Let Haters Hate

Why do we turn on art in general or pick a particular art to denounce? In the case of the distinguished French author Pascal Quignard, hatred grew from the ashes of love. In The Hatred of Music,this former devotee decries music as a once-glorious art now degenerated into a torturous surround sound that deserves only contempt (and La Haine de la musique, originally published in 1996, appeared five years before the advent of iTunes). The ten theses that make up his erudite diatribe proceed by way of clipped readings of Biblical passages, classical texts, feudal fables, and obscure etymologies. (Who knew, for example, that the word analysis first appears in Greek when two shipmates untieanelysan”—Odysseus from the mast once he has endured the song of the Sirens?) Although Quignard cites Nietzsche nowhere, there is a Nietzschean cast to his argument, which presents all music as rooted in human suffering. On the one hand, Quignard writes (with the Dionysian panic that undoes the Apollonian “principle of individuation” in mind), “music alone tears asunder”; on the other hand, he argues (via a line from Hesiod), music “pours small libations of oblivion on sorrow.” Either way, we are at the mercy of music for the simple reason that we cannot shut our ears to it: “What is heard knows neither eyelids, nor partitions, neither curtains, nor walls. Undelimitable, it is impossible to protect oneself from it.”

Here as elsewhere Quignard collapses music into mere noise, which he despises, and then blames their convergence not on the opening to incidental sound by avant-garde composers like John Cage, say, but on the technological reproduction of music in general, which detaches it from performance. For Quignard, this modern catastrophe has broken the ancient dialectic of expressive suffering and meditative solace, with the result that music is now entirely on the side of “acoustic reconciliation,” by which he means social conformity and political manipulation. “Music gathers the packs like orders make them stand up,” he writes in one especially bitter moment. Although this fascistic force is always latent in music for Quignard (he quotes Pindar on the “golden lyre that the step obeys”), it is unleashed in the twentieth century: “National anthems, municipal fanfares, religious hymns, familial songs identify groups, unite natives, subjugate subjects.” And this line of thought sets up the etymology that seals his case: “To listen in Latin is obaudire. Obaudire has survived in French as obéir. Hearing, audientia, is an obaudientia, is an obedience.”

It comes as no surprise that the seventh treatise of The Hatred of Music focuses on the Lagerkapelle, the Jewish musicians forced to perform at the concentration camps, an ordeal Quignard sees less as a perverting of music than a laying bare of “the death call” that lies at its source. “Every conductor is a tamer, a Führer,” he claims, even Simon Laks, a Polish Jew who was compelled to conduct at the camps and was forever tormented by the memory. Here Quignard outdoes even Adorno, who at least had second thoughts about his infamous proclamation that all poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. For Quignard, music was barbaric long before the camps, and somehow, after Muzak and all the rest, it only got worse; his worldview brooks no dialectic of enlightenment, just darkness all the way down. Even so, he hopes to protect us from the Sirens that still call to us—all the ad jingles, ringtones, and campaign anthems. “What does it mean to disenchant?” Quignard asks. “To shield from the power of song. To wrest the enchanted from malefic obedience.” In the end, though, one senses that he is too in love with his own haine.

Raphael Montañez Ortíz, Henny Penny Piano Destruction, 1967. Performance view, “Destruction in Art Symposium,” New York. © Raphael Montañez Ortíz
Raphael Montañez Ortíz, Henny Penny Piano Destruction, 1967. Performance view, “Destruction in Art Symposium,” New York. © Raphael Montañez Ortíz

While Quignard is a convinced hater, Ben Lerner is a conflicted lover, and in his new book, The Hatred of Poetry,he aims to redeem disdain. What is the source of the contempt that many feel for this art? For clues, Lerner turns to two of its great advocates, Philip Sidney (who wrote his Apology for Poetry in 1579) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (his Defense dates to 1821). In the orbit of Elizabeth I, Sidney argued that poetry instills proper comportment, and delights as well as instructs in the process (many defenses of the arts still draw on this Horatian formula); more, as poetry reaches beyond nature, history, and philosophy alike, it can touch on the divine. Shelley also stressed the transcendental force of poetry, but in the different context of a capitalist order on the rise, and so defended the art as a critical alternative to materialistic preoccupations. (Today this uselessness is the use-value of poetry for young visual artists, who see it as wondrously free of market pressures.) According to Lerner, the fact that “actual poems can’t realize that alternative” is the great failing of poetry for avant-gardists; that it attempts to do so at all is its equally great mistake for nostalgists, who consider the proper business of poets to be poetry alone. In short, poetry can’t win, yet by not winning it does so anyway, as Lerner has the double bind break itself:

“Poetry” is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price. Thus hating poems can either be a way of negatively expressing poetry as an ideal—a way of expressing our desire to exercise such imaginative capacities, to reconstitute the social world—or it can be a defensive rage against the mere suggestion that another world, another measure of value, is possible.

