PRINT February 1981

Scandal’s Witnesses: Grafting Smithson on Bataille

I. Georges Bataille
“LIBERTY, LOVE AND POETRY,” the Surrealists’ battle cry since the mid-’40s, focuses the vanguard’s attention upon an ideal point in the future. In this context, “Liberty” is identified with the individual’s freedom of choice. Historically such a position can be validated only in an atheist culture. Its full meaning can best be understood by contrasting it to Saint Augustine’s claim that freedom consists in serving Christ: Libertas est Christus servire. To achieve this degree of freedom the faithful should be willing to testify as witness to the truth of God’s word by martyrdom (Matt.10:18). Augustine says that the goodness of God is denied by those Christians who, like the Manichaeans, deny that there is only one beginning and that it is good.

Carried to its logical conclusion, atheism implies that the agnostic decides what is good or bad on the basis of his free will. He can therefore repeat what the Marquis de Sade so trenchantly said in the words of one of his characters: “either the crime makes us happy, or the scaffold prevents us from being unhappy.” On the strength of this Sadean manichaeanism, Georges Bataille postulates that there would be no love if death did not exist. Bataille claims that sexual activity is conditioned by death, not only because the new beings prolong and replace the lost ones, but also because this is a threat to the very life of the being which reproduces itself. He states: “To reproduce oneself is to disappear. An individual’s death is but an aspect of individual proliferation” (page 13).1

In his essay on Sartre’s book on Baudelaire, Bataille claims that the author of Les Fleurs du mal liberated poetry from its fetters of idealism. Bataille traces the origin of this emancipatory movement to the French Revolution, and explains the ideological consequences in terms of social conflict. He makes it very clear that during the 19th century the French bourgeoisie sided with the revolutionary masses whenever they erected barricades, to protest the abuses of the restored monarchy and to reiterate their solidarity with a regime that had abolished the nobility that had squandered the wealth of the nation to build extravagant palaces and turn farms into unproductive gardens. During the 19th century and after, though, the workers remained opposed to the bourgeoisie because the capitalist system robbed them of the fruits of their labors.

By means of this Marxist analysis of the situation, Bataille notes that the intellectuals were divided. In the name of utility the progressive artists condemned palaces like Versailles and proposed instead to celebrate work by erecting grandiose railway stations and glass palaces for international exhibitions of trade and industry. As for the romantic intellectuals, they condemned both the old and the new buildings in the name of poetry. From this analysis Bataille deduces that under a capitalist system the individual’s moral dilemma is always an economic one: how much should I work in order to increase my wealth, or how much can I afford to spend in order to enjoy myself? Bataille rightly believes that one will make no effort to improve one’s future without will. The poet’s revolt against work finds its purest expression in Baudelaire, when he says, “Etre un homme utile m’a toujours paru quelque chose de bien hideux.” (To be a useful man, has always seemed a hideous thing to me.) “Freedom is always freedom to disobey,” said Sartre, adding that this is why in the last analysis Satan turns out to be an adult’s conception of the freedom to satisfy one’s desires that is denied to the child by grown-ups. Theoretically, the proletariat and romantic protest could be coordinated in terms of man’s eventual liberation from subjection to work, since Bataille attributes both a sociological and an existential meaning to subjectivity. Sociologically, he says that useless consumption is to production what the sovereign is to his subjects, and what liberty is to slavery. (p. 232) Existentially, the sudden realization that another person’s consciousness of objects in the world differs from ours, is unintelligible, hence scandalous. After having carefully read and re-read Bataille’s La littérature et le mal, I came to the conclusion that the Jacobins’ motto during the Reign of Terror—“Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la Mort”–should have led the romantic poets to add to Breton’s motto “Liberté, Amour, Poésie” the words, ou la Mort. Fascination in art and poetry is awakened either through desecration of the good or through profanation of the beautiful. Rimbaud not only desecrated the good, as did Baudelaire, but he also profaned poetry’s rhetoric. The Cubists profaned more than they desecrated. The same can be said about the Dadaists and the Pop artists. The Surrealists are the only ones to have desecrated the good and profaned the beautiful equally, in the name of the perturbations of the soul.

II. Robert Smithson
Philip Leider’s introduction to The Writings of Robert Smithson (1979)2 begins with a request to the reader to forgive him for having believed in 1969 that “an anthology of the best criticism of the sixties—a selection of the essays of Michael Fried, Darby Bannard, William Rubin, Clement Greenberg and perhaps one or two others—would by now have been a fixed part of the literature of art” (page 1). However, by implying that his main reason for changing his mind was that criticism’s “failure to acknowledge Robert Smithson, and by extension, the generation which we understand through his essays which includes Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, . . . [etc.],” Leider implies that Smithson is a successor of Greenberg, the way Jesus of the New Testament was a successor of the old prophets.

