June 14, 2012 § Leave a Comment
rineke dijkstra“bull fighter vila franca de xira and montemor o novo, portugal” / 1994/ c-print
adorno is famous for saying (in translation) that “to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” this was notably said after the horrors of world war ii & therefore after reason’s demise. his statement is rather tough for us to listen to, considering the fact that we evaluate most things with a capitalist’s measure—that is ‘does it sell?’ because of our one-dimensional rationalism, we tend to think that to buy comfort, pleasure, privilege &c. is the rule. all the while, we forget & ignore the tangible value of ever noticing our own day-to-day suffering & that of others. when suffering is to be done away with (when it is to be purchased away), we also recoil when it stares at us (as it usually does), and as it posits itself in the unnerving manner of artistic expression. so, if we can’t look to suffering as way to understand our own struggles, then how can we see what we’ve done to ourselves by distancing each other from the very nature we pretend to love? art shows us these enigmatic problems & it is this hard-to-recognize expression that often scares us away & it suggests the very natural discomforts we run from. again, we look to art for answers, but we should be critical of the wholeness we seek, since the whole is never what it might seem to define completely without pain & without essential mystery. with this said, I offer gratitude again to reinaert de v. for showing us how adorno magnifies what we can’t see & what we’re afraid to know about art & aesthetics.
“Authentic artworks, which hold fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature by making themselves completely into a second nature, have consistently felt the urge, as if in need of a breath of fresh air, to step outside themselves. Since identity is not to be their last word, they sought consolation in first nature.” (AT, p.63)
Adorno distinguishes two separate though overlapping ‘worlds’ or spheres. On the one hand there is the mediated world of social convention we live in, which he terms Second Nature, and which consists of all we have made our own and has thereby become an extension of our-selves. And on the other side of the divide there is First Nature, consisting of everything unmade, unmediated, and thus outside of our reach, that “has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70) Authentic artworks express this duality. They reveal the tension that exists between these two opposite poles, which lets itself be felt as a fundamental divide between what ‘merely is’, and what could, nay, what should be. Accordingly, these works express that there will always be something missing, something that eludes our grasp, and does not conform or bend to our will. Namely, something to be found out there, in First Nature, and in particular in Natural Beauty which appears alive (AT, p.5) – “luminous from within” – as though something more. It is the difference or contrast between these two worlds that ‘animates’ and brings to life natural objects. But by holding “fast to the idea of reconciliation with nature”, authentic artworks come to find consolation in the knowledge that, as Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) so pointedly put it: “never the twain shall meet”. The longing of artworks to reconcile themselves – become one – with First Nature, stems from the “immediacy” (AT, p.70) of the mediated world of conventions that suffocates them. It is their need of fresh air that makes them go out in search of new forms that allow them to ‘bridge the unbridgeable’ and ‘express the inexpressible’, in order to escape a world closing in on them – and to open it up by re-establishing contact with what is ‘outside’ of it. But in the process of doing so, they reveal themselves to be in fact Second Nature, because by aiming and ultimately failing to become First Nature, artworks fully crystallize undisturbed into Second Nature. After all, as we saw, the nearer one gets to it, the more elusive and ephemeral it becomes: “fleeting to the point of déjà vu…” And more importantly, following from the above, everything at the work’s disposal, content as well as form, can never escape being conditioned and determined beforehand, for all of our experiences are by definition mediated. So it is in their “immanent problems of form” that they bring out the “complex of tensions” and “unresolved antagonisms of reality” which “converges with the real essence” of the work (AT, p.6). Through the drama of the struggle between First and Second Nature, as embodied in great works of art, it finally manages to let go. That is, the admittance of its failure, as exposed in its inherent shortcomings – its authenticity –, allows the artwork to open up and surrender itself to First Nature, “as if in need of a breath of fresh air”. And it is this beautiful failure, a gesture at something more, outside itself, that makes First Nature enter the work and illuminate it from within . Thus revealing the limits of our reach and the vicissitudes of reality, as well as its transience (AT, p.70).
“If in keeping with Hegel’s insight all feeling related to an aesthetic object has an accidental aspect, usually that of psychological projection, then what the work demands from its beholder is knowledge, and indeed, knowledge that does justice to it: The work wants its truth and untruth to be grasped.” (AT, p.15)
And here we come to the heart of the matter, where Natural Beauty, history, and the development of art grab into each other like cogs. Because on the one hand Natural Beauty seems to suggest a purely random process of continuous growth and development, while on the other hand certain objects and artworks light up as if they have got something to tell, while others lie dormant. So the question becomes: what is it about these particular works and objects that makes them flare up in the first place? The answer may lie in the mechanism of projection. For even though nature feeds and sustains us, in its materiality it remains indifferent to our affairs, it thus provides the perfect foil for our endeavors. Not only does art share this indifference to the extent that – for it to stand out and create an opening – it is continually forced to split-off and run counter to “reality’s compulsion to identity” (AT, p.4), freeing the artwork “to model the relation of whole and part according to the work’s own need” (AT, p.4) through which it gains its luster. But in its very effort to fend off reality’s compulsion, art is compelled to ally itself with the non-identical – with what resists and does not bend to our will – linking it even further to nature. Because for it to distinguish itself, merely changing its appearance will not do when everything has already been conquered and mediated by spirit, it would only be more of the same. Which is why, to be truly challenging the work needs to be non-identical as well, or to identify itself with what is suppressed – that is nature. However, art, like everything else, can only sustain itself by retaining its self-identity, or as Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) says “one paints a painting, not what it represents.” (AT, p.4) Yet, due to its alliance with the non-identical, art’s identity is by its very nature unstable, so much so that art and artworks are “right into the smallest detail of their autonomy […] something foreign and opposed to it” (AT, p.4) and therefore prone to self-annihilation. It is in this sense that art’s development closely resembles and mirrors that of society’s, since both are driven by the same dialectic of nature and its domination. To survive in a hostile and unaccommodating world, man had no choice but to slowly detach himself from his immediate surroundings, and subject them to his will, but by severing those ties one by one, he became more and more estranged from his humble beginnings. Art, owing to its sympathy for the non-identical, followed man in his detachment from nature – essentially a process of disenchantment – which has culminated in his autonomy and self-mastery. This autonomy art achieved by separating itself from the imprints of nature’s heterogeneous material, freeing it from its cultic roots and religious aura, and allowing it “to take every possible object as an object of art […] and expunged from it the rawness of what is unmediated by spirit.” (AT, p.63)
[coming up] more on the role of projection in the dialectic of art and society.
 The “beautiful failure” of an artwork exposes a lack. By showing ‘how things are’ in their endless variety and complexity, authentic artworks simultaneously show how things should or could be. After all, ‘the way things are’ never quite matches up with our expectations thereof. This sense of longing for something “more” – for something that will in fact ultimately fulfill our deepest desires and highest hopes – and which is felt through its painful absence, is exemplary of the works of James Joyce (1882-1941), especially his haunting masterpiece “Ulysses” (1922). But one can also see something similar at work in Charles Baudelaire’s notion of beauty. The fullness of an artwork thus springs forth paradoxically from an experienced lack. Since it cannot be directly stated or ‘brought out into the open’, only indirectly alluded to: it enters the work from the outside, as it were. Therefore, as with man’s autonomy, an artwork can only be considered art, if it appears to be more than the sum of its parts. Adorno uses the metaphor of a child sitting at a piano “searching for a chord never previously heard. This chord, however, was always there; the possible combinations are limited and actually everything that can be played on it is implicitly given in the keyboard. The new is the longing for the new, not the new itself: That is what everything new suffers from.” (AT, p.32). However, to achieve the desired result – of showing ‘how things are [and were]’ – a thorough mastery of the subject matter is required. For precisely this mastery will allow the artist in his work (and the beholder of it) to overcome and be free of ‘all that is’: “Subjective pleasure in the artwork would approximate a state of release from the empirical as from the totality of the heteronomous. Schopenhauer might have been the first to realize this. The happiness gained from artworks is that of having suddenly escaped, not a morsel of that from which art escaped.” (AT, p.15) – and thus, it is “the totality of the heteronomous [i.e. ‘all that is’]” “over which, for their happiness, [artworks] must soar and back into which at every moment they threaten once again to tumble” (AT, p.6). Unsurprisingly, art’s “beautiful failure” also points to a continuous frustration with ‘how things are’, being that it is what prevents art from fully expressing itself, destining it to pull back the curtain on reality’s inevitable shortcomings. This inherent tension or ‘critical tendency’ of art is the reason why Adorno warns not to rest in the pleasurable feeling it affords, since it would amount to a state of release and a dissipation of energies. Instead Adorno promotes poetry that retreats “into what abandons itself unreservedly to the process of disillusionment. It is this that constitutes the irresistibility of Beckett’s work.” (AT, p.16) For the modernist poetry of Samuel Barclay Beckett (1906-1989) is no longer satisfied with mere spielerei, because, in a sense, there is no more room to play – no more outside. The absurd and fragmentary style of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is another instructive example of what, according to Adorno, constitutes modern art. For Kafka’s writing not only successfully captures the modern subject’s complete alienation from self and society in its depictions of rampant bureaucracy. But due to its radical idiosyncrasy – “the subject thrown back on himself” (AT, p.63) – it also creates these cryptic self-enclosed worlds that reflect in a negative or inverted way, modernity’s ever-expanding reach: “artworks as windowless monads “represent” what they themselves are not” (AT, p.5). The question however is, if art has to forever discard the beautiful in favor of anguish and disillusionment, or if instead there will come a time when there will be once again room for wonder and beauty – as Adorno himself notes: “It is outside the purview of aesthetics today whether it is to become art’s necrology.” (AT, p.4) For further reading on this latter issue, I strongly recommend Sir Ernst Gombrich’s highly original and beautifully written study of “The Preference for the Primitive”.
[Footnote 7] By “severing those ties” which bind us to nature, man in effect ‘blinded’ himself. For ‘Reason’ needs something that resists in order for it to keep its bearings and stay its course, a “rawness [that] is unmediated by spirit” (AT, p.3). Because the downside of being able “to take every possible object as an object of art” (AT, p.63) is that art fully sides with the subject, and in doing so becomes subservient to man’s (arbitrary) will. From that moment on decisions on what to depict and how, are made irrespective of material necessity, which leads to a subversion of “the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71) And with the object thus demoted and dismissed, art merely mirrors the personal taste of a solitary subject, detached from its surroundings. Meanwhile the surroundings, in their turn, are transformed to fit the needs (as well as the wishes and whimsies) of this newly liberated subject, further suppressing the ‘otherness’ of the object. After all, the subject only becomes liberated through newly advanced techniques of control and ‘repression’: methods and techniques that are the direct result (and expression) of the distancing of the subject. It is important to recall in this respect, that every transformative act – that engages the subject – is in fact a creative act, and, as such, one of artistry. Which is why, as we will see, religion more fully absorbs and reflects its immediate surroundings, its locality, than modernity does – to which it is a precursor. The reason for this is that during this ‘intermediate phase’ of development, man has not yet gained the upper hand. He is still unable to fundamentally transform and control his surroundings. So that, in order to make them more hospitable to human endeavors, he can only hope to ‘bribe the gods’ and ‘meet them halfway’. Religion therefore, represents the first colossal effort by man to come to terms (and grips) with his environment, and to establish some kind of relationship or ‘rapport’ with it, if only to make sense of it all – or to orient himself. All this, of course, by hopelessly inadequate means, and driven in large part by fear. Yet, in an important sense, the values thus created are thoroughly informed by their circumstances and more expressive of man’s needs. Basically it is this ‘respect for the object’ or “attitude to objectivity” (AT, p.3) that Adorno thinks is crucial for us to retain, or re-attain. Not simply to affirm a new or better state of affairs, since by definition “suffering is objectivity that weighs upon the subject.” Quite the contrary: its aim is to “let suffering speak” for it “is a condition of all truth.” (Negative Dialectics, 1966, p.17-18) In other words, “the primacy of the object” functions both as a whetstone for the mind, in that it keeps us sharp, critical of our conditions – i.e. reflexive – and free. And as a marker, providing us with directions. Thereby protecting us from a potentially devastating blindness. For as we have seen, with the arrival of modernity everything has become extremely malleable and cloaked in our (self-)image, due to technological advances. Slowly turning modernity into a ‘singularity’, or a place where – because of the resultant loss of resistance – things start to lose their meaning and bearing, and eventually run the risk of collapsing in upon themselves. Similar to the tragic myth of Oedipus therefore, ‘Reason’s’ ascendancy or its ‘coming of age’, was only possible at the high prize of self-immolation: i.e. a loss of critical reflection due to a repudiation of its origins. For more information, see footnote 12 on the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” where this Freudian aspect – the hidden cost of self-preservation – is explained in detail. The prescient writings on exoticism by the French poet, surgeon, and interpreter Victor Segalen (1878-1919), may shed additional light on the complexities surrounding modernity and the magnitude of its impact.
May 29, 2012 § 1 Comment
lily van der stokker / money / 1999 / silkscreen print
…& here is the 2nd installment on adorno’s aesthetic theory by reinaert de v. …reinaert de v. writes: “Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery.” this line exemplifies one of adorno’s challenges to place art in a semi-indefinable range of possibility & potential. once we are able to view & think of art as unclosed & “non-identical” & with parts that are essentially “irreducible”, we can then start to see how this leads to adorno’s important concept of “negative dialectics” which unravels the rational closure of hegel’s speculative absolutions & propels us away from the surety of the enlightenment. again, this is unlike the way we commonly think of aesthetics, but where would critical theory be without it?
“Natural beauty is suspended history, a moment of becoming at a standstill. Artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension are those that are justly said to have a feeling for the natural. Yet this feeling is – in spite of every affinity to allegorical interpretation – fleeting to the point of déjà vu and is no doubt all the more compelling for its ephemeralness.” (AT, p.71)
Sentences like these are commonplace when dealing with Theodor W. Adorno. His fragmentary or aphoristic style, combined with a highly cerebral and condensed way of putting things, while often exhilarating, can also be quite daunting at times. Every single sentence seems super charged with meaning and part of a complex circuitry that aims to shock and electrify. With the way themes get introduced and developed, it would not be stretching the truth to say that Adorno – who after all was a musicologist too – ‘composes’ his philosophy. But even though everything is intricately interconnected with everything else, making it very easy to get stuck or lost, one obviously has to start somewhere. So I wish to begin my exposé by unpacking this first cluster of sentences, which I believe is crucial because it lies at the centre of his finely spun web of subtly interwoven layers of meanings. By gently pulling this thread – which I have to admit, is more like a lifeline to me – I hope to get hold of, or make sense of “a voluptuousness for the mind in a train of thought he can never fully unravel…” (AT, p.63)
By defining Natural Beauty as “a moment of becoming at a standstill”, one can almost picture it, and indeed one should ‘picture’ it. Because “artworks that resonate with this moment of suspension” – be it paintings, photos, novels, movies or whatever – are not unlike snapshots of a process. Albeit, a very elusive and peculiar kind of process, one that needs an unwavering eye to capture it, the eye of a true artist. It is by no means by accident that Adorno speaks about “suspended history” in this context, for it is actually human history, or our historical development in relation to nature, as mirrored in art, that is the subject of his aesthetics. Which brings us to the second part of his definition: the affinity of the feeling of momentary suspension to “allegorical interpretation”. On the one hand, and despite this affinity, he contrasts it with allegorical interpretation, due to the ephemeral nature of this feeling. What he means by this, I think, is that through allegorical interpretation meanings have usually become fixed or stabilized, and thereby appropriated. While the affinity he has in mind has to do with allegory’s potential for creating new meaning, which happens when something stands in for something else – or, as happens in nature, when something changes or seems to change into something else. So it is the allegorical intention (AT, p.71) that creates the momentary suspension – a state of reverie – which functions like an opening for an associative or kaleidoscopic process to take hold. Every artwork that successfully captures or duplicates it, basically turns it into a still, or ‘distills’ it, by tapping into but only capturing part of it, because in actuality it is a natural process of recurring and continual change. Thus, while sharing in it, in the end it is a richness the work can merely evoke or allude to. And it is this ephemeral process, which feels like déjà vuthat makes artworks resonate with Natural Beauty.
