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Maurice Blanchot’s Critique of the Everyday: A Challenge for Art Education

Juuso Tervo / 2014

Although it is fair to say that the everyday has served as one of the central conceptual frames in the implementation of visual culture theory in art education throughout the past decade,1 it seems that the everydayness of the everyday has remained vaguely theorized, and, more recently, nearly disappeared from art edu-cation literature. In Visual Culture Art Education (VCAE), the everyday has been associated with objects and practices of popular culture that (symptomatically) represent the existing structures of societal power in students’ lives. However, I see that understanding the everyday merely through practices that assumedly -unfold students’ relationship with ideological superstructures reproduces the very logic of power that VCAE’s critique of art education has tried to subvert. To challenge this logic, I turn to Maurice Blanchot’s -conceptualization of the everyday as a radically ambi-valent state of non-production that, I claim, offers tools to rethink the sociopolitical function of art education. After all, for Blanchot, the everyday is something that escapes; it evades the endless production of its own meaning.
In this text, I take a short excursion into “everyday aesthetics” as discussed by art educator Paul Duncum,2 and show that by framing the everyday as a question of curricular contents (that is, positioning the “everyday aesthetics” against the aesthetics of institutionalized art), art education itself remains beyond a politico-philosophical critique. Contra Duncum, I explain how Blanchot’s conceptualization of the everyday might open a language of critique that corrodes rather than replaces the existing characterizations of our profession.
From the late 1990s to the 2000s, the advocates of VCAE attempted to turn popular culture from a demonized realm of ideological indoctrination into a contested site of socio-subjective practices that are more complex than binaries such as high art/low art, intellectual/idiotic, or authentic/copied might suggest. Despite the efforts to keep VCAE as an inclusive category where various forms of visual practices are examined, discussed, and created, it has been often understood as synonymous with the study of popular culture in the cost of rejecting various forms of art-making or artistic thinking.3 This critique did not emerge ex nihilo, since the discourse around VCAE in its early phase was explicitly critical toward fine arts. For example, Duncum argued in 1999 that “everyday aesthetic experiences are more significant than experiences of high art in forming and informing one’s identity and view of the world beyond personal experience.”4 For him, such experiences are a “backdrop to life.”5
As visible, Duncum’s critical stance toward fine arts is directly linked to the everyday. By favoring the “everyday aesthetics” over “high art,” one ends up with a binary where the two opposing ends (popular culture and institutionalized art) are assessed through their relation to the everyday as the central realm of human experience of the self and the society. Such characterization of the political potential of the everyday relies heavily on the idea of popular culture qua everyday aesthetics as a tool that disrupt pedagogical thinking that reproduces the existing dynamics of societal power by excluding students’ real life from the art curriculum.6 In this respect, the everyday is seen first and foremost as a site of relevancy that connects students’ self to the art curriculum (and vice versa). For Duncum, “everyday aesthetic sites are more influential in structuring thought, feelings and actions than the fine arts precisely because they are everyday. It is because they are so ordinary that they are so significant.”7
What, then, constitutes this significance? It seems that it is the tangible ordinariness of the everyday that makes popular culture relevant to the students, and such relevancy is associated directly with subject formation in contemporary societies. This view is based on two assumptions. Firstly, it requires that the everyday and its ordinariness are both accessible and that they grant an access to ideological subject formation. Such accessibility treats the everyday as an embodiment of ideological superstructures that can be analyzed and critiqued (i. e. accessed) through art education. Secondly, the idea of accessibility makes one approach ideology as a collection of representations that can be analyzed through critical art education, which means that the political project of art education is dependent on the endless production of representations that, for different reasons, students identify themselves with. For the theorization of the everyday, these two assumptions mean that the everyday is never more than what is already accessible: like an empty vessel, it carries its own ideology that merely waits to be deciphered by its subjects.
In this respect, to claim that the everyday aesthetic experiences are relevant and thus more important to the construction of students’ identities and subjectivities than non-everyday activities makes the everyday an overdetermined site of pedagogical interventions. Although the introduction of popular culture qua everyday aesthetics in the art curricula might have served as an important critique of institutionalized art, the presumed relevancy of everydayness reproduces a similar scene of subjectification as what one can find from transcendental characterizations of art. Indeed, the fetishization of the immediate seems to be symptomatic to the tradition of art education that bases its societal need on the dialectics between knowledge and non-knowledge; a dialectics where art education serves as the ultimate completion of an educated subjectivity. This is why seeing the everyday as a question of a curricular content, manifested in the division between the familiar (e. g. popular culture) and the unfamiliar (e. g. institutionalized art), makes it merely a reversed image of the institutions that VCAE has attempted to critique.8
Despite the fact that the relationship between the everyday and art education has been a rather unfashionable topic of discussion after the heydays of VCAE in the mid 2000s, I see that it is worth to reexamine its possible radical characteristics for art education theory. This turns me to Blanchot, a thinker who rejects dialectical structures in his writings and offers a radical alternative to a critical thinking that exhausts itself in its own negativity. For him, the tension between concepts is neither based on either/or dichotomy nor reduced into a pluralistic both, but unfolds the very corrosiveness of language itself. His emphasis on the corrosion rather than in the production of language means that he engages the reader in a thought that puts itself in peril. In terms of my argument here, Blanchot helps to relocate the theorization of the everyday in art education from curricular contents to the ontology of its politics and opens the everyday outside of its predetermined characterizations.
