Round I. The fruit of yet another successful collaboration with my good friend Aurelio Madrid
What follows is a piece I wrote in answer to the questions raised in “Luigi Pareyson, Richard Tuttle, & Reinaert de V.”, which you can find on the excellent art & culture blog Luctor et Emergo. My discussion with mr. Madrid concerns the American post-minimalist, conceptual artist Richard Tuttle and the enigmatic Italian philosopher Luigi Pareyson. The question under consideration is what to make of Tuttle’s provocative art when approached with Pareyson’s hermeneutical philosophy. But Philosophy wouldn’t be philosophy, if this intriguing question didn’t raise even more, equally interesting queries, quests and comments. All I can hope for is that the reader will enjoy finding out about Richard Tuttle and his art as much as I did, when Aurelio first brought him to my attention.
I’ll give you my humble opinion on Tuttle’s art on basis of what I’ve read and seen of it, thanks to the link you’ve provided me with. I’ll be making use of a relevant review on the site you’ve linked to, titled “Richard Tuttle: The Subjective Object”. I would also like to express my sincere gratitude to you for bringing another interesting artist to my attention! But first I’ll start by answering your other questions in order to put it all in its proper context, so bear with me please ;-)
You already mentioned Edmund Gustave Albrecht Husserl’s (1859 – 1938) wish to return “to the things themselves” – not to be confused with Kant’s ding-an-sich! This point is crucial in understanding the phenomenological project (from the Greek verb phainomein, “to appear”) . You also rightly point out phenomenology’s emphasis on our perception of the world, how our acts of perception provide the basis of our understanding. Basically, Husserl wanted to create a metaphysics that accepts, and tries to explain, “contingency”. By paying very close attention to (and meditating on) our experiences, he hoped to be able to (logically) capture this element of contingency in our ever changing world.
His modus operandi was to systematically ‘bracket out’ all our preconceptions (assumptions), leading to, what he hoped was, a purified experience of the way in which things give themselves to us – the way in which they appear. Similar in some respects to the Buddhist technique of ‘mindfulness’, a state of keen awareness of self and surroundings. To quote David Mikics in his splendid biography “Who Was Jacques Derrida” (Yale, 2009):
“Husserl’s concern was with a temporally extended whole, in which a now-phase is shadowed by what has just been and what is about to come… This temporal span is required by our need for context. Every time we see something we are seeing as: seeing the thing as part of a larger whole. This means that each perception must be prepared for by a sense of how or why it occurs and what it might lead to.” (p. 54)
You might say, phenomenology is the study of surfaces, where (the illusion of) depth is found along the surface of things. Human beings, Husserl reasoned, are only able to experience reality by way of “intentionality”, meaning that: we can only think ‘through’ the world by lodging on to patterns we discern in nature and the things around us. Even gaining self-awareness by becoming aware of the things outside ourselves. We think in (natural) forms by “always, already” being ‘intentionally’ focused on some-thing, or, to put it in slightly different words: every mental phenomenon, every psychological act, has a content, is directed at an object. The study of phenomenology attempts to identify the invariant features of how those objects are perceived (it is this ‘typical’ character that allows the world to be shared). Attending to an object’s wholeness while still being able to understand the object’s separate features.
This dimension of ‘mere appearances’ has throughout Western philosophy’s history been frowned down upon (the exact reverse of society today). Our ‘world of appearances’ was considered by the ancients to be characteristic of its “sub-lunar” nature, an idea to which the words mooncalf and lunatic still allude to. This was a world of constant shifts and shadows, where nothing was stable or reliable, a world of the senses and opinion, shrouded in metaphorical darkness.
The most beautiful expression of this luminous idea is to be found in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, wherein the sun is transformed into an emblem of the eternal and constant, source of all nourishment, and heavenly lamp of intellectual illumination. It represents the closest man will ever come to the divine and its Ideal forms – because it simultaneously blinds when looked at directly. Plato considered “knowledge” to be the highest virtue and fountainhead of all that is good, especially the divine-knowledge of mathematics and the humbling knowledge of dialectics. Accordingly, our attainment of this knowledge would enable us to “see the light”, and be led out of the “cave of our own ignorance” (the ignorance of our own ignorance). Bringing us in possession of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Immanuel Kant’s (1724 – 1804) philosophy of transcendental idealism was in essence a brilliant synthesis of these two distinct intellectual strands in Western philosophy. Of Rationalism’s deductive reasoning (Plato’s ‘abstractions’) on the one hand, and Empiricism’s inductive investigations (Hume’s ‘psychology’) on the other. This led Kant to his influential distinction between the realms of noumena (the thing-in-itself) and phenomena (our sensible, relative world). I already mentioned in our previous discussion on the sublime, how Kant thinks ‘the understanding’ is able to reach beyond experience, enabling us to question, criticize, and evaluate it. Yet its ability to reach beyond natural forms, beyond the given, makes it incapable of judging its own limits, of “knowing what may lie inside or outside its entire sphere” (A238/B297). Because of this ‘the understanding’ is always tentatively feeling its way, preferably using a careful and critical ‘reflexive inquiry’, not unlike Kant’s very own “Critique of Pure Reason” (1787).
