17 June 2022

Translation: Extract from Jean Baudrillard: The Passion of the Object by Anne Sauvageot

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Chapter 4: The Object of Conspiracy

We could not expect Jean Baudrillard to regard mediagenic contemporary art with kindness. Like the system of objects, this kind of art has become part of the market of disillusionment. Its compromise is all the more venal because philosophers once relied on art more than on any other social category for the survival of the game of illusion, of secrets, of aesthetics, of the metaphor, of utopia. However, art has allowed itself to become contaminated by the mediatized sphere, including in its most persisting parodies—the game, the double, the vanishing act, presence, absence…in other words, the avatars of reality. Since the beginning of the 20th century, art has devoted itself to “the work of mourning the imagination, the work of aesthetic mourning.” The “anything goes” attitude of contemporary art denies aesthetics. Its critics qualify this kind of art as bad, trash, opportunistic, false, commercial and grant-driven…But, most importantly, the stranglehold of communications on art has made aesthetics trans-aesthetic. Art is now used as a publicity stunt, a condition it has embraced without reserve.

So there is nothing surprising in Jean Baudrillard’s moody and bitter pamphlet targeting all those, accomplices and zealots, who are guilty of insider trading in the race for art openings, hangings or exhibits, while simulating support or critical judgment, as the case might be. The first is more widespread than the second. His article, “The Conspiracy of Art” was published on May 20, 1996 in Libération and has met with numerous reactions and counterattacks, including from artists and intellectuals, many of whom see a nostalgia for old aesthetic values in Baudrillard’s diatribe. Many misunderstandings have followed since.

Baudrillard’s process might indeed seem ambiguous to those who accuse him of making aesthetic value judgements. However, Baudrillard does not posit himself as an art critic, nor as an expert on beauty, nor as an art historian. Instead, he lays claim to an anthropological point of view, or curiosity toward an era when aesthetic value is vanishing, an era when the standards of beauty, of what is right or true, are becoming less and less clear or invalid. What is more, Jean Baudrillard is not a contemporary art aficionado, not by a long shot. Art “is not my problem,” he says. It’s the breaking points, which art has so rarely introduced on its own behalf in the process of derealization that began at the start of the 20th century, that interest him.

According to him, pictorial abstraction already marks an important stage. This represented the “heroic” period of the deconstruction of reality into its simple elements, the period of a precise analysis of the structure of objects and the division of their forms.

“The paradox of abstraction is that, while “freeing” the object from the constraints of figuration in order to yield it to the pure play of form, abstraction bound the object to the idea of a hidden structure, a more rigorous and more radical objectivity than that of resemblance. Abstraction tried to remove the mask of resemblance, of figuration, in order to obtain the analytic truth of the object. In the name of abstraction, we paradoxically got more truth. We revealed the “elementary structures” of objecthood. We got something more real than the real.”

Therefore, the artistic process is similar in part to the scientific process in its rational desire to go beyond appearances. The outcome of this need for an in-depth knowledge of the object is the loss of our sensible relationship to it. Faced with “The Void” by Klein (1957), the eye is less so the repository than is the intellect. The “sensible is exterminated” to the profit of an artificial reconstruction of the visible and its perception; the freeing of art and of the real takes place. While during the fledgling stages of abstraction, symbolic exchange was still present, the effects of repetition turned abstraction into a simple process of the decomposition of the real, far from its true deconstruction.

In fact, among the events of the 20th century, according to Baudrillard, art experienced a traumatic shock with Duchamp's inaugural gesture. By casually imposing the readymade, he transformed art into something banal. This was the same Duchamp with whom Baudrillard shared a similar attraction for the object, without necessarily sanctifying him.

It was in 1912 that Marcel Duchamp, former craftsman (of prints and etchings) presented his first Cubist painting—“Nude Descending a Staircase”. The painting would be refused at the Salon des indépendants, but would make him incredibly famous in the United States, where it was exhibited the following year in New York and caused a scandal. Marcel Duchamp would not profit from this glory. His work remained unsold and was sent back to him without much ado. At the age of 25, he decided to stop painting. Having become a librarian at Sainte-Geneviève, he read Nietzsche, but also all of the non-professional books on the sciences and technology. Nothing would have made us think he was going to change art’s destiny when, one day, in 1913, he created an object in his studio. He affixed a bicycle fork onto a stool, and onto the fork, a wheel. After creating this object, he visited second-hand markets and bought plenty of much more banal objects—a bottle carrier and a snow shovel among others. Before the readymade became a concept in 1915, Duchamp asked himself the following question: “Is it possible to create a work of art which is not art?” In the same vein, after having signed his name on three landscape copies bought from a color merchant, he asked himself whether the signature might not be the smallest denominator of a work of art. Giving titles to, signing and exhibiting the most trivial objects—“In Advance of the Broken Arm” (the snow shovel), “Fountain” (the urinal)—constitutes the tiniest act according to which “all of the world’s banality enters the realm of the aesthetic, and inversely, all that is aesthetic becomes banal.”

