This statement sounds trite, or worse, mean-spirited. But if we consider the Lacanian concept of the idiot, we may not be able to dismiss the provocation so easily. In sum, the idiot jouisseur enjoys the organ rather than, or even at expense of the Other.1 Additionally, the word can be traced back to the Ancient Greek word idios, which meant “on one’s own” or “private”.
Before we proceed, I should clarify my intention. I am not interested in judging idiocy because idiocy is universal. We are all more engaged in our own private, autistic jouissance than we are with the signifier of the Other: culture, politics, the other sex, actual alterity, or the real. So then, what is my intention? Simply, to make novel use of some of Lacan’s later work in struggles over the meaning of, and for, contemporary art.
Within Lacan’s thinking the idiot is a man, or rather, one who enjoys in a masculine way. An idiot is a man, because ‘man’ is a signifier, and signifiers are stupid, because they are arbitrary.2 As Lacan affirms, the man does not enjoy the body of the woman (or man) as he might think, but rather, he enjoys the pleasure produced by the organ. To be fair we know from the Freudian term polymorphous perversity that we don’t only enjoy the genital organs, but also the eye-organ, the ear-organ, the-mouth organ, the shit-organ, the urinary-organ, and I will add, for the artist, the hand-organ, ooh-la-la…
The idiot artist (and most of the time, I am an idiot artist), is narcissistically invested in being an artist, and therefore obsessed with gaining recognition as such. And thus, the idiot artist is obsessed with a stupid signifier. All us idiots want from the Other is their desire, which is a phallic signifier that we want to have or be.3 We want love of and for our masturbatory jouissance that we display perversely in our work. We want to be the phallus, while the Other is there for the mere extraction of that autistic signifier.4
Many artists claim to be engaged with the Other, of History, Culture, and Politics and they are, but they remain trapped in hegemonic discourses, and their mirror: counter-hegemonic discourses. Contemporary art is busy aestheticizing politics for personal recognition, rather than politicizing aesthetics. The politicization of aesthetics is more in line with the artist’s set of responsibilities than the latter, however, this route often requires personal sacrifice. Personal sacrifice because the art viewer does not want their enjoyment corrupted or withheld, and generally reacts badly and or indifferently to the politicization of aesthetics while loving the aestheticization of politics. Conventional and or counter-conventional signifiers of the Other are not what I am interested in marking here. Instead, I am interested in something beyond discourse, while recognizing the only way to access it is through discourse.
Rachel Harrison is my prime straw man; she is a good example of an idiot artist. Her work rarely signifies anything other than some obscure enjoyment of “painting” crap. The practice is desublimated litter, which is pretty common these days. The auto-erotic enjoyment of the eye, (scopic pleasure) and the hand, (tactile pleasure) is displayed for all to love and recognize. Despite Harrison’s “feminist” arguments, her work does not engage with the history of art or a contemporary real (the real as Other to the Other), in a way that exceeds the mere rationalization of one’s autistic enjoyment of and for “aestheticizing shit”. I will be gentle with my critique here. Gentle because aestheticizing shit is something I have also shared a passion for. Harrison and I are amigos! Well, not really; I am a back-woods critic and she’s had a Whitney Museum retrospective!
I have to be careful and reiterate my intention. I am not trying to prohibit pleasure or chastise the drives like a repressive, regressive, asexual priest (an untenable position to hold these days, to say the least). I am merely exploring how one might become less of an idiot artist, if not all. On the feminine side of the equation, whether a biological female or not, she requires the Other to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, the non-idiotic artist is not without phallic pleasure (the pleasure of the organ), but her pleasure requires the Other. To experience Otherness requires the signifiers of the Other of culture, history, and politics, the phallic semblant aimed at a real that is not merely ornamental or a cover for organ pleasure.5
An experience with Otherness, with something beyond discourse, would affect the artistic “organ” based pleasure. The practice would be transformed through engagement with the Barred Other, something beyond discourse—changed by Otherness, as that which escapes the bird-brain of the current disk of discourse.6 Based on the historical conditions in which we work, for an Artist to be engaging with the real in contemporary society (the real defined as what exists independent of my idea of it), there would have to be a notable subtraction of art as an object of surplus enjoyment.7
Subtraction of surplus enjoyment would demonstrate that the Artist is considering something of the real, something real regarding the historical mode of production that we live and work within in an ethical and or political way. It would demonstrate an artist less alienated by the generalized commandment to enjoy! Surplus Enjoyment, the conditions of excess, aestheticization, mass production that have demonstrably revolutionized artistic practice since 1920, and the changed structures of discourse must be confronted rather than aestheticized.8
Every artist is an idiot, but not all artists are idiots. Some artists love the Other, and this love forces demonstrable changes in their organ enjoyment. Just as love orientates commitments in relationships, it also does in artistic practice. The not-all idiot artists are transformed by the Otherness of a real that they grasp, and knot together through a series of subjective, and thus theoretical transformations but also false starts, relapses, repetitions, leaps, and then decisions, until it holds. They have a decided desire where contingency becomes a necessity through love, a love which will generally require narcissistic sacrifice.
