Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Marcel Cobussen studied jazz piano at the Conservatory of Rotterdam and Art and Cultural Studies at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. He currently teaches music philosophy and cultural theory at Leiden University (the Netherlands) and the Orpheus Institute in Ghent (Belgium). Cobussen is author of the book Thresholds. Rethinking Spirituality Through Music (Ashgate, 2008), and co-author of Dionysos danst weer. Essays over hedendaagse muziekbeleving (Kok Agora, 1996). He is contributing editor of two special issues of the Dutch Journal of Music Theory, one on music and ethics (AUP, 2002) and one on artistic research (AUP, 2007), and edited a special issue of New Sound on improvisation (Belgrade, 2009). His Ph.D. dissertation Deconstruction in Music (2002) was presented as an online website located at

Defending the Uncanny

On the Postmodern, the Art World,
and the Turn towards Complexity

Marcel Cobussen


Just as there are many modernisms, there are many postmodernisms. Depending on which paradigm, scientific field, or cultural theory has been employed...

In “Letter to a Japanese Friend” Jacques Derrida tries to answer the question put to him by Professor Izutsu as to what deconstruction is. “What deconstruction is not? Everything, of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course!” (Derrida, 1988, 5).

In my view, this (non)definition of deconstruction could equally well apply to postmodernism, and modernism, for that matter.

Just as there are many modernisms, there are many postmodernisms. Depending on which paradigm, scientific field, or cultural theory has been employed, taken as a starting-point, or used as a frame, the interpretation of the concept of (post)modernism changes. And even within the various paradigms, fields, and theories, there is hardly any consensus about the meaning and signification of these terms. Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Temps modernes differs to a great extent from Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times and Jean-François Lyotard's Postmodern Condition has not very much in common with Fredric Jameson's connection between postmodernism and late capitalism. Actually, writing these sentences means I have already entered a postmodern discourse in which a plurality of narratives and definitions is almost taken for granted. Identity is not an ontological, firmly-embedded fact, but a temporary and discursive construct, dependent on context and created in relations and interactions. Postmodernism is nothing and, simultaneously, everything, which boils down to the same thing. So let's at least talk postmodernisms instead of using the singular which might still suggest a unity, a core, a foundation.

Have we ended up immediately in some kind of relativism with these opening remarks? Unmistakably, many postmodernists challenge and criticize any kind of absolutism or truth claims. In an Adornian and Horkheimerian vein, they state that the alleged intellectual and moral superiority of political systems inevitably ends up in totalitarianism and a suppression of “otherness”. Is relativism, however, the only way out if truth claims are shown up as being narrative constructs on ideological foundations? In my opinion, hierarchical relations are still possible, also with regard to the prevailing definitions of postmodernism. If, however, the criterion of preferring one definition of postmodernism to another can no longer be based on truth claims, other criteria have to be developed. My suggestion would be twofold: on the one hand, the strength and persuasiveness of the narration, of the arguments, to favor one definition over the other; on the other hand, the Heideggerian idea that the narration or definition should make one think, that it should be food for further thought. For me, this applies to science, art, and philosophy. If the scientific, artistic, and/or philosophical narration is convincing, if it allows me and perhaps even forces me to reflect and to be “on the way” as Heidegger would have it, if it unveils new ways of thinking instead of closing up the imagination by providing univocal and rigid answers, if it incites me to revisit their world, then I would call a narration or definition successful. It is within this framework that I will continue this text by writing about postmodern philosophy and art (especially music), and complexity, implicitly as well as explicitly reacting to Keith Martin-Smith's essay “On the Future of Art and Art Criticism”. The present essay is constructed around three main questions: What “is” postmodernism? What is art? What is the possible contribution of complexity theories to the current debates on culture and art?

From Postmodernism to the Postmodern

To call postmodernism a movement would do injustice to one of its most fundamental principles.

