There is an idea in Lacan that desire is always thwarted by pleasure. Perhaps the always is an exaggeration, but in trying to envisage how this could be, we start to see how the relationship works between desire and culture.
In fact, the development of the art of prolonging pleasures, that comes from the process of satisfying desires, is an integral part of culture. Likewise, cultural differences could be gauged according to the different ways they have of thwarting as well as prolonging, perpetuating and interpreting the pleasures of satisfying our desires.
Again in Lacan, desire is really desire for the other, and this psychologically tendency, that points toward a basic human altruism, is exploited by our Wealth-driven cultures to establish itself as the Big Other (either in the form of the nation-state or the God) in order to mould societies in ways that will ensure the fulfilment of its own needs. And, as such, by doing so, at the same time diminishing authentic human altruism in favour of nationalism and religious chauvinism.
However, aside from nationalist, racial, religious and class identities, most cultural differences can be measured by the kind of food on your table. The art of defecating is also cultural, although in a wider sense, as is the art of achieving orgasm.
Once we examine the cultural controls over our most basic needs, we enter a sphere of what Foucault called biopolitics, and hence bioculture.
Once this perspective on culture has been established, it could be interesting to analyse how nationalisms need to exploit the culinary extension of our satisfactions – which is decent – leaving the art of defecation – which is not – to the multi-national designers of toilets. The latter has relegated the hole in the floor to a curiosity status, whilst the sit-down stooling water closet has advanced into mostly all cultures without too much nationalistic resistance.
The other indecency, sex, has traditionally been put in the hands of God and, with the invention of bedrooms, performed out of sight, behind closed doors and curtains. What one does to prolong the pleasure is fine, as long as it’s not with a member of the same sex or a different species of animal. Because of this, the biopolitical-cultural struggle in terms of sexuality, has been as much one of opening the door and an attempt to make one’s particular indecency as legitimate as everyone else’s indecencies.
The cultural effect of such a revelation is that there are no cultural boundaries in sex at all, but rather they overlap all boundaries. As for the religious, well, it must be becoming clearer to them now, how they were duped into looking after culture’s dirty washing. In fact, it often seems that the laundering of sheets and towels is the only thing the church is good for.
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But let’s return to our point of departure: pleasure thwarting desire. The thwarting of course is seen as the experience of desire itself, which wants to satisfy itself as quickly as possible. Desire is always urgent in its essence.
Lacan’s original idea was expressed in an essay on “Kant and Sade”.
The thwarting of desire and the subsequent pleasure derived from it, is made obvious in sadomasochistic rituals, but it is this same process of refining desire through the act of thwarting pleasure that creates cultures and forms the highest and most refined cultures.
But, does this then mean that high culture and sadomasochism have the same nature? Or that culture is a sadomasochistic thwarting of our basic drives? Affirming this doesn’t say much, but it might help us to be more honest with our motives. Which is not to say we must dress our gourmets in latex, yet if they did, at least we can now appreciate the logic behind it.
As for us, as Sapiens creators, the question that now arises is: if art is to be linked to pleasure, what is art’s relationship to desire? How does art thwart desire? What is the pleasure being prolonged in art?
Of course the answer cannot be pronounced generically, but the question may be pertinent for any analysis or criticism of art. It also may be key for understanding why art works for some people and not for others, and why some works of art are more universal than others. Likewise, it might give us some leeway into discovering why some works of art are more profound than others by examining profundity through the depth of the prolongation of the thwarting of desire. Art appreciation now becomes an analysis of the sadomasochistic experience.
Obviously, many art lovers would be surprised or offended if we analysed them as masochists. However, this may also explain why great art can so very often be rejected, and that the difficult is often too cruel for its audience to bear. Great art and high culture knows it needs an audience that are prepared, committed and willing to endure its torture in order to be appreciated. And fine, yes, let’s repeat it, the audience don’t want to be considered sadists any more than the audience want to be masochists, but, in truth, we must be, if we are to create and appreciate great works.
The artist must work at the sadistic art of thwarting the object of desire, for it is in this thwarting that the art takes place. Going directly to the object of desire is anti-art, or pornography.