Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction


The Truth in Painting (1987)

In 1905 Paul Cézanne wrote to the younger artist, Emile Bernard, “I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you.” One can immediately imagine how Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) would have seized upon such a statement with its promise of “truth” “in painting,” two dubious precepts. Derrida would be compelled to deconstruct such a proposition. Despite its name, the Deconstruction that is associated with Derrida is not an act of destruction or a breaking up, instead Deconstruction, like Structuralism is an activity or performance. Deconstruction is reading, a textual labor, traversing the body of a text, leaving “a track in the text.” Unlike other forms of critical analysis, deconstruction cannot happen from the outside but, as Derrida stated, “Deconstruction is something that happens and happens from the inside.” As he stated to an audience of academics at Villanova in 1994 (in English),

The very meaning and mission of deconstruction is to show that things–texts, institutions, traditions, societies, beliefs, and practices of whatever size and sort you need–do not have definable meanings and determinable missions, that they are always more than any mission would impose, that they are always more than any mission could impose, that they exceed the boundaries they currently occupy..A “meaning” or a “mission” is a way to contain and compact things, like a nutshell, gathering them into a unity, whereas deconstruction bends all its efforts to stretch beyond these boundaries, to transgress these confines, to interrupt and disjoint all such gatherings.Whatever it runs up against a limit, deconstruction presses against. Whenever deconstruction finds a nutshell–a secure axiom or a pithy maxim–the very idea is to crack it open and disturb this tranquility. Indeed, that is a good rule of thumb in deconstruction. That is what deconstruction is all about, its very meaning and mission, if it has any. One might say that cracking nutshells is what decontsructrucion is. In a nutshell.

Deconstruction does not appeal to a higher logical principle or superior reason, something which Derrida considered to be metaphysical. His goal was to upsets the system of hidden hierarchies that composed philosophy by producing an exchange of properties. His major target was the hierarchy between speech and writing, in which speech was presumed to have preceded writing, this giving to speech a (false) priority and the (false) presumption of origin. In inverting the hierarchies embedded in paired opposites, Derrida insisted neither element can occupy the position of origin (such as speech over writing) and the origin looses its metaphysical privilege, which is why he insisted on deconstructing the Structuralist system of polarities and oppositions. He pointed out that the pairs, far from being equal or balanced, were, in fact, hierarchized, with one term being preferred (culturally) over the other. If this is the case, if “good” is preferred over “bad”, then the meanings of each/both term/s are interdependent. If the terms are interdependent, then they cannot be separated or polarized. If the terms cannot be separated or opposed in any final way, then their meanings are also interdependent and inseparable. This logical march which deconstructs

Structuralism began with Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) who was concerned with the problem of transcendence, the objectivity of objects, and their existence outside of temporal consciousness. In other words, the object had to be a form of knowledge of the object itself, not the mental acts which cognitively construct it. Phenomenological reflection suspends or “brackets” the question of existence and privileges the experience-of-object, which is the “object to be described” and this privileging means that the identity of the object must be ideal. But Derrida did not believe that Husserl’s transcendental acts of pure perception existed or that such states of purity could exist. Husserl posited an absolute ideal of objectivity, geometry, in order to differentiate between subjective and objective structures. Derrida asserted that Husserl “lodged” objectivity within subjectivity or self-presence, and that if this is the case, then the self must differentiate itself from the object and thus, Husserl introduces the idea of difference.

Derrida charged that Husserl created a structure of alterity or the otherness of the meaning or self. Living presence, according to Derrida, is always inhabited by difference. To express this differently, so to speak, difference creates an endlessly deferred meaning as the self and the object oscillate, unable to fix a position. By deconstructing Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida relocated his philosophy as writing. Without this “fixing” of a position, then a transcendental position is impossible, for if Derrida is correct and Husserl is merely writing, then yet another metaphysical account of the mystical thing in itself is revealed to be a figurative fiction. To the dismay of traditionalists, Postmodernism robs us of the fantasy of certainty. If we can never be certain, we can never know the truth. In contrast, the “close reading” of the Structuralists, that sought to find “unity,” gives way to a new close reading–Deconstruction–that seeks the “uncanny”–a Freudian term–that works against the bounds of the text. “The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar…” said Freud, referring to something that is repressed but recurs, responding to deeper laws, which for Deconstruction is that which is hidden in the text.

