PRINT April 1991


LET US CALL ART commentary any trace of a gesture of and in language that links to or with a work of art, whatever its distinctive matter, language, color, whether a closed or open volume, music, a weighty mute body in dance, or a speaking body in the theater. The “work of art” in question may be what we used to call (and still do) a work, a proposition, a performance, an installation (ephemeral or lasting), or finally, in the sense introduced by Marcel Duchamp, any object, situation, or occasion seized by commentary as being “of art,” that is, to be precise, giving rise to commentary. According to this approach, the commentary institutes the work as much as the work itself calls for commentary.

Linking to or with the work is sufficient to localize the commentary, a term at once excessive and modest: one mens (Latin for “mind”) joins in unison with the supposed mens in the work, thereby releasing unheard harmonies. The metaphor is a musical one, subordinated to a principle of accord and a goal of resolution. But in saying that commenting is linking to or with, we tolerate disharmony, dissonance, or at least an alterity of the commentary with respect to the work. We suspect that something in the latter, which used to be called its mens, can, or should, be disclosed and exposed according to a completely different gesture of language. Commentary is not good because it is in “harmony” with the work, nor because it “explains” it as an object, but because it is itself a work that, in language, subjects its tone to the justness of a fidelity.

The musical metaphor obviously demands the most severe criticism. But what does not seem so easy to eliminate is the existence of some matter, here that of sound. In any case, the “work” is only art insofar as it is a gesture of and in matter. The enigma of matter plays a part in the challenge that the work puts to commentary. It may be that this challenge can be addressed only if the commentary itself becomes a work in the distinctive matter proper to it, language as a matter of words.

My starting point is Kantian esthetics, which posits two esthetics, that of the beautiful and that of the sublime, according to the way in which sensory matter is alleged to exist. In Kant’s Critique of Judgement, 1790, the section on genius, that is, on the production of the beautiful, insists on the “rich matter,” der Stoff, that the free imagination deploys on the occasion of a theme, an “object” that the understanding has a concept of. “Esthetic attributes,” which understanding cannot predicate, arise around the object like protuberances on the surface of the sun. They are called “side-representations,” Nebenvorstellungen. These representations are the “esthetic Ideas.”

The principal feature of these Ideas is that the attributes they confer on objects are not subject to any conception. Kant writes that they are “unexpoundable”; one cannot present a logical exposition of them, nor can they be argued. Conceptual language fails even to name this infinitude of truly free associations. Like genius, the feeling of the beautiful deals with the “unnameable,” das Unnennbare. There is an absolute excess of sensory presentation over the discourse of conception.

There results an esthetic of the too-much, a profusion of presentations. The latter are always forms, since it is the imagination that presents the givens, and it can only do so in forms. But the profusion of these free forms is what we call matter. This spilling-over of matter onto determinant (cognitive) thought is of significant consequence for the condition of commentary. If commentary seeks to conceive the work, it must admit its own incompleteness, or infinitude, since the concept can never exhaust the profusion of matter. Or else it must renounce any conceivable determination of the work. Then it can itself attempt to become a profusion in and of language. The analogy of the condition of commentary with that of the work, recognized at least since Stéphane Mallarmé, here finds its motive.

This unleashing, however, should not, according to Kant, go so far as to throw understanding into despair. The power of conceiving, in the absence of the concept itself, should remain in consonance with that of presentation—in Kant’s words, the “setting [of] a corresponding intuition beside the concept.” The fact remains that this good “proportion,” to which the finality of the beautiful is due, is always in danger of being carried away; although it holds back from being drawn into exceeding the order of any determination. The work of art brings with it this delirium. If the work did not allow to break through a potential excess of formal matter over its conceivable determinations, it would be a knowable object, and commentary about it by conceptual determination would be possible, even inevitable. It would become the object of an explanation. Its relation to commentary would be cognitive and referential: commentary would speak of it.

Thus, for this point of view, that of the beautiful, the work can be commented on with the requisite deference only if the commentary consents to this being carried away into the work, which the latter suspends in order to present itself as it is. This demand, which weighs on commentary, finds an echo in the question of the finish of the work. Since there is no truly conceived model of what the work should be, no ideal of its beauty, working out the work does not stop simply because imagining thought establishes its conformity with such a model. What brings this working out to a stop is fatigue. Paul Valéry distinguished between good fatigue and bad fatigue. Bad fatigue is due to an excess of concept, while good fatigue is born of too many associative presentations, what Valéry calls “disorder” or “inconsistency.” But it is not the mind that decides the work is finished. It is decided on its own. The profusion comes to an end for a moment. Works are temporary depositories for this power, in itself immense, of the imagination to form matter.

