Roland Barthes: “The Pleasure of the Text”

ROLAND BARTHES (1915-1980)

PART FIVE

The Pleasure of the Text (1973)

In his 1997 history of Structuralism, History of Structuralism: Volume One: The Rising Sign, 1945-1966, François Dosse described Roland Barthes in a number of ways–“the Mother Figure of Structuralism,” “one of structuralism’s best barometers,” “a weather vane for structuralism,” “a mythic figure of structuralism.” Most importantly and all in his opening paragraph on Barthes, Dosse described Barthes in terms of “his flexibility with regard to theories” quick to embrace them, Barthes was just as quick to disengage from them.” As Dosse summed up, in his early career, Barthes was writing in the midst of a post-war crisis in literature which had produced no notable writer since Marcel Proust. He wanted to get beyond this impasse of alienated writing, from political writing to academic writing to the direction suggested by Stéphane Mallarmé–the silence of writing that is the break from the expected or that which was required by the establishment, a state termed “white writing.”

According to Barthes, after 1848 and the breakdown of the social order into fragmented classes, serious writing began to reflect upon writing as writing and to write was to contend–self-consciously or self-reflexively with literature itself. This new approach to language as writing or literature about literature can be traced from Gustave Flaubert to Mallarmé to Proust to the Surrealists to writers of the era of Barthes whom he championed, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Albert Camus. At this last stage,the end of the fifties, according to Barthes, writing arrives at its end-point or what he called zero degree writing or “écriture blanche.” The “white” or neutral writer refuses commitment to either style of ideology and struggles against conventional literature, which Barthes called lisable or “readerly, in favor of writing that is scriptible or writerly, which questioned writing and literary conventions. As a critic who was “nauseated” by the old order, Barthes was particularly attentive to the new writes who, as artists, where also searching for a nouveau récit–a new way of writing–an new narration.

Barthes found an artist whose writings deserved his support, Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) whose first two novels The Erasers (1953) and The Voyeur (1955) had not exactly attracted critical acclaim. But when Barthes supported his third book, Jealousy (1957), the career of Robbe-Grillet was established, thanks to the reception of a voice very respected in literary circles. For Barthes, the novel was “objective” or a turn towards the object, but for Robbe-Grillet, the term became to rigid. That said, in 1956, he wrote an essay “For the New Novel” (which later named an entire literary movement) that stated,

Instead of this universe of “signification” (psychological, social, functional), we must try, then, to construct a world both more solid and more immediate. Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves, and let this presence continue to prevail over whatever explanation or theory that may try to enclose them in a system of references, whether emotional, sociological, freudian or metaphysical. In this future universe of the novel, gestures and objects will be there before being something..

In 1961, Robbe-Grillet–who got top billing–wrote one of the most innovative scripts for one of the most beautiful and innovative films of the late 20th century L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Directed by Alain Renais with costumes by Coco Chanel and cinematography by Sacha Vierny, the film became a celebrated part of the French Wave of experimental films. The droning opening monologue was a description of the ornate architecture of a Versailles-like mansion, a lexicon of words that gave the visualized objects “presence.” Although he was slightly older than the New Novelist or the New Wave filmmakers, Barthes, as a literary critic, was part of this struggle against the art-for-art’s sake hermeticism. Barthes preferred awareness of time and place from writers and a rejection of the notion of universality.

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Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Indeed, like all post-war theoreticians, Barthes was a product of Marxist ideas, common among European intellectuals. The political and Marxist ideas of Brecht were incorporated into structuralism by Barthes who insisted upon the importance of discovering and characterizing structures–not to find “meaning”–but to understand how structures function and how meanings are engendered by a logic of symbols or to be more precise the logical order of their “arrangement” in a structure. In contrast to traditional Marxists, Barthes did not find oppression in social relations but in the order of signs or in the framework of language itself. The order of meanings in a lisable text forces the reader to participate in violence in that to name a meaning is an act of political and ideological force. This forcible naming or interpretation subjugates and subordinates other interpretations and other meanings and other voices. Social oppression was embedded in language and acted out in the level of language, which was why Barthes chose popular as his focus in his 1953 book, Mythologies.

Language, as Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) insisted, structures the unconscious. Although he attended the seminars of the psychologist, Bathes, however, never seemed to have been particularly interested in the gendered nature of language. As a student of Lacan, Barthes would have recognized the primal act of splitting the subject as psychologically oppressive and that this act would ally the subject with language—a primal oppression. He also understand that language, arranged in terms of opposites with one term subjugation the other, was essentially oppressive. In other words, there is no avoiding the connection between language and power, but Lacan’s approach to language was, like that of Ferdinand de Saussure, more abstract than social. But Barthes, under the influence of Julia Kristeva (1941-), came to understand that abstraction was a gesture of universality and that a way out of “transcendence” was to take note of the materiality of language.

Barthes responded to this literary spectacle of will to power by circumventing the power reader expectations and complicity through a realization that there discernible limits to this readable text and its predictable referential codes. The readerly text presented a repetition of familiar codes that, in their reliability, induced nausea and made the reader sick from experiencing the same narrative. To overcome nausea, the reader must learn how to re-write and learn of the plurality behind the codes which actually contain multiple meanings. From being a passive consumer, the active reader is able to shift to the performative mode and reading becomes a performance. When the reader performs writing, the issue of “authorship” is blurred and the “Text” is presented through a process of writing and making meaning. With the shift from what Barthes called the “Work” to the new performance, the “Text,” language becomes an open-ended structure, exerting its own linguistic force and the text becomes productive. When Barthes began to understand that by working agains the codes of social power and in finding the hidden plurality in language, he slipped from the strictures of Structuralism into its next stage, often called Post-Structuralism. “Working” on the language or turning language into performance forced a contrast between an authoritative reading and the new undecidability, which overflowed the boundaries of communication.

This move to textuality meant that barriers between texts were broken down through the linguistic system of references, meaning that there can be no text, or no textuality, without intertextuality or a movement among texts. The text, with Barthes, must be read not as a form of representation but as a sequence of allusions. Once the active reader learns how to move beyond the forced meanings and the expected narrative and into the realm of language itself, the reader experiences pleasure. Under the impact of Lacan, by the late 1960s, Barthes moved to the body as the place of evaluation. In Writing Degree Zero, Barthes had insisted that the body was the site of style, but with his 1973 book, The Pleasure of the Text, he moved beyond the personal or the personae of the artist/author to the text itself. It could be a criticism to say that the conventional or ‘readerly” text is always bound up with the pleasure of the reader and the pleasure of the text is the pleasure of passive consumption of the conventional. This kind of reading of this kind of writing is part of the consumer culture.

In comparison, reading the “writerly” text produces another kind of pleasure and Barthes opened the book with a distinction between “pleasure” and “bliss.” “The text you write must prove to me that it desire me. This proof exists: it is writing. Writing is: the science of the various blisses of language..” Only certain kinds of books can produce or induce bliss. To describe this “bliss,” the pleasure of the text that is jouissance, an intense, violent form of pleasure, an interruption of the consciousness, Barthes goes back to one of his essays in Mythologies, the strip tease. He wrote, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” The effects of this kind of writing of the text is comparable to erotic pleasure, for during the process–whether that of reading/writing or sexual excitation–our sense as unified subjects is suspended. Therefore, as Barthes, explained,

Thus what I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface: I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again..Whence two systems of reading: one goes straight to the articulations of the anecdote, it considers the extent of the text, it ignores the play of language..the other reading skips nothing; it weights, it sticks to the text, it reads, so to speak, with application and transport, grasps at every point in the text the asyndeton which cuts the various languages–and not the anecdote..

Because pleasure resists appropriation by those in power, pleasure has traditionally been suppressed and repressed by philosophy and ideology, but the right to pleasure is reaffirmed in literature to counter political (ideological) readings. Barthes makes a distinction between plaisir and jouissance when he wrote,“The pleasure of the text is that moment when my body pursues its own ideas–for my body does not have the same ideas I do.” The text de plaisir is the classical readable or lisable text, while the texte de jouissance resists language and becomes a threat. This latter, or avant-garde text works on two surfaces or plays between the two edges, which are the conformist narrative and the subversive écriture. The space between the expected and the subversive is a gap between the two and this gap, as Barthes pointed out, is erotic. Barthes considered the text to be “a fetish object and this fetish desires me..but in the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure..”

Three years ago, Barthes “killed” the author, or to be more precise, he extended the possibilities of the text, but in his new erotic analysis of the text, he brought the author back. But now, what was the fate of the reader? With the body as a site of transgression, experiencing socially deviant bliss or transgression, Barthes shifted to discussing literature as desire. Under the influence of Lacan and Kristeva, Jouissance became a key concept for Barthes in his discussion of the play-text. Jouissance means “to die,” an orgasm, a death, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure and thus, the texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. “No significance (no bliss) can occur, I am convinced, in a mass culture (to be distinguished, like fire from water, form the culture of the masses), for the model of this culture is petit bourgeois..The asocial character if bliss: it is the abrupt loss of sociality, and yet there follows no recurrence to the subject (subjectivity), the person, solitude: everything is lost, integrally. Extremity of the clandestine, darkness of the motion picture theater.”

Active reading and re-writing dissects author or the cult of the writer and repeated or iterative canonical codes that dominate society. Writing becomes not theory but an actual practice or praxis and names codes and stereotypes, calling them out, in order to cut them down. The task of the critic is to call attention to pre-existing institutional languages as objects to be transformed. One of the main points Barthes made in previous writings was that the fabrication of meaning is more important than meaning. For years, Barthes had opposed two terms, the “subjective” or the Romanticism of writing and the author to “objective” or the materiality of language itself, but in The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes replaced the impossible notion of “neutral writing” or “zero degree” writing a “third term,” the notion of writing as play. The process of circulation through a play of codes defeats the structuralist goal of exhausting the meaning of the text. The circulation is activated by codes and is not another structure but new perspectives opened up in the text by the blessed-out reader.