Where to start? Where has it started? Has it already started? Striving for order, logic, and lucidity, historians, philosophers, cultural theorists and many more scholars and non-scholars “begin” with these kinds of questions. When did postmodernism begin? It seems a legitimate though difficult question. Post-modernism: a movement connected to and following modernism. Which raises the question as to when modernism came to an end and postmodernism started. With Lyotard's analysis of contemporary society and the state of thinking in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge from 1979? Or with Nietzsche's continuous attack on alleged universal truths and morals? Or perhaps even earlier with the thirteenth-century German theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart, whose emphasis on release and the affective already puts him in the position of a criticaster of the modernist emphasis on rationality, a post-modernist avant-la-lettre? Is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain already a postmodern art work or do we have to wait for a return to the traditional art forms of sculpture and painting in the late 1970s and early 1980s seen in the work of Neo-expressionist artists such as Georg Baselitz and Julian Schnabel? And is the “minimal music” of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Lamonte Young, and Terry Riley the first trace of postmodernist music as it returns to the tonal system or could we consider certain music by J.S. Bach or George Friedrich Händel already postmodern, based on the argument that a postmodern feature is the merging of high and low culture?

Even although Nietzsche, Duchamp, and Bach are sometimes considered postmodernists avant-la-lettre, postmodernism is mostly regarded as a broad cultural movement after modernism. Now I have two problems when postmodernism is described as a movement following modernism: the problem of linearity and the problem of identity. Calling postmodernism a movement means ascribing to it an identity. Following Mark C. Taylor and Jacques Derrida I understand identity as the sameness of a thing at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a thing is itself and not something else. In other words, identity secures itself by excluding difference. It is a struggle for mastery in which the other is negated, an effort to exclude differences (Taylor, 1984, 24). Now it is exactly this idea of identity which is heavily criticized in postmodern circles. Let's take the reasoning of Derrida as an example, although we should acknowledge that he never felt at ease with this term postmodernism. According to Derrida, there can be no identity without repetition. Something can be itself only by doubling itself. “What is is not what it is, identical and identical to itself, unique, unless it adds to itself the possibility of being repeated as such” (Derrida, 1981, 168). It is precisely this repetition, however, which hollows out identity: in the repetition something changes as well. In the repetition “the Same” simultaneously becomes something else. “The same is not a simple identity; it is, rather, a structure of iterability that includes both identity and difference. The self that becomes what it is becomes the same. In becoming the same, however, the self does not merely become itself but simultaneously becomes other” (Taylor, 1984, 48). This tension between sameness and difference characterizes and traverses the logical structure of any identity.

To call postmodernism a movement would do injustice to one of its most fundamental principles, the deconstruction of identity. And as I stated before, postmodernism cannot be reduced to a single unity, caught in a single definition. If we accept this explanation, it will even be inadequate to talk about postmodernism. Any reference to an “–ism” presupposes a certain identity, a clear-cut boundary between one “ism” and another “ism”. I sympathize with Lyotard's idea of regarding the postmodern as a “condition” or – in Foucaultian terms – an “attitude”. In my opinion, Lyotard's linguistically subtle move from postmodernism to the postmodern has deeper philosophical grounds, namely the fundamental impossibility and undesirability of defining it discretely, naming and framing it, describing it univocally and once and for all.

Is the postmodern, in all its different manifestations, coming after modernism, as the prefix “post” would suggest? To complicate things a little more, let's first turn to a short text by Michel Foucault entitled "What is Enlightenment". “I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by 'attitude' I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way too, of acting and behaving” (cited in Rabinow, 1981, 39). What Foucault is suggesting here is consideration of modernity no longer as a space of time or a time span. Modernity is for him a mode of relating to reality that can be characterized by a fundamental sense of freedom to create the world and to (re)invent it again and again. In that sense, modernity is permeated by a critical relation with achievements from the past and the present. This critical-historical attitude precludes a quest for formal structures with eternal value as distinctive of the Enlightenment discourse. By orienting towards transitions and breaks of and in discrete structures, the idea of plurality, discontinuity, antagonism, and particularism already at work in Einstein's theory of relativity, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and Gödel's incompleteness theorems, penetrates the core of many cultural domains in favor of monopolism, universalism, and totalitarianism.

