Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The art paradox

Theodor Adorno captured the paradoxical nature of art nicely when he remarked that it goes without saying that nothing about art goes without saying. What his observation does not make explicit (although it is implied) is that art’s paradoxical character lends itself to being elaborated upon by identifying several paradoxes at the heart of this thing we call art. This goes for all of the arts – architecture, painting, sculpture, dance, music, literature and cinema (the “seventh” art). I shall name only the most salient of these paradoxical attributes of art, or the arts.

The first paradox of art is this: that all artworks are “singular” – particular and yet generically belonging to “art” in general. To put it differently, “art” exists (spatio-) temporally as a multiplicity of singular, unique “artworks”, and moreover, their “singularity” is not ontologically identical (that is, regarding their mode of being), as shown in the case of films and literary works of art.

Art’s second paradox is that it reveals and conceals at the same time. In Heidegger’s terminology, this makes of art a privileged instance of “aletheia”, or “unconcealedness”. This ties in with Heidegger’s understanding of the artwork as an unresolved struggle between “world” (realm of openness and interpretability) and “earth” (that which resists interpretation and withdraws from scrutiny). It is this abiding “struggle” between openness and concealment that makes it possible to find valid, demonstrable new meanings in artworks in the course of history.

Another paradox (number three), integral to this one, is that it is seriously mistaken – as most people (including most art critics) have done regarding the modernist conception of art – to believe that artworks are merely “art objects” to be aesthetically appreciated for their own sake. To believe this, and treat artworks accordingly, is to deny art its world-and-person-transforming capacity, so clearly demonstrable in the way art changes people, and the way it affords novel experiences by bathing things in the world in a new light.

Fourthly, although art is usually taken as an object of analysis, it (psycho-) analyses the viewer, listener or reader. Lacan explains this in his 11th seminar via the concept of the object a – that “little other object” (a song, a “stain” or “knot” or hard kernel of some kind in a painting, a poem, a novel, a film) from the perspective of which the viewing, reading or listening subject suddenly finds his or her life “framed” in a specific, revealing manner.

In the fifth place, art indicts, and also redeems the world. This happens in several ways, among others literary and cinematic satire, parody, romantic poetry, tragedy, comedy, tragicomedy, fantasy and science fiction. Art indicts the world as a place of injustice, wanton destruction, lack of libidinal fulfilment and often needless suffering, and simultaneously, by transforming it (and us), offers a kind of redemption.

The sixth paradox of art is that it is ergon (work) and energeia together (Gadamer). It is ergon or “work” because – unlike the evanescent impromptu play of children, structured freely and spontaneously by its own internal impetus, the artwork’s structure (for as long as it lasts) has a certain durability that comprises the basis for its “repeatability”: a musical score and a drama are obvious examples, but every time one reads a novel, or views a great film, or appropriates the space of an architectural work, the work (ergon) is repeated. Energeia (energy) is what happens in the course of such reception or appropriation, when the interpretable meaning embodied in the ergon is transmuted into praxis and action.

Art’s seventh paradox is that it is image as well as thing (Nancy). Unlike the concepts of philosophy or of science, art’s inalienable medium is the image, which is inseparable from imagination on the part of artist and audience/viewer alike. This is true not only for the visual arts, but for music and literature as well – musical symphonies and nuances do not have to be accompanied by the audience imagining landscapes (in the case of Sibelius’s Finlandia, for instance); the musical sounds are themselves sound-images. As the case of music illustrates, sound-images do not have to – and often cannot – be understood as representing something, the way an image in (sur)realistic painting is taken as representing something (made explicit in Magritte’s painting, “This is not a pipe”).

Paradox number eight about art is that (through the imaginary function of its images), it both liberates and enslaves. Art as texts of pleasure (Barthes) enslaves in so far as one identifies with an easily recognisable world of spatio-temporal “normality”, in this way confirming and reinforcing the status quo. Art as texts of bliss, on the other hand, liberates the audience, viewer or reader by drawing them into a world that is out of the ordinary, where the space-time and linguistic presuppositions instilled in the reader through “normal” (and normative) experience are put in question.

The ninth paradox of art concerns what Lyotard refers to as an aspect of the art of the sublime (which is characteristic of our time), namely that, because the imagination’s capacity to produce adequate forms suffers shipwreck in the experience of the sublime (in contrast to that of beauty), art must rely on “qualities” of “matter” that are unpresentable, for instance nuance and timbre, to “present the unpresentable”. The paradox here is that the very faculty which enables artists to “create” artworks to begin with – the imagination – proves powerless in the face of the task confronting artists today, namely to find inventive ways of “presenting the unpresentable”.

