Art in the Age of AI

by Bret Schneider


Despite post-internet art's implicit insight that the WWW is a bloated corpse, web development rages on, taking over society not on a user level, but a production level. It is now in many ways the ground upon which AI and a perceived epochal change is constructed. Internet 3.0 has even been heralded as the next industrial revolution; a joke if it wasn’t pursued with such zealotry. If artistic protests against our new reality continue in their current form, the post-internet sensibility will go down in history as the first movement in a long line of increasingly impotent resistances—or, alternatively, dogmatically theoretical submissions—to the virtualization of everyday life.

Brian Eno’s post-election recognition that the cultural revolution was not revolutionary applies to new media fine art too: anti-corporate culture buckles under epochal technological development. We are now in a transitional culture: Neoliberal culture is irrelevant and sustains little interest; the identity politicians of culture have become caricatures or reneged (e.g. Kara Walker admitting that art changes nothing socially); installations increasingly look like retail storefront displays; the best critics of the era are now mere Democratic Party shills who lack any interesting insights about new artistic representation. Contemporary art as we know it will persist, but it no longer claims any relationship to the zeitgeist. Post-Internet, culminating in the Berlin Biennial of 2017 was the final claim to the present coming from within the industry of contemporary art.  As contemporary art fails to grip the masses, fringe elements begin to claim culture. We are entering an era of brute, technocratic manufacture, and with it comes a different culture to pay it homage. Coding bootcamps now absorb Humanities runoff to aestheticize technology, but also to aestheticize intelligence. Smartness has never been more in vogue, as it is increasingly required for the reconstruction of an Enlightenment ethos. ‘Smartness’ rediscovers its mimetic origins as fundamentally verbal and active: to smart, to sharpen. In the new society, the ‘smart’ are smart in the way tools are smart. The rise of neuroenhancers and artworks that utilize neurology will increase, if only because enhancing mental capacity is now an explicit requirement for retraining the workforce. The ethos of artistic representation undergoes revision as it intermingles with a new enlightenment spirit in what is broadly perceived as the age of AI.

It is not a coincidence that artifice as a concept incompletely related to artistic practice is brought back into the fold: various artistic visions (often dystopic and bound up in Cold-War era ideology) of a technocratic society over the past half-century have significantly contributed to technological innovations. The drive towards things like artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, and augmented/virtual reality has a lot of origins in Cold War era novels and Hollywood kitsch. Minority Report’s transparent, mutable screens were next year’s MIT students homework. Then, when tech is fully realized, artists race to re-use and abuse it. Since at least the Impressionists who were inspired by color science (however vulgarly to the color scientists!), artists have repeatedly used or rejected the new industrial tools provided.

Nietzsche’s image of a new science-art phenomenon has persisted as a task without being fulfilled. Contemporary art has largely resisted it. When technology enters the fold, it is usually as a pet theme whose importance is abstractly overstated. This was only reinforced in the net and post-internet generation of artists: as soon as the internet was proven a viable medium it was exploited thoroughly and then burned to the ground. The exhaustion of the net all but demanded a new one, and along with it a new neo-Futurism. AI has firmly established itself as here to stay more generally in society, with ‘coding’ as a lifestyle driven into the minds of children, producing the next generation of blue collar labor. Basking in their enlightened humanitarianism, the kings of industry have benevolently added an 'A' to the stem education so that the arts may continue to hobble on in the STEAM paradigm. And so now that the AI culture has firmly established itself, artists begin to mine it. And rightly so. The artists of the early 21st century that will be remembered are those that reflect and advance Culture more generally, for better and for worse. Analogously, it will be Jeff Koons’s acutely capitalist art, not the pseudo-Bohemian socially engaged artists, that are remembered a century from now for expressing the potential of the time.  

Socially speaking, the value of intelligence has never been simply intelligent. More to the core of the particular type of industriousness of the human species, innovation is not accomplished through intelligence or genius, but rather through obsessive social labor—e.g. the painstaking construction of Mosques (or better, Kafka's Great Wall of China) that outlasted the individual lives of those who made them. The open source movement is a way of trying to outsmart human toiling without exactly eradicating it. Intelligence then lingers as a general task bound to no particular discipline or form of inquiry. The polymath designers of Artificial Intelligence are not just tasked with mimicking something that already exists, but also creating something entirely new and alien--as such artists are brought before the kings of industry as they have been for centuries, co-mingling with scientists and whoever else happens to have a vision. For instance, the Google Cultural Institute may have more purchase on the present than art museums (e.g. recent reports show a dramatic decline in museum attendance in at least Germany). All the better to drag artists out of their beloved marginal spaces! Because there is no other social imagination currently on the table, ‘smart society’ now demands the ‘creativity’ of this generation’s current artists, for better or worse, just as religion demanded countless artistic accomplishments over history in order to monumentalize itself. But like religious art which turned out to be nothing at all about religion, the long culture beginning with AI may not be about intelligence at all.

There is also of course a history of purely aesthetic interest in AI. For instance, the original idea of experimental music was the design of systems that are unpredictable, self-generating, and seem to compose themselves. For the past half-century the most interesting strain of experimental music has become increasingly intertwined with algorithmic principles, now developing into explicit algorithmic music movements (live-coding, modular synths etc.); ‘printer’ or ‘scan’ art, though not AI, evidenced an increased interest in systems thinking and machinic non-composition; MoMA stakes its claim on computation culture with its Thinking Machines exhibit that dares to show—n full Neo-Futuristic fashion—actual computers as if they were artworks. Finally, over the past few years, there are inklings of what comes next: Jordan Wolfson’s animatronic stripper; a panel discussion about algorithms as heir to minimalism hosted by contemporary art’s most relevant proponents; Autechre recently revealing that their ‘music’ is now more of an artificially intelligent collaborator than music per se; artists like Ed Atkins use of uncanny 3D rendering; Yasunao Tone’s longstanding idea of using neural nets to compose music decades before it was implemented by facebook; Holly Herndon’s neurologically influenced sound art; and so on. There are countless more examples, and this is not even considering pop culture, with an endless list of dystopic fictions and TV shows like Westworld, which blatantly opens to an image of a player piano performing to an empty room, referencing Conlan Nancarrow’s generative music that has influenced today’s more extreme sonic experimenters, e.g. Thomas Brinkmann. And Ex Machina—a movie not even about modern art—offers the clearest interpretation of Abstract Expressionism since Greenberg, effortlessly outstripping the last half-century of lame art criticism. These types of fringe sensibilities will continue to eat contemporary art’s lunch, even as Contemporary Art institutions increasingly claim to appeal to the masses.

At the same time, one thing we re-learned from the post-net-art generation is that many artistic sensibilities strive to undermine the technology that is also its medium. There is a self-canceling aesthetic at play. Conservatively, development is usually truncated before going ‘too far’, belying a deep ambivalence. The Elon Musk's tell us that we are supposed to be afraid of the future. If the word was the imprisonment of the poet in the 19th century, and not its liberator, the same might be said for artists who felt both betrayed and motivated by the virtual materials they were consigned to use. More broadly speaking, the years of the post-internet generation coincided with the years of Zombie Formalism and ‘minor art’, a conservative reaction to technologically sophisticated art. If AI took concrete root in the ‘drone’ (see: drone music, use of actual drones!) of the Obama years, (statisticians are quick to point that he won based on machine learning technology) it did so alongside the development of petit-bourgeois culture and ‘minor’ painting—it’s telling that Obama chose a Giorgio Morandi painting for the White House. For every important technological innovation, there was a tasteful, unimportant painting striving and failing to undermine it. Humans still hate the things they create, and create more things to negate many of the things previously created. Citizens are expected to create their way out of misery. Creativity is part of the problem, not the solution, as products are continually heaped onto the landfill of cultural history. This seems to be part of the  reason we want the machines to create themselves and their own art and just get on with it without our creative input contaminating it. The general culture around AI and in the 21st century is at once the harbinger of human progress, but also deeply nihilistic about the species.

As far as prognoses go, we will probably see various things: more reactionary painting, sentimental poetry, and a deepening of ‘protest art’ from those that refuse to leave the late 20th century cultural turn. Conversely there will probably be a rise in the academic art-science world, of which the 'altruistic' MIT Media Labs is prototype. In the wake of Neoliberalism, there is no impetus to falsely bridge gaps such as these: art movements may become more tribal and alienated, trading in dialogue for community ideologies. Curators may either bridge the gap in unusual ways (e.g. pitting opposites into the same exhibits), or sequester their practices into diminishing identity politics bubbles. Either way there will be a resurgence in the primitive nature of art’s social positions. But with the advancement of extra-artistic tech culture, art movements might increasingly be at war with each other, as they compete to solve problems not solvable through art alone. Social contributions would then be recognized not by disparate artists and subcultures who have been bred to be increasingly specialized, academic, and narcissistic, but rather by whatever juried panels who are socially assigned the role of comprehensive judge. As the swamp of Neoliberal art bureaucracy drains, artistic merits will be judged by their concrete accomplishments on a broader and more universal level, not by their servility to communities organized around ballot boxes and expressed through mission statements that never deliver the goods.  

But prognoses are misleading. One of the interesting things is the return to Enlightenment philosophy. For instance, Nick Bostrom speaks of AI as a form of collective, modular intelligence for species-being, the implications of which are comparable to the neolithic revolution; assuming the computer as primarily an aesthetic tool. Bret Victor thinks the vanguard of visual representation lay in the development of the new ‘dynamic artist’: those artists who make fully aesthetic the social medium of an increasingly interactive internet; and videogame culture has even fostered its own avant criticism that can’t help but recall Schiller’s play drive. A perceived newness or refeeling of enlightenment ideas by the vulgar philistines and supposedly tasteless bros of Silicon Valley. But they may have much more to practically contribute to a human aesthetic than the tasteful experts! They feel like humanity is at the very beginning of an aesthetic revolution, and not operating mechanically in the end of times. True or not, the perception is critical to optimists and progressives with a nose for utopia and the role that art should play in the cosmic destiny of the species. It is far more important than the countless nihilistic statements and propaganda being made about society's ills that we've endured for decades.

Critical problem-solving and aesthetic progress is no longer a subject tabooed by the humanities, but rather something required of all citizens, lest they be judged guilty of trading in the revolution of education for political posturing. The new, somewhat ethically positivist enlightenment philosophes in the early 21st century will not allow its citizens to be lost to the nihilism of postmodern obfuscation and pseudopolitical resistances to aesthetic education. Citizens will be dragged kicking and screaming into humanity’s destiny, pulled by Judge Holden-type Quixotic robots who rationalize their way to freedom, manufacturing aesthetics with shrewdly-calculated hearts. Yet for progressives who believe that utopia is slowly won through a series of ruses, the current vulgarity of science and art still trumps tasteful elegance.

 From Ryder Ripps Instagram: Poster concept. STOP MAKING NEW SOFTWARE LET US HAVE LIKE ONE FUCKING MONTH WITH FUNCTIONAL SOFTWARE STOP UPDATING POINTLESSLY!!!  // A good example of artistic discontent with technological 'development'. Innovation and creativity are perceived as a potentially crippling pathology. The comments are great here too, especially aaronwinters916's insight that the Javascript scene (the language of the net) is so convoluted & overdeveloped that it barely works.   


// A good example of artistic discontent with technological 'development'. Innovation and creativity are perceived as a potentially crippling pathology. The comments are great here too, especially aaronwinters916's insight that the Javascript scene (the language of the net) is so convoluted & overdeveloped that it barely works.



Yasunao Tone developed the idea to use neural nets decades ago: what took Silicon Valley so long to catch up? The latter's implementation is much less interesting. Too little too late.


Victor is part of a broader sensibility in computing theory that believes technology hasn't actually advanced, but regressed, since its invention. "We live in primitive times". 

Bret Victor: The main thing I want you to take away from this talk is dissatisfaction....I want you to have higher standards for this medium (the ipad).

Victor also has a lot of dissatisfaction with education, & identifies programming as "blindly manipulating symbols." The current educational initiative (or indoctrination of children) to think that coding is cool would be a missed opportunity for more dynamic visualization than the current educational standards. One wonders if the 'revolution' is a means to simply reconstruct our poor educational models and squander potential. Tbd!

Even so, computer scientists like Victor and Alan Kay have oddly inherited the task of clarifying and developing visual experience, since the humanities has basically handed the aesthetic education of man to them on a silver platter through decades of circle-jerking. 

Sound Art: A Historical Miscarriage?

by Bret Schneider


In an interview discussing mediums, art historian Harry Cooper noted that painters have always been jealous of musicians because there is such a rich store of technical systems in music, whereas painters only have a pathetic color wheel. Assessing Modernism, Greenberg observed that modernist painting’s success took music as its inspiration, as it possessed a seemingly innate ability to express something both primal and reasoned. However, musical knowledge has advanced so far today as to be nearly impossible to discuss without technical expertise, highly specialized jargon, and second-hand information. Nevertheless, even to the uninitiated, some of the most exciting work being done today falls under the heading ‘sound art’. Yet ‘sound art’ as such has offered little in the way of gripping theoretical substance: it eschews its own medium specificity even as it requires it. Institutionally, it has proven itself a pet fad of contemporary art—so says a founder of sound art himself, Max Neuhaus. One of the first to use sound as a medium in contemporary art exhibitions in the 70s, Neuhaus thought the categorization ‘sound art’ was miserable: after all, we don’t call Anthony Caro a ‘steel artist’ but a sculptor. There are periodic flares of interest in sound art, from top ten lists to comprehensive sound art exhibitions, and yet no one is really certain what this term means, and what the whole thing is about. It seems to exist out of institutional obligation or even charity. It is often a category for leftovers: if a visual artist utilizes sound but it isn’t listenable as music, it is lumped into ‘sound art’, and left alone to fester in that grey area. It is the grey area itself that people are often attracted to, and so the half-baked attempts to build a theory of sound is as necessary as it is undesirable.

The differentiation from music is the most problematic and interesting specter haunting sound art, and has come to be a defining characteristic of sound art. A differentiation began to take form around the 1960s, even though it wasn’t exactly theorized as a ‘sound art’. Certainly, there were the Futurists who used sound in non-musical, ‘arty’ ways, but it wasn’t thought of as an autonomous artistic movement for ‘sound art’, and falls into the category of the many tendentious historical revisionists who “muckrake” art history (to borrow Hobsbawm’s term). Sound art as such originated as a rebellion against the modern theme of time. If modernist music was primarily a time-based medium par excellence, coming to fruition in the leisure free-time of the avant-garde, sound art became primarily about space in post-modernism. Witness the interests of LaMonte Young’s Dream House, Maryanne Amacher’s Music for Sound Joined Rooms, Pauline Oliveros’ recordings in cisterns, the efflorescence of field recordings e.g. Jakob Kierkegaard, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, and so on and so on. In retrospect, sound art appears as a movement to cure people of the affliction of time. Whereas modern music developed to the point of raising the awareness of time--Adorno noted that Varese’s compositions often sounded like alarms sounding--sound art has been divided by contradiction: it is on the one hand about therapizing techniques to deal with the modern feeling that there are always alarms going off, while on the other it aims to carry the torch of avant-gardism that once thought to express the feeling of alarm itself. Sound art is a reaction, but also the leftover of music—it is music outside itself, music in exile. Because of this, contemporary sound art usually takes the form of a requiem for modernist music today, but a requiem without a community, or within a broader enlightenment community of disenchantment. See for instance Jennie C. Jones’ or Janet Cardiff’s melancholic installations that dissect rather than reproduce music tradition. But it remains to be seen if sound art is an important or meaningless leftover; if it is mere vestige, like a wisdom tooth that only causes pain, or like T-Rex’s useless arm.