According to Wolfgang Welsch, Western philosophy has noticed this pluralism rather late, let alone recognized it, and finally called postmodern that which in essence was a feature of early twentieth-century modernism (Welsch, 1988, 78-9). Welsch's thoughts join those of Lyotard, who writes in Immaterialität und Postmoderne that what happened a century ago in painting and music anticipates to a certain extent the way he regards the postmodern (Lyotard, 1985, 38). In other words, from the outset the postmodern seems to be enclosed in modernity.

How, then, do we probe this prefix “post”? Let's turn to Lyotard once more:

What, then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly a part of the modern. All that has been received, if only yesterday (modo, modo, Petronius used to say), must be suspected. What space does Cezanne challenge? The Impressionists'. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cezanne's. What presupposition does Duchamp break with in 1912? That which says one must make a painting, be it cubist. And Buren questions that other presupposition which he believes had survived untouched by the work of Duchamp: the place of presentation of the work. In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. (Lyotard, 1984, 20-1)

Not only does Lyotard locate the postmodern here in the middle of twentieth-century artistic modernism; he also states that an artist, in order to be called postmodern, creates works that cannot be determined by preconceived rules nor judged by turning to pre-given classification systems. In and through the work the artist investigates exactly these rules and classifications. The artist works without pre-established rules; at most, these rules are ascribed to the work afterwards. What Lyotard makes clear in this quote is that modern art is postmodern as long as it doesn't comply with already existing imperatives. Post-modern is in fact pre-modern. The postmodern is a position of instability preceding the realization of rules. As soon as the artwork has entered a system of rules and regulations, it stops being postmodern. “Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant” (Lyotard, 1984, 21).

Lyotard's postmodern condition can be regarded as susceptibility to the unknown. In other words, the postmodern is that which withdraws from categorizing, classifying, conceptualizing; it tries to settle scores with the attempts to encapsulate reality in coordinating theories or grand narratives and (therefore) refuses the discrete division in “isms”. The post-modern opposes thinking unity which always threatens to become totalitarian (Welsch, 1988, 6). That is why Lyotard prefers not to translate the prefix “post” by “after” but by “ana”, as in anamnesis, meaning “re-“, “again” or “back”.

"Fountain", Duchamp "Piss Christ", Serrano

What is Art?

There are no constraints on the nature of an object or event itself which make certain objects ipso facto not art.

Perhaps incautiously, I implicitly agreed with Lyotard, by using his exact words in the quote above and without immediately commenting upon them, that Duchamp and Buren are artists like Cezanne and the cubists. Implicitly I subscribed to Lyotard's conviction that Duchamp's Fountain, perhaps his most famous and controversial contribution to the art world, realized in 1917, is indeed a work of art. More than 90 years after its production, however, its status as an artwork still seems to be a subject under discussion:

“Is a signed toilet really art? If so, to whom, and for what reasons? What about a photograph of a crucifix sitting in urine [Serrano's Piss Christ] or menstrual fluids in beakers nailed to a wall – are these art?”

The (rhetorical) questions are from Keith Martin-Smith's 2008 essay “On the Future of Art and Art Criticism”. He continues:

Some of you will recall an “artist” who put fish into a blender, and invited passersby to blend them to smithereens. What about this? Is this art? It certainly sparked a lively debate about the topic that, by and large, only served to further confuse the issue for just everybody involved. I'll go ahead and answer it for once and for all: it's not art, not even to the postmodernist – it is, at best, a grotesque social commentary, a gimmick designed to make people reflect on some cultural ideas. But art? No, not even by the standards of postmodernism. (Martin-Smith, 2008, 11)

And a few pages further on:

“Is the Mona Lisa more beautiful than the aforementioned 'artist's' work of fish in blenders? Of course it is, unless your only standard for 'art' is 'controversy', in which case the mutilated fish are more 'beautiful'” (Martin-Smith, 2008, 13).