It is at this point, that, having brought back the author through the force of desire, Barthes could now deal with the reader. Because Barthes doubted that there could be an aesthetic of mere pleasure, Le plaisir du texte promotes an aesthetic of a play-text through jouissance, the key concept of the play-text. Jouissance indicates “to die” in an orgasm, a moment of self-oblivion at the height of sexual pleasure. The texte de jouissance takes erotic pleasure in the death of the subject. Not only is the reader dead of pleasure, the texte also “kills” its topic, and the language is left in pieces and the culture, as a result, is also fragmented. As Barthes wrote, “Pleasure in pieces; language in pieces; culture in pieces.” Nothing can be reconstructed or recovered; the subject is obliterated and the writer is erased; all possible meanings are destroyed. Plaisir is a general term for reading pleasures generated by the excesses of the text. Barthes’s account of reading is materialistic in that he replaced mind with body and its materiality of signifiers and its source of pleasures. What comes from the body is deeper, truer, and more natural. “What I hid by my language, my body writes.” “There is a chance of avant-garde whenever it is the body and not ideology that writes.”

For Barthes, the enemy was always the establishment, always the ideology of the culture that was his target. However, in The Pleasure of the Text, he understood that ideology was the shadow of the text. “There are those,” he wrote, “who want a text (an art, a painting) without a shadow, without the ‘dominant ideology,’ but this is to want a text without fecundity, without productivity, a sterile text..the text needs its shadow: this shadow is a bit of ideology, a bit of representation, a bit of subject: ghosts, pockets, traces, necessary clouds: subversion must produce its own chiaroscuro.” Barthes abandoned the utopia of “white writing” for the atopia of the text of pleasure. This atopia allows the text to be outside of ideology and yet is activated by ideology its shadow. Another term for ideology would be history itself, the history from which writing can never escape. The writing of Barthes for the past twenty years had always struggled between opposing two terms, in this case, utopia and atopia, and, as always, he turned to the third term “shadow” to fill the gap–the favorite space of Barthes. It is the penchant for the in between that allowed Barthes to find a third term to place between “writing” and “style” and that term would be “voice,” the physical note which ends The Pleasure of the Text. “Writing aloud,” he wrote, (is) “the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat..the anonymous body of the actor in my ear: it granulates, it crackles, it caresses, it grates, it cuts, it comes: that is bliss.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Roland Barthes: Writing Degree Zero

ROLAND BARTHES (1914 – 1980)

PART ONE

Writing Degree Zero (1953)

One of the most interesting facts of the life of Roland Barthes was that he was struck by a laundry van and, after lingering for a month, died of his injuries. “The Painter of Modern Life,” Constantin Guys had also been struck down in a similar fashion: almost a century earlier, he was run over by a cab and his legs were crushed. Guys died more slowly and succumbed ten years later. If being run down by a laundry truck when walking home from lunch with the future President of France, seems an odd way to die, Barthes had always walked an uneven path. He was unfortunate enough to come of age at a time where homosexuality was not a public matter and he spent his life in the closet, living with his only parent, his mother, his entire life. As he got older and became less attractive to the young men he desired, he declined to impose himself upon them. Barthes, who preferred a quiet life in the home he shared with his mother, was so fond of his colleague and intellectual confident, Julia Kristeva, he wished he was a heterosexual.

Although to outsiders, especially dazzled Americans, he seemed to be the chain smoking quintessential French intellectual, he was something of an autodidact whose education was never completed. Barthes had taught himself the prevailing French ideas floating through the post-war decades, but remained mostly an essay writer until his new tendencies were publicly criticized by a Sorbonne professor, Raymond Picard. As one of his biographers Jonathan Culler related, from 1965 on Barthes became the intellectual representative of criticism after Existentialism. However, exalted his public persona, Barthes was both in the center and in the margins and, indeed, Michel Foucault was somewhat disdainful of the self-education of Barthes. Barthes finally achieved a place in the scholarly community he at once chided and aspired to when he was elected to a chair in Sémiologie Littéraire at the Collège de France.

Post-war Paris was in a state of intellectual flux. The scholarly community had been united by two elements during the Occupation: hatred for the Nazis and adherence to Marxism. When the war ended, Existentialism emerged as the prevailing philosophy, but Marxism as a philosophy seemed to be discredited by the brutal Stalinism of the Soviet Union. It was the events of 1968 that finally ended the faith in a practical Marxist theory of class revolution and, in the ruins of the “days of May,” Existentialism seemed too focused on the individualistic “act” of a single person, Marxism seemed too political and too tainted with failure, leaving Structuralism as the comfortably apolitical philosophy of the day.

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Paris “Days of May” 1968

Based on the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, Structuralism was established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his 1955 book Tristes Tropiques, which was followed up by Structuralist Anthropology in 1958. The work of Lévi-Strauss moved away from linguistic signs to social signs, from behavior and costumes, rituals and customs. The work of the Structuralist was to reveal the underlying structure of cultural signifiers which were arranged along binaries. Reflecting the structure of the human mind, paired opposites such as the raw and the cooked should be read as part of a larger sign system and gains meaning within a network of other signs. The raw and the cooked, the inedible and the editable, for example, are part of a larger concept of nature and culture.

It is important to understand that by the time Structuralism was introduced to America, it was already “over” in Paris, challenged by newer versions of Structuralism from those who also repudiated Structuralism, such as Foucault and those who undermined it, such as Jacques Derrida. From the late sixties to the mid eighties, works by French and German writers arrived, via translations, in an unsystematic manner and with alien labels, such as “Post-Structuralism.” In the blank space following the exhaustion of New Criticism and the aging of the Anglo-American tradition, French theory fell on fertile ground and was consumed by eager Americans, few of whom were familiar with the very real differences among the scholars in the very competitive universities and colleges of Paris. Instead, the “French” was all lumped together and were not understood as having distinctive intellectual lineages and very distinctive bodies of work. Compared to the scientific work of Lévi-Strauss, to the historical scope and extended projects of Foucault, to the twisted syntax and ever-evolving re-writings by Lacan, to the dense and circular layered writing of Derrida, the books and essays by Roland Barthes are brief, concise, eclectic and, in the case of Camera Lucida, an extended mourning for his mother, very personal. Not a trained philosopher, as were many of his colleagues, Barthes is best understood as a literary critic who used Structuralism as an analytic tool to better foreground “writing” over “literature” and to understand the system of social signs of ordinary life.

However, Barthes came to Structuralism late in his career. The first twenty years of his development was essentially a learning curve, including numerous essays that led to significant books, one of them being his first extended foray into literary criticism in 1953 when he published Le degré zéro de l’écriture. Early in his career, like all young intellectuals, Barthes digested Existentialism and was very inspired by What is Literature? (1947) by Jean-Paul Sartre. “The empire of signs is prose, poetry is on the side of painting, sculpture and music,” Sartre wrote and the reader of the works of Barthes immediately recognizes a famous phrase that would later become the title of a book by Barthes. “Poets are men who refuse to utilize language..he has chosen the poetic attitude which considers words as things and not as signs.” In both accepting this book by Sartre and in slipping away from Existentialism, Writing Degree Zero is very much a transitional book. A reaction against Existentialism, it combines Marxism in its critique of bourgeois literature and moves beyond a class critique to a critique of what Barthes called “Literature,” seeking a new non ideological way of writing. The roots of the short book go back to the late 1940s and is one of the most obvious of his excursions into semiotics.

In her introduction to Writing Degree Zero, when it was translated into English in 1967, Susan Sontag noted that American writers would have difficulty in understanding the book. Part of what disturbed her in the late sixties–the unfamiliarity with French literary criticism–has since passed and the book does not seem difficult at all, but the entire foundation of the book, an analysis of a tradition of literature that is specifically French, remains alien to many Americans. As Sontag pointed out, not only do American have an Anglo-Ameircan literary heritage but the canonical authors are quite different. When Barthes wrote of “Literature,” without explanation, he was referring to the French tradition of classical and official literature that dated back to the 17th century. Because Literature was designed to provide knowledge, information, and received wisdom, it was considered, not a mode of writing but a “natural” and inevitable form of communication. Due to its effectiveness, Literature remained supreme, even after the French Revolution. Early 19th century writers adopted the official language of power and what had once belonged to the ancien regime was appropriated by the “triumphant” middle class.

As an example of the authority of this form of language, Barthes made note of a form of grammar that does not exist in the English language: the “preterite,” or a verb that “implicitly belongs with a causal chain..set of related and oriented actions.” “The Marchioness went out at five o’clock,” was a famous phrase used by Paul Valéry as a convention used for novels and Barthes notes that the same conventions are used for the recitations of history. Barthes stated that “Behind the preterite there always lurks a demiurge, a God or a reciter..the preterite is the expression of an order.” For the contemporary writer, the preterite is a phasing of authority and can be thought of as director’s establishing shot or the screenwriter’s ellipse–a way of moving the narrative from here to there. The order could hold as long as the class system remained intact and the bases of power seemed secure but after the Revolution of 1848, the social organization broke down due to historical forces, from industrialization and the urbanization of society. With the fracturing of the old society, the language of old France, Literature, lost its authority and writers had to find a new way of writing.

