Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Agamben and Banksy
"There is no Virgil to guide us in this Inferno," reads a graffito in Agamben's neighborhood, which he takes his visitors to see with what seems like a mixture of pride and self-effacement. He claims that when the paint began to fade, he asked one of his friends to reinforce the lines in red spray. After the job was done, the friend added a stencil of a black rat sitting on a step at the bottom right of the sentence (click to enlarge).
I took a picture of this wall almost a year ago, but only this morning I came to notice the similarity of this little rat and the insignia of Banksy, the greatest street artist in the world today, who is currently completing (like always, incognito) a series of works in various locations around my neighborhood. "Like most people," Banksy writes, "I have a fantasy that all the little powerless losers will gang up together. That all the vermin will get some good equipment and then the underground will go overground and tear this city apart." Note, also, that "rat" is an anagram of "art." I have little interest in the question whether Agamben and Banksy know each other personally or not. What interests me here is the basic philosophy that they both share.
In the very beginning of Agamben's philosophy, in the first pages of The Man without Content (published when he was 28 years old), the reader encounters an emphatic plea for the inseparability of art from life. Developing Nietzsche's critique of disinterested beauty, Agamben takes to task the Kantian aestheticization of art, that is to say, the approach that emphasizes the sensory involvement of the spectator instead of the creative force of the artist. It is after all the hand, rather than the eye, that has the most intimate relationship with the work of art. Pygmalion, "the sculptor who becomes so enamored of his creation as to wish that it belonged no longer to art but to life," is the symbol of Agamben's new vision. Rimbaud, who wished that his poetry would "change life" (rather than the world) is an obvious model. The ultimate concern of such a vision is a promise of happiness and not only a spectacle of happiness; its aim is the good life rather than a good taste. This position offers a surprising perspective on Plato's infamous crusade against the poets who, he believed, endanger the city; a position that rings so wrong to the Modern ear only because art does not have the same influence on us as it did on him. "Only because art has left the sphere of interest to become merely interesting," Agamben writes, "do we welcome it so warmly." The decline of censorship, he implies, is not simply the result of a growing liberal sentiment, but an indication that the artwork in question is impotent, since no one cares to ban ineffective art. Though he does not use the word yet, it is clear that art gains here a political significance, in the strong, Arendtian, sense of politics. As improbable as it may sound, from this standpoint "beauty is an indescribably more ruthless and cruel upheaval than any political revolution ever was," as Robert Musil claims in The Man without Qualities. Agamben's thought originates from this belief in art as insurgency, and this aversion towards its transformation today into mere spectacle, or its "museification," as he recently claimed in Profanations. That the very same argument holds for contemporary philosophy goes without saying.
A link to Bansky's Website
A link to an article on Banksy in The New Yorker