Book review: Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari by Simon O’Sullivan

Photo from Ola Stahl

It’s the greatest artists (rather than the populist artists) who invoke a people, and find they ‘lack a people’… Artists can only invoke a people, their need for one goes to the very heart of what they’re doing, it’s not their job to create one, and they can’t: Art is resistance: it resists death, slavery, infamy, shame. But a people can’t worry about art. How is a people created, it’s through its own resources, but in a way that links up something in art… or links up art to what is lacked. – Gilles Deleuze

If you woke up this morning and said to yourself, “I need some post-structuralism in my life,” then this is the book for you (ok, one of many books…). In Art Encounters Deleuze and Guattari: Thought Beyond Representation, author Simon O’Sullivan tries to reinterpret the philosophical (and political/scientific) ideas of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in terms of the visual arts. Deleuze and Guattari were in fact rather conservative when it came to their direct views on art, but O’Sullivan manipulates some of their key concepts– the rhizome and the minor history, to name a couple– towards artistic ends. The emphasis in this book is very utopian:  art is supposed to be about the collective whole, which therefore makes the creation of art a political act. For art to challenge and liberate us, it needs to break with the dominant norm.

Art Encounters seems to be a very personal project for O’Sullivan, who reveals some of his own personal background (i.e. his growing disenchantment with the directly art-related ideas of Derrida, Lacan, and other philosophical-art historical greats) to set the stage for how he uses Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas to reinterpret modern and contemporary art. Indeed, he outright says that the book is an exploration of different art encounters he has experienced.  It is a fairly easy read– as easy as post-structuralism can get outside of Hennessy Youngman’s interpretation— and he is very thorough in explaining the original concepts and his interpretations. 

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)

As the title indicates, this book is about encounters. O’Sullivan opposes the encounter to recognition, with recognition being a more passive act that implies familiarity and representation. The encounter, on the other hand, is a challenge to our pre-conceived notions of how the world (and things in it) operates: it produces a rupture or crack in habitual modes of being and subjectivities, and it is through this rupture that a new world is affirmed, encouraging us to think differently. There is no set methodology to think like Deleuze (and Guattari, for that matter): one has to approach their ideas in a piecemeal fashion, like a series of “thought experiments,” and apply bits of their ideas to produce compatibilities and alliances.

In a post-structuralist, post-modernist, and post-colonialist world, art is global and history is non-linear. For decades, people tended to see the history of art in a linear fashion: Dada was followed by Surrealism, which was followed by Abstract Expressionism, and the art that made it into the art history books were exemplary of a limited number of major centers. However, the model of the rhizome proposed in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is an anti-system with no center. Rather, it is a series of non-hierarchical connectivities between numerous points, kind of like the Internet. It is through these connections that we can begin to think differently. Rhizomatics can dissolve the boundaries between disparate fields, such as that which separates art and art history. If we think of everything philosophically, we can “turn from transcendence to a kind of ‘thinking immanence'” (14).

Ever since Kant, art has been thought of in terms of a binary: meaning versus object, or content versus form. Derrida points to this in Truth in Painting. The rhizome allows us to avoid this conceptual model/procedure of representation and its associated critiques, though the actual application of the rhizome is difficult. Thus, it is more useful to think of art in terms of its notion of function (it’s performative, affective function) rather than what it is or what it is supposed to mean. According to O’Sullivan, we must not only think of the aesthetics of art but also its political and critical functions. We must remember that the rhizome and the root (which is different from the center in that it is a territory, and a territory is required before deterritorialization) are within one another, though they are two different strategies or attitudes: in other words, “an art history rhizome in this sense is not an abandonment of, but a re-engagement with, the matter of representation, albeit representation thought in a different way” (34).

This ties into the idea of the minor (minor literature, minor history), which I am particularly interested in. The minor is a collective political tool that operates from within the major, using the major’s vocabulary and tools in order to create a new “language.” It creates new movement within the major. O’Sullivan consistently uses Deleuze and Guattari’s words “stuttering” and “stammering” to describe his interpretation, which are the words they use in their book Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature to describe Kafka’s deliberate use of broken German. Three rules of the minor literature are summarized as follows: 1) “That minor literature should deterritorialize the major language”; 2) “That in a minor literature everything is political”; 3) “That a minor literature is always collective” (70).

Marcel Duchamp, “LHOOQ” (1919)

O’Sullivan envisions these rules being applied to art in the following ways:

1) We can look at modernism and ID minor practices within it, such as feminism and post-colonialism. These minor practices deterritorialize the language of modernism.

2) We an look at marginal and dissonant practices in modernism, such as Dada, and identify it as its “other voice.” O’Sullivan poses an interesting question here, which I can’t wait to apply to my own research: how/when/why does something minor become major? The only answer he provides is that a minor may not become major simply because it is passed over, but I would love to find a better answer than this.

3) The minor may be outside of the canvas (i.e. using other art media, as painting is considered “major”). Minor art is also positioned outside of the confines of the gallery and typical or traditional art definitions.

4) Focus on the local in an increasingly international art world, or in the use of plain non-artistic materials. This poses an interesting question about art’s relationship to capitalism (the epitome of major if there ever was one), since the minor may “stutter” or “stammer” commodity and move beyond its very logic.

5) Minor art pushes the limitations of representation, often to the point of absurdity. This is achieved through affective rupture, with breaks with (though also utilizes) the old to produce something new. Humor is an effective tool of dissent or rupture, as it is an act of violence against typical signifying formations.

The minor is prophetic in that it calls forth new collectivities. It resists the major and through its resistance creates something new. These two points are vital. It can be reactionary (i.e. disappear) as it is dependent on other outside factors such as the major.  Considering the highly political, connective nature of the minor, I am definitely going to be challenged to get the idea to fit with my thesis topic. I suppose I can think of Colorado in terms of minor versus major (the major being New York or LA, perhaps). We shall see…

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