According to Barthes, “Literature” is a modern creation, part of a larger system of ownership and property resulting from capitalism and as such, this cultural concept constituted a new or modern form of writing that was “owned” by the “author” and “owned” by the publisher. By the 19th century, in its new version,“literature” was bought and sold and was no longer communal property as were the epic poems of an oral tradition named “Homer.” Bourgeois literature was an art form in the Kantian sense, in that it had no “useful” purpose. Therefore that which was bourgeois writing was distinguished from forms of writing that were considered versions of the “truth,” such as religion. Marxist theorist György Lukács (1885-1971) asserted that Realist writing of the 19th century was based upon seeing, meaning that the writer was merely describing what was seen or witnessed, no matter how painful. The mediation or the apparently neutral description was in fact a political act in that Realism made the power of the middle class seem to be inevitable. Notice that the supposedly distanced and omnipotent position of the narrator mimics the conventions of Literature. It is no accident that the Realist or Naturalistic novels of George Sand and Honoré Balzac and Gustave Flaubert emerged during a period of rising capitalism, the steady of empowerment of the bourgeoisie and the demise of the proletariat.

In Le Degrè zéro l’écriture, 1953, Barthes understood language to be a historical phenomenon and style as an individual feature. Barthes noted that descriptive or naturalistic writing was not innocent and was bound up in its own historical period. The avant-garde, situated in the Generation of 1848, broke with the horizontally and continuity of realism and liberated words from other words. From the 1850s on, the writer is “without Literature” which is in a “tragic predicament,” and the question becomes what is the mark of “good writing” now that Literature had lost its place? Barthes recounted that the late 19th century writers foregrounded “labor” as a value and stressed their bourgeois origins as workers. The new elevation of the “craft” of writing to an independent aesthetic began with Flaubert and modern authors strove to generate “good writing,” or the ability to use words well. The problem for writing became one of extracting oneself from the precincts of power and to find a way for writing to function as writing within a system of language.

Barthes was suspicious of “realism” in theory and in texts and considered realism not a form of seeing or describing that what existed, but as being based upon a set of practices and signification. The texts of the Realists were founded on a set of conventions that limited the text and, in naturalizing society, became a mediator between the bourgeoisie and the working class. For Barthes, the key moment in his analysis of the history of French literature, was the disjuncture between bourgeois realism and avant-garde realism. For the world of visual art, Literature, which was so transparent it appeared to have no style, would have its counterpart in academic art of the mid to late 19th century. Paintings by Jean-Léon Gérôme or Ernst Meissionier were the bourgeois form of Realism as Literature. In contrast, examples of the avant-garde Realism would be the labored working class craft exhibited so proudly by Gustave Courbet or the visible marks of production kept on view by Édouard Manet in their paintings. Understanding the French Classical tradition of Literature which was supposedly invisible to itself but was actually a evidence of power and order allows the art historian to comprehend the cultural anger that met the avant-garde artists who called attention to the “un-naturalism” of “naturalism.”

It would be an exaggeration to see Barthes as a Structuralist in 1953 but he was certainly aware of Saussure and Marx, both of who had built binary models. For Saussure there was langue and parole, or the system of language and the way in which language is used in everyday life. Seeing a conflict with Saussure’s binary system–between the will and the system–Barthes sought a middle term: écriture. Écriture is not translatable into English and is now left in the original French, but in Writing Degree Zero the term is translated as “writing,” a rather colorless term. For Barthes, there is language, the system and style, which is both historical and personal or as he put it “biological.” If the language is social then the style is personal. But in between language and style is writing. As Barthes wrote,

A language and a style are blind forces; a mode of writing (écriture) is an act of historical solidarity. A language and a style are objects; a mode of writing (écriture) is a function; it is the relationship between creation and society, the literary language transformed by its social finality, form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crises of History.

For Barthes écriture had a specific relationship of form to content, embodied in the conventions of writing and operating within ethical and political values as a social fact. Always concerned with writing (écriture) as a moral act as a social fact, Barthes set up a ternary schema–a tripod model that would become his trademark–langue, style, écriture, which intimates or gestures at something beyond–a critique. “Writing,” Barthes asserted, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti communication, it is intimidating.” Writing Degree Zero breaks down into three major sections with his discussion of the transition from Literature to avant-garde writing in the middle, as the meat in the sandwich, as it were. Having established écriture as a third element, wedged between language and style, Barthes then ended his slim volume of meditation on the French tradition of writing with another middle term: zero degree writing.

Concerned with getting literature out of trap of bourgeois realism, Barthes had little patience with the “craft of writing (which) does not disturb any order.” He includes in those non-disturbers writers, who think they are disrupting the system or can “exorcise this sacred writing by dislocating it,” the still ascendent Surrealists, such as André Breton. Even the attempts of Stéphane Mallarmé to renounce language were equivocal. The solution Barthes put forward was “a colorless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordined state of language.” His new breaking of the binaries centered upon placing “a neutral term or zero element.” The zero element is an aspect of grammar, a term in the middle of the singular-plural binary. As Barthes explained, “..writing at the zero degree is basically in the indicative mode, or if you like, a modal..a journalist’s writing.”

Barthes was interested in the neutral or what Sartre called, the “white writing” of Albert Camus, purged of the characteristic mark of “literature” (mannerism or style), “achieves a style of absence, which is almost an idea absence of style; writing is then reduced to a sort of negative mood in which the social or mythical characters of a language are abolished in favor of a neutral and inert state of form..neutral writing in fact rediscovers the primary condition of classical art: instrumentality. But this time, form as an instrument is no longer at the service of a triumphant ideology; it is the mode of a new situation of the writer, a way of certain silence has of existing; it deliberately foregoes any elegance or ornament, for these two dimensions would reintroduce Time into writing..” Unlike Marxist literature which is a language of “value-judgments” or “professional language signifying ‘presence,” writing should be linked to the project of revolution by renegotiating its relationship to history.

Barthes comes from the exhausted traditions of Marxism and Existentialism and extends their shared values of a moral writing by an engaged intellectual and looks for an ethical dimension in literature. “White writing” negates the false transparency of the algebraic system of the cause-and-effect writing of Literature, in which one element “naturally” follows another in a “logical” fashion. For Barthes the critic’s job is to construct intelligibility for his/her own time and to develop conceptual frameworks for analysis. In this critical and analytical fashion, the critic exposed the habitual ways of making the world intelligible and worked to modify these meanings that seem “natural.” For Barthes, all writing contains social signs, indicating a social mode of writing. No prose is transparent; the author’s language is inherited, while his/her own style is personal, but writing can be “white” or “zero degree.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Beginning Postmodernism: Forming the Theory

POSTMODERNISM

Coining the Term

“Postmodernism” was a term coined by Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) early in the century to refer to the last quarter of the 19th century, a time where capitalism and imperialism and Western civilization in general began to decline. For Toynbee, this new period, beginning in 1875 actually coincided with the modernist avant-garde in the art world of Paris. However, Toynbee examining a larger swarth of history and noted the rise of “mass:” mass culture, mass education and mass culture. When he died in 1975, the “post-modern” was already ninety years old but the intellectual world was just beginning to incorporate the concept. At first, in the art world, the term simply meant, “after” Modernism; but by the mid 1970s, Postmodernism came to refer more and more to a theoretical stance, rather than to a temporal event. If Toynbee’s concept of the masses could be applied to the art world it could be seen in the rise of the larger culture of women and people of color and other other artistic impulses to challenge the white male elite who painted large abstract paintings. The masses had come to break down the Modernist hegemony and to scatterer the “rules of art” into the fractured world of pluralism.

The collapse of the dominance of Modernism was a signal that a new questioning was occurring—a questioning of the entire basis of Western philosophy and its products. That new skepticism was called Postmodernism. By 1970 “modern art” had become a period style, a historical entity. The style of Modernism had evolved into a vocabulary of ornament and had developed into a grammar of available forms. Modernism was used as an international art language, which both dispersed its vocabulary but also thinned out its avant-garde origins. This concept of a single “style” or the morality of abstract art as being hegemonic broke down, and painting and sculpture, the best carriers for abstraction, declined as dominant art forms. Self-confined to the museum and gallery, modernist art was vulnerable to being challenged by artistic expressions that were not restricted to artistic traditions. The entry of the “theatrical” with installation art and the flight of environmental art from the “white cube” made the Kantian contemplation of the serenely independent art object impossible.

As art moved out of the museums and into the actual environment and new technologies took center stage, the entire epistemology of Modernist art began to disappear. As the younger generation of artists rejected the old tenets of the meaning and purpose of art, Modernism could no longer hold its own against the expansion of means of art making. Although there are multiple moments in time where one might see a Postmodern direction, this breakdown of Modernism and the rise of Pluralism probably preceded Postmodernism in the s consciousness of the art public. Postmodernism was a time and a period: after Modernism, but over time the differences between the two movements are becoming clearer. Despite Toynbee, the Postmodern in the world of the arts was a short shiver, a shaking off of Modernism for a pseudo style which rapidly aged and dated. While Modernism had a sound philosophical foundation, in the arts it was expressed largely through art criticism, from Stéphane Mallarmé to Clement Greenberg. In contrast Postmodernism was a pluralistic mélange of theoretical position or reinterpretations and re-readings of Modernist theories.

