The Non-Existence of Art

The Non-Existence of Art
Text commissioned by Colony
Reproduced in As If Something Once Mentioned Now Plain to See, Colony, Birmingham

The Non-Existence of Art

In psychoanalysis, contrary to popular misconceptions, it is not hard for the so-called patient to change: to become conscious of her unconscious and, subsequently, to recognise the need to change. This is not the difficult bit. The difficulty could be described as a problem of location, of finding where the unconscious is situated. 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?’1

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.”2 This is to say that the unconscious is most clearly seen not by looking at, or in, the individual but in ‘the world’ she has constructed around herself. Thus, in order for the so-called patient truly to change, she must not only acknowledge the existence of her unconscious but come to realise the extent to which her world is haunted by her unconscious. If the things around us are animated by our unconscious desires then to escape this haunting “it is not enough that we know how things really stand; in a certain sense, things themselves have to realise how they stand.”3

For artists, the belief in Art is as debilitating as the belief in Chickens is for the patient in the joke above. It is not necessarily that artists feel persecuted by Art; hegemony in art does not work in this way. On the contrary, artists can have any number of complex relationships with Art. However, there is a sense in which Art is animated by the unconscious desire of the artist. Art in this sense is not a descriptive term, it is not about what exists in the world. Rather, Art is a kind of external authority for the artist; something that is so much taken for granted and unquestioned that it forms the foundation stone of artistic practice. This is to say that the abstract idea of Art acts as the guarantee of the concrete practices of art.

But Art does not exist. To say that Art does not exist is not to doubt the reality of concrete artists, practices, works and institutions. But the idea of Art is something more generic; Art is something outside and apart from these concrete practices. And just because Art does not exist, it does not mean that Art does not have real, material effects upon concrete art practices. The trouble is, we might say to paraphrase Zupancic, that Art does not know that it does not exist. That is, it is relatively easy for the artist to escape the corrals of any particular, essentialist conception of Art (whether this involves art as beauty, truth, the visual, communication, or etc.); nowadays the belief in Art is rarely a conscious, explicit belief in a set of transcendental values. Artists today tend to conceive of their activities in terms of idiosyncratic interests rather than grand narratives. However, the belief in Art is manifest in the manner and rituals of the artist’s practice, speech, relations within the art world – in a certain sense, Art is something that keeps happening to the artist. Art is there in the world the artist has constructed around herself, which, paradoxically, is also a world of which she is a product. 

Art, in this sense, is an abstract universal: not so much a set of transcendental and universal values as such, as a place in which belief can be invested or into which it can be displaced. And it cannot be emphasised enough that this investment is not a conscious one; what is at stake is not what artists think they are doing (or tell you they are doing) but their behaviour qua artists: what they do in practise and in the face of the idea of Art (those habits, rituals, etc.). Thus we should not be looking for this phantom, Art, in artworks or in artists’ statements but rather in how the artist organises herself into producing artworks and artist’s statements.

To return to psychoanalysis for a moment, it follows from what has already been said that it can be a crucial problem that the so-called patient is all too ready to change. That is, the so-called patient is often all too willing to change her conscious thoughts and beliefs. However, this is a way of stopping things from really changing: the embrace of conscious change is a way of distracting attention from unconscious desires and the need to change those external practices in which the unconscious is manifest. The real psychic investment of the so-called patient is in these projected, external structures of the unconscious and not in internal, conscious thoughts. 

It is, likewise, harder to get rid of Art, or the belief in Art, than declaring an explicit disbelief. It has always been relatively easy for artists to embrace ideas of innovation and newness and to question their existing beliefs. Artists have been ready and eager to change. But here we need to differentiate precisely between, on the one hand, changing all the time to stop things from really changing and, on the other hand, the attempt to transform the very co-ordinates of art: to shift the Symbolic, external structures of art, in which the artist finds herself entangled. The history of the avant-garde is precisely the history of the attempt to overcome the belief in Art and the debilitating divisions that follow from it. If, nowadays, the very idea of the avant-garde seems somewhat distant, this is a sign of how difficult it is even to think about genuine change in art and not a sign of the passing of the need for the avant-garde project. 

Conceptual Art offers an example of both tendencies. Radical Conceptual Art was about negation: an assault upon the epistemological habits and ontological presuppositions of Art. For radical Conceptual Art, the established practices and institutions of art were themselves a form of negation: both a symptom of, and perpetuation of, the divisions, absences, contradictions and ills within art. In these circumstances, the linguistic interrogation of the working of language in art seemed to be the necessary work for an artist to do, regardless of whether this work seemed to be art or not. Indeed, such a project puts in doubt the very constitution of art. As such, Conceptual Art was a moment of revolutionary transformation. It was certainly something that could not be ignored. Those artists who did not embrace this revolutionary transformation, with all of its negation and doubt, were presented with a dilemma, whether consciously or not. In order to preserve their belief in Art, such artists had to be prepared to change everything, to change everything so that nothing really changed. These artists were only too willingness to use words in their artworks and to talk about ideas: to entertain ‘words as a new medium‘ or to adopt the idea of ‘the dematerialisation of the art object.’ In short, they were prepared to change radically within their practices – the form and content of artworks; conscious attitudes towards what can make up an artwork – as long as the hidden belief in Art could be maintained.

