: “Oppositional movements such as surrealism, expressionism, and cubism have been recuperated for entertainment and advertising, and the boldest gestures of High Modernism have become the ornaments of corporate public spaces.”[30] In such an environment, Lyotard’s insistence on the “constancy” of modernist principals and his call for the permanence of revolutionary returns to the formalist concerns of the ineffable, the unrepresentable and the sublime, appear downright reactionary.

Czech artists and intellectuals who have almost overnight witnessed the institutional change of guard from communist culture ministry to late capitalist culture industry, from obtuse government propaganda to the ubiquitous colonisation of public attention by commercial advertising, have had to recalibrate their conceptual positions in response to these developments. Some of the most interesting interventions are therefore engaged in multidimensional, multimediational critiques that address the heterotopic postmodern condition of this new society. Two recent examples of public art, both created by Czech women artists who have achieved prominence since the Velvet Revolution, Milena Dopitová and Lenka Klodová, are exemplary in their capacity to contend critically with a multiplicity of issues, provoking certain intransigent authoritarian strains of their nation’s recent history while also addressing the present commercialisation of spirituality, in artworks that shift gracefully and slyly from the transcendent to the banal, from sacred to supermarket.

Milena Dopitová’s photographic series of Prague mothers negotiating the urban landscape with their children, Come, I’ll show you the way through Paradise—Prague Madonnas, was a commissioned work, approved in its proposal stage for exhibition in the Czech Republic’s pavilion at the 2000 World’s Fair in Hanover. Originally, the photographs were to involve quite an engaging conceit; this serial presentation of contemporary metropolitan maternity would duplicate yet also counterpoise a cycle of Czech medieval Madonnas on display at the pavilion entrance. As conceived, Dopitová’s project was thus to hold up a 21st century mirror to the “eternal” themes evoked by Marian imagery: the sanctity of maternal love, solicitude, compassion and self-sacrifice. Additionally, we can suppose that the Czech artist, in executing her project, must have been governed by some sense of accountability to national pride. Presumably a World Exposition country pavilion implies a prestigious honour and patriotic opportunity to represent the contemporary state of Czech arts and to be seen in connection with the nation’s established art heritage as well, in this case the medieval Madonnas. However, upon review by the Czech General Commissioner, the inclusion of Dopitová’s series was vetoed and Pavel Mára’s photographic nudes were chosen as a replacement.

That the officials responsible for the Czech Pavilion rejected the commissioned series, preferring to install Mára’s nude Madonnas alongside the medieval prototypes, immediately suggests some transgressive ingredient in Dopitová’s Prague Madonnas. But what? Appraising Dopitová’s photo-vignettes of urban maternity, one can hardly help but judge them as the least likely candidates for official censorship of any kind. Every predictable rationale for suppression—obscenity, sensuality, radical political or subversive ideological content, violence, crudity—appears serenely absent. On the surface, Dopitová’s images look to be studies in ordinariness. Was the provocation possibly the sheer lack of it? To accentuate the puzzle, Mára’s nudes, the usurpers in this cultural parable, with their aloof sexuality and lithe, unclad torsos, must be seen as the more conventionally indecent by comparison. But clearly, they satisfied the officials’ idea of how photography could properly correlate to the art heritage of the national past, and of how contemporary art could refurbish the values of religious art, rendering these in updated forms, serving old wine in new skin.

With the startling chiaroscuro of black and white photography, and the contrast further intensified by the reverse-negative effect (à la Man Ray), Mára endows his nudes with an auratic radiance, flooding them in an otherworldly glow. More precisely, the reverse-negative printing invests these Madonnas (depicted as delicate female torsos) with the capacity to radiate light forth as if from inside, a contrivance that serves to dissolve the typical opposition of body and soul, casting flesh as lustrous spirit; the halo is interiorised. Quite literally then, this series illustrates (in the sense of illuminating) the spiritual condition of the hallowed Marian corpus. With Mára’s incandescent images of the Holy Mother bathed in divine light on the one side, let us now turn to consider the pulp media-style photographs from Dopitová’s rebuffed series. By comparison with the Virgins that replaced them, Dopitová’s portraits would seem to offer unexpectedly mundane tableaux of Prague mothers and children in various sites throughout the city, engaged in mostly routine activities—shopping, eating, working, playing (although, in one deviating instance, a mother is shown begging). It follows that one of the features that must have disqualified these quotidian Madonnas to the officials was precisely the ‘unspectacular’ look of the photographs, a lack of ‘high art’ indices, their absence of any evident transcendence marking mother and child as archetypes of a sacred relationship.

