Mountains? What Mountains? Some Reflections on Art and Philosophy
Liam Gillick, 2022

First published in The Philosopher
Autumn 2022, Vol.110, No.4

Contemporary art and contemporary philosophy are bound together – like alchemy and religion. Martin Luther wrote, “The science of alchymy I like well, and, indeed, ‘tis the philosophy of the ancients.” All art produced in our time operates within terms of reference that have dominated the key strands of continental philosophy, even while understanding that the idea of continental philosophy is something of an uncomfortable construction. Contemporary art at the highest level, wherever it is made in the world today, derives it discursive models from a mixture of Frankfurt School critical theory, Freudianism, “Western Marxism,” and further more recent developments in post-structural theory, especially French ones. (It is also deeply affected by the esoteric movements of the nineteenth century that led to Rudolf Steiner, the Bauhaus, and forms of subjective humanist spiritualism, but that is for another text.) Written from the perspective of an artist working today, this short piece will suggest a quick abstract sequence of associations between art and philosophy, and the ways in which they feed each other. I will attempt to demonstrate this by looking at two extremes: “Artist A-+” and “Artist A+-”. While one attempts to deny the presence of a philosophical context, the other yearns for it.

“Artist A-+” claims to be outside of the influence and conscious application of contemporary philosophy. Let’s imagine that their work is super-subjective, i.e., it only expresses that which the artist intuitively feels as an ideal, if flawed, expression of their own art language, within their own terms and not derived from any outside conceptual models or subject to any judgment. Maybe, like Duchamp, they prefer to think of what they make as “an-art” rather than “anti-art”, meaning it thrives without the oxygen of art’s history or intellectual context, and therefore does not operate against it either. Yet “Artist A-+” is not in fact operating outside of philosophy, as their approach is already accounted for in philosophy. The “outsideness” of their conceptual model is a conceptual model. The way they describe their own condition of exteriority from discourse is, in fact, borrowed from philosophical writing about the place of creativity within theories of aesthetics. “Artist A-+” also has a further problem to address: as soon as their work is out in the world, the artist who claims to be outside of philosophical discourse cannot escape the fact that the analytical and critical terms brought to bear upon their work emerges from philosophy of the contemporary period, which itself provides the discursive base of contemporary art criticism.

“Artist A+-” is also working today and carefully follows the “correct” journals, conferences, and varied published materials produced by philosophers. Despite appearances, and against their desires, however, they are not in fact operating within philosophy but are always kept away by their own self-nomination as “a contemporary artist”; they are only able to reach in and out to find areas of interest and suggest routes towards philosophical understanding from a deterritorialized outlandish position. The artist attempting to operate within philosophy is an alchemist, boiling up contemporary philosophy in a laboratory of desire, throwing references, images, and structures into the brew in an attempt to walk alongside philosophy, while at the same time carrying an increasingly unwieldy baggage of video projectors, artist’s statements, installations, and propositions. “Artist A+-” cannot reach a condition where they are fully operating within philosophy. This is because they cannot fully enter the territory of philosophy without giving up the condition of endlessly becoming an artist.

This contradiction between the “Artist A-+” wanting to be outside and being pulled in, and “Artist A+-” wanting to be inside and being permanently self-excluded, is where contemporary art gets its tension and its staying power. The difficulty in pinning down contemporary art is due to the paradoxical condition of its producers, who both exist simultaneously inside and outside of philosophy. Despite their best efforts, there is an endless pull towards philosophy for “Artist A-+” and an alienation from it for “Artist A+-”.

A contemporary artist is a creative human who is always operating within and without philosophy, while also operating alongside all the other artists who are likewise in the same situation – whether they like it or not. All of them are making art towards the idea that they will continue becoming an artist. Every art work is incomplete evidence of the continued intention to become an artist. “Artist A-+” and “Artist A+-” are both committed to the endless process of crossing an unknown mountain range where scaling one peak only reveals further peaks beyond. Without this, they would not be endlessly becoming an artist and there would be no art to make. Philosophy can offer a path through the mountain range, but the difficulty of following it would also remove the view of the mountains to come and therefore delete all the art to be made in the future. Even if “Artist A+-” were to follow one of the often contradictory paths offered by philosophy, in order to continue being an artist they would be doomed to keep pointing to the paths while repeating the assertion that the mountains exist too, as the paths must lead somewhere. A lot of the confusion around contemporary art is down to this “pointing towards paths”. And it also explains why a lot of art today is based on super-subjectivity, systems, distancing devices, new technology, and non-traditional forms, e.g., art as identification, art as education, art as collective action, art as research, and so on. These forms of contemporary art practice all exist within the same mountain range as “Artist A-+” and “Artist A+-”, yet they tend to focus upon a maze of criss-crossing paths. The tension between the guiding path and a creative terrain is where the endless unresolvability of contemporary art gets its endurance.

The claims for legitimacy and potential within contemporary art in broader society derive entirely from the historic role visual art played in the modernist period – meaning that contemporary art still feeds off the codes and credibility of art established in the early twentieth century modernism. Visual art ran in parallel to the drive of technology, development, and various forms of growth. This growth included population increases, the trajectory of science, and human-centered conceptions of agency and self-perception expressed technologically. Modernism in art offered a precise critique of the position of visual culture in relation to concepts of what it meant to be human in a technological age. Every art form that was and is a denial of the trajectory of modernity is also a reaction to it. Art’s role during this period was not to be straightforward or comforting, nor was it meant merely to upset the bourgeoisie. Rather, it was to create a fragmented mirror of social, political, and cultural developments enacted by the drive of modernity. Modernism and contemporary art is the critical double of modernity. At times during the past 120 years or so, these twin trajectories came close, moved apart, and approached each other again.

It is this meandering ebb and flow of the aesthetics of trajectory confronted by creativity as the production of “art as art” – and not by accident – that gives us some inkling of the peculiar relationship between contemporary art and philosophy. It is by looking at how each area both created and then enacted theories of the mechanisms of our changing relationship to the recent past and near future that we find a common ground where we might still perceive the mountains and create new paths simultaneously. It is this endless unresolvability that sustains art and philosophy’s peculiar accommodation to each other in our time.

© Liam Gillick 2024