Neutralizing Creation

Photograph by Hervé Guibert

The Author Function and the Artist Machine:

The tension between anonymity and ascription—perhaps for a surreptitiously good reason—remains somewhat philosophically under-examined. It is latent in those becomings and gestures marked out as “imperceptibility” and “refusal”. There have been treatises on “improper names,” “the propaganda of the deed,” and even the “unattributed” quote. Yet, these have not dealt with the issue of the authorial subject position and its modal ontology of creation, attribution, and responsibility.

Francois Guéry and Didier Deleule in their underappreciated text, The Productive Body, open the book with a very simple query: “who is it that wants to ask, ‘who goes there?”. The answer to them is one that comes immediately: the police. This small transgressive note, one that will springboard into an anti-Althusserian reading of Marx and the body in Capital, also speaks to a certain anxious thread that runs through the modern administration of life. It is the anxiety of anonymity and (importantly) attributability. The identifiable subject, whose gestures, acts, and mode of existence can be securely ascribed to them, is central to our understanding of normality and law. The simple idea that “anyone at all” may be “unknown and therefore threatening is the reality, the universe, of policing” (Guéry & Deleule 2014, 57). A motion, a scurrying figure shrouding itself in a hideaway or the shadows, remains nameless. A good citizen always remains accounted for, and therefore accountable.  Good policing is always a recourse to a kind of being, a proper one.

In 1969, Michel Foucault, who had just recently acquired a certain philosophical fame for his abridged Madness and Civilization and The Order of Things, gave an invited lecture to the French Society of Philosophy (Foucault 1998, 205). Certainly this newly acquired publicity would continue to frustrate Foucault who, in his Archeology of Knowledge, attests he writes to “have no face” and, in an anonymous interview, that “a name makes reading too easy” (Foucault 1972, 17; 302, 1989). A name makes reading a laborious and diagnostic process that begs its readers to construct the author as a pathologically and eminently knowable (policed) figure, to whom we can attribute the “work” to a symptomatic whole.

Far from simply wanting to repeat the affirmation of the “author’s disappearance” or death, Foucault urges his audience to “locate the space left by the author’s disappearance, follow the distribution of gaps and breaches, and watch for the openings this disappearance uncovers” (Foucault 1998, 209). But in order to seek out these openings, one really first must get to the core of how the author’s name functions. For Foucault, the name of the author does not function like a simple proper or juridical name. Part of this is the result of the function of the corpus, or the oeuvre. The name has more than an indicative function.

Foucault asks us to consider the names Pierre Dupont and William Shakespeare.[1] If we discovered, for example, that Dupont did not have blue eyes, or was not born in Paris, this would not fundamentally alter the way his name operates. These kinds of discoveries do not “modify the link of designation,” they do not alter the very fateful link between the subject function of the author and the work. However, if one were to discover that Shakespeare had not written the sonnets that “pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author’s name functions.”

All of this means to indicate that the author’s name does not simply exist as one element among many in any given discourse, like a date, a location, or even a text itself. The name plays a classificatory role. It tethers, circumscribes, pulls together, and founds. What the author-function serves to do is lend an identifiable homogeneity, filiation, and authentication by the use of others. Foucault goes as far as stating that the author’s “name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse”. For Foucault, while a letter may have a signer, and a contract a signatory party – they do not have “authors.” The author function founds a discursive construct, one only has to note what it means to invoke the name Aristotle in a seminar room (or in a seminary in the 14th century) to recognize how it functions.

Of course, there are other operations at play beyond forming discursive sets or “marking off the edges of the text.” Foucault is quick to remind us that these discourses, which are “objects of appropriation,” have historically been subsequent to “a penal appropriation” (Foucault 1998, 211). The author is always one whose condemnation looms near. In fact, the punishable subject and the authorial subject in some ways remain fundamentally interlinked. “Texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors (other than mythical, sacralized and sacralizing figures) to the extent that authors became subject to punishment”. If anonymity was (and still is) unacceptable in “our culture (and doubtless many others)” it is because authorship, or discoursing itself, historically is a “gesture fraught with risks”. Foucault focuses in on the bipolar field of the sacred and the profane in the dispersion of texts, transgressive or otherwise. The author held themselves out in exposure to this bipolar field long before literature had become a commodity subject to the same exchange relations and processes of circulation of other goods. Once a system of property ownership over texts manifested alongside a discourse on landed property, and once particular author and publisher rights became commonplace, the relation between the author and the work redefined and restored a kind of “danger to a writing that was now guaranteed by the benefits of ownership” (Foucault 1998, 212).