Even though these readymades were not exhibited in Paris until 1936, on the occasion of a protest organized by André Breton, the initial gesture marked the declarative test that allowed the object to become a work of art. The performative statement “this is or this is not” authorizes any banal object to be vested with artistic legitimacy, which up until then had been reserved for academic works of art. Marcel Duchamp made the object into an idea. Even if communicated by many intermediaries, such as groups, institutions and performances, the performative statement is an incredible enacting by means of discourse—“when saying is doing.” By the way, do institutions produce works of art or discourse about works of art?

“The object no longer exists in the readymade. It’s no longer the object that is there but the idea of the object, and we no longer enjoy art but the idea of art…The readymade sums up the double curse of modern and contemporary art: our immersion in the real and the banal, and our conceptual absorption in the idea of art.”

Is it a curse or the irony of revealing? Following in Duchamp’s footsteps, Andy Warhol invested the former with all of his strength by disinvesting himself from the creative act. While in Baudrillard’s opinion, Duchamp was the initiator of the anthropological event, Warhol was without a doubt the one to complete it so well that only imitators could follow. In Warhol, Jean Baudrillard finds a facetious accomplice, a double, who attracts and fascinates him happily. We are still dealing with objects, more objects—Coca Cola bottles, soup cans—the Campbell soup can transfigured into a fetishistic object.

When he was starting out, Warhol was in advertising. He is himself a product of the mass culture whose simulacra he would profess to be real with ruthless cynicism. Warhol’s serial paintings would become industrial like the America of the 1950s. While he painted the first soup cans by hand, silkscreening would make it possible for him to increase his productivity and to literally work like a robot, without the least bit of emotion: the repetition of modular images, lining up dollar bills, Coca Cola bottles, series of “Disasters” in black, in white, in black and white…Silkscreening allows for the non-hierarchical multiplication of information. “Repetition makes everything equal—an accident, Marylin’s face, the electric chair, a Campbell soup can. Everything has value. And nothing is important.” By increasing the use of mechanical reproduction techniques, Warhol wishes to disappear as an author. “Warhol is a machine.” This is the precise wish that Baudrillard would formulate behind the objective of his camera. “Warhol is merely the agent who makes things appear ironically. He is just the medium for this huge ad that the world has created for itself through technique, through images, forcing our imagination to vanish, our passions to become extraverted.” Any effort on the part of the subject to interpret them is prohibited. The process of the pop artist implies the retreat of art as a singular, original activity that creates illusions. It also marks the retreat of the artist himself, an act that Andy Warhol played so well by dressing up as the icon of platitudes. Agnostic, cool, casual, looking at his life as if in a film or a TV show, without participating in it, other than as a voyeur, voluntarily allowing others to sign his artwork, Warhol was “somewhere else.” The artist seduced the philosopher who saw in this provocative disinvestment, “in this robotic snobbery,” an increase in the power of the simulacrum and of the fetishism of value, embodied so emblematically in the art market.

Duchamp and Warhol have therefore radically shifted the aesthetic into the banality of the everyday, diffracting it through all social spaces, mixing it with mass culture and turning it into an analogon of “a system of objects.” What is left after Duchamp and Warhol? We would be tempted to say not much, because they razed everything to the ground. Sure, certain names come up among the hyperrealists—or on their periphery, like Bacon or Hopper. We know well that Jean Baudrillard was fond of them. But the exceptions are rare and the reality stark. For example, he considers that there was genius in Warhol’s Campbell soup cans of the 1960s, that during this inaugural period of pop art, the artist orchestrated the entry of the commodity into the art scene by fetishizing it and effecting the highest degree of simulation. However, the Soup Boxes, 20 years later, are no more than the stereotype of simulation. While in 1965, he ridiculed the division between copy and original in a singular manner, and the creative gesture was part of the duplication technique, in the 1980s, he just recycled the initial event.

“ Nothing is left by 1986, just the advertising genius, which marks a new phase of the commodity. It’s once again the official art world that aestheticizes the commodity…We might say that redoing something 20 years later speaks of an even superior irony. But I don’t think so. I believe in the clever genius of simulation. I do not believe in its ghost, nor in its corpse, even in stereo.”