The reason for the noted limitation lies in the fact, that the pure concepts of ‘the understanding’ have no reference to the objects, except through intuition. They must refer to objects through empirical intuition, since even if they are made more specific by their relation to pure intuition (space and time), they would still not refer to objects except insofar as pure intuition is related to empirical intuition. Because “without this reference they have no objective validity whatever, but are mere play, whether by the imagination or by the understanding, with their respective presentations” (A239/B298). Related to this, is the need for a concept to be “made sensible” otherwise it is “without sense, i.e., without signification” (A240/B299). Finally: pure intuition is “the source of all truth, i.e., the source of our cognition’s agreement with objects” (A237/B296).
This technical background is necessary to understand what’s going on. Because it seems to me Husserl wants to take up Kant’s claim, namely that pure concepts are not only necessarily related to pure intuition, but must also refer to the objects themselves through empirical intuition. I suspect Husserl wanted to get to Kant’s pure concepts by way of a ‘pure’ empirical intuition. Phenomenology’s ‘purified experience’, where contingency is fully accounted for. Ultimately this approach has proven unsuccessful, as can be seen from Husserl’s failure in explaining the origin of geometry, in his 1935 essay of the same name. In it, he tried to explain how geometry’s universal applicability found its accidental origin in a specific time and place, namely ancient Greece. For how did the Greeks manage to create this systematic way of thinking – in essence the discovery of objectivity, or “objective truth”, as opposed to historical facts or opinions – seemingly out of nothing? A discovery that disclosed a new dimension of “ideal objects”, forever changing human experience. Husserl’s method demands that everything must be reducible to our co-inhabited object-world, our “life-world”. But in the end, the question of how the universal and the particular – the contingent and the absolute – are related, turned out to be irresolvable for Husserl (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 36 – 48).
The failure is understandable though, it is the same reason why we do not deal with sensible objects in mathematics, we make use of another faculty, by way of “categorical abstraction”. It seems mathematics cannot be reduced to psychology, since its “ideal objects” are extra-experiential in nature (noumenal). In steps Luigi Pareyson with his hermeneutical theory of form, where, as we’ve seen before, “form” is understood as the “resisting object”. The ‘obstacle’ as the defining characteristic of true form: “Interpretation is a form of knowing in which receptivity and activity are inseparable and where the known is a form and the knower a person.” The “activity” spoken of presupposes this resistance, which frustrates, and calls forth our activity. The “receptivity” he mentions, implies something external to me, some-thing I’m able to receive.
Husserl’s problem of explaining geometry’s origin is less of an issue to Pareyson. Given geometry’s universal nature (its true form), it must be able to be experienced because of its resistance to our wishes. It’s experienced in its invariable nature, calling forth our activity (leading to its ultimate discovery) and making its receptivity possible. In other words, we experience it in its law-like nature, and it is this law-like nature which enables the infinite variations on its theme, without it losing its (logical) true form. Yet this true form cannot be experienced, as Kant has shown. It can only become accessible to us via our intellect, by way of “categorical abstraction”. This knowledge is derived from the totality of its concrete material manifestations. The so-called variations on its true form – which are (partly) the result of our continuous struggle with its law-like nature.
Art being the unusual category it is, due to its intimate relationship to experience – the sensible – it demands a slightly different approach. Pareyson makes of art the center piece of his philosophy, because art to him, is the prototype of resistance. The object pur sang, the object that commands our attention and solicits our interpretation. Perhaps Pareyson sees art as the quintessence of form itself! As form incarnated, understood as the residue or substance which makes visible or tangible, that which enables expression…? After all, unless a concept is “made sensible” it is “without sense, i.e., without signification” (A240/B299). Put slightly different, we’ve to be able to see something in our mind’s eye in order to grasp its sense. That is, our abstract concepts need to be related to given forms in some way or other, in order to be (re)presented to us. Which brings us to Pareyson’s almost postmodern sounding statement:
“As form gathers together an infinity of things, which it contains but does not exhaust, so a person is an infinity, and each one of the points of view which we can adopt contains us entirely although not exhausting our possibilities. Understanding only obtains when there occurs a correspondence, a consonance, a sympathy, between an aspect of a work of art and the point of view of a person. A work of art entirely reveals itself in one of its aspects, and the interpreter penetrates into it entirely from his or her point of view. The work does not change even if the aspect under which it is considered or the perspective of the viewer changes.”