Or, to state it more bluntly within the art-historic continuum that is our focus, it is from the plainly secular, materialist, heterodox, ambidextrous position of postmodern production that Dopitová sets out for an encounter with the sacrosanct iconography of Christian art. Unlike the Mára Madonnas, these earthbound portraits have cast off any attitude that could let them double (without irony) as devotional, cult objects or align them with the patrician programs of modernism. Instead, this series works in the tradition of appropriation art (once again Warhol, Levine, Prince, Kruger, Koons, Sherman), adopting the feel of the industry photograph while applying mass-cultural devices of production. The Photoshop layering which allows fields of the photographs to be rendered in colour while seamlessly joined to other elements in black and white, introduces into this work an element of postcard triviality. Or, rather, taken altogether, the portraits have the look of photo-reportage for a popular parenting magazine. None of this is to say that Dopitová’s series on contemporary motherhood fails to address the original context of religious art. On the contrary, the photos are interweaved with updated re-enactments of familiar episodes and iconography from the life of the Virgin: the Annunciation, Flight into Egypt, the Pietà, Virgin Lactans, etc. Yet, even while Dopitová (no stranger to feminist thematics) evokes this Marian imagery, she is reformulating it, even profaning it, perhaps more effectively than by a direct assault, precisely through the seemingly casual attitude of her adaptations and the discretion of her transformations. Let’s consider some of her specific compositional strategies.

The iconography of Christian art commonly positions the Virgin Mother as a background for the Christ Child, a straightforward enough structural allusion to her supporting function in the vitae domini. But the Prague Madonnas, presented mainly as middle-class modern women, some chic, urbane, and evidently professional, have other functions, other things to do. While some still hold onto a child and provide the chromatic ground for its figure, these mothers are multitasked, engaged simultaneously in shopping, talking on cell phones, hailing a cab. It is in photographs like these that the rapprochement of two art registers (sacred and postmodern) begins to create an additional antagonistic relationship between them. Thus, for example, in one picture the mother is holding the child while leaning in the opposite direction to speak into her phone. The effect is of a precarious balance/unbalance between attachment and autonomy of mother and child. Pictorially, the child is not at the centre, neither is he centred on the ground of the mother, neither then is he at the proverbial centre of the universe, his mother’s or the viewer’s. That is to say, Dopitová subtly represents women, rather than their dependents, as the primary subjects of their own maternity. In this regard, it is interesting to apply to Dopitová’s Madonnas what Julia Kristeva wrote of Giovanni Bellini’s fifteenth century Madonnas. Kristeva calls on the viewer to “behold the distance […] separating the bodies of infant and mother in his paintings.”[31] Kristeva then continues her analysis of one typical Bellini painting by pointing out that the Madonna figure—”head, face, and eyes—flees the painting, is gripped by something other than its object,” and this elsewhere space beyond the canvas is what Kristeva labels the maternal jouissance, that enjoyment within the mother and exclusive to her, which remains forever inaccessible to the child even through corporeal contact.[32]