Modernism (1860-1960)

Modernism, as a movement, was opposed to popular or bourgeois taste and espoused the avant-garde stance of the alienated artist. Modernism, as a means of analyzing art, assumes a cultural equality of diverse art, critiqued through a formalist methodology which levels out difference. The work of art is a self-referential object in a self-critical relationship with itself and with its medium. The medium is the crucial determinant in the pursuit of identity, as the problem of art was perceived by Clement Greenberg was to eliminate surplus, such as “realism” or cultural or life-reference, which interferes with that which is qualitatively significant in art. Art must self-identify as a physical object and must suppress metaphor or symbolism–art could not “represent” anything but art. Therefore Modernism rejected what Clement Greenberg called “literary forcing” or a dependence upon the narrative.

The Modernist theories of Clement Greenberg were based upon Enlightenment models: Hegelian and Marxian and Kantian. Because these models were formal and answerable to large forces, such as “history,” art had to be isolated in order to respond appropriately to the critic’s grand narrative. The result is an internal contradiction: either art is relevant because it is an expression of an Enlightenment version of the human spirit or individuality or art is transcendent and is uninvolved with “the world” in which case, how can art be meaningful? As Marx pointed out, everything is pregnant with its own contradiction, and Postmodern artists reacted against transcendence and immanence. Pop artists were, like the Impressionists who worked a hundred years earlier, only reacting to the time honored advice: to be of your own time. By the 1960s, the Modernist imperative of pure art, transcending the ordinariness of banal reality had broken down to the point where aestheticians Arthur Danto and George Dickey had to cobble together a framework for judgment called “the institutional theory of art.”

Pre-Postmodern artists, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns began to borrow and appropriate to re-do that which had been done before, but from the perspective of distance and detachment. Eliminating Kantian universality of the disinterested judgment of art, the relativistic and pragmatic “institutional theory” had to be asserted in order to create the legitimacy of “copying” a Brillo box by Warhol and the fact that a difference had te be made between representation and resemblance. The idea of “artistic creativity” became re-defined as artists and art historians rediscovered Marcel Duchamp who seemed to answer the need to refute Modernism. Duchamp applied a Kantian disinterest to his art making practice and carried out detachment to the logical extreme of “indifference.” What happened to Modernism was that the critique which was at its heart twisted around and turned upon itself, emptying out its humanistic stance and replacing art with language. Perhaps due to the impact of Marcel Duchamp, postmodern art became more conceptual, exposing the hidden heart of of Modernism: representation. The Modernist artist “represented” humanity by “representing” individuality,” but the postmodern artist, thinking of Duchamp began making art that did not “represent” but was “about” an idea.

After the death of Duchamp, by the rebellious period of the seventies, Modernism became a partisan position, identified with American boosterism, Clement Greenberg, Eurocentrism, androcentrism, and an elitist mission to preserve high art. Modernism also became entangled with the politics of the times, echoing the imperialist attitude for American art and the heroic character of American art, which at the same time attempted to justify its exclusion of women and people of color. Modernism also became caught up in the rising tide of the highly profitable art market in New York which was able to co-opt avant-garde art and to transform a high style into a salable commonplace. Abstract art became vernacularized and with an affluent society invested in an increasingly consumer-based culture, the public lost the need for an “absolute” meaning for art. “Modern art” became another period style that was characterized by a perceptual, sensuous surface that was polyphonic and all over. The assumed self-integrity of the artist collapsed along with the conceit the significance of unity and centrality of consciousness.

Postmodernism (1980-2000)

Modernism’s “will to style” and its hierarchical way of thinking about art was rejected by the concepts of Postmodernism. Postmodernism questioned how value in art is determined and answered that value was a social construct and could never be independent. Human consciousness had always been psychically entangled with fine art, but postmodern philosophers dismantled the notion of the independent subject. Unity of consciousness was impossible to achieve, not necessarily desirable, and there was no final resolution of parts. It was previously assumed that “art” worked and existed in a dialectical situation with art being defined by what is “not art,” but Postmodernism accepts the notion of irresolution and incompleteness by recognizing the interdependent linguistic and conceptual overlap between “high art” and “low art.” Postmodern art appropriated plurality through the realm of quotation in the new historicism of Postmodernism which gives access to all styles, all of which are of equal validity. The only question is—not what it “means”—but how it’s all put together.

In this new age of Indifference, Pop Art was characterized by its supposed Cool, its apparent lack of passion and its reluctance to criticize the society that gave the artists visual inspiration. When Abstract Expressionism became too heavy a moral burden, when galleries began to see how profitable art could be, when artists became dazzled by the star system, Modernism was over and the disillusionment of something called Late Modernism or Postmodernism took the place of the innocence of pure art. The commercialization of art and artists and the commodification of the avant-garde could be foretold by a careful reading of Baudelaire who could have predicted art functioning as fad, fashion, and consumer good. As Foucauldrian socialist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out, an artistic strategy of legitimization, par excellence, was the “return to origins” or to the purity of the first rebellion. This “return” to an art for the people seen so strongly in the art of the Sixties and Seventies, was a form of longing for the comforts of a past that never existed but this nostalgia was one of the hallmarks of Postmodernism’s desire to look back and not forward.

In rejecting the futuristic position of the avant-garde, Postmodernism re-placed itself into the stream of history and in acknowledging the past, art underwent a sea change. One of the major distinctions between Modernism and Postmodernism is based upon the concept of a truth or of a transcendence. Modernism sought to transcend time and place. Modernism desired to be universal by passing over the particular and the local and the peculiar in favor of the absolute. Modernism, in its quest for transcendence will always attempt to remain pure, bounded, contained, seeking closure, to seal itself off from the world in order to rise above it. Modernism was created after the fact by theories, or “truisms,” that were merely ways of looking at and speaking about works of art, all devised and developed self-reflexively during the Modernist period. From the position of post-post-modernity, it seems clear that Postmodernism was a correction to Modernism, a difference obtained by asserting its polar opposite.

Postmodernism is a mega term, suggesting two possibilities. One is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism in that we have moved beyond Modernism and into another era, as not yet understood. The second prospect is that “we” have evolved out of Modernism through a new purification: we perceived the error of our ways. While once a work of art was perceived as an object separated from its context and from its signifying functions, Postmodernism, on the other hand, rejects the point of view that art stands alone. There is no escaping the literary dimension of all works of art, which are necessarily poetic, referential and metaphorical. Content, not form, becomes crucial and content is always historically mediated, created through and defined by history. Found styles, left over from history, are left intact so as to be recognizable but are sufficiently manipulated to suggest a novel aesthetic attitude. Postmodern painter and bricoleur David Salle exerted no effort to assimilate the parts into a formal unity of meaning.

In contrast to the Modernist effort to stabilize and sterilize through a limited vocabulary, Postmodernism combined art and theater in a frank theatricality that beckons to the now activated art audience who recognizes the references and joins in a game of play, sorting through the assemblage of historical quotations. The idea of “style” itself is bankrupt and the work of art is an assemblage, such that of Charles Ray, that refuses unity. Postmodernism, while unsure of its impact or to put it another way is reluctant to announce its self-importance, is concerned with how art communicates. For Rebecca Horn art is language and the relationship of the signifier to the signified depends upon the reaction of the spectator, making the work of art non-hermetic and readable. The result is a doubling of signifiers, a shorthand crowding of givens that are never explained only felt, that empties out art content. The givens of immediate perception have no ability to generate symbolic meaning. When the rhinoceros horns, “detached” from the animal’s theoretical body and crafted by Horn gradually move towards each other, when the tips “kiss” with electric eroticism, the Kiss of the Rhinoceros in 1989 is just a kiss.

Coming after high-flying Modernism, the Postmodern situation is one of belatedness, similar to the placement of Mannerism, coming after the High Renaissance. All one can do is to comment upon the precursor. Preferring intellectual scorn, postmodernism is ironic rather than openly rebellious. Postmodernist critiques of modern philosophy will note that Enlightenment concepts, such as Structuralism, depend upon figurative models of depth and division. Karl Marx built a model of society resting upon a base, which supported the superstructure, Sigmund Freud built a model of a divided but enclosed mind, segmented into sections and built upon two levels: the conscious and the unconscious, Ferdinand de Saussure built a model of language based upon boundary and enclosure, Claude Lévi-Strauss built a model based upon depth or seeking meaning below the surface of a narrative.

These Modernist philosophical architectonic models would later be critiqued as being figural and constructive metaphors, embedded in Enlightenment discourse, existing in an unquestioned condition. The architectonic tropes of the conceptual models were circular arguments that ignored the history of their own making but were reflections of Enlightenment thinking that sought answers and certainty, based upon the powers of the rational human mind and its powers. The guarantee of the efficacy of these models was the authenticity of presence which in turn was based upon desire–desire to resolve, desire to make sense of the world–that drives the structure of the model. Postmodernism would smash the carefully constructed models by reviewing philosophical writing as writing, as writing, as a form of literature. The theorists would deliberately read against the grain, feeling blindly for the elements that couldn’t quite be suppressed through rational and logical thinking. In a visual answer, postmodern art understood modernist art as a dictionary of dislocated languages to be deconstructed.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Jacques Lacan: Return to Freud

JACQUES LACAN (1901 – 1981)

PART TWO: RETURN TO FREUD

Being a transitional figure, bridging Modernism and Postmodernism, Jacques Lacan was a complex and hybrid philosopher whose work is convoluted and complicated. As a Modernist, he favored models and structures, a methodology he inherited from both Georg Hegel and Karl Marx who worked from the dialectic, a triadic process. The combination of dyads and triads marks the efforts of Jacques Lacan who then layers the duos and trios in a series of strata. As a Postmodernist, Lacan was one of the earlier re-readers of Enlightenment ideas and did not hesitate to slice and dice and recombine ideas purloined from Modernists, Ferdinand de Saussure, Alexandre Kojeve, Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et. al. Lacan used the works of all of these philosophers to re-interpret the books of Sigmund Freud. The one element that marks him off from his predecessors is Lacan’s use of language or appropriation of the linguistic theories of Saussure and the idea of “language games,” borrowed from Wittgenstein. The primary project of Jacques Lacan was to re-make Freudian theory by filtering it through the fulcrum of language.