Deconstruction intervenes in philosophical texts, seeking what is not acknowledged, and intercedes in the field of oppositions and their hierarchies and works within the terms of the system in order to break open the structure and to breach its boundaries to determine what might have been concealed or excluded, or repressed. To deconstruct a discourse is to show it undermines the authority of philosophy and reveals its literary/rhetorical aspects. In identifying the rhetorical oppositions that structure the ground of the argument Deconstruction deconstructs philosophy as language, as writing. In The Truth in Painting (1987), Derrida interrogated Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) by introducing the concept of the passé-partout or what Americans refer to as the mat that encircles the painting or print or photograph, i. e. the work of art. He wrote,

Between the outside and the inside, between the external and the internal edge-line, the framer and the framed, the figure and the ground, form and content, signifier and signified, and so on for any two-faced opposition. The trait thus divides in this place where it takes place. The emblem for this topos seems undiscoverable; I shall borrow it from the nomenclature of framing: the passe-partout. The passe-partout which here creates an event must not pass for a master key.

Using the concepts of inside/outside and the idea of betweenness, Derrida was led to the next obvious question: “What is art? Then: Where does it come from ? What is the origin of art? This assumes that we reach agreement about what we understand by the word art. Hence: What is the origin of the meaning of “art?” The modern meaning of art must begin with Kant’s third Critique which was then commented upon by Georg Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics (1818-1829), who, in turn was over-writen by Martin Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art (written 1935-7, published 1950/60) and Derrida also used Kantian the concept of the “parergon” to question the supposed autonomy of art and its relation to various discourses, such as history and philosophy, which seek to preserve its autonomy. The parergon is the frame, the boundary between the art work (ergon) and its background and context, and in surrounding the painting, the frame guarantee its musical/metaphysical autonomy as “art.” Kant rejected the boundary-conditions and prevented the invasion of art’s privileged domain by assuming a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, or that which is proper to the domain of art and that which is outside the properties of art itself.

Kant introduced the metaphor of framing in an attempt to delimit a proper space of aesthetic representation, but in so doing, Kant perceived a problem, an undecidability in some seemingly marginal details that could not be detached without altering or upsetting the composition. For example, what is intrinsic to a sculpture with drapery? Should the body be considered as autonomous, that is self-sufficient without the drapery, or is the drapery intrinsic to the work of art itself? Decorative outwork was perceived of as part of art’s intrinsic quality, such as clothing on statues, which is not part of the essential form, and architectural details that are purely functional but that cannot be excluded from the overall artistic impression. Therefore for Kant, the parergon is a hybrid of inside and outside, frame, clothing, column, and there is no deciding what is intrinsic to artwork and what belongs to the outside frame. From the standpoint of Deconstruction, this “Framing” discourse is the chief concern of aesthetics which legitimizes its own existence by fixing a boundary between art and other modes of knowledge, including history and theory. “Art” becomes “art” through boundaries that exclude its other. Clearly, this notion of “frame” and the idea of “boundary” are both figural constructs hidden in plain sight within the discourse of aesthetics.

The frame is another variation of the Structure. Rhetorical figures, such as the “frame” in art, exist within discourse for a reason. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What is at stake?” why is the frame/the structure necessary? In asking why it is necessary to place art within s structure, to produce boundaries to validate “art,” he then demystified the notion of aesthetics as disinterested value. Aesthetics in “interested” in the sense that it defines and therefore produces “art” via these framing devices. The frame must be present in order to structure and the purpose of structurality is to both contain art within and exclude all that is deemed non-art. In the case of art, that which is “not art” is excluded in order to shape and form “art” as an entity that is transcendent. Therefore, Derrida asked, “What particular interests are served by aesthetics”? Contrary to the notion of a discourse that assumes art gives access to the realm of timeless and disinterestedness values, any discourse on art is always and inevitably bound up with interests that belong to the outside (of art).

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Podcast 36 Painting 2: Manet to Post-Impressionism

The Painters of Modern Life

Although the Pre-Raphaelite artists initiated the artistic interest in contemporary urban life and the problems of modern people, the Parisian artists are given credit for learning how to express modernité in formal terms. The French painters found the seventeenth century Dutch painters important precursors. Inspired by the depiction of ordinary moments of daily life among the middle class in Holland, the emerging avant-garde artists began to rethink, not just how to handle modern content, but also how to use paint itself so that their art could be “of its own time.” The result of this experimentation was an evolution of painting into the twentieth century.