“According to the canon of universal concepts [Natural Beauty] is undefinable precisely because its own concept has its substance in what withdraws from universal conceptuality.” (AT, p.70)
Allegorical intention finds its roots in this fundamental mystery. Due to nature’s inherent indeterminateness, as being essentially non-human, or something foreign and sealed-off from thought, it makes ascribing a priori statements about what Natural Beauty consists in into a futile enterprise. Nonetheless, without these efforts Natural Beauty as a concept would remain empty and silent – like an empty canvas or a blank screen with nothing to project on. Leading Adorno to conclude that if Natural Beauty is to be sought in anything at all, it must be in the way that natural ‘non-man-made’ things, and those things taken back into nature’s fold, tend to speak to us, or “resonate”. In other words, beauty is to be found in their eloquence (AT, p.70), in that which enables these seemingly random objects to reach out to us, and makes them shimmer as if “luminous from within” (AT, p.70), and appear as “more than what is literally there” (AT, p.71). It is through the spell they cast, binding us to them, that ignoring, or denying their individual worth and uniqueness, becomes impossible. Gaining in voice to the degree that they are foreign, other, new, or left out – in proportion to which they elude us. It is this feature that makes them stand out and that lets us experience them. And yet,
“Without receptivity there would be no such objective expression, but it is not reducible to the subject; natural beauty points to the primacy of the object in subjective experience.” (AT, p.71)
Adorno takes great pains to point out there is something, though mediated, that is irreducible in its foreignness and externality, that is doing the talking – albeit, through us. There is a good reason for this, for without what he terms “the primacy of the object”, there would not be any ‘talking’ going on, in fact there would not be anything to convey. There would solely be the subject caught in a gilded self-made cage, built around pleasurable and self-congratulatory feelings. And according to him, such a life, cut off from the outside world, would not simply amount to self-amputation, but eventually end up being, to quote Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” – a fact Adorno believed two World Wars had borne out. Luckily for us, the “objective expression” found in Natural Beauty implies “receptivity” on the part of the subject, for without it there would be nothing to receive, nor any reaction to it. At the same time though, this receptivity should not be taken for granted, because there is a threshold: in order for the object to be received it should not be merely external to the subject but non-identical (AT, p.4) as well. What he means by this, is that through familiarizing ourselves with the world, which at first appeared to us as a chaotic and heterogeneous whole, we not only came to master it by dividing it up – making it more manageable – but we re-created it into our image along the way, expulsing what could not be accommodated. We quite literally ‘subjected’ the world around us, making us lose track of it in the process. In this sense, objects identified as ‘part of this world’ are not really external anymore but have become extensions of the subject, making receptivity – since they would be ‘more of the same’ – superfluous. For the potential to relate implied by receptivity, demands conscious effort on our part. It suggests responsiveness, and a need to grapple with what is ‘outside’. It implies a challenge.
[coming up] more on Natural Beauty and its relationship to Art.
 Since Adorno’s philosophy is essentially about ‘openness’ and the creation of what is wholly new and original. Thinking, especially in the free and undelineated form of an essay – which has a certain artfulness about it – is (his) philosophy put into action, because it is a thought processor an experience in and of itself: a place where the particular and the personal are allowed to speak, where variety and the fragmentary are not shunned.
 “Allegorical interpretation” in this way is closely related to Adorno’s concept of mimesis. Because even though ‘nature’s continual and recurrent change’ speaks of a wealth that man can merely allude and aspire to, it was while being under nature’s mercurial spell – a state of dreamlike reverie – that he was forced to imitate its cruelty and fickleness to stay afloat. And so it is through our original interaction with nature – a complete surrender to the outside – that we absorbed a plethora of forms through which we learned to express and externalize ourselves, thereby gaining an abundance of idioms. In other words, “allegorical interpretation” in this sense, is a kind of imitation without full understanding, that has allowed man to acquire nature’s formal language. “Déjà vu”, however, points to the fact that each expression seems to contain a reference to something else, outside itself, from which it originated and sprouted forth. Given all this, we can conclude that man’s slow but steady progress resembles awakening from an often frightening and fitful sleep; after all, we only become fully conscious of our actions after initiating them.
 There is a subtle dialectic of binding and unbinding at work in “Aesthetic Theory”. Where, if pushed to excess, both nature’s binding and society’s unbinding can blind us – see footnotes 7 and 12 on detachment and survival. It is therefore all about finding the proper balance or critical distance. Even so, both nature and society cast their respective spells, for though we are driven in the arms of society to escape nature’s bonds, we can only hope to resist society’s universal bondage by offsetting it with the unique and particular found in nature. Hence, at first sight art seems to function as Aufhebung of thesis (nature) and antithesis (society), by carrying both to another level. Yet on closer inspection art turns out to be both nature’s and society’s “pure anti-thesis” (AT, p.62), since society is actually the sublimation and adaptation of nature’s drive to domination and objectification. “The song of birds is found beautiful by everyone; no feeling person in whom something of the European tradition survives fails to be moved by the sound of a robin after a rain shower. Yet something frightening lurks in the song of birds precisely because it is not a song but obeys the spell in which it is enmeshed. The fright appears as well in the threat of migratory flocks, which bespeak ancient divinations, forever presaging ill fortune. With regard to its content, the ambiguity of natural beauty has its origin in mythical ambiguity…” (AT, p.66)
May 25, 2012 § 1 Comment
folkert de jong / chop chair / 2005 / styrofoam, polyurethane & silicone rubber
…this post is the long awaited 1st installment of reinaert de v.’s comments on theodor adorno’s book “aesthetic theory.” adorno’s philosophy might be perceived by some to be difficult & obscure, but reinaert de v. easily brings us to his brilliant & radical ideas with fresh eyes—indeed a way to think of art & aesthetics as ever more then we’ve normally imagined. …& yes, thanks again to reinaert de v. for this fine work. we look forward to learning more.
“In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality and occupying its higher place.”
(G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics, 1: 11)
This bold but brilliant statement by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) was like a flash of lightning, its legacy, an ominous thunder that has reverberated throughout modernity ever since. In a single stroke Hegel had made it impossible for artists, thinkers, and theorists alike, to approach – or look at – art in the same way as they had done before. Whatever one might think of the statement itself, or of Hegel’s idealist argumentation underpinning it, no one can deny it has set the agenda for generations afterwards, or that art has never been quite the same since. Merely walking around any modern museum today suffices to illustrate that point. Which brings us to “Aesthetic Theory”, Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno’s (1903-1969) masterful meditation on art and society, which opens with the famous first line: “It is self-evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident anymore, not its inner life, not its relation to the world, not even its right to exist.” Clearly Adorno, like Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) before him, – whom he vociferatedagainst – took Hegel’s challenge to heart, and thereby situated himself firmly in its tradition. And how could he not? After all, the future of art was at stake and even, as we will see, that of modernity itself.
“Aesthetic Theory” (AT, University of Minnesota Press, 1997) is therefore an attempt to meet this challenge head on. For in contrast to Hegel, who simply thinks of history as a stage for Spirit’s inevitable development towards emancipation, Adorno, influenced by two World Wars and the Holocaust, does not share his optimism. Instead Adorno believes that one cannot have a healthy society without art “maintaining its earlier necessity”. Even so, he does subscribe to Hegel’s thesis that art ‘contains the seeds of its own demise’, because as he says: “the revolt of art, teleologically posited in its “attitude to objectivity” toward the historical world, has become a revolt against art: it is futile to prophesy whether art will survive it.” (AT, p.3) The reason for this, however, does not lie in the fulfillment of its historical role as a carrier of Spirit, but in the fact that art is first and foremost a product of history, and as such must have its substance in what lies outside itself: in the constellation of historical forces which at each separate moment brings art, in all its singular splendor, into being. This is why there is nothing about art itself that guarantees its continued existence, and yet it is precisely this fragility – its intrinsic transitoriness (AT, p.3) – that not only helps individualize each historic epoch, giving it its own distinct look and feel , but at the same time grants great works of art their invaluable and irreplaceable uniqueness, and thus makes art, art. Furthermore, the “revolt of art” which follows from its “attitude to objectivity”, shows that true art is not simply a passive ‘registration’ of a historically conditioned state of affairs, but rather a conscious reaction to (or even rebellion against) it. Art, in this way, signifies both society’s capacity for self-awareness as well as its sense of direction and development, and thereby not only mirrors society, but becomes intimately and indissolubly bound up with it – sharing a common fate with it. Which means that, the worrisome ‘disconnect’ between art and society that seems to have occurred with the advent of modernity – as Hegel’s statement clearly illustrates – left society senseless, rudderless and ultimately defenseless, with, as we saw, devastating results for both. Because, according to Adorno, this state of malaise or disorientation, found its climactic conclusion in the unimaginable catastrophes of the 20thcentury.
This “revolt against art” therefore, points towards a reaction that aims to remedy the situation where art seeks to resist man’s tendency to transform the world into his image, i.e. to make art subservient to man’s needs  – which finds its strongest expression in idealist aesthetics (AT, p.14). Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay. I would like to argue, in line with Adorno, that it is in some way thanks to its very success – if one can use such a word in this context – that modernity has grinded to a halt: locking the subject up in itself and cutting it off from the outside world, precisely because the aim of society was to ensure man’s autonomy by releasing him from the bonds of nature. But in doing so, it has caused man to become estranged from his origins, with the result that he no longer knows how to relate to himself, his fellow man, or the world outside him – leaving him disorientated and isolated. And this development, instigated by nature itself, has led to the dire situation art now finds itself in – merely subsisting in its diminished state. At the same time, art also points towards a way out, because in its very structure it embodies that relationship with the outside which we had to sacrifice in order to attain independence from nature. Art, however, contains it in such a way that it does not require us to give up our hard won autonomy, because on a fundamental level, art is our autonomy as put into practice. And so, modernity can only be revitalized by reclaiming via art that connection which had been lost – it would be modernity, albeit in a wholly new and profound way: “artworks recall the theologumenon that in a redeemed world everything would be as it is and yet wholly other.” (AT, p.6) What art speaks of therefore is of a new engagement, but an engagement for its own sake, for the betterment of humanity – and not only for the limited purpose of self-preservation. Perhaps it is a promise art can never fully fulfill, but at least it compels us to action and to start living again.
In the next few weeks we will be taking a closer look at this alternative approach to aesthetics.
 See in this context also “The Rise of Modernity, part II”for the many similarities with Charles Baudelaire’s conception of beauty.
 ”The revolt of art [against art]” is a direct consequence of man’s growing influence and control over his environment, which led him – almost unconsciously – to transform and suffuse it in accordance with his needs and desires. A process at first abetted by art since it coincides with man’s (drive to) freedom and autonomy, as well as his artifice. But this newly arranged and artificial environment – molded into man’s image – becomes the new “objectivity” against which art has to rebel in order for it – and man – to remain free. For it is through art that man regains control and the freedom to shape himself. You could therefore say that art functions as a dialectical motor, which mirrors nature in its continued demand for change and growth – for what is dead is petrified. Another way to keep this motor running, as we will see, is that art never fully matches up with our idea of nature – nor does nature for that matter.
December 23, 2011 § Leave a Comment
donald lipski – “dangerous husband”
…as the books pile up, we are required to make a decision: whether or not to work through what was important a month ago, or to add another weighty tome to the stacks. With this decision there’s always the added requirement to actually read & to go through the work that’s essential for any actual comprehension. While the initial reading is underway, one has to then turn to other texts for a paragraph, a definition & a maybe another nuance to fill in the unknowns. Sometimes this referencing helps & at other times there is nothing to be found. This continual effort has to be held with a notion that one will never entirely know the object/idea of enquiry in the totalizing way that was once wished for. An idealistic goal of reading rarely matches the result, because your mind has simply changed—if you’re actually learning—& what mattered in the beginning of the pursuit isn’t always the end vantage. Consider with all this, that any subject matter will never completely unfurl to a precise, neat & rational definition. The resulting thoughts spread out & divide, becoming much more than an identifiable end, over again, outside of thinking, more than before, back then to innumerable unturned pages, into a manifold reading, through to continuing thought & finally given over to dozens of multiplied meanings. …& so, here’s to introducing another such book that now sits on the top of the piles, ready as it were, to be entangled with the rest.
This post is unique in that it’s a very short inconclusive introduction to the aesthetics of the philosopher & musicologist Theodor W. Adorno & it’s looking forward to a long promised essay from a good friend: Reinaert de V., who hails from half-a-world-away in the Netherlands. When we are presented with the rigorous philosophical aesthetics of Adorno, we are in the unusual circumstance of an artist as a philosopher & a philosopher as an artist. Adorno’s artistry has been inextricably linked to a mid-twentieth century stylistic phenomena known as ‘atonal music.’ He maintained relationships with two of the style’s main proponents Alban Berg & Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1940’s the author Thomas Mann lived in Los Angeles where he, Schoenberg & Adorno would meet to discuss ideas while all of them were in exile from Germany during the devastating excesses of Hitler’s dictatorship. As Adorno was influential in multiple creative circles, he was also intensely involved with the mid-century philosophical intelligentsia of Europe & the Untied States. The Frankfurt School of ‘critical theory’ counted him as a founding member, along with the likes of Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Jürgen Habermas, Erich Fromm & others.
Let’s now for a moment, lay down a few thoughts, without getting too much in the way of Reinaert de V.’s brilliant exploration of Adorno’s (posthumously published) magnum opus: “Aesthetic Theory” (1970). These preliminary notes should not be confused with any of Reinaert de V.’s conclusions, but a reader might find a relatable confluence. If any ‘constellation’ of ideas are attributed to Adorno, it would have to be what we’ll call here his post-enlightenment-critique-of-rationality. That any rational claims exist are real enough to be contended with & are not to be wholly denied by Adorno. But, that all this extant & excessive rationality gets in our way of coming to terms with the ‘non-identity’ of an art object, is certainly an issue to be examined, critiqued & theorized about. Critique & theorization are really the only tools left to the philosopher to manage through the social/cultural/historical ways that art is comprehended, judged, talked about & created. Standing within these theorizations that resist any overt systemization, Adorno pays half-allegiance to our philosophical father of German idealism: G.W.F. Hegel (he also speaks of Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, &c, but we won’t look those thinkers in this short into.). With this said, Adorno shouldn’t be mistaken for an idealist. Let’s recall Karl Marx, who came after (to then use & abuse) Hegel with his own transformation & downgrading of Hegel’s idealism, re: dialectical materialism. Adorno’s thought is classified as Marxist, in that it’s openly materialist with regard to the autonomy of the art/object as a distinguished material reality, & as a monad. His Marxism, is difficult to pin down wholeheartedly, yet, the overtures to the unavoidable socio-historical role of art in his aesthetics bear the unmistakable fingerprints of Marx.