In 1955 Jacques Lacan announced his famed Return to Freud, meaning that he had decided to take up the writings of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) as literature. As is clear by the date of is “announcement,” Lacan had read Ludwig Wittgenstein’s recently published Philosophical Investigations (1953) and had learned of Wittgenstein’s notion of “language games.” Although Lacan had been working with Freudian theory and had even challenged the Freudian privileging of the ego, Wittgenstein gave him a new way to re-read Freud. Wittgenstein had used language games to demonstrate the difference between saying and showing and to search for the limits of “saying” or what could be said. These limits are reached when the question of defining “language” arises and any definition can only become another example, and never a definition, meaning that meaning is always deferred.

Lacan rediscovered the “essential Freud” through the early writings: The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), The Psychology of Everyday Life (1901), Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). These signature works are considered the canonical theories on the unconscious mind. Lacan referred to the Unconscious as the “Lost Object”, an object barred from the conscious. He was less interested in Freud’s archaeological project and more interested in the constitution of the individual and social beings and with the relation of the individual subject to the structure of language within the culture. The individual is formed/made/built in relation to the family and is integrated into the social matrix through the agency of language. Lacan asserted, <“I have never said that the unconscious was an assemblage of words but that the unconscious is precisely structured.” “The meaning of a return to Freud is a return to the meaning of Freud.”

The unconscious is structured like a language and functions in ways similar to language: sign, signifier, and signified. In giving agency to language in creating the human and by insisting on the primacy of language as generative of consciousness, Lacan expressed his opposition to the traditional notion of the Self as an independent or transcendent or an absolute entity in the world. The question is why language? Psychoanalysis has but one medium: the patient’s speech, and Freud taught his readers that “symptoms,” or uncontrolled manifestations of the unconscious, speak in and through words. Symptoms, like dreams, which are linguistic image based narratives, were constructed in phrases and sentences. Freud tried to use language to reach a source or an origin from which the primal pain was emanating, but Lacan insisted that origins can never be located. What is available to the observer is the capacity for symbolization, expressed as language.

The subject exists because of and through language. Because the human agent “knows” or “speaks” only through language, language is the determinant of intersubjectivity or consciousness. Given that the limits of language, not only is there no outside or no meta-language and also no access to the unconscious but there is also no ego without language. The ego or the conscious rational mind is the product of linguistic activity. In other words, the limits of the language and the limits of the consciousness are the same and inseparable. As Lacan expressed it,

…words are the only material of the unconscious…The subject does not exist prior to language, the subject comes into being through language…the concept…engenders the thing…the world of words…creates the world of things…

And as Lacan continued,

If I have said that language is what the unconscious is structured like, this is because language to begin with, does not exist. Language is what we try to know concerning the function of la langue.

Notice that Lacan used the term la langue or lalangue. This characteristic play with words is a nod to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) who separated langue, or that which structured linguistics as it exists in the social collective, from parole or common speech acts. Scholars have debated the extent to which Saussure meant for the speaker to “possess” langue, but for him, langue was synchronic (based in structure), while parole was diachronic (based in time). According to Saussure, we communicate synchronically through the sign, the signifier, the signified, but Lacan added a third term, lalangue, or the language of the unconscious, which is the primal language heard by the infant from its mother. As Juan David Nasio wrote in Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan,

Lalangue is something that one sucks, it is the maternal part of language that undergoes jouissance. Lalangue remains intimately linked to the body, and is thus eminently charged with meaning. Lalangue is the language of meaning, full of meaning.

Language operates in terms of connection or putting together and through substitution or alternative that are expressed in Freudian terms of “condensation” and “displacement.” Dreams are symbolic symbols that are condensed or combined from concepts that have been suppressed by the conscious mind. This displacement from the conscious to the unconscious forces metaphorical expression which is the stuff dreams are made of. Accordingly, language is not as much descriptive as it is symbolic. Linguistically, the Sign or the Letter is the material support, the Signifier or the Metaphor substitutes itself for the thing it represents, and the Signified—that which has been signified—or the Metonymy, is that which re-represents itself. The result of these processes of connection and substitution is a displacement of meaning along a chain of signification.

Lacan linked three terms: the Imaginary, the Real and the Symbolic. The “Imaginary” was the earliest of these concepts and refers to the world we “imagine” or bring into being, and for Lacan it is this order of expression that is the proper study of psychoanalysis. The Symbolic is that which is signified through language. Because humans must express themselves through symbolic means, the “Real” is forever inaccessible. Lacan’s concept of the “real” evolved over this career. In the 1930s, the “real” was pre-symbolic, unreachable and unknowable. Because the “real” is unknowable and escapes language the real does not exist. If there is a “real,” then a Symbolic Real has priority over that raw reality as it exists before language, but paradoxically this “real” also limits that which can be imagined and thus restrains what can be symbolized.

Rather than revealing the unknowable “real,” the Symbolic Real hides and veils the unsymbolized and unsymbolizable real through acts of symbolization. Lacan expressed this strange unbridgeable divide through the algorithm “S/s.” S/s indicates that there is a split or a “bar” between the Symbolized and the un/symbolizable. There can be no true coincidence or semblance between the theoretical entities of the Real and the Symbolic. The line or forward slash between the S(ymbolic Real) and the (un)s(ymbolized real) is the essential fact of human existence. The bar is an imaginary filter between the real and the human mind: the real that is perceived but that can never be expressed except through the mediative process of language. Thus the human condition is constituted through language. Language is the Symbolic Real, which has two orders of reference: the Real, which cannot be articulated and Language, which functions metaphorically.

The slash or slanted line between S and s is significant and needs further discussion. By the 1960s, Lacan associated the real (that which cannot speak its name) with trauma or an original wound. Taking a word from Aristotle, tuché, meaning “cause,” Lacan transforms the word to mean an “the encounter with the real.” But because this encounter with the real must always be “missed,” not because it did not happen but because it cannot be internalized, this unassimilable event is re-written as trauma. There is a connection between language and trauma, for we enter into language through trauma. The birth of a human subject into language produces a disjunction (a bar, a slash) between the lived experience and the sign, which replaces reality. Language should be thought of as a reflection upon experience and yet is always divergent from experience. In other words, language is not reflective and can never be reflective–as in a reflection of reality—but can only reflect or think upon the experience. The word upon indicates a displacement: language is not a mirror which reflects; the language is a mechanism which allows thinking about.

We come into consciousness through language. We are ushered into society through language. The bar/slash between the S and the s is also the veil or the “splitting” that occurs when the unseparated (from the mother) infant is separated (becomes separate) from its mother and is initiated into society through language. The beginning of humanity is the end of the infant’s certainty of fusion and wholeness, the jouissance of bodily contact with the mother. S/he is forever barred and forever split from this undifferentiated fusion through the workings of symbolic (unreal) language. The result of this act of separation, this slash or division, is a trauma that splits the child off and sends him or her hurling alone into society. The map or topography of the resulting separation of the conscious from the unconscious is the alienation of the subject from itself.

The S/s separation of Lacan also divides the signified from the signifier and puts the Signifier over the signified and separates the sign from meaning and installs a barrier between subject and object. The word is subordinated to the concept, just as the signified is subordinated to the signifier. The counter-intuitive inversion was borrowed from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic and Hegel’s assertion that the Master was ultimately dependent upon the Slave for recognition. In the same way, it seems that the Conscious mind is the Master but it is the Unconscious mind that represses the conscious mind, and the thesis, so to speak, is made slave by the antithesis: U/c. The bar cites the presence of an inherent and inverted repression.

Reiterating but re-expressing the Freudian model of the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, the Lacanian bar is also a gap between the signifier and the signified or a “topological substratum.” As Lacan explained why the Signified is ascendent,

…the signifying chain gives an approximate idea” rings of a necklace that is a rung in another necklace made of rings. Such are the structural conditions that define grammar as the order of constitutive encrohments of the signifier up to the level of the unit immediately superior to the sentence, and lexicology as the order of constitutive inclusions of the signifier to the level of the verbal locution.

The appearance of language is simultaneous with the primal repression, which produces the unconscious. The notion that the human being must be repressed in order to be socialized is a Freudian idea, but Lacan relocates the repression to the trauma of the initiation into the symbolic (language). For Freud, repression was divided into two stages: the primary or primal repression (Urverdrängung) which becomes a fixation that draws secondary repressions to it because the two forces cooperate. In 1961, Lacan interpreters Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire explained that primal repression was connected to metaphor in language. In primal language, the signifiers float without a structural network, as functions of “pure difference.” Secondary repression occurs when the signifier is not only doubled by the metaphor but is also fixed in the framework of signification,i.e., the metaphor signifies (something). As a result of these stages of repressions (two or three stages—Laplanche and Leclaire differ), consciousness of the self is now possible due to the ability of the subject to contrast the Self to Others (“I-thou” or the “me-non-me”) that defines subjects by mutual opposition or mutual dependency.

