By Lan Seušek
Starting a discussion of postmodernism with Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables may be astonishing at first glance. What can the novel by the most influential 19th century French romantic writer ever says about today’s art?
If we want to get an answer, it will not be superfluous to refresh the memory of the protagonist of the novel Jean Valjean and his antagonist Javert. The story takes place before and during the French Revolution. Jean Valjean, a poor fruit picker, steals some bread out of hunger, and is therefore sentenced to a galley. As he tries to escape several times, his torturous serving of punishment drags on for a full nineteen years. When he is finally released, he gets neither food nor work. Desperate, he steals silverware from the only man who treats him well, Bishop Myriel. But he does not betray him to the guards, even more – he gives him the silverware so that Valjean can be put back on his feet. The bishop’s kindness surprised him and it turns him into an honest and merciful man, and he remains so until his death. His antagonist Javert is a very good police inspector who takes the law extremely seriously. He catches and imprisons Jean Valjean several times, but he escapes just as many times. On one occasion, during a fight at the barricades, Jean Valjean saves Javert’s life and the latter then recognises him as an honest and good man. He finds himself in front of a big dilemma: should he arrest him or not? If he does not arrest him, he violates the foundation of his life – the law – if he does, he would put the best man he knows in prison. This shakes him up so much that he commits suicide.
Giants and dwarfs
Let’s take a look a little further back, to the 12th century, when Bernard de Chartres introduced the theory of giants and dwarfs, where contemporaries represent dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. The dwarfs are placed higher than the giants, but not only to their credit. For their position, they owe a debt of gratitude to their ancestors who made this position possible for them. Something similar happens in Hugo’s novel. In it, Hugo presents complementary sides of morality through two main characters – on the one hand, Javert appears as the guardian of legalised morality, and on the other, Jean Valjean as an advocate of ethical principles that signify novelty and a new level of moral sensibility that is important with existing legislation.
Let us now set out that Jean Valjean is a fighter for free artistic expression and Javert a guardian of aesthetics. Jean Valjean is poor, picking fruits from the past, but at some point, out of hunger, he steals bread, something fresh, pliable, and crunchy. Javert, who is the guardian of aesthetics, catches Jean and imprisons him, Jean escapes and Javert imprisons him again… and once and again.
Jean Valjean’s imprisonment means closing free expression to classical aesthetics, and escaping means breaking through free expression again. In the story, Jean Valjean meets a bishop who has mercy on him and endows him. This dowry makes Jean Valjean more and more recognised, and Javert finds it increasingly difficult to catch him. In other words – free artistic expression is becoming stronger, and aesthetic norms weaker in argumentation, as free artistic expression has repeatedly proved to be successful and good, and aesthetic norms, which are supposed to protect established aesthetics, are becoming less and less effective. Jean Valjean saves Javert one day. Now the latter can no longer grab his prey, but he also cannot sit by. The split pushes him into suicide.
The theory of aesthetics thus surrendered and left free expression to find its own way. Unfortunately, in desperation, it forgot that Jean Valjean is not the only fighter for free expression and that he is the exception rather than the rule, the exception that made the rule human. From here on, Hugo’s story is silent, but it seems to me that we live a reality where the true descendants of free expression must fight to establish an aesthetic order. The Jean Valjeans of modernity desperately need Javerts.
Postmodernists have pointed out the problem that every phenomenon has an infinite number of interpretations. From this they concluded that the contents also have infinite interpretations, and that therefore none of them can be taken as superior and more appropriate. If we transfer this to aesthetics, there are an infinite number of explanations for the phenomenon of aesthetics, and because of this we cannot judge what is aesthetic and what is not. Fearing an unjust judgment for free expression, postmodernists have established an unjust environment where the average is equated with surpluses. What the Javerts had endeavoured for in the past was based on aesthetic norms established in the course of history, they believed in progressivism, which was mostly real progress precisely because of the rigidity of the tradition that had to be convinced. The dwarfs had to prove themselves in the eyes of the giants that they were allowed to sit on their shoulders, sometimes they even had to defeat these giants like David Goliath. In short – the new aesthetics had to prove itself, as the new ethical principles must be confirmed if they are to be enacted.
Strict Javert was replaced today by another police inspector, less rigid and much more spontaneous, operating with intangible evidence. He slowly realised that it was easier to keep Valjean’s successors under control if you caught them like circus animals and showed them off as a noteworthy attraction, thus hiring them so they forget about their captivity. The artists slowly lost their sharpness and became harmless, predictable, and boring, although their guards tried to stage gladiatorial games and shock the visitors. If we take a look at Theodor W. Adorn’s statement: “As far as works of art can be predicted to have a social function, it is about their non-functionality,” does this statement sound like an employment contract that lacks the fine print. In other words – this is a slave ownership contract, where certain groups have usurped the artistic public space, declaring it an autonomous zone in which they rule as despots, hegemons. So I am not surprised that the works of Damien Hirst, his cut animals in formalin, or a banana glued to Maurizio Cattelan’s wall, are the most expensive works of art that are being sold within the gallery system.
Rediscover the function of art
How to move forward? Reviving old styles is not enough, the function of art will have to be rediscovered and clearly defined. This function cannot be determined by an isolated theorist, nor can it be discovered by an isolated artist, for its reconstruction we will need big clients. We will need clients who will not be big because of money, but will be big in their ethos, we will need theorists who will be able to summarise this ethos, and artists who will be able to portray this ethos. A culture that wants to survive will have to have a greater desire for preservation than for power. There is still time to make an effort and rephrase what the European ethos is. In doing so, we need neither Brussels nor elections, but greater love for ourselves than for our own pleasure.
Lan Seušek is an academic sculptor and publicist.