In this light, poetry is an impossible ideal that mere poems can only fail to meet, and this disappointment is the seed of the denunciation that sometimes follows. Thus any overt hatred of poetry is a secret love for it: If denunciation stems from disappointment, it is rooted in devotion, and every attack on art is an upside-down defense.

I wonder if this semi-sophistical formula is reversible: Is every defense an implicit attack, or the makings of one? I wonder, too, how adaptable the model is to other arts. Consider painting, which, like poetry, is often thought to teach composure and to promote transcendence, attracting its fair share of haters for both aims (I include a younger version of myself). Even at the time of Velázquez, the status of painting as a liberal art was uncertain—it had yet to be elevated above a craft—which is one reason the discourse of painting from that period onward is so aspirational. This rhetoric hit a high note with modernist painters like Kandinsky and Malevich, who prompted an avant-gardist backlash: Too high, painting was to be brought down to earth, its materiality exposed; too rarefied, it was to be mortified, with the body of the artist or the viewer implicated somehow. Of course, there were other reasons to hate on painting. Russian Constructivists saw it as bourgeois in its individualistic address, and so introduced alternative formats to elicit a collective viewership. Many Dadaists and some Surrealists rejected painting on similar grounds, but without the political revolution that drove the Constructivists, this attack was mostly nihilistic. As Guy Debord put it, pithily, Dada aimed to abolish art without realizing it, while Surrealism aimed to realize art without abolishing it. His Situationism would attempt both, but ended up just purging its artist members.

To declare fini to an art is an apocalyptic rush, a discursive sublime, yet often it is merely to play at negation, and, as Yve-Alain Bois has pointed out, almost every end of painting in the modernist era proved to be another beginning in disguise. From this perspective, true belief might be more difficult than faux negation, as the painter Gerhard Richter suggested long ago: “One must be really engaged to be a painter. Once obsessed by it, one eventually gets to the point where one thinks that humanity could be changed by painting. But when that passion deserts you, there is nothing left to do. Then it is better to stop altogether. Because basically painting is pure idiocy.”

In many ways, the case of sculpture is the reverse of that of painting. In fact, the traditional critique of sculpture—why Baudelaire, for one, found it so “tiresome”—was that it was not like painting, neither composed nor transcendental enough: It presented too many viewpoints, and so involved the viewer too much in movement and bodiliness, time and worldliness. Of course, these attributes were the very ones foregrounded by many sculptors in the twentieth century, which suggests how an attack can be turned into an advocacy. Another reason to hate sculpture was its ancient association with the monument, with the figurative commemoration of a historical event or a public place. That monumental logic fell apart, at least as far as advanced artists were concerned, when histories became too multiple and publics too diverse, and when the space of sculpture could no longer be held above that of the commodity. Hence the energetic debasement of this art, too, through the last century, all the moves to abstract it, fragment it, ephemeralize it, trivialize it—another long good-bye without apparent end.

The thesis that to hate an art is also to love it leaves a few questions unanswered. Is there a deeper complex than aesthetic reaction here, such as the syndrome of the religious iconoclast more attached to the sacred image than the believer, or the political apostate more obsessed with “the god that failed” (usually Marx) than the party member? Certainly, radical disappointment is known to many other sects and schools as well: Think of all the ex-Freudians, Oedipuses forever, who want Freud to come back so they can kill him again. Perhaps Nietzsche was right, in On the Genealogy of Morals, to pick out ressentiment as the motive force behind such reaction—but then to psychologize critique as self-loathing is to evacuate it of its political purpose. By the same token, might redeeming hatred of an art as love deprive it of its critical force?

Hal Foster teaches at Princeton. His Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency was published by Verso last fall.