The best avant-garde artwork (yes, the concern here is primarily with the avant-garde & not the casual regard for an art that’s designed to please, like that of an over-commodified public easement &/or privately owned mass-produced commodity) cannot & should not escape its hard won position as a provocateur, as socially antagonistic & as the rebellious object currently classified under the title: contemporary art (& for Adorno’s sake, think high Modernity). Art in its very rebelliousness—whether it be modern or contemporary—has to suffer through the very rationalist paradigms it operates within & against. It is in this discomforting tension, between that which often cannot be put into words, as it’s entirely submerged in a consumerist culture with its stubbornly insistent demands on the art object to provide a logical answer for its validity. This all contributes to art’s avowed unwillingness be what it is. Art then is often a glaring enigma & in this problematic way it belies definition & so this (now traditional) resistance can be where its elusive beauty is sought after. It cannot be avoided that although this relationship between art & society/culture/history is often antagonistic, the relationship itself is never to be thought of as mutually exclusive. All the elements must be considered together in their relationships, no matter how infuriatingly strained the couplings seem to be.
marlie mul – “cigarette ends here” 2011
Adorno’s indebtedness to Hegel partially had to do with a recasting of the dialectic as ‘negative.’ Hegel spoke to Enlightenment’s reason, therefore it’s been our reason. That is, if we recognize Hegel’s dialectical telos as continually rushing toward rationality. It is this reason that drove enlightenment, modern & contemporary society to privilege rationality over the body, the sensual, the irrational. If it doesn’t make ‘sense’, if it’s not reasonable, it’s not worthwhile, this is/was the prevailing attitude. Positivist thinking is, more or less, all there is in this enduringly-logical paradigm. This is the very kind of calcified schema Adorno wishes to critique. Keep in mind that this overt rationalizing had to do with many of the infamous problems of the 20th century—including Marxism. It’s Adorno’s wish to take the dialectic & turn its rational telos around & back to the contradiction. Where Hegel’s dialectic implied a negative contradiction to be overcome to get to reason’s advancement, Adorno’s negative dialectic repositions this to re/cognize the division, instead of the unification. Hegel’s dialectical unification implicated an identity onto disparate entities that are brought together dialectically. When we choose to see these elements (artworks vs. society vs. culture vs. history vs. the subject) as originally separate & un-identical, we can pay respect to their ‘truth-value’ as not having to entirely belong to the whole, the absolute & to not always be part of a reasonable framework. That the artwork/object still operates in a rational society/culture/history is a feature that it violates & hence, bears the unsightly scars of. Art continually suffers through the misunderstandings of reason & in turn we suffer through our misguided efforts to insist on the dictatorship of reason at any cost. We cannot remove these intricacies, but we can with observe them as a way to gain a newfound critical stance, until this utopia is challenged again.
…& what meaning is there (for art) after the injustice of identity, the debasement of definition & the banal reduction of the rational?
Here’s a diagram to roughly illustrate three interconnected ideas from Adorno’s aesthetics (click for a closer view).
Please enjoy Reinaert de V.’s upcoming text as it reaches for Adorno’s aesthetic beauty in all its gratifying rigor & its thoughtful mystery.
October 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Dear Reinaert de V.,
…it’s been so long reading a post from you (The Rise of Modernity, Part 1) & now together we’re back continuing to think & write about philosophy again. I feel that your philosophical interests are akin to my own, with obvious variance here & there. Yet, as our ideas have converged before, we’ve overcome our differences & now I’m struggling to recall who brought up G.W.F. Hegel first. I think it was you who about a year ago spoke of writing on his aesthetics & that inspired me to read & then write on his Phenomenology of Spirit—followed by looking & writing a little on his Aesthetics. Part of my interest also came to the fore while researching, reading & writing about Althusser’s ideology. Althusser openly rejected Hegel, since whole aspects of Hegel’s metaphysical ‘excesses’ were sloughed-off by late Marxist materialism. Let it be known that the more I found Hegel’s thought to be reviled by nineteenth & twentieth century thinkers, the more I wanted to embrace him. With this said, I’m not of the mind to simultaneously let go of Althusser & the others, as I see that this impulse is too narrow-minded & not inclusive, nor wide ranging enough to adequately engage philosophers that are of opposing views.
I needed to know what Hegel was all about & I wanted to try to grasp this imposing figure, who has always represented a special kind of insurmountable thinking. The only obstruction I discovered had to be overcome in my own mind. The resolve had to do with the work it takes to climb the rocks & to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with a failure to comprehend & to then re-read & to then strive for his kind of knowing that always includes the discomfort of not knowing. This continual task of re-reading is itself a kind of knowing. The conscious acquisition of knowledge has to confront what it doesn’t know in order to learn & then know better then it did before. Our eventual goals to know can be held alongside Hegel’s rushing toward absolute knowledge, absolute idea & absolute spirit, all of this is with the knowledge that philosophy should help us to be more capable of getting set on this journey of knowing & with the admission that this philosophical path is also Hegel’s way to absolute knowledge, that will include self-knowing & as a way to know the world as without the typical constraints that divide subject & object—as a pure unified knowing, that we’ll never truly know altogether.
Of course, we’ll be forced to see this drive to know & to know Hegel as fraught with many frustrations & these frustrations are often mistaken as flaws with Hegel’s un/intended obscurity. I’ve decided to think of the pain felt with these obscurities as a way of confronting & comprehending the dialectic & more specifically coming to terms with the central pivot of the dialectic, known as the sublation, the aufheben. This is noticed after the very beginning of any presuppositionless sense apprehension that is being & nothing sublated, then becoming thought & that could become a moment of conceptual thinking—this process of spirit coming to know is sometimes lovingly referred to by Hegel as a way to science (we’d be good to think of this too as thinking that’s onward to philosophical conceptualization & idea). Aufheben is a unique German word that roughly means to bring up, as well as to preserve & also to cancel out, to do away with, perhaps to bring back again. I like to think of the word as a reconciliation. This strange self-contradicting word: aufheben—which for Fichte & our usual understanding of Hegel’s dialectic—is defined as the contradiction &/or the antithesis. It can then be thought of as related to the fundamental negation within Hegel’s dialectic. Another word we can’t ignore here is speculation, or the speculative, which is certainly linked to the above mentioned word as a reconciliation that happens within the aufheben. The speculative is a reconciling of oppositions that thereby brings things, concepts, ideas, problems, philosophy &c. into the whole of the absolute, all in the name of the Hegelian dialectic. I’m sure Hegel thought of the whole of his philosophy as speculative, which again underscores the word aufheben. In short, we have to pass through, push down, bring up, & preserve the aufheben to really know Hegel.
From this initial confrontation of mine & back to the actual point of simply thanking you for your interest in Hegel, we’re drawn to a conclusion that when we sit down to study Hegel, to think about Hegel & then to sometimes reject Hegel, we’d be amiss to not take notice of the dialectical & speculative logic he laid for out us. This urges us to take notice of how he could’ve predicted his own negations, his potential demise, whereby the absolute spirit of our contemporary way of knowing has included & possibly grown out of this foreboding presence known as Hegel’s philosophy. This way of thinking about the dialectic includes his own speculative end, but never an end absolutely, as any ending has to include Hegel coming before us. We must not confuse this with the potential to lead us nowhere, since we can remember that his telos leads us to a transformation of the whole that once was, to the whole that can be & that won’t be overlooked as brought forward by Hegel.
It’s with friendly admiration that I’m happy to say you’ve done fine work to continue Hegel’s concepts into a fresh now. It’s worth noting that whenever we focus on a specific idea of Hegel’s ideal, we must not lose sight of how this transfers to the bigger picture of his entire oeuvre (the absolute). You have looked at the aesthetics of Hegel, citing passages form his Lectures on Aesthetics & I couldn’t help but thinking that your selections sound very much like his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. For example you write: “Thus the enlightened individual is able to move about freely & realize himself fully by partaking of the substantiality that is the state & thereby becoming more than what was his own.” When we compare this statement of yours to one found in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, we are reminded that the individual is fully actualized (as you indicated) in the state: “The worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect & represent the national spirit…” But, perhaps this is not in a totalitarian way, as the individual is realized within the a state of mutual freedom with other individuals. These other individuals are allowed their differences & particularities as features of their freedom, since this freedom is not really about the impulsive free reign of desires. When we continue moving from this idea that the individual is actualized in a state—a state of freedom with others—we come to the thought that you point to that directly echoes Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” … reading this next Hegel’s statement from the Philosophy of History shows a distinct similarity: “The individual can certainly make the state into a means of attaining this or that end. But the truth is realized only insofar as each individual wills the universal cause itself and has discarded all that is inessential.”
As you already know, what we’re talking about is spirit, absolute spirit. The realization of reason is universal & it is spirit as the realization of the idea. The spirit is a determination of the self as it is also a determination of science, religion, knowledge & art. The goals of history, its telos is reason & it is the idea as it’s manifested via the spirit of man as an individual & as a collective. All of this can be thought as the expression of freedom. The objects of thought are what spirit contemplates as consciousness. Freedom is not something that the spirit merely strives for, it is also contained in the basic structure of thought as it knows itself in a self-determined way & not in a pre-ordained, deterministic way. The limitations of the world are what cause our own determinations to become what we are. It is the idea that becomes a goal for the knowing subject, the idea where the concepts of subject & object become sublated, a kind of pure knowing to eventually be without the subjective/objective distinction, the two are conflated as a free idea. There are seeming contradictions that arise from the idea that man is free, while he’s also confined to the rules of the state. Hegel addresses this in the Philosophy of History: “The concept of freedom is such that justice & ethical life are inseparable from it…” & later in the same paragraph we find the conclusion: “…such restrictions [of the state, laws, government &c.] are the indispensible conditions of liberation; society & the state are the only situations in which freedom can be realized.” It has become evident that Hegel’s thought was consistent throughout the Aesthetics, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Right & many other places. What I find intriguing is that while you outline the details of how you read his Aesthetics, absolute spirit emerges, in the way it manifests itself through the individual & how it includes the expression of man’s spirit, freedom & idea that are communicated into art & also into world history.
We already know that Hegel designates in the Aesthetics that philosophy supersedes the arts & just about everything else. Thus creating a kind of philosophical bird’s-eye-view where Hegel can then look to the pattern of how art has expressed itself in a religious context & that this religious context for art has passed. The apogee of art as a religious expression has been superseded by ‘lesser’ ideals. In the introduction of Hegel’s Aesthetics we find this put in Hegel’s words: “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine & worshipping them.” & in a couple of sentences later we find: “…art, considered in its highest vocation, is & remains a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth & life & it has been rather transferred into our ideas…” What’s of note here is that “art’s imminent demise” (as you put it) is also due to this observation of Hegel’s that’s brought together with an implication that the individual is sublimated into the apparatus of the state & that this is a condition of art’s demise as it stand today. I believe that this can be maintained, while at the same time retaining & integrating an idea of an art that values thought, conceptualization & reflection.
Little did Hegel know that this would hold true & we’ll be sure to include the all-important ‘concept/idea’ as the driving force behind much of art created recently. As vital as concept is for Hegel’s philosophy, it is also just as intrinsic for a comprehension of artistic practice today. Once religion took ultimate precedence & now it’s thought, reflection, idea & concept. Hegel wasn’t too far off, especially if we consider this within the dialectic, whereby we can see that the self-negation of art has been happening over & over, throughout most of the 20th century (continuing into the 21st). The so-called death of art as a practice & theory has been a (now stale) recurring theme for decades now, yet artistic practice continues to negate itself & to push man’s spirit onward. Art occupies a curious place in today’s world & in that bizarre presentation we’ll see it as a glaring reflection of our own thought, questioning, pain & suffering. Our own pain is addressed in ways that make art appear to be too honest, too brutal. These confrontations are certainly the aufheben for us to bring a fresh re-reading into the world as a free expression of where we’re at in our world, in our spirit, in our minds & universally. We are called upon to conceptualize ourselves thinking about an art that struggles a great deal to let it self be known, as much as we are placed with the responsibility of knowing ourselves how to comprehend just a bit more of it than we did yesterday, till tomorrow places us within a new challenge to think of art again & to not know what we’ll eventually never know absolutely. Hegel leaves us with known & unknown pieces of his wisdom to carry on with the work of thinking that will observe the beauty of striving to know something/someone once more.
Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art Vol. 1. Trans. T.M. Knox. New York: Oxford U. Press. 1975. print.
Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction. Trans H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. 1975. print.
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1993. print.
Magee, Glen Alexander. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Continuum Pubs. 2010. print.
April 1, 2010 § 3 Comments
(click on image for a closer look)
Reinaert de V.: I’ll give you my humble opinion on Tuttle’s art on basis of what I’ve read and seen of it, thanks to the link you’ve provided me with. I’ll be making use of a relevant review on the site you’ve linked to, titled “Richard Tuttle: The Subjective Object”. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to you for bringing another interesting artist to my attention! But first I’ll start by answering your other questions in order to put it all in its proper context, so bear with me please.
You already mentioned Edmund Gustave Albrecht Husserl’s (1859 – 1938) wish to return “to the things themselves” – not to be confused with Kant’s ding-an-sich! This point is crucial in understanding the phenomenological project (from the Greek verb phainomein, “to appear”) . You also rightly point out phenomenology’s emphasis on our perception of the world, how our acts of perception provide the basis of our understanding. Basically, Husserl wanted to create a metaphysics that accepts, and tries to explain, “contingency”. By paying very close attention to (and meditating on) our experiences, he hoped to be able to (logically) capture this element of contingency in our ever changing world.
His modus operandi was to systematically ‘bracket out’ all our preconceptions (assumptions), leading to, what he hoped was, a purified experience of the way in which things give themselves to us – the way in which they appear. Similar in some respects to the Buddhist technique of ‘mindfulness’, a state of keen awareness of self and surroundings. To quote David Mikics in his splendid biography “Who Was Jacques Derrida” (Yale, 2009):
“Husserl’s concern was with a temporally extended whole, in which a now-phase is shadowed by what has just been and what is about to come… This temporal span is required by our need for context. Every time we see something we are seeing as: seeing the thing as part of a larger whole. This means that each perception must be prepared for by a sense of how or why it occurs and what it might lead to.” (p. 54)
You might say, phenomenology is the study of surfaces, where (the illusion of) depth is found along the surface of things. Human beings, Husserl reasoned, are only able to experience reality by way of “intentionality”, meaning that: we can only think ‘through’ the world by lodging on to patterns we discern in nature and the things around us. Even gaining self-awareness by becoming aware of the things outside ourselves. We think in (natural) forms by “always, already” being ‘intentionally’ focused on some-thing, or, to put it in slightly different words: every mental phenomenon, every psychological act, has a content, is directed at an object. The study of phenomenology attempts to identify the invariant features of how those objects are perceived (it is this ‘typical’ character that allows the world to be shared). Attending to an object’s wholeness while still being able to understand the object’s separate features.
