PRINT September 2012

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Daniel Birnbaum on Jean-François Lyotard’s “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”

Page from Artforum 22, no. 8 (April 1984). Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” Shown: Caspar David Friedrich, Abend (Evening), 1824.

AT THE VERY PEAK OF HIS FAME in the mid-1980s, Jean-François Lyotard, one of Europe’s most prominent thinkers, staged an art-world intervention. He did so with essentially a few dense texts and one major exhibition. The essay “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” appeared in the April 1984 issue of Artforum, with a contributor’s note mentioning that its author was at the time preparing “Les Immatériaux” (The Immaterials), a sprawling exhibition that would open a year later at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was the first Artforum article I ever read; to this day, it remains the one that has had the greatest impact on me, not only for its sweeping address and grand ambitions but also for its impeccable timing, considering Lyotard’s coincident turn to curating.

Thanks to this essay, as well as “Presenting the Unpresentable: The Sublime,” a shorter essay published two years earlier, also in Artforum, Lyotard is known not only for his ideas surrounding the end of modernity but also for his many attempts to restore the sublime as a central aesthetic category of the avant-garde. In this, he has often been misunderstood by his critics: While he aimed to rescue the dimension of infinite magnitude and power that underlies the tradition of the sublime from Immanuel Kant to Barnett Newman, Lyotard also sought to rescue its dimension of infinite subtlety, foregrounding the imperceptible violence done to the senses by what can only be understood in retrospect, through an act of anamnesis that recalls what is invisible or forgotten in thought. Lyotard is after that elusive indeterminacy of the “now” that an entire history of metaphysics has sought but that remains intangible, even in those artworks that demonstrate exactly this limit of signification. Reading Lyotard’s essays today, one may be surprised that his version of postmodernism is so compatible with such a heroic, near-transcendent understanding of aesthetic experience. But it is precisely the conjunction of the sensory and what lies beyond sensation that connects the quest of philosophy to that of art. And in formulating the necessity of “bearing witness” to the inexpressible “it’s happening” event, Lyotard suggests a concept of spectatorship and experience later actualized through his exhibition.¹

Lyotard’s essays swept in during an exciting moment in Continental philosophy, when the ways in which one might “do” philosophy were being radically rethought. A decade earlier, Jacques Derrida had proclaimed the end of the book, and in Différence et répétition (1968), Gilles Deleuze stated that the “search for new means of philosophical expression . . . must be pursued today in relation to the renewal of certain other arts, such as the theatre or the cinema.”² Lyotard joined Derrida and Deleuze in making overtures to different media, but there is something quite original in his own wild texts from this period. These were not really books, but experimental and open-ended projects. Perhaps the recent English translation of Lyotard’s first major book, Discours, figure (1971), is evidence of a new interest in his attempt to reinvent philosophy through confrontations with art. He was not happy with this book. What it ought to have been, he suggests, is a dislocated body, where fragmented speech could be joined together in various ways. “A good book,” he stated, is “a book the reader could dip into anywhere, in any order.” A good book, Lyotard seems to say here, is not a book at all, but an exhibition.

Wittgenstein never made an exhibition, and neither did Adorno or Heidegger—thank God. Lyotard was the first major modern philosopher to make this leap, though others would follow. With a larger budget than any project before at the Pompidou, “Les Immatériaux” was an ambitious experiment addressing the impact of information technology on human life, and how an exhibition might become a spatial practice of philosophy. Despite relatively bleak reviews, the show had an immeasurable impact on a generation of French artists (including Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Philippe Parreno, who often mention it in interviews) and anticipated decades of frenetic curatorial practice across the globe. (See my article with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “Museums on the Move,” Artforum, Summer 2010.)

View of “Les Immatériaux” (The Immaterials), 1985, Centre Pompidou, Paris.

In its abstraction of wealth and power, the capitalist economy has “something of the sublime” in it, Lyotard suggests near the conclusion of his 1984 essay.³ The terror of such sublimity seems to register in the checklist of “Les Immatériaux”: not just artworks but also commodities, scientific renderings, technical instruments, and state-of-the-art communication technologies. Works by major representatives of the European avant-garde such as Kazimir Malevich, Raoul Hausmann, and László Moholy-Nagy were displayed with works by contemporary artists Robert Barry and Joseph Kosuth, architectural models by rising architects Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, and devices employing fractal geometry. Lyotard united this seemingly heterogeneous checklist by arguing that all the works demonstrated a highly fluid present where everything solid was not only evaporating but liquefying into some other state, perhaps even—as suggested earlier in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”—into information. As if to make this hybrid state of information-energy-matter manifest, during the exhibition, with the help of massive computers, text was sent from one machine to another. A proto-e-mail—what a sensation!

