Thursday, November 27, 2008

Life as Work of Art

"What strikes me is the fact that in our society art has become something that is related only to objects, and not to individuals or to life. That art is something specialized, which is done only by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not life?"
– Michel Foucault

This is a quote from Foucault's "late period", when his focus shifts from genealogy – as an analysis of power and its imbrication in discourses of knowledge and truth – to the ethics and aesthetics of subject formation (what he calls subjectivation). It's a beautiful passage which is resonant of the attempt in modern art to extinguish the distinction between art and non-art, between art and life. Foucault's reference to furniture clearly evokes Duchamp, as well as the Surrealist objet trouvĂ©

In one of his last essays "What is Enlightenment", Foucault speaks of Baudelaire as an exemplar of this mode of subjectivation. Why? 1. Baudelaire demonstrates an acute awareness of the contemporary moment in which he lives, a moment defined by "the ephemeral, the fleeting, the contingent" (in other words, the advent of what is typically called "modernity"). 2. This insight leads Baudelaire to ask an ethical and aesthetic question re: how the subject should live the "perpetual movement" that is modern life. According to the poet, the modern artist doesn't merely (passively) record impressions of modernity, but actively seizes them, works with them, works on them, transfigures them as he transforms himself. "Modern man, for Baudelaire, is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself." 

Likewise, the goal for Foucault is to affirm the self without falling back on notions of depth, interiority, essence; to affirm the self as a process (a becoming-subject), an opening, a practice. An aesthetics of existence.

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