The Art of Producing Affect:
An ethico-aesthetical manifesto for aspiring artists

- How do we make a difference?



  • Anecdote
  • The ethico-aesthetic paradigm
  • Aim of this thesis



This thesis concerns the ethico-aesthetic duality. The proximity of ethics and aesthetics has been the object of interest for a number of philosophers in the past, and that is not the exception here. To unravel the arbitrary proximity of ethics with aesthetics or vice versa, one needs to dig deep in what is embedded in socio-economic aspects of the world that we inhabit. The process of analysing socio-ecomonic aspects of artworks can inspire us to ponder how one ought to live aesthetically. For many artists, this obscure proximity does not usually appear noteworthy and rather remains hidden and conspicuous. The force that underlies in the world that we occupy is equally obscure and conspicuous. Precisely due to this conspicuous nature of the force, we tend to be blinded, without realising we remain obedient to the force, which creeps up on us and quietly swallows up.

This dissertation enquires into the duality of aesthetics and ethics, which was originated in my own experience. During my excruciatingly painful years at art school I was often encouraged to look at the works of other artists. Whilst these provided me with some useful reference points, my admiration was not at all directed towards the aesthetic brilliance of their artworks, but by their personal accolades and international reputations. The diverse nature of contemporary art often left me puzzled as I was unable to appreciate the majority of them. Although I was aware of the value of learning from others, I felt that I was forced to worship certain types of contemporary art that were utterly unfathomable to me or incongruent with my liking. Therefore, I often asked myself, “why do I have to be preoccupied with anything other than paying attention to the uniqueness of my own individuality?” or “why do I have to forcefully appreciate certain artworks while I do not intuitively and aesthetically understand them?”

Subsequently, I found out that this tendency has existed not only in the field of aesthetic discourse, but also in the history of ethics in the Western world. In the past, when people aspired to see and express their varying truths, they were often supressed especially on such matters as religion and God. For instance, Christianity inculcated people with an ascetic morality, but it was a very particular type of ethics that is vastly different from, for example, what the ancient Greeks cherished. The way in which Christianity preaches ethics presupposes fear and the transcendence of God, moreover a total faith, even in such matters that are not rational or applicable to reason and rationality. If one opposes Christianity during the medieval times, the person would be regarded as an atheist with negative connotations attached, if not a dangerous free thinker who would be subject to public execution or condemned to some form of punishment. Such were the experiences of Spinoza, Kant and Socrates. There has been a long history of oppressing efforts to cultivate individuals’ ability or exercise their liberty to find their truths for the sake of preserving the dominant forces of times. Here I term these dominant forces “transcendent enunciators”. The transcendent enunciators have been many things in the past, from Greek Gods, Christianity, an absolute monarchy, a communist state, despotic governments to modern Imperialism. In the early 21st century what seems to be fulfilling the role of that omnipresence is indeed global capitalism.

For the system of capitalism to smoothly function and to expand further, certain ethical and moral values are inevitably validated and tacitly promoted in the society. When a set of ethical values that emanates from global capitalism comes in conflict with ones’ personal values, personal values are often compromised and marginalised. Hence, I stated earlier that a similar tendency is evident in the field of contemporary art, as one’s aesthetic values are often compromised by sets of agenda held by powerful institutions. Furthermore, the role of artists has shifted from dealing with aesthetics to anthropological investigations. At a glance, anthropology and aesthetics seem to share a common ground, yet it also suggests that the autonomy of aesthetics has been violated, as many contemporary artists act as if they are ethnographers. Some contemporary artists are commissioned by museums to organise projects that are funded by the local governments for the purpose of promoting local communities. It requires some degree of conformity to the priorities of institutions over individuals’ goals. For these reasons, an attempt to operate autonomously from the external distractions in the heart of contemporary art without withdrawing oneself from its context is as difficult as seeing and expressing one’s truth in the world that a “transcendent enunciator” dominates, be it the 21st Century West, or the medieval time.

Admittedly, it has been the case until recently where the autonomy of my own subjectivity as an artist was constantly at a risk of being deterritorialised by trends and fashions of contemporary art. Certainly, the paradigms set by institutionalised international art fairs and large commercial galleries have an enormous impact on aspiring artists and their attitude towards art. Aspiring artists are not confident enough to keep faith in their individuality, nor patient enough to find their own artistic language. Society puts a lot of pressure on artists to become socially recognised professionals within a relatively short space of time. In the early 90s, a group of young British artists, often referred to as the YBAs, set a mythical paradigm that artists can become established in their 20s. This illusory paradigm, however, has made aspiring artists consider less of the intrinsic quality of their art. They are too impatient to allow adequate time to nurture and mature their own artistic language. Instead, their lack of patience and perseverance drives them to focus on superficial aspects of producing artwork in the pursuit of immediacy and instant successes, which, as Andy Warhol famously said, “only last for 15 minutes.”