In my opinion, this seems to be a classical example of mixing two discussions. On the one hand, the question “what is art?”, whereby art should be understood in the classificatory sense. On the other hand, the question, “what is beauty (in art)?”, in a search for criteria on which aesthetic judgments and artistic quality can be based. To give an example, I am not convinced that “banging on a drum in a drunken fit is clearly not music”, as Martin-Smith states so firmly, though the odds are that it is not very good music. Of course, not all banging on a drum in a drunken fit is by definition music, but to exclude the possibility a priori is also dubious. Whether it is pleasant to listen to remains an open question dependent on many factors.

According to Martin-Smith's reasoning, Marcel Duchamp, Andres Serrano, and Marco Evaristti's works do not qualify as art because they “actually have no intrinsic beauty at all”. Now, it is of course everybody's right to create a kind of artistic or aesthetic hierarchy, to prefer one artwork over another, or to reject certain artworks because it is simply not to their taste. I would, however, hesitate to value some artworks more than others because of their “intrinsic beauty”. Beauty is perhaps not so much a feature of an object as it is a value judgment made by a subject in relation to an object or another subject. To claim that certain works “actually have no intrinsic beauty” furthermore runs the risk of becoming a dogmatic and even a totalitarian statement, especially when arguments are omitted and beauty is taken as an unproblematic qualification. In particular, modern art from the early twentieth century on (or is that postmodern art?) can hardly be adorned with the adjective “beautiful”. Russolo's futuristic noise-music, Bacon's paintings of misshapen faces or bodies, and Beckett's minimalist and deeply pessimistic theater plays are only three of the more well-known examples of so-called high art that cannot so easily be appreciated or judged in terms of beauty.

Francis Bacon Francis Bacon
"Self-Portrait", Francis Bacon "Portrait of Michael Leiris", Francis Bacon

These artworks are as much, or first of all, social and political statements, comments on both the field of culture and socio-political developments. Art cannot and should not be locked up in the vaults of current society; art and artists not only reflect (on) social events, they also co-create a society. Aesthetics and art cannot and should not be equated with beauty (though beauty can of course play an important role in the production of art as well as in aesthetical judgments).

Although I strongly disagree with the saying “there is no disputing about tastes” – to me a difference in aesthetic opinions might instigate a more fundamental discussion about quality judgments, the importance of art, its contribution to society – I would like to return to the question of whether Duchamp's Fountain should be considered as an artwork. Or in Martin-Smith's words: “Is it art or is it really something else?” What does “really” mean here? Do most people regard it as art but is it in fact not? Are we mistaken? Does Martin-Smith know something we do not know? Has he some access to truth, to The Truth? What is the position from which he can make such a sturdy statement? The way he presents his statement seems to be more of a definitive conclusion than the opening to a dialogue where an exchange of ideas might lead to new insights, although the concluding sentences of his essay are aiming at something else.

What is art? Or perhaps a better question: who decides what art is and what not? The latter implicitly questions the ontological, perpetual, and ubiquitous status of the category “art”. It emphasizes that art is a total social fact: to call something an artwork is a relational matter, a cultural, social, political, and institutional decision made by humans.

As early as 1964, the American philosopher Arthur Danto wrote that “to see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry – an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld” (Danto, 1964, 580). Reacting to works such as Duchamp's Fountain and Andy Warhol's Brillo – showing no trace of the artist, either in skill or in intention, but nevertheless renowned in the world of contemporary visual arts – Danto concluded that the artistic character and quality of these works had to be placed outside the physical object itself. Instead, their qualities had to be found in the relation of these objects to an existing art world, to the organizations in which art was produced, distributed, appreciated, and discussed (Becker, 1982, 146). A conclusion that could be drawn from Becker's remarks is that there are no constraints on the nature of an object or event itself which make certain objects ipso facto not art. This does not mean, however, that everything is thereby art; not every attempt to label something as art is successful. The constraints arise from a prior consensus – in most cases by trained and experienced members of the art world, we could call it the art forum – on what kinds of standards will be applied. And since the degree of consensus about who can decide what art is varies greatly from one situation to another, the question whether or not an object or event is art should be considered a continuous variable rather than an all-or-nothing dichotomy (Becker, 1982, 152-5).

