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December 15, 2004

Fragmentary Thinking

Franklin Einspruch and J.T. Kirkland are engaged in what may turn out to be a bit of a back and forth at their respective blogs on issues of meaning and thought in looking at art [Update: Round 2—Einspruch, Kirkland]. Knowing the rather healthy comment cultures both blogs sustain, this could get interesting. It could even turn into that whole vaunted blog dialogue thing, hampered only by the possiblity that they may well be discussing totally different things.

Well, allow me to throw another detour into the mix, one down the path of the fetishism of the fragment, where the theorists rail against the horrible tyranny and violence of our nostalgia for wholeness. It's a discourse in whose wake we all wade, in which all priority is given to the partial and the insufficient. (After all "nothing entices more than a fragment.")

Please bear with me (and check the time stamp) if this all sounds retarded...

The heart of the blog discussion is a Matisse painting Franklin spotted at an art fair you just might've heard about recently. It stopped Franklin dead in his tracks. I personally find even the jpeg he's posted of the work to be simply arresting. Moreover, it feels complete in itself, as if all one could care to know about the image is to be found within it. It holds me and approaches me as a world of meaning unto itself.

Franklin gives a definition of art here as boiled down to a charmingly simplistic reduction: "great art doesn't cause thinking, it stops thinking." More directly appropriate for my point, though, is the bit of definition offered later by stalwart Artblog.net commenter oldpro: "'Art' that provokes consideration of things outside itself is illustration. Art that is art, art that deserves the name, is self-contained."

Someone arguing along structuralist/poststructuralist/contextualist lines will protest that any such assertion of or desire for self-sufficiency is mistaken. Anything one can give consideration to is defined and delimited by that which is outside of it. Or, alternately, there is no "outside" to speak of whatsoever—il n'y a pas de hors-text and all that. Either way, context matters.

And I think it must be admitted that they have a point. Every signification exists in a system or web of meanings. Anything seen can only be seen as such within and through a history of seeing. In a more pictoral vein, every figure is defined as a figure by its supporting ground. I'm fully willing to admit that every image exists as a mere fragment (the question of giving priority to the fragmentary then seemingly rendered moot), contingent as it is on context.

None of this, however, can take away from the fact that it nonetheless appears to us as complete and self-contained, that it is experienced as such. And when we deal with art we deal primarily, and quite literally, with superficial appearances or our experiences of them. That the unity we perceive may be illusory doesn't matter so much as the illusion itself does. While the Marxists among us might declare it an insidious lie that clouds our vision, the stuff of bourgeois ideology, I call this a goddamned miracle. (And wouldn't arguing against an appearance for the sake of the truth of the reality behind it seem to smack of a bit of essentialism, my dearest pomo strawman?)

* * *

All of my books remain boxed up at home (yeah, the nightstand/floor book lists to your left are little more than lies), so I'm forced to plunder from my own masthead for a quote. Here's Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from (I believe) "Eye and Mind" (to be found in its entirety in The Primacy of Perception and excerpted in Art in Theory 1900-2000):

The painter's world is a visible world, nothing but visible: a world almost demented because it is complete when it is yet only partial.

To be fair, this would be more proper as a riposte to those iconoclasts who would hold the vulgarity of painting's merely visible form against its presumptions of truth (though I think that's a closely related topic), as he further insists that, second commandment fetishists be damned, painting "gives visible existence to what profane vision believes to be invisible." And certainly Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, attesting always to the visible's depedence on an invisible substrate, very much fed or anticipated later arguments against unity or self-sufficiency. Still, this sentiment is very much to the point: an image shows itself to be more than capable of exceeding the narrow constraints imposed on it by the cunning artifice of logic.

Against the wishes of many, then, the work of art congeals into a marvelous unity that seems to carry with it, within it, every meaning it can bring to bear—if it partakes of context, it does so only insofar as it collapses context into itself. It stands before us, accomplishing the impossible and collapsing past and future and far-flung forms and meanings into a very present singularity.

Perhaps we can find some middle ground in another reduction: can we think about art as something akin to thought itself, distilled and given flesh, and prepared to unfold before us?

