If I were asked to characterize the present state of affairs, I would describe it as “After the orgy”. The orgy in question was the moment when modernity exploded upon us, the moment of liberation in every sphere. Political liberation, sexual liberation, liberation of the forces of production, liberation of the forces of destruction, women’s liberation, children’s liberation, liberation of unconscious drives, liberation of art. The assumption of all models of representation, as of all models of anti-representation. This was a total orgy; an orgy of the real, the rational, the sexual, of criticism as of anti-criticism, of development as of the crisis of development. We have pursued every avenue in the production and effective overproduction of objects, signs, messages, ideologies and satisfactions. Now everything has been liberated, the chips are down, and we find ourselves faced collectively with the big question: WHAT DO WE DO NOW THE ORGY IS OVER?1
The above passage is quoted from Jean Baudrillard’s essay “After the Orgy”, and ends with a question that sums up a project I stumbled upon five years ago. I (unknowingly) undertook this question, “WHAT DO WE DO NOW THE ORGY IS OVER?”2 with the sign of sexual liberation, the pride flag. In the work Dollar Store Subjection: Liberty, Egalite, and Fraternity (2016), I deconstructed the flag and used the material as a painterly palette. Strips of primary and secondary coloured fabric became the base material for various paintings. The basic question was, what are the potentialities of and for this material other than the circulation of its dominant meaning?
The pride-flag provided a limit, and a direction that “worked” for multiple years. From there I used transparent fabric pattern material and then did a brief foray in bad video art. Since then, I haven’t made any art. I have many times before completely stopped making art. The last time I stopped making art I had been making these huge elaborate installations, but then those subtracted down to nothing—everything returns to nothing. I did laborious installations with painted plywood, painted paper, and soiled pizza boxes. I worked hard to mimic what I had seen in the magazines, but in the end I had become a Kurt Schwitters hoarder rather than the young brilliant painter I desired to be. I understood the “stoppings” or the disappearances of art practice as personal failure. A failure that corresponded to an increasingly depressive or nihilistic out-look on life and art.
Historically, when I’d stop making art for a few years, after I’d sufficiently forgotten my angst, I would return to my original fantasy, to my art-fetish, my object a—and things would start working again. I’d return to those images, the figures, the oil paint and colours that originally seduced me, generally western modernist painting. I painted abstract florals and figures, I would layer the paint until the image exploded through being overworked, and sometimes I would do the same technique but with text. My mantra would be, “Paint, Draw and Enjoy…BUT don’t think too much!” Thinking is not antithetical to painting and drawing, but there is a radical split that will not budge in my case. These disappearances of art practice, the “stoppings”, the “not-workings” are far from “personal”, they are real, and nihilism must be traversed, rather than merely forgotten.
Looking back to my undergrad work, it was prescient that my final project didn’t feature the grandiose painted installations that I was doing and would pick back up in grad school, but rather a visual essay of my work and writing erasing itself. I spliced together text and image, the operation was subtractive, and the essays were done with the copy machine. The visual essay project aligned nicely with Jean Baudrillard’s diagnosis of contemporaneity as “the degree Xerox of culture”.3 Theoretical practice has once again led me to this zero-degree of art-making.
Baudrillard’s infamous art argument is that there was a sublime magic in modern art, because the artists created works that presented a heroic abnegation of their own properties. Compelling modern art presented its own disappearance. For example, Marcel Duchamp abandoned art, and presented something unthinkable for the time, a urinal taking the place of figure, line, and colour. The heroism of this act is different from the conditions in which we live, where art has disappeared because it is everywhere. Life is thoroughly aestheticized. Duchamp’s gesture ushered in a confusion of categories, ultimately predicting the eclipse of art and craftsmanship by the generalized aestheticization of mass-produced objects and media culture. Art is just like politics: politics too have disappeared because now everything is political. Politics too have been aestheticized. Baudrillard calls this state of affairs “Trans-aesthetics”.4 Everything is everywhere except where it’s supposed to be.
Baudrillard has this amazing capacity to reverse the problem, we haven’t lost the real, but rather we have lost our power of “illusion”. Our “illusions” (objective science) have become too real. The seductions of the symbolic, ambiguous and equivocal of pre-modern life-worlds, their poetry, has been annihilated by the brutal positivity of the scientific real—by univocity. Metaphor has been eclipsed by the reign of the object— objects have taken their revenge over subjects. This totalized semiotic state has eradicated symbolic power and symbolic exchange, hence the accusations of everything’s disappearance.
In speaking about the seduction of illusion, rather than the brute positivity of facts, the art of ‘artifice’ can intervene into the alienating objectivity of our life-world. However, art’s effect is weakened by the hyper-proliferation of the aesthetic. In our aestheticized culture where we are constantly seduced, we become frigid in resistance. Art has been eclipsed by aestheticization. Art then, as aesthetic artifice, requires abandonment. And we have to find new terrain, new strategies, and new inventions to operate.
Baudrillard’s project has helped me symbolize a cultural impasse that is also my own impasse. Our “Trans-aesthetic” contemporary culture does not allow the imaginary and symbolic to cohere in a livable way with the real. Jacques Lacan, like Baudrillard, studied the symbolic inhibition characteristic of contemporary life and its effect on subjectivity in his later work.5 The symbolic has stopped “working” because it spins too fast—for some of us more than others. Hence my continual arrival back at this “degree ZERO-X of culture”—nihilism and nothing.6
From this perspective, the central problem emerges: If the symbolic is no longer working to orient the real, how can the symbolic treat the real? Treating the real with the symbolic, is what the psychoanalytic clinic is all about, and it is also what artists do, (albeit in a different way), is it not?
To put this in general terms, our ability to cognitively map our world has become problematic due to the complex abstractions that determine contemporary life. In the face of this disorientation, it is important to avoid the most obvious solution, which is a nostalgic return to the master’s discourse of bygone eras.7 I have already attempted this multiple times, but it has become more interesting to persevere in the impossible conditions for artistic practice and to keep the possibility open of locating a singular solution.
From the Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, Not-all is lost! This symptom, this messed up and fragmented “image” we have of our world, can be harnessed to tie our “reality” together differently, to tie via singularity rather than through hegemonic discourses. The symptom, defined as “what’s not working”, will then replace the symbol.8 To make a theoretical leap here, this means singular art symptoms replace the master signifier of “Art”. The master signifier that is no longer functioning, or working, to orient a life as an “Artist”—in my case.
Singular symptoms, like our failure “to be”, unproblematically invade artistic discourse.9 This ain’t no liberation though, it is a burden to speak beyond or outside of discourse. Discourse creates social bonds, and so, speaking outside the bond, threatens loss of that bond, it threatens exile and ultimately madness.
My work has not reproduced a ready-made position in leftist discourse, and so, I have had to pay the price for this in exile. Our discourses seem to only get more rigid, and grandiose, due to their general failure or lack of ability to satisfy. There’s a lot to lose in this world where the demands for egoistic (discursive) censorship seem to only increase, particularly on the left, when attempting to speak, or rather name, jouissance.
Now that I’m done sharing these thoughts, and now that QOQQOON is done, this question still seems pertinent.
“What do we do now the orgy is over?” Can we do something other than perpetually simulate or demand liberation?
Can I let art die, so that something new can emerge in its place? Can I maintain this impossible task of disappearance, of not being an Artist? And if not, instead of being an Artist, with a capital A, can I let my symptom-al-speaking annihilate Art, while creating something singular, that holds my world, that is always threatening to fall apart together?
I already have: my name is bully, lover of the weak!
–Leigh Tennant, October 2021