Usually, these representatives of the art world base their opinion about a “candidate for appreciation,” as George Dickie expressed it (see Becker, 1982, 149), their decision to call something an artwork, on past developments. History has passed down an interminable number of works that are already classified as art. Part of the decision is thus based on a comparison with what has gone before: is the “candidate” an acceptable continuation of this bygone corpus? Answering this question is thus no matter of subjective capriciousness but of intersubjective interactions with former forums. Thus, intersubjectivity not only manifests itself in the art forum but also diachronically: contemporary decisions are influenced by past decisions made by previous members of the art forum.

Dealing with the issue of whether something is an artwork is also influenced by a “sideward look”: it says something about the prevailing systems of classifying cultural products, about the present, about the contemporary organization of the society in which the candidate has to find its place. Deciding that the candidate is indeed an artwork thus (also) implies that it does not primarily belong to science, technology, religion, politics, sport, etc. Finally, regarding an object or event as art also means to ascribe to that object or event a role in the progress of art; it contributes to what is not there yet (future art). According to different forums, Duchamp, Warhol, Serrano, Evaristti and so many others somehow fit into these relatively autonomous developments of the past, present, and future art world.

The increasing fragmentation and specialization of (mostly Western) societies from the end of the nineteenth century on (Welsch, 1988, 78-9) also left its traces in the art world. Let's take the music world as an example this time. If, as Robert Morgan claims, there ever existed a coherent and well-formed musical language in the Western world, based upon commonly shared formal and expressive assumptions, a common core or grammar, a system of relatively stable constructing principles despite all stylistic heterogeneity, then this language has been seriously undermined by musical developments during the twentieth century (Morgan, 1992, 44-6). Morgan specifically mentions the emancipation of noise and the application of any sonic material as a musical ingredient, eclecticism and the use of quotations, and the omnipresence of all kinds of music, owing to mass media as well as broad programming. The result of this pluralistic cast of contemporary musical life is that our musical culture is no longer a single, relatively focused entity, but a mélange of conflicting subcultures.

These subcultures cannot be viewed simply as satellites of a central culture; taken collectively, they are starting to constitute that culture themselves (Morgan, 1992, 57). In Deleuzian terms, musical culture has moved from an arborescent to a rhizomatic system. In a way, the music world gives voice to Lyotard's ideas about the decline of so-called “grand narratives” in favor of local and temporary stories or frameworks. Instead of being a homogeneous whole, the music world allows for high levels of diversity and instability, thus questioning the hegemony of a relatively small and limited body of music in setting absolute standards of acceptability (Morgan, 1992, 59). Music is no longer exclusively measured against an absolute standard of “high” art, a conclusion that seems to undermine the idea of a canon: when all music becomes equally acceptable, then all standards become equally irrelevant. A similar fear crops up in Martin-Smith's essay when he accuses “deconstructive postmodernism” of criticizing the way things are usually valued, leaving them in an undifferentiated heap of “everything/anything is as good as everything else” (Martin-Smith, 2008, 8).

However, instead of one amorphous, all-encompassing canon, Morgan observes the rise of a set of multiple canons, alternative canonic models for alternative subcultures.

Ideally, this framework would produce a culture of tolerance and broad understanding, but one in which differences still mattered and standards of excellence still applied. Under such circumstances a pluralistic musical culture could flourish, offering adequate provisions for different and divergent lines of development; yet a place would be preserved for evaluative criteria. The latter would not be immutable laws, of course, but would vary with time. (Morgan, 1992, 61)

What should have become clear from this elaboration is, first, that the decision about a “candidate for appreciation” is not fully in the hands of one art forum, a kind of central committee. Each artistic subculture has it own forum or forums. This is almost self-evident in the case of different artistic disciplines: the art forum dealing with plastic arts of course differs from the music, theater, or dance forum (though overlap is of course possible). Actually, however, this network of forums has a far more intricate structure: within the music world there are forums for classical, rock, jazz, and world music and, for example, within the jazz world different forums will deal with mainstream jazz, swing, free improvised music, jazz dance, etc.

