What is the diﬀerence between ﬁrst-and second-order thought? Between thought as event and thought as commentary? Between thought as coming from outside of history and thought as existing only within history? We seek to answer these questions here with reference to Jean Baudrillard’s (2005b) The Conspiracy of Art.1 In this collection, Baudrillard makes a distinction between the art he likes and the art he dislikes by arguing that the art he dislikes belongs to a certain ‘conspiracy of art’ that extends to it a credibility (both critical and ﬁnancial) it does not deserve. It is this ‘conspiracy’ that Baudrillard hopes to expose and bring to an end. But if we read closely the various essays and interviews that make up the book, we will see that the distinction Baudrillard wants to make cannot in fact be made, that according to the logic he sets out it is a matter not of diﬀerent artists or works of art being either good or bad but of the same artist or work of art being both good and bad. Good and bad are not so much aesthetic qualities that are applied to the work as a kind of split that occurs within it. And the same goes for the notion of ‘conspiracy’. It is not something according to which we can take sides or say deﬁnitively which side we are on. It is, on the contrary, something in which we are all involved, and in relation to which we cannot be sure who is inside and who is outside. Conspiracy, like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Baudrillard’s use of these terms, is not so much a stable category as a performative action. It divides up what it speaks of, proposing two radically diﬀerent and irreconcilable ways of looking at it. It doubles what it is applied to, ensuring that it must henceforth be looked at twice, in parallax, as it were. Baudrillard, as we will see, gets his own logic ‘wrong’ in Conspiracy of
Art, opposing good and bad art when he says he does not wish to and attempting to step outside of the ‘conspiracy’ he identiﬁes when he says there is no outside of it.2 We can see him falling short of the standard his own work sets, making the same mistakes he condemns in others. And yet – this
is the very distinction between ﬁrst-and second-order thought we are trying to put our ﬁnger on here – it is just this criticism his own work produces, takes into account in advance. In disputing with his work in these terms, we are merely following a rule this work already sets. That is, it is not, as might be thought, because of its empirical correctness or internal consistency that Baudrillard’s work is powerful, but precisely because it is split like this. It means that, if there is no way of properly following it (because it does not oﬀer a repeatable rule before its examples), there is also no way of not following it (because even not to follow it is to follow it). And it is in this sense that we describe Baudrillard’s work – and signiﬁcant thought in general – as a form of conspiracy. It is split and it introduces a split into what it speaks about. It is because Baudrillard is unable to follow the rule his own work sets that he is able to put forward an explanation from which art cannot escape. It is his conspiracy that proves to be greater and more encompassing than that of contemporary art. It is his version of events that accounts for art’s, provides the secret logic that it follows, even if it is unaware of it. What, then, is the speciﬁc situation of art that Baudrillard is responding
to? What are his objections to the so-called conspiracy of art? The criticisms Baudrillard makes of contemporary art in Conspiracy of Art take a very particular form. He does not – at least obviously – condemn it for a lack of aesthetic quality. He does not single out individual artists or works of art and say they are bad. He does not even hold contempt for those dealers, critics and curators who are the ‘inside traders’ of the institutionalised art world (CA, 26). Rather, he addresses a certain logical paradox that he ﬁnds repeated everywhere in contemporary art, and that prevents any kind of critical distance able to be taken with regard to it. It is the way in which there is no point in accusing contemporary art of being null and worthless because the work already admits this, and doing so would imply that it is not in fact null and worthless. That is, negative judgement no longer comes from outside of the work, but is already taken into account by it, is what the work is already about. Indeed, this negative judgement does not even come after the work because the work would not exist without it. The work is not so much anything in itself as the very relationship between it and its hypothetical future spectator. In a certain way, the work attempts to take up a certain meta-position with regard to its own judgement, so that this judgement is at once pre-empted and rendered redundant – and it is this, consistent with his view that in a properly seductive relationship the ‘player must never be bigger than the game’ (1990c [1987b]: 80), that Baudrillard objects to in contemporary art. These are the deﬁning characteristics of contemporary art that Baudrillard
addresses in his 1996 essay ‘The conspiracy of art’. In it, he seeks to analyse a particular logic of self-accusation that, for all of its speciﬁcity to art (this is why art might still function as a kind of avant-garde for Baudrillard), is also to be seen in the ﬁelds of sexuality, politics and economics. In each, we can see the same pre-empting of criticism by the system turning on itself, incorporating its own other or opposite in advance. As Baudrillard writes:
All [pornography] can do is make a ﬁnal, paradoxical wink – the wink of reality laughing at itself in its most hyperrealist form, of sex laughing at itself in its most exhibitionist form, of art laughing at itself and at its own disappearance in its most artiﬁcial form, irony. In any case, the dictatorship of images is an ironic dictatorship. Yet this irony itself is no longer part of the accursed share. It now belongs to insider trading … Of course, all of this mediocrity claims to transcend itself by moving art to a second, ironic level. But it is just as empty and insigniﬁcant on the second as the ﬁrst level. The passage to the aesthetic level salvages nothing; on the contrary, it is mediocrity squared. It claims to be null – ‘I am null! I am null!’ – and it truly is null … The ﬂip side of this duplicity is, through the bluﬀ on nullity, to force people a contrario to give it all some importance and credit under the pretext that there is no way that it could be so null, that it must be hiding something. Contemporary art makes use of this uncertainty, of the impossibility of grounding aesthetic value judgements, and speculates on the guilt of those who do not understand it or who have not realized that there is nothing to understand.