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Only Connect


Pleasure Ground

Only Connect 2

five exercises in aesthetics

Christophe Van Eecke

Lokaal 01

‘Verweile nur! Du bist so schön’ Goethe, Faust, Part II



‘Once I could speak joyfully of beautiful things, thinking to be understood; now I cannot anymore; for it seems to me that no one regards them. Wherever I look or travel in England or abroad, I see that men, wherever they can reach, destroy all beauty.’ John Ruskin

TABLE OF CONTENTS Introduction, 9 Chapter One: Better Living Through Art War and Resentment, 24 The Power of Vision, 34 Divine Substance, 39 The Therapeutic Fallacy, 43 Narrative Didactics, 47 Feeling and Form, 56 Virtual Spaces, 70 Fields of Vision, 80 Virtual Life, 90 Against Form, 98 Genius Redeemed, 104 Inventing the Human, 109


Chapter Two: Artworld Inc. Art Criticism After the End of Art, 122 Skirting Langer, 131 A Short History of the Avant-Garde, 140 Kondylian Combinations, 145 Art and Philosophy, 154 Beauty and Ugliness, 163 Killing Art, 169 Avant-Garde After the End of Avant-Garde, 177 Radical Chic for Chic Radicals, 184 Chapter Three: Getting Physicals A Body of Art, 193 From Performance to Concept, 199 Engaging the Audience, 204 Lethal Objections, 214 The Meating of Porn and Art on a Dissecting Table, 219 Do Androids Wank to Electric Wet Dreams?, 228 Mathesis Sexualis, 238 Scientia Sexualis, 243 Pleasure Machines, 251 Bodice Rest and Motion, 259 Moving Towards Stillness, 268 The Belly of a Dyslectic, 277

Chapter Four: Engaging The World Making the World, 289 Unmaking the World, 299 The Brutality of Fact, 304 The Quickening, 312 The Order of Things, 321 Dionysian Mysteries, 329 Cleansing Cleanliness, 339 Irreligious Rituals, 348 Lost in the Stars: A Materialist Manifesto, 354 Demonic Time, 357 Comes Undone, 364 Chapter Five: Frail Gazing Pathetic Fallacies, 371 Having the World, 378 Doubling, 386 Body Doubles, 389 Pictures Imperfect, 392 Scattergorising the World, 404 Optics of Desire, 410 Imagining Petals, 416 Living Memory, 422 Inner Space, 432 Magmatic Poetics, 441 Perchance to Dream, 445 Soft Sightings, 450 Cinechroma, 459 Gardens of the Underworld, 467 Into the Garden, 473 Bibliography, 482



This book takes its title from the epigraph of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End (1910) and takes as its own epigraph a phrase from Goethe’s Faust that is meant to recall 8

Immanuel Kant’s idea of purposiveness without purpose in the experience of art. As such, the title really does say it all. It is the project of this book to present, in a series of interconnected essays, a philosophy of art that seeks to demonstrate how art is one of the primary ways in which human beings express their connectedness to the world. The book was developed out of a series of four essays written for the exhibition project Pleasure Ground at Lokaal 01 in Breda, The Netherlands, in the Spring of 2010. A brief look at this exhibition and the way the essays were linked to it will help explain the book, its structure, and its content. ——— Pleasure Ground was meant as an investigation of the relationship between an art institution and the artists it chooses to exhibit. Lokaal 01 made an engagement to support



the artists they selected in any way possible to realise their

far as to put their own body into play for their art. This essay

projects within the exhibition. But the exhibition itself did

dealt extensively with issues of body art and performance art.

