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The Truth in Painting (trans. 1987)


["frame with a removable back" or "master skeleton key"]


1.  Someone who says—outside of any frame (context), "I am interested in the idiom in painting," communicates in fact so ambiguously that the project of listing alternate interpretations leads to the recognition that that very project exceeds what can be unmanaged (402).  JD is launching the inquiry by noting how an ambiguous phrase, without any context, launches an endless sequence of possible interpretations that never comes to any definite end.  He already has us puzzling over language and painting—outside of any standard way of addressing these topics.


2.  He then works on a second ambiguous statement that forces us to think in unaccustomed ways about language and painting.  Cézanne, with a stroke (trait) of his pen, in a letter to Emile Bernard, said, "I owe you the truth in painting and I will tell it to you."  In terms of speech act theory, he made a promise, a "performative" speech act [an act that does something—the classic example: "I pronounce you husband and wife"], not an assertion of a matter of fact (if we can assume a sharp distinction between these categories).  Can we make sense of such a promise in the realm of painting?

            There are four interpretations of the phrase "the truth in painting."


(1) the thing itself (truth as unhiddenness, disclosure, presentation; unveiled with no disguise whatever).

(2) an adequate, accurate representation of the thing itself—Heidegger's secondary sense of truth.  These two concepts of truth enable one to generate four possibilities: a presentation of a representation (see, look at this photograph, here); a presentation of a presentation ("Behold, the man!"); a representation of the presentation (a painting of the situation in which the presentation just mentioned occurred); and representation of the representation (a slide of the painting).

(3) the truth in the sense proper to a picture (whatever that may be—a play of possibilities opens up here), as opposed to truth in the sense proper to an essay, for example.

(4) the truth about painting.


Given the complex abyss of possibilities here, consider that "what is at stake in painting is truth" and that truth is an unfathomable abyss; nevertheless, we continue to be able to chart definite lines of possibility; we don't just lapse into mere vagueness ("the indeterminate").

            Finally the question of the passe-partout (the frame) is posed: what does a passe-partout do?  What does it cause to be done or shown?


3.  To what, in painting, does Cézanne's promise commit him?  Perhaps to a doing (performative) that will say nothing, and which will thus be without meaning or truth.  Did Cézanne really promise "to say in painting the truth in painting?"  What kind of game is it, to tease out implications like this?  What am I up to?  What have I promised to do or tell?  This book shows links between The truth about language


4.  Here are four comments "around" painting (similar to a frame).


(1) How does considering the para-work (parergon, e.g., the frame or the signature) disturb (or interrupt) the great traditions and questions of aesthetics?

(2) One can focus on issues relevant to the link between sounds and letters.

(3) How does a signature occur?  Either as a proper name or through the series: production, reproduction, induction, reduction, etc.

(4) What about the Van Gogh painting?  The woman?  The shoelaces?  The shoes?   Whose shoes?


Discourses set up a distinction between what belongs to the work and what is outside of the work.  But there is something between every pair in opposition (inside/outside, above/below, external/internal edge-line, framer/framed, figure/ground, form/content, signifier/signified).  The stroke([/) (trait, gesture) establishes a separation or opposition [every opposition depends on a usually ignored mediating third].  But this perverse and necessary game we must be lucid: the passe-partout does not unlock every opposition, does not provide a new master-key to aesthetics.

            The painting only seems independent of the frame.  Its uncanny unities and multiplicities continue to be noted.    



(that which is para-the work [think of a paralegal employee])


The first paragraph is particularly important.  It makes, among others, two points.

1.  The first point is a general one from Heidegger.  The way we pose a question necessarily contains assumptions that prefigure the answer.  What is art (or the origin of art)?  The question assumes that there is something called "art," that it is a unity (the question is not about a plural, a multiplicity, though obviously there is a multiplicity of artists, works etc., but we're asking about the core of it, the inner, that which is constant in all the variations).  The question assumes that there is an answer, that art, in some sense, has an essence.

            2.  By asking about the meaning of art, namely (in French) about what art "wants to say" we are, in a certain way, bringing all arts into realm where language is privileged (thus to a hierarchy of the arts).

            There follows a reflection on Kant's not-clear-enough remarks on the parergon: they do not provide a criterion which clearly enables us to determine what a parergon is in complex or marginal cases.  Sculptures include draping—clothing—but this is said to be not essential (based on an unclarified intuition about what is intrinsic or extrinsic).  So, too, the columns at the front or side of a temple (at the limit—on the Acropolis in Athens: columns which are sculpted draped women).  What about the frame around a painting?  Kant finds that it compromises the beauty of a functional frame if it draws attention to a painting not simply by its form, but by, say, its charming golden color. 