Without allowing enough time, one cannot cultivate one’s own artistic language, as the process for one’s own artistic voice to mature tends to be slow and incremental. Unless emulating or borrowing someone else’s language as a ready-made product, we all need at least ten thousand hours to become an expert in any discipline, according to the celebrated study by a Danish scholar Ericson (reference). Indeed, borrowing hastily and sampling conveniently are precisely how a lot of young artists seem to be operating today. Inasmuch as this tendency is rife in the art world, one’s ethical values are tinged with the grammar of global capitalism. This approach, however, is intrinsically dangerous. In fact, it is extremely dangerous because we cannot quite become who we are not. As in nature, a tree cannot suddenly grow into a bird. A tree remains a tree, and so does a bird. If an artist’s career is based on something that has been borrowed instead of coming from within or being honed, it eventually grows tired, lifeless and stale. And this can also be the source of unhappiness for artists as they grow older. Here I see the ethico-aesthetic bind. I see art and life merging. After all, being an artist means to lead a life of an artist. Without compromising their own individuality in the face of the capitalist paradigm, can people become who they really are without abiding the rule of others? The nature of contemporary art seems to be increasingly diverse, multiple, and heterogeneous. That is not always a negative sign as the interdisciplinary trend in contemporary art perhaps posits on the notion of the ethico-aesthetic bind, which I find pertinent to the life of art practitioners. Therefore, by answering an enquiry; “how can people preserve their own virtue and ethical values in the environment where the capitalist paradigm governs people’s values?” it is perhaps possible to answer a question; “how can an art practitioner make a difference in the context of contemporary art without being governed by the hegemony of capitalism?”

Throughout this thesis many references will be drawn from the philosophy of a prominent French post-structuralist thinker Gilles Deleuze. From the perspective where art and life merge, the narrowly selected area of Deleuze’s philosophy explored here offers valuable insights into articulating one’s own creative voice and cultivating the autonomy of one’s individuality in the midst of the overpowering market trends and the capitalist system. Whether ethical or aesthetic, it is not an easy task to articulate one’s singularity autonomously of the strong influence of the “transcendent enunciator”. Yet, by having recourse to philosophy pragmatic ideas may be discovered in order to resolve the difficulties lurking in contemporary art. Although art and philosophy have their own territories whose independence should be respected at times, there is certainly an intersection of the two subjects. The emergence of conceptual art in the 1950s probably symbolised an instance when philosophy took over art, which was famously predicted by Hegel. The quote from his lecture on aesthetics reads: “Art has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas.” This was epitomised by Author Danto when he encountered stacks of Brillo boxes at Andy Warhol’s exhibition in 1984 where he declared the “end of art”. As a result, the autonomy of art was at a risk of dissolution. When philosophy does not take over art but merely assists, philosophy enriches art immensely. Informed by the way in which Deleuze constructed his philosophy, my thesis postulates an interdisciplinary approach. Indeed, Deleuze’s long-term and foremost interests lie in three academic disciplines: philosophy, science and art. He declares in his preface to Difference and Repetition:

"A philosophical concept can never be confused with a scientific function or an artistic construction, but finds itself in affinity with these in this or that domain of science or style of art."

Hence, the notion of the ethico-aesthetic union is the natural outcome after contemporary art has evolved from conceptual art.

In summary, the main focus of this thesis rests on the examination of economic aspects that can account for what is manifesting in the context of Western contemporary art. In the former part of my thesis, I will proceed my argument by having recourse, in large part, to Karl Marx’s Capital: Volume One, in particular drawing on his elucidation of the relationship amongst commodities, labour power and Capital, as well as a confusing dichotomy between “use-value” and “exchange-value”. I will also look at Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of material and immaterial labour laid out in their impressive work, Empire. The latter part of my thesis explores conceptual apparatuses that can assist the cultivation of one’s individuality and the process of reclaiming the autonomy of artists. For these purposes, I will attend to Deleuze’s magnum opus, Difference and Repetition, especially the first chapter Difference in Itself. Another strand of this thesis owes to Spinoza’s Ethics, whose concept of affect has a vital resonance throughout this paper. 

Hegel, F., Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Arts, 1975, pp.10-11.

Danto, A., The End of Art, 1984. In it, Danto also argues that Warhol’s exhibition marked as a high point of a revolutionary period. 

Deleuze, G., Difference and Repetition, 1968, p.xiv.

Warhol, A., Warhol photo exhibition, Stockholm, 1968, 1992, p.758.

Foster, H. The Return of the Real, 1996, pp.175-184.

ibid. pp.196-8.

According to Stuart Hampshire, in the introduction of Ethics (1996. p.vii), being an orthodox Jew, Spinoza was condemned for being an atheist by the Orthodox Jewish community then in Amsterdam. As for Kant, after the publication of Critique of Pure Reason, Kant was banned from lecturing and further publishing his thoughts by the French King then (Kuehn. 2001).  As for Socrates, refer to Apology and Phaedo, for the details of his trial and public execution (poisoned) respectively. (Plato. 1993)

This dissertation shows an epistemological itinerary of the author’s quest for conceptual tools in philosophy to respond to an enquiry of how aspiring artists can discover and maintain their creative autonomy in the face of the overpowering influence of capitalism.

Foster, H., The Artist as Ethnographer?, 1995, p.303.

The Art Newspaper, Hey, big spenders… from Art Basel daily edition, 2012.

Negarestani, R., Drafting the Inhuman: Conjunctures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy, 2011, p.1.

The Bible, The King James version


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