Sound art is only now beginning to show it’s foundational form: in its own moment in the 60s the move towards a spatially oriented sound art was impulsive, it’s theories lacking. It was, in many ways, a reaction against temporal organization by presuming an aesthetic in which no thought developed in time, but only sensation—a sensory aesthetic—could thrive. Ever since, sound art has been successful on it’s own limited, self-undermining terms. As a result, its success is ambivalent: it has proved formulaic in its recourse to vulgar, scientistic ideas of ‘pure sound’ and postmodernism’s latent phenomenological orientations that are now becoming archaic. It's reliance on a purely philosophical assumption about sensation has become a tautology—sound sounds like sound! This means it is also ideological where it attempts to be purely experiential. Sound art’s ideological, historically specific makeup contradicts its claims to a transhistorical phenomenology of sound. But above all, it's abandonment of a concept of development—listeners walk into a seemingly infinite sound space usually—has meant that it's content to reaffirm the mysterious invention of ‘sound’ in the enlightenment age. That this impasse is very real does not contradict the fact that, on the other hand, sound art has cultivated a highly sensible ear for minutiae, and a sharpening of the listening faculty. What this faculty may be good for, however, is hard to say. Because of this, sound art often partakes in the therapeutic, self-enrichment turn of culture more generally--yoga for the ears. What good is it, after all, to be able to listen better? In a world in which art is expected to do more than self-enrichment, the question must be asked.

The common denominator of all sound art as such has become acoustics, and sensory ‘experience’. The way vibrations resonate in a room, the technical means of recording and producing sounds, the psychoacoustics of the ear interacting with the brain, and so forth. Sound art exhibitions so often are illustrations of biological or acoustic phenomena, the kind of demonstrations that one would find in a science museum (e.g. the interest in Chladni patterns). Recently, the anti-intellectualism of sound art’s acoustic, spatial, and therapeutic turn has been challenged, for instance by Seth Kim-Cohen’s ‘non-cochlear’ theory of sound art. Recognizing the impasse, Kim-Cohen follows a contemporary art first principle in Duchamp’s ‘non-retinal’ visual art, with the practical goal being the overcoming of sensorially reductive sound. Nevertheless, it’s pendulum swing to contemporary art’s conceptualist basis has not cultivated more truly conceptual or provocative sound art, but evinces the late academicization of sound art.

Sound art today can be seen as either science demonstrations, or a return to, and exposure of, the foundational ideas of a sonic art. The latter is more interesting, and is probably what is most at stake with the ‘modular revolution’, the practice where there may be an acute ‘art of sound’ as a leftover of music. The past decade has seen a huge industrial boom in modular synthesis, influenced by the post-techno academic turn that thoroughly muckraked (and continues to muckrake) mid-century electronic music labs, expressing a curiosity for foundational principles. This curiosity has exceeded academic research, and broken out into a historical practice mediated by industry: an attempt to refeel a moment. It’s hard to say exactly why it is one of the most interesting things happening today, but it may have something simply to do with the great amount of productive energy invested in the practice globally. I.e., it isn’t about the ‘modularity’ of electronic music per se because this industriousness could have conceivably been invested into other areas, such as tracker programs, flute production, etc. Why this, why now? may be important. Electricity has been known for thousands of years, and electronics as we know it since the 19th century (arguably even more innovative over a century ago). So why in music now, and why is it electronic sound art that aspires to the acute expression of our moment?

The general reactions to Kim-Cohen’s ‘noncochlear’ sound art point in some direction, because on the one hand he was articulating the dullness of acoustical science demonstrations, but on the other his critics were very suspicious of the literary tendency, or the prioritization of the conceptual over the sensory: a false, and postmodern dichotomy. One gets the sense that so many electronic musicians  have pursued what might be considered a sound art practice because there is something ‘scientific’ about it: circuits and mathematical functions don’t lie (or bullshit) the way contemporary art does, but building generative sound compositions—sui generis—is nevertheless a creative and expressive endeavor, far afield from science or math. It’s really about connecting things and constructing. Our closest analogy might be Russian Constructivism, which attempted to radicalize the organization of space, and imagined new visual concepts and tools towards aesthetic ends. It was influenced by mathematical and geometric concepts, but was also very distinct from that history. Or perhaps another analogy would be the open-endedness of connecting things children experience via toys like Kinex or Legos (It’s not nothing that Lissitsky made children’s books). Likewise, electronic musicians have slowly been developing a palette of organizational tools that is highly specific to time and pitch, but also quite playful on its own terms. Such tools are already social and conceptual in nature in their attempt to redeem infantile intelligence, as if adulthood in our society has proven to be a wrong turn. But play also remains an ideal or a task. In our current society play becomes, at least in part, social conditioning for technological domination. It's not really just 'play'. When one thinks of 'play', Schiller comes less to mind than Google's adult playgrounds that are calculated to increase productivity. 'Play' is also a demand or a compulsion, something artists are assigned to do as a distraction from reality. Sound artists today may have more conflicted, and less positive feelings about play. As such, sound artists often have an aesthetic of busywork.

In other words, so many more people perceive something more socially real in electronic fart noises and infantile bleeps than the dinner table prattle of contemporary art’s cultural turn. Sound art today has become more interested in the forms of the sonic sensorium, which is at base also conceptual. A point of comparison might be the early 00s work of the Line or Raster Noton labels to the sound art tape music scene evinced by Phinery. The former was often mediated via sound installations, whereas the latter’s mediation lies more in performance or home listening--it can be considered more concisely ‘formal’. There has been a shift back towards time-based listening. The sound art groundwork laid in the early 00s has allowed a more expressive music to flourish.

Not to mention that industry has a way of pushing productive material forward, for better or worse. It takes industry to create the conditions whereby an aesthetic of sound can emerge. But this polarization of ‘sensory’ and ‘conceptual’ is itself symptomatic: what modern aesthetic philosophers like Hegel and Benjamin advanced was the ‘sensibility of the idea’, as well as the idea of ‘nonsensuous similarity’ respectively. Meaning, these two poles would not be antagonistic, but capable of being unified. The idea would gain substance and practical traction that points beyond itself because it is mediated--here by medium specificity--and not simply a demonstration of itself. It can be said that the current polarization evidences the lack of both ideas and sensory experience. Where sound art is literary, it is in its truly onomatopoetic origins: its ability to imitate, however abstractly. It is not nothing that arty music is experimental in that it has developed a formal palette of primitive utterances: pew, zap, bleep, pft, etc. This is, at best, how it is described, and this in turn is how it reproduces itself.

Likewise, the most interesting claim sound art today might make would be the refeeling of Nietzsche’s ideas of modern art more generally: a synthesis (pun intended!) of science and art. The experimental electronic turn in sound art shows in part a sense of Enlightenment discovery that is in sharp contrast to the many Romantic ideals endemic of contemporary art. The expressive qualities--for instance the sonic humor in Autechre’s music--derive in part from the fact that science, like art, is still enthralled in the growing pains of enlightenment crawling out of prehistory. One thinks of the way Michael Fried analyzes the portrayals of absorption into the discovery of soap bubbles: scientific but in a deranged and playful sort of way. One attraction to modular synthesis and likeminded experimentalism is in the hard empirical nature of electricity as a medium. Electricity in modern practice is very simply about directing current. Even the most dynamic of modular electronic music composition is about voltage being modified in time, and channeled into different directions. But the electrical impulse, despite its scientific aspect, also reaches back into the primalness of experience: Philip Sherburne’s critique of Surgeon’s From Farthest Known Objects as a sort of ‘waveform transmission’ of electrical energy unleashed by the pandora’s box of modernity gets at the relationship of the primordial and the modern. In a sound art like this, the cosmic telos of civilization reaching back to the big bang is aestheticized in our present moment.

To the extent that this can be considered sound art today, it embodies a shift back into the domain of time and history, and very minute decisions on a micro-scale as well as enormous epochal sound masses. As with traditional synthesis, the voltages actual vie with each other (perhaps analogously to the way streams of water converge) to find the path of least resistance. The setting up of systems where voltages are in conflict to find a path forward is a compositional attempt to remove the artist’s hand, and force the mysterious nature of electricity to run its own course as it reacts to a stress imparted by the creative, unnatural concept of bourgeois expression. It is, in layman words, a way of forcing nature’s hand.

Such is the synthetic program staked by a great deal of electronic musicians, but perhaps exemplified by Hecker’s early Sun Pandemonium. While on the one hand it is a basic implementation of Xenakian quasi-scientific concepts, such basic and highly alienated calculations when applied in a deranged society seem to unlock some sort of primordial beast: it is as if the Pandora’s Box of sound was opened and primal auditory spectres have come wailing forth. The wager of sound art is that music tradition in Bourgeois society has kept this box closed rather than prying it open.


The early 20th century saw composers sequencing permutations of all sound material, and so it was possible for e.g. Stockhausen to write an explicit study of time in music (How Time Passes). However, with the spatial turn in critical music towards sound art (e.g. multi-channel spatialization, sound installation etc.), time appears to have passed, if time is also understood as a plaything of modernization. The interest of time as an organizational tool has been truncated, while inevitably being the continuing raison d’etre for anything that organizes sound. The attempt to escape the temporal constraints of music (Amacher) haven’t succeeded in abolishing time, but rather extended the meaning of time. What results in the spatial turn is the longing for time-structures, overdetermined arrangements, and the  hyper-organization of sound. Time appears as a contradiction: to have already passed, creating static or crystallized objects, as well as being an open-ended dynamic process. This condition then also suffers from a repetition or iteration complex: the tendency towards loops and cycle systems is an allegory for a historical moment in which time is paramount. It is the aestheticization of a complex with music history. It is the overdevelopment of music that has pushed it into the clinical white cube, where it is exposed rather than lived. Where it is melancholic and mourning for music, it is actually not mourning for the end of music, as one might expect, but rather the meaningless persistence of music, or the surplus of music. It is mourning for music’s forced enrollment in a barbaric society that knows little other than the weaponization of culture.

Such historical consciousness is the practice of Jennie C. Jones, for instance, when she lines galleries with acoustic absorber panels. Material exists to undermine itself in that it is used to absorb and nullify what has become of (bourgeois) music. It is a self-canceling aesthetic, and creates auditory black holes (or squares), so to speak, in the pathological cultural turn of music. Jones has borrowed from Fred Moten’s concept of the ‘break’, which might be seen as a reconceptualization of the bourgeois form of caesura, albeit today within the broader overdevelopment of culture. Jones has expressed a deep ambivalence about the supposed freedom of music, stating that with black American experience (as essence of American experience) music is all that we have, and yet not enough. “Music is everywhere--it’s drowning us from the street, we listen to it on our phones--so I’m trying to offer something else that’s an alternative to our usual consumption of sound”. Later theories of sound art had proposed that an art of sound would be important because there is so much ambient noise. But this has always been insufficient: the ‘noise’ is nothing other than bourgeois culture overripe and decaying. Sound art here is a moment of pause, a break from culture from within culture. In other words, culture is rounded out as a self-negating phenomenon of our current society. It is a practice like this which poses a challenge to the mass industrialization of e.g. electronic music or jazz, or the attempt to turn sound art into a kitsch workshop complete with all the tools and gadgets one might think up; a sort of deranged Bauhaus. Such tools will add up to very little besides contributing to the current white noise of culture--a white noise that is motivated by the cultural turn’s interest in the antiquated romantic myth that art has the power to move mountains. But this form of sound art is also an outpouring of the overdevelopment of culture as well: it wouldn’t exist without the current general overripeness of art, and in a different historical moment. The Appolonian, ‘scientific’ side of sound art takes such romance to task, and the Dionysian aspect is not the Bacchanalian orgy but rather the mournful requiem in the Dionysian myth when the god parades into the village in silence.

Even in the modular music realm, the more work that is done leads to a more thoroughly empty aesthetic, not a complete one. More completely empty, perhaps. And even in countless online videos of modular synth jungles, the maximalist vision undermines itself: the thousands of sounds are scanned in rapid succession, as if they are being tested and immediately discarded. By analogy, the pulsating intricacies are like thickets of dotted lines, drawing just as much attention to the emptiness in between, and becoming ever more elliptical.  Sound art is just as much about non-experience. William Basinski once described his tape loops as something like burning comets of junk hurtling throughout the night sky, to which one might add ‘the night sky of humanist music history’. That is, 'music' is untouchable refuse that seems to take a life of its own. As long as there is unimportant music everywhere, there will be a sound art that questions and seeks to aestheticize music’s inessential contribution to society. But it is also the case that an art of sound may only finer tune the more petty, unimportant qualities of the music industry, serving as little more than an avant-garde of a cultural lack.



Cover image: Bernhard Leitner



A good intro film on the not-sound-artist sound- artist Max Neuhaus, written and edited by Adel Souto.


Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009): Living sound, for "Sound-joined Rooms" series (1980). 

Maryanne Amacher's Music For Sound-Joined Rooms series utilized architecture to experiment with a unique acoustic form of 'structure-borne sound'.


Jacob Kierkegaard is well regarded for his field recordings at sites such as Chernobyl, but his Labyrinthitis is also influenced by Maryanne Amacher's experiments with the psychoacoustic phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions, wherein the human ear (cochlea) not only receives, but transmits sound. Official stream from Touch. Distributed by Kudos Records.

 Carsten Nicolai's  Milch  features experiments with Chladni patterns.

Carsten Nicolai's Milch features experiments with Chladni patterns.


Richard Chartier's Incidence exemplified a late 90s/00s interest in austere, digital minimalism, implementing tones on the threshold of perception. 

Label: Raster-Noton ‎- r-n 75 Format: CD Country: Germany Released: Nov 2006 

 El Lissitsky's children's book,  About Two Squares

El Lissitsky's children's book, About Two Squares


Surgeon isn't technically a sound artist, but some of his more experimental post-techno productions make use of sound art sensibilities.


Hecker's Sun Pandemonium (2003) was a watershed for unleashing the potential of granular synthesis, an electronic music technique theorized by Iannis Xenakis decades earlier.


Autechre's Sublimit, from Untilted (2005) is sometimes noted for expressing an uncanny humorous element, while also being a masterful percussive composition.

 Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

 Ben Vida, cover of  Damaged Particulates , released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics.

Ben Vida, cover of Damaged Particulates, released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics.


by Adam Rothbarth


“Man has an inclination to associate with others, because in society he feels himself to be more than man, i.e., as more than the developed form of his natural capacities. But he also has a strong propensity to isolate himself from others, because he finds in himself at the same time the unsocial characteristic of wishing to have everything go according to his own wish. . . . to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw.” — Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View


The thought of writing an essay on my ambivalence is fundamentally paradoxical. If I take myself not to care about art at a certain level, how must I approach the task of thinking critically about my estrangement from it? From where do I muster the energy to be objective? Or, to put it another way, how do I care that I don’t care? To answer the question, I will do what all art critics should in part strive to do: I must critique not only art, but my own self.

What does it mean to care about art? First, I must separate my caring about art into two categories: intellectual care and emotional care. Emotionally, I inherit from society a subjective deficit that art claims to strive to fill. This claim is second nature today, one of the pillars of the culture industry: art is meaningful, art is fulfilling, art makes life worth living. And yet since I know that none of these things are really true, I am fundamentally thrown—on an emotional level—into perpetual crisis regarding my relationship to art. It can do nothing to quench the unquenchable thirst that the impossibility of Spiritual fulfillment evokes. It is a deep desire, and one that can only be relieved by the negation of my own negation.

Just as man is driven into society to seek a form of liberty that does not exist in nature, finding himself unfulfilled equally (so far) by solitude and community, man is so driven towards art, finding himself in a similar contradiction. Thus, man enters into a relationship with aesthetic production that, to invoke the epigraph to this essay, he cannot tolerate, but from which he cannot withdraw.

So what is the relationship between art and potential negation? This is perhaps where one’s care can begin to blossom, their minority acting as the soil in which their critical positions may flourish. Today man does not question the categories of art or the culture industry, but, rather, seeks exponentially refined ways of understanding them meta-critically in his particular aesthetic moment. But this pursuit presupposes that man must care about art. However, if man can only care about what he can lose, and the culture industry is a permanent institution of capital, how can man gain the degree of abstraction necessary to care, or to even think critically about it? How can man care about something that is unfulfilling and permanent? In a sense he cannot, and yet the paradox remains. This answer produces a more important one, though: if man acknowledges that he cannot care about particular art-works, he MUST care about art as a category, intellectually. His ambivalence masks a desire so powerful that it can only appear in a distorted, contradictory form.

This relationship with art drives man, whether he recognizes it or not, towards an actually meaningful and particular critique of art. He must care about the art that does not fulfill his mind today so that he may be fulfilled by his own social activity tomorrow.

Man must care about art because it is a practice in which he can both critique his ambivalence and envision a world without it. For the artist, this means creation; for the critical theorist and the art critic, it means interpretation. In many ways, art is no longer able to criticize empirical reality in a meaningful way. It has lost sight of the dissonance of modernism, and could today be said to more or less simply embody the perplexity of contemporary social life. Without revolutionary politics, there is no real art, and without critical theory and art criticism, there is no real interpretation. In this void, we are left with two mirrors facing each other: ambivalent art-works on one side that task a confused world with deciphering their meaning on the other.

I do not know what Trump’s presidency will bring, nor do I really know what it will mean for art, though I entertain my private speculations. I do know that, empirically, his victory has been simultaneously the most exciting event we’ve experienced at Caesura during our year of publication, and also a force powerful enough to halt publication for five months. Nota bene: we have not reached a collective understanding of the meaning of our hiatus.

Perhaps we wanted to wait to see what would be there when the dust settled. Maybe we were too overwhelmed by the art world’s response. I know that part of my own hesitation to publish involved a desire for a resuscitated Left. But it didn’t show, we didn’t write, and the world continues to turn. There remains no real Left, and as the many responses to Trump have shown, there is very little, if any, real art. This is why Caesura is as important as ever, as one of the last bastions for actual critique, if I may be so bold as to suggest that we have attempted to provide this.

To paraphrase Adorno, the realm of art is cold. I feel it now more than ever, and if you are reading this, you probably do as well. I cannot speak for the other editors at Caesura, nor those at other publications, but I know that for myself, I must force myself to continue to care about art today so that I may be fulfilled by my life tomorrow. And this means acknowledging my ambivalence. Only then can I be free to actually think about art.


Against the "Critical Criticism" of Culture: Towards an Aesthetics of Blindness

by Jensen Suther

"As soon as I relate myself to something objective, it ceases to exist for me, and so I am poised above an immense void, conjuring up shapes and destroying them..."


In one of the sardonic gestures that would come to define his polemical style, Marx subtitled his 1844 attack on the Young Hegelians Kritik der kritischen Kritik, or “Critique of Critical Criticism.” He intended for this witticism to reveal a short circuit in their form of social and political theory: criticism is exponentially augmented, to a second “critical” power, when it elevates its activity and standpoint above actual practical change. “The act of transforming society,” Marx writes, “is reduced to the cerebral activity of Critical Criticism.” In the case of the Young Hegelians, this entailed the impossible demand that the masses conform to the principles of criticism, by changing their thinking (and not their practices); in the case of Bret Schneider’s recent response, critical criticism becomes the equally impossible demand that culture be made to progress, that criticism itself “[raise] musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized.” In other words, from the standpoint of critical cultural criticism, the music of Oneohtrix Point Never fails when it succumbs to “true” art’s opposite, kitsch. By the same token, the criticism that, as if touching a leper, risks contamination merely by addressing it—never mind that Schneider, hereafter the Critic, led the way to the colony—fails “to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production.”

Critical cultural criticism thus tasks itself with the transformation of “the way culture is produced.” As the vanguard of the avant-garde, it expects its own critical activity to change the way that painters paint, that composers compose, that writers write. Leadership is always in need of a lodestar, and the idea of advanced technique is apparently the sole light that shines in this dark sky. But when Walter Benjamin’s important observation that the art of true artists teaches other artists is adapted as a norm for criticism, the critic is effectively reduced to little more than a tastemaker, charged with singling out for praise the most technically advanced works of contemporary art. It comes as no surprise, then, when the Critic tells us that his distaste for Garden of Delete is indeed a matter of preference: “I personally prefer the ‘technical’ avant-garde.” Those works are preferred that contribute most to “the development of aesthetic knowledge,” which the Critic seems to understand in the popular terms of the sharing economy as a growing database of techniques. On this view, the possibility of artistic progress is treated as a given and it is conflated, moreover, with the idea of technical advance: in order to “keep culture moving,” criticism drags art by the hair into the future, distinguishing the good from the bad in accord with the criterion of the technically superior.

Yet it is precisely with this implicit definition of criticism as a kind of banausic score-keeping that the Critic gives away the game. Several of Adorno’s comments in the draft introduction to Aesthetic Theory bear on the issue directly: “What currently passes for technical criteria in no way facilitates judgment on the level of artistic achievement and most often relegates it to the obsolete category of taste.” One can thus see how the Critic’s sheepishly proclaimed “preference” for the “technical” avant-garde—a false distinction to begin with—is an abdication of critical thought necessitated by the irresolvable contradiction at the heart of his own position: the criterion of technical advance itself must be superseded by a deeper criterion, lest what constitutes an authentic advance remain indiscernible. Since advances in technique are, it might be said, a necessary but not sufficient condition of artistic progress, in the absence of a more fundamental criterion of such progress, thinking must beg off and give way to the unbinding judgments of taste. Preference replaces insight into what is aesthetically—and thus socially—true or false.

The irony, then, is that the Critic’s own work falls on the wrong side of the supremely undialectical distinction he himself draws, between a criticism that occupies itself with “good or interesting” works, and one that treats works that are “critical.” What was intended as an indictment of my supposed “kitsch criticism” becomes the unconscious self-indictment of the Critic himself, as “interest” becomes the key to his notion of judgment: “In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest [my emphasis] to what they themselves make…This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish.” Contrary to what the Critic thinks, however, the quality of a work, the judgment as to “good or bad,” is decided by whether or not it is critical; contrary to his one-sided understanding of “caesura,” “the quality of works of art is measured […] according to the degree in which antagonisms are formed within [them],” as Adorno remarked in a roundtable discussion with Lucien Goldmann in 1968—well after the heyday of historical modernism, nota bene. But the most significant symptom of the Critic’s reliance on taste lies in his failure to grasp that the critical character of successful works can only be understood on the basis of their truth content, which requires interpretation of form and technique, rather than the smug affirmation of the technical opposition of advanced works to the kitsch products of the culture industry. This failure finds expression in his accusation that my critique “ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music.” The rigid separation of the “literary,” or questions of meaning, from the “musical,” or questions of technique, defines, therefore, the one-sided approach of the Critic, which, as has become clear, relies ultimately on taste-based criteria to tell artists what to do and what not to.

While it is true that criticism, as Adorno argues, does have an “art-practical” function in that its “insight into the historical situation […] converges with binding implications for production,” criticism is not a mere appendage to production but is rather to be regarded as a “form in [its] own right” through which “the development of artworks […] is fulfilled.” What role can criticism possibly play in completing works of art, or “fulfilling” them? For Adorno, the artwork only truly comes into its own through the critical interpretation that, in going beyond the artistic intentions objectified in the work, distinguishes its truth from its untruth. Because artists do not get the final say on what their works mean, because their social significance changes over time, waning in one instance while bursting with new meaning in the next, the task of a work’s completion falls to the critic.

It is now apparent that, in the context of this debate, the notion of “truth content,” which I briefly mentioned in my original response, requires greater elaboration. Society leaves its traces in the details of the work of art, through the process of its production. This gives us a clue concerning the answer to the question: How does one decide whether an artistic decision is correct or incorrect? The “work-immanent” task of determining “the truth or untruth of a perception, the consequence or lameness of a thought, the coherence or incoherence of a structure, the substantiality or emptiness of a figure of speech,” requires a “work-transcendent” moment in which the critic relates “the knowledge of society as a totality … to the claim inherent in the specific object that it be apprehended as such.” To understand specific works of art on their own terms, one must go beyond them, to the society that appears “external,” but that in truth inheres in the smallest aesthetic details. Here are several other typical statements by Adorno:

“Art and society converge in the artwork’s content, not in anything external to it.”

“The aim of [criticism] is to provide not social justification but a theory of society by virtue of the explication of what is aesthetically right and wrong at the heart of art objects.”

“Artworks are objects whose truth cannot be thought except as that of their interior. Imitation [by way of interpretation] is the path that leads to this interior.”

Notice that in each of these lines Adorno is preoccupied with the notion of the “interior” of the work of art. While I have argued that the interior of the work is only truly accessible through the lens of society, it is important to keep in mind that the interior itself is a work’s unique language, the distinctive stylization of paint in a painting, say, or the rhetorical figures that constitute the formal substance of a poem. But this is a deceptively simple, “two-step” approach to the complex problem of interpretation, since the requisite “turn to the social” itself necessitates, according to Adorno, philosophical categories: “The truth content of an artwork requires philosophy. It is only in this truth content that philosophy converges with art or extinguishes itself in it.” It is hard to imagine what the Critic would make of this claim, especially in light of his remark concerning what he took to be extraneous, art-alien invocations of Kant in my response. It is certainly true that philosophy is often misused by critics, who artificially project its categories onto works of art. But it is also true that no genuinely dialectical approach to art can dispense with philosophy, which is for Adorno synonymous with critical theory, or, said all too quickly, the historically specific theory of the self-contradiction of society under capitalism. What the Critic referred to as the “very interesting” (but, for him, irrelevant) discussion of puberty in my piece was precisely a philosophical attempt to articulate the “meaning” of the lyrical and musical content of Garden of Delete in critical-theoretical terms: in terms of social contradiction. While the Critic accuses me of “Heideggerian phenomenology”—a misplaced epithet if there ever was one—I was attempting to articulate, however hastily or inadequately, the historical form of subjectivity to which the record gives voice. If the historical Heidegger invoked by the Critic is thought to “ontologize” the anxiety, isolation, and despair that characterize the experience of the modern subject, then my own procedure does the opposite: it critiques the abject subject of late capitalism from the standpoint of its possible fulfillment.


My strategic defense of Oneohtrix Point Never against the one-sided approach of critical criticism was never intended to serve as an unconditional endorsement. The song “Animals” is an instructive example of artistic misfire that also helps to illustrate the foregoing points. It attempts to protest alienation in the digital age by way of a minor progression and hackneyed lyrics sung by the pitch-shifted voice present on most tracks, but here in an unusual “plangent” mode. Yet nearly every other moment on Garden of Delete is dedicated to the demonstration of the impossibility of the kind of subjective expression “Animals” takes for granted. It becomes clear that the record’s critical edge is dulled the instant society becomes its explicit object and it ceases to counterbalance the norms of popular songwriting with the skepsis of vaporwave. If society is made to foot the bill for this aesthetic error, the immaturity and petulance of its lyrics, along with the trite melancholy of its sound, appear as symptoms of capitulation to the socially necessary illusion of the substantiality of the subject and of the object of its protest, social forces of domination that are, in truth, because of their abstractness, beyond the individual’s grasp.

If the task of critique is to separate truth from untruth, then the album as a whole should be grasped in terms of the general aim or ambition its failings contradict. In the Critic’s response, much is made of OPN’s repetition of surrealism, which is grasped as a symptom of the project’s failure: “With the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation … what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level.” Surrealism strove to defamiliarize everyday objects so as to restore to their experience a feeling of childlike wonder, which renewed in turn an aura of potential surrounding the hollowed-out remains of culture. It relied on the commodity fetish to achieve its effect: cultural trash formerly imbued with nostalgia and longing came back to life under the surrealist’s gaze, as the “true object of love,” in Adorno’s words. But unlike surrealism, Garden of Delete does not seek to resuscitate lifeless objects. In the late phase of capitalism, the fetish character of the commodity has dissipated: the predominance of finance capital under neoliberalism has entailed the solidification of the capital fetish, which is the illusion of the absence of the system that marks its ultimate triumph. Under the rule of the capital fetish, all culture is kitsch and the form of fulfillment it promises is purely culinary, no longer admitting of the reflective and imaginative experience the original fetish, paradoxically, at least claimed to make possible. This was reflected in the illusion of the autonomy of culture, whose passing vaporwave cynically celebrates. As the ironic recognition of the degraded status of culture, vaporwave constitutes the farcical repetition of surrealism.