not have a theme. There was no curator to decide what

The fourth essay tried to look out at the world through art:

the exhibition would be about. The idea was to have the

how does art mould the relationship between man and his

artists create a series of four presentations with the total

world? These four core questions came about very early in the

commitment of Lokaal 01. This way, the engagement implied

process, and as I started to sketch what the contents of the

in the relationship between institution and artists became the

essays should be it immediately became clear that the issues

main focus of the exhibition, which was really about a process

touched upon were huge. The possibilities for exploring these

and about questioning certain power structures inherent

topics were endless. But at the same time it was also clear to

in the artworld. Curators often have tremendous power in

me that many of these topics were linked to issues I had been

deciding how art will be presented, how it will be read, and,

addressing in essays published elsewhere. Hence, Pleasure

most importantly, which artists will be shown and which will

Ground offered an opportunity to bring all this material

not be exhibited. In the Pleasure Ground project, this power was

together in a more systematic form. And as soon as this was

surrendered to the artists themselves, who had to assemble

clear, the possibility of bringing the four essays together in

the presentations among themselves. My task as philosopher

book form naturally presented itself.

in residence at Lokaal 01 consisted in framing this exhibition

As soon as the overall idea for the essays and the book were

process with four essays that would investigate several

in place, I took the project and ran with it; a kidnapping

aspects of commitment or engagement in art. These essays

operation that was most graciously tolerated and even

were published in ThRu, the theoretical journal published by

encouraged by everyone at Lokaal 01. Engagement became the

Lokaal 01.

starting point for a series of philosophical explorations that

It soon became clear that the four essays would have to

gave me an opportunity to think through issues I had long

focus on four different aspects of engagement. The first essay

wanted to address. Once the project was underway, however,

approached the topic from the point of view of society at

there were only four weeks to prepare each new essay, which

large: what kind of moral commitments are required from

is alarmingly little time by any standard. The only reason I

artists? The essay focused especially on the supposed moral

felt it could be done was that much of the material I wanted

and social responsibility of the artist in society. The second

to incorporate was already present on my computer and in

essay dealt with the relationship between artists and the

my notes. To a large extent, writing the essays was a matter of

artworld at large. How do artists position themselves in

bringing together research that had been done in the previous

relation to the artworld and what kind of commitments does

years. Also, it was agreed that the four essays as published

that imply? The third essay looked at the most personal and

in ThRu would be temporary versions and that I would

intimate kind of engagement, dealing with artists who go so

afterwards take several months to edit them, to add material,


rearrange arguments, and do whatever I felt was required

helpful. But apart from that, feel free to pick and choose. Is

to mould them into a book. As such, the four original essays

my treatment of Early German Romanticism a bore? Don’t

form the basis of the present book in the form of chapters

complain about it, go read about pornography in Chapter

one through four, albeit in heavily edited form and with much

Three! Not keen on Jarman? Get a life! And some taste in

material added. The long fifth chapter is entirely new. It grew

films! Go read a booklet on Spielberg!

out of the fourth chapter and brings together many themes

For me, as a writer, this patchwork structure of the book

and topics raised in the course of the book.

meant that I did not have to kill my darlings. I know that there is a law of the literary land which states that you need


an editor to tell you what you should cut and what you should keep in a book. But I have always felt that editors are