Second, each subculture thus has its own grammatical norms and with them an idea about the quality of a certain candidate. Of course this is far removed from the idea of expressing once and for all the truth about either the status of an object or event (whether it is an artwork or not) or the value that can be attributed to that object. Subcultures and the decisions made there are unstable, temporary, and the results of a provisional consensus. This, however, is almost the opposite of the idea, often expressed by explicit opponents of the postmodern, that in contemporary culture or art “anything goes” or that every judgment of taste has become purely subjective.

From Integralism to Complexity

This doesn't necessarily mean that art “in itself” has become more complex or that it should be.

Now, the image that might arise from the above is that the (art) world has moved towards more complexity, a statement confirmed by many scientists, by the way. (See for example M. Mitchell Waldrop's book Complexity.) This doesn't necessarily mean that art “in itself” has become more complex or that it should be. (Why would the complex music of Brian Ferneyhough deserve to be viewed with greater care and with greater value than the relatively simple music of Neil Young? Even if complexity in art is described as the huge internalized knowledge of an artist, I am not sure if that would make one artwork better than another. Taking into account Roland Barthes's essay “The Death of the Author” as well as Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics, an artwork should be judged on its own merits instead of on the professional background of its maker.)

Complexity, however, means, for example, that the production, distribution, and reception of art cannot be plotted any longer on a simple linear line from artist to audience. It means that we can no longer take for granted that, in the musical domain, a composer is the person who performs the core activity, inhabiting the innermost circle surrounded by other circles (more or less successively) in which the performers, the manufacturers and distributors of the materials needed to produce a musical work, other support personnel like technicians, audience, people providing an aesthetic rationale, teachers and trainers, and others taking care of civic order such that people engaged in making music can count on a certain stability, can be located (Becker, 1982, 2–5; Cobussen, 2009). Although Becker acknowledges, however, that the status of any particular activity as a core activity might change (think of the role of DJs, MCs, and producers), he holds on to a hierarchical ordering of an art world in which the artist at all times occupies the most prominent position.

Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society

Instead of Becker's “circle model” I see more good in the idea of the art world as a network, a network as presented, for example, in Manuel Castells's The Rise of the Network Society. According to Castells, a network is a set of interconnected nodes, an architecture that cannot be controlled from any center. Instead of Becker's two-dimensional, more or less stable image of an art world, a multi-dimensional dynamic idea of the art world seems to be more realistic these days. In the musical world the actors at work in and during the musical process – actors including musicians, listeners, and support personnel but also instruments, technology, acoustics, musical backgrounds, styles, corporeality, memory, etc. – contribute, each time differently, with varying impact and importance, in a complex web of relations and interactions. In other words, not only is the center of an artistic process variable, usually there is not one center from which everything starts: the interactions that take place during an artistic process are many and many-sided and not necessarily orchestrated from one central point. With almost every process the composition and configuration of this network change. The artistic network is a multiplicity.

Thinking networks means thinking open structures that can expand endlessly. If integralism means “being an essential part of something; without missing parts or elements” (Martin-Smith, 2008, 12), then there seems to be a fundamental difference between integralism and the concept of complexity. It is here that I join with the idea of assemblages as developed by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and, later, Manuel DeLanda. Following these thinkers, I do not regard the art world (and in fact social reality as a whole) as a collection of separate elements, like the parts of a do-it-yourself kit, which can form a fixed and immovable whole. Contrary to this kind of “system thinking”, an assemblage combines heterogeneous elements. The unity thus constructed is no indivisible substance but an unlimited surface on which a play of relations takes place without hierarchy, transcendence, eternity, or stable order.

