The following piece was originally commissioned for IM-1776’s “Art and Literature for Dissidents” series; where it did not make the cut.
The formation of a new structure, of an “order” developing and raging across the earth, is the only truly liberating act, and the only one possible, since revolutionary destruction is regularly followed by the reconstitution of the social structure and its head.
—Georges Bataille, “Propositions. I. Propositions on Fascism”
Though I typically abstain from engaging in “culture war” discourse—a losing proposition that plays into mutually-reinforcing call and response dialectics—I will give my conservative friends one word of advice: if the culture war is to be “won” on aesthetic grounds—and I have my doubts that it can be; that it is, in fact, that kind of war—it won’t be by continuing to run in circles around the Beauty Question.
For the past 20 months, I have been working from the premise that the central concern of aesthetics is affect, not beauty; tracking the changes in sentiment that are resulting in the great transvaluation of our sanitary-epistemic crisis. “How we win”—through art—is, as ever, through optics and manoeuvre warfare: mimesis and controlled perception; camouflage, disorientation, co-option and subversion; the persuasions of seduction, not discussion or argumentation. Because one does not of course win wars through art, though one can pave the way for victory through culture, certainly. (Also: Beauty may not win wars, either, but it has been known to start them.)
In this sense, the future and present of art have not much to do with any one form of artistic expression—literature, painting, architecture—or even with craft (unless it’s stagecraft). They belong to strategy and notably, to tactics as deployed in the libidinal economy, the most compelling current form of which is now known as web3. And as of this year, it has become impossible and irresponsible to talk about art without discussing cryptoart, its web3 variant.
Though web3, the blockchain-backboned frontier of the Internet, contains cryptoart within the so-called “NFT space”, it is also a much deeper project. At its best and boldest, web3 is a beheading game aimed at total institutional replacement, up unto the level of the nation-state. This grand coup may include smaller, targeted “heists” on other institutions, among which the artworld is of special interest for two reasons. The first one is dramatic: despite not being functionally limited to art, the NFT may be the most important technological development in the arts since printmaking (with the additional incentive of being stored on the blockchain, an innovation that may prove as opportune to cultural overhaul as double-entry bookkeeping was to the Renaissance). The second is ironic, since it is likely that this sticky tech, viralised through art and entertainment, will function as the Trojan horse that is first welcomed into the mainstream, letting in all of web3 behind it. Beware, as they say, G[r]eeks bearing g[r]ifts.
I have written before of a return to “brinkmanship and deep play, the likes of which we [have] not seen since the end of the Cold War,” that “challenges the accepted rules of engagement in ways that raise the stakes whilst altering―or threatening to dynamite―the gameboard as we know it.” My interest in web3 as a possibility-space for “symbolic warfare [that] must be waged and won in whichever form will most effectively destroy” and successfully supplant “the outgoing order” is premised on its potential to exploit and out-manoeuvre metastatic narrative collapse. (Which, nota bene, doesn’t mean it will, or even that it can.)
So let us suppose that art in the age of digital reproduction is a high-stakes power play, which I may have too pithily distilled into the dictum “the purpose of art is the apperception of art.” In Commissioner of Sewers―an interview that deals with, among other things, power and the restrictions it imposes on the freedom of the powerful―William S. Burroughs models a similar notion around the all-seeing eye of Cézanne, whose first pictures enraged the public to the point of assault, until it was gradually and collectively accepted that “this is the way an apple actually looks when seen from here and there and here, in different lights, at different times.” This edging of “general cultural awareness” is not only a matter of perception: apperception entails people growing more aware “of what they know and what they don’t know that they know” within a given paradigm, which means adjusting, shifting margins.
While this is not the place to dwell on the thorny psychophysical and philosophic issues that surround the question of apperception, for practical purposes we will consider it to be the mental process by which one puts new content into context, or transfigures novelty into knowledge. Any such integration must be set against a preexisting body of ideas, meaning it precludes the blank slate and the ex nihilo; the fantasies of innocence and originality. Apperception, thus understood, becomes an active historical process. It is—like power—inexorable, and inexorably it will find its form in time. Riegl’s concept of the Kunstwollen, which transcends mimesis to consider “the expression of a desired reality; its historical contingency; and its relation to other elements of "worldview”’ comes to mind.
This will to art is also will to power, a throughline that—in our case—was all but confirmed when Beeple sold The First 5,000 Days for $69 million at Christie’s. Love it or hate it, the Beeple sale was a true détente between artworlds that has since embroiled the leading auction houses in the legitimisation of cryptoart through prestige. (And for those keeping tabs, that’s coup counting.) It is a matter of time, and of timing, until certain barriers to entry—and exit—are lowered enough for smart contracts to become as massified and catholic as smartphones. Through this lens, cryptoart is equally an artful and a warlike avant-garde.
While the relationship between art and power has been constantly examined and negotiated; the role of art as power is less understood. This may change as web3 signals the irruption (and, doubtless to some, the corruption and/or the interruption) of art considered as a non-state actor.
The most interesting aspect of this, at least to me, is that a non-state actor is effectively a non-sovereign corrosive of sovereign power. I mention this because, although my earliest Bataillean observations on web3 were focused mainly on the NFT space and revolved around expenditure and sovereignty, I have become increasingly convinced that the most urgent of these applications is acephalism: the beheading game around the cyclical destruction and reconstitution of the head. The extant and decentralised body of power—by which I mean not web3, but the surveillance metastate itself—still has a head somewhere; maybe more than one—Pentheus, Orpheus, Bran—in more than one location. Long live Leviathan! Hail Hydra! At full mimetic capacity, web3 mirrors something rather like André Masson’s extraordinary transmogrification of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man—not as a terminus, but as the raw prefiguration of the new Leviathan.
Before us lies the possibility of Orphism, re-membered and reintegrated as the common ancestor—and final outcome—of the Dionysian/Apollonian divide drawn first by Winckelmann, then dramatised by Nietzsche. The challenge and the promise for the deeper operators of web3 is to be found in co-ordination, understood as the synchronisation of the different elements within a complex body that allows them to function together as one but also, and most importantly, as a co-consecration, whereby the members of a laity are elevated into a position from which they can implement ritual, demand sacrifice, and reinstate the three powers the Grand Inquisitor taught Christ: “miracle, mystery and authority”—all Man wants, or frankly, understands.