Although the book tells a story that moves from a to b (and

a frustrated breed of people who are incapable of writing

back again!), the five chapters can be read as self-contained

good books themselves and who get off telling other people

pieces. Every chapter in turn consists of a series of sections

how to write theirs to compensate. I also suspect that there

that develop its argument. But many of these sections could

is a conspiracy of philologists at work here. First, they get

also be read as self-contained essays. This applies especially

themselves a job editing your texts into something entirely

to the sections that offer an extended analysis of the work

at odds with your intentions. Then, forty years on, if you

of one individual artist. As such, Chapter Three ends with

happen to have become famous, they get themselves another

a very long discussion of the films of Andy Warhol, the first

job editing the critical edition of your works, restoring the

chapter contains a discussion of David Hockney, and the

text to resemble “the author’s original intentions”. But since

fourth deals at some length with Francis Bacon. So the reader

you had those intentions to begin with, why tamper with

should feel free to browse. If the size of the book seems rather

them? Given that the public is volatile, an author’s idea of

intimidating but you have a liking for Warhol, you might

what a book should be like has just as much chance of being

simply read those sections and hopefully be triggered by that

successful than an editor’s (after all, an editor is just a person,

discussion to find out how my approach to Warhol’s films is

not some kind of god). Since it’s the author who is authoring

embedded in the philosophical discussions elsewhere in the

the book, he or she should get to edit it. Would we require a

book. So the reader should feel free to dip in as if this were

painter to submit his painting to an editor and then make

a banquet of essays. But readers who wish to browse would

the recommended changes to his canvas? Would we require

in any case be well-advised to first read the sections dealing

Rodin to lose the thinking person on his already alarmingly

with Susanne K. Langer in the first chapter. Since Langer

overcrowded Gates of Hell? I don’t think so. Filmmakers have

provides the philosophical foundations on which this book

to deal with this kind of shit all the time because film is all

is built, some knowledge of her insights will in any case be

about investors and money and stupid people crunching


popcorn and spilling drinks in the aisles but usually history

connections (Camille Paglia’s reference to William Blake’s

proves the director’s cut right. Obviously, any intelligent writer

poem ‘London’ appears twice, once at the beginning of

will be open to constructive criticism. But if and how he or

the book, and again at the very end, which should tell you

she deals with it is entirely his or her affair. So don’t kill your

something). This intricate web of connections also means that

darlings. As Nigella knows, ‘in cooking, as in writing, you must

the reader is invited and even encouraged to constantly make

please yourself to please others’ (Lawson 1998: viii).

such connections, also to things that are not in the book. That is the point of Only Connect.


But now, for an overview. Chapter One, Better Living Through Art, starts with controversy. It takes the so-called “culture


Given the structure of the book and the many excursions and

wars” in America as a starting point for a discussion of the

diversions that people it, it seems sensible to provide a more

artist’s relationship to the larger community. This is an old

detailed overview of the several chapters, so that the reader

philosophical question, at least as old as Plato’s Politics: does

may know what can be found where and how it should all be

the artist have some kind of moral or social responsibility

connected. Since the book is dense with information such a

or not? Those who feel that art does have a role to play in

brief layout might also do good service as a point of reference

our moral well-being are guilty of the “therapeutic fallacy”.

for the reader who is making his or her way, chapter by

Several sections of the chapter sketch a brief outline of the

laborious chapter, from start to finish. There are many threads

history of the therapeutic fallacy, specifically in American

running through the several chapters and I trust the reader

art, where art has often become very politicised. There is a

will often be triggered to connect (details in) discussions in

brief detour through German Romantic philosophy which will

later chapters with elements encountered in earlier chapters.

prove useful further in the book, where we will hark back to it.

It is impossible (and tiresome) to constantly point out such

This discussion of the therapeutic fallacy finally leads into a

possible links. Reading the book several times will certainly

critique of Martha Nussbaum. She makes several claims about

help bring out the connections. Among our constant concerns

the moral value of art, especially literature, but we will argue

are the relationship between feeling (or meaning) and form,

that her claims are not very persuasive. The major part of the

the transformation of commonplace objects, voyeurism,

chapter is devoted to a discussion of Susanne K. Langer, who

fetishism, pornography, creation or world-making, and the

gives a much more persuasive account of how art works. In

burden of identity. What Danto calls the transfiguration of

fact, it is the most persuasive philosophy of art I know. But

the commonplace returns in our discussion of alternative

we do not simply stick with philosophy: Langer’s ideas are

geographies in the fifth chapter, where the entire world

illustrated with, among other things, a section on the work

lies metamorphosed. Certain images, references, and

of David Hockney. Langer’s views on literature are discussed

quotes return at different places in the book, bookmarking

in direct opposition to Nussbaum. Finally, at the end of the



chapter, we return to Early German Romanticism to find there

what its distinctive features might be. This soon leads us

the roots of our postmodern concept of the self, which is also

into a discussion of the body as a mechanical sex object. We

illustrated in an extended discussion of Shakespeare.

