Badiou on the art of the century

Alain Badiou, tr. Alberto Toscano
Polity Press, 2007  p. 161

We hear calls for a humanist art, an art abhorring what man is capable of doing his fellow man, an art of human rights. It is certainly true that from Malevich’s WHITE ON WHITE to Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT, from Webern’s silences to Guyotat’s lyrical cruelties, the fundamental art of the century doesn’t care a jot about man. Quite simply because it considers that man in his ordinary state does not amount to much, and that there is no need to make such a fuss about him — all of which is quite true. The art of the century is an art of the overhuman. I agree that, at first glance, it is a sombre art. I don’t say sad, distraught, or neurotic. No: sombre. An art in which joy itself is sombre. Breton is right, Osiris is a black god. Even when it is frenetic and Dionysian, this art is sombre because it is not devoted to anything within us — human animals busy with their own survival — that would be immediate and relaxing. Even when it advocates the cult of a solar and affirmative god, the modalities of this stance remain sombre. Nerval’s ‘black sun’ is the image that best prefigured the art of the century, and perhaps the century in its entirety. It is not a tranquil light that bathes this nascent world. It is a sun made for the Phoenix, and we can never forget the ashes from which it arose. Let us listen to Breton, once again: art — like love, politics, and science at its most ambitious — is reborn from ‘the ashes of the sun’. Yes, the century is an ashen sun.

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