Last week I promised to pursue the idea that although the avant-garde artist despises the marketplace, he nevertheless expects his work to be recognized by it at some future date. This apparently natural attitude is all the more paradoxical in that it includes the idea that bourgeois society, increasingly dominated by the market at the expense of traditional values, is constantly degenerating. Emile Zola was naively courageous enough to construct for this outlook a historical correlate in which the process of degeneration was reversed by the collapse of the Second Empire in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Purged by this humiliating defeat, French society, as depicted in Zola’s last novels, reverts to an agrarian utopia where men till the fields and women give birth to countless offspring. (Most of us would prefer the world of Nana.) The fantastic unreality of this myth–which wholly denies the reality of the Third Republic–reflects the paradox it must incarnate.
A less ambitious model accepts the separation of the lived and the esthetic spheres: the bourgeois world gets worse, but its art gets better. My unrecognized masterpieces will be accepted not first by the Philistines, but by artists and connoisseurs, starting from the most authentic and going down the scale. Tomorrow’s bourgeois, be he yet more vulgar than today’s, will accept my work on the say-so of his esthetic betters. What guarantees my ultimate success is, in other words, mimetic desire. But this is precisely the curse of the bourgeois marketplace, the agent of social degeneration. There is no escape from the paradox of seeking salvation in the future from the very institution one condemns in the present.
But as last week’s column suggests, our faith is not really directed to our fellow humans, but to a transcendental agency, one that traditionally bears the name of God, although the necessity of this naming must be deferred for our thought to call itself anthropological. Slogans like the end justifies the means or history will absolve me situate their apocalypse within history, but the concept of transcendence is founded on the verticality of the sign. What guarantees our sense that there is indeed an end to justify the means is the subsistence of the sign and its meaning independently of its time-bound referent.
Thus when the artist resists the temptation of the hated bourgeoisie, the vindication he seeks is not really that of his future admirers, but of the eternity that Mallarmé refers to in his poem. The admirers will be there, of course, but only as a confirmation of salvation, just as worldly success confirms salvation for a Calvinist.
But this structure isn’t just a simple given. Some of the GAlist discussion concerning my “immortality” column has centered on the resurrection of the body: the idea that it’s not enough for eternity to change us into the signfied of our name, the living Poe into “Poe,” that what faith tells us is that “in the fullness of time” not merely our body, but the totality of our life-experiences will be regenerated into eternal life, and all death and forgetting abolished. Yes, this is what faith tells us; our yearning is not to become a mere signified–although few of us would not find consolation in the certitude of becoming a household name for future generations, a Leonardo da Vinci, an Einstein, a Marilyn Monroe. My point–and one has not understood generative anthropology until one has grasped this point–is not that language holds the solution to all our problems, or that the exchange of things (the market) is neatly modeled on the exchange of words, so that market-society is truly the Kingdom of God. The point is rather that language indeed provides our model of transcendence, of the emergence of the vertical from the horizontal, but only as a formal structure which human culture ever seeks to incarnate in material reality. Why? Because the verticality of language emerged from this horizontal reality in the originary scene. I have entitled these columns Chronicles of Love and Resentment because the two forces that dominate our lives are the resentment of the inaccessible object of this transcendence and the experience of love by means of which this transcendence is reestablished.
But for that very reason, the contemporary artist is no longer concerned with selling out. Beginning with cubism and continuing through abstract expressionism, the mimetic forces of the market have eliminated the difference in values between the unregenerate bourgeois and the enlightened connoisseur. The market prices of artworks no longer permit of the distinction between real quality and that favored by the marketplace; a good artist is one whose works can be expected to rise in value, a great artist, one for whom this expectation is close to certitude.
How can theory replace plastic art in this paradigm, although theory creates no objets d’art and its dissemination is almost completely subsidized–by academic salaries, university presses, even the Internet? The answer is that not all markets are simply economic. The 19th century artist suffered from bourgeois esthetic prejudices and their effect on the state commission apparatus so central to artistic life in France. The contemporary theorist suffers from PC intellectual prejudices and their comparable effect on the university conference circuit so central to academic life in the United States. In the one case, the financial market offers rewards that discourage genuine art; in the other, the intellectual market offers rewards that discourage genuine thinking.
The art market has not so much evolved as been rationalized; prejudices have not disappeared, but they are factored into a calculus of long-term expectation. It is not unreasonable to assume that the secular trend of the intellectual marketplace is in the same direction. Long-term investment in ideas has always been the norm; it is the current trendiness that is the exception. When the dust has settled, most people, even academics, prefer ideas that future generations can take seriously to those that belong in the appendix to Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet. Academics too, after all, will be changed by eternity into themselves.