I was once quite moved by a little known essay by Max Stirner titled “Art and Religion.” In it, Stirner argued that philosophy had as its central preoccupation the destruction of ‘objects,’ while art and religion had a secret solidarity to produce these objects. He wrote: “art makes the object, and religion lives only in its many ties to that object, but philosophy very clearly sets itself apart from both. It neither stands enmeshed with an object, as religion, nor makes one, as art, but rather places its pulverizing hand upon all the business of making objects as well as the whole of objectivity itself, and so breathes the air of freedom.”
In his twenty-first seminar, Lacan claimed that the artists are no different from the religious in that they both fall into an obsessional structure (at least, according to Freud’s writings). He said: “[…] with the obsessional structure Freud was able to recognize what is a single thing: religion and art. I apologize to the artists. There are perhaps some here who have wondered into the audience, even though I find it hard to believe. I apologize to the artists if they hear about this: they are worth no more than religion. It is not saying much.”
Why does he not apologize to the religious? Why does he only apologize to the artists? Are we to believe that the religious are not upset to be likened to the acting-out of artists? I think that it is very important to ask this question because it reveals an important point about the difference between the artists and the religious. Perhaps it is the case that they are the same, except that the artist does not want to be the same. Artists frequently believe themselves to be opposed to religion, and, in fact, they more often than not set themselves up against religion. Or, at least, the artists of the late 20th and early 21st century have set themselves up against religion and the religious.
The artist, like the true mathematician, has as his goal to create the monster – to go there where something that hasn’t yet been invented can be invented. The concern with new aesthetic forms may be the rallying cry of modern and much of contemporary art. Even the most radical shape-shifting artists of the 1970s, the time in which Lacan taught this particular seminar, were trapped within an opposition to the object worship of religion. They wanted to melt the object, to blur its boundaries, to destroy it, and to radically change its meaning or placement in the world.
You can see that what Stirner was doing was in fact positioning himself as an artist … but in the guise of a philosopher. He thought himself somehow capable of destroying the object without recognizing that he all the more eats it. The object he eats is one which becomes for him the foundation of his existence in the world of language: the nothing. Does this not explain why one of the most celebrated pieces of modern art was a black square? Or why one of the most celebrated modern pieces of avant-garde film was a black screen? Or why one of the most celebrated modern pieces of avant-garde music was composed of silence?
Stirner is not nothing in the sense of emptiness, but the creative nothing – the existential nothing – out of which he himself as creator presumes himself capable of creating everything. Thus, it is by positioning the nothing object as an object which is not one that he is all the more capable of uplifting himself to that pretence of self-mastery against which all psychoanalysts intend of exposing the lack in the object aim their praxis. The nothing-object is a screen object which stands in place of and murders the more traumatic “thing.”
The philosopher is often the one who eats the nothing-object so that, all the more, he may avoid the world as it actually is. He replaces himself with the nothing-object of the existential world so that he may posture at being none, at being different, at standing outside of the world, and, finally, at being a self-made man. Perhaps the modern philosopher may be defined as he or she who produces a concept for the thing so that he does not have to actually encounter lack in its radical and terrifying dimension.