This dimension of ‘mere appearances’ has throughout Western philosophy’s history been frowned down upon (the exact reverse of society today). Our ‘world of appearances’ was considered by the ancients to be characteristic of its “sub-lunar” nature, an idea to which the words mooncalf and lunatic still allude to. This was a world of constant shifts and shadows, where nothing was stable or reliable, a world of the senses and opinion, shrouded in metaphorical darkness.
The most beautiful expression of this luminous idea is to be found in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, wherein the sun is transformed into an emblem of the eternal and constant, source of all nourishment, and heavenly lamp of intellectual illumination. It represents the closest man will ever come to the divine and its Ideal forms – because it simultaneously blinds when looked at directly. Plato considered “knowledge” to be the highest virtue and fountainhead of all that is good, especially the divine-knowledge of mathematics and the humbling knowledge of dialectics. Accordingly, our attainment of this knowledge would enable us to “see the light”, and be led out of the “cave of our own ignorance” (the ignorance of our own ignorance). Bringing us in possession of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Immanuel Kant’s (1724 – 1804) philosophy of transcendental idealism was in essence a brilliant synthesis of these two distinct intellectual strands in Western philosophy. Of Rationalism’s deductive reasoning (Plato’s ‘abstractions’) on the one hand, and Empiricism’s inductive investigations (Hume’s ‘psychology’) on the other. This led Kant to his influential distinction between the realms of noumena (the thing-in-itself) and phenomena (our sensible, relative world). I already mentioned in our previous discussion on the sublime, how Kant thinks ‘the understanding’ is able to reach beyond experience, enabling us to question, criticize, and evaluate it. Yet its ability to reach beyond natural forms, beyond the given, makes it incapable of judging its own limits, of “knowing what may lie inside or outside its entire sphere” (A238/B297). Because of this ‘the understanding’ is always tentatively feeling its way, preferably using a careful and critical ‘reflexive inquiry’, not unlike Kant’s very own “Critique of Pure Reason” (1787).
The reason for the noted limitation lies in the fact, that the pure concepts of ‘the understanding’ have no reference to the objects, except through intuition. They must refer to objects through empirical intuition, since even if they are made more specific by their relation to pure intuition (space and time), they would still not refer to objects except insofar as pure intuition is related to empirical intuition. Because “without this reference they have no objective validity whatever, but are mere play, whether by the imagination or by the understanding, with their respective presentations” (A239/B298). Related to this, is the need for a concept to be “made sensible” otherwise it is “without sense, i.e., without signification” (A240/B299). Finally: pure intuition is “the source of all truth, i.e., the source of our cognition’s agreement with objects” (A237/B296).
This technical background is necessary to understand what’s going on. Because it seems to me Husserl wants to take up Kant’s claim, namely that pure concepts are not only necessarily related to pure intuition, but must also refer to the objects themselves through empirical intuition. I suspect Husserl wanted to get to Kant’s pure concepts by way of a ‘pure’ empirical intuition. Phenomenology’s ‘purified experience’, where contingency is fully accounted for. Ultimately this approach has proven unsuccessful, as can be seen from Husserl’s failure in explaining the origin of geometry, in his 1935 essay of the same name. In it, he tried to explain how geometry’s universal applicability found its accidental origin in a specific time and place, namely ancient Greece. For how did the Greeks manage to create this systematic way of thinking – in essence the discovery of objectivity, or “objective truth”, as opposed to historical facts or opinions – seemingly out of nothing? A discovery that disclosed a new dimension of “ideal objects”, forever changing human experience. Husserl’s method demands that everything must be reducible to our co-inhabited object-world, our “life-world”. But in the end, the question of how the universal and the particular – the contingent and the absolute – are related, turned out to be irresolvable for Husserl (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 36 – 48).
The failure is understandable though, it is the same reason why we do not deal with sensible objects in mathematics, we make use of another faculty, by way of “categorical abstraction”. It seems mathematics cannot be reduced to psychology, since its “ideal objects” are extra-experiential in nature (noumenal). In steps Luigi Pareyson with his hermeneutical theory of form, where, as we’ve seen before, “form” is understood as the “resisting object”. The ‘obstacle’ as the defining characteristic of true form: “Interpretation is a form of knowing in which receptivity and activity are inseparable and where the known is a form and the knower a person.” The “activity” spoken of presupposes this resistance, which frustrates, and calls forth our activity. The “receptivity” he mentions, implies something external to me, some-thing I’m able to receive.
Husserl’s problem of explaining geometry’s origin is less of an issue to Pareyson. Given geometry’s universal nature (its true form), it must be able to be experienced because of its resistance to our wishes. It’s experienced in its invariable nature, calling forth our activity (leading to its ultimate discovery) and making its receptivity possible. In other words, we experience it in its law-like nature, and it is this law-like nature which enables the infinite variations on its theme, without it losing its (logical) true form. Yet this true form cannot be experienced, as Kant has shown. It can only become accessible to us via our intellect, by way of “categorical abstraction”. This knowledge is derived from the totality of its concrete material manifestations. The so-called variations on its true form – which are (partly) the result of our continuous struggle with its law-like nature.
Art being the unusual category it is, due to its intimate relationship to experience – the sensible – it demands a slightly different approach. Pareyson makes of art the center piece of his philosophy, because art to him, is the prototype of resistance. The object pur sang, the object that commands our attention and solicits our interpretation. Perhaps Pareyson sees art as the quintessence of form itself! As form incarnated, understood as the residue or substance which makes visible or tangible, that which enables expression…? After all, unless a concept is “made sensible” it is “without sense, i.e., without signification” (A240/B299). Put slightly different, we’ve to be able to see something in our mind’s eye in order to grasp its sense. That is, our abstract concepts need to be related to given forms in some way or other, in order to be (re)presented to us. Which brings us to Pareyson’s almost postmodern sounding statement:
“As form gathers together an infinity of things, which it contains but does not exhaust, so a person is an infinity, and each one of the points of view which we can adopt contains us entirely although not exhausting our possibilities. Understanding only obtains when there occurs a correspondence, a consonance, a sympathy, between an aspect of a work of art and the point of view of a person. A work of art entirely reveals itself in one of its aspects, and the interpreter penetrates into it entirely from his or her point of view. The work does not change even if the aspect under which it is considered or the perspective of the viewer changes.”
This statement is a bit tricky, so lets unpack it. Given that Pareyson is a hermeneutical philosopher, he must assign to each contingent element a specific weight, accorded to it, by its place in a context. Simply said, it means something has a certain sense or meaning, in a certain context – which enables the “correspondence, consonance, or sympathy” he speaks of. Though the meaning given to it may alter depending on your specific relation or position to it (potentially infinite), the allocated meaning can be understood or retrieved, once the conditions under which it appeared are understood. This, as we’ve seen, is also Husserl’s phenomenological position vis-à-vis perception and the contingent. I recently read an excellent article (though totally off-topic) which perfectly captures this point of “interpretive communities”. I recommend you read it, but I’ll try and give another illuminating example by John Carroll.
In Raphael’s “The Deposition” (or “The Entombment”, 1507) we see a dead Christ being borne to the Sepulcher. The sorrow that the nearest and most affectionate relatives of the dead feel in laying to rest the body of Him who has been their best beloved, is intense. The virgin Mary is seen in a swoon, and the faces of all the figures present clearly display distress. The body of Christ seems so heavy the two men are hardly able to lift it. In other words, the painting seems to be about unbearable loss and suffering. But Carroll, in his controversial book “The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited” (2004), shows the picture in a completely different light. For he focuses on the living Mary Magdalene who’s tenderly holding the dead Christ’s hand. She looks into His face with a sense of fiery compassion. Her eyes warm and caring, and yet, direct and intense, as though completely focused on Him. On Him who gave her back her life. Seeing Christ from her perspective, it seems He’s gently floating in her hands, light as a feather. His agonized face is suddenly transformed into one of bliss, as though in that instant, due to Mary’s graceful touch, death is conquered, and they’re one…
Of course this is Carroll’s unique interpretation, but imagine it was of someone who’s tired to be sad of life’s misery. Such a person might be predisposed to pick out this particular detail in the painting, when searching for something comforting, something hopeful to hold on to. In other words, there might be “a sympathy, between an aspect of a work of art and the point of view of a person.” A “correspondence” if you will, between artwork and viewer, which establishes itself naturally. It goes without saying that materially the work of art doesn’t change one iota, but its meaning is transformed completely! By focusing on this aspect, the rest of it takes on a whole new meaning: “A work of art entirely reveals itself in one of its aspects, and the interpreter penetrates into it entirely from his or her point of view.” Such views do not per se abolish previous ones, but might instead add to them: the unbearable suffering of the others, while remaining essentially the same, gets a different meaning due to the changed and enriched context.
Last but not least important, is the fact, that Pareyson is talking about art’s reception here, and not its creation. I’ve got a hunch, reading Umberto’s book, that Pareyson believes there are also certain (revealed) laws governing art. This might not be such a farfetched idea, though no doubt highly unpopular. Take for example the art of rhetoric – the art of speaking and writing – which is gaining in popularity, since postmodernism holds there is no truth, just persuasion. This art form, the discovery of which enabled us to speak eloquently and persuasively, has proven its reliability. The discipline of rhetoric created by its discovery may be modified as time goes on, but always on the basis of its original premises. In that way, it offers possibilities for development, for new knowledge to accrue, and yet remain the same discipline (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 40). But also think of the hidden persuaders of advertisement, which attracts a lot of young artists. Or the beauty of symmetry.
But there’s another way of understanding Pareyson’s statement: by focusing exclusively on the word “infinity”. In this case it would seem to support your insightful interpretation of Tuttle’s work. This interpretation has clear postmodern overtones, it implies there is no right or wrong way to interpret a work of art, since everything is relative. But if all interpretations are equally valid (or valuable), they obviously are equally meaningless as well. Think of Baudrillard’s mercenary philosophy where “everything goes” (out of the window). Understanding Tuttle’s work in this way does turn out to be very useful, and places it in the proper context I think, because as you point out, it indeed begs the (sublime) question: “what is this?” His work almost seems to be the material incarnation of exactly this post-minimal question, and being the question it is, supposedly opens itself up to an “infinity of interpretations”.
Apart from being a post-minimal artist, Tuttle is also a self-defined conceptual artist, hence the questioning. Tuttle’s post-minimal drive towards the nigh disappearance – or reduction – of the object, culminates of course, in the questioning of the object-status itself: “when is something still considered to be some-thing?”As interesting, thrilling, and intoxicating as these formal experiments may sound, I do not think this can be Pareyson’s hermeneutical position, for reasons I already explained above. But I also content the claim, that this would lead to an “infinity of interpretations”. Because in the way the question is posed, it already suggests the answer: there is no valid interpretation, there’s only the open question. It’s a rhetorical question. After all, any interpretation would be an answer to the question, and break the spell.
At the risk of repeating myself, I think postmodernism privileges the experimental in art, the endless pursuit of novelty – of pushing the envelope – but at the cost of the sensual-emotional content. In the end you risk a distortion of art itself, where a preconceived theory terrorizes art’s free expression. There’s no question that novelty, experimentation, and provocation can all be features of great works of art, but they are not the only features (harmony, authenticity, pathos, mimesis, etc). More importantly, they clearly favor the intellectual over and above the sensual.
When art gets reduced to “mere questions” – to which there are no final answers – we’re out of the domain of art proper. Instead we’re performing an intellectual inquiry, with the danger of making the sensible obsolete, because of its irrelevance to such an inquiry. Given that postmodernism’s sole objective is to unmask all “meaning” as unstable – unreliable in its contingency – art’s experimentalism only serves to illustrate, celebrate, and propagate this foregone conclusion (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 60) Now, to bring in the review ‘Richard Tuttle: The Subjective Object’, I mentioned at the beginning:
“…they carry no sense of physical or optical weight, and, depending on the quality of the light, can become virtually invisible. In the SFMOMA show, 12 paper octagons were attached to the curving walls near the windowed staircases. They caught the light in different ways—some looked like light projections, some were almost totally whited out, and some were banded by the windows’ cast shadows. The effect was subtle and quite magical.”
It refers to Tuttle’s ‘group of paper octagons’, conceived in 1970. What it reveals is the sensible quality of his work, what I would like to call the domain of art proper. I’ve to admit though, I’m a bit skeptical about the “infinite ways” you could interpret 12 paper octagons without any theoretical background, that is: without reading something into them, which isn’t in fact there… Because most people, I think, would simply judge them on basis of the sensual pleasure they afford: on the “subtle and magical” play of light and shadows, of having “no sense of physical or optical weight”. It sounded like a successful exhibition of Tuttle’s work. In contrast, his ‘constructed paintings’ (1967), another example from the same review, reveal quite something else:
“The canvas was hung out to dry, and the result was a wrinkled, unevenly pigmented surface. The colors of the pieces—rust, gold, orange, blue, green—were rather wan and unassertive to start with, and over the years, depending on the permanence of the dye and the piece’s exposure to light, they have faded to even paler shades. This fading, though, has resulted in surprisingly little esthetic loss. Such chromatic flexibility, combined with the way the pieces were meant to be displayed and stored, underscores their lack of preciousness, their consciously diminished aura. Tuttle wanted them to be pinned to the wall, or even spread out on the floor, with the orientation left up to the owner or curator”
It illustrates my earlier point about art’s sensible content being dissected, bit by bit, and dying an excruciating death at the hands of postmodernism’s “experimentalism”. The ‘chromatic flexibility’ mentioned above, suggests, that the “wrinkled unevenly pigmented surface” of “wan and unassertive” colors, is part of an ‘artistic experiment’, and that this would somehow redeem it. She goes on to say, that the “fading” of the colors “resulted in surprisingly little esthetic loss.” Which isn’t very surprising, considering there wasn’t any to begin with! It “underscores their lack of preciousness, their consciously diminished aura.” Sometimes I seriously wonder when reading such statements, if the authors who make them fully realize what they’re saying, or if instead we’re all caught up in some nightmarish state of narcosis, forced to witness art’s slow but sure demise…
“The narcotic intoxication which permits the atonement of deathlike sleep for the euphoria in which the self is suspended, is one of the oldest social arrangements which mediate between self-preservation and self-destruction – an attempt of the self to survive itself.” (“Dialectic of Enlightenment”, 1945)
Don’t banish beauty from art! Don’t bar your senses— come to your senses!
“Oki, oki yo! Waga tomo ni sen, Neru-kocho!”
Aurelio: Thank you & thank you again for the additional comments. Our dialogue is turning & transforming all the way from Baudrillard, Lyotard, Kant, Pareyson & now Husserl. From post-modernism, the enlightenment, phenomenology, & (briefly on) hermeneutics, while being all tied together with aesthetics, contemporary & now with your last comment, renaissance art. Not to mention the artists of our discussion starting with Florian Pumhösl & now moving along through with Richard Tuttle & Raphael.
