Philosophy as vanitas: Lyotard’s exploded Sublime
This paper investigates two artists and their paintings within the 1970s French context of Jean-François Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition: Gérard Fromanger’s history painting of a microprocessor ironically titled And you my love, my heart, my life, 1978, and Jacques Monory’s later paintings of stars, nebulae and galaxies following his trip with Lyotard to Silicon Valley, California. These ‘artwork-events’ were screened out by Lyotard’s better-known text around Barnett Newman in ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’ (Artforum, New York, 1984).
René Descartes’ disembodied cogito, (‘I think, therefore I am’, 1637), preceded Blaise Pascal’s indictment of painting perceived as an imitative ‘vanity’ (1670). The French Enlightenment ratified self-assurance of the philosophising, male Cartesian subject. This was irrevocably decentered, however, by the post-1945 communications explosion and circulation of images across different culture, ideologies, time zones and space itself. Marshal McCluhan described the new TV-connected ‘global village’; Fromanger documented the simultaneous existence of a French poet within the palatial kitsch of a Versailles party, and a Chinese peasant painter at work. Both time zones and star maps figure in the presentation of his microprocessor painting in 1980.
Lyotard experienced a double decentering: not only space and time zones within the ‘otherness’ of Cold War America, but painting’s potential to explode philosophy’s logocentrism. He was fascinated by Monory’s star paintings which continued the vanitas tradition: a reflection not upon representation (Pascal) but upon human mortality. Based on computer-generated star maps, they rendered the Kantian sublime obsolete: a philosophical concept itself exploded in the context of time-space exploration and binary number-based computer codes. That huge Californian satellite dishes and military technologies could generate personal writing and thinking tools (the personal computer), that ‘star banks’ could become personal image banks, that metanarratives themselves could dissolve in the ‘behind-the-screen digital’, were lived and thought experiences for Lyotard, as he imagined the giant spectacle-compendium of Les Immatériaux, 1985. Despite the revered philosophical genealogies which thread his text, ‘The Sublime and the Avant-garde’, Kant becomes a dead star, displaced in his last works by Galileo and Saint Augustine. As art becomes ‘Art after Philosophy’ (Joseph Kosuth’s proposition), as the boundaries between art and the new reproductive technologies start to blur, as Lyotard himself experiments with film and art films, philosophy as a discipline in itself becomes, I argue, a vanitas.
Sarah Wilson is Professor of the History of Modern and Contemporary art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London. At the Courtauld she teaches an MA course, ‘Global Conceptualism’ generated in 2011 with Professor Boris Groys, She has published The Visual World of French Theory: Figurations 2010 (French 2018), spurred by work on the Lyotard-Jacques Monory encounter, and Picasso/Marx and Socialist realism in France, 2013. She is working on Photography, Body, Material, Concept: The Visual World of French Theory, vol. 2, again involving the texts of Jean-François Lyotard on Daniel Buren and Ruth Francken. She was principal curator of Paris , Capital of the Arts, 1900-1968 (Royal Academy London, Guggenheim Bilbao, 2002-3) and Pierre Klossowski, Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2006, touring to Cologne and Paris. A close relationship with the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, has extended throughout her career. Sarah Wilson was appointed Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres awarded by the French government for services to French culture in 1997. In 2015 she was a curator of the Ist Asian Biennale / 5th Guangzhou Triennale at the Guangdong Museum of Art and was awarded the AICA (International Association of Art Critics) prize for her distinguished contribution to art criticism.
Sarah Wilson’s former students hold prestigious posts in many museums and galleries worldwide; they teach at the universities of Cambridge, Bristol, Liverpool, Amsterdam among others; she taught Jeremy Deller who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, 2013 and is proud of the Courtauld’s worldwide network. More is available on her personal website www.sarah-wilson.net including the full range of published work and research supervision.