Not-all artists aren’t as numerous as the solipsistic artists that remain forever locked in an art fantasy. The solipsistic artists make work that could be from any historical era, they do not contextualize the gestures they ape and do not reach out to the Other. They autistically enjoy without the Other, keeping their enjoyment safe through their passion for ignorance of the history of art, a history that contains something of a real otherness that should effect change, not mimicry.
I could name many feminine not-all artists, but it seems fitting to name Gareth James and his work, Kill the Idiots (1998).9 Why? Because as far as stupid clichés go, this work and practice seems decidedly unfeminine. Kill the Idiots, or Amma**are gli Idioti was later spray-painted on a store-front window of a gallery that had for a century been a commercial shop of various kinds in Italy (Dead Unconscious Desire, Galleria Franco Soffiantino, Turin, 2008).10 Kill the idiots is an equivocal statement that was originally seen on a wall of graffiti in London notorious for hate speech. James’ “permitted graffiti” is written across the exterior of the store-front gallery, sending the consumer gaze and the art viewers’ gaze—which is in multiple ways idiotic—back out at the viewer, blocking vision.
This work is on the feminine side because James’ practice is affected by the Other, and he evidences this effect through various stylistic commitments that show love and recognition of the Other as real alterity. Those stylistic effects in this case are linked to de-phallization of the practice; which requires going beyond the immediacy of optical pleasure and dominant discourse. To do this he intentionally restricts the aestheticization of the work during photo-documentation and works with low value materials: there must be a justification for any material choice and even the sensuality of colour is used sparingly. These restrictions on enjoyment force both artist and viewer beyond the surface forms of visual pleasure that block more sustained involvements with the real. He kills the idiot jouisseur in himself, and the viewer. His is an artistic desire that forces payment of one’s person.11 To pay with one’s person as an artist is to bracket, and limit subjective preferences, in the pursuit of the real. To pay with one’s person as a teacher is to work against—or rather with—the natural pathways of transference to force the student beyond identification with the teacher.
I find all of this interesting because many would accuse James’ work of having a decidedly masculine austerity and rigidity. If you have studied with him, you would be aware that he follows many rules that he has set out for himself. Feminine enjoyment is supposedly open, sensual, and beyond the law; beyond super-egoic rule-following at the expense of pleasure. The counter-argument against these dualistic clichés regarding masculinity and femininity is that both remain on the masculine side of the equation: both are phallic. The not-all phallic form of enjoyment that we are attempting to mark goes against phallic investment, sometimes in a radically mad way. The feminine that we are interested in is able to disinvest from the phallic seduction of the object that functions at the expense of the Other. As detailed above, a de-phallicized art practice works against the seductions of surfaces at the expense of the Other.
The practice is feminine because it goes beyond the law of art, or rather, it goes beyond the conventional discourses that perpetuate the repetition of unconscious organ enjoyment as art. Fantasies of enjoyment that constrain art practice to repetition—the not-all artist—exchanges this mode of enjoyment for an impossible relation to the barred Other: the real. The art laws, rather than the out-laws of art, are discursive conventions, however, deconstructed, that still rules over the artistic practice. Art is full-up with conventional fantasies of enjoyment, and the not-all artist is not seduced by these fantasies. Instead, she pursues something real in her own way, often at the expense of recognition as an artist.
To clarify, before concluding, I am interested in artists who engage with the Otherness of the real, not necessarily the conventional and or counter-conventional discourses of the Other from which we need to separate. The problem emerges when the real can only be approached through discourse, and so, the feminine artist is still an idiot, just not-all idiot.
In conclusion, we are all men, castrated, left with a pittance of organ pleasure once language has had its way with us. We are left fixated on the promise of plentitude that objects of surplus enjoyment provide. But some of us are not-all men. The not-all is a place of autonomy from discourse. In some ways one must become a bit of a Saint, to go this route, to give up enjoying as all the rest do.12 The not-all, de-phallicized practice is not the reductive cliché of soft sculptures, yonic waves, and seductive and/or idiosyncratic textile art. Instead, the not-all artist is open to being transformed, open to being an object of an encounter with a real Otherness. However, this openness requires getting our fixation on seductive objects, stupid signifiers, and bird-brain discourse out of the way. Because it’s impossible to be a Saint, we could instead humbly strive to be less idiotic, making work where a small bit of the real might be transmitted in the best and most rare cases—a real that will force the artist to pay with their person. And so, not all artists are idiots, just most of them! Which is one way of saying, not all artists are men, just most of ’em!
–Leigh Tennant, October 2021