What becomes evident, specifically when navigating the discursive fields that form around an author, and the various risks and dangers that are navigated, is that the author function does not operate in a universal or transhistorical way. The type of text that required authorial attribution has constantly changed throughout literary history. Foucault gives two limited examples of this shift in what we could vaguely call “the necessity of attribution.” The first are literary texts such as epics, tales, tragedies, or comedies where, on account of their antique status, they were valorized and accepted irrespective of any concern about identifying the author (and this likely holds true today, barring certain philosophical-dialogical texts like later Plato dialogues such as the Alcibiades or correspondences like the seventh letter). He contrasts this with “scientific” texts in the medieval period cosmologies and natural sciences which were accepted as true only when sufficiently marked by the name of their author. These marks are not appeals to authority, but instead appeals to “statements of demonstrated truth.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Foucault is hesitant to describe the author function as simply a spontaneous attribution of a “discourse to its producer”. Instead, it must be understood as “a complex operation that constructs a certain being of reason that we call ‘author.’ Critics doubtless try to give this being of reason a realistic status, by discerning […] a ‘creative’ power” (Foucault 1998, 213). This complicated construction of an author, a certain reasonable being, depicted as endowed with a creative capacity or faculty, cannot be understood as something that simply manifests at the moment of attribution.

It is a perpetually updated decision about what constitutes and does not constitute a certain being. For Foucault, the author does not precede their work. The author is, rather, a limiting function of validation, valorization, or, importantly, subjectivation and subsequent penalization. One may take issue with the author-function being a primary analytical lens for a discussion of art; however such a problematization would miss what is at stake in the discussion about the representation of the creative act.[2]

This understanding of the appropriable capacity that passes from potency to actuality is what remains irreducibly essential to all of these forms. The artist, as a figure who separate from and the cause of their work, is of course foundational. One finds it not only in contemporary accounts of the artistic process, but at least as early as Aristotle’s account of potency, actuality, creation, and created work:

Where, then, the result is something apart from the exercise, the actuality is in the thing that is being made, e.g. the act of building is in the thing that is being built and that that of weaving in the thing that is being woven, and similarly in all other cases, and in general the movement is in the thing that is being moved; but where there is no product apart from actuality, the actuality is present in the agents.

Metaphysics 1050a 29-35

Interestingly, Thomas Aquinas will replicate this analysis when discussing the architect’s relation to their project in his articulation of the ladder of being and the human will. The architect will possess a “concept” or formal species of the form of the house abstracted by the agent intellect, “so that his will can tend towards making the house” (Aquinas 1993, 176). The piece that the architect endeavors to bring into being finds its origin in the capacity and potentiality of the architect.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben finds this dynamic operating in the metaphysical apparatus that makes possible the question of the artist and its subject function. Agamben is “rather uneasy about the term ‘creation’ with respect to artistic practices, which is unfortunately common today” (Agamben 2019, 15). Agamben seeks to destabilize how we understand the activity of the artist, and for him this paradigm of creation—which is grounded in a comparison to the act of God creating ex nihilo—is what remains definitive component of the concept of artistry. “It is from this paradigm,” Agamben writes, “that there derives the disastrous transposition of the theological vocabulary of creation onto the activity of the artist” (Agamben 2019, 8)

With this separation between the creation and the creative work, between ergon and energeia, the ontology of the work of art arrives at what Agamben refers to as the “artistic machine”. This machine is the product of these two complimentary but incommunicable notions. This pseudo-theological understanding of generation posits the artist in a position of exteriority in relation to their activity, but it also—as we know—maintains a certain appropriative aspect. Agamben, of course, works to destitute or neutralize this metaphysics of the artist.