This statement is a bit tricky, so lets unpack it. Given that Pareyson is a hermeneutical philosopher, he must assign to each contingent element a specific weight, accorded to it, by its place in a context. Simply said, it means something has a certain sense or meaning, in a certain context – which enables the “correspondence, consonance, or sympathy” he speaks of. Though the meaning given to it may alter depending on your specific relation or position to it (potentially infinite), the allocated meaning can be understood or retrieved, once the conditions under which it appeared are understood. This, as we’ve seen, is also Husserl’s phenomenological position vis-à-vis perception and the contingent. I recently read an excellent article (though totally off-topic) which perfectly captures this point of “interpretive communities”. I recommend you read it, but I’ll try and give another illuminating example by John Carroll.
In Raphael’s “The Deposition” (or “The Entombment”, 1507) we see a dead Christ being borne to the Sepulcher. The sorrow that the nearest and most affectionate relatives of the dead feel in laying to rest the body of Him who has been their best beloved, is intense. The virgin Mary is seen in a swoon, and the faces of all the figures present clearly display distress. The body of Christ seems so heavy the two men are hardly able to lift it. In other words, the painting seems to be about unbearable loss and suffering. But Carroll, in his controversial book “The Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited” (2004), shows the picture in a completely different light. For he focuses on the living Mary Magdalene who’s tenderly holding the dead Christ’s hand. She looks into His face with a sense of fiery compassion. Her eyes warm and caring, and yet, direct and intense, as though completely focused on Him. On Him who gave her back her life. Seeing Christ from her perspective, it seems He’s gently floating in her hands, light as a feather. His agonized face is suddenly transformed into one of bliss, as though in that instant, due to Mary’s graceful touch, death is conquered, and they’re one…
Of course this is Carroll’s unique interpretation, but imagine it was of someone who’s tired of being sad with life’s miseries. Such a person might be predisposed to pick out this particular detail in the painting, when searching for something comforting, something hopeful to hold on to. In other words, there might be “a sympathy, between an aspect of a work of art and the point of view of a person.” A “correspondence” if you will, between artwork and viewer, which establishes itself naturally. It goes without saying that materially the work of art doesn’t change one iota, but its meaning is transformed completely! By focusing on this aspect, the rest of it takes on a whole new meaning: “A work of art entirely reveals itself in one of its aspects, and the interpreter penetrates into it entirely from his or her point of view.” Such views do not per se abolish previous ones, but might instead add to them: the unbearable suffering of the others, while remaining essentially the same, gets a different meaning due to the changed and enriched context.
Last but not least important, is the fact, that Pareyson is talking about art’s reception here, and not its creation. I’ve got a hunch, reading Umberto’s book, that Pareyson believes there are also certain (revealed) laws governing art. This might not be such a farfetched idea, though no doubt highly unpopular. Take for example the art of rhetoric – the art of speaking and writing – which is gaining in popularity, since postmodernism holds there is no truth, just persuasion. This art form, the discovery of which enabled us to speak eloquently and persuasively, has proven its reliability. The discipline of rhetoric created by its discovery may be modified as time goes on, but always on the basis of its original premises. In that way, it offers possibilities for development, for new knowledge to accrue, and yet remain the same discipline (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 40). But also think of the hidden persuaders of advertisement, which attracts a lot of young artists. Or the beauty of symmetry.
But there’s another way of understanding Pareyson’s statement: by focusing exclusively on the word “infinity”. In this case it would seem to support your insightful interpretation of Tuttle’s work. This interpretation has clear postmodern overtones, it implies there is no right or wrong way to interpret a work of art, since everything is relative. But if all interpretations are equally valid (or valuable), they obviously are equally meaningless as well. Think of Baudrillard’s mercenary philosophy where “everything goes” (out of the window). Understanding Tuttle’s work in this way does turn out to be very useful, and places it in the proper context I think, because as you point out, it indeed begs the (sublime) question: “what is this?” His work almost seems to be the material incarnation of exactly this post-minimal question, and being the question it is, supposedly opens itself up to an “infinity of interpretations”.