Yet Garden of Delete negates and fulfills the genre it exemplifies. It transforms irony into insight by adopting the capital fetish as a principle of form: through-composition and montage become the contradictory means by which the impossibility of surrealism is demonstrated. The potential in trash the surrealists aimed to educe is here denied, and instead, the total degradation of culture becomes a cryptogram for its realization. Garden of Delete strives to accomplish the impossible, to “make kitsch elegant,” as I wrote in my response, in the sense that it attempts to give form to formlessness itself, to what is now beyond redemption. The childhood naïveté that surrealism hoped to restore for an instant in the improbable context of abandoned commodities is supplanted on Garden of Delete by a prepubescent dread of bodily change. The capital fetish produces the subject’s consciousness of itself as its body, but as no more than its body. By figuring the effect of the capital fetish on consciousness of the body, Garden of Delete shows us that the illusion of self-identity under late capitalism reflects a reversion to mere animality. A new state of nature is reflected in the illusion of the system’s absence: the true self-identity that Marx called “species being,” humanity come into its own, is mocked in the pseudo-identity of second nature as the mere repetition of first nature. Identity politics takes this pseudo-identity as its starting point: you are your race, gender, sexual orientation, you are your nationality, but you are not what you do. On Garden of Delete, such pseudo-identity is explicitly represented as the return to bare nature. The body without freedom is nothing but pus.


In the fourth chapter of The Holy Family, Marx undertakes a curious defense of “love,” which critical criticism had rejected as a threat to the soul of man. Love, according to Marx, requires that one take another as one’s object, an act condemned by critical criticism as “selfish.” By overcoming love, Marx cunningly argues, critical criticism becomes the “tranquility of knowledge”: nothing can disturb it, because it denies that there is any object outside itself. The Critic denies that he ignores the object, and his denial takes the form of an either/or: either he acknowledges the object by way of “a more socially focused analysis,” or he acknowledges it through appreciation of its technical achievement and contribution to the “development of aesthetic knowledge.” This separation of what I called above the work-immanent and work-transcendent moments of criticism, however, effectively means that the object is denied: an either/or criticism either reduces its object to its social origin and function, or “slips into the disreputable role of the messenger who brings the latest news” from the front, while failing to meaningfully penetrate its object either socially or technically.

Yet implicit in Marx’s critique of critical criticism is a conception of true critique as love of its object. But in what sense can critique “love” its object? If, in the absence of an object, critical criticism “self-immolates” in the demonstration of its own vacuity, true critique must see itself in its other, starting from and grounding itself in its object. “One must have tradition in oneself,” Adorno tells us, “to hate it properly.” Or said differently, in order to interrogate the failings of culture, to grasp its moments of falsity or untruth, its false consciousness, one must have an intimate knowledge of its form and its relation to the works that preceded it (and in many instances, those that came later). What the Critic derides as “erudition” is the knowledge of the object requisite for disclosing its determination by society.

All of this is to say, then, that genuine love of culture, as I have defined it, is a prerequisite of its hatred. And one can only see the object of critique, I want to argue further, if, like Oedipus, one tears out one’s eyes. Hyperbole aside, against the critical criticism of culture, I want to insist on an “aesthetics of blindness” grounded in the materialist dialectic, as first mentioned in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory:

The truth of the new, as the truth of what is not already used up, is situated in the intentionless. This sets truth in opposition to reflection, which is the motor of the new, and raises reflection to a second order, to second reflection. […] Second reflection lays hold of the technical procedures, the language of the artwork in the broadest sense, but it aims at blindness.

The intentionless is accessible only to the blind in the sense that the critic can only truly see what a work intends by going beyond its intention. Blindness allows one to see what a work comes to mean in spite of itself, in spite of its own intention: the social significance of a work, what it tells us about our world, can only be decided by way of the willed naiveté of commentary, interpretation, and critique. Strategic blindness is the key to social insight.

There is something tragic about the necessity of an aesthetics of blindness. But one must understand “tragedy” here in its technical sense: necessary misrecognition of the meaning of one’s deed that results in one’s downfall. The tragedy of art is that artworks are the deeds of artists whose failure can only be apprehended after the fact. Just as the tragic actor only retrospectively grasps the meaning of her deed, so must criticism seek to bring to speech after the fact what remains unconscious in the deed of the artist, the artwork. Yet the failure of art is not a question of a lack of talent or technical ability on the part of artists. Art owes its failure to the form of social life that makes it both necessary and impossible: “Art really only exists as long as it is impossible by virtue of the order which it transcends.”

Adorno frequently analogized society to the Sphinx, the artist to the blinded Oedipus: the work of art is the answer that topples the monster by naming the humanity it opposes. To complete his analogy by way of conclusion: perhaps the critic, then, is Tiresias, the blind seer who knows what Oedipus cannot, the fate that will unfold through his deeds. Yet Tiresias cannot save him, or even convey his fate in terms he can understand, just as the critic is helpless to fundamentally change an art whose fate is, in the last instance, determined by that of the world.


  Oedipus Rex . Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.

Oedipus Rex. Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. 1967.


The Limits of Kitsch Criticism

by Bret Schneider

This article is a response to Jensen Suther's Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention on Schneider's May review of Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete.


Modern criticism developed when art became serious and demanded thought. Yet the vast majority of our culture today isn't meant to be seriously thought about. Oddly enough, cultural criticism has blossomed, and a very smart one at that. This has led to a purely contemporary condition whereby critics apply their erudition to works that aren't meant to be thought about, and are better off without thought: kitsch criticism. Only in an era when art has become completely throwaway will there be people who pathologically hear echoes of Beethoven in fleeting vapor trails. This has led to a great deal of bombastic claims regarding the latest trends and most recent dead pop stars, and how they must be expressing Marxist contradictions of society, being the last modernist and so on and so on. It advances a form of cultural tailism, where critical reflection, once the clarifying edge of art, chases the rearguard and becomes the obfuscating edge. But the correct philosophical position does not ensure progress in aesthetics. Such projections usually end up revealing more about detached academicism and unmediated criticism than the artworks in question. When this detached criticism is misrecognized as authoring culture, it reveals its own pretensions about bearing the torch of culture. Yet this new form of kitsch criticism merely reproduces moderate culture by tailing after the least contradictory expressions of society, assuming that erudition will somehow change them. In truth, kitsch criticism and kitsch emerge at the same time, but not necessarily critically. It is plainly delusional to believe one can write critically about kitsch—amongst the great rubbish heap of writings on kitsch there exist no examples of criticism that have actually transformed the way culture is produced. And yet the goal remains the impossible and undesirable task of making kitsch elegant. Why not critique works that demand critique and appeal to the development of aesthetic knowledge?

Kitsch criticism dispenses with this avant-garde aim to keep culture moving via taking up a leadership role in cultural production, instead opting to affirm talent within popular music conventions. This means it willingly does not address art's self-consciousness of its own historical position within contemporary society from the standpoint of cultural production. But there's a crucial difference between a work of art being good or interesting, and a work of art being critical. There's countless good, talented art out there, almost none of which is important. Perhaps I am mistaken, but Suther's criticism of Garden of Delete is exemplary of kitsch criticism's affirmation of the inessential because it liquidates the self-reflexive, immanent qualities of culture from the standpoint of cultural production into an aesthete's program that interprets culture by popular music norms—norms that are now supported by classical music criteria. Yet OPN inevitably creates from the standpoint of the producer of aesthetic knowledge in the culture factory, and not the classical beholder. Kitsch criticism is not only backwards, but recently it has taken the form of a desperation to defend kitsch in severe ways, of which projecting classical criteria is only one example.

The invocation of 'caesura' is only one example from Suther’s response that shows how criticism is unable to grasp the radical components of new music. Due to Suther's normative framework, his defense of G.O.D. on the grounds that it contains a caesura moment renders caesura a positive aesthetic value and something that is an intrinsic quality of all good artworks. Yet Adorno, Suther's reference, was only interested in caesura negatively, the extent to which it displayed early indications of contradictions in bourgeois society by negating compositional form within itself. Suther appears to turn Adorno upside down. This also goes against Suther's claim, (which is right in some respects), that G.O.D. is founded on the montage of samples from throwaway culture that are framed within a totality. As such, any caesuras contained must also exist as degenerated found objects amidst the culture trash that Lopatin selects. In other words, they are not traditionally composed. If caesuras are evident, they are only as oblique dark spots, or worm-eaten holes in the sampled trash that have nothing left to negate because society and its concepts of progress as transmuted into musical form is not assumed in new music, but rather suspended. Happening to find their way into a composition and being intentionally composed into one are two very different things, oblique and acute symptoms respectively. The progressive components of G.O.D. do not reside in an anomaly in musical conventions from two centuries ago. Such components may exist, but not as evidence of their newness.

It is of course very desirable to take culture seriously, and G.O.D. is potentially a worthy object, having some seriousness in it the extent to which it produces and advances musical knowledge for other artists. After all, it was to Editions Mego, the uber serious label of implacable electronic music that Lopatin first appealed and built his aesthetic program upon. Lopatin’s decision in G.O.D. to apparently pursue a style of 'montage' that sounds like it was constructed to the utmost details in tracker programs aims to critique the passive way a lot of so-called experimental music is created today. It protests the urge towards the formless, cosmic, and chillwave aesthetic in the same way OPN earlier protested the hyper-edited constructs of 'clicks 'n cuts' music that ultimately became an affectation. There is nothing of the jokey vaporwave Eccojams in this album. It takes itself seriously. And this is the main argument in my original review, namely that when artists enter the public realm and are tasked with putting forth a conclusive aesthetic statement, these statements often end up pathologically revisiting modernist movements that are otherwise considered dead or irrelevant (in this case Surrealism). It evinces a self-contradictory practice because on the one hand it claims heir to avant-gardism by trying to teach (lead) other artists, but on the other it relinquishes this project by trying to produce for non-artists and consequently emphasizing non-artistic things. The critique of the listener has nothing to do with the ‘market’, as Suther suggests, but points to the problems of cultural leadership as expressed in the actual music.

As such, self-reflexion in G.O.D. is expressed indirectly. This indirectness is echoed by Suther’s critique, insofar as the appeal to musical knowledge plays only a minor role in his discussion of arpeggios and pitch-shifting (admittedly, I didn't discuss these at all in my original review, for the sake of doing a more socially focused analysis). Yet the best music of our era leaves no stone unturned when it comes to investigating the technical means by which an aesthetic is expressed. For instance, Keith Fullerton Whitman's Generator was a thorough investigation of arpeggios that would raise sound artists' ensuing understanding of that particular sound organization to a more acute level. The means--which are like G.O.D., of a historical variety--play a leading role instead of a passive one, and it appeals not only to itself, but to an abstract musical subject that conditions the work. In G.O.D. many of these technical means appear to be included passively as subordinate features of a broader critique of society, and kitsch criticism reifies this. It is a road that ultimately leads back into traditional forms of music, for instance the pathology of montage since Surrealism, or the dead-end games of virtuosic songwriting. It is also why Suther's critique ends up being a literary critique of music and not a musical critique of music. The discussion of puberty is very interesting, but has very little if anything to do with the avant-garde project of raising musicians to a superior historical consciousness of the still enigmatic means by which sound is organized. If a statement about prebuscent humanity was all that it expressed, it would be better formulated as an essay, and listeners would be better served by reading Kant. On the other hand, avant-garde music wagers that the examination of musical means of production will lead to unpredictable changes in culture because there are still techniques and ensuing sonic visions to be discovered, and that lay dormant.

OPN isn’t unique here, it is a hallmark of our era that musical knowledge and its expansion is enshrouded in non-musical expressions of reality. Even so, the wager of the vaporwave that Suther invokes is, generally speaking, to undertake a thorough investigation of not one modest musical technique, but rather the whole of music listening experience itself. It is an all-in wager, and one that, historically speaking, continually fails, at least in contrast to the successful expansion of musical knowledge in more modest, technical avant-gardism. Vaporwave (and similar currents in music) undertakes a serious inquiry into passive listening from the standpoint of production. The technical means by which passive listening is produced is now in the hands of listeners, who in turn become producers. But they can be either critical producers or uncritical reproducers. The social situation of listening is not extrinsic to the work in this genre, but a fundamental aesthetic principle that determines its content. The music itself is a self-avowed and explicit political critique of the culture industry from within. In turn it not only warrants a political critique, but demands it so that it's aesthetic can be raised to a level of politics. But kitsch criticism perceives successfully composed, and self-evident bourgeois music from the standpoint of the thing-in-itself, instead of acutely critical music in flux. Kitsch criticism is very specifically not immanent critique from within the development of cultural production, but instead in this instance what appears to be an expression of Heideggerian phenomenology. Discussing the artwork as a contained unity that does not point beyond itself is akin to trying to understand a political leader with no consideration of the base that constitutes their activity.

As my original claim was that OPN is middlebrow and appeals to both regressive and progressive tendencies, (not merely regressive, as Suther believes), I think Lopatin's goals with G.O.D. still may fall within an avant-garde framework, and not a popular-classical one. Suther clings to the traditionalist conception of through-composed music, something that all experimental music has dispensed with in favor of various non-compositional strategies—strategies that are ultimately thought to be in the greater service of developing new forms of sound organization. Even though it's present, G.O.D. is not particularly exemplary as a through-composed album, nor is it meant to be; large chunks of sound awkwardly sit side-by-side, and it intentionally falls far below the threshold of the intricately arranged IDM that OPN comes out of, for example. OPN is no Beethoven, let alone Stockhausen or even Aphex Twin. Rather, the sound objects have a common sensibility to the way painters like Frank Stella have desired to not 'paint' or 'express' an artistic vision but rather to use paint as a readymade, albeit one that has to be actively extracted. It is actually a non-compositional technique that makes up G.O.D., and it is one that assumes a subjective position that prioritizes a more amateurish bedroom producer position over traditional composition. Lopatin and collaborator Jon Rafman’s images that reference trashy bedroom studios and troll lairs are evidence of this total absorption into production. It's an absorption that may offer no reward other than its own activity, and which deserves to be raised to an objective position. It posits this condition as a rewarding immersion into individual creative experience, but also one that is potentially nihilistic when not framed within a broader context for aesthetic development. It is a self-reflexive activity that constantly seems to slide back into the vacuum of isolated pseudo-activity and unconscious cultural production. By airing its aporia with this condition, it aims to move beyond it.

OPN truly does come out of the modest Boards of Canada IDM tradition, which has always been tough to clarify because it is designed to operate on the subconscious. G.O.D., like Geogaddi for example, appeals to something like a musical unconscious, reminiscent of Surrealism. It doesn't quite use subliminal advertising techniques like Geogaddi, but it comes close in smuggling in reality and exploiting passive listening as a means of critiquing it. It feels out the ideas of music that have had passive influence on listening, and questions it by working within those forms, hoping to ultimately appeal to self-reflexion. This is perhaps what Suther is referring to when he thinks G.O.D. tries to make kitsch elegant, and this is what I meant when I said that OPN is the quintessential pastiche artist. G.O.D. is not really montage, not in the way musique-concrète set out to be—and it alone perfected the art—because Lopatin usually makes his own sound objects from scratch instead of sampling and transforming them. Even if it were montage, those techniques are not actively questioned in form but assumed. And these sound objects are constructed in the manner of a certain style of MIDI composition that is hard to consciously identify, yet known in some way, like the enchantment of muzak. It is MIDI composition that was almost exclusively utilized as background music in videogames, one wasn't supposed to notice it, and this is precisely its appeal. It's practice in mining the historically overlooked, the 'minor', partakes in the culture of research that has been prevalent since electronic music’s arts and research turn in the early '00s, exemplified by Editions Mego’s Recollection GRM series, and the Creel Pone project. This is expressed more acutely in Lopatin’s dredging of Ben Zimmerman’s '80s tracker compositions. Nor is this specific to music: contemporary art is currently entrenched in digging up the fossilized remains of minor artists, in an attempt to rewrite history. It seems to say, "What if we had gone in this direction?", as a symptom of the ugly appearances and newness inherent in the present cultural crisis of ambivalence. 