This implies that, in manipulating the image of ideal maternity epitomised in the Madonna, Dopitová slyly exhibits mothers who are not exclusively characterised by children but rather are women with children. We have mentioned that in some of the portraits these women appear chic, elegantly dressed, professional. In others, however, they appear simply capable, unromantic—the manner in which they tend to the needs of children is not sentimentalised by Marian attitudes of adoring solicitude but is shown practically (though not harshly) as a matter of expedience and efficiency—a question of getting the job done—for example, the mother propping the child’s penis while the boy is peeing in the park, the mother serving her young son a hotdog from a paper plate. Still, these are innocuous enough representations unless seen as versions of the sacred relationship between Holy Mother and Infant Christ. The subtitle of the series, Prague Madonnas, is therefore crucial to the visual impact of the works. As postmodern translations of the doctrinaire typologies in religious art, we ask whether Dopitová’s series may be related to such high profile art scandals as Andres Serrano’s 1989 Piss Christ and Chris Ofili’s 1996 collage with elephant dung, The Many Faces of Mary; Representing the Virgin, which generated controversy throughout New York when displayed in the publicly funded Sensation show at the Brooklyn Museum. Our answer: we think so. Although in far less excrementally obvious ways, we believe Dopitová’s work was likewise judged profane, as crap or dung hurled on the transcendent. In other words, by rejecting Dopitová’s Madonnas, the Czech Pavilion commissioner protected the representational sanctity of motherhood; censuring the mundane, de-sublimated image, he defended the otherworldly status of the holy family and, by extension, the ideal of every family. Indeed, it can be argued that in Western cultural history, the Marian cult of maternity contains the ultimate reassurance of a conduit between secular and sacred. As Kristeva writes: “theology defines maternity only as an impossible elsewhere, a sacred beyond, a vessel of divinity, a spiritual tie with the ineffable godhead, and transcendence’s ultimate support.”[33]

In contrast to the immaculate Mára Madonnas that represented the Czech Republic in Hanover, Dopitová’s mothers are thus maculated by the mundane realities of errands and chores. Moreover they fail to rise above their environment or to refine it even in terms of their desires, which, clearly, are manufactured by advertising. One of the tableaux shows a mother and baby daughter under a sexy billboard advertising cosmetics with a typical slogan asserting female value as feminine beauty: “Já za to stojím”—“I’m worth it.” Yet another tableau shows the same chic, youthful mother shopping for shoes. Her child is to the side of the scene, watching her sizing a shoe, trying on its potential image. As with pop-art, it is impossible to determine whether the subject, here the mother, is reduced or celebrated in the role of consumer. Are these women empowered and liberated, are they sexy, are they sold, or both, caught up in the ricochet of consumption by which the consumer is at the same time also another product?

And how does the image of blessed mother qua consumer provoke the traditional cult of motherhood? It is once again in the context of the cult of motherhood with its “luminous serenity of the unrepresentable,”[34] and its prominence in the history of Western art that Lenka Klodová’s May 2005 series, Vitězky (Winners), takes a decisively transgressive turn.

Winners was presented this spring as part of a public, open air exhibition on the Letna “Art Wall,” which extends alongside the Vltava and its adjoining highway. Four artists chosen by a Prague city commission were given opportunities to fill the stone alcoves built into the River Wall originally to brandish communist propaganda at drivers, tram-riders and pedestrians. Klodová’s series, the first displayed, consisted of billboard size photographs of heavily pregnant women athletes impossibly competing in such Olympics-type sports as javelin throw, high jump, gymnastics, running, shot-put and soft-ball. It is significant that the art in this exhibition occupies a public space formerly delegated for government propaganda; set in the embankment within the stone frames left by the communist regime, the work thus retains an ambience of the demagogy and coercion of state-sanctioned programs and paradigms. At the same time, these placards also occupy a global public sphere saturated by advertisement; the name of the series, Vitězky (literally, women winners) clearly puns on the worldwide ubiquity of the sportswear mega-brand Nike (Nikē in Greek mythology being a goddess of victory). Or rather, to put it in more general terms, the icon of an athlete, like the image of the worker, the soldier or, indeed, that of the mother, has certainly been one of the most favoured of propagandist rhetoric. Art which has rendered the athlete’s image in the service of politics spans the ideological spectrum from ancient republicanism to fascism and communism, in the last century from Alexander Rodchenko to Leni Riefenstahl et al.