The other esthetic is something like the reverse of the first. Thought has the power of conceiving “objects” that exceed any possibility of presentation. Which “objects”? The infinite, understood not as serial but taken as an absolute totality; causality, understood not in the empirical sense as a linking of effect with causes that are themselves effects, but as prime causality, a capacity for beginning—freedom. The concept of such objects is called the “Idea of reason.” It is the concept of an understanding that casts off its moorings in the givens of sense experience, that thus abandons its cognitive finality and speculates on the absolute, that is, on the without-relationship, the unconditional, the limit. One cannot, in experience, show an object that corresponds to these objects of speculative thought; the latter are called “incollapsible,” in the sense of being nondemonstrable.

The sublime is the sensation of a debate in thought, the debate between its power of reasoning at the very limits, even of thinking the limit or the absolute, and its power of imagining, that is, the presentation of the given in forms, which are always relations. Thus, here again, the esthetic sets aside a remainder, but one that is quite different from the remainder that the beautiful work conceals. It is not the inexhaustible horizon of always afferent and lateral presentations, nor the promise of a happiness due to the unnameable multiplication of material forms. On the contrary, the sublime remainder is withdrawn beyond or beneath any capability of forming something presentable, like a pure Idea that exceeds the imagination and that closes off its horizon. Thought feels its moorings in the sensory being ripped away and its objects trembling at the edge of the abyss. The object that is the occasion of this distress and of this exodus is surely there, but at the same time it is not there. As a phenomenon it is certainly presented, but as the inspiration for the Idea of an absolute, it does not belong to the presentation; it is the sign of the unpresentable. The object is a sign or signal of what I call a “presence,” which is not a presentation. This presence is called das Überschwängliche in the Kantian text, an “over-vibration” (the same word as “swing” in English) that affects thought beyond the consonance that it can produce in presentation. The horizon of the beautiful did not exceed the power of forms; it attested to its infinitude and to its liberty. Presence in the sublime reveals that this power is nil beside that of freely conceiving. But presence only reveals this by a sign, in presentation, that is not presented.

Here the task of commentary runs into a difficulty quite different from that of linking with or to the beautiful work. If the work, in the broader sense that I mentioned, is judged to be sublime (though Kant claims that only raw nature can give rise to this feeling), it remains on the level of presentation, but all of its esthetic value consists in the sign of an absolute that haunts the presented forms. And how can one link to or with that sign? Commenting is always reporting or relating the work in the matter of language. How does one relate the presence of the absolute, which is not relative? Commentary, in order to respect this presence, seems doomed to being bound to the work only by undoing this bond, and thereby doomed to negation and to a negative esthetic.

FOLLOWING KANT’S SENSE of the heterogeneity of the two esthetics, we should try to understand the implications for the arts and their contemporary commentary. Without hoping to be complete here, I can make a few remarks. First, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime is not so easy to establish. It would be naive to claim that each of these esthetics dominates a distinct period in the history of the arts or can even be distinguished in a particular style or school. Let us take the avant-gardes, for example. The art historian and the art critic distinguish two great movements, one toward abstraction and the other toward the minimal. One might think (and I have thought, it seems to me) that in both cases there is an attempt to disarm the trap of figuration and to bear witness to something that eludes presentation. An attempt at “negative presentation,” so to speak, obeying an esthetic of “little-to-see” that turns its back on free profusion, on the “rich matter” of forms. One recognizes the sublime by certain manners.

This is a hasty application of critical analysis to the description of works. Minimalism and abstraction are terms that do designate styles observable in art history. But the critical stakes that interest us in no way coincide with these styles. First of all, there are abstractions by profusion, like that of Jackson Pollock, or by rarefaction, like that of Barnett Newman, and it is the same for Minimalism in painting, sculpture, and installation (I am thinking of the bushiness of certain works of art brut and the near-extenuation of the gesture in certain readymades). And we already know (in the Japanese watercolor, for example) that profusion can be obtained by the almost-nothing.

But above all, the sublime is not attached to manner; it just is, as Longinus suggested. It is of the greatest simplicity, in the sense that simplicity is not an artistic style, but a sudden state of joyous distress that thought may undergo. Manner makes no difference to this state. What is true of the avant-gardes is valid for every artistic school or period. There is no sublime technique, since technique deals with the mise-en-forme of matter in presentation, and the sublime is only the feeling that the absolute is making its mark in the work. This presence makes its mark in Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in Arezzo as well as in Sam Francis’ white-and-gray monochromes, in a Kafka narration or the most deconstructed episode of Ulysses, in a Beethoven string quartet or one by Giacinto Scelsi.