What an unbeliever like myself discovered after reading very attentively Smithson’s articles is that both he and his group of friends had an obsessive preoccupation with Order. From Smithson’s standpoint, Greenberg’s mistake was not only to have dissociated esthetic order from moral order, but also to have made matters worse by differentiating pictorial order from sculptural and tectonic order. For Smithson, order is cosmological. Like the Platonists he would have banned from the metropolis those citizens who ignored geometry. Obviously Smithson’s geometry is post-euclidean, and offers undreamed of ways of confirming the validity of an order by producing variations on a theme.

Since the humanists taught that knowledge is power, artists came to believe that their role was to know how to see. The to see what I know point of view corresponds to the anarchist’s self-confidence. We can only speak of a vanguard in art when we take it for granted that changes in one’s point of view correspond to a re-evaluation of a “state of affairs.” That stage was reached when history and science converged with Marx’s re-interpretation of the second law of thermodynamics.

Nowadays even the most dedicated follower of André Breton would include Mondrian among the major artists of the century because of his ingenious set of variations on the theme of a rectangular language game. Games of squares and colors, of chessmen and of cubist still lifes, vibrate with virtuosity. But Smithson is a poet who chants the virtues of artists who “celebrate what [Dan] Flavin calls ‘inactive history’ or what the physicist calls ‘entropy’ or ‘energy drain.’ ” Their works bring to mind, we are told, “the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age,” and conform to the needs of a state of mind that would “confirm Vladimir Nabokov’s observation that, ‘the future is just the obsolete in reverse’ ” (page 9).

It is one thing to consider the Ice Age as an archetypal geological condition that will recur when the solar system will have been drained of its energy, and another to claim—as Smithson does—that artists should take their analogy from geology rather than from organic sciences. According to Smithson monuments made out of artificial materials such as plastic, chrome, and electric light, “. . . are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages” (page 10). Elaborating on the theme of entropy Smithson says of his friends’ work that “they are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than in representing the long spaces of centuries.” He believes that he is justified in claiming that in their art “Both past and future are placed into an objective present” (page 10). By “objective present” Smithson actually means that these works should be considered as models derived from objects—such as crystals—that were structured in our planet before the advent of organic history. In his review of a steel and plexiglass work by Judd, Smithson wrote, “. . . there is no confusion between the anthropomorphic and the abstract. This makes for an increased consciousness of structure, which maintains a remote distance from the organic.” He says of Judd that, “The ‘unconscious’ has no place in his art. His crystalline state of mind is far removed from the organic floods of ‘action painting.’ . . . Space in Judd’s art seems to belong to an order of increasing hardness, not unlike geological formations” (page 22).

Smithson also draws a parallel between the appearance of the insides of the discount stores found on the superhighways surrounding New York, and certain monuments of Robert Morris: “The lugubrious complexity of these interiors has brought to art a new consciousness of the vapid and the dull . . . Morris has distilled many such dull facts and made them into monumental artifices of ‘idea.’ ” But I fail to understand how he can conclude from this analogy that “Morris has restored the idea of immortality by accepting it as a fact of emptiness” (page 12). Where there are no mortals there can be no death, hence no immortality.

The geological model is for Smithson a “trans-historical one” that, he says, emerged in the ’60s in reaction to the “organic time of the avant garde” (page 49). I understand him to mean by this phrase the historical time that has been defended by avant-garde, evolutionary-minded Marxist and Freudian artists and critics. To modern art—which, following Greenberg, he refers to as modernism—Smithson opposes the Ultramoderne (Arts magazine, September-October, 1967). The Ultramoderne, which Smithson argues, has flourished in South America, “was never defined by temporal categories such as ‘painting,’ that is how it avoided historicistic record.” Then Smithson explains that “Belief is not the motive behind the timeless, but rather a skepticism is the generating force. This skepticism takes the shape of a paradigmatic or primordial infrastructure, that repeats itself in an infinite number of ways. Repetition not originality is the object” (page 49).