Apart from being a post-minimal artist, Tuttle is also a self-defined conceptual artist, hence the questioning. Tuttle’s post-minimal drive towards the nigh disappearance – or reduction – of the object, culminates of course, in the questioning of the object-status itself: “when is something still considered to be some-thing?”As interesting, thrilling, and intoxicating as these formal experiments may sound, I do not think this can be Pareyson’s hermeneutical position, for reasons I already explained above. But I also content the claim, that this would lead to an “infinity of interpretations”. Because in the way the question is posed, it already suggests the answer: there is no valid interpretation, there’s only the open question. It’s a rhetorical question. After all, any interpretation would be an answer to the question, and break the spell.
At the risk of repeating myself, I think postmodernism privileges the experimental in art, the endless pursuit of novelty – of pushing the envelope – but at the cost of the sensual-emotional content. In the end you risk a distortion of art itself, where a preconceived theory terrorizes art’s free expression. There’s no question that novelty, experimentation, and provocation can all be features of great works of art, but they are not the only features (harmony, authenticity, pathos, mimesis, etc). More importantly, they clearly favor the intellectual over and above the sensual.
When art gets reduced to “mere questions” – to which there are no final answers – we’re out of the domain of art proper. Instead we’re performing an intellectual inquiry, with the danger of making the sensible obsolete, because of its irrelevance to such an inquiry. Given that postmodernism’s sole objective is to unmask all “meaning” as unstable – unreliable in its contingency – art’s experimentalism only serves to illustrate, celebrate, and propagate this foregone conclusion (“Who Was Jacques Derrida”, p. 60) Now, to bring in the review “Richard Tuttle: The Subjective Object“, I mentioned at the beginning:
“…they carry no sense of physical or optical weight, and, depending on the quality of the light, can become virtually invisible. In the SFMOMA show, 12 paper octagons were attached to the curving walls near the windowed staircases. They caught the light in different ways—some looked like light projections, some were almost totally whited out, and some were banded by the windows’ cast shadows. The effect was subtle and quite magical.”
It refers to Tuttle’s “group of paper octagons“, conceived in 1970. What it reveals is the sensible quality of his work, what I would like to call the domain of art proper. I’ve to admit though, I’m a bit skeptical about the “infinite ways” you could interpret 12 paper octagons without any theoretical background, that is: without reading something into them, which isn’t in fact there… Because most people, I think, would simply judge them on basis of the sensual pleasure they afford: on the “subtle and magical” play of light and shadows, of having “no sense of physical or optical weight”. It sounded like a successful exhibition of Tuttle’s work. In contrast, his “constructed paintings” (1967), another example from the same review, reveal quite something else:
“The canvas was hung out to dry, and the result was a wrinkled, unevenly pigmented surface. The colors of the pieces—rust, gold, orange, blue, green—were rather wan and unassertive to start with, and over the years, depending on the permanence of the dye and the piece’s exposure to light, they have faded to even paler shades. This fading, though, has resulted in surprisingly little esthetic loss. Such chromatic flexibility, combined with the way the pieces were meant to be displayed and stored, underscores their lack of preciousness, their consciously diminished aura. Tuttle wanted them to be pinned to the wall, or even spread out on the floor, with the orientation left up to the owner or curator”
It illustrates my earlier point about art’s sensible content being dissected, bit by bit, and dying an excruciating death at the hands of postmodernism’s “experimentalism”. The ‘chromatic flexibility’ mentioned above, suggests, that the “wrinkled unevenly pigmented surface” of “wan and unassertive” colors, is part of an ‘artistic experiment’, and that this would somehow redeem it. She goes on to say, that the “fading” of the colors “resulted in surprisingly little esthetic loss.” Which isn’t very surprising, considering there wasn’t any to begin with! It “underscores their lack of preciousness, their consciously diminished aura.” Sometimes I seriously wonder when reading such statements, if the authors who make them fully realize what they’re saying, or if instead we’re all caught up in some nightmarish state of narcosis, forced to witness art’s slow but sure demise…
“The narcotic intoxication which permits the atonement of deathlike sleep for the euphoria in which the self is suspended, is one of the oldest social arrangements which mediate between self-preservation and self-destruction – an attempt of the self to survive itself.” (“Dialectic of Enlightenment”, 1945)
Don’t banish beauty from art! Don’t bar your senses— come to your senses!
“Oki, oki yo! Waga tomo ni sen, Neru-kocho!”
For the continuation of our ever-expanding discussion please follow this link to Aurelio Madrid’s response: “Reinaert de V., Luigi Pareyson, Richard Tuttle, Edmund Husserl, Immanuel Kant, Phenomenology &c.”