The tenth paradox of art is what Adorno, in his Aesthetic Theory calls the paradox of its visuality (or more broadly, to include all the arts, its “sensuousness”), which he links with Kant’s remark in the third critique, that art’s enjoyment “occurs without a concept”. This has given rise to the cherished bourgeois idea, according to Adorno, that art is inalienably visual (sensible). And yet, he points out, since Kant (in the 18th century) art has become increasingly “spiritual”. Corroboration for this may be found in Hegel’s famous thesis of the “death of art”. This is the claim that the “highest vocation” of art had been reached in his (Hegel’s) own time – namely to give expression to Geist or Spirit in sensuous form – and that art having passed through the stages of symbolic, classical and romantic art, which could no longer “contain” the Idea in sensuous form, it had to relinquish this “highest vocation” in favour of religion and (eventually) philosophy. In other words, for Hegel the history of art was marked by an increasing “spiritualisation” of art, reaching its apogee in romantic art.

The paradox is therefore that, regardless of its prima facie “visual” – that is, sensuous – character, the “meaning” of especially 20th century abstract art was inseparable from the world of the (freedom of the) spirit. Malevich’s suprematism, particularly his “white square”, epitomises this spiritual freedom in so far as viewers are literally free to see anything in the square white expanse that their gaze can conjure up there. In the absence of any signifying markers to guide interpretation, it has been given “freeplay”.

These paradoxes will be the subject of a lecture at the Liebrecht Art Gallery in Somerset West on the evening of September 20 2012.

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    • OneFlew

      Delightful article, thanks Bert.

    • Ian Martin

      Well, I dunno about this, Prof. To say that the 21st century imagination is powerless to find ways of presenting the unpresentable (ninth paradox) is a bit much, if you ask me. Check out this piece in which I attempt to tackle Baudrillard’s simulacrum, and tell me if I haven’t got anywhere near the sublime in terms of underlying irony and cynicism.

    • Richard

      Hope the lecture went well. I find that art is best understood backwards, in the sense of identifying one’s state of mind at the time of perceiving the work, and then identifying how the work agrees and differs with one’s affective state. In other words, if I am feeling sad, can I find sadness in the work, and if so, how? This is more revealing than allowing the work to direct me towards a certain state. In some states, for example, extreme anxiety or facing the death of a loved one, art has singularly failed to move me. Why is that? Well, each of your paradoxes might provide a point of departure for discussion, but it is number nine that most interests me, perhaps because I find Lyotard of such interest. It relates to the imagination’s inability to present the unpresentable. I think, for instance, of Athol Fugard’s “People are Living There” in which a family are living in anticipation of the landlord’s visit. it gradually dawns on the audience that the landlord is in fact Fate or Death. Because the mind can only apprehend such concepts by means of euphemism and indirect reference, the play works well within an “ordinary” setting. Yet, when faced with the real thing – actually facing death in fact – the abilities of the imagination become insignificant. Perhaps as the problems the imagination seeks to present to us become increasingly great (just look around you), its ability to present them concurrently diminishes. Only Verdi’s Requiem partially bucks this trend…

    • Bert

      Richard – Thanks for your comments, which I find very illuminating (you must be a philosophy or literature lecturer, surely). I saw a production of Fugard’s ‘People are living there’ years ago, but still recall what an impact it had on me. Thanks for reminding me of it – it would be worth revisiting. And yes, Lyotard is one of the most interesting contemporary thinkers precisely because he took historical social changes into consideration when it comes to the appreciation of art, and of the growing complexity of society and culture. And yes, thanks. The lecture went very well, with a good discussion afterwards.
      Ian – you have indeed picked up a less than clear formulation on my part. It is because the imagination is powerless to present the sublime ‘object’ in all its complexity and incommensurable magnitude (especially today), that it has to find inventive ways of suggesting (presenting) the unpresentable (the postmodern sublime, for Lyotard), which I believe you have succeeded in doing. There are many examples of this in the arts. One of the best occurs in Beineix’s film, Diva, in the loft of the postman, when the camera gradually exposes the entire space strewn with everything from debris to hyperrealistic art – gradually panning across all of this because it cannot be shown at once – and you realize that this is an extended visual metaphor for the complexity (sublimity) of postmodern society. Mark Wilby’s art (that I have written on here) is also an example.