How Not to Talk about Art

How Not to Talk About Art
Advice for lacanians

How Not to Talk About Art

Talking to artists is so often more interesting than looking at their work.1

Since analysts like case studies, here is brief ‘case study.’ A student artist would go for a walk, collecting various bits and pieces he found on his way. Back in his studio, he would build a chaotic assemblage from his horde. Finally, he would paint a picture of the assemblage against a bright, monochrome background on a very large canvas he had prepared beforehand. He talked about these paintings with certainty: he knew what he wanted the monochrome to stand for; he knew what he wanted the junk to stand for; he could point out art-historical references. He was full of rationalisations and justifications. But these were, in fact, a way to stop himself thinking; to prevent him from really changing what he was doing: a ruse that allowed him to get on with painting.

In contrast, the way he talked about the walks was animated, interesting and uncertain. He would talk about his pedestrian experience of the city as not quite knowing where he was; why particular locations seemed appealing, which might, or might not, be related to the things they might produce; why he would pick up some things and not others, which was not something he understood; and so on. In going for the walk he allowed himself not to know what he was doing. He allowed himself this freedom because there was no way he could conceive of his walks as Art; in his conscious justification for what he did, they were just a way of providing the debris he needed to fill a place in his schema of what critical contemporary Art should be. The truth of his practice was the canvas prepared beforehand: a destination that removed all anxiety that he might be lead astray. In the broad context of contemporary Art, where going for a walk is a traditional and established artform, it is, perhaps, strange to find someone so attached to painting as the master-signifier of Art, although it is not uncommon. However, my point is that the problem one encounters in teaching art, and not just there, is the belief in Art, whatever form that belief may take. This is a belief on which the artist often has to spend a great deal of effort. This student had to produce truly huge paintings in his attempt to be noticed by Art or, what amounts to the same thing, to sustain Art. For artists, there is nothing more debilitating and nothing harder to shake, then the belief in Art: Art as the guarantor of the artist’s practice.

In teaching art, which is largely done through a private conversation in the artist’s studio between student and teacher, it is not hard to get the student to question her belief in Art; to see that there are all kinds of unacknowledged determinations on what she does; and to acknowledge the need to change her practice. If this sounds a lot like the analytic situation, the problem to be surmounted is strictly analogous, too. Alenka Zupancic illustrates the problem with the following joke: 

A man believes he is a grain of seed. He is taken to a mental institution, where the doctors do their best finally to convince him that he is not a grain, but a man. As soon as he leaves the hospital, he comes back very scared, claiming that there is a chicken outside the door, and that he is afraid that it will eat him. ‘Dear fellow,’ says his doctor, ‘you know very well that you are not a grain of seed, but a man.’ ‘Of course I know that,’ replies the patient, ‘but does the chicken?’2

What is hard for the so-called patient is to “shift and change the very symbolic and imaginary structures in which this unconsciousness is embodied outside ‘herself,’ in the manner and rituals of her conduct, speech, relations to others – in certain situations that keep ‘happening’ to her.”3 In an analogous way, Art is something that keeps happening to the artist, despite or regardless of her conscious intentions. Art is a chicken that frightens the artist into making yet more Art. Most fundamentally, the empty studio (the studio always appears empty to the artist) persecutes the artist: it is an incessant injunction to make something.

It is not, however, only artists, art historians, art theorists, curators and their friends who believe in Art: who want Art to exist. Philosophers, politicians and psychoanalysts, for example, all seem to need Art in some way or want Art to be an exception: a resource unavailable elsewhere. Suffice to say, since I am addressing Lacanians, art is not a symptom. It is all too common for psychoanalysts to approach artworks with an interpretative gusto that they would never countenance in relation to an analysand’s associations. Even such a careful writer as Darian Leader, who is at pains to point out that he is not necessarily talking about all art, subtitles his book on Art ‘What Art Stops Us from Seeing.’4 He implies that Art occupies a stable place in symbolic life, even if this place is not grounded in the positive characteristics of artworks, as we might habitually think.

What we might say about the mythical place of Art, in contrast to the reality of practice, is that it seems to have a peculiar cultural role as a particular kind of empty signifier (this is, perhaps, how we should read Leader). Perhaps the one thing we can say about Art is that people have an overwhelming tendency to see in Art what they want to see, regardless of what artists, in their multiplicity, do; which is to say, in the face of all contradictory evidence. The demand made on Art is that the evidence does not count: believing determines seeing and not vice versa. 

It is not unrelated that artists, as a cultural type or character, are routinely portrayed, with a mixture of awe and condescension, as a breed apart. An artist friend of mine has told me how he enjoys going to all conferences, except those on Art, because his voice is given a special place. A typical reaction is that ‘we philosophers only think about things but you artists actually make things.’ Such comments are radically double edged: the artist can only occupy the special place from which to speak as long as she gets on with making things and remains mute.5 Conceptual Art, at its most radical, was the revolutionary attempt of artists to speak. This involved not making things: in this context, making things was a kind of the passage à l’acte, whilst not making things was the act proper. It was, amongst other things, the attempt to overcome the usual construction of artists as those uninhibited in their pursuit of jouissance. In the popular imagination, artists are supposed to enjoy their excessive and destructive indulgences (whether in sex, drink, drugs, the mess of the studio or a general chaotic and uncompromising lifestyle). In other words, artists come out just as badly as psychoanalysts in popular culture.

