for René Girard

The association of art with mimesis goes back to Plato and especially Aristotle, and Girard’s notion of “mediated desire,” by whatever name we call it, was far from unexplored territory on the appearance of Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque in 1961. But although the publication eleven years later of La violence et le sacré may have come as a surprise to all but Girard’s intimates, its premise was already implicit in the earlier work: that mimetic desire, properly understood, is at the core of the human—although its specificity cannot be satisfactorily defined in the absence of the notions of deferral and of the sign.

I have discussed elsewhere these differences from Girard’s originary conception, and attempted to explain why his healthy mistrust of philosophy led him to throw out the baby of language along with the bathwater of metaphysics. But the subject I take up here explores the mimetic basis of the esthetic from the opposite angle.

Girard’s discussion of the novel returns chronologically from Proust to Dostoevsky in order to avoid dealing with the element of “modernism,” which embodies a second level of mimesis. It is one thing to say that the story of Julien Sorel or Emma Bovary or Dmitri Karamazov is a fictional rendering of the “conversion” of the authors of these novels through their personal transcendence of mimetic desire, and then to add Proust’s Marcel to their number. But the world of esthetic modernism is marked not just by the rejection of “naïve” representation but, and I think more significantly, by the introduction of a form of mimetic rivalry between the artist and his audience, a rivalry only vaguely hinted at by Marcel’s told but unshown transformation into “the novelist.”

This development, with its roots in the Baudelairean irony of post-romanticism, was incompatible with the spiritual lesson that Mensonge was meant to achieve. If, as Girard’s epigraph tells us, every man “possesses a God or an idol,” then the sacrilegious breakdown of this distinction in an era when a urinal can be displayed in an art catalog could have no place in Girard’s spiritual demonstration.

The simplest construction of the esthetic, as presented in the previous Chronicle, is as the oscillation of attention between a sign and the imaginary referent its perception constructs in the mind of the perceiver. This stands in contrast with the originary event and its reproduction in religious ritual, where the interdependence of the scenic center and the sign founded a communal, not an individual experience.

Esthetic experience becomes distinctive only when the central referent is experienced as dependent on the sign qua artwork. As I suggested in the previous Chronicle, the very notion of the artwork, as opposed to, for example, the décor of a ceremony, is defined by the fact that the individual’s experience of it is not preordained but contingent, personal, even if it takes place in a public setting.

At the time, I described the esthetic experience solely with reference to the oscillation between sign and imaginary referent. But unlike a linguistic/semiotic sign, the artistic “sign” is not part of a communal lexicon. Even the most elemental artwork, such as a stick figure, must have iconic properties of its own that enrich the semiotic reference, and through which the artwork acquires its status as an attempt, not necessarily successful, to generate in the individual a personal experience of significance/sacrality, one recognized as dependent on the work that contingently provoked it, that is, as a fiction.

As soon as the sign becomes a fiction, and to even the least degree the personal creation of the artist, it becomes a communication between two human subjects, and consequently a potential element of rivalry. But the original roots of the artist in a communally accepted priesthood, and the prior satisfactions procured by artworks that have had, in Aristotle’s terms, a cathartic/purgative effect on the elements of human desire that conflict with the need for communal peace, have created over the centuries a general acceptance of the role of the artist as someone whose productions deserve at least a chance of providing such satisfactions.

Above all, the institutionalization of art in the public square and the marketplace have naturalized the artist-consumer relation to the point where, unless we are ourselves artists competing for the same consumers, we are unlikely to feel a sense of rivalry. Nor are we under any obligation to “consume” a given artwork. Given that it is our time and/or money that is involved, we need have no compunction about closing the book, turning off the music, going on to the next exhibit, or simply out the door.

The customer is always right. But only if he knows what he thinks.

Modernism and Mimesis

The most distinctive feature of modernism in the arts, and particularly in the plastic arts, is the questioning of the esthetic effect of its works, and by extension, of all artworks, as subject to the influence of conformism/anti-conformism, in a word, of internal mediation in Girard’s sense of the term. The rivalry in question is no longer with the tradition-bound arbiters of taste, whom the post-romantics a generation or two earlier had learned to dismiss, but with the iconoclastic moderns themselves.

Rebelling like the romantics and then the post-romantics against “tradition” provides the satisfaction that not only is one asserting one’s individuality, but that the “traditional” norms against which it is being asserted will remain as permanent testimony to it. But having to measure one’s reaction against not the tradition itself, but the post-traditional rebellion of others, is a source of malaise. Not to conform to the mold of the non-conformist is a delicate matter: is it turning one’s back on history, an exercise in audacity for its own sake? Yet conforming to the latest non-conformism is no more to one’s credit than conforming to traditional taste in earlier generations. Whence the Angst of the modernist.

Why should this affect my reaction to a work of art? Merely raising this question brings a new dimension to the question of “art appreciation.” For the individual’s relationship to the artwork, once it has become an accepted aspect of the culture, develops norms of its own, which are incorporated into the esthetic relationship as a second level of communal mediation.

This mimetic relationship had always existed as the starting framework for rediscovering Kant’s universality of judgment. But it came undone in the crisis signaled by Duchamp’s Fontaine, once the artists’ drive to surpass their predecessors had reached the point at which the externally mediated desire to go farther along the road than one’s masters changed into the internally mediated desire to contest the validity of the road itself.

And so the secure superiority of the post-Romantics (as manifested, for example, in the “vieux Coppées” exchanged by Verlaine and Rimbaud to mock a “bourgeois” poet) gave way to the Angst of the modernist—and by an inevitable process of mimetic contamination, to that of the modern “art appreciator.”