(I should hasten to add that we also mustn't forget the simple, dumb silence engendered by that mystery which seemingly exceeds thought—but that would be getting into notions of the Sublime, including, I suppose, Lyotard's vision of the fragment.)

"Fragmentary Thinking"
Posted by Dan at 02:58 AM

Comments

Wow, great post. I'm going to have to read this again later so I can think about it some more. In the meantime, since you bring up M. Merleau-Ponty, have you ever taken a look at this?  It's really very well done, uniting all three of M-P's essays on art, along with a fine explanatory introduction and then a number of valuable essay and related writings by others, including Lyotard, Hugh Silverman, Magritte and Mikel Dufrenne. Highly recommended, if you haven't already got it. Anyway, I'm always glad to see someone focusing on "Eye and Mind" rather than the highly overrated "Cezanne's Doubt".

Posted by: Miguel Sánchez on December 15, 2004 at 09:04 AM

I must've seen that Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader somewhere before, but thanks for reminding me about it as I'm busy compiling a Christmas list.

While we're at it, I should point out that Clive Cazeaux's Continental Aesthetics Reader anthologizes MM-P's late "The Intertwining—The Chiasm" (from the incomplete The Visible and the Invisible), along with Lacan's "Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a" (if you can stand Lacan) which riffs on that earlier essay, and Luce Irigaray's "The Invisible of the Flesh: A reading of Merleau-Ponty, 'The Intertwing—The Chiasm," a sort of anti-phallic, feminist fisking of it (if you can stand it).

Posted by: Dan on December 15, 2004 at 09:41 AM

I've read the Irigaray but not the Lacan - never got into him too much. I've got The Visible and the Invisible somewhere at home and have been thinking I need to drag it out again and look at it. Was it Sartre who quipped that it said it all, provided one could understand it? I may be getting my philosophy anecdotes mixed up, it's been a while.

Posted by: Miguel Sánchez on December 15, 2004 at 10:00 AM

Hey Dan,

Thanks for jumping in. More discussion is good discussion. You stated:

"The heart of the blog discussion is a Matisse painting Franklin spotted at an art fair you just might've heard about recently. It stopped Franklin dead in his tracks. I personally find even the jpeg he's posted of the work to be simply arresting."

What worries me most is that it almost seems that I'm the bad guy for not stopping in my tracks for this Matisse. You didn't come out and say it, and neither did Franklin, but it almost feels as if I'm being persecuted for my opinion. If true, this comes off as more elitist than anything I see in the contemporary art world today. It concerns me.

Posted by: J.T. Kirkland on December 15, 2004 at 11:40 AM

What worries me most is that it almost seems that I'm the bad guy for not stopping in my tracks for this Matisse.

Don't worry about it. The Matisse happens to be the touchstone for this particular discussion, but it's hardly essential to my point.

If the Matisse doesn't do it for you (and it's understandable if it doesn't), just insert your own paradigmatic heartstopping aesthetic experience. I have to imagine that some image has stopped you dead in your tracks due to its aesthetic power. Imagine that instead.

Posted by: Dan on December 15, 2004 at 12:08 PM

I assume that anyone who isn't stopped dead in his tracks by this Matisse has many failures. He probably kicks puppies.

I'm kidding, of course. Back on my blog, I said If you have self-critical taste and disagree with me, you undermine whatever consensus I help to form. There's nothing holy about the consensus. If you prefer Duchamp to Matisse I might question whether you have sufficiently self-critical taste, but that's between you and your conscience. I question myself on this point frequently, which is what self-criticism is, of course.

Posted by: Franklin on December 15, 2004 at 12:30 PM

Hey Franklin,

Lots of conversations, lots of different places. You say, "If you prefer Duchamp to Matisse I might question whether you have sufficiently self-critical taste, but that's between you and your conscience." I definitely do not prefer Duchamp to Matisse... it's not even close. But I prefer the Fountain to the Matisse in question. That's not even close. I think Matisse is great but on an intellectual level (my intellectual level) I appreciate the urinal more. I'm more interested that you say you might question whether I have sufficiently self-critical taste. How can you question that if it is mine? If it were sufficient, then would we have to agree? Perhaps your self-critical taste is insufficient... I don't know.