The exhibition derived its structure from the sender-message-receiver schema of communication theory, associating this complex with the Sanskrit root mat-, which branched out in a series of words (materiality, maternity, matrix, etc.) that provided parameters for the objects’ content and transmission as they turned into energy. The semiotic emphasis placed by “Les Immatériaux” on a fragmented subject in flux was matched by the labyrinthine layout of both the show and its catalogue, bringing to life Lyotard’s idea of a book that the reader could “dip into anywhere.” Few visitors would have the same recollection of what the exhibition looked like; with fifty-nine stations, the show reveled in an indeterminacy of spatial experience. Instead of walls, its design featured gray webbing, and along the way visitors could tune into commentaries broadcast through headsets. In an interview leading up to the show Lyotard echoed his discussion of the avant-garde in his essay earlier that year, imagining the exhibition reactivating the “disarray” of modernist ideals.⁴

Les Immatériaux” followed in the wake of Kynaston McShine’s famous “Information” show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970, which drew on emerging ideas of art as related to political, social, and technological systems; and it echoed, of course, Lucy Lippard and John Chandler’s theorization of the “dematerialization of art” into mental processes, ephemeral structures, and serial progressions. If Lyotard’s idea of “immaterials” as the very stuff constituting the contemporary world can undoubtedly join this genealogy, his thesis was even wider ranging. Lyotard posed immaterials not as mental concepts, but as more akin to “waves” or “events” that may form intersections and temporary joints, as suggested by the exhibition’s own hybrid limbs. In theorizing the object as ever transforming, the exhibition exposed the insecurity of one’s perceptive mechanisms in space and time; its philosophy addressed the dynamic of things (including thoughts) at that precise moment when they start to elude us, and when our perception of time is leveled by ubiquitous information circuits that don’t account for the sublimity of the “it’s happening” present. As Lyotard wrote in Artforum: “Between two informations, by definition, nothing happens.”⁵

That we are still haunted by the threat of violent flux in the sensory world around us shows the importance of the proposals of “Les Immatériaux,” even as the exhibition also retrieved the earlier melancholic promise of the avant-garde. Here again, we stand at the edge of the sublime; Lyotard connects the transformation of the sensorium to the witnessing of an inexpressive event: “The question was no longer: How does one make art? But what does it mean to experience art? Any analysis of this last question brings us back to indeterminacy.”⁶ In the exhibition, such questions were explored through Marcel Duchamp’s notes on the “Infra-Mince,” from Eau et gaz à tous les étages (Water and Gas on All Floors), 1958, or the documentation surrounding Yves Klein’s 1959–62 performance Zones de sensibilité picturale immaterielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity), in which the artist threw burned checks signifying the ownership of empty space, along with precious leaves of gold, into the Seine.

Like some of its works, Lyotard’s exhibition can seem awkward or naive. It is easy to locate problems and questions that were not posed or have turned into everyday applications—the radical idea of an electronic message sent from one computer to another comes to mind. But the show’s merging of philosophical, technological, and aesthetic states still has purchase as a step toward a theory of what materiality and the sublime might signify in the age of information. How I wish that Lyotard were still here to help us create tools for navigating today’s technological anxieties, which his writing and curatorial practice anticipated as so many false sublimes. Lyotard never shied away from any material that composed our contemporary condition, staying true to a Brechtian maxim: “Don’t start from the good old things but from the bad new ones.”⁷ Even his brief 1984 Artforum essay is full of premonition. Near its conclusion, in a sentence that today seems more pertinent than ever considering our liquidizing economic state, Lyotard writes, “Sublimity no longer is in art, but in speculating on art.”⁸

Daniel Birnbaum is Director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.


1. Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” Artforum 22, no. 8 (April 1984): 37.

2. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum, 2004), xx.

3. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 43.

4. Jean Baudrillard, Art and Philosophy (Milan: G. Politi, 1991), 39.

5. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 43.

6. Ibid., 39.

7. As quoted in Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, trans. Anna Bostock (New York: Verso, 1998), 121.

8. Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde,” 43.