But on G.O.D., research and composition are utilized by being framed within a traditional artwork. They are tested, so to speak. And like Geogaddi, it embeds the hellscapes of the new in the easy listening of yore so that the listener can absorb the ugliness of reality, the "bad new days" but unknowingly. It is like feeding a dog a pill by wrapping it in bacon. It's not really predigested kitsch, but it uses tricks in how it mediates listening experience. And now that the listener is disenchanted because they are also producers, tricks are easy to see through! This has been a style of electronic music since the early ‘90s—the tensed coexistence of enchanting fairytale melodies with samples from the contemporary musical hell on earth. The music makes no conclusions about the outcome, but presents the listener with both possibilities of culture, not society at large—is this a fairytale ending in which we finally create a music that is fulfilling, or a Boscshian hell of cultural production? It makes one feel like this is a critical juncture.

As such, G.O.D. does not so much try to make kitsch elegant but rather uses kitsch as a carrier for difficult music. However, as such music has become a purely transparent activity because so many people produce it and can see through the tricks, one always wonders, Does such avant-garde music use kitsch for its own purposes, or does kitsch rather use the avant-garde? If the title Garden of Delete has meaning, it is not as an indictment of culture writ large, but rather the way musical knowledge and music experience as music experience is constantly deleted from the program, with the caveat that it might still be recovered from the hard drive. G.O.D. is like a beta run through the new program of deletion: when kitsch passivity absorbs active listening, all that remains is to be an active deleter. It is not traditional composition, as Suther suggests, but an attempt at decomposition. G.O.D. does not need to be “undeleted”; it is a requiem of deletion that openly reflects the social situation of music that constantly wastes the potential of music as social knowledge. G.O.D. is truly a negative album, an example itself of the near meaninglessness of constructing in a wasteland society wherein possibilities are no sooner raised than they are deleted from experience. By representing this phenomenon, it hopes to pass beyond its enchantment.

If I have reservations about G.O.D. it may simply be because I personally prefer the 'technical' avant garde, so to speak. As a sound artist I prefer to listen to something that teaches me about sound in some way. I'd guess that thousands of sound artists elsewhere feel similarly. Sound artists sense that one is being disingenuous when he or she proclaims that they are good humanitarians and that they appreciate all types of music. In a world of growing amateur cultural production, people more and more listen to the things that have direct interest to what they themselves make. Music is less and less a beholding activity, and more and more an actively developing body of knowledge. This alone fosters the conditions by which avant-gardism can flourish. Otherwise, the concept of progress in art is neutralized.

By analogy, OPN and someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman are like Surrealism and Analytic Cubism: different types of inquiry that are both ultimately aimed at teaching musicians about sound. And I think that with the total degeneration of all things surreal into pathological affectation, and more importantly the fact that listeners today lack the listening comprehension that can distinguish between a still life of a fruit and a piece of fruit itself, what is needed above all today is music that aims to raise musical comprehension to a higher and more active level. G.O.D. tries do this by showing a process of how listening is exploited and how listeners are manipulated, as if to say, “See, this is how it happens, snap out of it!” But the history of art that tries to strip the veil by teasing the beholder with it usually ends up in a new type of enchantment with said veil. And in this day in age, anything even remotely resembling Surrealism needs to be seriously questioned instead of assumed. G.O.D. is at its best, and this sets it apart from earlier vaporwave, when the lines between enchantment and disenchantment are clearly demarcated, not unlike a game of peek-a-boo with a baby.

OPN may not be the next Beethoven, but he may be Boards of Canada in distress. If ensuing music in this sensibility takes up the culture trash of passive listening as its content, it shouldn't be expected to venerate the sordid remains of bourgeois music composition, but instead treat its techniques as trash amidst trash, no better or worse than kitsch. This is the ultimate contradiction of kitsch criticism: it believes that after all this cultural decay, bourgeois music composition can get through culture unscathed and can be applied to culture trash to save the day, instead of understanding that bourgeois music, perhaps above all, has been degraded to trash. Lopatin is well aware that he is composing music from within the uncultured trashcan of culture. It is kitsch listening that doesn't understand this by supposing itself cultured. In 2010, writing about vaporwave before it had a name (I proposed “conceptual ambient”), I posited that the aesthetic is one of searching through trash to find something that glistens, which involves holding it up to the dim light and rotating it. OPN's recent work is a slight change in direction because it introduces an activity of decomposition in time. OPN exposes composition as pseudo-activity, and represents it as something readymade and reified, not transformative. Composition is also trash, so new music in this framework will probably take the form of trash more thoroughly organizing trash, and with trash. Only in this way will aesthetic knowledge be built in this particular practice. Such a critical aesthetic of the self-organization of trash is highly preferable to the false veneration of talent, sublimity, or virtuosity that pervades popular musical consciousness and its appendage, kitsch criticism.



Criticism & Ambivalence

by Bret Schneider


Let’s take a moment and consider what is happening: the people who are supposed to be really interested in art, those who are expected to be professionally committed, connected, and engaged in art, are those who have essentially said, “meh, I’m not really that interested.” Those who are supposed to interpret difficult art for a confused but interested public don’t really care to do so. It’s not that they can’t, it’s that they won’t. The critics on the inside seem to feel that it’s fraudulent to advocate for a culture they don’t really believe in. When pressed, most art critics are ambivalent about contemporary art, and so the general public is as a result.

A case in point: last year Kunstkritikk asked a number of art critics whether or not post-internet culture has fostered a new generation of post-internet art critics, and consequently new modes of thinking through difficult cultural issues. The scope of the answers pointed beyond the question, raising issues not limited to post-internet culture (or even 21st-century culture in general), and strongly implying—more so than many other surveys on the state of art criticism—that before any new art criticism can be taken up, lingering issues from the old art criticism project should first be put to rest. The questionnaire is reminiscent of the student who asks their teacher a question they already know the answer to. The teacher, in this case a group of professional critics, seem to all respond in unison: “It sounds like you already know the answer.” The student senses in advance that, no, post-internet art has not fostered any new form of critical thought. The questionnaire is then haunted by a subtextual why?, and critics are forced to consider many of the same problems plaguing art criticism long before post-internet art.

This sort of absence of the critic has for the past half-century become an increasing phenomenon, with this serving as just another instance for art critics to reflect on why it is that they are left out, and in what sort of hypothetical culture they might have a critical role to play. At the same time, it was critics themselves around the post-internet phenomena who elected not to be sufficiently critical because this culture did not really need it. What it was perceived as needing was affirmation. None of this is meant to slight post-internet art or its artists, but instead to point to the contradictory role art criticism is put in. In fact, whatever one might say or think about post-internet artists is irrelevant. And this is exactly the point.

It’s not surprising that post-internet art is not perceived as fostering new critical thought, as it predigested thought in its neatly packaged equation. The impulse behind the affirmative design of the post-internet culture was to uncritically accept the readymade values of the late-postmodern (visual studies) generation, and project those values onto art that necessarily takes up new media. The theorists of post-internet art had from the get-go set out to render it an ethically positive and culturally desirable object, and brought it subserviently to the art institutions seeking out a younger generation that would in turn validate the status quo values of contemporary art. Paradoxically, it was at the same time expected to keep contemporary art moving. This was the case even though many of the artists involved seem to in many respects be criticizing the post-‘60s generation. Post-internet art, from the very moment it was designed, set out to penetrate the art institutions. But this penetration can also be seen as a liquidation of values: it should come as no surprise that many of its artists who were once resolutely against painting and sculpture are now making paintings or sculptures! As for the thought around it, it was never really a theory per se, but a veiled rationalization of the not-so-secret aspirations of net artists to show in galleries. In order to fluff up a positive culture on which careers can be made, post-internet theory was required to possess a flawless veneer. Yet its critical foundations were at the same time sorely lacking—criticism and theory around P-I was motivated by an opportunism to seize non-artistic materials and ideologies, and was eager to comply with a vulgar reality principle, even though many net art and post-internet artists seem to take up new media forms specifically to protest their reality. The theories that gave it its social meaning were both motivated by, and unable to fully explore, a thorough critique of late-capitalist culture. And the artists knew (and still know) this.

Criticism was at the same time the exact thing many of its artists yearned for. This occurred to such an extent that critics were (and continue to be) nearly patronized by artists, in a strange reversal of the usual positions. Over time this inability became a rule. Without an autonomous body of criticism, post-internet art has become characterized by a sort of compensatory “smartism” that works extra hard to frontload criticism into its work, attempting to conceal, instead of reveal its blindspots. This carefully crafted art of concealment that results from picking up the slack of criticism is itself its blindspot. It’s not surprising that the Berlin Biennial this year is motivated by the idea of contradictions: its artists endeavor to resolve problems, but also to position themselves as veiled problems. P-I artists have always been plagued by the feeling that the culture they are complicit with is sorely lacking in substance. In other words, they have been bothered by a feeling of ambivalence regarding their own work, as well as that of their peers, so the criticism leveled at them as superficial is not entirely true. The ultimate question is why was this self-canceling failure not only acceptable, but anticipated? It has served as the proof to a long-suspected rule that anything resembling a ‘movement’ is not only doomed to fail, but designed to. 

In only a few short years, Post-internet culture turned out to be little more than a means for reproducing the status quo of contemporary art. So, when the question is posed to critics after its premature canonization regarding new forms of thought, all they seem to say is, “What? We were supposed to be thinking about this? I thought all the thinking was done for us?” Critical thought was never called upon to be a factor in this particular subculture. That is, P-I was from the beginning a kitsch phenomena, with the caveat that it was an attempt to assume an avant-garde role. But the inability to surmount this self-affirming kitsch culture has shown the undesirable way that critique is subordinate to reproduction, and not the opposite.

Regarding the Kunstkritikk survey, the responses vary dramatically, illustrating the disintegration of a unified practice of art criticism. Yet they are united in a common pathology that is difficult to identify—they revolve around trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, with a resignation that Humpty can’t be pieced together because the market has a vested interest in keeping it disintegrated (S. Gabrielsen), or pretending that Dumpty was never broken to begin with (G. Diez). A few responders proclaim that DIS magazine is creating a new critical culture, continuing the critical tradition. But not going into detail regarding that project, it smacks of opportunism to align with whatever is in vogue (which is not to say that there isn’t something critical about DIS), or simply grasping at straws.

Stian Gabrielson takes a sobering viewpoint that the market for contemporary art has so advanced beyond the need for criticism that the only thing left for critics to do is to project a critical importance onto artworks that have no need for it: post-internet art has thrived without it. The consequences of such a realization—and I think it’s accurate—are very real and paralyzing. It implies that art criticism isn’t needed anymore, at all, that it has failed to entrench thought into the market and consequently failed to transform it. For anyone involved in the art world, this will ring very true: contemporary art operates in society more like fashion. Art criticism’s social self-righteousness and overwrought, disconnected theory since the ‘60s has meant that it lags behind the production of curators, for instance, who are avid art lovers (aesthetes, often to a fault) and work tirelessly to buy and sell culture, treating the growing number of MFA and PhD students like new pairs of shoes. All along, the self-incurred minority of critics tries helplessly to demystify the outmoded concepts curators rely upon (e.g. beauty), only to their chagrin.

Likewise, Raimar Strange reflects on how artists are too aligned with the market, echoing a common sentiment from older art critics and historians who only see 'commodification' in the careerism of young artists. This viewpoint neglects the radicalism inherent in the transparent commodification of P-I art, which is its sole redeeming quality. But what about young critics who are often just as eager to devise an affirmative culture, to concoct wildly meaningless theories, and who are ultimately responsible for downplaying critical thought from the P-I cultural program? The new phenomenon of artists and critics eagerly hatching their careers, quickly cobbling together movements for their resumes, and planning for their retrospectives before they have anything to say, may sound vulgarly affirmative to those reared in the ‘60s communes or the ‘70s DIY subcultures. But it also shows how that preceding generation of postmodernists failed to raise aesthetics to a level of politics that can make any substantial difference for the social meaning of art, and have sought out not the voices of new criticism, but rather of sycophantism. P-I isn’t the subject. The subject is the questionable postmodern foundations of contemporary art that are thrown into crisis by P-I art—an art movement that can be seen as trying to move beyond postmodernism in many respects, but also subordinating itself to it in others. That is, P-I art has both regressive and progressive tendencies, and neither really have to do with new media or the internet etc., but rather art historical consciousness and its aporias since postmodernism. But without an autonomous body of art criticism, this potentially radical contradiction is leveled off into mere ambivalence. It means that P-I art can be construed as the either the end of the postmodern era, or the absolute affirmation of it.

Consciously or not, Burbidge understands that the long derided ‘market’ around P-I is its determining factor, when he adopts a radical position in proposing that art critics should take big money from corporations! As a result, the art world would be less nepotistic, and possibly revitalize the role of the public intellectual. It indicates the way in which art, by its own necessities and modern character, is driven back into the big bourgeoisie, and finds that there is only so much slack on an umbilical cord of gold that has long been thought to be cut. Instead, P-I art shows the way it has been reeled in, but in a way that may be more progressive than what we've witnessed for the last 30 years. It shows how the post-‘60s project of anti-enlightenment, minor art and art criticism has failed, and now returns with its tail between its legs to a market that has found itself better off without postmodern criticism. If the project of critical art is to survive into the 21st century, it will need to lay aside juvenile ideas of creating alternative communities and alternative art criticism, and finally find a way to work through, not around the commodity form. The reason critics don’t engage in this more universal way is usually framed as a radical eschewing of a universalizing spirit. But this is in truth a cover-up for the sense that there isn’t any art they are confident enough in to support at such a level. Criticism is at the forefront of cultural ambivalence.