In your latest reply you gave a brief summary of phenomenology & Husserl. With that I’d like to add a few things. I’ll openly risk being repetitive throughout the discussion, for the sake of letting my humble learning breathe, branch-out & thereby aspire to a better involvement with all our (mutual) understanding/s. Aside from all that let’s also happily remember that Lyotard’s 1st book was on phenomenology: Phenomenology.
I want to start with some background. During our philosophical correspondence I’ve been reading Dylan Trigg’s incredible book The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. I also have been looking at his nice Side Effects blog & trying to sort-out all the parts of the intense book as I understand the whole to be. While reading, I discovered that Trigg’s thought is closely interwoven with phenomenology. In the book Trigg traces the way we experience ruins, decay, and architectural abandonment through memory, remembrance, nostalgia, temporality, absence & so on. His unique form of phenomenology in the book is overlapped with other philosophical concerns & a fascinating argument for post-rationalism via post-modernism. I’ll be writing about the book in a separate post. I know that’ll be soon.
I realized quickly (thanks to Dylan Trigg) that I needed to understand phenomenology first hand & from its originator Husserl. Trigg does not seem to be a Husserlarian directly, but he got me in this general phenomenological direction. When you then brought in Pareyson & I did some research on his specific thought via Umberto Eco & we were taken to Pareyson’s branch of phenomenology as it relates to art appreciation. Let’s also bear in mind that I’ll have to only hint at Pareyson’s hermeneutical questions specifically & how that’s related to his project at hand. I’ll just say that I’ve been seeing the word hermeneutical as simply meaning interpretation, a way of interpreting a text, artwork or other area of interest.
During my reading of Trigg’s book, it was suggested that I read Robert Sokolowski’s Introduction to Phenomenology, Dermot Moran’s Introduction to Phenomenology & Trigg himself (via twitter) had me look at Merleau-Ponty’s preface from the famous book Phenomenology of Perception. Sokolowski’s approach is straight-forward & he walks the reader through the ideas with a clear exposition that’s down to earth & very accessible to the philosophically curious. The Moran book is an in-depth look at the progression, history & ideas of phenomenology from Husserl’s mentor Franz Brentano on through to Jacques Derrida. Merleau-Ponty’s book blends & looks at phenomenology through the body & all the intricate associations thereof. Another helpful book has been: Husserl – A Guide for the Perplexed by Matheson Russell. Don’t let me forget to mention that Merleau-Ponty has written great things on Cézanne’s perception in his essay: Cézanne’s Doubt. I know you’ve read it. I’ll make a note to write a future post on this.
With all these books piling-up, I’m still reading (& re-reading) bits of other books on/by Husserl & phenomenology & I can’t turn back. This particular way of doing philosophy is enlightening & helpful for me as an artist/writer & yes, even while I’m in the “natural attitude.”
How do we essentially experience the world consciously? When we try to comprehend how we see/understand the world philosophically, we can start by evoking epistemology (how we acquire knowledge) & empiricism (how we experience the world). As well, when we begin with epistemology & empiricism we can’t help but bump into the omnipresent genius of Kant & his Critique of Pure Reason, then more specifically to his idea of Transcendental Idealism, as you’ve keenly pointed to. From the tiny bit I know of Kant’s transcendental (a priori condition of knowledge) idealism (knowledge of the world as known only by the mind &/or ideas), I can see that, as I suspected, there is a distinct link to Husserl. Understanding the subtle link is difficult, given that both thinkers are going in different directions, with different motives, yet both were still focused on experience as its perceived. Add to all that, their excessively-difficult writing, which is usually only accessed (by me) with a 2nd author in an introductory essay on-line, or in a book. You do a very nice job of detailing out the theory.
Okay now to Kant, with a mind that my summation is only here to clarify my own understanding & I’m not trying to refute any of your clear & precise work in explaining. I’ll simultaneously acknowledge that with the crude abbreviated explanations, I’ll try not to do damage to the “essence” of the ideas. With Kant’s transcendental idealism we have the subject & his/her way of apprehending & experiencing the world through the senses, the manner by which the world & it’s objects are understood as having to do with phenomena, which is the experience brought to us by the senses & the objects themselves, as the noumenon. Maybe I can say that for Kant phenomenon is a description of the noumenon. How experience is described by Kant as intuited by the subject also has to do with the synthesis of reason, his categories, time & space (as you’ve illustrated), while keeping in mind that within the mind of the perceiver, all these features are a priori (known before experience). This way of experiencing suggests that we cannot truly understand the thing-in-itself, because the subject has to transcend the object in question to comprehend it, therefore the object is left only with our transcendental idea to define it. So, the Kantian thing-in-itself is that which cannot be fully understood by us, in its entirety, as you neatly laid-out for me.
What is important for our use is that both Kant & Husserl have bravely tried to understand & explain how we come to experience the world, however limited/expansive that may or may not be. It’s as if Husserl wants to step behind Kant’s theory to then attempt to take the subject back to the phenomena of experience, before we even start to wonder about, or posit the validity of the thing-in-itself. Phenomenology does not want to prove that the object exists. I understand Husserl’s project to be a discipline of a going back to experience & while there we can have an examination of the essential/eidetic quality of things, rather than a strictly empirical evaluation of the world of objects &c. With all this we have the term transcendental suspended between the two thinkers. I’m almost sure that Husserl meant his use of the word transcendental to be that which moves into the philosophical understanding of the empirical & along with other specific phenomenological features of perception & consciousness, only slightly similar to how Kant used the word (Kant wasn’t developing phenomenology proper). Please keep in mind that I’m not touching on Husserl’s relationship to Descartes’ cogito & how that relates to the developmental background of phenomenology’s transcendentalism.
In phenomenology we have the “transcendental reduction,” “the phenomenological reduction,” “the epoché,” “a bracketing,” &c. These are all interchangeable ways of describing the same central theme of Husserl’s phenomenology. You describe the reduction similarly to a Zen Buddhist sense of mindfulness. As a Nichiren Daishonin Buddhist myself, I’d call it enlightenment &/or esho-funi: oneness of life & environment. With this concept, life & environment are not different, the two are one. Eugen Fink, Husserl’s precocious assistant & follower of Heidegger, wanted the reduction to be taken as an astonishment. The “epoché” is when the philosopher goes into the reduction, leaving the natural attitude. The natural attitude itself is that which we have to transcendentalise ourselves out of. The philosopher has to step away from the natural attitude in order to regard features within it. I’ve been thinking of Husserl’s reduction as a distillation & removing of certain tendencies of the natural attitude, namely science & “psychologism.” Science here means the physical sciences of physics, biology &c. Psychologism must mean what it sounds like, that is, a way of theorizing that uses the psyche & its way of knowing the world to explain how we understand things, maybe a way to for Husserl to say that psychology did not have all the answers, never mind his intricate use of the word Ego. Husserl wanted to create a philosophy that went before these ways of understanding & to then take the conscious subject into a world of pure lived experience. He wasn’t afraid to call it a science either, making for even more perplexed readers. Added to my perplexity is that I can’t understand how all of this is tied to metaphysics, you might have the answer.
Now I’ll return to Husserl’s famous slogan “back to the things themselves” (Zu den Sachen selbst). This phrase becomes confusing in comparison to Kant’s thing-in-itself. I’m thinking that it is contrasted to Kant’s meaning, in that Husserl was suggesting we let go of traditional scientific thinking & go back to the experience of the thing itself, while letting go of an urge to justify or prove the existence of the thing itself. The goal of phenomenology wants to look at the eidetic nature of things by which to understand them, therefore a going back to the essences, or even the essential nature of the lived experience with the thing itself. Kant perhaps was beginning & inadvertently detailing a bit of difficult ground work from which Husserl could borrow threads from, but (it must be noted) not borrowing whole cloth.
Getting back to our discussion where you brought in appearances & their relationship with phenomenological ideas & with the wonderful example of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the cave we have the chained/delusional people who understand the shadows to be reality (I’ll be bold to say that this is the phenomenological natural attitude) & the then freed philosopher who sees the light, the true nature of reality (we’ll call this the epoché, the reduction that allows for the essential experience of life). In my oversimplification we have the comparison between Plato’s forms & that which happens within the epoché: an eidetic reduction, where the philosopher is compelled to draw out the essential qualities of the intended object under scrutiny, hence to then see the light of truth. Now the difference is that with Plato the ideal form is transcendentalizing away from the phenomena & with Husserl’s phenomenology the eidetic quality of forms is immanent within the phenomena. Phenomenological essence does not lie outside the experience of a given phenomena. For Plato this was ideal form (εἶδος : Form, now capitalized. This was Plato’s term after all) defined by form (everyday world of objects &c.) This shows us more similarities between the two ideas, as with Kant, Plato’s ideas are also enhanced by Husserl’s usage with & into phenomenology. Brilliant of you to take us back & so close to a couple of the greats of philosophy: Plato & Kant. Your grasp of the subject is vast & wonderfully flexible! I’ll tack-on to all this, the importance of dialogue for Plato, the way ideas were bought to us through that particular & profound device. It’s the very nature of what we’re practicing here. I wouldn’t have gone this far with our dialogue to keep it all going.
Now back to Pareyson’s forms, I make a leap to see an eidetic reduction (looking into the essential qualities of experience & objects), in the way that Pareyson (as put forth by Eco) is asking us to make the simple distinction of looking to the maker/artist of the forms, the work that led up to the form & the influence of the culture that the artist lives in, all taken together when one is to interpret the art object in question. Eco says that: “For Pareyson, form is a structured object uniting thought, feeling and matter in an activity that aims at the harmonious coordination of all three and proceeds according to the law as postulated and manifested by the work itself as its being made.” This is an incredibly simple yet extraordinary way of describing what an art object is, given the centrality of art’s relationship to forms for Pareyson. I’ll add here that phenomenologically we interpret these features as they are given & as they are intended. So if we try to intend the essence of an art object, we might start with the basic thoughts, action, ideas & matter that went into its making. My idea is that we are in a way, almost asked by Pareyson to look for the eidos (essence or essential qualities) of the art object, as a manner of understanding form in general & specifically. Art is a special case because it is a proving ground of form, (form + art = Form-pur-sang) a way that matter is brought together artistically. While art (“the prototype of resistance”) is devoid of a typical use value, another object’s given form might be obscured by its inherent use value by the simple fact that it’s a useful object, rather than the less obvious use value of a work of art. The artist has to pass his/her experience through matter, by this matter becomes form, matter becomes art, as it is then to be received. Work itself is looked at as the key transformative act. The way an art object is made has everything to do with how it is interpreted, how it is translated by the viewer. It all sounds so simple when you lay it out & as an artist I can immanently understand this way of looking at the art object. I want to try to glean more from Eco’s essay soon & to also get my hands on any English translated Pareyson. You have a refined taste to have found him. You also made a fair point about my use of infinite-interpretations. I think I used it too casually without giving enough attention to Pareyson’s usage. The infinite ways of interpretation idea, is overstated without the apodictic (necessary) suggestion of the object. If the eidos of an object is its essence, to look for that essence we much extract all that is irrelevant to that object & simultaneous experience of it. This is an exercise of taking the infinite out of consideration & looking to the finite & essential qualities of the perceptual act of consciousness. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, my relativism comes out like a stubborn mooncalf! I acknowledge too that Pareyson is speaking to art’s reception. I can simultaneously state that I am an artist & I could be looking at all this for a possible creative recipe, a way of making art. It’s tricky enough doing philosophy while making art! In all seriousness I am speaking about the art as it is received & in its reception. The way it is made, should be considered as an intrinsic part of the object’s reception, according to Eco’s reading of Pareyson.
I brought Tuttle into the discussion for the reason that his art is such a vivid example of how forms & formal ideas are mediated though an artistic practice. This is made evident with his post-minimalist style. Thank you for reminding me of this. This is important to note because the post-minimalists, like the minimalists were still concerned with basic formal questions, but some of the strict orthodoxies of high minimalism were let go of. In post-minimal art we’re no longer looking at strict geometries, rather we’re looking at an expanded, more lenient formal language, where forms are treated & examined less like a masculine, architectural &/or machined statement. The post-minimalists treated the objects with a more organic & flexible sense of form. The post-minimalists were not afraid of frailty, or the ready-made, or the feminine. So when we look at Tuttle’s examination of forms we see this frailty right away. With this fragility we also see the objects/sculptures as almost falling apart. We can also see the absence of illusionistic representation, so then the bare object becomes the subject matter itself. The narrative of the object becomes something like Pareyson’s theory, where we’re asked to inquire into the object’s making. Again, how is this made? How is this made to be received? How is this made to be intended? What did it take to get here to be what I’m looking at? How is the artist’s life & ideas reflected by looking & experiencing the object?
All these questions have distinct phenomenological import, beyond (or as I suggest: slightly to) Pareyson, in that we’re trying to again reveal (revel-in) the eidtic (essential) qualities of the object, as well as trying to discern the parts & wholes, its identity in a manifold, the presences & the absences (adumbrations) that’s not to mention the all pervasive temporal features such as anticipation, the memory, & of course our own imagination. Perhaps it is in these qualities that you attribute the accounting for contingency? The objects within the epoché are then are regarded as noema, or let me say the intended foci of the reduction. The noesis is therefore the resulting information given by the noema.
For example, with the particular recognition of the adumbrations of (the halo of presence or an absence in the experience) with regard to Tuttle & by extension all the art we experience here on-line. I ask myself to survey all the ways by which I experience a given art object phenomenologically, I’m left with the computer screen, also the magazine, or the book. All these are ways by which I experience the absent art object. Rarely do I experience the art objects first hand. This is not unlike the way I experience these philosophers, (2nd & even 3rd handedly). What is to be said of this experience? Is it somehow deficient? Is the experience of appreciating art on-line an incomplete way to appreciate the art object? In some respects I’m inclined to say yes, in other respects I’d say no. It is common to hear that one should always experience art one-on-one. That experience is of course perfectly defensible, after all, any of the art objects we’ve been discussing would be vividly palpable up close. For example with the Raphael, I’d have to make a trip the Galleria Borghese, in Rome! Can you imagine what that experience would be like for you or me to travel to Rome, just to view The Deposition by Raphael! That experience would be incredible! I can’t imagine what my sense of the painting would be then. I digress, but I easily see that the one-on-one with the object is not the same as experiencing it on-line. However persuasive that argument is (the experience is fuller & richer by proximity) the experience of an art object on-line can be fulfilling in other less obvious & subtle respects. For example right here, our mutual contact over the absent objects, the philosophical dialogue, the unbelievable exchange of ideas &c. When the presences & absences are weighed out, I slowly begin loose a little of the natural attitude & I begin to see the essential qualities of what I’m doing. How is this experience given to me? To continue, I might consult the web for more information on the painting. I can discover where it is hanging in Rome. I can consult on on-line source to find out more on Raphael’s biography. It’s feasible to consider that I would even look for more information on the painting, even if I went actually to see the painting in Rome. These ways of looking to the absent art object are not the sum of the object, they are just possible starting points & do not address another point you’ve mentioned: temporality.