My favorite piece of art in the world is Jackson Pollock's "Lavendar Mist" hanging here in DC. It stops me in my tracks... but not because it's beautiful or because I stop thinking... instead it's because I'm fascinated by the piece and the artist. My mind is launched into an internal dialogue about the piece. I try to understand it. I think about what it was like to be Pollock making that. I'll sit there and think about it for a long time.

I may be wrong, but when a piece causes ME to stop thinking it's usually because I find the piece empty of content or substance. It may be beautiful (the last show I juried I rejected numerous "beautiful" or "pretty" works in favor of other works with better concept, even if uglier) but it doesn't interest me. I'm most interested in the artist, then the concept, then the art object. But hey, that's just me!

Posted by: J.T. Kirkland on December 15, 2004 at 01:36 PM

JT...

Your interest in the artists above all else is quite apparent from your activities at Thinking About Art as well as your posts on this topic.

I'd have to agree with any ethical sentiment that prioritizes people above objects in the grand scheme of things. No question.

However, as far as art is concerned (that is, speaking strictly in terms of aesthetics and appreciation), I'd say my focus falls squarely on the objects.

Artists' minds and the artists' persons are not available to us in the way their objects are. To focus almost exclusively on an artist's intent is too limiting a proposition. Artworks are not identical with their creators—they are their own creatures and so ought to be treated as such.

Objects are the very heart of this whole art thing we manage to occupy ourselves with. In their material persistence they anchor whatever other more or less fugitive experiences, thoughts or concerns constellate around them.

Posted by: Dan on December 15, 2004 at 02:47 PM

Hi Dan,

You say, "Artists' minds and the artists' persons are not available to us in the way their objects are. To focus almost exclusively on an artist's intent is too limiting a proposition. Artworks are not identical with their creators—they are their own creatures and so ought to be treated as such."

Obviously I'm trying to remedy that at my site. I'm trying to bring the artist's mind into focus and it is very difficult. But I believe it to be a worthwhile endeavor. I agree that artworks aren't identical to their creators but they are products of their creators. An artist does not make an object without wanting to. Thus, it allows us a glimmer into their mind. But, one artwork, nor a complete body of work, completely reveals the artist. It's a start though.

It is a limiting proposition but that's where my interest lies. You'd allow me to pursue that, right? I think understanding ART is too wide open as a proposition... maybe someday I'll get there (doubtful for any of us really)but at least for now I want to look at the artist. Please don't tell me that this is "wrong."

Posted by: J.T. Kirkland on December 15, 2004 at 03:15 PM

> It is a limiting proposition but that's where my interest lies. You'd allow me to pursue that, right?

Wouldn't dream of trying to stop you.

> Please don't tell me that this is "wrong."

It isn't.

Posted by: Dan on December 15, 2004 at 03:26 PM

Thanks!

Posted by: J.T. Kirkland on December 15, 2004 at 03:41 PM

...you say you might question whether I have sufficiently self-critical taste. How can you question that if it is mine? If it were sufficient, then would we have to agree? Perhaps your self-critical taste is insufficient...

I know it sounds harsh, but I can question your taste, and you can do it back to me, and this his how we navigate the art world - by making many judgments about art, our taste, and the taste of other people. I've described the state of looking at art self-critically as trusting and questioning one's responses at the same time. It's a practice, and I assume that I can always do it a little better.

Posted by: Franklin on December 16, 2004 at 08:38 AM

I won't question your tastes Franklin. I don't even know you.

Posted by: J.T. Kirkland on December 16, 2004 at 10:45 AM



Referenced in this post:

Artblog.net: thinking about thinking and not thinking (or, my dinner with j.t.)
Artblog.net: thinking and not thinking
Charles Harrison, Paul Wood: Art in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas
Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Primacy of Perception
Modern Kicks: noble simplicity and quiet grandeur
Thinking About Art: Franklin's Response
Thinking About Art: Meaning in Art is Bad?