Nick Hackworth

Jake & Dinos Chapman - In the Realm of the Senseless

Publications Arter, Istanbul

The book, published on the occasion of Jake and Dinos Chapman's exhibition In the Realm of the Senseless, opens with an introductory overview by the exhibition's curator Nick Hackworth on the philosophical aspects of the artist duo's practice. Nick Hackworth's interview with Jake Chapman, prepared specifically for this book, covers several matters of debate regarding the exhibition. Featuring a specific text written by Jake Chapman on their print series Insult to Injury and an overall review of Chapmans' oeuvre by researcher Cüneyt Çakırlar, the book ends with a 'visual essay' based on the works in the exhibition.

The Pessimism of Jake & Dinos Chapman

by Nick Hackworth

“We have arranged for ourselves a world in which we can live - by positing bodies, lines, planes, causes and effects, motion and rest, form and content; without these articles of faith nobody could now endure life. But that does not prove them. Life is no argument. The conditions of life might include error.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, s.121, Walter Kaufmann transl.

Jake & Dinos Chapman are amongst the most important artists of recent times. For 25 years they have prosecuted a rigorous, profoundly philosophical and programmatic art practice. Manifesting a deconstructive imperative their work comprises efficient and tactical configurations of form and content that co-opt the exhausted semiotics of both mainstream consumer and contemporary art culture to attack and mock the unthinking belief in progress that animates both. Instead, their work articulates a virulent philosophical pessimism and radical negativity.

Despite its centrality to their practice, the specificity of the philosophical pessimism of the Chapmans’ work has been little understood in both popular and academic accounts. This is partly because pessimism as a philosophical discourse has been so successfully marginalised by progressive ideology in contemporary culture and this especially true amongst the professional cadre of art critics and curators, bastions of liberal humanist values. It’s also because, functionally speaking, the Chapmans’ practice operates by inciting often amusingly extreme misreadings of itself from the insufficiently attentive or poorly informed viewer thus serving to conjure a confusing haze over the reception of their work in general.

This introduction aims to at least point to some ideas and thinkers that might inform some appropriately complex readings of the Chapmans’ work. It sketches out definitions of progress and pessimism, touches on the history of suppression of pessimistic thought in Western culture, looks at the Chapmans’ long engagement with Goya, where the joyful pessimism of their work is perhaps most explicit and finally highlights some particularly interesting strands of contemporary materialist thought.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Genesis. Chp 1. Verses 27 & 28. The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testament, King James version.

“My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history.”

Barak Obama, Address to the Nation on United States Counterterrorism Strategy, December 6 2015.

“This is 2016. 2016! Delta Airlines are kicking us out for speaking a different language. You guys are racist!”

‘Youtube star’, Adam Saleh speaking to camera on a video filmed whilst allegedly being removed from a Delta Airlines flight within the U.S. for speaking Arabic. Posted on YouTube December 21 2016

As different as they are these statements from Barak Obama and Adam Saleh are both public declarations of faith in the idea of progress, the central tenant of liberal humanism. It is the belief that the kind of cumulative progress achieved in science and technology is accompanied by concomitantly cumulative progress in ethics and politics – in civilization in general.

It’s a modern belief with ancient roots, evolving, in the main, out of the Judeo-Christian belief in a linear conception of time in the form of Providence and the Socratic tradition of rationalism and Platonic idealism in Greek thought. From these traditions several assumptions various modern iterations of the idea of progress:

The first is that history is teleological. From the ancient idea of Providence, the unfolding of God’s plan for humanity in History (as in all the Abrahamic religions) it was, conceptually speaking, a short step to the meaning of History being the unveiling of the Geist for Hegel, the inevitability of Communism for Marx or the march of ethical and technological progress for liberal humanists. In all history has a start and end and its vector is one of improvement.

The second is an intense anthropocentrism. Humanity is special and the telos of history has a human meaning. Again Humanity is placed at the centre of the universe by divine mandate, or by the unique quality of humanity’s capacity for Reason - the dominant narrative in both deist and secular Enlightenment cosmologies, or simply out of an acknowledgement of our terrestrial dominance as apex predators within the more confused cosmology of liberal humanism.

