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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Art Without Essence

Art without essence

Art abstracts; art supplements. These are the two operations of art.

They are the operations of language and all representation which has as its object that which lies outside the representation.

The question in any work of art: story, painting, poem, is What is it representing? What is it supplementing?

A photograph; a painting; a sculpture—whether or not its subject is “drawn from life.” The art takes into it self elements of the subject: color, texture, depth, appearance. The art supplements with what is not there: paint for cloth for example, marble for flesh, flatness for depth, ideality of expression (dealing with so called representational art); color for emotion (in so-called nonrepresentational art, which is symbolic (metaphoric or metonymic) but still representational if that word means anything).

Everything accurately captured by the art is represented; everything else is supplemented. In fact the difference is not simply categoric. The plaster is always utterly representational and supplemental depending on the point of seeing of the observer—artist and spectator equally are observers. Representation says Derrida always fails because presence itself always fails. But we are not representing things in themselves but ideas of things, taking things and our ideas about things and putting them together. So what we are representing is itself always a supplement. But there is still always ineluctably an element of representation. Our ideas and feelings about what we are representing are themselves being represented at the same time that they are supplements to the object. (How odd that we can use “subject” and “object” interchangeably here.)

When one posits essence, one can say it is the task of art to “capture the essence of the object.” What is not captured in this case, what is left out, is superfluous or otherwise inessential. We paint the president and project his essential commander-in-chiefness; we ignore his playfulness, his sense of humor. These are not his essence. We paint the nude. We display her essential sexuality, her essential humanity. We exclude her inessential pettiness etc.

When we no longer believe in essences we paint situationally, historically, in the moment, for the purpose, for what needs to be said now and to a given audience, ourselves, or viewers. “I want to understand the thing,” the nude body. But there is no understanding the thing in itself since nothing exists in itself.

What needs to be said now does not need to be said eternally, but only now. What needs to be said now will get us back, however, ineluctably, to essences. What is the need of now if not an essential need? We need to stop global warming, governmental corruption because survival is good, justice is good essentially. Or even if only useful, they are useful for an end declared as good.

No. We can declare these “goods” as provisional essences, predicates of “if” clauses: If we agree that global survival is good, then corruption and global warming should be kept in check. Survival is a provisional good for humans. Yet it is not certain we can abandon the notion of essence.

What about beauty? Aesthetics? Beauty entices us, crudely, the bikini in the tool ad, subtly, the colors in a Monet. We discover the beauty in an object through art. We bring out the beauty in an object; we supplement the object with beauty. The question is then whose interest does the beauty serve? The art object. Beauty has many functions. We send the bimbo to the gambler to distract him so we can steal his money. We send the Monet to the art collector—so we can steal his money in the form of payment. He buys a painting. He buys prestige, honor, position, envy in the form of a Monet. The whole socio-political structure stands.


  1. I like the fact that this expresses a fundamental frustration and glory of art. Art, as an essence is always a carrier, but never the same to everyone. A person lives a life full of changes, an understandable reason why each one may view another differently. A painting, sculpture, stained-glass, etc. on the other hand, since it was borne out of an essence which one may assume is more exacting, since it does not change to the extent of a human, is still something that communicates differently. What does one talk about then, the differences of opinion about the subject and its specific portrayal, or the differences of meaning from the artist? It is argued that a work of art can stand alone without one knowing the artist. This is true, but it becomes more limiting than I prefer. The artist themselves may provide context through which one might find out more about their meaning and essence in their work.

    One can view art for how it may affect them and what they think about it. One may also try and rack their brain and understanding to comprehend the artists' intention. Both actually, are important, though the latter approach may help the viewer in understanding more about the intended essence. You may argue that meaning may not be intended, which is true. But is meaning only found in intention? Or is it here where personal interpretation is alloted its rightful place? Is meaning always ascribed or can it possibly be inherent?

    Is there such a thing as a true essence? And if so, can its creative re-representation be controled, or to what extent can one tangentize and be said to maintain the original as opposed to being the pangs and writhings of a something, coming.

  2. It's interesting that you call the failure to address the artist's intentions "limiting." Generally it is the invocation of intention that is limiting. Those who insist on discovering--through or around the work--the artist's intent want to find a method for dismissing the work: Intend creates work, work manifests intend, discovering intent means knowing the work.

    If we decide beforehand we will ignore the creator and all notion of intent, we have arbitrarily limited the work. Yes. But the impulse is one invoked in order to open up the work. Meaning becomes infinite, and unpredictable--but not uncontrollable. The work enters the flow of language.

    We can also expand the focus on the mere creator to ask: what did history intend in creating this work ("intend" is used in a quasi-metaphorical way). What did the episteme intend? Why at the moment of history in which this work emerged did this work become possible? Why was it promoted? What interests did it serve? Why and how in all of the history since has the work continued to be promoted? Why Van Gogh? Why then, when now, why in between?

    The quality of the work, the newness of the style, the astuteness of the vision can never fully answer the questions.

  3. I suppose that if one took historical considerations into account, this would add the element of context into a work that, to certain contexts, is relevant or even necessary; this reference being what an author/artist for a work would also tend to do. I think that if one were desirous to know an authors' intent with the motive to either approve or disapprove/accept or reject the work, then indeed this is too limiting. Because knowing an authors' intent, however, may become a dangerous element to the worth of the work itself, the reaction to this (and still be balanced) should not necessarily be to disregard the placement of the artist and his/her juxtaposition to the work.

    As an example: you can know the Battle of Waterloo well enough without knowing anything about Napoleon it is quite true. And it is also true, that ones' knowledge of Napoleon may even taint ones' ability to understand the glories and failures of Waterloo in and of itself. One may, however (and does, actually), take their knowledge of Napoleon and allow it as an additive to the whole, as opposed to detractive ends. There is something quite Waterlooish about Napoleon and something rather Napoleonesque about Waterloo.

    Hitler is another good example, to follow this through historical means. If we knew Hitler, we could not say that we would know D-Day. This would be wholly innacurate. In fact, we could know D-Day without knowing Hitler at all. But D-Day and Hitler gives us a trajectory of some kind, a reference, even possibly an anchor, a springboard (more actually). As I see it, this is a dangerous correlation, because both may be lost in trying to understand either one too much in light of the other. But danger is always an interesting spot to work in.

    But I tend to at least try and approach things with the spirit of "as they are" and see where it falls. It is a position of a lot of information with less conclusions to compensate.

  4. Now I'd say you're dead on. No one can either forbid or require the invocation of the author, and we can read effectively with or without (or ineffectively depending on what we're trying to accomplish in our reading). Keep in mind that works circulated for centuries without authors attached. Think of the Old Testament (though some of those books have names attached to them, think of how imperfectly helpful and even potentially those names are if we think of them as authors' names) and Myth and the whole oral tradition. Interpretation was not thought to be a problem.

    Our modern notion of author, as your Foucault will attest (see "What Is an Author?" or an essay I wrote called "What Else Is an Author?" but you might have trouble finding that one) is an effect of copyright, technology, and capitalism. It's not an organic part of a text.