trace part of the history of this concept, which allows us to

The second chapter is called Artworld Inc. and it seeks

celebrate the Marquis de Sade in an entire section devoted

to illustrate the way the larger artworld influences our

to his divine godless universe. This chapter also contains

relationship with art. The artworld is peopled with what

elements of a philosophy of voyeurism and fetishism. The

Robert Hughes now calls “VARPs” or “Vaguely Art-Related

final sections of the chapter are devoted to a monographic

People”. They are a pest and this chapter is against them!

study of the work of Andy Warhol, whose work is of cardinal

An important element in our discussion is the influence

importance to the issues raised in the previous discussion.

of philosophy on the way we perceive and judge works of

Especially his film work comes under scrutiny.

art. Most of the chapter is devoted to a heroic attempt at

With Chapter Four, Engaging The World, we start our swerve

refuting the work of Arthur C. Danto and his ideas on the

away from politicised art and we venture out in search of

transfiguration of the commonplace in art. But we also take

beauty. Our guide on this search is the American philosopher

issue with the emergence of the PhD in the arts. Along the

Elaine Scarry. There are two major parts in her work (at least

way we sketch two histories of the avant-garde that are

from the perspective of our concerns): a discussion of pain

at odds with Danto’s account of the avant-garde. One of

and a discussion of beauty. These two, apparently opposite,

our counterexamples is the German philosopher Panajotis

concerns are linked in her work. So if we want to get at

Kondylis, whose concept of postmodernism will stay with us

beauty, we must first deal with pain. The structure of the

for the rest of the book. Finally, we will also address the issue

chapter runs as follows: if we live in a world of alienation

of the avant-garde after the end of avant-garde. Since both

(and we claim, along with Marx, that we do) then we must

history, art, and the avant-garde have been pronounced dead

first get through this alienation before we can engage in

quite a few times, it is interesting to see how the artworld

a new relationship with the world. The work of Hermann

tries to maintain an air of progressive avant-gardism in the

Nitsch serves as a gateway to such a rebirth, explaining

view of this tragic demise.

how masochistic rituals (a continuation of themes from

The third chapter, Getting Physcials, is devoted to the body,

the previous chapter) can be an incentive to a more intense

which is put into play in performance art and pornography.

awareness of the world. By way of finale we offer an extended

There are two main themes running through this chapter.

analysis of Béla Tarr’s film Sátántángo, which is all the

First, it attempts to provide a definition of what performance

metaphysics we need today.

art actually is (surprisingly, such a definition is rather hard

Elaine Scarry is also our guide in the fifth and final chapter,

to come by in existing discussions of performance art);

Frail Gazing, which seeks to substitute what I call the “frail

second, it tries to define what kind of art pornography is and

gaze” for that ocular monster, the “male gaze”. Looking at


beautiful things is a wonderful pastime and the entire chapter

not be accomplished before deadline. Also, I regret I had to

is a defence of this much-maligned practice. We start our

jettison, for reasons of organisation (sometimes you just can’t

discussion with John Ruskin’s notion of the pathetic fallacy,

harmoniously squeeze into a book what you’d like to squeeze

which forbids us to see the world as animated. It soon

in), sections on Coil, Oleg Kulik, and many others. Readers

becomes clear that the general trend of the present book is

who want the shortest possible introduction to the experience

quite at odds with this idea, although we do reclaim Ruskin

of masochism as discussed in this book should watch director

for beauty. After that, it’s beauty all the way. The long chapter

João Pedro Rodrigues’ mighty O Fantasma (2000).

is a tapestry of interrelated discussions of artists that take up many topics from the earlier chapters. Animism, beauty,


memory, fetishism, and the joys of looking are several of the


themes that are traced through the work of Apichatpong

Finally, some notes on the material that is usually gathered

Weerasethakul (but because his work seems so personal

under the heading ‘Preface’. These are the thank you notes

and so engaging, I take the liberty of simply calling him

and the references to material published before elsewhere.

