A House Divided
A House Divided
From the Documenta X Catalogue on the work of Rosemarie Trockel and Carsten Höller
"A litter of pigs", writes Emerson (in his essay Art), "satisfies and is a reality not less than the frescoes of Angelo". The archaic fantasies of an American inculte who fails to recognize the essential distinction between Art and Reality? Pigs are surely real, and satisfy - in an impressive variety of culinary forms. But just as surely they cannot, in their real living presence, satisfy as art. Of course, one can make an artwork composed of pigs (or anything else), but then (according to established aesthetic theory) they are no longer simply real pigs but ontologically transfigured objects belonging to a separate artworld.
Pragmatist aesthetics, in the tradition I develop from Emerson and John Dewey, Is devoted to challenging this crusty old dogma that firmly divides art from real life and praxis.1 Not only a concretely embodied reality in itself, art can play a powerful role in changing other realities by changing our perceptions, altitudes, and consequent actions. The notion of art as a distinctive ideal realm was once extremely useful. Central to modernity's process of secularization, it provided a locus outside religion for our habits of sacralization and our need for spiritual expression. Religious sentiments were displaced toward art, whose works are now the closest things we have to sacred texts and relics. The idea of art's autonomy from real life and praxis was also extremely useful in liberating art from exploitative control by its traditional conservative patrons, the aristocracy and Church.
By now, however, this idea has lost its usefulness, erecting a false barrier between art and action, that trivializes art and robs its power for positive praxis. For art's highest aim is not to make a few admirable objects in a world filled with misery, but to create a better world through the work such objects can generate. Art has won Its autonomy by losing its purpose and consequently its public. Contrasting itself to the real, it can hardly claim to present or create truth. Disdaining concrete social aims as vulgar functionalism or propaganda, while likewise scorning the simple goal of pleasure as too base and utilitarian, art seems best appreciated when it is good for nothing. Its function, affirms Adorno, is 'to have no function' and thus to protest our functionalist society.2 Emptied of purpose, art displays its pure autonomy in the vacant frame of gallery space, a clean white box increasingly devoid of public. Boxed in this sacralized space of compartmentalized art, the artist is boxed out from the power to enlighten and move the multitudes toward the creation of a better world.3
Carsten Höller and Rosemarie Trockel have constructed a monument that both exemplifies and protests art's boxed-in/boxed-out state. Evoking art's potential for real-world improvement, their Haus fü Schweine und Menchen also embodies art's actual limits and impotence. A real concrete edifice where Documenta visitors can lie down to rest their weary legs and escape inclement weather, Haus obviously offers the practical function of shelter. It also offers a visual relief from the inanimate objets d'art, 'the sight of real livestock'. In all too human self-absorption, we forget a more crucial function: its being a haven for pigs in a society where they are brutally bred, systematically slaughtered, and readily devoured by their human neighbors. Many of us have been introduced, as children, to the functional demands of the art of architecture through the old tale of 'The Three Little Pigs'. Should we see our culture, ourselves, as the viciously blood-thirsty wolf keen on destroying the pigs' refuge so as to devour them?
Höller and Trockel's Haus reminds us that our pork products are made from living creatures with whom we share a world, as we share this house. In Haus, we can literally see through the line dividing humans as bearers of rights to life' from animals without such rights, though here exceptionally enjoying the best imaginable living conditions. But can we really see these fellow animals in the deeper sense of recognition? There can never be recognition's communicative meeting of the eyes, since the thick one-way glass allows only observation by the humans. The pigs are thus rendered mere visual objects (we can neither hear nor smell them, nor touch them, of course), and thus a deeper sense of identification is frustrated. Even when art strives to reveal a living reality worth engaging, it blocks real engagement by the limiting, one-directional, visual modality of its involvement. For real contact with the pigs, one must leave the boxed artwork and approach them from the back garden. Even when art tries to do something for pigs (as Haus implies), it is only doing it for a few lucky 'art' pigs, and only for one brief charmed moment of the 'Exhibition'' or 'Show'.
There are also many human pigs in our social world: races and ethnicities that fail to gain our recognition because they are seen through the one-way glass of socio-cultural privilege. Very often such despised ethnicities are denigrated as pigs, though Hegel in denying the African's humanity, compared him not to a pig but a dog.4 Like the division of Haus, the barriers that still divide the races of the world are clearly artificial and can easily be seen through, but they remain nonetheless powerfully binding.
The partitioned house is not only a metaphor of ecological and social division, but an epistemological critique. Too rigidly we divide mind from body, privileging mind as the human observer that must police the base, slovenly flesh involved in its own piggish desires. Every intellectual hides a partitioned pig whose enjoyments cannot be affirmatively relished in full-bodied experience, but only seen through a thick barrier and at a distance implied by the visual. The same distanced visuality attenuates our experience of art, eviscerated by the aesthetic ideology of distanced, disinterested autonomy.
We return, then, to the divided Haus as a critical image of fine art's compartmentalization from life and forms of popular (piggish?) culture. We make and use this particular artwork together with the pigs. If we observers are the work's real agency, art seems an idle voyeurism cut-off from the real business and full sensorium of living. If, on the other hand, we view the pigs as the work's principal makers, the one-way glass provides a telling metaphor for the contemporary artist's inability to see the public who observes his work, thus making him revert in blindness to the mirror vision of self-absorption, to the Muppet model of Miss Piggy asserting "Moi!".
Haus is equally provocative with respect to aesthetic experience. If it remains for us a merely visual, distanced experience of autonomous art, is our enjoyment of this work as good as the pigs? Is the art of living not better than the art of observing, and are not all conventional artworks best seen as promises or steps toward the highest art: that of living better in a world ennobled by greater beauty and justice? This was Emerson's view. "There is higher work for Art than the arts ... it is impatient with lame or tied hands, and of making cripples and monsters, such as all pictures and statues are. Nothing less than the creation of man and nature is its end."
Today's pragmatist aesthetic, as I construe it, remains consecrated to that supreme end, and remains impatient. But it insists on two further points: that valuing an end implies respecting the means needed to accomplish it; and that artworks can be provocative means to spur us toward noble ends not only by making them visible but by making it clear that art, in its compartmentalized form, is impotent to achieve them. Art should never rest complacent with this impotence that Haus succeeds In demonstrating. Mere aesthetic satisfaction with this success would be the worst of failures.
1 See Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Oxford: Blackwell 1992; abbreviated French and German versions: L'art à l'état vif, Paris: Minuit 1992 and Kunst Leben, Frankfurt/M.: Fischer 1994; and Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life, New York: Routledge 1997.
2 T. W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, London: Routledge, 1984, p. 322.
3 I develop this box metaphor for art in an essay, "Art in a Box" in Mark Rollins (ed.), Danto and His Critics, Oxford: Blackwell 1993, pp. 161-74; and in an interview with Suzi Gablik, "Breaking Out of the White Cube", in her Conversations before the end of time, London: Thames and Hudson 1995, pp. 247-65.
4 See G.W.F. Hegel, Die Vernunft in der Geschichte, Hamburg: Felix Meiner 1955. p. 202