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Defining Post-Impressionism



“Post Impressionism” was a term coined after the historical fact by the English art critic, Roger Fry, in 1910 on the occasion of an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London entitled “Manet and the Post-Impressionists.” Although the art critic extended “post-Impressionism” to include Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, Fry focused on three principle artists, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne, who the critic understood as those who followed Manet out of the cul-de-sac of naturalism. Later Fry realized that he was wrong to exclude Georges Seurat and today art history tends to list him along with the four main Post-Impressionist artists. An art expert on Italian art, Fry put on a second exhibition of Post-Impressionists in 1912, again expanding his concept of “post.” In this show he included, not just the French, but also Russian and British artists who were impacted by the Post-Impressionists. Movements such as Fauvism and Cubism owed a great deal to those four artists, and Fry’s exhibitions were precient. However, the British audience reacted to his artists with the same shock that would greet the Armory Show in New York City in 1913. Writing in Vision and Design in 1920, Fry stated, “Nothing I could say would induce people to look carefully at these pictures to see how closely they followed tradition.”


For the mainstream audience who saw these artists, the art was anything but traditional. Instead it was “anarchist and degenerate,” typical charges hurled at any kind of art that challenged the status quo. Not only did the Post-Impressionists follow the Impressionists with their high-key color and complex and individualized brushwork, the artists also exhibited independently. In addition to putting on their own shows, artists now had the Société des artistes indépendants, which launched in 1884. The transition out of and away from Impressionism included the older Impressionists themselves who found themselves at creative and formal dead ends by the 1880s. By the end of the decade, Naturalism had peaked and there was a general shift in the avant-garde circles towards idealism and spirituality and personal expression. That said, the shift was formally based upon innovations of the Impressionists, such as the idea of a composition as an abstract design and the elimination of perspective.

The same can be said of other artists of the fin-de-siècle era, but art history has selected Seurat, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Cézanne as being the most important to later artists. This emphasis on those four artists led to the later neglect of interesting and important artists, such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Emile Bernard and Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Art historian, Richard Shone, argued that Toulouse-Lautrec was essentially a poster artist and that Bonnard and Vuillard were more like the Impressionists than the Post-impressionists. Most contemporary art historians would agree with Shone. “Post-Impressionism” was not a movement but a concept, that was developed after most of the artists were dead. Although these artists matured and developed their art during the 1880s and the 1890s, public awareness of their accomplishments lagged behind the execution of the actual works. What made Fry’s exhibition so groundbreaking was that he attempted to create a history of a series of movements that were still neither understood nor known to the art audiences.


The general public and the mainstream art critics and the forces of the Academy still had to take Impressionism into account and assimilate its implications. The artistic Establishment refused to accept Impressionism, although the movement had been assimilated and softened in the Salons. The Impressionists, on their part, continued to be viable and increasingly prominent painters for a growing number of discerning collectors. By the turn of the century, they had been warily accepted by the old avant-garde segment of the art public and were considered to the prevailing artistic hegemony to be challenged by avant-garde artists. The Post-Impressionists, in their own time, were virtually unknown to the art public and, by the time of Cubism, were still being explained by the critics. The artists, as Fry pointed out, came “after” or were “post” the Impressionists and were strongly influenced by these avant-garde masters.

The Post-Impressionists tried to follow the Impressionists in the art market but with less success. To a public unwilling to accept Impressionism, Post-Impressionism would have been unacceptable. The Post-Impressionists would have had what Pierre Bourdieu called “an audience of producers,” in other words, they painted only for each other. Modern times may have called for a “modern art,” but the new audience–the bourgeoisie–wanted familiar art. Academic artists gave the public what it seemed to want: stories illustrated in a narrative form and representations through the accepted conventions of traditional realism. In contrast to these artists who respected this public need for verisimilitude, the avant-garde artists attempted to create a new language, a new sign system, suitable to and reflective of the new subjects demanded by the new era.