The third is what amounts to an essentialist belief in the absolute power knowledge qua knowledge and that knowledge is profoundly good in moral terms.

The consequences of dominance of ideas of progress within Western culture have been strange and profound for the world. The German historian of civilizations, Ozwald Spengler, perhaps captured its affect best, if dramatically, in describing the soul of the West as being ‘Faustian’. For him the “prime-symbol" of this Faustian soul was "pure and limitless space" and had a "tendency towards the infinite”.

Spengler’s thesis that a germ of insanity, of limitless desire, had been planted in the soul of the West by this strange and toxic ideological admixture formed from a radical belief in human power, a human shaped teleology and finally a powerful if subterranean quasi-religious Idealism.

The affect of this element of idealism, Platonic in origin, has been curious and significant. Its presence has been catalyzing, allowing an ideology that self-identifies as rational to generate essentially religious beliefs.

Francis Fukuyama, in one of the most famous and extreme statements of contemporary progressive faith proclaimed after the fall of the Berlin Wall; “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War … but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological development and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

It is this underlying idealism that allows a U.S. State Department official with a broad and wide knowledge of history to imagine, against all the evidence, the possibility of finality in history.

It is striking that the invocation of the vector of progress in history has been the critical legitimating factor within the philosophical narratives of various imperialist projects from the American belief in Manifest Destiny and its modern iteration, to the popular British Imperial idea of the White Man’s Burden, to the more insidious imperial project of spectacular capitalism with Neo-Platonic world of perfect commodities that exist in the ethereal space of the Spectacle and its deep existential, structural need for endless, cumulative, economic growth.

As Spengler divined, however, the progressive impulse is not merely earth bound. It also animates the thinking of contemporary techno-futurists like Raymond Kurzweil, theorist of The Singularity, a moment in human history where the pace of technological becomes so fast that it and of the futurist and transhuman movements, which imagine the possibility of human consciousness evolving into non-biologically based post-human entities. Tellingly, a similar hope is to be found in the archetypal Enlightenment articulation of the theory of progress, Nicolas de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of Progress of the Human Minds, written 1791: “Would it even be absurd to suppose this quality of melioration in the human species as susceptible of an indefinite advancement… and that the duration of the middle space, of the interval between the birth of man and this decay, will itself have no assignable limit?”

Here, in its most religious formulation, Progress conquers Death itself and transcends the limits of material reality.

“The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run.”

John Gray, ‘Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary,’ from Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004)

Just as atheism is defined in opposition to monotheism, so too is Pessimism defined in the negative, against the hegemony of the idea of progress within Western thought.

Being by definition an anti-systematising strand of thought, the major pessimistic thinkers, including amongst others Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, Camus, Adorno and Cioran, share, at best, a family resemblance. However a number related assumptions are to be found in their thinking; that history has no overall meaning, or at least not one intelligible to humans, that the human species is not special, that reason is not a special quality or capacity amongst the many and, more fundamentally, that consciousness and our resulting awareness of being-in-time are responsible for an intensification of suffering in the human animal.

Operating in the oppressive shadow of Progress most of the major works of philosophical pessimism, from Horkheimer and Adorno’s The Dialectic of Enlightenment to the British philosopher John Gray’s Straw Dogs, have been deconstructive, attempting to expose the myths and illusions that animate progressive ideology - Nietzsche being a notable exception.

It is significant that throughout the intellectual history of the West, what we would now call Pessimistic ideas and thinkers have been consistently suppressed and that at moments in the intellectual history of the West, that in hindsight look critical, it has been progressive and rational/optimistic thought systems that has triumphed in the sense of influencing subsequent mainstream philosophical thought. The most obvious explanation of this persistent fact is be that progressive and rational/optimistic thought systems with their inherent bias towards productive forces and expansion and their conceptual territorialisation of the future, allowed political power to co-opt the reality of technological and scientific progress into a wider, self-serving narrative.