What follows is the mix of artists, advertisers, and institutional affiliates, who are going to have to share this “corpse” and its residual elements, who will have to compete for originality—which no longer exists because all of them boast of it—in order to manage this “nothing anymore” and subscribe to an art of waste, which among other things has become a commodity. Since no one believes in illusion anymore, it is necessary to overplay disillusionment while staging the comedy of art, in the same way that others stage the comedy of ideology, of criticism, of terrorism. The art that we call contemporary must laugh at itself and at its disappearance. The logic of surpassing what has already been surpassed is left with nothing to surpass. The challenge becomes something else entirely: ensuring that those in the know are complicit and that those not in the know can be fooled. This is the insider trading that Jean Baudrillard denounces—“the hidden and shameful complicity that links the artist wielding his aura of derision against the stunned and incredulous masses.” The object of conspiracy is precisely this banality and nothingness elevated to the status of value, pretentiously claiming the irony of art. Jean Baudrillard’s verdict is harsh because it is clear to him that “it’s all as empty on the literal as on ironic level. The transfiguration of the commodity to the aesthetic sphere does not improve anything. Quite the contrary. It is mediocrity squared. It claims to be nothing: “I am nothing! I am nothing!”—and it really is nothing.”

“I” does not imply an individual but a collective—snobs and falsifiers of nothingness. It points to various stagings outdoing each other—art openings, exhibits, performances, one more transgressive than the other. Finally, it points to a market that could not be any more profit-oriented and speculative. This “commercial strategy of nothingness” is all the more perverse, according to Baudrillard, because it renders useless everything the philosopher is attached to—nothingness, truth, as much as we can talk about what is true and what is false; it’s the nothingness that marks the disappearance of the real and kills illusion. Could there be anything more vile for an art which is disappearing than to transform nothingness into an aesthetic performance, a market value, even if in this case, condemnation is not the result of a moralistic trial.

These outbidding matches are in fact insignificant, even if they annoy us, because they concern only a small circle of individuals, as convivial as they are competitive. “The illness of aestheticization,” a kind of fatality of our current culture, is much more serious. Since nowadays, any object can pass for art, it is much more difficult to distinguish between what is art and what is not. The places and institutions that identify its boundaries and criteria have become equally difficult to identify now that museums become commodity galleries and malls become museums. McLuhan was right when he said that “we are now aware of the possibility of transforming the human environment into a work of art.” Aesthetics, creation are therefore the same surplus value behind which objects disappear—the same system Jean Baudrillard had described in 1968. The boundaries are being blurred between creation, consumption and communications, between trading among insiders and televised variety shows.

In fact, art borrows more and more from soap operas, TV series, road movies, stereotypical narratives, advertising, video clips, reality shows, in short a media culture characterized by its auto-referential variety. And at the heart of this mess, it becomes imperative to express oneself through consumption and immersion. The culture of distinction and of being in the public eye (showing up at such and such an art opening, or going to the theatre…) exists side by side with the increasing presence of intimate stagings of individual tastes and practices. Media culture now guarantees the ability to construct an individuality for oneself, and the idea of “expressive individualism” that sociologists put forth relays the collusion between the aesthetic and subjectivity. Cultural authorities—from the mass media to the most elitist—have contributed to the assertive expression of a “psychology culture” that lends value to all possible narcissistic ways of presenting oneself.

Like reality shows, art works for itself, working itself into “existence strategies” in the production of collective subjectivity. Certain artists keep borrowing from the mass media their spectacular infatuation with privacy. Sophie Calle, among many others, exemplifies this “passion of the self.” She lets us into her private life, while allowing us to share—at least by proxy—her happy and unhappy moments, her fears and excitements, her loves and her failures. She expresses herself, shows herself, and puts herself on display. We know what color her sheets are, what she eats, and how she feels. She tells “true” stories and makes use of other people’s stories, in which anyone can try out different possible selves. Emotions, the ingredient that art and media culture take advantage of in the midst of their more and more obvious confounding, intensifies this identification. By flirting—even if supposedly ironically—with kitsch and cheap emotions, Sophie Calle has won the hearts of a public whose attention the orthodox canons of a legitimate culture can no longer hold. Alternatively, she is able to win over a public satisfied with the idea that what they are seeing is art because this kind of art particularly meets their need for what the culture industry has to offer. This is particularly true because her glamorous aspects go along well with the distinguished spaces of the gallery and the museum. So we cannot help but say that there is a plurality of legitimating entities, if only because, since the 1970s, the media-advertising economy has been competing with the legitimacy of institutional affiliates—critics, conservationists, gallery owners…Aesthetics has been distorted two-fold: one the one hand, by art’s tendency to be satisfied with the ordinary, the series, the remake, Dionysian strategies, with ample recourse to trash or “orgasmic” sperm; and on the other hand, because of the media culture’s control of aesthetics, which no longer defines art but the public’s projective identification through the experience of pathos. Philosophers, art critics or sociologists find themselves having trouble with the contemporary emptiness of aesthetic criteria. Because of the dissolution of systems of reference, everyone is now faced with an impasse. Many writers—Jean Clair, Arthur Danto, Georges Dickie, Thierry de Duve, Nelson Goodman, Nathalie Heinich, Marc Jimenez, Yves Michaud, Michel Onfray—have tried, each in their own way, to make intelligible this referential mess that “art in a gaseous state,” conceived in the derealization of the object and by its mass-mediatization, has introduced. This is, by the way, what those regretful souls deplore. After becoming attached to the democratization of culture and having devoted themselves to its accessibility, they now find themselves saddened by its mediatic vulgarization and its commodification.