Art and Anthropology

I began my career in the conviction, which I shared with Girard and several generations of twentieth-century cultural theorists, from the Russian formalists and English New Critics through the agony of (American) French Theory, that the esthetic was the royal road to what they felt, although they rarely called it “anthropology,” to be the foundation of the human—a foundation which, let me remind you, neither philosopher-metaphysicians nor social scientists possess the means to understand. It is anything but a coincidence that the privileged form of art, although not to the exclusion of the others, was the one that explicitly depends on the fundamental cultural function of language. Hominins may have danced and “sang,” even lynched on occasion, but without the deferral implicit in language, they would never have become human.

Nor is it a coincidence that the esthetic remains one cultural domain where, despite what increasingly appears to be the West’s surrender of all communal values to the sacralization of resentment, Kant’s universal “judgment of taste” retains a residual degree of truth.

Yet this sense of universality is constantly threatened, less by disagreement than by a growing sense that there are no self-evident criteria by which to judge, that in many or most domains of art, the “community” can no longer expect to come to agreement, and as a consequence, by the fear that ultimately no work of art will escape the banal rule of thumb about the “judgment of taste,” far less exalted than Kant’s, that des goûts et des couleurs, il ne faut pas se disputer.

Might this be one more sign of impending apocalypse to add to Girard’s prophetic remark that Hitler’s defeat is being avenged by the ruinous distortion of our souci des victimes—which is after all just a synecdoche for the Judeo-Christian civilization that Hitler hoped to replace with the Thousand-Year Reich?

Classical Art

One may well wonder whether the same men who drew those beautiful animals on cave walls had evolved to the point of telling stories about them. If I had to guess, I’d say no, because the technique of cave-painting, however sophisticated, does not depend on the communal possession of a narrative tradition, or even necessarily of a mature language. Such techniques, like those for tool making and the use of fire, are material discoveries that need not be put into a language more advanced than that of Wittgenstein’s “language games.”

What this suggests is that the plastic/iconic arts, because they are at first associated with sacred places, and impart in their numinosity a sacralizing effect to their location—whence the similarity between art museums and such monuments as basilicas and mausoleums—are less easily “secularized” than literary works, especially those destined like novels for the individual reader.

The residual sacrality of plastic art is inherent in its lack of portability. The esthetic effect of the art object is not, like that of a work of music or of literature, indefinitely reproducible. Whereas the latter consist in “structures” composed of reproducible signs, the plastic artwork is a thing, and therefore subject to the same kind of centralization as the originary scenic object.

A painted image, even a photograph, implies a hard distinction between an original and its reproductions. A good copy of a classic painting may be scarcely distinguishable from the original, and like the reproductions in books or on the Internet, convey much of the work’s esthetic effect to those who are not at the moment standing before the original. And yet the discovery that a famous artwork is a “fake” is a serious matter, of great financial consequence, for the original’s uniqueness, not merely its “esthetic quality,” is the source of its value.

Indeed, I have said nothing to suggest that the esthetic effect itself need be affected by such a discovery. That museum directors and art experts certify paintings as authentic or otherwise is only marginally a matter for esthetics—only with respect to the presumed diminution of quality in a work created as an imitation rather than a free composition. And why could a “forger” not improve on the original?

Such questions must be understood in relation to a canon of classical works, consecrated by history, which stands in contrast to the proliferation of plastic art in the modern world. With respect to this canon, it is understandable that even a forger’s “improvement” must nevertheless be debarred from comparison with the original, the product of a different age with different techniques. This stricture may not be a purely esthetic criterion, but its neglect would destroy the element of sacrality that, even in “secular” art, requires us to respect the situation of a given artwork on its proper historical scene—a truth that extends as well to literary and musical works.

The Cash Nexus

But if we can be fairly sure how to judge the artists of past centuries in their respective historical frameworks, this is not true of our contemporaries. No one can know for sure what the “verdict of history” will be concerning a given painting or sculpture, let alone an installation whose very status as an “object” is often unclear.

As a result, insofar as every artist hopes to establish himself, hopefully while still living, as a “classic” whose works merit a sure and growing market value, producers for the art market are constantly incited to problematize the state of the market from one day to the next in order to assure the triumph of their innovation over the others.

But as Duchamp made explicit over a century ago, the more the market comes to reward “originality” in the sense of surprise and scandal, the less the esthetic effect of the work can be separated from the mimetic effect it generates within its audience, who tend to be for the same reason plugged into the discourses of the art world in a way that novel readers or moviegoers feel no obligation to be before judging the works they encounter.

As a consequence, the arbiters of art can no longer base their judgment on qualities subject to the kind of discussion that creates a rough consensus around narrative works. In today’s art market, any claim of insight into the “value” (no one dares speak any longer of “beauty”) of a given work has come to be of significance only as a market indicator. Just as Warren Buffett is renowned as a skilled picker of stocks, so gallery directors and the like are skillful pickers of art—able to assess better than most which artists’ prices will rise and which will fall.

It should therefore escape no one that a historical movement that began with the post-romantic revolt against traditional-classic “bourgeois” taste, one that in its heyday provided an exemplary model for esthetic creation, with such success that these artists and writers—Flaubert, Baudelaire, the symbolist poets; Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists; Rodin, Cézanne…—are universally acknowledged as the supreme masters of their era, the honored precursors of all modern art… that the course of this movement has led us to where what Marx denounced as the cash nexus is the only acceptable measure of quality. It is no longer the Baudelaires and Courbets, but ultra-rich collectors and their agents who define what passes for value in the plastic arts.

Happily, beyond the uniqueness of objets-d’art, there remains what Walter Benjamin called “art in the age of mechanical reproduction”: the ability, made possible by technology, to encompass the entire world of our experience on our personal scene, and more specifically, screen, of representation. If human civilization is to survive, we must have faith that the screenic arts will survive the “Satanic” forces of internal mimesis.