As for a short excursion into the idea of temporality, or an account of the temporal experience of how I experience the Raphael, I’ll give the obvious example of history. Simply to say that the temporal features of the painting can be looked at though history. The provenance of the artwork is another temporal feature. How I intend the painting temporally is, of course, an on-line experience. With that, I have your introduction of the Renaissance (as period of time) artist Raphael into our discussion. All of this is intended in time, not to mention the time it’s taken to write these things down. It has my subjective sense of time (the time it took me to understand your statements & ideas, subjectively) & the objective time (real time: measured by hours, days & months), combined. Like your Carroll example, if I look to the story/narrative of the painting, as an event in the life-time of Christ, there is the Mt. Calvary in the distance & Christ’s stigmata itself, both signs that tell us that this is post-crucifixion, moving the body to the tomb. These are important features of the painting’s temporal message, since I know (according to legend) that Christ will rise again, he will be resurrected, as lived though the body of a man. The painting is basically a depiction of a moment, all of the temporality is suggested by a series of metaphorical, visual & transcendental clues. Now if I bring in more adumbrations we have the anticipation of the event of the resurrection & what that symbolizes for me, or what it symbolizes to a Christian believer. Here we have the metaphor of the potential miracle of life after death. I might have this wrong, but these metaphorical features are all intentionally absent, in the horizon of the perception, of this particular painting. When we start to unpack all the hyletic (the matter intended, maybe just the surface. Is the hyle what you meant by surface?) data as it is given to me though the computer screen—it’s amazing. This all says nothing of the temporal experience I have in terms of my own physical finitude. The painting is a way to remind the faithful that the miracle of heaven awaits. Now whether I am a believer or not, it is clear that the question of death & how one might use the painting as an aesthetic form of consolation towards death. Allow me to quickly jump to Heidegger’s being-towards-death. Without claiming an exhaustive knowledge of everything Heidegger said on being-toward-death & how that specifically relates to his elaborate brand of hermeneutical phenomenology, I do sense that he meant being-toward-death to be regarded by the subject as a fundamental feature of our being as humans, i.e. our own finitude is a fact. We can’t understand actual death, since death is what life is not, however we can anticipate, regard & contemplate the eventual leading towards the fact itself, the propelling towards it, the moving closer to it. I’m sure he didn’t mean this to be a constant & morbid brooding over our own death. I think he was urging for a respectful look at death & that we don’t have an eternity her on earth, so we have to make the best of it while we can, right now. Perhaps you know something of Heidegger’s complex concepts on death by which to interpret this extraordinary Raphael painting. This being-toward-death has me thinking, this philosophy has me thinking, and it’s worth a noting here Heidegger’s not-to-be-missed essay The Origin of the Work of Art. The fantastic way he unpacks the Van Gogh painting to phenomenologically lay out the essential parts of the work, its thinglyness as it related to the equiptmental nature of tools & how the art work is different from a tool &c. &c. I’d love to someday write on this aesthetic essay too.
There is so much more I want to touch on & I can’t thank you enough for all the philosophical ideas you have brought me, from where you are in Holland by extension of the on-line world. I’m at a place now where I’m continuing the phenomenological research & I’m looking into how phenomenology is practiced, how it can be used to appreciate art. You also have the statement: “Don’t banish beauty from art! Don’t bar your senses— come to your senses!” This compelling quote comes with a slight directive to understand what beauty is. To this I say, a concept of the beautiful that encompasses the sublime & the difficult should be included. Beauty cannot always be found in questioning or as a strict intellectual quest & as you say, it also needs just the right sensual balance. I agree that art appreciation is not always a pile of criticisms & analysis, but it still can be a focus of investigation, a meeting ground that is philosophical or otherwise, as it is now for you & me. For this discursive kind of questioning, I am very grateful for your engagement. Who else would seriously go this far?
February 11, 2010 § 4 Comments
Richard Tuttle “Section IV, Extension A.”, 2007
mixed media 7 1/4″ x 3″ x 4″
(…continuation from Reinaert de V.’s comments on the previous post)
Dear Reinaert de V.,
Thank you for the additional reply. I love that you brought these thinkers to me with more of your nice conversation/dialogue.
The frustration I have, is that Luigi Pareyson is not translated enough to find much written in English, of (or on) his philosophy. I did locate Umberto Eco’s The Open Work, that includes a nice chapter on (his former teacher) Pareyson.
So, between you & Eco, I’ve had to piece together this little understanding of the philosopher’s work.
I can see that Pareyson was an existentialist who dealt with themes of liberty, ontology & aesthetics from a hermeneutical (perhaps even a phenomenological) perspective. The hermeneutical nature of his theory of “form” helps to bring even more of a refinement to the/your overall discussion of art & art appreciation (while not excluding larger questions on the nature of objects, ideas, creation, expression, work &c.). His particular way of interpreting the way we see, consider & understand “form” as more of a universal expression (of not only the arts, but) of all human endeavor—is breathtaking. If we start to see “form” as a kind of window into the human spirit, then we can take the liberty to face (engage & challenge) our intrinsic suffering–hence: my suffering is palliated by active aesthetic appreciation/questioning.
What if we really could look at objects of art as less recalcitrant objects that refuse interpretation? Pareyson seems to suggest, the art-object (& it’s “form”) fully contains the physical manifestation of that artist’s life &/or spirit. Then if we see what is at work (in this frame of mind), then we can start to transfer this from an aesthetic study, to our everyday life, that is, how does: FORM + SPIRIT = LIFE? How does this “form” in-form our life? It seems that when one engages this kind of question we could possibly have a fuller (& Pareysonian) interaction with the world around us, particularly the man-made world. It’s with this notion that we can have a great appreciation for work in all its forms.
The form I create now is the truest expression of me at this moment.
When thinking & trying to understand Pareyson’s ideas I can’t help but think of Richard Tuttle’s wonderful art. Let me know if you agree with what I mean. Tuttle’s work always appears to be asking: “what is this–what am I?” Because his art objects “look” to be of such little effort, one instantly wants to have it validated, to give or impose a meaning onto the strange object. We’ve never seen such an odd little object. We automatically question its form (its right to exist). It might be within this bewilderment that (as we’ve discussed) we see shades of Lyotard’s sublime, but also we start to see Pareyson’s “forms” (formativity?) too. Tuttle had to make any number of decisions, changes, revisions, selections & whatever else, to produce any of his quirky little objects, hence a segment of his life is embedded within each object, and in fact we’ll call it a Richard Tuttle! That art object is a Richard Tuttle. What does that say about his life & the culture that produced him? Tuttle’s artwork represents existential-liberty, a liberty as a consequence of existence to make such an odd expression, a freedom to have such a tiny gesture, a stubborn, whispering object & in this simple form. The artwork is intrinsically linked with Tuttle’s life & ours, as bizarre as that may sound, since we are not separate from “form,” in all its infinite manifestations (& interpretations).
All of this is sidestepping (or at least not mentioning) what I see as the presence phenomenology in Pareyson’s thought. We already know that he has a background in the discipline & as you deftly draw-out a Pareysian similarity to Kant & his ideas on the noumena (or the thing-in-itself – ding an sich). This concept of Kant’s is tied up with phenomena (things as we perceive them). What is striking to me, is how much this feels like an incipient thread of phenomenology, where the way things appear & the things in & of themselves are of critical (indeed central) importance when doing phenomenological research. Remember Husserl’s famous dictum: “Go to the things themselves.”
What I’d like to know is how Kant’s ideas on phenomena/noumena are looked at now, in the light of phenomenology now? Also within these ideas, we see Pareyson urging us to experience the form in the fullest way possible (beyond science or beyond physics). The world (& its creative forms) around us is not separate from our way of perceiving it (according to phenomenology). The objective & the subjective modes of experience are made to join. The way we intend an object, the way it is given to us is not a simple object vs. mind problem, rather the way we perceive & understand the objects around us has everything to do with understanding perception, memory, experience, understanding &c. This all appears to be linked to Pareyson’s view of “form.” Form seen in this way is the fertile ground on which we can examine our own minds at work. Form as work in the world put under the lens of a hermeneutical-phenomenology (a way of interpreting how the world presents itself to our consciousness). How explicitly Pareyson really embraced this assumed phenomenological reading is unclear to me now.
“Interpretation is a form of knowing in which receptivity & activity are inseparable & where the known is a form & the knower a person.” –Luigi Pareyson
Your comments are always welcome!
January 25, 2010 § 8 Comments
(click on image to enlarge)
This additional dialogue was brought to be after I wrote the post Thantic Modernism. This was a short critique on the work of the Austrian artist Florian Pumhösl & his explorations of modern art. I also brought in some quotes of the philosopher Jean Baudrillard because of the philosopher’s ideas on “the end of history.” Baudrillard proposed an idea that society is doomed to continuously repeat & rehash the end, over & over, as with our pre-millennial paranoia, the (so-called) coming apocalypse, the (ostensible) death of painting, the (forecasting of a future) death of the novel, the end of modernism & so on. This idea of Baudrillard’s might be seen as the end of Enlightenment ideals, the end of a rational progress, the end of a rational ideal that sees history as linear. He also famously spoke of the “simulacra” (which is a consequence of the illusory end of history), as a phenomenon that replaced our notions of the real with the media-saturated image of what is “real.” The real (as Baudrillard saw it) is no longer real, rather it’s a simulacra of reality, or it’s hyper-real (more real than real). I wanted to connect Pumhösl’s art to this because it seemed that his project is primarily concerned with looking-back, repetition, re-visioning & revising modernism (“modernologies” as he has it).
My friend Reinaert de V. dropped by to comment & brought in Jean-François Lyotard, of whom I was aware of, but unable to speak of, since I hadn’t read much of his work. Now thanks to Reinaert de V.’s wonderful comments, I’m brought close to Lyotard’s thoughts & ideas. Reinaert de V. also posted this commentary on his blog.
As I later learned, Lyotard was well known for attempting to do-away with “meta-narratives” or the “grand-narratives.” Basically these are “rationalistic” leftovers, such as the idea that reason rules everything, or that we’re all moving toward progress, ad infinitum (which is slightly reflected in Baudrillard’s ideas). What we’re left with, is post modernism— & at the end of the meta-narrative.
Reinaert de V. also introduced me to Lyotard’s notion of the sublime. Lyotard borrows Kant’s sublime & updates it to mean something much more than Kant intended, thereby connecting a Kantian idea to his post-modern theory. The sublime in Lyotard’s hand helps us to see the un-representable, the unknown, that which cannot be expressed with words. When modern art approaches this sublime, Lyotard calls it the post-modern.
Of course, Reinaert de V. does a much better job elaborating on Lyotard’s idea/s & that’s why I’ve decided to post this additional exchange, sharing with you this important concept of the sublime (& much more), which I believe might help to understand better the difficult terrain of modern & contemporary art—now, then & into the future.
Where would I be, if not for the following comments by Reinaert de V.? Here are our Thantic Modernism comments:
Reinaert de V.: Nice work, I love the sentence: “[...] we learn to understand that a contemporary art of the NOW, is simply a thing of the past–gone to be revitalized later.”
It’s an interesting article, because F. Lyotard actually sees the Postmodern as a moment that comes before the Modern, and makes it possible. Lyotard describes this sublime moment in Postmodernism as disrupting the tranquility of representational art, by ‘not saying anything’, but just ‘being there’. He saw the Avant Garde movement as representing that moment…
According to Lyotard, Modernism basically capitalized on the inherent plenipotentiary of the sublime, by crafting a new Grand Narrative ‘on top of it’. But the way I see it, the Modern and the Postmodern need each other, and feed of each other. This follows from what J. Baudrillard writes: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore. What is there beyond the end?”
Even though Modernism ‘transgressed’ the postmodern moment, by smoothing over what can’t be (understood). This transgression actually harnesses the energy of that moment – or else it dissipates. Clearly Baudrillard’s statement gives demonstration of this dissipation. The momentum is gone and we awaken in the desert of the so-called real: “When everything can be seen, nothing can be seen anymore.”
But it also shows Grand Narratives always tend to creep back in, under-cover, because his statement indicates we now supposedly understand and ’see everything’. This can only mean we’re caught in a new (commodified) web of meaning and Truth. It shows we’re a long way away from that sublime moment which beckoned us to make a leap…
Aurelio: Can you explain the detail on Lyotard’s notion of post-modern as “before” the modern? I understand what you’ve outlined in terms of his anti-meta-narrative as self-contradictory &c.
Reinaert de V.: Lyotard’s thinking isn’t only postmodern but also has many neo-Kantian elements within it. For example, in his aesthetic theory, Lyotard has revived Kant’s theory of the beautiful and the sublime, and made it his own. That’s what I meant in the comment above, when I mentioned the ‘sublime’ of the ‘postmodern moment’. I’ll explain in some detail below.
According to Kant’s theory of aesthetics, a judgment of taste depends on the ‘free play of our cognitive faculties’. All rational beings are capable of cognition, which requires the connectibility of two faculties: Imagination (to gather together the manifold of sense-intuition) and Understanding (to unify these representations by means of concepts). Particular acts of cognition involve the connection of particular representations to particular concepts. But these acts presuppose an indeterminate general relationship – an underlying harmony of the two faculties. Put (too) simply: Beauty produces a spontaneous harmony, without being tied to anything particular. The sublime in contrast means disharmony between the two faculties, because it is aroused by objects that seem “as it were to do violence to the imagination”. They are characterized by a boundlessness that exceeds any form. The judgment of absolute greatness is non-conceptual and non-cognitive. Nothing observed by the senses permits this description, only something within: The Ideas of Reason (Vernunft), which reach beyond all possible experience…
So for Lyotard the sublime refers to the emancipation of art from both the classical role of imitation (mimesis) and the canon of the beautiful. The art object no longer bends itself to models and no longer testifies to a truth that can be conceptualized. Thus the role of (true) art should be to critique the social, and the idea of unity and communicability (of unproblematic accessibility). Speaking like a Marxist here, he thinks it should expose the inherent disharmony within social life, between the individual and society, and give witness to the unrepresentability of the Idea of ‘reality’ – so as to release the manifold of ideas. If instead, art tries to give consolation by way of establishing a sense of harmony and transparency in its use of form, it runs the danger of becoming mere propaganda. When this happens it becomes a tool in the service of something else, as has happened with ‘Social Realist’ art in Communist Russia.
Lyotard saw the Avant-Garde movement, at the beginning of the 20th century, as championing the sublime. Its exponents were no longer interested in faithfully representing (and so reproducing) ‘reality,’ instead, it was much more like an ongoing search, and an experimentation of the non-figurative kind. Even though some (like Proust and Chirico) kept a nostalgic longing for a lost unity in their work, others (like Cézanne, Delaunay, Duchamp, Mondrian, and Joyce) went all the way in their celebration of this ‘disconnection’ and farewell to form.