            Finally, JD puzzles over K's remarks about the size required for objects to illustrate various concepts related to the sublime. 

·       The awesomely huge (ungeheuer);

·       The "prodigious" neither arouses fear nor attraction, but totally subverts the concept of what it is supposed to be;

·       The colossal is "almost too big for presentation" (??): almost more than we can apprehend (auffassen) (not to be confused with comprehend): imagination (which both apprehends and comprehends) can apprehend any number of units—to infinity, but aesthetic comprehension quickly reaches its limits and thus establishes a measure.  (Imagination is between sensibility and understanding.) 

What has this to do with the sublime?  Why should something great, rather than something small, be preferred to represent the sublime?

The fundamental human measure is the body.  Thus the right "place" for the experience of the sublime is a body which is of great size, but not beyond what aesthetic comprehension encompass.




Meyer Shapiro criticized Heidegger for falsely assuming (projecting his own bias) that the shoes in Van Gogh's painting were those of a peasant, whereas in fact Van Gogh was at that time living in the city.  JD takes MS to task for projecting his bias, drawing such confident implications from his factual knowledge, indifferent to Heidegger's thought, which brings MS's implicit concept of truth into question.  Both Heidegger and Shapiro, notes JD, assume that the shoes are a pair (excluding the improbable), concealing a conscious or unconscious wager.


Letter to Peter Eisenman

[Stephen David Ross: "asks some of the most enigmatic and deepest questions that may be asked about any art']

This letter breaks off the collaboration between Jacques Derrida and PE. 

JD is sending a tape-recording of his letter, and in the opening paragraph he carefully and characteristically gives expression to the nuances of the communicative situation.

·       One of the themes of contemporary French philosophy is the theme of presence and absence; but PE is speaking of this theme so as to flirt with spiritual connotations.

·       [Since some of PE's architecture apparently has struck JD as appealing to the sense of the celebratory or awesome or sacred,] JD asks PE about God and about the difference between his architecture and buildings he would design for a temple or synagogue.

·       JD criticizes PE's interpretation of chora [the concept from Plato's Timaeus of cosmic space/womb where the creator attempts to replicate, in space and time, approximations to the eternal patterns of heaven); PE's interpretation remains too theologized and ontologized (carrying traces of religious and metaphysical meaning)].

·       JD: what relations must architecture carry "with the voice, the capacity of voice, but also therefore with telephonic machines of all sorts that structure and transform our experience of space"?]

·       JD: what is to be said about glass, its optical or tactile qualities, its erotic/pleasure/seductive aspects, its material, technical, economic, and social aspects, its way of perhaps erasing the border of public and private (cf. love or the police), its resemblance to similar, new materials?  JD draws on Experience and Poverty (1933) by German aesthetician Walter Benjamin for the way hard, smooth, cold, concise glass strips things of aura, possession, secrecy, so that we can speak of a "culture of glass."  The poor, the homeless, cannot be captured in demographic or sociologic classifications.    These poor are accustomed to arbitrary constructs, they are fed up with "culture" and humanism.  What relation, PE, does your architecture bear to those people?

·       In what ways is architecture, as the completion of a vision, implicitly destroyed already, already a ruin?  "In the past, great architectural inventions constituted their essential destructability, even their fragility, as a resistance to destruction or as a monumentalization of the ruin itself."  [Think of the flying buttresses in cathedrals to keep the things from falling down (resistance to destruction).  Would an Arc de Triomphe, built to celebrate the conquests of Napoleon, illustrate what JD would call a monumentalization of destruction?]

·       Hear the echos of Jewish fragility, ashes, absence, invisibility, ruin.  Consider the Berlin Jewish Museum being designed by an architect, Libeskind, who wrote, "The past fatality of the German Jewish cultural relation to Berlin is enacted now in the realm of the invisible.  It is this invisibility which I have tried to bring to visibility." (436)

·        My earlier question about God and Man was about the Sky and the Earth.  [The later Heidegger speaks repeatedly of "the four-fold": mortals and divinities, earth and sky.]  How have rockets and astronomy changed things?  If building does not need to stand up in a way akin to the vertical stance of man, "what would be an architecture that, without holding, without standing upright, vertically, would not fall again into ruin?"  [See http://prelectur.standford.edu/lecturers/eisenman/ for an introduction to Eisenman's work and thought plus a most intriguing 1998 photograph of a "model of Church for the Year 2000"—which looks exactly like a direct answer to JD's question just quoted!]



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