Today, Art is multiple and diverse and artists are knowing, ironic and sceptical. Art seems to be reconciled with its others: with mass culture; kitsch; the everyday; and all forms of the marginal, excluded and discriminated against. If, nowadays, it seems possible for an artist to be interested in anything, as an artist, it seems more or less impossible for an artist to believe explicitly in art. In this, art is in keeping with the times. Those who believe and are prepared to act on their beliefs are labelled fanatics or fundamentalists by a liberal democracy whose hegemony rests upon ideas of diversity and tolerance. Greenberg is as unfashionable as the Taliban. The point, however, is not to side with those who believe but rather to think through the ways in which belief is secretly present in those who profess not to believe. 

Adapting Zizek4, we can identify four positions on belief.

i) The True Believer.
For the true believer there is some external authority (God; History; Art) which directly or indirectly tells the believer what to do.

ii) The Subject Supposed to Believe.
The subject supposed to believe occupies the place of belief, regardless of whether the individual happens to believe or not. We could think of the priest in the Church of England who believes on behalf of his congregation; whether the particular priest himself believes in God is wholly irrelevant to the structural position he occupies. A slightly different example would be children who have a belief in Father Christmas foist upon them by their parents.

iii) The Subject Supposed Not to Believe
The subject supposed not to believe professes no belief herself but gets others to believe on her behalf. When children believe, or pretend to believe, in Father Christmas, it is not their belief that is at stake but that of their supposedly knowing parents; the parents push beliefs upon their children, who thus become surrogate carriers of their beliefs. For the subject supposed not to believe belief is always mediated and at a distance: the proximity of true belief is always disturbing and intolerable.

iv) The Non-believer
Radical non-belief is the escape from the dynamics of authority. It is, in a certain sense, to move from belief to action. It is to manage without guarantees; to act in such a way as to change the co-ordinates of what is possible rather than to change things within those co-ordinates. 

There are obviously complex connections between these positions. For example, ii) and iii) are aspects of the same dependent relationship; part of the dynamic of liberal tolerance, which always wants its belief mediated and unthreatening. From this perspective, i) and iv) are deliberately conflated because they are both a threat to mediated belief and thus a threat to the status quo. But the point to be made is how difficult it is truly to not-believe: not to store one’s belief in other people, things or abstract ideas. The flip side of belief is action: to act without belief is to assume a radical responsibility for one’s actions without the back up of a belief in some external source of authority, whether that belief be mediated or not.

Thus, the situation in art today, where it goes without saying that anything goes, should be read in terms of how difficult it is truly to change things, rather than in terms of any revolutionary transformation of Art that has already happened. Art has proved capable of including all manner of anomalous, different and extraordinary things. But this two-fold process of embracing an explicit diversity of practice, on the one hand, and the apparent reconciliation of Art and its supposed others, on the other, takes place entirely within the existing Symbolic structures of Art. The constitution of Art is in no way affected by aberrant contents; the others of art are included within Art in such a way that nothing is at stake for Art. It is worth noting that the one thing that cannot be incorporated within Art is that which is necessarily excluded from its symbolic structure: that which is necessarily worthless because it is without culture. The name of this excluded position, which is in fact the truth of this symbolic structure, is the philistine.5

The central contradiction to be noted in all this, is not simply that the universal needs the concrete but rather that the necessary embodiment of the universal in the concrete is the very mechanism that maintains its separation from the concrete. Thus, for example, it is not just that the idea of the monarch both legitimates, and arises from, the series of actual monarchs, regardless of their individual traits. In Art, it is not just that the idea of Art is both a cause and product of a series of individual artworks, regardless of their particularities. Beyond this contradictory dependency, the point to be made is that the series of individuals actively maintain the universal by means of their deviation from it: the flaws of each individual, which is to say each deviance from the idea and the ideal, emphasise the distance of the universal. If this King is a wastrel; the previous one an idiot; and so on, then the only thing that connects them all is their ‘kingness.’ And Art cannot be defined by naming positive traits. The formula here is that the universal is also particular: the king is only human; this artwork is only a piece of art. Thus, although the universal must be embodied in the concrete, this formula of addition means that the separate spheres of universal and concrete are maintained.

Zupancic uses comedy to talk about the relationship between universal and concrete. She notes that usual accounts of comedy repeat the idea that comedy shows us our human limitations, our finitude. When the King slips on a banana skin, the universal quite literally comes down to Earth with a bump. But accounts which stop here stop too soon. For Zupancic, what is truly comedic is the fact that the king gets up again and carries on as a king, his belief in his ‘kingness’ undiminished despite the reminders from the concrete world that he is just an ordinary, finite human being. Thus, what is most human, and the true subject of comedy, is not our finitude but our very refusal to accept our finitude.