Complex systems like the art world cannot be reduced to their components; their functioning is situated in the relations between the components or agents that are part of these complexities, these assemblages. As these relations are independent of and external to the separate agents, their positions cannot be narrowed down to essentials or regarded as parts of a whole. The characteristics of the agents cannot elucidate the relations which give the system its form and content; relations can change without the agents changing.

The difference between the idea of a complex system and a totality is that in the latter the linkage between its components forms logically necessary relations which make the whole what it is. In a complex system, on the other hand, these relations may be only contingently obligatory (DeLanda, 2006, 11).

For this reason, the ontological status of a complexity is always that of unique singular agents and their interrelations. Unlike any form of essentialism, the ontology of a complex system is flat since it contains nothing but differently scaled individual singularities (DeLanda, 2006, 28).

To conclude, being “contingently obligatory” instead of “logically necessary” means that an agent can detach him/herself relatively in order to start functioning in another complexity or assemblage. This new context, for its part, is formed by new variables and unanticipated interactions. That way, a complexity escapes from models in which order and unity presuppose each other.

In my opinion, the art world can be called an assemblage in the sense that it is an open system. Only concentrating on the human agents, Dickie describes that art world as

A loosely organized but nevertheless related set of persons including artists …, producers, museum directors, museum-goers, theater-goers, reporters for newspapers, critics for publications of all sorts, art historians, art theorists, philosophers of art, and others. These are the people who keep the machinery of the artworld working and thereby provide for its continuing existence … In addition, every person who sees himself as a member of the artworld is thereby a member. (Dickie quoted in Becker, 1982, 150)

In general, it is hard to demarcate the exact boundaries and limits of the art world as an institution. More particularly, it might be possible to map the actors, factors, and vectors at work in a specific art production. However, as stated before, not all of them determine every artistic event to the same extent; in certain situations (periods, styles, cultures as well as more singular circumstances), some are more prominent and active than others. Therefore, the complexity theories cannot be theories dealing with art “in general”. They should emphasize singularity: each artistic production will yield a different network of agents and interactions, a different configuration and a different assembly.

With these concluding remarks I am back at the beginning of this essay, back at the “postmodern” conviction that thinking generalizations, thinking stable and eternal definitions, thinking linearity, and thinking hierarchical order, are, as yet, past history. Pace integralism.


Becker, Howard S., Art Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

Castells, Manuel, The Rise of the Network Society (Cambridge (MA): Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

Cobussen, Marcel, “The Field of Musical Improvisation,” Konturen 1, 2 (2009).

Danto, Arthur C., “The Artworld”, Journal of Philosophy 61 (1964: 571-84).

DeLanda, Manuel, A New Philosophy of Society. Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum, 2006).

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

Derrida, Jacques, Dissemination, trans. B. Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

Derrida, Jacques, “Letter to a Japanese Friend”, in: Wood, D. and Bernasconi, R. (eds.) Derrida and Différance (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988: 1-5).

Foucault, Michel, “What is Enlightenment?”, in: Rabinow, P. (ed) The Foucault Reader (London: Penguin Books, 1981: 32-50).

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition, trans. G. Bennington and B. Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).

Lyotard, Jean-François, Immaterialität und Postmoderne. (Berlijn: Merve Verlag, 1985).

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Inhuman. Reflections on Time, trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence 1982-1985, trans. and eds J. Pefanis, M. Thomas, and D. Barry (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).

Martin-Smith, Keith, “On the Future of Art and Art Criticism” (2008). (

Morgan, Robert, “Rethinking Musical Culture: Canonic Reformulations in a Post-Tonal Age”, in: Bergeron, K. & Bohlman, P., Disciplining Music. Musicology and Its Canons. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992: 44-63).

Taylor, Mark C., Erring: a Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

Waldrop, M. Mitchell, Complexity. The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos (New York: Touchstone, 1992).

Welsch, Wolfgang, Unsere postmoderne Moderne (Weinheim, Germany: VCH, Acta Humaniora, 1988).

Comment Form is loading comments...