Georges Bataille and Modern Art

October 2000


"Objects are phantoms of the mind, as false as angels." Robert Smithson

"Ever get the feeling you're being cheated?" John Lydon


We have heard it frequently repeated in recent years that the cycles of ‘modern’ and ‘post-modern’ art have run their course and that it is time, with the arrival of a new millennium, for a reassessment of the past. Yet this reassessment is slow to emerge.

The art world has become so large and is driven by impersonal forces of economy and fashion to such an extent that artists are in danger of losing touch with the intellectual core of what they do. There is a need to sustain this link.

That intellectual core, dating back to the French Revolution, or in the visual arts to Gericault, the first great unaffiliated and dissident artist of the modern tradition, has been defined by a search for new values. Yet one sees very little trace of this purpose in the art world of today.

One recent development will serve to indicate what is at stake here. It appears that Georges Bataille, the philosophical thinker and sworn opponent of Surrealism whose fortunes are so closely identified with modern art, has lately been making his appearance on the American cultural scene. During the interwar years he played a crucial, clandestine role in the Parisian art world’s inner circle, yet awareness of his work does not appear to have crossed the Atlantic at that time. This is in spite of the fact that the generation of Newman, Pollock and Rothko clearly shared his outlook and intellectual background.

In Paris, in the nineteen sixties, Bataille was taken up again by the Tel Quel group and gradually his books have been translated in the United States. Notably the 1969 collection of essays under the title of ‘Death and Sensuality’ was in Robert Smithson's library. Bataille had an important influence on Smithson's thinking. The American sculptor's 1972 essay, entitled ‘The Spiral Jetty’ can be read as an hallucinatory homage to Bataille. Bataille himself would have been proud to pen such a text .

Now, after a lengthy interval, Bataille is beginning to be presented in academic discourse with the concept of “formlessness”, launched by Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois. However, a word of caution is in order here. Bataille is not a philosopher of concepts. He belongs to the anti-concept/anti-system tradition of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard which seeks to overturn normative, academic discourse. Bataille is a gift to artists and writers, not the Academy.

Paul Rodgers