The theoretical and critical writings of the period were strident, and they had to be–to set the new movements definitely and defiantly apart from their predecessors. Much to the distress of the artist, Albert Aurier wrote the first article on van Gogh in the artist’s lifetime and discussed Vincent in Symbolist terms. However, these artists and these writers and these movements all have precedents, and these precedents are those very same objects of ridicule: Realism and Impressionism, which were firmly based upon nature and reality. The quarrel between the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists was not whether or not to depict or respond to nature but how this subject matter is treated—passively or actively. The famous quarrel between Gauguin and van Gogh was over the role of imagination (Gauguin) versus the role of observation of nature (van Gogh). Gauguin insisted that the artist should take liberties with the observed object and interpret what he saw. Van Gogh retorted that the artist should respond to nature and express his feelings. Both are insisting on a personal and subjective response, which is part of a general cultural shift away from the materialism of the previous decades and a return to the idealism of the past century.



Vincent van Gogh extended and exaggerated Impressionist broken brush strokes and absorbed the impact Japanese prints. Paul Gauguin rejected Impressionist passivity and objectivity and obedience to nature and developed an allegorical and symbolic art. Georges Seurat, like van Gogh, expanded Impressionist, but went in the direction of science, bringing the Impressionist study of color to its logical extreme. Paul Cézanne simply turned his back on his former colleagues and returned to the obscurity of his hometown of Aix, in Provence, where he would meditate upon the nature of vision and its role in painting.

Because these new artists, van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin and Cézanne, were so close in time to the Twentieth century, it is tempting to view their works with Twentieth century eyes and to read into Post-Impressionism anachronistic Twentieth century motivations—the artists were on the road towards abstraction. The stylistic changes made by these artists seem very significant and can be over-determined. For the most part, the subject matter remains the same—modern life—while the use of line, color and forms becomes formalized and decorative and expressionistic. And because the Post-Impressionists were attempting to go beyond or to get away from Impressionism, it is equally tempting to conclude that these artists rejected nature and reality along with objectivity. This assumption of a lack of interest in actual nature is bolstered by the dramatic stylistic changes and by the theoretical writings that accompanied them.

The Nineteenth century artists do not turn away from nature and end up in the mental world of abstraction. That was the task of Twentieth century artists who reject representation as the goal of art. Nineteenth Century artists considered representation of reality as a response to nature, to be the purpose of art. They differed only in the means, dark outlines? Flat colors? Points of color?. Post-Impressionism admitted or allowed greater subjectivity and thus brought up the question of the nature of reality and the proper artistic response to a conceptual definition of reality. If it is accepted that the basic idea that reality has an objective basis, which is modified by a subjective response, then the art of the Post-Impressionist era is bound to produce varying and individualistic attempts to interpret, not illustrate, to express, not to copy, nature.


These artists were equally concerned with the source of subjects for the fin-de-siècle artist. Emile Bernard followed Paul Gauguin in his pursuit of the “primitive” in the French countryside, an obvious objection of Impressionist suburbia. The artists who followed Impressionism most closely preferred the city of Paris and the private lives of its inhabitants as their subjects. The Paris of the Third Republic was just as involved in risqué entertainment—the balls, the cabarets, the cafés and the houses of prostitution—still catering to the haut bourgeois gentleman. Toulouse-Lautrec, a student of popular culture, could be termed the inventor of the modern poster, elevating a form of low art to a type of high art, pasted on the walls. His posters, which advertised sites of the infamous “can-can” were quickly torn down by his many admirers who considered them works of art. Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard continued the tradition of depicting the “intimate” space of private middle class lives, pioneered by Gustave Caillebot and Edgar Degas.

In contrast to the naturalism of some of the Post-Impressionists, there was a growing interest in all that was spiritual. In the wake of the Pont-Aven School, the Nabis were formed due to the initiative of Paul Sérusier. Drawn to Catholicism and to Theosophy, the some of the Nabis admired their leader’s famous painting, Le Talisman, and courted the mental image–that is the imagination–slavishly producing a mere resemblance to the real world. The term “nabi” means “prophet,” indicating the exalted state of mind sought by artists such as Maurice Denis and Paul Ranson. Denis was a Catholic painter who retired from public life to be a member of the third order of the Franciscans. He is best remembered, however, for his formalist statements on the role of art, written in Art et critique in 1890:

“Remember that before it is a war-horse, a naked woman or a trumpery anecdote, a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

These words became the watchword of the age and were obeyed by generations of artists to come.

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