The identification of propaganda with advertising in Klodová’s series is therefore as apt as it is common. One enterprise sells ideology, the other sells a product but, while propaganda sells the product of ideology, advertising sells the ideology of a product, and both do it (as Barthes has shown) by the operation of naturalisation, or the mythologisation, of a sign. In a gesture that ironises such contemporary myth-making, Klodová first grafts the two registers into one image. The Winners are at once national heroes (Olympians) and next they are the modern divinities of lifestyle (Nike ads). Yet, in an absurd next step of hyper-accumulation-signification, Klodová endows these heroes/icons with yet another super-signifier, the master-narrative of maternity. The resultant tripartite-hybrid presents a kind of monstrosity, a freakish shorthand of a contemporary predicament—a mutant trapped in the postmodern matrix of ideology, marketing, and sentimentality. The resultant freighted female athletes, awkward, bizarre, disfigured figures of hyper-pastiche fall out of every conceivably desirable value system. It is as if, metaphorically, the ideal of maternity and the image of pregnancy here serve to disfigure the icons of political ideology and consumerism. In the present age of mass media politics, marketing and communications, in which the message of the image is increasingly focused, focus-grouped, motivated and market-targeted, the ambiguity of Klodová’s Vitězky thus engaged the Prague public with a contemporary hieroglyph compressing and expressing our present cultural abundance and cultural impasses. When the series was on display, one could actually recognise fellow tram-riders who were encountering the Vitězky for the first time by the progression of confusion, astonishment, amusement and reflection evident in their expressions.

It is helpful to ascertain the work of these two Czech artists in relation to the historical avant-gardes which attempted to break the spell of aesthetic autonomy and, with it, the reign of abstract formalism by reactivating the impact of the narrative and the figurative in art. Then as now, the enterprise of the ineffable does not provide the necessary crudity to engage the authoritarian power of ideological or economic hegemonies. Nevertheless, the historical avant-gardes have also failed by their own definition since the “intention of the historical avant-garde movements was defined as the destruction of art as an institution set off from the praxis of life.”[35] But the accumulated work of these movements remains an inexhaustible, explosive source of conceptual vitality for today’s artists and intellectuals. The work of pop-art precisely revisited the techniques and devices of the preceding avant-gardes (some critics identified it with neo-dada) albeit with a diacritics of its own. The artists who have inherited pop-art, the sots-art practitioners (Komar and Melamid, et al.) in the east, as well as the appropriation artists, Levine, Kruger, Sherman, in the west, have in their turn recalibrated the procedures developed by Warhol and Co., deploying these decisively against the symbolic orders and the industries of image production and consumption, forming an essential precedent in the reanimation of the historical avant-gardes’ program of engagement in the praxis of life.

Cindy Sherman, who (incidentally) had a major retrospective at Prague’s Galerie Rudolfinium in 1998, appears a particularly productive influence for the generation of artists that includes Dopitová and Klodová. Sherman’s categorical blurs (Rosalind Kraus’s term for images transgressing the borders of gender and anatomy)[36] together with her mass-media thematics can be seen in both Dopitová’s and Klodová’s series, which also share Sherman’s strategy of total appropriation, not simply confiscating individual images but parasitically inhabiting the whole signifying system, invoking the entire gamut of an industry’s image repertoire. Thus while Dopitová and Klodová collude with Lyotard’s doctrine of unravelling master narratives of their totality, their strategy is not in presenting the sublime otherness in its incommensurability with the vulgarity of mass culture, but in inhabiting the mass-cultural systems of representation and pressuring, manipulating, sabotaging these regimes from the inside. Furthermore these artists recognise that the discourse of the ineffable and the sublime is itself a master-narrative which has been appropriated by the image industry and they press on with the work of undoing transcendent, utopian paradigms exemplified, in this particular case, by the figures of Holy Mother and Victorious Olympians.