No offense to those who, lamenting the narrowness of art circles, take advantage of them by protecting their territory. The denunciation of the the conspiracy of art that Jean Baudrillard angrily proclaimed one day can only bring joy to those who are tired of the duplicity of an art whose “aesthetic encephalogram” has become so flat. As the philosopher himself says—not without his intimidating irony—“a despairing analysis in a happy language is better than an optimistic analysis in an unhappy language, filled with hopeless ennui and demoralizing platitudes.” Jean Baudrillard asserts his right to be intractable when confronted with “the elevation of all things to aesthetic banality.” He refuses to share in the “nothingness bluff, which forces people to give credence and importance to all this, under the pretext that it’s not possible for it to be so empty, and that it must be hiding something. Contemporary art plays on this uncertainty of the impossibility of a well-founded aesthetic value judgment and speculates about the guilt of those who do not get it, who have not understood that there is nothing to get. Again, we have an instance of insider trading.”

It is the very object of conspiracy.


85 J. Baudrillard, « Illusion et désillusion esthétique », Transeuropéennes, no 5, hiver 1994-1995.

86 J. Baudrillard, Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal, Galilée, Paris, 2004, p. 90.

87 J. Baudrillard, J. Nouvel, Les Objets singuliers. Architecture et philosophie, Calmann-Lévy, Paris, 2000, p. 46.

88 In Advance of the Broken Arm (En prévision d’un bras cassé), 1915.

89 Fountain, signé R. Mutt (« idiot » en français), soumis à la Société des artistes indépendants de New York, 1917.

90 « L’art entre utopie et anticipation », entretien avec R. Scheps, Les Sciences de la prévision, Seuil/France Culture, Paris, octobre 1996.

91 « Ceci n’est pas une pipe » écrivit Magritte sur l’image d’une pipe, consommant ainsi la rupture entre la chose et son référent, 1927.

92 J. L. Austin, Quand dire c’est faire, Seuil, Paris, 1994.

93 J. Baudrillard, Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal, Galilée, Paris, 2000, p. 92.

94 En 1962, Warhol expose sur une même ligne les 32 toiles de boîtes de soupe Campbell’s.

95 Dès 1949, alors qu’il est graphiste pour Glamour, Vogue, Harper’s, Warhol est à la recherche de techniques le soustrayant au maximum à la singularité gestuelle de la tâche. Copiant une photographie ou l’un de ses éléments sur un papier résistant, il collait ensuite celui-ci sur une feuille de papier plus absorbante, repassant une partie des contours à l’encre de Chine jusqu’à ce que l’impression soit suffisante. Après quoi, il jetait le dessin original, préférant déjà la copie. Cf. M. Livingstone, Le Pop Art, Hazan, Paris, 1990.

96 M. Nuridsany, Warhol, Flammarion, Paris, 2001, p. 194.

97 J. Baudrillard, « Illusion, désillusion esthétiques », Transeuropéennes, n ° 5, hiver 1994-1995.

98 Ibid.

99 Ibid.

100 Cf. G. Vattimo, La Fin de la modernité. Nihilisme et herméneutique dans la culture post-moderne, Seuil, Paris, 1987.

101 J. Baudrillard, Le Complot de l’art, Paris, Sens & Tonka, 1997-2005, p. 61.

102 Ibid., p. 63.

103 Ibid., p. 86.

104 Cf. Vitrines sur l’art que présentent depuis plusieurs années les Galeries Lafayette et auxquelles participent, entre autres, le Centre Pompidou, La Gaîté Lyrique, la Maison Rouge, le Palais de Tokyo… Les Galeries Lafayette prétendent ainsi jouer un rôle de médiateur privilégié entre la création et un large public.

105 Cité par J. Baudrillard in Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal, Galilée, Paris, 2004, p. 91 (« We have now become aware of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art »).

106 C. Buchel, Minus, 2002 (installation réactivée en 2005 au Centre Pompidou).

107 P. McCarthy, Sleep Plug, 2005 (installation).

108 Y. Michaud, L’Art à l’état gazeux. Essai sur le triomphe de l’esthétique, Stock, Paris, 2003.

109 J. Baudrillard, Le Complot de l’art, Paris, Sens & Tonka, 1997-2005, p. 134.

110 J. Baudrillard, Le Crime parfait, Paris, Galilée, 1994, p. 151.

111 Le Complot de l’art, p. 69.

© Presses universitaires du Midi, 2014

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