From the depths of the postwar period’s most rigorous critique of art, in the midst of its most relentless exposure of every actual and imaginable artwork as “pseudo art,” Thomas Bernhard looks around at the assembled cultural elite of Vienna and finds them guilty of “pretense,” “social climbing,” “lies,” “desperate” bids for “social recognition.”9 This Austrian writer, who began life under the nazis, devoted his late work to exposing the experience of absorption in a work of art as a form of social domination, and the creation and consumption of artworks as concealed pleas for social distinction.10 And yet, this dismissal of every artwork that passes before him is not only compatible with a commitment to art as the highest human value, that commitment motivates the critique. His most damning attack on his contemporaries is that “they’ve quite simply failed to achieve the highest, and as I see it only the highest can bring real satisfaction” (W, 54). Written in the 1980’s, Bernhard’s Woodcutters is not unusual in its insistence that the audience’s relation to art works is a disguised way of relating to others. It is unusual in taking this condition as a challenge to art to realize its pretensions. The urgency of this challenge is not purely or merely artistic.
more from Michael W. Clune at nonsite here.