The first of these moments comes in 5th century Athens when the emergence of Socrates precipitates the birth of the tradition of rational positivity and the disappearance of an older, inherently pessimistic, mystical culture, briefly visible in Greek tragedy of Sophocles and Aeschylus and finding philosophical expression in the thought of pre-Socratic philosophers, Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides and Anaxagoras. This transitional point forms the subject of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, at the heart of which is the thesis that the emergence of Socrates, was a catastrophe for Greek culture and the philosophical history of the West.

“Everything about Socrates is wrong” wrote Nietzsche. Socrates’ introduction of the rational principle, with its totalizing tendency and its subordination of all to its instrumental demands was corrosive to the ancient, mystical ground of Ancient Greek culture, in which the acceptance and worship of the unknown and the unknowable was pervasive. “Indescribable riches are lost to us” he wrote because of the “essential quality of Socratic aesthetics, whose most important law runs something like this: “Everything must be understandable in order to be beautiful,” a corollary to the Socratic saying, “Only the knowledgeable person is virtuous.”’.

Worse still Aristotle’s Poetics, the only contemporary critical source on archaic Greek tragedy, being in the rationalist tradition gravely misinterpreted tragedy through, Nietzsche argued, his elevation of catharsis as the functional purpose of tragedy within Greek culture, perversely recuperating to use-value what was for Nietzsche a deep and wise, quasi-mystical understand of the irredeemably tragic nature of life.

In keeping with the logic of this history, the publication of The Birth of Tragedy, with its revisionist attempt to wrestle ancient Greek culture from an exclusively rationalist interpretation, blighted Nietzsche’s reputation.

It is in their long and exhaustive engagement with the work and idea of Goya (Fransisco de Goya y Lucientes, 1746 - 1819) that the pessimism of the Chapmans’ is most explicit. Counting individual etchings and editions they have produced over one thousand works that use or engage with Goya. Most of them centere on his series of 82 etchings popularly known as the Disasters of War that depict scenes of violence from the Peninsular War waged between 1808 – 14 on the Iberian peninsular between the invading forces of Napoleon and Spa

The Chapmans’ selection Goya and the Disasters of War as targets for their rework, inhabiting and invading is highly strategic. As they observe: “He’s regarded the first major artist of the modern era ordinary in and his depiction [In the Disasters of War] of mans’ inhumanity to man are seen as an explicit protest against violence.”

The Disasters of War is regarded in conventional art history as paradigmatic, the expressive entry of the artist’s moral conscious onto the stage of art history and an early embodiment of liberal humanist belief that to know and represent violence, horror and evil is a moral act with the capacity to effect change, an idea that later found expression in documentary photography’s concept of ‘bearing witness’. Much of this hinges on the fact that Goya famously inscribed the plates with exclamation, outraged and resigned by turn, ‘I saw this’, ‘This is worse’ and ‘And there’s nothing to be done’.

The Chapmans’ contention is that anyone really looking at the etchings will quickly realize that they are not naturalistic representation of observed events, that they are far more than a simple pictorial documental of the War in Spain and that “there is a strict continuity between the violence of the images and the compositional approach he used to make the etchings”. The works express an inherent and palpable interest in violence, in and of itself, be it compositionally or the sheer intensity of the drawing in its depiction of violence and mutilation.

Of the etchings in the series, it is Plate 39, Great Deeds Against the Dead on which the Chapmans’ have zeroed in: “[It is] a particularly heretical picture because it literally denies the idea that this flesh can ever be redeemed, the notion of gravity, the notion of entropy, the notion of decay, comparing this to redemption to the idea some kind of ethereal space is a huge shift and a massive violence upon the world.”

IMAGES – Medley of iterations of the representations of this work.

Thus the Disasters of War comprise, in fact, a paradigmatic expression of radical negativity in the history of Modern Art and “rather than illuminating orrises of the human soul, Goya propels us into an irredeemable gloom”.