In his essay Everyday Speech, Blanchot makes a repetitive claim that the everyday “escapes.”9 In order to understand what does this mean, it is worth quoting the essay at length: “The everyday is no longer the average, statistically established existence of a given society at a given moment; it is a category, a utopia and an Idea, without which one would not know how to get at either hidden present or the discoverable future of manifest beings. Man (the individual of today, of our modern societies) is at once engulfed within and deprived of the everyday. And a third definition: the everyday is also the ambiguity of these two movements, the one and the other hardly graspable.”10
Here, Blanchot acknowledges that the everyday bears the characteristics of a silent backdrop of the society as well as an idealistic frame for a societal change; two characterizations that fit well with the idea of accessibility discussed above. However, his third definition -disrupts such logic: the “ambiguity of these two movements” pushes the everyday away from clear traits of predetermination. As he continues, “the everyday is the inaccessible to which we have always already had access; the everyday is inaccessible, but only insofar as every mode acceding is foreign to it.”11 Thus, Blanchot does not try to position the everyday as a dialectical pair for the non-everyday (like the dichotomy familiar/unfamiliar suggests), since it always escapes the attention that it receives. The everyday is not, then, an empty or idealistic frame for life, but rather a collapse of such framing: “What is proper to the everyday is that it designates us a region or a level of speech where the determinations true and false, like the opposition of yes and no, do not apply – the everyday being always before what affirms it and yet incessantly reconstituting itself beyond all that negates it.”12 In other words, not merely a vessel that contains the ordinary stuff that people are surrounded by, Blanchot’s everyday unfolds a radical ambiguity at the very center of the ordinary.
Due to this ambiguous characteristic, Blanchot sees that experience of the everyday is not manifested in excitement or familiarity (as Duncum’s “everyday aesthetics” seems to suggest), but in boredom, which, for him, is the closest we can get to the everyday experience. He writes: “Boredom is the everyday become manifest: consequently, the everyday after it has lost its essential – constitutive – trait of being unperceived. Thus the everyday always sends us back to that inapparent and nonetheless unconcealed part of existence that is insignificant because it remains always to the hither side of what signifies it.”13
If boredom is the “everyday become manifest” (not fully, as Blanchot points out), the everyday loses its operativeness in relation to forms of educational subjectification that equate human life with a clearly defined actualization of one’s existence. The “inapparent and nonetheless unconcealed part of existence” that Blanchot refers to denotes a life that is capable of its own passivity; a life that distracts the logic of recognition that keeps its dialectics running through an endless production of representations. Contra the significance that Duncum relates to the “everyday aesthetics,” it is precisely the insignificance (embodied in boredom) that opens the pedagogy of the Blanchotian everyday to its political potential: it denotes an unknown that, as Blanchot writes, “supposes a relation that is foreign to every exigency of identity, of unity, even of presence.”14 For Blanchot, working from this unknown is the central task of writing; I see that it could also inform political theorization in art education.
Notably, it would be problematic to see the Blanchotian everyday simply as a liberatory space of politics. As he states, it contains a “dangerous essence” and he agrees with Henri Lefebvre that it is “the medium in which … alienations, fetishisms, and reifications produce their effects.”15 Nevertheless, he also states that the everyday “is in the street” and that “the man in the street is always on the verge of becoming political man.”16 By withholding any exhaustive description, Blanchot forces to rethink how the relation between the everyday and its politics becomes constituted. Whereas Duncum seems to base the political potential of the “everyday aesthetics” in familiarity, Blanchot locates this potential in the ambiguity that the state of being “on the verge” of politics entails. To get an idea what such radical ambiguity would mean for political theorization, Blanchot’s response to a questionnaire on committed literature offers a hint: “How to respond to your questionnaire when the writer is always in search of a question that is not asked of him in advance and which obliges him, whenever he believes he can be content with a question, slowly and patiently to put himself into question, faced with the lost question which is no longer the same and makes him turn aside from himself?”17
Following this remark, I suggest that the everyday should be approached as a “lost question;” a question that does not merely challenge the content of art curriculum as a strategy of subjectification, but disrupts the very function of art education itself. As Blanchot writes elsewhere: “how can man – he the universal, the eternal, always accomplishing himself, always accomplished and repeating himself in a Discourse that does no more than endlessly speak itself – not hold to this sufficiency, and go on put himself, as such, in question? Properly speaking, he cannot.”18
For me, the radicalness of Blanchot’s thought stems precisely from this observation. The critique of art education through the everyday in VCAE has not put art education as such in question, but, on the contrary, secured its position as the central element of the completion of one’s subjectivity through the content of art curriculum. Through Blanchot and his conceptualization of the everyday, this endless self-affirmation is rendered inoperative and thrust into the radical unknown that makes art education “turn aside” from itself. For the political theorization in our field, this allows an ontological critique of the sociopolitical projects of art education to emerge, which, I claim, offers more tools to tackle not only the existing order, but also to question the possible futures that art education qua political action tries to promise. While VCAE has helped to develop the sociopolitical theorization in art education, it has also sustained some old boundaries for our thought. Thus, it is important to approach the limits of our language(s) of critique; limits that denote the overdetermined relations between art, education, and the societal context in which they emerge. Blanchotian thought does not offer an easy way out from this problematic, but it does offer ways to put us, as such, in question.