Here, we should resist any temptation to qualify and assert baldly that Art does not exist. Gérard Wajcman uses this idea to champion the particular; to put forward the idea that each artwork is its own theory of Art.6This is an attempt to abolish the Universal at a stroke. The trouble is, we might say, that Art does not know that it does not exist. If Art is an abstract Universal, then the task is not simply to bring it down to earth: not simply to demonstrate its finitude or reliance on the concrete and particular. Indeed, reliance on the concrete is exactly what we should expect from the abstract Universal qua abstract Universal. Here, the opposition between Art and non-Art is already built into the concept of Art. The inclusion of non-Art into Art, namely the assimilation of all manner of things from the everyday, including that which is obscene, ugly and distasteful, merely strengthens and confirms the abstract, universalising power of Art.

I wish to pursue a tentative distinction between bad Art and good art in terms of the relationship between Art and the Universal, following Zupancic’s tentative distinction between bad comedy and good comedy. Bad comedy is duplicitous in that the Universal is also particular, in the sense that the King is also (and only) human. This ‘is also’ does not impugn the Universal but rather reinscribes and reinforces it: despite also and only being human the King is still the King. In bad comedy the Universal’s brush with the concrete is there to demonstrate its true distance from it. An example she gives is President Bush’s relaxed, witty and carefully orchestrated media demonstrations that he is an ordinary guy (eating burgers, playing golf, etc.): the explicit point is that he is an ordinary guy like you; the implicit point is that, unlike you, he is also the President. Bad Art follows this formula, too. In being pornographic, for example, or in appropriating any other non-Art things, Art shows itself to be just like everything else; however, inasmuch as it is Art, it is also unlike everything else. Hence the furore and outrage in the artworld when a pornographic exhibition gets treated with the same (legal, etc.) criteria as other public displays of pornography. In bad Art there is nothing at stake in the appropriation of the non-Art: on the contrary, it is a formula of addition which entrenches the distance of Art from non-Art under the guise of doing the opposite.

Good comedy has to pull off a radically different and much more nuanced encounter between the Universal and the concrete. In good comedy the Universal and the concrete swap places. To follow Zupancic once more, when the King slips on a banana skin and comes down to earth with a bump, we should not end the story here: if we did, if the King were fully to realise his fall, this would be tragedy not comedy. The truly comedic dimension emerges when he gets up and carries on as King, as though nothing had happened. What is truly human is not the fact of human finitude but precisely the denial of the fact of human finitude. Good comedy has to pull of the trick of showing the situation in this light: of letting us see that what is most human about the King is his false, unshakeable belief in his own Kingness. With President Bush, the true comedic dimension emerges when he is trying his hardest to be the President: not only does he fail to speak like a President but he carries on despite this failure. To return to the King: it is not that the King sees himself differently at the end of the comedic scene; it is our perception of what constitutes the King that has been shifted. Thus, in good comedy, the concrete sense of what it is to be human emerges in the place of the King, in the place of the abstract Universal, whilst what was most concrete in the original scene, the banana skin and the earth, have become mere abstract props. This is a process of transformation: from abstract Universal to concrete universal.

Following the example of good comedy, the trick that good art has to pull off is the transformation of the abstract Universal, Art, into the concrete universal. We should begin by acknowledging that all art is about Art but not in the Wajcman’s sense of every artwork being its own theory of Art. We should not begin with the particular. All art is formed in relation to the abstract Universal. The difficulty of this acknowledgement is seen in the commonplace disparagement of the idea of art-about-art, which is taken to be a form of solipsistic abandonment. Art which insists on being about something and for someone revels in the particularities of the artwork whilst, unacknowledged, relying upon and reproducing the Universal Art. In other words, promoting the particularity of the artwork as that which is meaningful obscures the processes and structures whereby this space for meaning is eked out. We could formulate this in terms of Zizek’s idea of interpassivity,7 whereby constantly being busy with meaningful, practical activity is a way of stopping things from really changing: a way of keeping the true problem away. Here we need to turn the tables: if the accusation is that art-about-art is limited in its possibilities we should assert, rather, that this is the very condition of its possibility. Art which is not art-about-art merely reproduces Art, which is to say that it covers over the fact that Art does not exist: it is a shoring up of the Other.

So, if the Universal is false, then any conception of the particular in terms of its positive traits will be false because of its failure to register the falsity of the Universal. However, the only route to the concrete universal is through the particular; but the particular conceived as the self-reflexive turning back on the absence of the Universal. The particular is set in motion by the absence of the Universal and this movement is a process of negation. It is in the necessity of this self-reflexivity for the artwork, in this process, that the concrete universal emerges: it is this movement.

Here we should risk the generalisation that negation is the important category in art. In good art, the particular features of the artwork become important for what they are not rather than for what they are. In this sense, what is apparently most concrete, the material properties of the artwork, become abstract props in the movement against the Universal; and what is apparently most abstract, the negation of Art, becomes concrete. The Universal and the concrete have swapped places. So finally we should wager that good art is neither Art nor non-Art but rather anti-Art.8


1. Gavin Wade in conversation.

2. Alenka Zupancic, The ‘Concrete Universal’, and What Comedy Can Tell Us About It, in Lacan: The Silent Partners, Slavoj Zizek (Ed.), Verso, London, 2006, p. 173. I apply Zupancic’s insights throughout this essay.

3. Ibid., p.174

4. Darian Leader, Stealing the Mona Lisa,

5. This brings to mind the Master’s appropriation of the Slave’s knowledge; to pursue this line of enquiry is beyond the scope of this essay. See Jacques Lacan, Seminar XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2001. 

6. See Gérard Wajcman, The Work-of-the-Art, lacanian ink 17, fall 2000.

7. See Slavoj Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies, Verso, 1997, London, Ch. 3.

8. This calls for a thorough reconceptualisation of Dada.