The Chapmans incessant return to these images mockingly underscores, by dint of absurd contrast, the intensity of the Enlightenment’s ‘vengeful repudiation of pessimism’ of which the perverse recuperation to use-value of the deep pessimism of the Disasters of War by progressive narratives within art history is an object lesson. Through psychotic levels of ideological projection, the work’s violence becomes morally corrective, culture as a building block of civilization. In joyful response the Chapmans’ playful reiterations of the Goya’s images accelerate the emptying out of perceived symbolic meaning of the source image, a vector aiming at producing work of ‘zero cultural value’.

“Thought is after all nothing but a substitute for a hallucinatory wish”

Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams

“It’s hard to think of intelligence as the righteous embodiment of human thought aimed towards the stars, drawing humanity towards consequent civilization, etc.… It’s easier to imagine it as a hallucinatory consequence of identifying with some higher purpose that disembodies thought from its subject so that sentience is mistaken for divine truth… or some cruel hoax that escalates thought towards an eventual realization of its own cosmic insignificance”

Jake Chapman in interview with Nick Hackworth

Beyond a reactive antagonism towards the ideology of progress and the pieties of liberal culture, there is in the Chapmans’ work and thought, in some of Goya’s work, as in the thought of almost all the thinkers we briefly covered here, a commitment to a radical negativity.

In the form of deep skepticism, it refutes the possibility of knowledge itself, cutting the ground from under all totalizing, system building thought systems but most especially all forms Idealism and rationalism, and progressive ideologies. Accordingly the ultimate nightmare for a totalizing theorist like Hegel is meaningless itself:

“The human being is this night, this empty nothing, that contains everything in its simplicity—an unending wealth of many representations, images, of which none belongs to him—or which are not present. ... One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye—into a night that becomes awful.”
Hegel, Material Philosophy, 1805-6.

Whilst for the likes of Hegel the horror of meaninglessness is one of absence of absolutes, for the likes of Bataille and indeed the Chapmans, it is a given and the response instead is joyful:


Laugh and Laugh
at the sun
at the nettles
at the stones
at the ducks
at the rain
at the pee pee of the pope
at mummy
at a coffin full of shit

Other more systemic contemporary thinkers, engaged in various strands of new materialist thought, such as Manuel DeLanda, deploy a rigorous avoidance of anthropic bias in their exploration of the complexity of the material world that they accept as reality. As a manifesto of sorts for this way of thinking, it is worth quoting at length this passage by Nick Land:

“There is one simple criterion of taste in philosophy: that one avoid the vulgarity of anthropomorphism. It is by failing here that one comes to side with cages. The specifics follow straightforwardly:

Thoroughgoing dehumanization of nature, involving the uttermost impersonalism in the explanation of natural forces, and vigorously atheological cosmology. No residue of prayer. An instinctive fastidiousness in respect to all the traces of human personality, and the treatment of such as the excrement of matter; as its most ignoble part, its gutter.
Ruthless fatalism. No space for decisions, responsibilities, actions, intentions. Any appeal to notions of human freedom discredits a philosopher beyond amelioration.
Hence absence of all moralizing, even the crispest, most Aristotelian. The penchant for correction, let alone vengefulness, pins one in the shallows.
Contempt for common evaluations; one should even take care to avoid straying accidentally into the right. Even to be an enemy is too comforting; one must be an alien, a beast. Nothing is more absurd than a philosopher seeking to be liked.

Libidinal materialism is the name for such a philosophy, although it is perhaps less a philosophy than an offence. Historically it is pessimistic, in the rich sense that transects the writings of Nietzsche, Freud, and Bataille as well as those of Schopenhauer. Thematically it is 'psychoanalytical' (although it no longer believes in the psyche or in analysis), thermodynamic­ energeticist (but no longer physicalistic or logico-mathematical), and perhaps a little morbid. Methodologically it is genealogical, diagnostic, and enthusiastic for the accentuation of intensity that will carry it through insurrection into anegoic delirium. Stylistically it is aggressive, only a little sub-hyperbolic, and - above all - massively irresponsible . . .”

Nick Land, Thirst for Annihilation: Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism, Routledge, 1992.