Now, Lyotard claims, that the Postmodern when it comes to art, is that sublime moment within modernity which reveals the limits of representation, but which denies itself the consolation found in the beauty of form. Put differently: It is a search for the limits of our imagination through representation, and exposing this lack in all its terrifying glory! But this radical and original artistic impulse (the full potential of art) gets silenced by modernity through the reestablishment of the rules of form: The dictates of Beauty, if you will. Curbing, or checking this freedom of art and imagination, which by its very unrestrained nature must necessarily precede modernity and makes it possible. These ‘super-imposed’ strictures simultaneously sooth our anxiety in the face of such ‘radical freedom’ – which is a recurrent theme in Existentialist philosophy as well.
Aurelio: …nice of you to follow-up with your additional insight.
“…says Lyotard, a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern, for postmodernism is not modernism at its end but in its nascent state, that is, at the moment it attempts to present the un-presentable, ‘and this state is constant’. The postmodern, then, is a repetition of the modern as the ‘new,’ and this means the ever-new demand for another repetition.”
I’ve found the above quote from the postmodernism entry at Stanford’s online philosophy encyclopedia. It also answers my question (in addition to your fine explication) on how Lyotard saw the relationship between the modern & the postmodern. Apparently the two are differentiated by the sublime (de-void of the omnipresent meta-narrative). The sublime as addressing the un-presentable (&c.), (I’ll call it an enigma, or even a kind of Buddhist Myo , generally meaning: essential mystery). T/his idea of the sublime is very useful with regard to works of cutting-edge art nowadays, with all its “difficulty,” its resistance & its unforgiving opacity.
The trouble I was having, had to do with thinking of the idea of the Postmodern as preceding the Modern. The issue might be resolved when we let go of this as chronological & place it in a Lyotard’s terms. Conversely, it is worth noting that Lyotard does use Burke & Kant’s 18th century sublime to address the Postmodern & this might lean toward a chronological perspective after all. The Enlightenment (sublime) was more Postmodern than the Modern (re: Lyotard)?
Reinaert de V.: Yes, your quote perfectly captures the essence of Lyotard’s thought in this regard. You’re also right in your comment about the chronology. Lyotard speaking as a Hegelian-Marxist has a teleological view of history, but with all such views there must be an underlying ahistorical principle. A dynamic principle that finds its development within history. It is no surprise we come across that hidden principle in his aesthetic theory, where the chronological view of history is suddenly transformed into an ahistorical one. Since art, being closely related to religion, simply takes the place of the former – which has been left officially dead and buried since Nietzsche. About your remark about the Enlightenment, you might also be right. Not in the sense of a ‘chronology’, but about it being the proper postmodern moment in Lyotard’s sense of the term, or start of the modern movement.
With all the foregoing in mind, I’d like to end by briefly returning to the project of the artist as described above. For I don’t think Lyotard would describe this art as properly postmodernist as he understood the term. Take for example the sentence: “This new art is a memorial to an idealized time gone by, now perhaps, with an unrecognized hum of nostalgia.” This clearly shows the nostalgia Lyotard accuses some modern artist of harboring when it comes to their hesitant use of the sublime. A nostalgia for an unproblematic, but unreachable – because forever lost – sense of Unity (Transcendental Totality). While the true (post)modern artist, according to Lyotard, celebrates the fracture of ‘reality’, so as to release form from its formal constraints.
Of course Lyotard doesn’t approve of Baudrillard’s commodified world, where everything is obscene and superficial, a mere play of form in the service of commerce. Where signs stop referring and become self-referential objectified commodities themselves (read: simulacra). He does want to keep (true) art focused on this inherently broken nature of modernity: the Anxiety of the Un-presentable. The fracture at the heart of modernity that keeps the engine going (forever renewing itself). But he does want them to stop longing and start accepting!
Pumhösl’s art, in this respect – apart from the question of the inherent value of his work as objective visual artifacts – is clearly a step backwards, because his whole project is about a sense of loss, namely: the nostalgia Lyotard is speaking about… You could argue Pumhösl thematizes time itself or the problematic of memory & history etc, but he does it in a way that betrays the bankruptcy of the so-called ‘postmodern’ art of today. To put it differently: postmodern art seems to me to be all out of Ideas: it can only look back, in an “endless proliferation, or “necro-spective” of the past”. And this is what I meant with dissipation: by not properly harnessing the energy of the sublime, as modernity did, art ultimately fell victim to big money (as Baudrillard clearly shows). For in the end art was left defenseless, not able to retreat any further, because all the big Ideas had been systematically shot down. The last of which was Lyotard’s very own: the Existentialist Heroic Confrontation with a Constant Crisis (Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus”), which simply wears you down…
“Instead of first existing, works of art now go straight into the museum. Instead of being born & dying, they are born as virtual fossils.” Indeed, this is not something we should be celebrating, but a sad statement of fact. We simply have no idea anymore what to put on display.
Aurelio: What another incredible reply you’ve written!
Once you present the idea that Lyotard might be coming to this with an ahistorical perspective, you contextualize for me, the notion that postmodern thought reflects an enlightenment sublime—re: a neo-Kantian Lyotard.
When I set out to write this post, I wanted to write about art now, 2009. Pumhösl’s name arrived in a recent review in Artforum & I thought I’d write about his interesting project. I started to look at how his art was a gesture of looking back &c. I then thought to connect the art with the philosophy of Baudrillard & perhaps Lyotard. Baudrillard seemed a good fit, since he spoke of the “end of history” & its illusions of “the end.” I couldn’t on the other hand, tie in Lyotard because it seemed out of balance & because I don’t have enough Lyotard’s ideas within reach (I’m brought closer, now thanks to you). So, Baudrillard was workable. Needless to say, writing about art of today caused a looking back, which could not be avoided or overlooked. I was looking at time & how it reverberated through this art.
That Pumhösl is (a) post-modernist is anyone’s guess. If you go into the Modernoloigies link that I’ve provided at the end of the post (which was an exhibit by the same name in Barcelona). Pumhösl has a podcast on his work in the exhibition. Oddly enough, I don’t think he mentions of the term post-modern—he only calls his art post-conceptual. The introductory notes for the exhibit write that artists in the show are now looking to how “Modernism attempted to illustrate the experiences and ramifications of modernity in artistic forms – and in undertaking this project it was almost post-modern.” I feel the show almost had a certain shyness around the term (post modern). Perhaps it is simply out of fashion. I tried to use the term reluctantly, knowing that again, Pumhösl never uses the term post-modern. From there, we’re left outside of the term.
Now, the way that you have found to bring Lyotard in, is just right, you felt his influence lingering in the ideas.
As for the nostalgia, we shouldn’t say that Pumhösl uses this as a motif–this was my interpretation of his work. His work is about remembering & with that, I feel nostalgia is not too far away. This is why I thought his art wasn’t cynical enough to bypass a slight feeling of nostalgia. However, your term (Transcendental Totality) seems to get very close to the vision of modernism as Utopian & this brings us closer to an issue Pumhösl might/would agree with. Basically looking at how the project of Modernism was over-idealistic &c. all presented in his typically dead-pan way.
Also, the last parts of your reply get to a problem with contemporary art (since the use of the word post-modern is in question) & its exhaustion of ideas. This is the core of what I’m trying to point to in the post. There are so many examples of this exhaustion in the art-world (I’ll spare you a list), I mean a sort of spiritual exhaustion that’s very close to the feelings & anxiety Baudrillard describes. Believe it or not, I’m not sure one should be too disappointed with art that is like this. If we say that art is a reflection of ourselves & that art is spiritually bereft, it is safe to say society is somewhat spiritually bereft. This observation is not new & we know this, but do we admit it to ourselves, when we look at art? Do we, allow art to be spiritually bereft, especially if it can nudge us to consider our lives & our own problems. This is part of its value. It is an expression of our condition—as mournful as it is.
…& to question all this again, I’ve found this quote:
“There shall be no mourning” (il n’y aura pas de deuil) –Jean-François Lyotard
Reinaert de V.: I am in absolute agreement with your comment above, and I find your defense of Pumhösl more than fair.
I’ve to be honest: it was your post that first gave me an impression of his work, so shame on me for criticizing it in arm-chair-fashion But on a more serious note, this is an illustration of what you might call the general problem of ‘Art versus Art Philosophy’. They both exist and operate in a dialectical fashion. Art Philosophy always tries to analyze and orientate itself according to particular works of art and artist, that it sees as representing a certain way of experiencing or thinking about the world. Even though the particular artists in question might sincerely disagree with the labels they might get, claiming they didn’t have any such intention, or that their work shouldn’t be read that way but in a certain other way etc. Those are fair points to make, and they’re free to argue so, but for the art philosopher those objections are basically beside the point. The artwork simply exist out there as an artifact, free to be interpreted any which way that seems to fit. Of course there should be argumentation and explication, but an artwork does exist in a context and in that sense it is a certain expression or comment on that context. Of course artists in their turn, make use and comment on those theories and philosophies (that influence art and society) in their artworks, hence the dialectic.
To tie it all back to Mr. Pumhösl and your excellent piece on his work. He might very well not be – or consider himself not to be – a postmodernist, I leave that up to him. But I was responding on the postmodern context he’s placed in, and how could he not be? We still live to an important extent in the ‘postmodern condition’ and he’s responding to his times, like you rightly point out.
I see my role as art philosopher to struggle with the theory surrounding art, and of course the struggle of theorizing about art itself. I don’t do this (only) for fun, but because art calls out for interpretation. They are ‘artifacts’, or man-made creations that, because of that fact, express something about “man” who made it and the society it was made in. After all, in the creation of an object, all sorts of ‘decisions’ have been made and those imply intelligibility. Art in this sense is simply a more fundamental mode of communication to me – one that reaches beyond language. This doesn’t mean my reading is the final reading, but that I should make my reading as persuasive as possible by taking as much into account as possible and bring it all to some kind of synthesis – that is: including reasonable views that differ from mine.
Well, I’m glad we agree on the spiritual exhaustion bit, but many out there would still disagree, or remain too attached to the ideas that make this exhaustion a fact. What I mean, is that postmodern theory as it has developed, is the main culprit for the critical state art finds itself in. I’m not altogether against postmodern theory, but when you look at what it has to say about art it won’t make you a happy camper. In fact, postmodernists content the very term ‘art’ not to mention their outright hostility towards the museum as an institution… To me postmodern art is a highly conceptualized form of ‘art’ where academics or theory seems to come first, and art a distant and pale second. I won’t go into all of that here, cuz it will take way too long to substantiate, but I’ll be writing on that somewhere else soon. In the sense that this ’spiritual exhaustion is an expression of our condition’ we should of course put every effort in changing that (postmodern) condition, and that means analyzing what it means and how it can be changed, if at all…
Aurelio: I agree with your point on the dialectical nature of the (Pumhösl’s) art objects as artifacts to philosophize over. I also agree that this is an aspect of a possible dialectical relationship we decide to have with the artifact/s, aside from the issue of whether Pumhösl positions himself (& his practice) as a post-modernist. After all, it is surprising that he seems to have this hesitancy with the term. As I’ve alluded to already, the term post modern (in contemporary art practice, criticism & writing) has fallen out of currency. It is not clear to me why this is. Perhaps it is simply no longer fashionable. The term nowadays has a kind of negative connotation that implies a sort of academic posturing &/or affected pretense. Please, please don’t get me wrong, we ignore the term at our own peril, since as you have so concisely illustrated, the term is very useful, especially when it brought closer to its main philosophical advocates, Baudrillard & Lyotard.
As for philosophy & art writing, I’ve come across an issue of the art magazine “frieze,” where Jörg Heiser writes on some of the problems of this combination (art & theory). In it he addresses & questions how art & philosophy are in conflict. He also looks at how philosophers like Baudrillard & Lyotard have been aligned with the moody & often hard to pin-down art world.
I’d like to also thank you for presenting Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime in aesthetics. Any diligent reader should learn something from your excellent explications of the philosophy. That the sublime in art can bring us closer to understanding fracture, confusion, un-reason, impossibility & the un-representable, is key to having a better understanding of art today.
I am looking forward to reading anymore of your aesthetics & philosophy. From what I can see you are in Amsterdam which has plenty of cutting-edge art to think about & experience.
Please continue…the future is bright!
Reinaert de V.: First off, I don’t mind if you have a negative (or positive) opinion about postmodernism, since everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion. My own feelings on postmodern philosophy are very ambiguous… So feel free to write whatever you like. In fact the more honest the better! In the ‘arena of ideas’ the most valid will (hopefully) win out in the end, and of course that ‘ideological battle’ will ultimately be won with the soundest arguments. Anyways, the points I wanted to clear up had to do with the ‘chronology’ or ‘ahistorical perspective’ of Lyotard’s ideas on the sublime and a ‘nascent postmodern moment’.
I was perhaps a bit to hasty in my analysis on that point, by ‘explaining it away’ as a hidden Hegelian-Marxist principle working in the background of his philosophy. I think, his idea of post-modernity as a moment that is closely linked to the modern, is in fact one I would subscribe to and find very illuminating (even though I don’t agree with every thing he says). The Enlightenment was in a sense the ‘postmodern moment’, I think (even though Lyotard himself clearly restricts this notion to art only, not society). Not only was it the birth of modernity, but as such it was a highly creative and liberating moment in western history. Of course Burke and Kant’s “sublime” were in important aspects very different from Lyotard’s use of the term, but Kant did furnish the conceptual basis for it (more so than Burke). Secondly, Lyotard as I read him clearly illustrates the close symbiotic link between modernity and post-modernity as being two sides of the same coin. Like I tried to show in the beginning, I think his mistake is in discarding the modern as being a mere fossil of a dynamic postmodern principle. My idea is perhaps closer to Kant’s original idea, because I think the one needs the other. You can’t have pure ‘postmodernity’ (in Lyotard’s sense) or just fossilized ‘modernity,’ instead they should be working in tandem!
A useful (Kantian inspired) aesthetic theory by Luigi Pareyson’s will demonstrate what I mean by this. He makes a distinction between forma formata and forma formante, or ‘formed form’ and ‘forming form’. According to Pareyson when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form, it’s forma formata so to speak, or to put it differently: the rule that’s incapsulated in its objective form, that ‘informs’ its form. But also, we shouldn’t exclude criteria external to the work of art, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to explain why (or how) the artist decided to alter or change aspects of the work during the creative process. This is a dialectical process similar to the problem of ‘art vs art philosophy’, I mentioned above. Society influences (both directly and indirectly) the creative process of the artist and thus the created artwork, but once the work of art is created and ‘out there’ it exists in opposition to society and because of that fact – and its social origin – it is able to ’speak’ to society indirectly (also because it’s a ‘useless’ object). This is the forma formante, and also an important idea in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. In both cases, the work of art falls under a rule that it established by its very creation, even there where it becomes something it ‘didn’t want to be’.
Coming back to the relationship between modernity and postmodernity: I think their relationship should be viewed along similar lines. First, with the establishment with modernity the influence of religion and tradition falls away, so to the ‘givenness’ of things. Humanity no longer has a direct line to the ‘things in themselves’ but is from then on fundamentally cut off (from the cosmos). Reason was now confronted with a blind uncaring, and ultimately absurd – because inhuman – outside world (beginning of psychology). This process of secularization or de-sacralization – which led to an endless (analytical) fragmentation of everything – has been slow and painful, but the decisive blow fell with the Enlightenment. Well, the “split” Lyotard mentions and posits in ’sublime of the postmodern moment’, is basically a process of alienation. Even though artworks ‘liberated’ themselves in one sense (mainly from the ‘referrent’) and becoming everything they wanted to be, they also ran the risk – by that very fact – of becoming nothing (meaningful) at all. Since in essence art’s ‘unconscious’ rebellion was against meaning; that is against making sense of the whole, by being dominated by the ‘referrent’ (or referring to something outside of itself = meaning), thus freeing the ‘object’ of art.