Thus, for Zupancic, false comedy is where the universal comes down to Earth only to be restored to its erstwhile position of authority. The banana skin might remind us that the King’s is only human but if this physical interruption is all we have then the concrete and abstract-universal remain in place. True comedy moves beyond the formula of addition; against the idea that the king is also human, in true comedy the universal and concrete swap places: the banana skin becomes an abstract prop for what is truly material, the King’s indestructible, human belief in his own Kingness. It is this further complexity that true comedy must pull off. The universal is not something apart from the concrete but rather something within the concrete: the true universal dimension is the concrete’s refusal of its own concreteness. The King is most human in his blindness to his human finitude. 

In terms of art, the formula to be resisted is the idea that the artwork is also Art. Whereas comedy is inevitably about the relationship between universal and concrete at a structural level, art is, so to speak, caught within such a relationship. However, just as true and false comedy is not a question of subject matter but one of structure, the radicality of an artwork turns on the question of its position within the relations of art, rather than on the positive content or form of the particular artwork. The point is to move away from the opposition of universal to concrete and rather to see the universal as concrete. And so with art as with comedy, the radical questioning of the abstract-universal is work done through the concrete but not in the name of the concrete. The particular properties of the artwork become, so to speak, abstract props for an emergent, critical, self-conscious dimension in art. One name we could use for such a dimension is anti-art, in all its historical glory, for it emerges out of the negation of Art.

For Adorno, any generic idea of Art under capitalism was corrupted by the logic of identity inherent to capitalism. In bringing relations of equivalence to bear on every area of thought, capitalism uses generic categories in promulgating market relations everywhere: in the service of turning use value to exchange value in thought. Therefore, the only hope in art, against a tainted universal, is in the particular. But this hope does not reside in the particular, positive traits of artworks (in form or content per se); rather, it is only in the particular that the contradictory position of the particular, caught between the universal and the concrete, can come to consciousness. This is why determinate negation is so important for Adorno: the artwork is already caught in a contradiction between a universal sphere which will flatten its particularities and a concrete sphere where positive particularities only go to strengthen the universal. The only way out is to attempt to negate this situation of negation. Thus the particularities of the artwork must always be read historically, against the specific conditions of negation in which the artwork finds itself. Thus, for Adorno, the universal enters the picture once again through negation: as consciousness of contradiction at the level of the concrete. Such consciousness is always historical, local and incomplete but it is because of these limitations that the universal re-emerges, transformed, out of the concrete. This ‘concrete universal’ is nothing but the negative resistance, at the level of the concrete, to the division between universal and concrete. And this, I suggest, fits exactly with Zupancic’s account of true comedy. In true comedy, the universal does not end up reasserting its authority, despite its fall into the particular; in true comedy we identify with the universal precisely as a dimension that emerges out of the concrete itself, rather than as an abstract authority. Zupancic says that comedy is the universal at work, which is to say that the universal is a certain movement within the concrete. It may not be very often that Adorno and comedy are bracketed together but it is just this sense of movement that is present in Adorno’s determinate negation.6

Psychoanalysis is a process without compensation. At the end of an analysis, the so-called patient has not gained expert knowledge about the self nor a set of techniques for living. The time and money spent is not an investment. Rather, the aim of the process is to give the so-called patient the time to come to the realisation not only that the analyst is not in a position not know but that such a position does not exist. Transference is so important in the psychoanalytic process because the search for authority and guarantees of belief in the world are shifted onto the analyst: ‘the subject supposed to know.’ And the job of the analyst is not to provide expertise but rather the space in which the so-called patient can come to realise, and come to terms with, the lack of expertise when it comes to desire. The analyst cannot simply tell the so-called patient the truth because waiting to be told the truth is precisely part of the problem for the so-called patient. Rather than providing answers, the process aims to cure the so-called patient of the expectation of answers; indeed, to cure the so-called patient of the trauma of expectation: of waiting for recompense, guarantees, expertise, guidelines or reactions. The truth is that the former so-called patient must manage with nothing.

There is, similarly, no point in telling artists that Art does not exist; the only way for artists to escape from the trauma of the encounter with Art is the slow realisation in practice that Art does not exist. The non-existence of Art should be of some comfort to artists. But as Art & Language once said, all this is vanity. To true task is to manage with nothing. 


1. 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
2. Ibid., p.174
3. Ibid., p.173
4. See, for example, On Belief, Routledge, London, 2001; although, as is the way with Zizek, the argument comes up in most of his books in one way or another.
5. This is another topic for another time. However, the idea of the philistine has been theorised by Dave Beech. See, for example:
The Philistine Controversy (with John Roberts), Verso, London, 2002; or
The Freee Art Collective Manifesto for a Counter-Hegemonic Art, available from the Freee website,
6. For a great account of Adorno’s thought see,
Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism, Adorono, or the Persistence of the Dialectic, Verso, London, 1990.