For the regressive side, P-I art’s rapid dissolution has shown that not even its members believed in it. As relevant as the P-I generation is supposed to be, it maintains itself as a mere subculture. The social situation of art after postmodernism responds by bringing it out of its minority anyway, and the critics find themselves a mere appendage, people who are herded into media rooms and separate dining tables to be shielded away from where the real, unmediated conversations lie: between artists, curators, and collectors. This has left critics out of the discussion and either looking for life on the margins, or struggling to create a wedge. Yet what defines the success of an artist or artwork is the criticism around the work, and how trenchant their work is within a broader historical discourse. P-I artists are painfully aware of their rapid marginalization due to this lack. What will become of P-I artists who may lament being lumped into a minor subheading in the canon of an art history that is only developing negatively? Does pigeonholing them into a subgenre make a case for their work being an overhaul of the very way we think of art and representation? Will they feel like the meaning of their work as possible game-changers in the history of art has been liquidated by serving as an ornament for the tech industry? Will they regret reproducing the lame ideas and characteristics that the postmodern generation expects of ‘millennials’ and youth culture? Do P-I artists sense that the flashy new theories that are grafted onto their experiments will quickly wane, the way the trends of the season do? I sense that the reason many P-I artists have been suspect of the term from the beginning is because it puts them in a difficult position of having to be parodies of themselves. Like good little boys and girls they did exactly what they were told by their teachers: "you’re a millennial, you’re supposed to be making art about the internet, identity, and X-Y-Z concepts." It is to their credit that they did their homework very well. But what happens when they grow up and rebel against a childish curriculum that has come to define their entire careers? Do they make small paintings in protest? Do they quit and become Yoga instructors? The carefully administered youth culture of the postmodernist generation has not been a means toward criticism, but rather a way in which the contemporary art institution prevents criticism of its curricula. This situation has rendered P-I a kitsch, rearguard movement, not a critical movement. Its acceptance of readymade cultural material illustrates its rearguard position, with the caveat that it attempts to think through such material and raise its own principles of organization to a higher consciousness. This is what criticism around the BB9 for instance has been unable to grasp. The contradictions reside in the art historical subject who take up new forms of media not to endorse them but to question them by implementing forms of representation that is in line with modern art's history. With criticism's marginalization also comes philistinism. A real investigation into the different artist's comprising this genre is forthcoming. Yet such investigations will also come too late.

With such ambivalence prevalent, younger critics mentioned in the survey, and many outside the survey have very understandably jumped ship, finding comfort in their own marginalization by seeking alternative models of criticism. It’s understandable to try and find alternative means, but the greater marginalization of critical culture will only leave art untouched and foster more missed opportunities. Contemporary art is a historically specific phenomenon defined by concrete social contradictions that appear as not concrete—one of those contradictions is that its sole defining characteristic is criticism and theory, while at the same time it is precisely critical theory that is not permitted. Contemporary art has been increasingly nailing itself into its own coffin, and post-internet criticism is merely the latest instance whereby the simultaneous necessity and absence of criticism is felt. Such contradiction implies that it is the critic, and not the artist or curator, who can make a wedge in the cultural status quo.




Christian Jankowski Storms the House of Art

by Laurie Rojas


We look back at Christian Jankowski’s work as his first major curatorial project, Manifesta 11, opens in Zurich. 


Christian Jankowski is the art world’s court jester—he is a performer, comedian, artist, and trickster. His work seduces you with its charming wit and strikes hard with dark humor. His art explores social dynamics of popular and serious culture in an accessible way; it sometimes even grants us satisfaction. As a result, critics find themselves hard-pressed to say anything negative about his work, which questions the role of art in society. His works are also likable; that is, if you like being mocked. 

Jankowski’s work is often defined as performative and collaborative, but it is more genuinely a carefully crafted art of situations. The difficulty with Jankowski is that his works present two very different tendencies—one that affirms the world as we know it and one that seeks to crush its illusions—and all with a heavy dosage of humor. The self-contradictory character of his work produces a laughter—not a laughter of joy, but a perverse laughter. 

Take for example a recent presentation of Jankowski’s karaoke room installation, The Day We Met (2003), at the 2016 ArtCologne fair. During the opening one could walk into the room at the fair stand, where a video piece with the artist as protagonist plays to a Korean song, being sung live by an attendee to the fair. The “music video” showed Jankowski in a drama where he and his lover are going through some difficulties, namely that the parents seem to disapprove of the romantic relationship between this white European and their Korean daughter. The parents offer to pay him off (in good soap drama fashion) and Jankowski dramatically rejects the money. This causes troubles for the romance, but in the end they wind up together, even if not happily ever after. It didn’t seem to matter that we couldn’t understand the lyrics. A few other people in the room enjoyed themselves and applauded when the song ended. I quietly chuckled and walked out. This experience at an art fair is amusing, but leaves one wondering: where is the art? Is the piece a highly orchestrated metaphor for adaptation of art into mass entertainment? Unlikely, since Jankowski videos were distributed on a thousand karaoke machines around the world. It is the product of an artist that seeks to move art outside the art world, into mainstream culture. Instead of showing the limits of both he demonstrates how close they are to each other.

At another art fair presentation, Berlin Art Contemporary (abc) back in 2014, many of the artist’s neon works from his “Visitors” (2010 - ongoing) series were on display in the outdoor area before entering the fair’s halls. These quirky, large neon works are based on notes and doodles that visitors leave on exhibition guestbooks. They say things like “good very very good,” “on point” and “please stop you’re boring me to death.” One of these was also at Lisson Gallery’s booth (with the words “wow!” and a cartoony face doodle) which was paired with his “Review” piece in 2012. The artist asked critics to review this work and then sealed their reviews into bottles. The bottles were placed on the floor at the fair underneath framed photographs of them floating in New York’s East River. The photos documented a “Water Proof Test” to ensure, we can assume, that they were sealed shut; they also individually listed the name of the critic and the publication he or she most often writes for. The catch was that the critical value ascribed to his work was sealed shut, inaccessible. If someone were to open the bottles and disclose their content, the work would be ruined. As such, the distinction between review and artwork is collapsed. The criticism was made irrelevant at the same time that it became what substantiated and validated the work. Here we have both an affirmation and a denial of the relationship between artists and critics. Nobody seems to have found this disturbing.

The artist that exposes the underlying power structures, ideologies, dynamics that affect the presentation, circulation, display and reception of art is a favorite of art critics. The artist has done all the work for them, becoming the critic themselves, while the actual critic praises the artist in return, and has no disagreement with what is being said. Critics accept the grotesque caricature that has been made of them as fact. 

This is nowhere more obvious than in Jankowski’s Discourse News” (2012), where the artist uses art jargon in a regular newscast setting. We needed an artist to turn the focus back onto us to reveal the meaninglessness and incomprehensibility of art speak. “Discourse News” is less about art criticism, however, and more about the adoption of critic’s interpretive language by art press releases and publicity. As criticism becomes less viable as a financed profession, art PR (with the help of over-academicized curators) generates its own discourse to validate the art. 

There is a long history of artists trying to invalidate criticism, to remind us of art criticism’s irrelevance. Perhaps what passes for art criticism today should be invalidated. But Jankowski might not mean to invalidate the critic. Jankowski’s provocation goes against the grain of Joseph Kosuth’s idea that “conceptual art annexes the function of the critic and makes a middle man unnecessary” that was so central to conceptual art. By taking on the critic’s role, by being subversive of this legacy of conceptual art, Jankowski’s commentary on art criticism could actually be tasking art critics to be more than pawns of the art market and the culture industry at large. He throws the ball back in our court. 

The critic, however, is not the only art world character under scrutiny in Jankowski’s work; dealers, artists and curators are also subjected to parody and critique. In a way Jankowski’s works make a lot more sense when they are being shown in a commercial context. Several of his works thematize the luxury status of art works and the art market through parody or irony. The artist is aware of his own role and is not going to skirt it. Strip the Auctioneer—which does just that during a live auction in May 2009—explores the tension between art’s value and its economic (exchange) value in a burlesque theater where the auctioneer bids his clothing off all the way down to the hammer. The results lead to sculpture, photographs and a video. Whereas The Finest Art on Water at 2011 Frieze art fair brings in a bit of irony. Jankowski had a salesman try to sell a mega yacht and a speedboat (which was on display at the fair booth), but the catch was that there were two prices. You could buy the speedboat as a normal luxury item, or you could pay a lot more for it and buy it as an art work. The value of the former would decrease over time, while the value of the latter would increase over time. In a single grand gesture, the artist raised fundamental contradictions between value and exchange value as it is experienced in art. The distinction between a luxury commodity and an art commodity appears to be arbitrary, the only significant difference is the value we—humans—grant the art work. 

Jankowski’s subversive tactics, however, are harmless to the status quo. Even with such a bold statement, the work is not really able to be subversive, and may indicate that no art can ever truly be subversive. 

Even his recent solo exhibition at Contemporary Fine Arts, a veteran commercial art gallery in Berlin, was a saucily titled “retrospective.” It was more of a mid-career presentation of the curator of the Manifesta Biennial, which opens in Zurich this month. The show caused a bit of a stir because it was curated by a novice, the famous German actress Nina Hoss (who plays a German secret service agent in the TV series Homeland). The sensationalism around this decision was no doubt intended, but also belongs to Jankowski’s routine experiments with role reversals. (He once organized an exhibition at a German museum, where he made the security guard, the curator, and other staff change their roles as part of the exhibition.) During a press event before the opening night Jankowski confessed that the experience of passing on the responsibility to Hoss, an inexperienced curator, was liberating and had showed him how “the activity of curators can be overrated.” Jankowski’s choices often seem to have a therapeutic element. He seems to be constantly questioning what it means to be an artist, constantly reflecting on the role of art in society. It is as if Jankowski has stormed the house of art, finding it in ruins. He’s had to turn the critical act into an act of self-preservation (something all critics can recognize in themselves).  

Beside the works made since 1992, which were shown in two white cube rooms, Hoss selected 10 hours of Jankowski’s films to showcase in a black box theater. The exhibition prioritized an overview of Jankowski as a filmmaker, with the role of humor and subversion dominating this selection. The glibly clever film Telemistica (1999) a 22-minute-long film, shows five Italian TV fortune tellers answering Jankowski’s questions for his 1999 Venice Biennale presentation. In the video we hear Jankowski speaking in Italian, with subtitles on the screen, while we watch the fortune tellers “live” on TV. Jankowski asks the fortune tellers the following questions: Is this idea a good idea? Will I manage to make the work with little money and in the allotted time? Will it look good and be presented well? Will the public like the work? And finally, will I be happy with my work? The questions were, unsurprisingly, answered positively and we were amused by the comical situation. Jankowski made a self-referential work, whose final product is based on the discussion with fortune tellers. We know better than to believe in what is being said—the fortune tellers’ “reading” of the cards—but we still go along with the game. The artist did in fact go on to become “a success” after all. But is he happy? Did the promise of happiness actually ever come? 

The film begs the questions: What makes artworks good, and what makes an idea good? The answer, today, is that somebody says the artwork is good. The art world (market) creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. It is in the interest of the “fortune teller” to give positive feedback, to encourage the artist in his pursuit of his passion, to tell him he is going to succeed. It is in the interest of the artist to be told his artwork is good, that the public will like it, and that he will succeed. And doesn’t everybody want to hear an abstract authority say: you will succeed? Why do we laugh at this situation, why do we laugh at the self-serving gesture?

Jankowski might have merely intended to explore his ambivalence about participating in the Venice Biennale, to show his self-doubt to his audience while exposing the twisted desire fulfilled by television fortune tellers. But he begins to scratch at the surface of the problems raised by the mass appeal of television programming and the influence esoteric knowledge has on its audience (even when the audience knows better). At the same time, he taps into the idea that art is another component of the culture industry, which he explores much more directly in other works. 

Over the years Jankowski continued to assimilate mediums of popular culture. In Crying for the March of Humanity, (2012) a 26-minute-long video, he recreates an episode of a Mexican telenovela by replacing all the dialogue with crying. Jankowski takes the title from the world’s largest mural, “La Marcha de la Humanidad en la Tierra y hacia el Cosmos” ("The March of Humanity on Earth and Toward the Cosmos") (1965-1971), by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros. The scenes and the acting are as believable as telenovelas can be, but the primary reaction to this absurd theater is again laughter, a cold indifferent laughter. We might find it humorous to see so many men crying, sobbing really—which we rarely see on television anyways. There is gratification in the experience of watching these people cry, suffer amidst banal activities; it is comical. It matters little whether the conflicts are merely a sham; the goal is not empathy, their tragic condition is there for our viewing pleasure, and we are allowed to indulge in it whether the conflict is resolvable or not. The interesting thing here is this ambivalence, which straddles the line between accommodation and critique. But why is so much crying causing such apathetic gratification? We are indulging in sadism. 

It’s hard to tell if Jankowski is being dead serious or seriously funny. On the one hand the reference to Siquiero’s work seems to beg a comparison, and yet the struggle “of humanity towards the cosmos” as depicted in the mural is far from being embodied in the “narrative” of the film. So, is the comparison to be read negatively, to highlight the degree to which humanity has abandoned its great historical vision in favor of immediately satisfying mass entertainment? Is the message of the film a critique of the appeal of mass entertainment, of how the petty misery of these characters has helped suppress the underlying reasons for humanity’s suffering? No. Jankowski just wants to blur the boundary between popular culture and serious art. He is concerned that art does not have a mass social basis or appeal. 

And yet Jankowski is raising intellectual problems through assimilating mass media, which tends to avoid said problems in favor of producing the highest possible impact on its audience. Mass media tends to both stress and be driven by the effect on the viewer—sensuous stimuli, entertainment and sensationalism—at the expense of meaningfulness. But because Jankowski is making “art” we project a great deal of meaningfulness back into his work. The question is why Jankowski continues to use mass media as a vehicle for his art. It is because it is accessible and we find comfort in the recognizable. 

We laugh at Jankowski’s films because we recognize ourselves in them, and because we consider ourselves clever for recognizing the absurdity of the art world and the culture industry—both of which are indistinguishable in most of Jankowski’s work. But involved in this laughter is the recognition of regression in viewing (experiencing) television and possibly art. Our pathologies appear rather institutionalized, desensitized, and to a great extent socialized, rationalized. We are drawn in to a tacit acceptance of absurdity, of our general tragic, inescapable, miserable condition; the irrational is accepted into the rational world.

Like the medieval court jester, Jankowski can mock the status quo without penalty, but also without consequence. Jankowski keeps trying to grapple with the problematic relationship art has to society even though he cannot offer a solution. He can no more change the status of art as a commodity to be consumed by the art market via his wry commentary than aspiring art critics change the fact that all critique is going to be immediately subordinated to the art market. The assimilation of art into the culture industry is recognized and dealt with by many artists in the post-war period: there is Warhol’s approach, Beuys’ approach, Koons’ approach, and Hans Haacke’s approach. Critics can take a lesson from these artists-as-critics. Art is compromised, it lacks consequence, that’s an inescapable fact. That hasn’t stopped artists, nor should it stop critics who fear being inconsequential, to challenge that conformism. Art in modern times, under late capitalism, is a contradictory symptom of this society, it is necessary and undermined, it is developed as it is constrained, it is “avant-garde” (critically and historically conscious), and it is immediately absorbed into the culture industry. These are the inescapable problems of art and they are not resolvable by art alone. Jankowski’s work allows us to recognize this.