So modern art is a very complicated and unique phenomenon to say the least, but not a very healthy one… Lyotard is of course right in signaling that this tension or split, is a huge source of creative energy and has the potential to endlessly inspire and motivate artists (in the sense of the famous Rorschach test). At the same time though, if ‘modernity’ disappears from the scene completely this energy dissipates, or perhaps you should say, the energy isn’t used. Because we need a creative project, so we can have a creative process, so as to create something. Such as the project of modernity…
Humanity is ‘doomed’ to make sense of the whole/world, even if it can’t. The artist has a need, corresponding to that of humanity, and that is finding meaning in everything around him and the means to do that, is subjecting the ‘object’ in art to his will. Of course this isn’t even a choice we have to make, because we can’t not do it. Which brings me back to what’s wrong with postmodernism as it exist now: Baudrillard shows the logic of our age and shows the lie – or denial – that is postmodernities Cloaked Grand Narrative.
Like you said, art reflects our current situation, and civilizations come and go, when cultures grow jaded and become retrospective… (read this excellent article!!!) Yet the fact we’re now experiencing a lack of inspiration doesn’t mean we are dead, it just means we’re on a dead track and should get back on track – to use a nice modern metaphor.
(Between these two comments we had an e-mail exchange where I asked about Lyotard’s term the differend & how it relates to the sublime.)
Reinaert de V.: I must say my friend Aurelio, that I really enjoyed our philosophical conversation! Even though I’m very critical of postmodernism (perhaps even biased to some degree), I do think every tradition and every art-form deserves recognition and is entitled to the best defense. Something you did with flair and an open mind in your piece on Pumhösl’s art. I’ll also try and answer your email-question on Lyotard’s “Differend” and how I think it’s related to his notion of the “Sublime”.
The loose threads I mentioned, have to do with Luigi Pareyson’s (Kantian inspired) aesthetics, which instead of clarifying my point, confounded it (since I left it untied to my main argument). His ideas of the “forma formata” (formed form) and “forma formante” (forming form) fit in perfectly with Kant’s (obviously) and Lyotard’s philosophy. If you see the ’sublime of the postmodern moment’ as an “event” that essentially disrupts the space-time-continuum (forgive my spacy choice of words , it thereby shows the inherently broken nature of our experience of reality. When you define “reality” as that what can be shown to be true (through scientific method), than it can never be in harmony with the Ideas, because these ‘Ideas’ always have to do with the totality of things. In this case the ‘world’ we inhabit, but it can also refer to other essentially unrepresentable things. We can only suggest such Ideas, for example: standing at the foot of the pyramids of Giza, gives you the impression (and sensation!!!) of grandeur, ‘the infinitely big’, and a feeling of being over-powered. These are characteristics of the sublime. It is related to the feeling of fear, in that the sensation is over-powering, absorbing, too much to register, and/or because it’s literally a force that assails you (think of horror and disaster movies). Yet at the same time it gives a certain form of pleasure, because you are able to experience all these sensations safely. But more importantly: because it shows that these Ideas are bigger than everything that effectively surrounds us, bigger than everything we can make or think of, even ‘bigger’ than that our cognitive capacity is able to process (at that moment) and yet we can still “sense” them, despite or because of that! This is how Kant’s famous dictum must be understood:
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily reflection is occupied with them: the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me. Neither of them need I seek and merely suspect as if shrouded in obscurity or rapture beyond my own horizon; I see them before me and connect them immediately with my existence.” – Critique of Practical Reason (1788)
It always makes me think of Monty Python’s excellent “Live Organ Transplants” sketch in “The Meaning of Life”, where you get more-or-less with tongue-in-cheek the same logic (albeit a bit cynically). Where the gruesome, mindless murder of the husband is (perhaps) too much for the wife to take in, and the ‘doctors’ use Kant’s notion of the enormity of ‘the starry heaven above’ to legitimize, trivialize, and even distract from the absurdity of the moral-disaster taking place in the living room.
Anyway, the point is (as I explained above) that with the advent of modernity (Enlightenment) this ‘rupture’ took centre stage. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t noticed it before that time, but it didn’t use to be such a problem traditionally. Remi Brague throws some unexpected light on this problem, in his fantastic and meticulously researched book “The Law of God”. He traces it back to the evolution – and ultimate fracture with the arrival of physics – of the concept of law within the Classical & Christian traditions. Confrontation with this ‘rupture’ (“beckoning us to make a leap”) used to be experienced as a mystical rapture, which led to a reaffirmation of God. But as existentialism shows this is only one of the possibilities, namely a solution theorized by S. Kierkegaard. A. Camus on the other hand saw this confrontation as one that shouldn’t be overcome, by reaching a synthesis on a higher level (Aufhebung). According to him: the modern mind should acknowledge the ultimate meaningless chaos that is life, thus it shouldn’t jump to conclusions to alleviate its fear of the unknown, and it shouldn’t overstep the boundaries of science. With science one should always remember that to do science one can’t explain ‘everything’ but one has to break a problem down to manageable elements and focus on solving those one at a time. So science in its endless specializations is fractured as well, and it admits that it can’t give us the meaning or purpose of life. Some people even consider these notions (to be dangerously) nostalgic, and others, of a more positivist nature, would say a notion of God is meaningless to begin with, since it cannot be proven nor disproven. Well, with the first blow, the cracks slowly spread, wider and wider…
If we agree on this fundamental “break” (cut off from tradition) or “fracture”, we can see how it animates modernity’s program of the progress of reason, by slicing up everything in manageable pieces. Postmodernism on the other hand can be understood as an endless, ahistorical “now”, namely the repetition of this moment of fracture through history: a moment of existential crisis on a personal or cultural level, and of endless creativity. A crisis which can be (re)solved in many different ways… Modernity and its program being one of those solutions. Modernity kept close to its source of origin (the moment of rupture), by endlessly repeating it, trying to pin it down or perhaps to get over it, and yet at the same time alienated by it, because of its rationalist attitude.
This turned into quite a little story I see, lol. Let’s bring in Luigi Pareyson’s aesthetics now and close off with Lyotard’s “Differend”. If what I said above is more or less correct, it follows that modernity and postmoderity are closely linked and have a certain structure. Now, the sublime is the postmodern “moment”, and reveals itself as such, but in order to recognize it for what it is (a rupture) you’ve to have a clear and steady gaze, and not make the ‘leap over the abyss’ too soon. The idea of the “formed form” is essentially ‘the postmodern’ from the perspective of the critic, applied to art: “when judging a work of art you can’t make use of any ‘given’ criteria. Instead the work of art should be able to be judged according to it’s own form”. In other words: don’t jump to conclusions but let the object of art speak for itself. But more importantly: there’s a structure that’s revealed, namely one that follows from its own form, and that revealed structure corresponds to modernity… This “forming form” is the effective force that moves us in a certain direction – without us consciously knowing it – and follows from the original form of the postmodern moment. Which modernity’s progress by constantly repeating it, has slowly but surely led us to recognize or acknowledge, namely: that the moment of fracture is the postmodern within modernity – animating it throughout… Thus the question should be: what comes next? Is it possible with this insight to renew modernity, or jump-start some other “program”, or does it only work when it’s working in the background, structured unconsciously? Are we now able to ‘jump’ wherever we like, as if in one big creative experiment, limited only by our imagination? These are the interesting and important questions I believe, because postmodernism itself is essentially a never-ending “now”, beckoning us to make that leap, and start something…
Finally, to come back to Lyotard’s “Differend” and what it means… Basically it’s a fundamental difference of opinion or a controversy. According to Lyotard such a dispute cannot be resolved through consensus as the parties speak radically heterogeneous languages (a sublime characteristic). To translate or paraphrase the terms of such a dispute would therefore prejudge the issue for one party (creating a false harmony). The only way out of this conundrum is by making use of Kant’s notion of the “Reflexive Judgment” which is similar to the idea of the “formed form” (since the second is inspired by the first). This means taking the time and effort to judge competing language-genres (like science, rhetoric, erotics etc) according to their own form. It is the capacity to detect the commonalities on basis of what is given, but in a critical fashion: by not neglecting the irreducible differences. Lyotard believes like Kant that it is essential for people to develop this (moral) capacity or sensibility, by remaining open for the eventualities and slight – but important – nuances of language. He suggests that this “Bildung” (through literature and the Humanitas) of a cultured person is necessary, but under serious pressure from the modern capitalist economy. Since economy is about winning time (efficiency) and thus not taking the time to develop (culture). The capitalist mentality of making money is at odds with the other genres and slowly taking them over, creating a “differend”. With enough time the other language-genres are judged on its terms by its rules, something they can never win. “Money” is the sign of the time-won and turns into the measure of everything, meaning that only everything which has the potential to make money has value and counts as something. So, like with Baudrillard and Marx, Lyotard focuses on the leveling and indifferent character of money.
…and that is that!
Aurelio: Wow, more incredible ideas, you’re in a rapid-fire philosophical pace now!
…& as we keep saying, this’ll be my last comment.
Starting with Lyotard as neo-Kantain, (again & after/during our discussion), I’ve come upon a couple of salient points in reference to the sublime & Kant. In “The Sublime & the Avant-Garde,” Lyotard writes:
“Even before romantic art had freed itself from classical & Baroque figuration, the door had thus been opened to inquiries pointing towards abstract & minimal art. Avant-gardism is thus present in germ in the Kantian aesthetic of the sublime.”
Before Kant we had Burke, Longinus & others of whom Lyotard draws on for the sublime. When I wanted to look at art of the NOW, I had to look at the unavoidable past (a kind of obvious paradox of the new). I like that you do not want to disregard Kant’s influence. This is perfect, because we can still find value in the genius of Kant for his sublime, as differentiated from beauty, the sublime as the sensation of awesome grandeur & so on. Lyotard also says that Kant compared the sublime to the biblical commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…,” to this Lyotard writes: “optical pleasure when reduced to mere nothingness, promotes an infinite contemplation of infinity.” Amazing, now we’re at the Bible, geez, who would’ve guessed? But we’re also at an understanding that’s very today, now, of the moment, questions of representation of the profound, & representing faith (as contrasted or understood with reason).
You also have me thinking of Pareyson & I’m wondering if there is any phenomenological thread in his work? From the little I’ve found, he’s hermeneutical & with what you’ve written here, I’m slightly hesitant to compare him to Clement Greenberg (the well-know art critic who championed formalism). His writing basically tried to strip the art object down to its basics—the clarity of form, any thing outside of that was moot. He wrote on postmodernism too, but I’m not sure he was all that much in favor of the term, in fact I think he was disdainful. He wanted to appreciate the medium, the shapes, and the forms of art, but he became too rigid & bossy in his later years & was dethroned as the ultimate expert, the last word was no longer his. His famous term was “post-painterly abstraction.” Following Greenberg was minimalism which moved into form with wild abandon & in fact we see minimalism’s spirit in Pumhösl’s forms.
As for Pareyson’s notion that the work of art should be judged only by it form, this idea is intriguing, I’ll have to look out for his work. From what you’ve described I want to read more…
Some of my abstract work was very formal, with respect to materials as the “subject.” It was a way of looking at the object (hanging on a wall) with attention to the structure of the physical object, but I was also aware of the “meaning,” as subordinate. The art object is first an object, and then it’s art (when finished by the viewers/audience gaze). So writing about all this, makes me want to create with a newly informed enthusiasm. I suppose I’m doing that right now as I write—this is the (post-modern) creative act, we are right here–taking a ride though the sublime, approaching the un-representable!
(click on image to enlarge)
I’m very interested in your comments where the sublime/post modern art object threatens to become meaningless—which is where a lot of people still would argue, that this IS the state of art today. But, it is valuable for us to see & observe the mysteries of life—or that mystery is essential & fundamental. It is in this arena that art can summon energy–& it does. It’s a kind of courage one has to face, when faced with the unknown, the unexplainable, and the outer edges of logic (reason). Contemporary art is always on this borderline, this rupture, the absurd, ironic, cynical, offensive, & yes, just outwardly insane.
I agree with you that these are stressful times & that the art object is not always an answer, rather it’s usually a question. How am I regarded, how far can I push an idea, or how far can I push the imagination & how far can I push a convention (a norm)? Everyday culture doesn’t know how to regard this troublesome art, because it’s challenging them to think & react in new ways that are uncomfortable & highly specialized. Philosophy can help with this since some of its job is to look at perception, judgments of taste, aesthetics &c. &c.
“From the sublime, springs a lot of reflection” –Longinus
…we’ll speak again
Later, I asked Reinaert de V. about his studies now & he sent this:
“The thesis I’m writing is on Pragmatism and Critical Theory, and using their major proponents (John Dewey & Theodor W. Adorno respectively) with the purpose of arriving at a new synthesis.
Well, I won’t go into the technical details and the immense work that it turned into… I’m not sure if you need to put all that into my bio. You can leave it at me majoring in philosophy, specialized in the subject of aesthetics. You can of course mention these two important currents in modern thought as being of special interest to me. But my love for philosophy reaches across the centuries and isn’t clearly demarcated. I love the 16th and 17th century in philosophy with it’s clear prose and socialcontract theorists, but Postmodern philosophy can also be very exciting in its sometimes obscure and convoluted way (it goes without saying that the Greeks are of great inspiration as well.
Why Aesthetics? I can be very honest with you, and you might be very surprised I always had a love of cultures, customs, religions and books. Early on I used to read big books in English, these were mostly fantasy novels (starting with JRR Tolkien), and though of course I also read serious literature. But my love for fantasy used to run deep! Except the books would always end and then it would be back to reality… Now, the thing I love about philosophy is that you can use your imagination to create new ways of seeing and thinking about the world, but in order to do that forces you to struggle with the (real) world. So, even though I love escapism in all its forms (and don’t think it’s unhealthy), I’m also very pragmatic in my thinking, probably due to my upbringing and Dutch culture. Nothing is so exciting as trying to follow someone’s wild fancies (like Lacan’s) and see them slowly crystallize into something new and meaningful, or gawk at a crystal clear deliberation of great thinkers like B. Spinoza or T. Aquinas.
Thus I chose aesthetics, because I think it’s one of the more practical branches of philosophy. Not only because the battle in philosophy at the moment is basically a cultural battle (Postmodernism, Crisis of Western Identity), but also because philosophy (and imagination) has the most freedom to operate in a domain like art. The role of philosophy as a way to orientate oneself (and speculate and meditate) will never go away as long as we remain human, and even though it isn’t a ‘science’ humanity can never do without it because of that. In the end we’re all naïve philosophers, like we’re all naïve psychologists, since we all have access to the same ‘material’, namely: our human nature. Which means the domain of art will always be free of science and thus always be a last bastion for philosophy.”