The process of repression/s are determined by the two “Narcissisms” or reflections upon the self which are experienced by the subject and creates the tension of attraction and repulsion. And yet the self and its Narcissistic development is dependent upon the formation of the Imaginary and the Symbolic. Because the Imaginary overlays the primal and perceptual real, the Imaginary structures a Real of cognition and this Imaginary produces knowledge. Just as the signifier is doubled by the metaphor, “reality” doubles and pairs, meaning that one object (the real) is obliterated by another (the imaginary) through the faculty of creation. Each term—real, imaginary—becomes its opposite and each is lost in the play of endless reflection. Just as the signifier is finally caught in the mesh of meaning, Language and the Symbolic arrest this play of reflections.

Lacan’s point de capition (upholstery button) is the point of convergence or stoppage or fixation where the signifier stops/halts the endless movement of signification. In other words, the Imaginary is stabilized by the subject’s (traumatic) acceptance of the Symbolic register. Finally, at the end of this endless process, the Symbolic overlays or veils or covers the Imaginary and restructures cognition. The Symbolic is characterized by mediation, or the filtering of the perceptual through linguistics, so that Language becomes dominant, but there is price for the triumph. Human alienation is the cost because the subject is constituted in the very gap or bar or split between the signifier and the signified. Constructed by this uneasy and alien place, the space of the gap, the subject and the language exist in this system of differences.

According to Freud and Lacan, the individual is inaugurated into society or become socialized through a series of traumatic acts. For Lacan this suffering is the price paid for the purchase of the pride of language. True to his method of modeling structures in opposites or in triads, Lacan reconsidered Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) distinction between “speech” and “talk” with his elaboration of “empty speech” and “full speech.” Empty speech implies a subject dispossessed and alienated and belongs to the imaginary autonomy of the ego. There is a debility at the heart of human speech–the emptiness. While full speech is incapable of being no more or less “true” (there is no truth) than empty speech; full speech is merely more functional or performative and uses language in a more transformative manner. Lacan used a comment by Stéphane Mallarmé to illustrate his point. Mallarmé referred to language as a coin with images on both sides. The coin is exchanged even though the images are not noticed and the image is “effaced” or not seen and is passed from hand to hand “in silence” or without speech. According to Lacan, the subject must cross over the “wall of language” to speak in order to say nothing. Lacanian “full speech,” “commits,” “acts,” “institutes,” and “transforms” as a “speech act.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Dada and Chance

INNOVATIONS OF DADA: CHANCE

One of the key tasks of Dada was to undermine the foundations of art by eliminating the notions of artistic “talent,” studio training, and academic means of making art, i.e. planning and composing, or in other words, thinking itself. The artists stumbled upon the means of ending traditional art by chance, as it were. The anti-art anti-movement was christened “Dada,” a word discovered supposedly by chance in a German-French dictionary. “Dada” was a nonsense word, more of a sound than a noun. To the artists’ ears, the absurd word/sound seemed “primitive,” like a child’s babbling. “Dada” implied a re-set, a new beginning at zero for art. The ridiculous word reflected the meaningless of the War to End All Wars.

The role of chance became a central experience for the Dada artist and was developed in two different sites, in Paris, before the War when Marcel Duchamp fastened a bicycle wheel to a stool in a chance encounter, and in Zurich when Hans Arp ripped up a failed drawing and saw that the pieces of papers had formed a “composition” on their own. Arp’s gesture born, like Duchamp’s, out of disgust, was close to the Zurich experiments with poème simultané, a poem written for three or more voices, indicating that a work of art has its own organic destiny. Chance destroys the soothing notion of cause following effect and admits anarchy into art making, foregrounding process. Duchamp, even more than Arp, removes the artist’s hand from the process and gives himself over wholly to the randomness of chance. He ceases to make (for a time) and merely “encounters” readymade objects, appropriates these unoriginal artifacts, and anoints them “Readymades.” The original meaning or intended use of the bicycle wheel or the stool is disrupted: one knows intellectually what each object “does” but understands that what Duchamp called “a new thought” has been created.

Whether the process is that of Duchamp arbitrarily encountering manufactured objects and randomly putting them together, or Arp finding that chance could expressive on its own, these gestures rupture the link between art and the artist’s controlled decision making. The results are transformative and unexpected and a work of art that could not have been made according to the rules comes into being, on its own, organically. As Jacques Riviérè noted, “The Dadas consider words only as accidental: they let them happen. Language for them is no longer a means, it is a being.”

The central component of chance is taking one thing out of context and placing it into another context, demonstrating how meaning is fixed to a site and how meaning is unfixed when location is changed. The result is free association—what does the object mean in its new situation? What does this word mean now that it has been torn out of context? Tzara cut words out of newspapers and placed this motley collection into a bag. He then shook the words out of the bag and let them flutter to a surface. The juxtaposition of word-to-word engendered new meanings for the individual words and for the unexpected combination of words brought together by chance. The viewer or the listener or the reader is now in charge of making meaning out of meaninglessness.

For these artists, an important precursor was Stephane Mallarmé, the nineteenth century poet who first investigated the role of chance. His famous poem, Un coup de des n‘abolira le hazard works with the reader’s/viewer’s senses on many levels. First the words are scattered across the many pages of the long poem, changing positions, changes fonts, leaping and fall, tumbling as if the di were rolling uncontrollably across the surface. The reader must follow this random course with active darting eyes, and, more amusingly, the title itself has a nonsense sound: in French de and des sound the same—very close to “da” ”da.” Although the poem was written in 1897, it was not published until after death of Mallarmé in 1914. Although Martin Puchner in Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-gardes, states that his poetry was read during Dada performances, I am not trying to make a direct link between the Dada artists and Mallarmé, but merely to point to an important precedent and to a similar mind set already in evidence in the concrete poems of Guillaume Apollinaire and in the “words in freedom” of Futurist poetry.

The more important link is between Marcel Duchamp and Stephane Mallarmé on the basis of linguistic play with words noticeable in both artists. Many of Duchamp’s Readymades show evidence of the artist’s love of visual puns and manipulation of language. In Advance of a Broken Arm is a random title given to a random object. Without any relationship between the title and the object the juxtaposition between two “objects” is a chance one. During his New York period, he often worked with his patron Walter Conrad Arensberg, who shared Duchamp’s love of semiotics. Codes, readable only by those two, appear on the Comb of 1915 and on Box with Hidden Noise of 1916. Although the source of the “hidden noise” is not confirmed, nor will it ever be (only three persons knew what made the sound, Duchamp, Arensberg, and Walter Hopps, all of whom are dead), it is more than likely that it is a die rolling around inside the ball of twine, a homage to Stephane Mallarmé.

 

Marcel Duchamp took a wooden board studded with hooks for coats and removed the hatrack from its usual position, the wall, and nailed it to the floor of his New York studio. On the floor, the curves of the hooks ceased to be useful and became menacing, leading to the free association of renaming the object as a Trebuchet, or a Trap (1917) that the unwary could trip over. What has been removed by all of these artists, Arp, Tzara, and Duchamp, is the hand and mind of the artist and the making of art has been redirected towards a process that is out of the control of the maker. Man Ray “invented” the Rayogram in order to arrange objects of light sensitive paper and exposing them to the sun with the result that the objects disappeared into their own negative shadows, freeing Ray from the preconceived notion of what a “photograph” should be.

Francis Picabia allowed other artists to “make” L’oeil cacodylate, a painted non-painting shown in 1921 in the Salon des Indépendants, with their own inscriptions and signatures. Without composition or any concept, except that of random collection, this collective work was a redo of an early version and would be redone again and again during the next decade, not because Picabia was attempting to regain control but to continue an arbitrary process without any artistic motive. What all these artists attempted to do was to make an anarchistic anti-art that would, nevertheless, lead to a new way of making a new kind of art. Chance became a way of (not)making art, a means of (not)making an object and substituting a carefully planned and crafted work of art with a new concept, called for lack of a better phrase, the objet trouvé, the found object, “encountered” by chance.

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Orphism and Simultaneity

ORPHISM: ART AS MUSIC

Art and Time

The last great body of art that reflected the pomp and circumstance of measureless and atemporal time was the nostalgic view of Paris created by the photographer of Old Paris, Eugène Atget. Paris lies before his camera, silently brooding over its history, hiding the secrets and lies of its vanished inhabitants behind closed doors. Atget’s Paris is an archaeological exhibition into a vanished civilization mysteriously devoid of activity and yet replete with memory. In contrast to a time when the pace of change was slow, gradual and imperceptible, change occurred every day in the Twentieth Century. The concept of endless and rapid change can be said to have the prevailing characteristic of the new century. A child of the Twentieth Century, who was also an important photographer by the time he was twelve,Jacques-Henri Lartigue, photographed a world of flight and speed that defied the boundaries of space and time. While Atget refused to photograph New Paris–everything from the Second Empire on–Lartigue was characteristic of the artists born into the new century who responded to this new machine age with a variety of reactions, most of which were admiring and accepting.

The artists pondered the very meaning of machines–rational, scientific, abstract, inhuman and unsentimental, they copied the very look of machines with a machine aesthetic that was shiny, stripped down, slick, unadorned and plain, functional and elegant. They examined the functions of the machine, its penchant for repetition, and its role in the process of the assembly line into a series of parts and functions. And they speculated on the implications of a machine culture in all its dehumanization, in its impact upon human beings, newly alienated and without wholeness. Art and artists begin to show a new concern for the means, the process, and the production of art, rather than with the ends or the finished artistic product.

