Taking culture by the throat

Jean Dubuffet – Asphyxiating Culture (Good Press)

Reading Keith Haring’s Journals this Autumn Jean Dubuffet’s Asphyxiating Culture gets a mention. Haring’s thoughts being, if I remember rightly, that the book’s argument is pretty sound if somewhat obvious and that Dubuffet ties himself up in knots a bit in the delivery of that argument. The Dubuffet being a book I’d never heard of before but the combination of that – IMO – fantastic title and, I suppose, Haring’s brief review of it, made me want to read the thing myself. And that I was able to is down, solely, to the fine works of Good Press Gallery who have made a very affordable edition of this book available thus ensuring Amazon’s 50 quid plus copies can remain unsold a bit longer.

As it turns out, that I got myself a copy of Asphyxiating Culture on little more than a whim, really, seems entirely in keeping with the critique of culture and associated industries which Dubuffet outlines in this text. Briefly, Dubuffet has it that the culture industry is nothing more than a big swizz focussed on endless self-propagation which cuts off any real innovation as soon as it’s detected. Dubuffet says that we need to remember that for each supposed exemplary cultural product of times past there were another hundred or several hundred other products which were overlooked, any one of which could just as easily have found its way into the gallery or museum rather than the product which actually did if the arbitrary tastes of the ‘experts’ had been even ever so slightly different.

The concept of value (in the artistic sense) being the big thing that Dubuffet takes aim at here. He says that ‘value’ is a kind of collective illusion, founded on entirely arbitrary bases by a self-serving cadre of critics, academics and governmental cultural workers, with this false notion succeeding in dazzling everyone who encounters it – members of the public and gullible and foolish artists alike, leaving anyone who dissents from received opinion regarding so-called ‘great works’ feeling like a bit of a dummy.

Much more preferable, to Dubuffet, than the idea of ‘value’ is that of whim. Dubuffet prefers to see works of art acclaimed as great on a Monday, if the viewer, on that particular day, for whatever reason, considers them as a such, and then – those same works of art – condemned as rubbish, or at least not worthy of attention, come Wednesday, all received wisdom about what constitutes great art straight outta the window to be replaced by opinions based solely on however the viewer is feeling. Opinion constantly shifting and moving rather than stuck, fixed. Though how different is this vision to Dubuffet’s origin story for the emergence of ‘value’ I can’t help wondering? I suppose not that different at all, just that Dubuffet’s way of doing things would be without the prop – as he has it – of a bogus cultural-critical-artistic supporting structure.

I found Asphyxiating Culture an exciting, liberating read. Dubuffet’s vision of art for all with art as an activity totally incorporated into the everyday lives of everyone, so much so that all talk of art becomes kind of redundant as people are just too busy doing art is tremendously appealing in its anarchy and radicalism. Reading through the book near enough every sentence has been underlined by me and finished off with a couple of exclamation marks signalling my giddy assent. Key criteria of a quality book in 2019 (which it has just turned today . . . happy New Year everyone!) is that every page of Asphyxiating Culture felt Instagrammable to me . . . though the one paragraph I did photo and post to Instagram got no Likes so go figure lol. This is part of the Dubuffet quote I liked so much that I felt moved to post it to social media: ‘It may be that writing, due to the concrete form it must take, has a much more dulling effect on thought than oral expression (which is already dulling to some extent), it is possible that it brings about an entanglement of one’s thoughts, and an inclination for them to enter into the traditional modes of expression, which alters them’.

Another bit I particularly liked was Dubuffet calling for an end to theorizers aiming to achieve a total theory, saying what was needed was a theory of fragments with no attempt to join up each individual fragment. Foucault, right there, I thought. Indeed, Dubuffet’s statement that ‘instead of attempting to straighten lines that by their very nature are curved and will remain curved, this new philosophy of the discontinuous will study the curves themselves’ sounded, to my ears at least, like a pretty good summary of Foucault’s aims in the Archaeology of Knowledge.

Foucault being not the only presence I detected in the pages of Asphyxiating Culture, Georges Bataille also seemed to be haunting the book’s latter half, specifically the Bataille of Eroticism with his view of the insufficiencies of language when it comes to dealing with the mysteries of sex and death. As perhaps indicated by the excerpt above Dubuffet claims art making, as well, must always elude language’s inept attempts to capture anything of its magic and mysteries, that talking about making art immediately alters the impulse that was behind that original desire to make art.

As well as the central argument of Asphyxiating Culture Dubuffet, in his book, travels down numerous fascinating and stimulating side-streets, so much so that it’s easy to understand Haring’s slight frustration with the book’s somewhat meandering style however I, personally, thought the unfolding and wandering of Dubuffet’s thought succeeding in only adding detail to the forward drive of his main thesis. Really, there’s so much in Asphyxiating Culture that this review could easily have be twice, three times its size however I’m gonna stop here as, as I mentioned above, it’s New Year’s day today and I feel like going for a walk now.

– Richard Barrett

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