The understanding of the artist as both the point of origin, the archē, and the act of creation as a simple passage from possessed potentiality to act, maintains—in part—the various schematics that produce policing judgements that valorize art in its completion and the artist as a secured being. This system, this artist function, acquires its most succinct articulation in August Comte’s aspirations for a “true theory of Art”. For, in Art, Comte finds the human’s most “complete” and “natural” representation:

It has been said of Art that its province is to hold a mirror to nature. The saying is usually applied to social life where it is most apparent. But it is no less true that every aspect of our existence; for under every aspect it may be the source of Art Turning to Biology for the cause of this sociological relation, we find it in the relation of the muscular and nervous systems. Our motions, involuntary at first, and then voluntary, indicate internal impressions, moral impressions more especially; and as they proceed from them, so they react upon them. Here we find the first germ of a true theory of Art. Throughout the animal kingdom language is simply gesticulation of a more or less expressive kind. And with man esthetic development begins in the same spontaneous way.

Comte 2009, 305-306

Beyond Comte’s organicism or “biocratic” politics, what one finds is an aspiration for an eminently complete and produced theory of the work of art. However, what is most fascinating is that this also puts art in the position of circumscribing the ontological status of every human being, considering that “Feeling,” which for Comte is the primary stimulant of the aesthetic faculties, is also precisely the “highest principle of our existence” and “the basis on which the unity of human nature rests” (Comte 2009, 302).

This metaphysical apparatus that ascribes the work, in its completeness, to the artist as the possessor of a potential to create is what is given over to and finalized in this Comtean socio-biological description. Perhaps this requires a reexamination of precisely why Heidegger, in his “Origin of the Work of Art” explicitly opted to set aside the pressing question of the artist’s supposed primary inherent qualities. Andrew Mitchell, in his fantastic treatment of Heidegger’s relation to sculpture, gives this artist function a different name, “the sculptor God” (Mitchell 2010, 23). Mitchell finds in Heidegger’s articulation a comparable opposition to the image of the generative power of the creator. What is clear is that this conception of creation has consistently remained a problematic field of tensions.

As long as art, like philosophy, is forced to make a “recourse to the constituent subject”, all of these circumscriptive operations, and the important violence they underwrite and ceaselessly deem “necessary,” update, and maintain, remain (Foucault 1998b, 462). The artist, like every other subject-function, is one that is maintained as a policed and identifiable position.

On the Readymade:

It may be hackneyed to discuss the readymade in this decade, perhaps even this century. However, the enigmatic act of Marcel Duchamp remains an absolutely indispensable gesture of opposition to the artist function. The concept of the readymade is simple. Marcel Duchamp would remove an item of everyday commonality – usually either a piece of a commodity or often an entire item (such as a shovel or famously a full urinal). Duchamp’s critique of the primary position of aesthetic judgement and the role of criticism in art has been excessively discussed, and elaborated extensively.

Duchamp even noted his own distaste for the very notion of taste and described some of his own work as an attempt to “escape taste” (Duchamp, cited in: Kuspit 2004, 21). Donald Kuspit’s thorough treatment of Duchamp takes the readymade as a serious destabilization of the boundary between pure object of use or a commodity, and art. To Donald Kuspit, the readymade occupies both of these positions at the same time, and that is the fundamental challenge to the gallery attendant’s aesthetic conception:

Can one see such objects both ways – as everyday artifacts and works of art simultaneously? That is exactly how Duchamp would like us to see his readymades. They have a double identity. They are socially functional artifacts that have been changed into sublime artistic masterpieces by the creative act of Duchamp’s psyche.[3]

Kuspit 2004, 21

Duchamp is presented as an artistically inclined individual who short-circuits the workings of aesthetic judgements. Arthur Danto’s analysis of Duchamp also prioritizes their “aesthetic nondescriptness” (Danto 1997, 84). And, of course, Duchamp’s own approach to his endeavors provides a certain support to this prioritization. The famous story of his own frustration with the positive initial reception of Fountain (the urinal), which he delineated in a letter Hans Richter, certainly indicates this as well.

What remains critically underexamined in both of these accounts is the artist function. Both Danto and Kuspit make recourse to Duchamp as the “generative” figure (Danto 1997, 85). These pieces whether they be shovels, urinals, or bicycles, are works external to Duchamp that are produced in the exact same way as the architect in Aquinas or the weaver in Aristotle. It leaves the entire metaphysical apparatus of the artist function in place, if not validated and made central to the narrative of Duchamp’s genius. And it is this genius that allows the gallery to maintain itself.