The problem is that one can note an analogous independence of the beautiful and of its promise of aura with respect to forms of presentation. One can busy oneself with making an analysis—iconological, semiotic, formalist, and so on—of these forms, and this is to be sure neither useless nor unwarranted; it is how understanding attempts to get a hold on the profusion of associations set off by the work. The fact remains that these analyses can never reach the horizon that is open to the presentations gathering around the forms. Let us go one step further: the “production” of works, as they say, is always surrounded by a thousand discourses, religious and political narrations, social justifications, psychological explanations, philosophical foundations. This has always been so. It is a banality to repeat that without language there would be no form, and that the power of modeling “another nature” from the givens of nature is a result of the ability of speaking (parole) and language (langue) to say everything. The task of commenting itself derives from the exercise of this ability. But having to say what it is in the work that evokes this obligation to tell all does not entail that the reserves of esthetic Ideas, the profusion, can be exhausted by commentary. This all-that-should-be-said will in fact never be said. Commentary on the beautiful work repeats on and in itself the gesture of the overflowing profusion that inhabits the work.

If, on the other hand, commentary objectivizes the work, it misses the transcendence of its beauty, or the transcendence that is its beauty, and condemns it to be no more than a phenomenon among phenomena. The force of the apparition of the work is reduced to the form of its appearance. Art is thus confused with a cultural object and may give rise to any of the discourses to which anthropological data in general lend themselves. One could do a history, sociology, or political economy of it, to mention just those few. One can easily show that its destination, anthropologically speaking, undergoes considerable modification depending on whether the artwork “belongs” to a culture that is tribal, imperial, republican, monarchical, theocratic, mercantile, autarkic, capitalist, and so on, and that it is a determining feature of the contemporary work that it is obviously destined for the museum (collection, conservation, exhibition) and for the museum audience. This approach is implied in any “theory” of art, for the theory is made only of objects, in order to determine them. But the work is not merely a cultural object, although it is that too and always has been, and if it holds out or is able to hold out a promise of an infinity of forms and commentaries, and through this infinity, a promise of a community of feeling, it is because it harbors within it an excess, a rapture, a potential of associations that overflows all the determinations of its “reception” and “production.”

This truth leads to a noteworthy consequence. There is no history of art. There is a history of cultural objects, which are determinable and by virtue of this can be localized within networks of conditions, internal and external, peculiar to description. But if beauty derives from the infinite profusion of “esthetic attributes” promised in a singular work, this profusion is no more subject to contextual conditions than to formal regularities. It is no more matter for periodization than for instituted style. It follows that the determination of periods or epochs can only concern the cultural object that the work is, but not the promise of happiness held out by its beauty. This promise is a perpetual one, not because it has remained identical to itself from the time of Lascaux to the present day, but on the contrary, because it never ceases to transit intransitively through the constraints of the ages, and each time in unforeseeable fashion. The consequence of the promise does not belong to chronology; it opens to a time of expectation and satisfaction that is incalculable.

We may draw several conclusions from this. An “end of art,” or the end of an epoch of art, makes sense strictly speaking only for the order of culture, which is that of the history of objects and institutions. The modern age, the classical age, or post-Modern art are terms that are useful for situating, in the atlas or the calendar, the work or works to and with which commentary links—useful and inevitable. They indicate that the manner in which the indeterminacy and transcendence of esthetic Ideas inhabit works is not constant. But the transcendence is perpetual. As for imagining a death of art, one can only do so by forgetting that it derives from a dispute, or sometimes from a difference, between two powers of thought, the power of presenting by forms and that of determining by concepts. But neither thought, nor its powers, nor their conflict can die. Like Hegel and all of intellectualism, we must believe that form is concept still confused, and that it is the destination of this indeterminate concept, the form, to come to be itself in its pure determinacy. We would have to eradicate the conflict that, in art, thought has with itself in order to claim that art must pass away, on the pretext that thought cannot fail to overcome its own contradiction. But disputes or differences are not contradictions.

Theodor Adorno remained excessively derivative of Hegelo-Marxist historicism by stubbornly persisting in thinking art with respect to the socio-historic context, as if the work bore witness to the time of the world. But it is not true that art is intrinsically and by destiny the witness and expression of its time. It is the witness of a completely different tearing: of thought’s dispute with itself, aroused by the profusion of forms and the overabundance of associations when they free themselves of the constraints of consciousness. To say that art’s time is over thus makes no sense. To say that today beauty has become kitsch is to confuse esthetic time with historic time. Even in the immense, complex, and supple regulation to which the modern world is subject, art and beauty do and will take place, simply because their place is not a place in the world.

Jean-François Lyotard is a professor of philosophy at the Collège International de Philosophie and professor of French at the University of California, Irvine.

Translated from the French by W. G. J. Niesluchowski.