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.