Agamben’s account of Duchamp is quite different from this. Agamben is not quite sure how we should define him. Duchamp is “a gentleman whom [he] does not know how to define—perhaps a monk like [Odo] Casel, certainly not an artist”. In Duchamp, Agamben sees a figure who “understood that what was blocking art was precisely what [he] [has] defined as the artistic machine”. There is no poiesis or production in the readymade for Agamben. The name is what sits on the urinal and adorns it with the mark that introduces it “into a museum” and “forces it to present itself as a work of art” (Agamben 2019, 12). Agamben, in a manner not dissimilar to Duchamp himself, finds the transformation of the readymade into a work of art unfortunate. “My critique […] is directed at the perfect irresponsibility with which artists and curators too often elude the confrontation with this event and pretend that everything continues as before” (Agamben 2019, 13).

It is here where Agamben takes a slight misstep, not simply in his rightful condemnation of curators and artists in the world of “post-Duchamp art”, but in his actual interpretation of Duchamp’s activity. The artist remains operative in a very specific way, entirely circumventing the neutralization of the apparatus of the artist function. Agamben places Duchamp in the position of responsibility. “He takes any ordinary object […] and by introducing it into a museum he forces it to present itself as a work of art” (Agamben 2019, 12).[4] This ascription still leaves the author function intact, with a mark of responsibility, a mark Duchamp himself was not so certain he necessarily bore. In an interview with Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp pushes against such a reading of his responsibility. Duchamp quietly renders the first readymade at the Bourgeois gallery a kind of “co-creative” dissolution of the gallery. “When I showed them at the Bourgeois in 1916 – it was a great favor that Bourgeois agreed to put them in the exhibition, with a tongue in his cheek (not mine, his). So, if I am responsible for some of the gestures today, I am only responsible to a degree” (Duchamp & Tomkins 2013, 27-28). It may also be worth noting that Duchamp never sold a readymade and personally lost many.

By leaving the “responsibility” with Duchamp, and Duchamp alone—with his genius and his “psyche”—part of the readymade is entirely lost. Through this responsibility, the “perfect irresponsibility” of curators in a world after Duchamp makes perfect sense. If all the readymade is doing is merely entering the work of art into an aesthetic liminal field, and maintaining the creative act of the constituted subject, then there is no reason to direct a critique at this perfect irresponsibility. It is precisely where we must return to a critique of the author function alongside the artist machine. The irresponsibility of the curator is maintained in the ascribed responsibility of Duchamp. So long as the supposed genesis of the work is in the genius of Duchamp, the whole operation can keep running smoothly.

The critique of the aesthetic judgement and the beautiful or sublime in art can be withstood as merely a scandalization. Such a limited interpretation remains incomplete in the face of what is occurring with the readymade. Remaining at the level of a critique of the aesthetic cannot get to the production of the work of art itself, only to how it is historically valued as beautiful or even sublime. The artist function can be understood as a vector through which the object glides with full admission to the museum or gallery. The artist function itself is what allows for the passage. What the readymade lays bare is the gallery’s relation to the sphere of production as a place that always needs a stable, validated, producer. The stakes of the readymade are not to be found in the aesthetic but the ontological. The ontology of the sculptor God and the artist function are what find themselves short-circuited in the readymade. In a strangely selective affirmation of the artist function, it is neutralized, leaving the ruins of the museum and its curators searching for an empty concept of genius exposed. Duchamp did not simply transgress the artist function, in neutralizing how it operates he was able to simply play with what remained.

Judith Scott, the X-ray, and the Ableism of Artist Function:

It is not controversial or profound, at least it should not be, to state that ableism in philosophy and ableism in art remain interconnected. The fiber artist Judith Scott was defined as an “outsider artist,” both by her family and by many of those in the increasingly, rightfully, maligned “art world.” In a piece for the BBC 2’s “Culture Show”, a documentary crew engaged in a brief biographical recounting of the lifework of Scott.

The BBC crew ambled through the gallery. In tight shots of corridors lined with remarkable pieces of yarn work, British journalist Miranda Sawyer provided her audience with two inquiries. “Can something be art,” she asked, “if it is made by someone who doesn’t call herself an ‘artist’ or even know what art is?” (BBC 2011). The team conducted a series of interviews; first with her sister, and then the director of Creative Growth, where many of the fiber pieces came together. The interviewer worked through loose interpretations of several pieces with the director as the crew made its way around Scott’s pieces suspended from the ceiling.