As an antidote to modernism Smithson proposed, in the same article, that we should re-evalute the skyscrapers of the ’30s. He says about them that “It is not an accident that ‘the mirror’ is one of the more widely used materials of the ’thirties, and that the facades of buildings contained countless variations of brickwork. Repetition and serial order run constantly through the buildings of that paradigmatic period. An archaic ontology puts the Ultramoderne in contact with many types of monumental art . . . Egyptian, Mayan, Inca, Aztec. . . .” (page 49). This historically-minded quote suggests that Smithson has not completely freed himself from the miasma of history. It is true that Smithson attenuates the meaning of this reference by noting that the Ultramodernist “is aware of Time as ‘fiction.’ ” But what else is art and the art of writing history, from Thucydides to Trotsky, but fictitious—a selection of aspects of reality that fit into a pattern developed by the mind? Smithson points out that “Today’s artist tries to make his art refer to nothing, while the art of the ’thirties seemed to refer to everything” (page 49).

In an article in which he criticizes the cultural confinement of curators who “depend on the wreckage of metaphysical principles and structures because they don’t know any better,” he added: “The wasted remains of ontology, cosmology, and epistemology still offer a ground for art” (page 133). Smithson discovered a series of monuments of wasted remains in the Passaic landscape of his native New Jersey. These earthworks, all of which he duly photographed, include a Monument with Pontoons, another, which he called The Bridge Monument, and even a sandbox. Meditating over these relics of past glories he asks, “Has Passaic replaced Rome as The Eternal City?” Of the sand monument he says, “Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. . . . Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor . . . and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity” (page 56).

Besides the already-mentioned Nabokov, Smithson’s favorite authors included Jorge Luis Borges and William Burroughs, whom he admired primarily for his Nova Express. Smithson says that “The earth’s surface and the figments of the mind have a way of disintegrating into discrete regions of art” (page 82). It would thus have been surprising if geology, which we learn about through photographs but also through maps, had not led Smithson to be interested in cartography, and to include Buckminster Fuller, with his geodesic maps, among the pioneers of this field.

The text Smithson wrote about his own now-celebrated Spiral Jetty is actually a poem in which the earth and its stones are depicted in terms that recall Whitman’s descriptions of his blades of grass: “On eye level, the tail leads one into an undifferentiated state of matter. One’s downward gaze pitches from side to side, picking out random depositions of salt crystals on the inner and outer edges, while the entire mass echoes the irregular horizons. And each cubic salt crystal echoes the Spiral Jetty in terms of the crystal’s molecular lattice” (page 112). Smithson at his best is undoubtedly a poet, but this is not enough to make him a good dialectician. His jetty is a work of art, which means that it is both an object and the signifier of a message communicated to us.

Smithson makes a grave mistake when he says that language is matter and not idea (page 104). From a logical-positivist point of view this is plain nonsense, since it cannot be either confirmed or refuted. The great advantage of modern poetry’s language of metaphors and metonymies is that it fuses the diachronical into the time-span of a discourse. The main reason why certain artists have been able to dismiss the classical categories of painting, sculpture and architecture is that the photograph has emerged as the modern prototype of iconic image.

Smithson and the earthwork and airwork artists are redefining modern poetry in the context of a mythical cosmology. From the Stone Age to the religious remnants of the present, there have always been two complementary, opposing conceptions of the beginning and the end of humanity. According to one, an original earthly paradise is projected into a mythical future one, and according to the other, a chaotic beginning is considered to be the prototype of a dismal end. Smithson and his friends have been guilty of turning the chaotic version into a paradigm of goodness by reducing it to an orderly repetition of elemental, pre-ontological structures. By testifying against multiplicity of options, in the name of order, Smithson is testifying in the name of God, ultimate symbol of order and archetype of a sovereign power, who treats his subjects as slaves.

In the ’50s Harold Rosenberg attributed the conversion of formerly proletarian-minded artists of the ’30s to an existentialist version of expressionism to their loss of faith in the body politic, after the bombing of Hiroshima. Could it be that the renewed fear of a nuclear holocaust is a scandal so terrifying that the poet can no longer express himself in terms of his own scandal? If this were true it would mean that to testify in the name of freedom is futile. But hope that is seen is not hope. To rely on repetition and order would amount to making Sisyphus the model of a human being—the paradigm of the next generation.

––Nicolas Calas is a poet, diagnostician and polemicist.


1. Georges Bataille, La littérature et le mal (Paris Editions Gallimard, 1957).

2. All Robert Smithson quotations are from The Writings of Robert Smithson, edited by Nancy Holt, designed by Sol LeWitt, with an introduction by Philip Leider (New York, New York University Press, 1979).