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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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