Art and Simultaneity

During this pre-War period, “isms” were springing up overnight in a bewildering variety. Part of this was an attempt on the part of art critics to put names to variations on Cubism, part was a response of the artists themselves to distinguish themselves from their fellows, with whom they might disagree. “Orphism” was a name coined by the poet Guillaume Apollinaire on the occasion of the Section d’Or exhibition of 1912. The reference to Orpheus is a reference to the pure form of music—a way of making art, which did not rely upon conventions of imitation of objects in the real world. As Pure Painting, Orphism could be as pure and as abstract and as non-referential as music. However, the Orphist artists often referred to an object. Husband and wife, Robert and Sonia Terk-Delaunay and Francis Picabia always had some kind of tangible thing at the heart of their conception.

Only “Frank” Kupka conceived of his forms as being strictly non-representational, standing for spiritual ideas. In his interest in the spiritual, Kupka was similar to Kandinsky in the reason for his abstractions. Orphism was about states of mind and states of consciousness and states of being. These artists, who sometimes included Fernand Léger, were convinced that Modern Life had produced a modern consciousness. This idea of a change in culture producing a change in consciousness is central to Orphism. Modern consciousness responded to the vibrant excitement of the modern city. Modern consciousness, aware of constant change and flux, sensitive to a speeded up existence, had learned intuitively how to grasp many things simultaneously.

As they would be for Futurism, dynamism and simultaneity are key concepts for Orphism. The symbol or sign of this modern life was, for the Orphists, light itself: light which absorbed everything; light into which one could be absorbed. Life was in movement and flux and in light itself. The artist could express this new consciousness, this new form of seeing, which was simultaneous and dynamic, ever moving and ever flowing, by throwing him/herself into the act of pure painting. Although the painting produced by this act often seemed purely decorative, the artists saw their works as having a far deeper meaning. Deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas of the philosopher, Henri Bergson, these artists considered the act of seeing to be the generating force of consciousness or elan vital itself. Seeing, for the Orphists, was consciousness itself.

These ideas about mind and matter have a variety of sources. The poetry of the Nineteenth Century poet, Stephane (Étienne) Mallarmé (1842-1898), was concerned with the inner workings of the mind and stressed the mental activity of creation. Of interest to the Cubists of this period was Mallarmé’s use of words on the pure white page, words that were positioned, rather than written in an open field, words that suggested movement rather than narrating an event. The words of Mallarmé were to be looked at and followed by the eyes as they marched up and down and across the pages in his ground-breaking poem, Un coup de dès. A precursor to concrete poetry, the poetry of Mallarmé was a creative extension of Symbolist poetry, allowing greater freedom for the reader whose eyes and mind was activated by the rolling words, bounding across the white pages.

The idea of a visually activated picture plane that engaged the eyes in a physical fashion, not allowing vision to pause and rest, became important to the Cubist artists. Like modern life, art had to move. Although the Orphists used words on the picture plane, their central concern was the representation of light, which is the essential aspect of la vie moderne. Under the impact of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, the Orphists broke the objects into small planes, fracturing the materiality with the dynamic action of light. Space and matter interacted in the mind, which associated the things of the world. The desire to go beyond the objective world (unlike Picasso and Braque) owed a great deal to the philosopher, Henri Bergson who emphasized constant change and process of time.

This is the concept of simultanism: all things are simultaneously present to the consciousness which is mobile, transforming past and present through memory. One’s present consciousness is an interpenetrating state of being. This being is indivisible and is the result of the flux of the whole. The interplay between the object and the environment is artistically conceived as a actual movement in space, for perception changes as movement changes the shape of the object as light dematerializes the object. There are two types of motion: centripetal in which the object moves in on itself as an internalized mass and an outward movement that, according to Bergson, prevents the phenomenon of an isolated object. There are only intimations or simultaneous movements within a continuous field.

Orphism was not an ideologically consistent movement, such as Futurism with its many manifestos. Orphism was, instead, a temporary coincidence of tendencies, which lead to or suggested non-figuration. Movement and light destroyed the materiality of bodies. These ideas of light, modern life and modern consciousness rested upon a variety of influences and older ideas. There was a resurgence of interest in Neo-Impressionism in 1911, largely due to the publication of a book by Paul Signac on color from the time of Delacroix to Seurat. Equally important for Orphist ideas of color was Fauvism, especially Matisse’s now published, Notes d’un peintre of 1908. Of course, the idea of light being colored and of color being light can also be traced back to the Impressionists. The Orphists tended to look less at natural light and more at artificial light. Robert and Sonia Delaunay, especially, were fascinated by the colored halos of light emanating from the newly installed electric streetlights in Paris. Colored disks became a major and permanent theme in his work and the work of Russian expatriate Sonia Terk-Delaunay who also painted the excitement of the balls in Paris.

The visual vocabulary of Cubism enabled the Orphist artists to see ways of breaking objects into small planes, denoting the dynamic action of light. The Cubist vocabulary also allowed them to associate objects brought together in the mind and to present these objects, fragmented, and juxtaposed, in non-traditional ways. The idea that the mind takes in many things simultaneously, conveyed on the canvas as a rather prismatic and fractured image, is of course indebted to Henri Bergson in whom the Futurists who were also interested. To Bergson, all is simultaneously present in the mind, to the consciousness, which is mobile. One’s present consciousness is a state of being constantly in flux, but indivisible with the whole. Experience is perpetual, not broken into discrete units. While the Orphists produced totally abstract works of brilliant color out of these philosophical concepts, their Russian colleague, Marc Chagall, used his love of Russian folk art and his nostalgia for his home town of Vitebsk to create a world of memory and light and color, illustrating a new universe with its own laws and its own fairy tale rules in I and the Village (1911).

For a time Cubists, Futurists, Orphists and avant-garde artists, such as Chagall that defy classification, exchanged ideas and visions in pre-War Paris. Ardengo Scoffici, the editor of La Voce, and Lacerba, could chat with Guillaume Apollinaire, who would spend time with the fellow poet, Blaise Cendrars and the Italian art critic and editor of Montjoie!, Riciotto Canudo. The French artist, Robert Delaunay and his Russian wife and artistic colleague, Sonia Terk-Delaunay, were marital proof of the famed Moscow-Paris railway and artistic link between the two capitals. Gino Severini, the Parisian born Italian Futurist, would have known the concept of élan vital of Bergson who believed the future would be formed by action (Creative Evolution, 1907). For Bergson, the universality of art was the vitality of creativity and his ideas would take on a new and unexpected life within Futurism.

Despite the similarity of the ideas and sources shared by the Orphists and the Futurists, the two groups diverged on the question of politics. Orphism was a radical art movement only, while Futurism was also a radical political movement. Orphism used ideas of Divisionism for the explorations of color theory. For the Futurists, Divisionism was far more than a painting technique or a theory of color; Divisionism was modern life itself: life, which was in flux, in motion…divided within itself, in effect, allowing a constant Bergsonian “interpenetration” of mind and matter. For the Futurists, Divisionism was radical and revolutionary. Divisionism was the 20th century incarnate.

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Symbolist Art and Poetry

SYMBOLISM

Art history usually places Symbolism, after or coinciding with Post-Impressionism. But Symbolism was much older and could be traced back as far as the painting of Gustave Moreau in the 1850s and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire of the 1860s. This movement was, from the very beginning, both a literary and visual movement, meant to counter empiricism. Symbolism became an attitude towards art when Moreau resisted Realism with his elaborate fantasy paintings and became a counter to the supposed empiricism of Impressionism in the 1880s when the painter Odilon Redon imagined fantastic sights that could come only from dreams. Symbolism was not just a French movement; it was one of the first global or international art movements. If the train allowed French artists to fan out to the countryside from Paris, the railway also connected nations and carried artistic ideas across borders.

Many international artists acted almost independently of the French realism-idealism dialectic. The art of the Belgium artist, James Ensor, the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, for example, are often thought of as reactions, not against naturalism but against the entire modern era itself. Ensor used metaphor to speak of a larger and deeper truth. The Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888) shows a diminutive Jesus on a modest donkey moving among a sea of people wearing masks at a carnival-like political rally. The masks magically reveal the truth of their lost and ugly souls, all ignoring the small halo of light struggling to be seen. What Christ found upon his return to earth is a modern world, full of madness, as seen in Munch’s The Scream (1893) a portrait of contemporary angst.

Meanwhile, in other countries, such as Germany and America, a lingering Realism reigned almost unchallenged and extended well into the 20th century. Thomas Eakins and the later Ash Can School in New York coincided with Symbolism in Europe, creating a cacophony of avant-garde art for the public to assimilate. At the turn of the century, France, the birthplace of Symbolism, the art public was still bewildered by Impressionism, becoming acquainted with artists who had long since disappeared (Gauguin) or died (van Gogh and Seurat) from the scene or were in advanced age (Cézanne). Critically speaking, the scene was one of chronological confusion; culturally speaking, the scene was one of defiance and decadence.

“Decadence” was the watchword for Symbolism. Decadence signified ennui, the fading of a century, the loss of energy, and a general decline in old values which ere not replaced. The future loomed, but no one could see past the dissipation of the present. For a time, it seemed that to be modern was to be world-weary and decadent. Some artists awaited the end of the century on drugs, others left town and went to the country, in search of simpler and purer ways of life and of new experiences. The issues now became less about subject matter and more about philosophical issues: how should one look at the world and how should one represent it?

It was felt that Impressionism was played out as a style and by 1880; the Impressionists themselves were reacting to the criticism of their lack of structure. Impressionism was also criticized on the grounds of content that was too materialistic and too naturalistic. Impressionists were accused of simply copying without thinking. Nature was merely something to be represented, not something which had any other meaning…at least according to their detractors. The Nineteenth Century was stretched out to unnatural lengths by a long “fin-de-siècle” period, lasting approximately from 1880 to the Great War, which began in August of 1914. Never was a century so long, and never did artists long so fervently for a century to end.