When discussing Scott’s process, the director made a heavy reference to linguistic and communicative “childhood development”. He interpreted one piece as Scott “learning how to speak,” as “she never had verbal language” (BBC 2011). Satisfied with the developmental psychological interpretation of the art, they moved to one final piece. This piece is larger than the others suspended around it. The host made a comment about its enormity, and the director of Creative Growth replied that Scott often would “appropriate” (“steal”) objects around the workspace to structure her works.

The film then abruptly cuts to the two standing before illuminated x-ray sheets of the piece. The diagnostic discussion of Judith Scott’s work before the illuminated x-ray of her fiber art encapsulates this bi-directional reliance of ableism in art and philosophy. The x-ray as a medium of forced communication and producibility laid over the work is the clinical gaze operating in real time and colliding with the artist function. The film Que Tienes Debajo del Sombrero (What Do You Have Under the Hat), a documentary about the life and work of Scott, features a myriad of x-rays of her yarn work. In a series of interviews, the directors of the Creative Growth Institute each indicate that they have “long wanted” to see what is inside of her pieces (Fraser 2010, 509). The shot cuts from these comments to a sanitized, off-white radiology unit. A technician in a white lab coat then lowers a bound yarn fiber piece onto the x-ray table, loads the grid tray, and adjusts the piece so it lays beneath the collimator. Now one can see what held it all together. What is “beneath”” the secretive piece can now be unwound, and the work of art can be forced into an illuminated and magnetized communication.

The limited documentation of her time in state institutions reflects precisely how these institutions categorized Scott. The Gallipolis State Institution file from 1955 reads: “Not appropriate for any educational programs” and “Mongoloid idiot—profoundly retarded—30 IQ”. Scott is deemed “unmanageable” by the Ohio State Hospital for the Insane, and moved to Gallipolis. Joyce Scott, her sister, suggests that her recalcitrance “may have saved her life” as Gallipolis was “less dangerous” than the Ohio State Hospital (then called Columbus State Hospital) for patients (Scott 2016, 96-97). The x-raying of Scott’s works carries with it a resonance of Scott’s own medicalized and carceral experience in these institutions. The apparatus of the artist function and the apparatus of disability consistently interact, each strengthening the other.

Let us take a moment to meditate on the x-ray further. In 1911, Katia Mann’s tuberculosis diagnosis resulted in her traveling to Davos to be treated at the Waldsanatorium. Her husband, Thomas Mann, would visit her for an extended period in the summer of 1912. Literary scholar Rodney Symington would note that while the methods at the Davos sanatoria were less than reputable, they had a profound impact on Mann, whose Magic Mountain is set in such a series of institutions. Interestingly, the catalyst for Katia Mann pursuing treatment may have been a faulty examination of a chest x-ray. “In fact, many years later when Katia Mann’s original chest x-rays were re-examined, it was discovered that none of them showed any signs of tuberculosis. Thus The Magic Mountain arose, at least in part, out of an incorrect diagnosis” (Symington 2011, 5). In any case, the x-ray presents a new mode of rendering a subject intelligible.

Hans Castorp, the novel’s protagonist, reveals this illuminating and subjectivating element at work in the x-ray. He has an x-ray as a keepsake and holds it with him after his lover is no longer at the Berghof sanatorium. It is “Clavdia’s portrait, showing not her face, but the delicate bony structure” of her upper body and “thoracic cavity”. Through this interiorized intimacy, the erotic “rattle and crash” was “invisibly present to Hans Castorp” (Mann 2020). This penetrating disclosure, which Hans presses his lips to, remains even when he must become acclimated to her “remoteness in space”. In the interim between Clavdia’s presence at the sanitarium the x-ray stands in and keeps her intimately present within the hospital. She has left, but the document trail of her existence as a patient remains like a marker testifying to that invisible presence. Her life, in this medicalized way, is “played out in” the x-ray (Agamben 2015, 69). But this life in a medical document is only played out. It is not possessed or represented.

Now let us return to Scott’s fiber art. In the documentary film What Do You Have Under the Hat? the radiology technician looks at another bound piece, one longer than the first they had x-rayed, and states “looks like a little person this one, let’s give it the treatment” as they lift it onto the x-ray bed. Literary and Disability studies scholar Benjamin Fraser notes this as a powerful statement by the technician. Fraser refers to the attempt to X-ray the fiber work as “tongue-in-cheek”. However, as with all jokes, there remains a hint of a quiet severity.

