When Nothing Happens


BB: Could we say that you’re attempting to establish a relationship between scientific and artistic modes of thought?

JFL: Undoubtedly. The idea of artistic creation is a notion that comes from the aesthetics of romanticism, the aesthetics of the idea of genius. And I’m sure you’ll agree that the idea of the artist as “creator” is, to say the least, of strictly limited utility in our world today. That’s no longer where we really are. We’re no longer concerned with the philosophy of subjective genius and all the “aura” that goes along with it. With Duchamp, we already find ourselves in an area that has an aspect of bricolage, there’s that side where you think of him as an “inventeur du temps gratuit.”

BB: But wouldn’t you still think of the work of Duchamp as something relative rather than some kind of transhistorical value?

JFL: Well, really, both yes and no, since that’s the way it always is with art: it always has a value as an expression of its time, but there’s also a way in which it can always be perceived as lying outside of the time that produced it. There’s always something that turns art into a transhistorical truth, and that’s the part of the art that I think of as “philosophical.” It’s within this part of art that it poses the question of what it has at stake. Art, after all, is a relatively modern notion. Even Greek tragedy couldn’t have been said to be art for the Greeks—it was still something else, and it’s clear that we have to wait at least until the close of the Middle Ages to discover the emergence of an art that isn’t simply an expression, for instance, of metaphysics or religion, or political praise. What strikes me, if we can start out from Duchamp, is the way it can seem, from a certain point of view, to be difficult to be an artist if one isn’t a philosopher as well. I don’t mean that the artist will have to read Plato or Aristotle, I mean that he has to posit the question of what he has at stake, he has to ask himself about the nature of what he’s involved in doing.

Precisely this question is the most interesting thing to be found in the works of art that are strongest today, it’s the thing in which these works are most interested. What’s at stake is something that’s extraordinarily serious, and it’s not at all a question of pleasure, and not even of the way the pleasure of the sublime is intermixed with pain; it’s a question instead of a relationship to time and space and sensibility, even though I don’t like to make use of that word. What I mean to say is that certain works have a structure that keeps them from being concerned with their existence as events; they do something entirely different as an attentive observer comes away with the feeling that their engagement with the senses, if any such engagement exists at all, is of far less importance than a primary interest in the most fundamental philosophical question of all, “Why does something happen, rather than nothing?”

Text: Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard and Bernard Blistène, Art Agenda.