  Christian Jankowski,  The Day We Met  (2003).

Christian Jankowski, The Day We Met (2003).

 Christian Jankowski , Please Stop You're Boring Me to Death   (  2012)  from the series “Visitors.” 

Christian Jankowski, Please Stop You're Boring Me to Death (2012) from the series “Visitors.” 

  Chr  istian Jankowski  ,  installation view  Discourse News   (2012).   

Christian Jankowski, installation view Discourse News (2012). 

 Christian Jankowski,  Strip the Auctioner  (2009).

Christian Jankowski, Strip the Auctioner (2009).


Christian Jankowski, installation view of Telemistica (1999).

 Christian Jankowski, installation view of  Crying for the March of Humanity ( 2012).

Christian Jankowski, installation view of Crying for the March of Humanity (2012).


Christian Jankowski poses in front of Manifesta's Pavilion of Reflections on Lake Zurich.

Undeleting Garden of Delete: A Critical Intervention

By Jensen Suther


Bret Schneider’s recent critical review of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete raises important questions about putatively “new” or avant-garde elements in otherwise popular music. By focusing on OPN’s “art music” pretensions, the author seeks to unmask what he takes to be the key failing of the record: it employs the technique of pastiche in order to achieve a “demotic,” accessible sound, but the fragmentary, experimental character of that sound militates against consumption by the very masses for which it is supposedly intended. As he writes, “The tropes that are brought in to make the album more accessible—for instance the NES videogame soundtrack quality—actually serve the purpose of further alienating what remains of the supposedly ‘uncultured’ masses who still look to art for something more than commonplace experience.” 

The admirable standpoint that informs every line of this review is betrayed here by scare quotes that tacitly express an allegiance with the masses. But good political intentions in no way guarantee the correctness of one’s analysis. Indeed, this sentence also reveals the review’s fatal flaw: it reduces OPN’s music to its social origin and function, mirroring the “middle-brow sociological analysis” it decries. Accordingly, it passes over in silence the particulars of its object, and the review pays for this inattention with its own incoherence. Because the author judges OPN’s music from on high, almost exclusively on the basis of its reception, the internal contradiction of Garden of Delete—that it thinks possible the impossible task of making kitsch elegant, as I will argue below—is misrecognized as the incongruence of eclectic and even opposed elements. This misrecognition finds expression in the review’s rigid separation of content from form. According to Schneider, the music incorporates “subcultural,” kitsch elements for the sake of the masses, while its form and technique are “neo-modernist” gimmicks intended to satisfy the need for “serious art” specific to the “upper middle class dilettante.”

Marxian epithets and a class-based taxonomy of culture, then, take the place of “immanent” musical critique. Because the album is judged in advance and too hastily grasped in terms of its social determination, its true social significance is obfuscated. Cultural objects yield their “truth content,” to borrow Theodor Adorno’s term, only through the interrogation of their sensible-affective specificity, or the formal and material features that make them the peculiar artifacts that they are. Aesthetic success and failure tend to reflect the politically true and false: social truth is the sole canon of artistic beauty, even with respect to so-called “lowbrow” and “middlebrow” artists, whose works can only actually be judged on a case-by-case basis, never by way of schematic class categories applied from above. Measured according to its own political criterion, Schneider’s review proves false precisely because it aims to “appeal to those who want to be ‘in the know,’ but [doesn’t] want to do the work of thinking required by aesthetics.”

Yet Schneider’s miscomprehension is not simply the result of error, and should be traced back to the music itself. The vaporwave genre pioneered in the early 2010s by Daniel Lopatin, the musician behind OPN, is defined by an ironic retro sound comprised of elements drawn from '80s-era commercial and popular music. In succumbing to the kitsch character of cultural detritus in order to go beyond it, or to unlock the potential of its illusory promise of fulfillment and escape, the music of vaporwave often risks a kind of postmodern triumphalism. It can appear, in other words, to nihilistically affirm or celebrate the emptiness of the kitsch it appropriates, instead of subjecting it to critique from the remove—at a hair’s breadth—of aesthetic form. The success of a work of art hinges entirely upon whether or not it can attain, internally, this minimal distance from its representational content. Schneider’s claim, then, that the retro “tropes” on Garden of Delete are incorporated in order to broaden the album’s appeal seems to me to miss the point rather profoundly, but in a way that is at least explicable: what the review’s author misrecognizes as an attempt to satisfy the demands of the market is in actuality an immanent engagement with past popular and commercial forms that exploits their obsoleteness in order, in the best instances, to underscore the historicity of the standpoint from which they are being beheld and thus to tell us something about who we are today and, ultimately, who we ought to be. 

Unlike OPN’s previous albums, and the famous “eccojams” released under the Chuck Person pseudonym, Garden of Delete is an album of songs, with verse-chorus structures and lyrics that are sung, even if by a voice processed beyond recognition. Lopatin embraces bad taste in new ways, broadening the range of vaporwave sounds (outdated synth patches, sickeningly bright digital pianos, staccato arpeggiators, etc.) to include the kitsch of yesteryear, such as nu-metal guitars from the late 90s and the “drops” of contemporary dubstep. The thematic core of the record is its humanoid protagonist Ezra’s experience of puberty, or the “mutant standard,” as one of the tracks is titled, which serves as the starting point for the record’s manifold reflections on various aspects of the abjectness of embodied existence (“the theme is pus,” as Lopatin remarked in a recent interview).

On the short interlude track “ECCOJAMC1,” a sample from folk singer John Martyn’s “Solid Air” is time-stretched so that the line “don’t know what’s going ‘round inside” becomes an expression of anxious pubescence: “I don’t know what’s going on inside.” A nauseating looped synth line, its notes bent from the vibrato effect of a modulation wheel, amplifies the ugliness of the artifact-ridden, pitch-shifted voice that mirrors in its grotesque deepness the breaking voice of a male adolescent. We are introduced to Ezra on the eponymously titled second track, replete with berserk arpeggiators, jack-in-the-box falsetto voices, and wonderfully incongruous finger-picked guitar, but it is the seemingly throwaway “ECCOJAMC1” that reveals the stakes of Garden of Delete, whose vaporwave nihilism aims to shatter the illusion of spiritual maturation, of the transition from childhood into adulthood, by emphasizing the constancy of human animality and the enduring repulsiveness of embodied existence.  

“ECCOJAMC1” is a prelude of sorts to one of the album’s most ambitious tracks, “Sticky Drama,” whose irresistible melodic lines and dub dynamics evoke Skrillex and complement lyrics that perversely distill the “sticky” quintessence of the festival utopia his music signifies for every teenager. Schneider is indeed right to point to the popular elements in the album, as this track demonstrates perhaps more than any other. But the song frustrates expectations by replacing what should be an explosive “drop” midway through with the militant double bass of a drum machine and disjointed, atonal synth solos. This erases the specificity of the popular reference, which is transformed in accord with the demands of the song. Likewise, lines like “sticky drama is the girl for me / she’s so sticky from the memories” reveal the popular depiction of erotic love for what it is, bare libidinal investment. Memory just serves to intensify animal longing. Yet the ejaculate innuendoes repeated throughout the song are strikingly contrasted with barely decipherable number series—phone numbers for locations in Boston, Lopatin’s hometown. The only personal elements in the song, the only “human” moments, are conveyed impersonally, and in such a manner that they remain inscrutable. The enigmatic phone numbers underscore what is missing from the empty sexualized memory the track does explicitly engage: these seemingly unrelated elements thus jointly transform a stark depiction of dehumanization into a negative imprint of actual erotic fulfillment, the form of remembrance in which true intimacy would consist. 

Garden of Delete succeeds, then, when its kitsch elements are through-composed according to a principle of montage, not pastiche. These elements are not simply incorporated but are also transformed, in some way unlocked through their juxtaposition and placement within the compositional whole. Yet the center of these songs cannot hold; the collapse of the musical context that ennobles the detritus it absorbs gives rise to a veritable “garden” of artifacts blooming in a sickly light. On the record’s lengthiest and most important track, “Mutant Standard,” the only audible human voice asks: “Are you sure about that?” This doubting question is the “caesura” of the song and points to something essential about the album itself. It could be a slogan for the record’s thoroughgoing skepticism, which dictates that all claims to authenticity and all promises of fulfillment be disbelieved. This is strikingly reflected in the album’s title: Garden of Delete is the “determinate negation” of the Garden of Eden, whose claim to innocence it debunks. But it also does not debunk it, or rather, in “losing” the notion of a “loss of innocence” entailed by the idea of Eden, the Garden of Delete not only deletes Eden, but points to its actual possibility. The aesthetic depiction of the reduction of human beings to “pus” is the “self-negation” of a dehumanized humanity. The frenzied voice at the five-minute mark on “Mutant Standard” says nothing, but screams shrilly, as if trying to break through the incessant uptempo arpeggios that serve as the track’s backbone. It is the speechless voice of a pubescent humanity, which has still not come into its own. 


Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Ksenia Sidorenko for in-depth discussion of key points in this essay.


 Mariotto Albertinelli,  The Temptation of Adam and Eve , 1509-13, 43.815cm x 34.29cm. Yale University Art Gallery.

Mariotto Albertinelli, The Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1509-13, 43.815cm x 34.29cm. Yale University Art Gallery.


Introspection and Electronic Music

by Bret Schneider



The socially well-adjusted electronic music reconstruction today has served the purpose of highlighting a counter-tendency: an introspective turn in experimental electronic music. New artists like Koenraad Ecker and new works by William Basinski, for instance, are regarded as capturing an interiority lacking in the constructivist, technical, and highly visible tendencies of other recent electronic music. Although this sensibility has some aesthetic precedent in the psychological framework of musique concrète, ‘90s ambient music, or the introspective (but repressed) aspects of, e.g., the 12k label, it differs in many respects, most importantly that it uses the new tools of a hyper-productive electronic music industry to undermine itself. Its hermeticism can’t help but shield itself from the listening trends that inevitably fostered it. In previous generations, introspective music was still a social or shared experience, something that was worked out in electronic music labs, or expressed in artists like Morton Feldman only because he was surrounded by a highly constructivist music culture. The claims now imply something altogether distinct from the culture of electronic music in which samples, techniques, and tools were shared. New festivals and social listening situations are certainly still a context for introspective music, but the philosophical claims of interiority or introspection in the music exceed and undermine their shared listening experience. This is to say that interiority is the result of a highly developed socialized music experience and not an innate state of being waiting to be captured. Society as it is expressed in a highly public music world tends towards its own disintegration into atomized individuals. Tools and techniques are only shared as means for the unconscious ends of hermetic listening experience.

No sooner has there been a renaissance in electronic music than it has been undermined by its own alienated tendencies that attempt to dismantle claims to immediacy piece by piece. The terms of conversation and motives that gave it form to begin with are quickly discarded as irrelevant—not through discourse, but through artworks that can’t help but challenge the sales pitches inflicted on them by those who want to make music useful for life. Electronic music already went through a thorough ‘appolonian’ phase in the early ‘00s, when it once again became aware of its mid-century origins in hermetic laboratories. Interiority is not anything other than a reflection on the social state of music itself. That is, the ‘subject’ of introspective or hermetic music is the medium of music itself, and the historical tendencies once required of it to learn itself into existence. Like an eskimo parsing out direction in an expanse of white, electronic music artists cultivated an ear for minute aesthetic differences that is actually something all its own, and differs from the mid-century electronic music avant-garde composers because such composers depended on some historical telos in the mid-century that doesn’t exist today. (This is why, for example, Tim Hecker has titles like “Hatred of Music I.”) Whereas musicians and critics wax about the contemplative sides of such and such individual artist, attributing to them psychological motifs, such projects reflect to a greater degree the marginalized project of music production as it is transfused into separate and isolated music projects, and a music listening that becomes increasingly analytic. While Basinski's music is 'melancholic', it has only been able to express that melancholy because electronic music passes through a renaissance in the 90s, and by the early 00s had become an overdeveloped and routinized affair by constructivist labels like Raster Noton that could afford to take a chance on contemplative music. Music itself has become a private affair, only to be experienced in the isolated confines of the listener’s mind. Public listening is increasingly eclipsed by private listening in headphones, at home, and so forth. Introspection and isolation emerge in the same moment, and under the umbrella of public listening. 

This situation—consciously or not—attempts to create a new listener based on the modern melancholic or saturnine character. When one reflects on the meaning of such introspection in new music, thoughts inevitably turn upon who is to experience such music, and by what means. Introspective music then points beyond itself by drawing attention to the individual, a category that philosophy and critical theory has long been concerned with—not as a sociological reality, but a category that remains unfulfilled because the bourgeois society that invented it persists in crisis. What makes this turn in music interesting is that the individual is not considered obliterated or in ruins, but rather is something inchoate, not yet formed. The dispersed fragments of something like Koenraad Ecker’s Sleepwalkers In A Cold Circus is not the type of critique of social ruins as is often projected onto the drone works of, e.g., Tim Hecker. Rather, by being impulsive and apperceptive in construction, it begins its work at the foundling steps of playful consciousness. Likewise, but from a different angle, The Disintegration Loops and Basinski's works in general are not works about decay so much as they are examples of composition ex nihilo, where the work proceeds from nothing but a bare impulse with no artificially grafted external stuff. Those bare impulses simply resonate in the somber emptiness of the concept of the individual.

Regarding the music, there is nothing inherently introspective about it. What this might mean is enigmatic, and is projected onto the music. Music is now expected to fulfill some need for introspection, an incomplete notion itself. And so the music mimics what it thinks might be introspective, synthesizing different ideas of such into the process. This is maybe why so many experimental music pieces are also incomplete, non-finitos. In being incomplete, they mimic the radical emptiness of the individual. Historically, artworks that were introspective emerged at the beginning of modernity, alongside the tendency to analyze life instead of live it, but also with the accumulation of public life that permitted space for asociality. The prototype of introspection remains Dürer’s Melancholia, or Saint Jerome in His Studt, with a saturnine character surrounded by modern tools—compasses, clocks, geometric objects—that are insufficient for the new unhappy consciousness that is highly mediated. Disenchantment and the individual developed at the same time, and all artworks today that claim to be introspective are also highly disenchanted. Whereas contemporary experimental music is assumed to embrace ‘new technology,’ it is also paralyzed by the alienation and disenchantment that always results from such technology. Like poetry in the 19th century that perceived language as a great betrayer of expression instead of a means of expression, ‘technology’ in music, and the techniques bound up in it, is both poison and antidote. Every experimental electronic musician feels betrayed by the means through which they must express their disenchantment with those means. Like Dürer’s melancholic subject, electronic musicians remain isolated in their studios buried in the stuff of inadequate tools. No new technology has done or will do better; it will only deepen the fundamental disenchantment that casts a spell over all modern artists. Only within a new electronic music industry that is hyper-productive regarding modular synthesizers and other advanced tools could such a radically alienated music form in its underbelly that cares so little about those tools. The artist Wanda Group, for instance, seemingly creates his musings in generic audio software. 