Apichatpong), Wolfgang Tillmans (who takes us back to our

Much of the material in this book draws on essays published

discussion of voyeurism and fetishism), Nan Goldin, Pier Paolo

in the last five years. Since I did not think it appropriate to

Pasolini, John Boorman, Jesús Franco (an unusual suspect for

make endless references to my own work in the text, I have

a philosophy of art), and Derek Jarman, who closes the book.

simply listed the most important items in the Bibliography.

Along the way, many other artists are discussed. We end, I

My discussions of the PhD in the arts, Anthony Goicolea, and

hope, in beauty, in Derek Jarman’s garden.

Terence Davies draw on pieces published in rekto:verso. If I

Several recently published books came to my attention too

manage to slip in my own definition of the sublime in the

late to include them in my discussion. But as they seem to

very last paragraph of the book, this is entirely due to the fact

be of great interest for the topics raised in Only Connect, I

that I have previously elaborated on it in that same journal

feel I should point the reader to them. Armando Maggi’s The

in a piece on “cinetrauma”. My discussions of voyeurism and

Resurrection of the Body (2009) covers much of the ground on

masochism, along with some material on Rorty and Goldin,

Pasolini’s late work from a point of view that seems similar to

were first essayed in Streven. Discussions of Warhol, Pasolini,

mine (I first published my extensive discussion of Pasolini’s

Boorman (and affiliated films), and Tarr draw on material

Saló in the Summer 2007 issue of Cinemagie). I love Richard

published in a series of essays for Cinemagie. The discussion

Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man (1977) and regret I did not come

of radical chic for chic radicals draws on material presented

across The Craftsman (2008) sometime sooner. Hermann Nitsch

in Metropolis M. The material on Nitsch was first presented,

recently published his magnum opus, the massive, three-

in a somewhat briefer incarnation, as a public lecture at

volume Das Sein (2009). Reading it is a month’s work and could

OFFoff in Ghent in 2009. The audience at OFFoff also got a



preview of my musings on the link between performance art

to be thanked for reading earlier versions, correcting my

and pornography just before the book went to press. These

mistakes, or thinking in my stead. However, over the course

earlier texts have not been copy-pasted together to create the

of the years I have benefited from repeated discussions with

semblance of a book. Rather, I have relied on them as sources

(in alphabetical order) Antoon Braeckman (who pointed me

of information and have restated their arguments, or parts of

towards Kondylis and Manfred Frank, how can I thank him?),

them, within the fabric of new arguments. The earlier texts

Jean-Marie Bytebier, Wim Christiaens, Bert Frings, Linda

were treated as research to feed on, not sources to copy. Only

Hoo Hui Lan, Sander Jongen, Warre Mulder, Nele Tas, Kris

on a very few occasions have I scavenged my own earlier

Van Dessel, Karel Van Haesebrouck, Tom Van Imschoot, Sofie

essays and excerpted longer pieces of text. This applies

Verdoodt, and Frederik Vergaert. I hope I haven’t overlooked

especially to the discussion of Early German Romanticism

anyone. Finally, but not in the least, I dedicate this book to

in Chapter One and the discussion of Scarry and Marx in

Kris, my partner, who has had to live with it for the better part

Chapter Three. These sections reproduce, in sometimes

of our relationship. He has also created my website (www.

heavily edited form, material published in two booklets that and is the cause of a certain obsession

are available online from Lokaal 01: Absolute Beginnings (2009)

with Nigella.

and Stock Footage & Shock Tactics (2009). Finally, then, for the many thanks due to others. First and



foremost, I would like to thank the crew at Lokaal 01 for supporting and publishing this book. I would like to thank

For ease of reference I have introduced a number of sigla

the editors of rekto:verso, Cinemagie, Streven, and Metropolis M

to refer to books and sources that are frequently referred

for so often giving me carte blanche in the choice of topic

to. They are listed here. Full bibliographical details can be

and the mode of analysis in the essays they always (but no

retrieved in the Bibliography.

doubt sometimes grudgingly) published. These essays were an excellent playing ground to try out ideas and approaches that I hope have come to some kind of fruition in this book. Especially my work at rekto:verso was good learning. I can

