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Imre Bak: Post-modern squares, or the topicality of metaphysics


Essay is published connected to the Diagonal Histories

—Imre Bak, Peter Halley

show at Art+Text Budapest,

10 October, 2015 — 8 November, 2015 
© courtesy of Imre Bak


See Pater Halley's essay here

"The question is not only whether the ‘project of modernism’ was completed, as Habermas asks, or whether the new way of thinking should rather be called ‘new modern’ or ‘late modern’, but also whether post-modern and post-structuralist thinking takes different forms in different cultures, and whether this means, basically, a return to modernism or a kind of ‘being stuck’ in it. ’"
"Strangely, it was an American artist, Peter Halley, who described the basis of European artistic and spiritual-intellectual identity precisely and succinctly as ‘Heideggerian.’"
"Of course, it is metaphysics and transcendence—but has it lost is topicality?"

“If there is an end point it is death. And the big difference I see between American art and European art is that European art has remained Heideggerian in some fundamental sense. It’s an existential exploration of living in terms of its relationship to death. But in American culture if there is no real it is because of the disappearance of death. Death is no longer a socially recognized category. It is pushed aside as unmentionable. As Warhol used to say people don’t die anymore, they just disappear.”

Peter Halley, 1999




Peter Halley contrasts the post-modern square with the modern square. Not only with the modern square but also with the European square. In his essay entitled The crisis of geometry (1984) he compares the mystic geometrics (Mondrian, Malevic, Rothko, Newman) and the neutral geometry of the minimalists with the geometry described by Foucault and Baudrillard, which shows how our everyday life is forced inside the limits of geometric systems. Instead of an abstract geometry, he analyses the geometry of the social environment and regards it as symbolic. In this, he relies on the theories of structuralist and post-structuralist authors and philosophers. He considers minimalists with their ‘neutral’ geometry as formalists and transcendentalists, and he derives the crisis of geometry from there. They are exceeded by the new generation (Ewig, Koons, Levine and Halley himself), the members of which use ‘hard’ geometry (hospital, prison, factories), as well as ‘soft’ geometry (highway, computer, consumer electronics) as radical expressions of the social condition. When used in this manner, the objects they use (eg. the vacuum cleaners in fibreglass boxes) are not ready-mades but only ‘hyper-real’ social symbols, if not simulacra. As Baudrillard formulated it: the simulacrum is the place “where the real is mixed with the model.” This is the “total universe of norms”, “digital space”, the “shining field of codes”. In Halley’s case this means that as a pictogram made on a computer, the square, this geometric form becomes a sing of a social condition. The titles of Halley’s works also indicate this: cells and wires. The prison and the concrete bloc of the housing state (as hardware), and the connection between them, public utilities, telephone lines and the computer (as software) are symbols of Halley’s geometry. All this is painted in the colour-field and hard-edge style of the 1960s. Although Halley uses the theories of Foucault and Baudrillard in a very concrete manner—perhaps even too didactically—, it is obvious that his thinking is post-structuralist and post-modern also in a broader sense of these terms. This holds true even if we consider that he deals with only one circle of problems—according to his own personal interest and way of thinking—from among the numerous social issues and phenomena that have become subjects of scientific study in recent times. All these studies (cultural studies, virtual studies, gender studies, queer studies, post-colonial studies etc.) approach the current political and social issues with a broad scope, in a post-structuralist fashion. In these sciences, there is an obvious break away from the linear approach of history characteristic of modernist thinking, from the ‘great narratives,’ from the attempt to formulate the one and only truth. Those pursuing such studies, consider the linear approach not only modernist but also Eurocentric and colonialist. Instead of a centralist approach to culture, they propose pluralism, a ‘collage’ of cultures of equal value. However some problems (of interpretation) of ‘global’ post-modernism arise here. The question is not only whether the ‘project of modernism’ was completed, as Habermas asks, or whether the new way of thinking should rather be called ‘new modern’ or ‘late modern’, but also whether post-modern and post-structuralist thinking takes different forms in different cultures, and whether this means, basically, a return to modernism or a kind of ‘being stuck’ in it. Can we approach the changing and globalising world, its various characteristic features and phenomena (the information boom, knowledge factories, relativity of values, collage of cultures etc.) without forcing on it a ‘global uniform’? Can we do it without extending the cultural standards of a new centre (a new power), but instead, can we attempt to safeguard and maintain the local features of the ‘peripheries’, and even to express their quality.