With each passing image, a discussion is had about what had been appropriated to hold it together. The art, which is already operating at the level of a symptomatology when discussing it as a “means of communication” or a therapeutic endeavor, becomes a new diagnostic surface once imaged through the x-ray.

Deemed uncommunicative, and therefore dangerous, in her childhood Scott was relocated to a new institution. An eerily resonant force is at work here. The x-ray stands in as a diagnostic of the artist function. It attempts to force a compliance upon the piece of art, to enter it in as an instrument of communication. Judith Scott’s body and its medico-juridically produced truth is transposed onto the completed piece. Through an endless symptomatology it remains entwined with the work of art making Scott’s medicalized being (her subject function) the one “played out” in the Gallipolis State Institution file. It becomes the eminent “cause” of the masterpieces. Joyce Scott describes Judith Scott’s world as “silent.” This could not be further from the truth, but with one important distinction. It is a silencing world. It is the silencing world of psychiatric power, a psychiatric power that can produce, through silencing its subjects, a moment of truth. The anatomical reduction of fiber pieces signals to the same psychiatric power that reduces all to silence:

We can strap you to your armchair, we can refuse to listen to what you say, since we will seek the truth of madness from pathological anatomy when you are dead.

Foucault 2006, 249

This is a perpetual silencing, one that simultaneously “refuses to listen”, and yet still works to seek an articulable account of the subject and its creations. It is a silencing that forces a particular communication. Of course, all of these attempts to medically penetrate the work do not succeed. Such a produced communication remains perpetually resisted and thwarted.

In this sense, Deleuze’s definition of the creative act remains absolutely imperative to a neutralization of the artist machine (even if one must remain skeptical of the ontology of creation). “A work of art has nothing to do with communication. A work of art does not contain the least bit of information. In contrast, there is a fundamental affinity between the work of art and an act of resistance” (Deleuze 2007, 327-328). If the work of art manifests as resistance in its relation to information, it is that it resists the communication of information that enables these identification and attribution schemas. To resist communication is to resist that which identifies subjects “at risk”. It is to circumvent that operation that is so crucial to the functionality of the society of control that Deleuze, Foucault, and Agamben all speak of (Deleuze 1992, 6). What it seeks to do is answer the quiet demand of appropriated potentiality, of ownership, of culpability that is maintained by the artist function. It works in tandem, like a callsign, in response to the beckon “who goes there?”

Now, one can start to see some of the problems with the conception of “outsider art” and its relation to the exceptional and punitive nature of the artist function. David Maclagan in his definitive work on Outsider Art defines it “in an open-ended way” as art “created by people who are on the margins of society” who are “unable to fit into the conventional requirements—social and psychological, as well as artistic—of the culture they inhabit” (Maclagan 2009, 7). Maclagan defines Outsider Art as that which belongs, in part to the tradition of “strange and unusual objects”.

Maclagan unsurprisingly has a series of caveats. This “margin” initially merely pointed to by Jean Dubuffet is now to be firmly policed. Maclagan qualifies that some things that could be consider Outsider Art would be “more readily considered” as just found objects, which he considers fundamentally distinct. They are distinct because of what he calls the “level of intentionality behind them” (Maclagan 2009, 59). Maclagan not only decides to maintain the artist function, but grounds it in a psychobiological concept that he never thoroughly defines. However, Maclagan elaborates on this extensively. He describes the works of the patients of Cesare Lombroso, the eugenicist criminologist, as works that “seem to occupy a no-man’s-land between natural curiosities and works of art.”

The sovereign-sculptor God finds its mirror and its support in the history of the asylum. Maclagan explicitly places Scott in this group of patients wading through the “no-man’s-land” of his ableist conception of art and intentionality. Maclagan, with a feigned innocence, contrasts Scott’s fiber art to the Philadelphia Wireman. “These […] objects had obviously been made deliberately, and in fact are oddly reminiscent of Judith Scott’s ‘fiber art’” (Maclagan 2009, 60). Maclagan places Scott in that no-man’s-land between “intentionality” and “automatism”. Automatism as a mechanism to identify and establish psychological abnormality dates to the middle of the nineteenth century:

Starting around the 1850s, deviation from the norm of conduct and the degree to which this deviation is automatic are the two variables that enable conduct to be inscribed either on the register of mental health or on the register of mental illness. Broadly speaking, conduct is healthy when there is minimal deviation and automatism, that is to say, when it is conventional and voluntary.

