Agarden gnome is no longer a garden gnome. This is the dilemma facing contemporary art, that is circumscribed by the unhappy concept of post-modernity.footnote Up until a certain moment (let us take 1969, the year of Adorno’s death, as a marker) a garden gnome was still a garden gnome. In the fifties Fritz Bürger could sing of the reappearance of this respected horticultural ornament as a sign that German life had returned to normal:

Throughout the land, wherever you go, If you’re out for the day or staying at home, That lovely little garden gnome, Praise God—he’s back to say hello!

In those days an author didn’t need to be any more explicit about what a garden gnome actually meant; it was self-explanatory. But a garden gnome is no longer merely an object used to advertise one’s petty-bourgeois taste. This quality is no longer self-evident now that the ironic appropriation of kitsch has been discovered as a sophisticated and effective means of distancing oneself from the most advanced forms of aesthetic consciousness. These days one cannot help suspecting a garden gnome of being an ironic quotation, which is particularly perplexing given that a garden gnome in quotation marks is in no way distinguishable from what one might call the real thing. However lovingly you lose yourself in contemplation of these garden midgets, they simply won’t give away who (or what) they are.

So what has happened? A border has disappeared that as late as Adorno had the unquestionable status of a metaphysical principle guaranteeing the possibility of art: the border between art and the culture industry, and, simultaneously, between art and non-art. If one and the same garden gnome, as a piece of kitsch, signifies the total aesthetic incompetence of its owner, but as quotation testifies to an artistic sensibility so sophisticated as to be perverse, then—so it appears—the basis for Adorno’s aesthetic value-judgements has become deeply problematic.

Theorists of the post-modern like Baudrillard have forced similar observations to the polemical conclusion that ‘art has today totally penetrated reality. . .The aestheticization of the world is complete.’footnote1 In other words, the border between art and reality has vanished as the two collapse into the realm of the universal simulacrum. It does in fact look as though art is in the process of disintegrating into pure exchange value on the one hand (the great auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s keep announcing new records for the price paid for a single painting), and advertising or design on the other. It would, however, be oversimplifying the issues merely to point out that there is more to art than the sale of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. Instead let us treat post-structuralist dramatizations of the situation as a theory of the state of contemporary art, and put their claims to the test.

Imagine that experts proved that the Sunflowers recently sold at some dizzying price is not in fact a Van Gogh. The picture would immediately lose most of its value, although the quality of painting wouldn’t have altered in the slightest. Thus, even as the object of the most insane speculation, the picture isn’t pure exchange value, but is shown to be dependent on the processes of canonization undertaken by the institution of art in the creation of hierarchies, and, above all, on the assumption that only artistic genius is capable of creating values that no other branch of human activity can match.

It is well known that Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans are very similar to Campbell’s soup cans. And that’s exactly what makes them so perplexing. Here we have a mere duplicate with all the rights of an original. The subject has cancelled its ability to express itself in a work of art. But it is precisely through this gesture of self-cancellation that it gains an aura which far outshines that of an artistic ego still living off its own powers. At the centre of the institution of art is a subject proving remarkably resistant to the announcement of its death.