‘I never have any ideas’, André once said. It wasn’t meant to be aphoristic, but was forced out in frustration for fear of being misunderstood. The sentiment undermines a lot of what people talk about when they talk about art, and speaks multitudes to what art is.
The third of the five telltale phenomena signifying modernity as The Age of the World Picture, Heidegger surmised, is that art came into the ‘purview of aesthetics’ whereby artworks became an ‘object of experience’ and consequently came to be considered as an ‘expression of human life’. Here this is read as individual creative expression, and whereas Heidegger had already argued that the truth of art was in its unconcealing, I want to follow Brassier’s unbounding of finitude from an individual lifetime to the heat-death of the universe as that which grounds the value of artistic production.
Around half the works in the show make use of obsolete government records. Produced in 1996 on continuous-print out computer paper, these lists contain records of Australian prints and artist books in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. André started making these at work, using the museums assets for his own stuff, wigging [la perruque] on the Xerox machine, photocopying copyright-free optical designs over the lists, passing the sheet through the machine multiple times, layering patterns over patterns.
There’s a temptation to focus too much on the process in the production of these works, or conceptually through the context in which they were produced, which is certainly there, but André’s not really interested in that, which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be either.
For André the mechanical coolness of the process needs to keep the hot beginnings in check. He’s always concerned there’s too much of himself in a work, and so his artistic production is often depersonalising. It’s not as if he has an idea for an artwork and then sets about to realise it. He tries things, and they work or don’t, the is-ness lending itself to a something-more-ness which approaches the alterity that aesthetic production points towards: the absolute. These compositions recall Romantic landscapes, the shifting movement of dynamic and unstable planes of sky and sea. But whereas the Romantics succumbed to a transcendent notion of genius, André’s stuff is more grounded in the material conditions of experience, things he sees and copies and puts together with other things at hand. He is no genius.
The contemporary usage of this term has its roots in Enlightenment thought, as defined in Diderot’s Encyclopédie as ‘the expansiveness of the intellect, the force of imagination and the activity of the soul’. Galton opened the notion of genius up to scientific scrutiny, and ended up conceiving of eugenics. These accounts diverge from both the Roman sense, and the earlier Greek ἐνθουσιασµός [enthusiasm], in conflating a tutelary deity with the innate qualities of particular individuals. In other words, the Greeks saw artists as mere vessels for the gods who not only inspired but determined the material production for collective recognition. The usual culprit of translating Greek to Latin would not be responsible here, but rather the emergence of a modern liberal subjectivity out of the scientific revolution.
In the third Critique Kant consolidated a specifically human freedom distinct from nature in claiming that art is the product of rational deliberation, while still appealing to the aesthetic quality of disinterested interest. Artworks are the product of artistic purposiveness, but must not appear to be intentional: ‘we must be able to look upon fine art as nature, although we recognise it to be art’ and ‘without a trace’ of the artist, whose ‘mental powers’ are always ‘fettered’ by the rule of artistic purposiveness, i.e. to make art that appears natural enough for aesthetic judgement by others (CJ, §45). All art is the product of genius for Kant, ‘the innate mental aptitude through which nature gives the rule to art’ (CJ, §46). But I reckon Kant is really clutching at straws here; it’s as if he got to the end of his book on aesthetics and realised he’d forgotten to mention anything about art or artists.
In response to Kant’s fumbling account of the nature of genius, Schelling attempted, but later reneged, to complete the System of Transcendental Idealism with an account of artistic production, which ostensibly bridged the recurring occidental conundrum of reconciling subject and object. Unlike Kant, for whom aesthetic judgement rested upon pleasure and displeasure, Schelling reckons the problem lies in unifying conscious and unconscious activity, and so he turns to the peculiar purposiveness of artistic production. The conscious and subjective activity of art is provoked in the artist by an unconscious impulse of genius, which results in an objective art-product. Artworks are objective, but consciousness cannot bring about objectivity, so artistic production is governed by the unconscious light of genius, which brings about the artworks as objective, via the conscious productivity of the artist. Schelling thus rests the entire system of transcendental idealism on the moment when an artist says ‘done’. He was not convinced for long.
Iain Hamilton Grant didn’t really delve into this art stuff in his reading of Schelling’s naturphilosophie, but I reckon we can ground this account of art in more materialist, or realist terms by getting rid of this initiating transcendent principle of genius. ‘I never have any ideas’ would encapsulate a first principle. There is no transcendent stroke of genius in the form of an idea, which one would then set out to do. Art emerges through the material processes of its production, its restraints, its context, the things we encounter, through the decisions required of matter itself. This would, as Brassier writes of ruminations on nothing-forever, provide ‘autonomy of the object in its capacity to transform thought itself into a thing (NU, 229).
In André’s multilayered Xerox pictures there is an artistic purposiveness that does not rest on a transcendent notion of genius. Rather than his laboured over paintings, the decisions happen before the production. There is not a moment when he’d say ‘done’, but by setting up the parameters he makes decisions—there’s still heat in that moment, cooled down with the push of a button.
— William Bennett, October 2023