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


Nicola Masciandaro said...

. . . goes without saying.

And *needs* saying, understanding that here real critique must (like art leaving the gallery for the street) do away with the very construction of the "field" which it critiques, the alienating and essentially fictional manorial space so much philosophy and scholarship labor "for," forgetting its truth as event, aletheia, poiesis, production of presence, and so forth. I believe Agamben has done much to indicate, by statement and example, a way out, a opening toward a new way for a poetic philosophy, especially of course via criticism and kitsch as sites of creative breakdown, and via *commentary* (cf. as mode of creativity. But as Nietzsche said, there is only my way and your way, "*the* way does not exist!" Which is another way of saying that the truth of the philosopher is in what he does. Cf. "The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice" (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).

I think you may enjoy Bruno Gulli's Labor of Fire: The Ontology of Labor Between Economy and Culture.

Anonymous said...

Banksy's art operates in a ghetto. -- I appreciated Nicola's comment on doing away with the field.

I suggest reading about the media titled "Splasher." or read directly from a publication "if we did it this is how it would have happened" - published on the ny times site.

the first time I saw Banksy's art it was in a gallery in LA in 2000. they were also pawning off his little theory books.

clearly the problem with graffiti (which Banksy isn't, he is part of a sub category white washed and well marketed as Street Art) has to do with the way it tip toes around destruction and cultural capital.

I wouldn't draw the I is another link. Banksy, unlike Agamben, will always get on the plane if there is someone to buy his (plus his assistants) ticket.