Symbolism: Return to Romanticism

Painting had become an arena for yet another larger philosophical quarrel, this time, between materialism and idealism. Is life simply what one can see; is life merely empirical, measurable and quantifiable; is life only the facts? Or is life based upon ideas, upon concepts, which, in fact, order and rule our perceptions? How do we see anyway? Only with our eyes? Or does our mind order what we see? These are not esoteric philosophical questions. For the artist they are very real issues. It is upon these considerations that an artist’s art and convictions rest. By shifting the task of the artist from that of an observer, even a voyeur, the new artists at the fin-de-siècle, took up the question of how do we see and how do we know the world again. If Impressionism asks the question how do we see, by presenting us with a variety of versions of seeing and looking, Symbolism suggested a different dialogue, a mental one. Seeing is what we think it is. Seeing is less important than what we see makes us feel. Life is in the mind, not just in the eyes. Symbolism explored the human mind as exhaustively as Impressionism explored the human world, and was nothing less than the return of Romanticism in a different guise. Rather than being erotic and exotic, Symbolism was decadent and jaded. Rather than being a celebration of the personal revelations of the artists, Symbolism was the place where all the forbidden desires of the decaying century could find refuge.

Symbolism was an all-inclusive movement, encompassing poetry, prose, music and painting–all resolutely opposed to Realism. Symbolism was, in many respects, deeply politically conservative in that it ignored social questions and became obsessed with the subjective state of the individual. The flight from the threat of social emancipation of women and the rise of the dangerous proletariat was achieved through a late Romanticism, a flight that became an escape and an escape that became a devotion to decadence. At its extremes, Symbolism could descent into the eccentric, but as a general movement, it would point the way to important developments in the 20th century. Philosophically, Symbolism stressed a theory of Correspondences, theorizing that material things may correspond to spiritual elements. Baudelaire thought of nature as a dictionary of forms from which the artist made symbols. But these symbols were neither pictorial nor descriptive: words were sounds and were strictly formal in nature, depending entirely upon suggestion and nuance.

What the poetry of Baudelaire suggested in his poem, Correspondences, the poetics of Stéphane Mallarmé materialized. In Un Coup de Des, 1887, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, isolated one of the components of poetry–the word–and a neglected part of poetry–the page–and arranged words on the white page in a flow of moving forms. The reader was converted into viewer by the roll of the words, acting as if they were tracing the path of a die, tossed across the pages. Mallarmé was a student, a translator of the American poet, Edgar Allan Poe. Aware of Poe’s alliteration, Mallarmé played with words. ‘Die” in French is pronounced “day” as is “de.” So the pronunciation in English would be “day” “day” an alliterative repetition, as beloved by Poe. The French original word means “something given or played.” For those of you who are reading ahead, the title of Marcel Duchamp’s last work, Etant Donnés means “Given,” a clear reference to Mallarmé’s poem. While Mallarmé did not eliminate the tradition of arranging verses into stanzas, neatly marching down a blank page, he did usher in a century of art that combined word and image.

(This poem, “Un Coup de Des,” in its original format is available on the web)

This poem is one of the most important in modern literature, because Mallarmé suggested through oblique words that life was a game of chance, given to the player, who could only watch the die roll across the pages. The words of the poem became visual elements, differing in size and font and placement. The words acted visually upon the reader who was pulled through the act of reading which had become a visceral and physical action. Words rolled from page to page, playing against each other in different typographies, words that never explained or described, words that only suggested through mental associations created spontaneously by the reader. “To name an object,” Mallarmé said, “is to suppress three quarters of the enjoyment to be found in the poem, which consists in the pleasure of discovering things little by little–suggestion, that is, the dream.”

Symbolism was an important precursor for Twentieth-century visual art, not just in the art works that were specifically “symbolic” or emotional, such as Munch’s The Scream but because the artists used formal elements suggestively and forced the shapes and colors to “stand for” something else. The Scream is indicated by undulating waves of screeching colors, reds and oranges and yellows and claw lines of pale blue. The curvilinear lines of color are visual manifestations of what a scream would look like if sound could be seenAside from the radical simplification and reduction of poetic elements, Symbolism, both as poetry and painting, fore-grounded another heretofore neglected aspect of the art experience: the reaction of the spectator or the reader who now became an active participant.

The Scream” asked the viewer to wonder what colors and what shapes a sound of fear would possess. Un Coup de Des forced the reader to literally “follow along” and to participate actively in the game of chance that is life itself. Rather than being a passive receiver of a reiterated optical experience, the viewer was invited into a world of poetic suggestiveness as the artist evoked responses rather than dictated a particular understanding. The theory of correspondences led to a theory of the work of art as one of synesthesia, that is, a total experience. The work of art becomes a parallel universe that excluded reality and created mystery. This separate, self-sufficient reality is characterized by a deliberate ambiguity, a hermeticism or secret language that was closely related to the concept of art-for-art’s-sake.

The poet Paul Verlaine wrote Art poètique in 1882 in which he said, “For we wish for the nuance still/Not color, only the nuance!/Oh! Only the nuances marries/Dream to dream, and the flute to the home!” “Symbolism” as a movement was “named” by a minor poet, Jean Moréas, in a manifesto published in Le Figaro, September 18, 1886. Albert Aurier in the Mercure de France, 1891, formalized symbolism into a doctrine. According to Aurier, Symbolist work of art should be “1. ideative, 2. symbolist, 3. synthetic, 4. subjective, 5. decorative.” Despite the uses future artists would make of Symbolism–the poetry of the Futurists and the Dada artists, the collages of Cubism–this movement is also linked with a fin-de-siècle malaise that was the anguish of young elite males who became involved in cults of death and melancholy. Fleeing from all that was modern, they lost themselves in myths and legends of the Celtic era and in occultism.

This is the time of the prominence of the Rose + Cross, a new salon set up by Josephin Péladan who revived Rosicrucianism which was linked to the Kabala, the Freemasons and the occult. Rosicrucianism was part of a neo-Catholic movement that included many important artists and poets, Maurice Denis and Paul Claudel, (brother of Camille Claudel) respectively, as a reaction to materialism and the scandals of the Third Republic. Decadents worshiped the “green fairy,” the potent and dangerous drink called absinthe and its close cousins, opium, morphine and ether. They carried on the role of the alienated and despairing dandy, begun by Beau Brummell in England and taken up by Charles Baudelaire in France. The “over-ripeness” of the end of the century had its English counterpoint–the English Aesthetes, which included the domed and persecuted poet, Oscar Wilde and the illustrator of seductive women, Aubrey Beardsley, who died young.

A recurring theme in Symbolist art was the dangerous woman who threatened the peace of mind of men. Often she appears as a ruthless succubus, sucking the life out of men. The descendant of the Pre-Raphaelite beauty, longed for but untouchable, the Symbolist female was a precursor to the “femme fatale” of the Twentieth-century. She appears in Moreau’s Salomé Dancing Before Herod (1876) was greatly admired by the impresario of decadence, Joris-Karl Huysmans. Salomé demanded and got the head of John the Baptist from her father, Herod, frozen into a trance of desire by the erotic dance of his daughter. The message is clear: women are the ruin of men. Whether it was the blood thirsty women of the Revolution of 1789 or the women who lit the fires of the commune in 1871 or the women who were demanding their “rights,” the female was to be feared and the “femme fatale” is the star of Symbolist art.

As an artistic movement, Symbolism tended to be literary and illustrative, dependent upon the viewer’s imagination. From the Swiss artist, Ferdinand Hodler (The Chosen One, 1893) to the Belgium artist, Ferdinand Khnopff (I Close the Door Upon Myself, 1891), Symbolist art was esoteric and hermetic, eccentric and introspective. But Symbolism was more important to the art world than the odd subject matter would imply. The movement demanded artistic freedom. Many of its adherents and many of the artists associated with it were genuine outsiders, real rebels who fought for the right of art to exist in its own right, for it’s own sake.

Shuttling back and forth between London and Paris, the American expatriate painter, James Abbot McNeil Whistler avoided the occultism of Symbolism but adopted the ideas of poetic nuances to painting, much to the dismay of the critic John Ruskin who accused Whistler to throwing a pot of paint in the face of the public. Whistler’s “Nocturnes” series certainly lacked the work ethic of the Pre-Raphaelite artists but the artist insisted that the paintings contained his life’s knowledge and creative talents. Although awarded only one farthing in damages in his lawsuit against Ruskin, Whistler defended himself successfully in court on the grounds of artistic freedom. In public, the artist put forward the doctrine of art-for-art’s-sake in his famous treatise, “Ten O’clock Lectures,” 1885. “To say to the painter, that nature is to be taken as she is, is to say to the player, Whistler remarked, “that he may sit on the piano.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 34: Whistler, Part Three

WHISTLER AND ART FOR ART’S SAKE

Part Three

Whistler was unusual among artists of his time in that he answered back to critics and took pains to establish his own discourse on his own art. His unique way of painting, without the meticulous detail of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, seemed immoral and insulting to the art critic John Ruskin who made accusatory statements about Whistler. Fiercely independent and willing to lose a patron for the sake of his artistic vision, the artist sued when the aging British critic. Although the jury agreed with Whistler on the point of artistic freedom, it gave him only a farthing as a payment. But the publicity shone light on the quarrel over the rights of the avant-garde artists and what the public wanted to enjoy. The resulting trial established a new definition for Modernist art, with Whistler following up with his now-famous “Ten O’Clock Lecture.”

Also listen to “Whistler, Part One”

and “Whistler Part Two”

 

 

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