The other prototype of disenchanted introspection is Dante’s The Divine Comedy, not so much in the story arc itself, but the solemn way of writing. Erich Auerbach observed how when measured against ideals of eternity, Dante’s language took on a solemn tone. Something similar happens in the solemnity of introspective electronic music. The solemn emptiness of reverb for instance is enough to incite associations with introspection, because what is known of the individual is the poverty of the individual. The image is that of a solitary figure testing out all of its tools within the barren inchoateness of social production. No sooner is a new tool tried than complex pathologies form around it. This is why new experimental music sounds so uncomposed, it seems the result of someone tinkering away in a workshop, not to make anything in particular but to test the tools themselves. An electronic music ‘composition’ might be likened to a piece of scrap wood that has had different processes subject to it. Experimental music is less of a conscious composition that exemplifies mastery of material than it is tinkering with tools that are hardly understood. It is only in the process of understanding that the music becomes interesting, which is why experimental music that has a predetermined goal in mind about what it wants to say about society and sets about making a masterpiece is ultimately more boring than the minor lab tests of new music. That is, music is the result of a process, not in the usual sense of a composer setting up chance algorithms and so forth, but rather a type of individual play that implements handy forms of skepticism. The modular, really apperceptive sound of a lot of experimental music, for instance Robert Hampson, Asmus Tietchens, or Koenraad Ecker, is related to this play, not unlike a child picking up a toy, playing with it for a bit, then exchanging it for another, and so on.

What is picked up is always already discarded—objects of historical nature that have proven time and again to be both insufficient but compelling. They seem to be ahead of us, but also not good enough by our own standards, which is why experimental music is a reevaluation in practice of standards. Picking up discarded material innovations is the yearning to wear the clothes of dead kings. But were the avant-gardists really kings? The drum machine was built to satisfy the musical imagination of atonal composer Henry Cowell (who later abandoned it). When a drum machine is now picked up, it is like rediscovering a tool from the most recent neolithic revolution (the Bourgeois Revolution), one that continually stays incomplete and therefore mysterious. The "cold fire" (an apt term used in the description of Ecker's Sleepwalkers) of electronic music aims to reconnect with a modern, bourgeois-primitive impulse, and the aesthetic experience of primeval engineering discovery. Listening turns towards the ‘mavericks’ who are wholly absorbed in the construction of complex systems and thickets of audio. Images of studios with expansive (and expensive) modular systems abound, the artist an abstract blight in a sonic landscape of their own making. In this way electronic music producers bear the torch of enlightenment discovery, like the 18th century paintings of everyday people scientifically making soap bubbles. Introspective electronic music production proposes the idea that production can be endlessly fascinating, the possibilities and permutations endless. To witness someone try and fail to exhaust this is what is compelling about the music, and what makes it sound so alien. 

The most compelling underlying sensibility of electronic music was always its endorsement of alienation, a theme which is now discarded in lieu of nature in various guises. The open use of tools of alienation was the practice that made this music cutting edge, despite the kitsch unity of form that early electronic composers sought. Acceptance of alienation was more common a century ago. By the ‘00s glitch generation, the computer was identified as a tool of bureaucracy and so a tool to be exposed; it was a tool that had coincided with the historical development of music technique itself. Abstract ideals of eternal or timeless music were radically irrelevant, and artists used the tools of bureaucracy against itself, not unlike the way modernist poets observed that language had become a tool of rationalization and not something liberating, but a tool that could reflect on itself and undo itself in the process. Avant-garde music was about emptying, and there is paradoxically something about the so-called eternal or infinite music of modular synth musicians that is likewise empty, or a process of emptying. The more work musicians put into their increasingly complex systems, the emptier they sound. The infinitely developing music works in the opposite direction, and the listener gets the impression that such music exists specifically to archive the very last sounds producible on Earth. It has the impression of a demonic system that repeats and reproduces itself ad infinitum, but is actually closed: an infinitely closed system. 



Detail of Albrecht Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study (1514)


The Genre of Silence

by Bret Schneider


For some, reality deserves nothing but the silent treatment.

When he ceased literary production in response to the authoritarian demand for art to impart direct social meaning, Russian author Isaac Babel sardonically remarked that he was the first writer in the 'genre of silence.' Within a social situation that demands socialization as a means for domination, it’s better not to speak than to add to the political propaganda that society makes of culture. Babel's position in the '30s—political as well as aesthetic— was a protest against social decrees that art should have explicit social content. This demand came not merely from an authority on high demanding socialist ealism, but from a public that failed to treat aesthetic experience as aesthetic experience, subordinating it to political ideology. For Trotsky, Babel's most significant socialist advocate, the notion that art could be anything but social was certain proof of theoretical regression in both art and politics. Trotsky, Babel, and the various artists that have joined the genre of silence, understand (consciously or not) that society is a concept that includes radical forms of asociability, and that a society of ceaseless networking is not society at all. By giving reality the silent treatment, they preserve the hope of society to be more than barbaric networking and ladder-climbing.

Babel's art went 'underground,' and ever since, many artists have chosen to follow suit, finding little alternative. Decades later, Susan Buck-Morss remarked that self-critical artists may "opt to go underground," since it appears as though a noisy vanity fair culture can hardly perceive, but only distort the dimly perceived possibilities of life ingrained in art. Instead, 'critical art' as we know it today seems to add to the dimming of life by acting as a form of social correction. One must experience art the way we're taught by the authorities—authorities who the silent artists suspect to be mere pedants. In the vanity fair, silence as an aesthetic choice becomes a protest against reality—artists try to exercise their right to not participate in a relentless barrage of cultural pseudo-activity that fakes reflection. Silence must then be considered not a transhistorical aesthetic (as in, e.g., John Cage, Agnes Martin, etc.), but a primary ideological position from which aesthetics are condemned to proceed from. If there is a hypothetical end to the means of silence, the past half-century has missed the meaning by valuing silence as a transhistorical value in its own right. Silence has been metaphysicalized in contemporary art and music, and so a necessity has been made a virtue; a critical opportunity has been neutralized. 

'Going underground' is not to be understood as mere 'resistance,' but something like a form of 'strike' by cultural producers who inevitably exist within the culture industry. The position is meant to draw attention to the neglected situation that what little remains of avant-garde art is still necessarily the inspiration for the means of cultural production. If avant-gardism ceases, mass culture and propaganda have no culture to follow. Whether the 'avant-garde' today is ready to take up those stakes is unknown—the avant-garde, in the way it regards itself, is content to be the self-loathing manager operating at the switch-board of the culture industry. Every so often they're given a vacation, but cavorting with the village locals is not the same as living in nature. However, art in the genre of silence implies that the aesthetic content is potential discontent. But where it does occur through the genre of silence, any artistic 'strike' is not directly political; artworks express their protest mutely, and they express protest or strike in a specific, formalized way. Most artworks today do not consciously 'strike,' but art remains important the extent to which a strike mentality is expressed in rather peculiar ways. In other words any art that attempts to lead mass culture—i.e. the avant-garde—reveals a process of public withholding. It is not mere withdrawal or pacification, but the formalized and public withdrawal society really needs in order to truly be society. It is the image of the possibility of true withdrawal, contrasted against a society in which no one is permitted to withdraw, and in which exile is taboo. Every artwork today withholds rather than speaks, or speaks of withholding, in the expectation that mass consciousness will follow. This isn’t the self-repression of the avant-garde, or as contemporary art ideology supposes a primal and authentic phenomena, but rather an appeal to mass culture. It has grown so mute that it appears not to be present at all.

The genre of silence nevertheless recreates the cultural value that it is allergic to by rarifying it. If what we cannot talk about must be passed over in silence, then what cannot be said or admitted is at least constantly referred to in a culture industry that tends towards transparency. And even the right to silence is lawfully demanded to be represented and made visible to the same society that won't tolerate not merely silence, but silent types. Our noisy vanity fair has made this underground experience both formalized and impossible; one is revolted into creating a silence that hardly exists, imagining the silence of a distant Dionysian experience: the collective, contemplative, and mournful silence that Nietzsche imagined to appear immediately after Dionysus' clamorous arrival in villages. And in turn the very notion that one does not seek merry complicity with the sartorialism of culture causes outcries: anxious proof of the tangible, sensible threat that a genre of silence poses. One of the more outrageous moments in contemporary art history was when Anne Truitt first showed her Arundel paintings in 1974—the public was scandalized by canvases that seemed more to formalize withholding or withdrawal rather than the rote expressivity that was expected of art. In Truitt's own writings she constantly alludes to both the type of noisy middlebrow culture taking over in the '60s and the gallery-hopping that serves the same purpose as finding a good deal on a parka at a department store. She was dismayed by the opportunism and careerism of young artists who began to engulf culture but lacked real sensitivity and didn't care to cultivate it. This led her into more acute forms of perceptual work. Such perceptive works were an effect of the vanity fair, and are an indication of how the genre of silence comes into being.

This emergence of a genre of silence is a new historical phenomenon. While artists take up different approaches towards society in different times (e.g. agitating society, boring society, etc.), silence as protest must be endemic to a specific historical form. This might be identified as the over-stimulating and aggressive culture of the masses expressing themselves through art. The drive towards silence is perhaps related to the new death-drive, or the attempt to reduce all stimuli and return to an "inorganic" state, in Freudian terms. The silent, 'inorganic' can only happen amidst over-stimulus. Silence cannot then be valued transhistorically, as a hypothetical society in which aggression is unnecessary has no need for silence. What was once a part of a natural order—the religious personal contemplation painstakingly developed over centuries by monks—is now transformed by industrial culture into something which must be socially fought for. There's nothing more vulgar than calling for a sacred silence amidst the frenzy of industrialism. And this changes it. Like the monks, ascetic artists and artworks are rarified and become hot commodities. But the possibility for this silence is significantly less possible in a world where one will starve if they can't network inessential trivialities, and in which the culture industry responds to self-critical silence by integrating and neutralizing it. Artists since the mid-century have struggled against the falseness of 'expression' in various ways, finding the history of asceticism suitable to the task only because there is little else as an option. Art that makes pretense to silence is always burdened by its necessity, and an anxiousness to change a reality that is the opposite of the silent reflection it argues for. So when a composer like Arvo Pärt makes claim to an aesthetic of silence, it ends up sounding tense and empty, as if it's a placeholder for experience. It argues for something that can hardly be achieved without being contaminated by the estrangement inherent in needing to make such claims to begin with. 

So, then, what exactly does the genre of silence react to? It seems in some instances to be a response to academicism, specialization, and careerism. More accurately: pedantry. For an artist in the genre of silence, the ugliest aesthetic phenomenon is pedantry. Culture is little more than glittering trash. Beckett, an exemplary genre of silence writer who was immersed in critical discourse, made the conscious decision to withdraw from a career of teaching. Nietzsche likewise—his aesthetic philosophy would have compelled him to give up academic forms of thought even if he weren't ill. This withdrawal wasn't reactionary or utopian, but expressed a deep disgust with what had become the canon of ideas. Today, an artist in the genre of silence includes in that canon the flashy new theory racket that adds up to nothing substantial and inevitably expresses a corrupt idea of society as one damn thing after another. It's just that one damn 'thing' is one damn 'theory.' Political theory that has contaminated contemporary art is thoroughly aestheticized and quickly becomes propaganda for it, though not necessarily self-consciously. Critical discourse to Beckett had become no less positivist and uncritical than the so-called hard sciences which have, in many ways, taken over philosophy. Trendy new theories are appealing because they are noisy distractions that offer little substance—cheap candy for thought. There is a reason why Beckett's and Kafka's works were founded on 'self-cancelation': it was an aesthetic measure taken to prevent their being included in the canon of common propagandic culture. While writers in the genre of silence cannot offer an alternative in their art, they do indicate the need for real reflection. Like Kafka's hunger artist, who did not eat simply because he never found anything he liked to eat or could stomach, there are social characters who cannot digest pedantic, propagandic culture. They literally don't have the stomach for it. This is not moral, but more subliminal: the disgust emerges directly out of neurosis. And the inability to digest it says more about the state of ideas than about the artist. In this respect the genre of silence is the a special product of propaganda culture.

In every genre of silence artist there is a progressive aversion to cultural opportunism. This is more true today than ever: the poverty of 'critical theory,' which has no practical politic, turns into the prattle of dinner conversation. The genre of silence writer who withdraws from the complacent dinner table of current theory does so because he literally cannot eat his food without it being spoilt by rotten theory jargon. The disgust with current politics that is latent in contemporary artists and writers has its heritage in Babel's disgust with authoritarian decrees. We're much closer to living in the style of Stalinist socialist realism than we realize. It's just that our realism feels much more open. But then, it would look this way to social characters who are content to merely operate culture. It feels more comfortable than critical. All those state-sponsored grants and awards that artists fight over are means towards the reproduction of our status quo social realism. One question is whether in such state-authored conditions an aesthetics of silence can be politicized, or if the ascetics are too silent to first of all be noticed, and secondly be critical instead of simply affirmative. A further question is who would recognize such an expression? Certainly not those who hope to exile the silent, and certainly not the silent themselves. It remains for there to be art critics and new artists who can give silence a palpability. But when the critics and artists share a seat at the table of pseudo-politics, the question constantly represses itself. Those who choose not to participate in the dinner table politics of the 21st century are exiled as irrelevant, and yet there is no other conversation to join. Exile can only mean silence. But capitalism does not permit idle unproductivity, and so the exiled make of silence a self-reflexive medium. Once removed, the aesthetic process tends in the direction of silence and proceeds by active techniques of decomposition and self-cancelation. This has been evident in music in particular with the constant reduction of expression into silence, for instance in the works of Asmus Tietchens over the past couple of decades. If there is no use for such an art, it proceeds nonetheless with fully-formed materials from which it subtracts. To such a sensibility, expression is the expression of propaganda culture, and silence is the natural tendency of this culture when brought into the activity of self-critical production. The problems of expression lead directly back into the archaic protests of quietism, preserving the idea of expression. The attempts to resolve the problems of expression with more expression only lead to decomposition. 

Life grown both hyper-productive and meaningless with the impossibility of doing real activity will continue to demand artists who protest such a situation. The decision to starve or to take a vow of silence would be unthinkable in a different society—asceticism is a modern phenomena. Silence is not a means in and of itself—it is a 'quiescent' state of silence, indicating a dormancy of experience. This means that we ought to begin listening to what isn’t being said.


 Anne Truitt,  Arundel XIV  (1975)

Anne Truitt, Arundel XIV (1975)

 Anne Truitt,  Arundel XXX  (1975)

Anne Truitt, Arundel XXX (1975)

 Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt

I don’t know: perhaps it’s a dream, all a dream. (That would surprise me.) I’ll wake, in the silence, and never sleep again. (It will be I?) Or dream (dream again), dream of a silence, a dream silence
— Samuel Beckett
 Asmus Tietchens

Asmus Tietchens