Intervening in the global culture and transgressing the transcendental, Dopitová and Klodová at the same time engage the contingent, situational, site and context specific mini-narratives with critical, deconstructive gestures which are the precondition of effecting the local cultural environment. This is an existential attitude that is quite different from the position assumed by Lyotard. Lyotard is a militant aesthete (let us wage a war), battling against the tyranny of popular culture to save the honour of the sublime. Lyotard’s call to war in the name of the ineffable is underpinned by a reverse class consciousness: the self consciousness of the spiritual aristocracy organised against the vulgarity of mass culture. Lyotard articulates this explicitly when he refers to the “intellectual class” of artists and philosophers, a membership which certainly carries with it a measure of responsibility to the public. But Lyotard also identifies a beyond of that responsibility, a calling outside of public discourse. The artists’ ultimate duty, Lyotard writes, is to answer the question, “What is it to paint?” just as philosopher is responsible to the question “What is thinking? The public is not necessarily the interlocutor on this question.”[37] The phenomenological whirligig of thinking about thinking and painting about painting does, inevitably, intimate the transcendental and the sublime, and so this demarcation between the public and the philosopher-artist is yet another formulation of the autonomy of art from the marketplace of life.

The work of Dopitová and Klodová, which is being produced right on the geo-political cusp where authoritarianism surges into late capitalism, follows a different orientation, that of prodding the public, plumbing the issues, discoursing with the media, baiting the conventions. Of course, this very art is funded by the institutions and regimes it interrogates, which at first glance seems to confirm Lyotard’s sense that art cannot be both engaged and also resist its context anymore. Yet there are moderators in this debate who are willing to draw the lines less dogmatically, who chart our historical coordinates in less extremist topographies, and who look to the interstices for areas of possibility. For example, in his conversion with German artist Hans Haacke, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discusses the place of the artist in contemporary culture, in relation to the public as well as to the state. Bourdieu insists that a true latitude exists for art at this moment: “A public system leaves a very large margin of freedom, but one must still make use of it”[38] even while he regrets that it is not exploited often enough: “Unfortunately, citizens and intellectuals are not prepared for this freedom in relation to the state.”[39] To our mind, the provocative public art created by Dopitová and Klodová strikes out precisely for those enterprising borderlands towards which Bourdieu gestures: “artists, writers, and scholars, who hold in trust some of the most exceptional accomplishments of human history, must learn to use against the state the freedom that the state assures them.”[40]

[1] Fredric Jameson, Foreword to Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991) xii.

[2] Jameson, Foreword to The Postmodern Condition, xxv.

[3] Jameson, Foreword to The Postmodern Condition, xii.

[4] Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991) 93.

[5] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 93.

[6] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 71.

[7] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 79.

[8] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 128.

[9] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 79.

[10] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 78.

[11] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 78.

[12] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 78.

[13] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, cited in Caroline Tisdall and Angelo Bozzolla, Futurism (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996) 101.

[14] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 82.

[15] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 127-8.

[16] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 127.

[17] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 81.

[18] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 81.

[19] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 128.

[20] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 127.

[21] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 127.

[22] Barbara Rose, cited in Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2000) 21-2.

[23] Antone Compagnon, The 5 Paradoxes of Modernity, trans. Franklin Philip (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) xiii.

[24] Clement Greenberg, “Avant Garde Attitudes” [1969], On-line Picasso Project, 30 Aug. 2005 <>

[25] Greenberg, “Avant Garde Attitudes.”

[26] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 158.

[27] Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984) 61.

[28] W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) 376.

[29] Cited in Mitchell, Picture Theory, 376.

[30] Mitchell, Picture Theory, 376.

[31] Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, Leon S. Roudiz (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) 247.

[32] Kristeva, Desire in Language, 247.

[33] Kristeva, Desire in Language, 237.

[34] Kristeva, Desire in Language, 243.

[35] Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, 83.

[36] Rosalind Kraus, Bachelors (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2000) 13.

[37] Lyotard, The Inhuman, 128.

[38] Pierre Bourdieu and Hans Haacke, Free Exchange (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995) 75.

[39] Bourdieu and Haacke, Free Exchange, 73.

[40] Bourdieu and Haacke, Free Exchange, 72.

Published by Equus Press.

published: 17. 7. 2016

Datum publikace:
17. 7. 2016
Autor článku:
Bonita Rhoads