Jong Holland no. 4, 2006: Theory and the Sphinx

This issue of the Dutch art history journal jong Holland (vol. 22, no. 4, December 2006) contains my essay “Theory and the Sphinx” (in English, pp. 54-59). The starting point is the apparent logocentrism of much project-based contemporary art practice and art discourse, which is discussed in the context of Jacques Rancière’s concept of the “aesthetic regime”, which he sees as shaping the discourse on art since the years around 1800, and in which the work of art is regarded as an objet de pensée marked by a perpetual tension between logos and pathos, between conscious and unconscious elements – reason and its non-identical other. However:

“The current use of theory in the art world, in which every artistic practice must be grounded in some sort of discourse, suggests that we may be witnessing the birth of still another regime, in which art becomes disturbingly transparent ­– at least to modern ‘traditionalists’. Is the complex modern relationship between art and theory well and truly history, now that the logocentric tendency seems to triumph? […] Is Rancière’s philosophical formalization of the ‘aesthetic regime’ de facto an obituary for a bygone period, or is the modern dialectic of conscious and unconscious elements still operative in contemporary art, even when it seems to have purified itself into fully conscious ‘research’?" This question is addressed through an analysis of the motif of the sphinx, a signifier of obscure otherness from Hegel to Freud, from Ingres to Dalí and beyond.

More information on this issue of jong Holland:

Image: Illustration selected by Joseph Cornell for Gilbert Seldes’ book The Movies Come from America (1937).

HTV no. 66: The Holy Grail

I served as guest editor of issue no. 66 (November / December 2006) of the bimonthly free Dutch art newspaper HTV. The issue is dedicated to the Holy Grail. Textual and visual contributions by Sven Augustijnen, Bik Van der Pol, Karin Bos, Matti Braun, Jan Dietvorst, Mischa Rakier, Martha Rosler, Aurora Sierraponte, Berend Strik.

From the editorial: “Asking people to contribute to an issue on the Holy Grail may appear like editorial whimsicality at its worst. After all, why should serious writers and artists care about this piece of cultural junk, the property of mass-cultural hacks and marginal loons? The gambit of this edition of the HTV is that the Grail, in spite of its fall from cultural grace, is a privileged sign. Probably invented by Chrétien de Troyes in the late twelfth century, it remained a questionable and tantalizing signifier in search of a fixed meaning; was it a stone, Christ’s cup, or something else? Things only became more muddled when modern authors and Grail seekers attempted to find a material or immaterial referent that would finally provide the sign with a clear identity. In this issue of the HTV, by contrast, writers and artists aim to exploit the latent instability of the Grail sign. The Grail and its legends are excessively vague and formless, endlessly shape-shifting precisely because of incessant attempts to pin it down. […]

"Perhaps Martha Rosler’s appropriated text on “copyleft” might stand for this HTV as a whole. Earlier this year, two of the inventors of the theory that the Grail is really a bloodline sued Da Vinci Code-author Dan Brown for copyright infringement; although Brown won, the policing of “intellectual property” is quickly escalating into a reign of intellectual terror. As important as it is to oppose this regime by advocating and facilitating the free use of texts and images, “copylefting” a charged sign such as the Grail can only be successful when it is turned against its dominant usage and put to a new use. We encourage you to read between the lines.”

My essay for this publication, “Grail for Sale: The Holy Grail in Modern Cultyure, Time and Again” can be found on Go to “current”, then to issue 66 in the archive. The text is part of my research into modern artistic and theoretical approaches to myth and mythology (which will hopefully occupy more of my time in the future); the essay analyses the Grail in the context of Romantic dreams of a “new mythology’, as well as of critical analyses of commodified culture as constituting a relapse into myth.

Top image: Untitled by Matti Braun.