1.) This text, originally presented as a conference paper at the National Art Education Association’s National Convention (Forth Worth, TX) in March 2013, is situated specifically in the North American academic context. For summaries of Visual Culture Art Education in this context, see T. Anderson, ”Roots, reason, and structure: framing visual culture art education”, International Journal of Arts Education, 1 (3), 2003, pp. 5–26; P. Duncum, ”Visual culture art education: why, what and how”, Journal of Art & Design Education, 21 (3), 2002, pp. 14–23; K. Tavin, ”Wrestling with angels, searching for ghosts: toward a critical pedagogy of visual culture”, Studies in Art Education, 44 (3), 2002, pp. 197–213.
2.) Besides that Duncum has been one of the early proponents of art curriculum that deals with popular culture, he consistently used the term everyday in his critique of Discipline-Based Art Education (DBAE).
3.) See A. Efland, ”Problems confronting visual culture”, Art Education 58 (6), 2005, pp. 35–40; J. C. Van Camp,  ”Visual culture and aesthetics: everything old is new again … or is it?”, Arts Education Policy Review, 106 (1), 2006, pp. 33–37.
4.) P. Duncum, “A case for an art education of everyday aesthetic experiences”, Studies in Art Education 40 (4), 1999, p. 296.
5.) P. Duncum, “Theorising everyday aesthetic experiences with contemporary visual culture”, Visual Arts Research, 28 (2), 2002, p. 5.
6.) Similar ideas about the importance of close relationship between student’s life and school were expressed throughout the 20th century, most importantly by John Dewey. See J. Dewey, The school and the society and the child and the curriculum. Chicago, IL 1990.
7.) Duncum 1999, p. 299.
8.) It is notable that Duncum and other VCAE advocates have later taken a critical stance towards the early developments of VCAE. However, these critiques have not addressed the question of the everyday. For this critique, see P. Duncum, ”Thinking critically about critical thinking: towards a post-critical, dialogic pedagogy of popular visual culture”, International Journal of Education through Art, 4 (3), 2008, pp. 247–257.
9.) M. Blanchot, The infinite conversation. Minneapolis, MN 1993.
10.) Op. cit., p. 239.
11.) Op. cit., p. 245.
12.) Op. cit., p. 242.
13.) Op. cit., p. 242.
14.) Op. cit., p. 300, original emphasis.
15.) Op. cit., p. 244.
16.) Op. cit., p. 240–242.
17.) M. Blanchot, “Refuse the established order”, Paragraph, 30 (3), 2007, p. 20.
18.) Blanchot 1993, p. 207.

[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 2 auf S. 345.]

[Es sind keine weiteren Materialien zu diesem Beitrag hinterlegt.]

Juuso Tervo

(*1985) received his doctor’s degree in art education from the Ohio State University in 2014 and is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Art at Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland. His research revolves around political philosophy, contemporary art, aesthetics, and education. He is also interested in alternative modes of publishing and writing about art, politics, and philosophy. http://mediaconcepts.academia.edu/JuusoTervo


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Blanchot, Maurice  ·  Lefebvre, Henri  ·  Tervo, Juuso