PRINT November 1984


ART AND PHILOSOPHY HAVE CONVERGED in our times, beginning with the reaching out of art to philosophy in the conceptual period, and ending (perhaps) with philosophy’s current aggressive appropriation of art through sociosemiotics. The affinity of the two is that both are obsolete value-conferring contexts. It is a case of the bringing together of a pair of weak planks in an attempt to make a strong one—to achieve the durable value that was traditionally the stock-in-trade of both fields. Such value now is a barely desirable fiction, for it interferes with today’s rapid flow of events and requirement of perpetual innovative change. In a revolutionary, truly modern world, a world without essence, philosophy and art obstruct the independent momentum of forward-looking science and politics rather than posit their utopian goals. Science and politics do not need such a resolution invented for them; it falsifies them. Philosophy and art, thus forced back on themselves in uselessness, are revealed for what they always secretly have been: awkward reflections of reality, impotent to dominate it.

Philosophy has always pretended to the authority of theoretical adequacy. Art has never had meaning without the blessing of world-historical authority. These days, when “the arts have . . . continued to gravitate, if not towards entertainment, then certainly towards commodity and . . . pure technique or pure scenography” (Kenneth Frampton); when art gains a new sense of adequacy from its far-from-reluctant, finally complete socialization, philosophy appears with its belief in art’s profundity as the privileged realm of reflection of ideas. Post-hermetic, art still remains prereflective, the inner mirror of the mind. Ever since Husserl wrote that art was the “royal road” to essences, philosophers have been determined to make it the exclusive realm of the exemplification of truth. Just when art demythologizes itself into a self-evidently populist practice, philosophy reprivileges it. Just when art reveals that it has no secret value, a Heidegger tells us it is the privileged place where Being can be remembered.

The irony of the philosophical resurrection of art is that it occurs at a time when art is pragmatically desublimating itself to become just another obsessive form of capitalist production. (Its obsessiveness is to maintain its self-belief.) Philosophy’s attention to art may be its way of looking for art’s social success, although it is unlikely ever to get its fair share of the consumer dollar. What artists think about the esotericness offered them by philosophers is not clear; certainly they must have some self-doubt as they see themselves heroically elevated by elaborate ideas—or are they that narcissistic? Perhaps they value any accretion of halo.

It is important to note that the strategy philosophy uses to reconcile itself to art generalizes “art” and “artist” and ignores actual practice. Art is reprivileged by being treated at the level of “sublime” generality. (This intellectual politeness is necessary to restore art to a state of grace; it may also help to blind philosophy to its own fallen state—to its need to reach low for an object to make worthy of its ambition. As Plato implied, for philosophy to deal with art is a kind of slumming.) Philosophy exaggerates the artwork into an epistemological problem, into the problem of epistemology itself (Michel Foucault on Las Meniñas, Louis Marin on Poussin), thereby positing it as completely submissive to intellectual discipline. Imprisoned by intellectual consciousness, the artwork takes on its power of command. Thus Julia Kristeva can say, with philosophical hyperbole, that “freedom does not seem to exist outside of what we agree to call an ‘artist.’” Giotto’s color and form are not only supposedly independent of the theological norm signified by his work, but pit themselves against it. It is worth noting that here philosophy reinforces the familiar formalist prejudice or fallacy about art, a tendency confirmed by Kristeva’s assertion that the “sociological aspect” of Giotto’s paintings—the fact that his “mythical characters resemble the peasants” of his time—is secondary to his “disruption of space and color.” Might it not be the other way around, the formal disruption following from the sociological/ideological one? Which is more “real” in Giotto’s art, the peasants or the space and color? Kristeva’s simplification here is a typical result of the pursuit of philosophical adequacy, which tends—ultimately naively—to reduce the artwork to a single variable which becomes its “fundamental principle.” Similarly, Kristeva fetishizes the term “artist” as the exception to her rule about the difficulty of freedom. In what is really aristocratic haste to maintain status, she shuts out everyone else from even knowing they are subject to the rule.

What philosophy ignores is the concreteness that is the source of the artwork’s intense particularity. This concreteness declares its independence of theory in the very act of seeming to submit to it, asserting its strange otherness just by forcing philosophers to overtheorize about it. They are compelled to realize that the artwork can never be completely subsumed within theory, that it is not necessarily the most exemplary exemplification of thought. Philosophy avoids this recognition exactly through its reinforcement of stifling cliches about art. Not only Kristeva but Heidegger does this, when he argues, with that exaggeration always signaled by announcement of “the fundamental,” that “the conquest of the world as picture” is “the fundamental event of the modern age.” All this does is claim ontological status for a conventional notion of the picture as a direct correspondence with the world, pushing art toward the opposite cliche to that advocated by Kristeva.

The philosopher rarely experiences the artwork as a knot of consciousness, an intransigent texture not easiIy shaped to intellectual order.To do so would be to become a critic, one of whose tasks is to restore the concreteness of the artwork by recognizing its resistance to thought—its “poetic” character. Until the philosopher experiences the work’s untranslatability, he or she will neither experience it critically nor experience its critical condition. Roland Barthes, in Empire of Signs (1970), is not far from this point when he remarks on the experience of descending into “the untranslatable” when confronted with a foreign language (in this case Japanese)—of descending until his own language no longer seemed “natural.” There comes a point in the critical relationship to an artwork when the work is experienced as an essentially untranslatable, absurdly foreign language. It is thus experienced as completely at odds with one’s own existence; it becomes sufficiently alien to throw one back upon one’s own untranslatable particularity. Paradoxically, this experience of recovery of one’s innocence, and of the work’s—this peculiarly sublime naiveté—comes only at the end of a protracted theoretical appropriation of the work. At the start of analysis, the work is simply fuel for intellectual lift-off; only in the final throes of dialectical fatigue can the critic escape to concreteness and “enjoy” the art’s particularity.

Philosophy completes “the murder of poetic language” that Roman Jakobson implicitly regarded as the crime of society. In a kind of intellectual Stalinism, it hardens the understanding of art “along narrow and rig id models.” For Kristeva, this murder takes the form of “the inability to hear and understand the signifier as such—as ciphering, as rhythm, as a presence that precedes the signification of object or emotion.” But it may be that philosophy is attracted so strongly to art these days because art no longer “wants . . . to make language perceive what it doesn’t want to say.” It no longer wants to be untranslatable. It may be that art’s desire to denote ideas is another form of its desire to be popular. For philosophy invariably translates art into popular generalities; it is the subtle logic with which it makes the translation that philosophy prides itself on, not the final results. What this does for art is secretly justify its pursuit of commonality, its desire to be ordinary. It now has a reason for being accessible.

Only through criticism, perhaps, can art once again be restored to untranslatability, despite itself, against its public will and better modem judgment. A criticism that uses philosophical theories poetically might recover the “something that is more-than-speech” in art. But of course it no longer is in art; to be untranslatable is no longer art’s prerogative, no longer its immanence. Untranslatability today lies only in the complex, dialectical resistance of the critic to art. This resistance, which alone can know art intimately, reminds us of our own being’s resistance to the nothingness of everything—a nothingness embodied in the way the artwork eagerly seeks popularity and communicability, but is still inevitably concerned with the untranslatability of being. It is this that is repressed by philosophy, that art itself seems increasingly to repress, but that criticism shows to be the artwork’s undesirable essence.

Donald Kuspit