Foucault 2003, 159

This definition of Outsider Art within itself does nothing beyond strengthen the exact same circumscriptive maneuver and metaphysical apparatus that, from the very outset of the project, it seems to desire to avoid. It is able to maintain this through valorizing and upholding the artist function as the paramount determinative mechanism. Maclagan simply grounds the artist function in the same pathology that psychiatric power attempts to tether itself to.

Maclagan, in the voice of a nineteenth century psychiatrist, attests that it is “unsettling” to “try and imagine the psychological state of someone like Judith Scott, who had, as far as we know, no language in which terms such as ‘art’ may appear” (Maclagan 2009, 140). He tells his readers that “however cruel it may seem, in human terms, to question what is going on when we call her artefacts ‘art’,” we must face this apparent problem. We must, to Maclagan, make a medical and juridical judgement about Judith Scott’s actual ontological status as an artist and as a human being. It is in this failing ableist desperation, that the true violence of the artist function is exposed; and this is part of the vibrance and resistance in Scott’s work.

With all of this established one must arrive at the problem of describing an “outside” or pure exteriority to art or the “art world”. The circumscriptive exception doubtlessly produces an “outside.” But this outside is always constitutive of the very functionality of the exception itself. It is, to put it obviously, a state of exception, which means that it is always an inclusive exclusion, and it is ceaselessly updated. Maclagan’s perpetual exclusionary motions on “intentionality” and “automatism” make this apparent.


A destituent ethics in the face of the problem of the work of art cannot simply do violence to the work in the name of a sovereign creator. It must ceaselessly seek to render the artist as a subject function inoperative. It is also not a gesture that presents the artist as merely a figure of transgression in the dominant mode of production (which those called artists are no doubt implicated in). It has to always make clear the stakes of this question of art – which is not merely one of aesthetics. It is to neutralize that artist function which serves as an exceptional operation and an expansive mode of policing. It is to expose this exception and operation in their respective emptiness. Just as power has no inherent legitimacy, every zone of exception is always actually empty.

The perpetual violence necessary to maintain this sovereign creator exposes only its flimsiness, not any truth of the artist function. The readymade and bound fiber pieces should tell one, rather clearly, that art is a way of forging the use of one’s life. Agamben’s refusal of the ontology of the work of art and of the creator God is reflected in them. “Art is only the way in which the anonymous ones we call artists, by maintaining themselves constantly in relation with a practice, seek to constitute their life as a form of life […] what is in question is nothing less than their happiness” (Agamben 2019, 13). The artist is the one who tends toward an anonymity that indicates, through the scandalous unfolding of their form-of-life, an alternative use of the world in which they dwell.

As always, all of this remains impossible without the dialogue I have everyday.

It is often in a shared Annoyance and it is always with love.


Agamben, Giorgio. 2015. Profanations. (J. Fort, Trans.) New York: Zone Books.

__. 2019. Creation and Anarchy: The Work of Art and Capitalism as Religion. (A. Kotsko, Trans.) Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Aristotle. 1941. The Basic Works of Aristotle. (C.D.C. Reeve, Trans.) New York: Random House Incorporated.

Barrera, Lola, director. 2007. Que Tienes Debajo Sombrero. (Alicia Produce.) 1 hr., 15 min.

BBC. 2011. BBC-2 “The Culture Show”. October Feature. From: or

Comte, Auguste. 2009. A General View of Positivism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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[1] Note that this inclusion alone indicates a broader usage of author-function beyond the simple textuality of the written word.

[2] Foucault also notes in this lecture that he has “unjustifiably limited” himself, and that “[c]ertainly the author function in painting, music, and other arts should have been discussed” (Foucault 1998, 216).

[3] Italic emphasis added.

[4] Once again, italic emphasis added.

2 thoughts on “Neutralizing Creation

  1. Very much appreciated this – might have been interesting to explore the specific role of the signature beyond the passing reference on the urinal. As I understand it, it is the signature that invokes the legal dimension. The two quotes at the bottom, in particular “It is often in a shared Annoyance and it is always with love” – what are the citations?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You are certainly right, I definitely could’ve spoken more about the signature, perhaps I felt Agamben’s account was enough. As for the comments at the bottom, they are just general acknowledgements.


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