Practicing Etiquette, Issue I.VII
Robert Hayes Kee,
Department of Polite Aesthetic Praxis

Greetings again, dear readers. We sit at a time of transition, of beginning again. Following the dispersion of the urbane to bucolia for a season, we have reintegrated with our urbanity. I write to you, once again, from the familiar bastion of the university library. I would like to thank the staff of this institution for feigning ignorance of my pecunious infractions of the previous semester when we pass amidst the shelves. Their politeness shines as a light in this season of recongregation. Trading our brogues for balmorals and our madras for worsteds, we are once again an oppidan mass, and with this tumultuation, comes oppugnancy, acrimony, and discord. It is a perfect time to once again offer the gracious guidance of etiquette to the issues of this column’s assiduous readers. To assuage readers’ fears of being alone in this numerosity, an irrelative one amongst the many, I give extended regard to only one question.

Robert Hayes Kee

August 25, 2014

Atlanta, GA

I recently criticized the work of a retrograde esthetic practitioner. This work rehashes tired forms under a rubric of ‘expression,’ completely unreflexive and without any conceptual grounding. My interlocutor responded with a claim that my disdain was rooted in a simple, Freudian desire for the repression of that human’s work, and thus as something I feared as a challenge to the ‘potency’ of my own praxis. Was I right to publicly criticize this work? Do we, those of powerful esthetic praxis, have a standard of work, below which, we may politely allow an unguarded critique? Do I owe my interlocutor a response, given their anemic antiphony to a considered critique?

We have, dear readers, approached an issue that desiderates some delicacy. To run, with your interlocutor’s unreflexivity, toward the dialectic of advance and decline is to engage with one of Western culture’s most harmful binaries. We should be generally chary toward the dialectic, but never moreso than here. Marx himself stated that he only described his own work as dialectical when no other appellation suited. To engage with the dialectic is to engage with Hegel; it is the ‘only profound enemy’ of pluralism, and thus requires extreme caution. Some combinations of forces are indeed dialectical, but its stilt legs are not strong foundations. We cannot rest the weight of a metaphysics upon them. A properly Nietzschean relation of forces does not cast difference as renitency, nor should we follow this line from antagonism to its inevitable terminus in strife. Etiquette without a foregrounding of difference is merely a playbook of oppression.

It is unsurprising that your interlocutor could match the unreflexivity of their work with the unreflexivity of their embrace of one of Freud’s weakest formulations, one that relies on the horrendous notion of ‘necessary opposites.’ A large part of the value of our company is that it is given voluntarily. This is what gives weight to our commitment to others; the statement that, ‘this period in time, between now and death, I offer to you.’ To devalue this existential commitment is a high crime against life. Should I view an interlocutor’s work as a suitable object of criticism, I am giving of my time before death in the same way that I do to friends. Casting this choice as an obligation, as if one and one’s opponent were Holmes and Moriarty, rolling over a waterfall to allow the retirement of a tired writer, misses a critical aspect of the conviviality of life. Only from here we can see the absurdity and beauty of this gesture, acting as if we were livestock, carving ourselves up at the sideboard and offering pieces of our ever-diminishing corpus for the fulfillment of our interlocutors.

If we examine the proper Freudian repression mechanism in this critique, and not just the groundings of that formulation, matters do not improve. As your critique and its response were public ones, I have availed myself of their specifics. Your interlocutor grounded the opposition between avant-garde and decadent art in a dialectic, and then cast the avant-garde as the repressor of the decadent. They do not reverse the power dynamic of Nietzsche’s politics, but nonetheless cast the avant-garde as the villain. This alone should sow doubts in our minds about this reading of art history. We are all very familiar with Nietzsche’s bequest that we protect the strong from the weak. To see this contorted to vilify the strong is a bizarre turn indeed. The author justifies this grounding psychologically, stating that the avant-gardist is jealous of the success and adoration of the decadent, popular art; the artist fears the assimilation of their own work into canon and attacks others ostensibly vying for entry into it.

This writer views the whole modernist project as a progression of impotent paranoiacs, forever concerned with their declining relevance, as if each work of art were made by atomic fission. The author states that the entire modernist project is unconcerned with history, merely floating through a succession of present moments, grafting a shallow novelty onto each of them. This notion of artist–as–inner-tuber deeply offends the sensibilities of your interlocutor. They desire heavy lifting from their artists, spiritual depth, and a ‘solid, stable, self-sufficient whole.’ We contemporary artists understand that, while we are postmodern, we did not become so by being mailed past the modern. We have processed its cultural experience; we have read at least one of its foundational novels.

The advent of the seventh decade of the previous century did not negate the work of those previous. We have, across media, experienced the collapse of ideal unities, and we have all built our houses from the fragments. I, for one, have no desire to resurrect these old structures. I am pleased to know that my human being is a false unity, one of convenience, since there is no way, down to the molecular level, to distinguish myself from my surroundings. I do not strive to be the unity of desire and reason, nor do I know how to distinguish what interaction of these two abstract elements is the ideal of ‘balance.’

Requiring ‘a seamless dialectic of semiotic structure and desire’ is one of the most horrific stringencies I have ever heard. I had hoped, dear readers, that every last one of us had buried any remaining hopes for unities of this nature. To espouse the view that desire as some kind of preternatural opponent of structure, an unconstructive, unbound flow; and to couple this view with one of language as structure and tool of the superego is to cause this writer gastric cruciation. To take this view and see it as the ideal of art couples that cruciation with cranial delaceration.

I have, before, briefly outlined my thoughts regarding expression as the teleology of art. In short, I am against this view. I regard no generic resurrection with as much disdain as neo-expressionism. To view positively, the project of art as an unbroken continuum from Lascaux to the present is bewildering. To see the diversity of esthetic praxes as a primary unity with a common emotional goal is the ultimate solipsism of winter philosophy.

I have my sympathies for practitioners of its first few waves, and find myself strolling to Die Brücke to see the crest of these waves at every opportunity. While it addresses a central esthetic conflict, that conflict is over one hundred and fifty years old. We should regard the ancient regime of Europe as the ultimate experts in protracted warfare, and their longest engagement was one hundred years. Take this as a cue, readers.