Surprisingly, American art—whose cultural position in the world and identity have long been clearly defined—again and again becomes a subject of analysis by American artists and theoreticians. The subject matter of their study is the difference between American art and European art (eg. Clement Greenberg’s ‘American type painting’ or the essay by Peter Halley quoted above). Meanwhile, European artists, who, since the mid-1960s have had to face the fast expansion of American art—and the underlying ‘Duchampian’ and then post-structuralist way of thinking—, do not attempt to define their own manner of ‘after-modern’ thinking. Consequently, European art has, for decades, been a ‘follower’. It is a mistake to believe that European local themes and motifs can compensate the absence of spiritual and intellectual character, a characteristic manner of thinking and—since we are taking about visual art here—visually manifested differences. In the 1970s trans-avant-garde, heftige Malerei, nouvelle peinture etc. these European attempts to re-conquer some positions in the international world of art, were only ephemeral phenomena and turned out to be failures very soon. Strangely, it was an American artist, Peter Halley, who described the basis of European artistic and spiritual-intellectual identity precisely and succinctly as ‘Heideggerian.’ It would be pointless here to join the ongoing debate among philosophers about whether Heidegger could—the metaphysical theories of the history of philosophy. (Derrida considers that he could not, Mihály Vajda wrote a book on Heidegger post-modernism, while others refer to Heidegger as the philosopher who attempted a metaphysical deconstruction of metaphysics). A great many of Europeans philosophers—is it due to the influence of American thinking?—declare roundly that the notions and categories of the metaphysical, transcendental, spiritual or sacral are irrelevant in the discourse and approach of contemporary art. They do not believe that Heidegger’s definition of art still holds (‘the essence of art is to set the truth of being to work’), but consider that the ‘changing definition of art’ is not related to ‘Being’ but to ‘life’, that is, to everyday phenomena in society. This is to say that here in Europe we would also have to accept that, as Halley formulated and Warhol declared it, man does not die anymore he only ‘disappear’. The question arises: Can man’s social identity be separated from his psychological presence? In other words: Is ‘man in society’ at the same time the rejection of ‘finite man,’ (infinite) man, who considers his own perishing as a problem? At any rate, for thousands of years, the subject matter of European art has been the latter. Why do we presume that the fact that we are finite is no longer a problem, that we know the answer to László Földényi’s dilemma “we get life without asking for it, and then it is taken away from us, again without our being asked”? Amid the process of the globe getting global, do not we need attempts at giving post-modern answers? Is art really only about one moment? This can be true only if only the moment has importance. Artistic thought survives only if beyond the momentary topicality it loses, something remains in it that is ‘eternally topical’ and ‘eternally human,’ the essence that is independent of cultures, social and political conditions: the eternal circle of life ever being born and even falling back into ‘nothing’. Of course, it is metaphysics and transcendence—but has it lost is topicality? It is doubtful that there has ever existed an art that was immanent and autonomous in the absolute sense of these words, even if several times in the 20th century it was considered to be so. Art as such has always contained something beyond itself—it has been transcendental. Deuve says that there are transcendences, one ‘vertical’ one ‘horizontal.’ One is concerned with ‘Being’ (existence), while the other with Life (a political and social being there). After metaphysics, philosophical theory lost its status of existing outside the everyday world. “The explosive empirical content of the non-everyday have been taken over by art, which has become autonomous,” Habermas says. After the failure of the movements against the metaphysical (materialism, empirism, positivism)—which, despite their rejection, remained within the horizon of metaphysical thought—it was post-modern philosophy that could get beyond metaphysics—vertical metaphysics. The price to be paid for this was to reject this role in Europe too? Or it is only some artists and theoreticians who reject it? Undoubtedly, Halley’s social criticism, the reflexion on the role in our life or urban reality and communication systems is justified. Defined by Jameson, ‘Hyperspace,’ this global, multi-national and decentralised field of communication is present in our life even if we do not leave our room. Beside Foucault’s ‘prison-like’ isolation, the pressure based on communicational ‘misleading.’ On this basis, it becomes possible to make pictures, wallpapers and diagrams. And indeed, Halley’s art is an example of how to make an art that places the social aspect in its centre, within the framework of post-modern thinking, in the styles of hard-edge and colour-field—a little closer to the European type of art—using transcendental spaces. Transcendental contents in art, the artistic meaning are not necessary identical with the idea of ‘beautiful’ (especially if by experiencing the ‘beautiful’ we mean the situation of the retina, something pleasant). If theoreticians of art thought so they were wrong. It should be understood and accepted that it depends on the character of the artist and the curator whether they place the emphasis on questions of ‘Being’ or ‘Life’—even in our globalising world. The question may arise: Is there an understanding of the post-modern other than the post-Marxist post-modern of a political character? If we take a closer look at some of the characteristic features of the post-modern, we see that there are several possible answers to this question. Because the post-modern involves the doubt regarding a world centred around man (God is dead, Nietzsche said, and Foucault went on saying that Man is dead). It involves the pluralism and relativity of cultures and values, as opposed to the ‘great narratives,’ the linear concept of history. The interest in the past, art history and the history of culture as subjects of manieristic and eclectic reflexion is also a characteristically post-modern phenomenon. “Under every painting there is another painting, one of art history or medial one,” as Weibel said. A sense of otherness, a tolerance towards cultures outside Europe are there in post-modern—these features are not new in European art. In post-modern art we can witness layers of meaning, where the different meanings do not pretend to be final and exclusive. Post-modern works have several meanings, they offer several readings. There is usually an overgrowth of images, it is clearly felt that they are manipulated, which is an attempt to empty them.


We could enumerate many more circles of thought raised by post-modern and post-structuralism, which, beyond the concretely social and political can become subjects of artistic reflexion, and constitute the framework of artistic activity in a world becoming globalised and entangled in a network of communication channels. However, these social and political frameworks and conditions of life do not preclude artist from dealing with such problems of mankind that “fall outside the everyday world.” And these problems too, can be approached on post-modern grounds, using post-modern techniques, especially here, in Europe, relying on traditions that are several thousand years old.


courtesy of Imre Bak


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