TC Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace PDA Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art AEA Danto, After the End of Art

all those essays they will now have to suffer through an

PNK Langer, Philosophy in a New Key FF Langer, Feeling and Form PA Langer, Problems of Art MI Langer, Mind. Volume I

entire book containing more of the same and composed

OMT Nitsch, Das Orgien Mysterien Theater

without editorial restraint! My research wasn’t subsidised by

PJ Nussbaum, Poetic Justice

only imagine my friends’ dismay when they hear that after

any research grant, so I ain’t thankin’ no government. Since I have no scientific community to bask in, nobody needs

BP Scarry, The Body in Pain BBJ Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just DB Scarry, Dreaming by the Book

Chapter One


When Plato designed his ideal state, he felt the poets should be kept out. They were an unruly lot who threatened the moral fabric of the polity by presenting misleadingly immoral images of the gods. Poetry, to be permissible, must strengthen morale. In the Sophist it is the visual artist who comes under attack. Plato thought that the material world was only an imperfect copy of an ideal world of ideas. An image made by an artist was therefore a copy of a copy of reality and could only lead to falsehood and misrepresentation. Plato was no friend to the arts. Many centuries later Friedrich Schiller also mused on the morality of art in his letters on the aesthetic education of man, published in 1795. Schiller wasn’t quite as pessimistic as Plato and he believed that the theatre, which (as a dramatist) was his favoured art, could provide the public with moral lessons attractively packaged in entertaining sto-


ries. In that way the theatre could be an invaluable contribu-

Arts (NEA), which is to say that it was partially paid for with

tion to public morality and education. The idea that art can

taxpayers’ money. However, the hullabaloo over Serrano’s

and should somehow help us become better people has been

picture was to become part of a much larger controversy that

at the heart of aesthetics and morality for centuries. More

focused on a major Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective (Bau-

often than not art is attacked or defended on the grounds of

erlein 2009: 89-95). On December 9, 1988, the Mapplethorpe

its supposed moral effects and not on grounds of aesthetic

retrospective The Perfect Moment opened at the Institute for

achievement. In recent times we have seen an upsurge of

Contemporary Art (ICA) in Philadelphia. It would later travel

moral concern with the arts, as in the so-called “culture

to Washington and Cincinnati. The exhibition showed a wide

wars” that have ravaged American artistic life since the late

selection of photographs, including the infamous X Portfolio,

1980s. Both opponents and defenders of the arts argue from

a series of thirteen images showing men involved in extreme

the idea that art has moral effects on the public, desirable

acts of sadomasochism. This exhibition had also been partial-

or undesirable effects depending on which side of the politi-

ly funded with an NEA grant. Both Serrano’s and Mappletho-

cal spectrum a person chooses to locate herself. In this way

rpe’s work came under attack from the American Family

the debate on both sides implies that artists have some sort

Association, who alerted D’Amato to the scandal. On May 18,

of social responsibility: voices from the Right feel art should

1989, thirty-six senators signed a letter demanding changes

bolster traditional values, voices from the Left feel art should

to the NEA policy so ‘that shocking, abhorrent and completely

speak for the oppressed. Neither party seems to believe that

undeserving art would not get money’ (Morrisroe 1995: 372).

it is the foremost business of art to be beautiful or of out-

On June 12, 1989, it was announced that the Corcoran Gallery

standing aesthetic value. All these questions, however, raise a

in Washington D.C. had decided to cancel the Perfect Moment

much more fundamental issue about the nature of art: what

exhibition in view of the controversy. This caused outrage in

is it? How does it work? What does it do? Such questions

the art community and on June 30, a protest was organised

must be dealt with before we can say anything about the way

outside the Corcoran with protesters projecting slides of

art functions in society.

Mapplethorpe’s works onto the facade of the building. To Camille Paglia, who commented on the events in an essay, this

War and Resentment

protest represented what she called ‘Mapplethorpe’s essence,

The culture wars officially started on May 18, 1989, when

his spectral identity as a suffering Romantic artist forever

Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato tore apart a reproduc-

outside the pale. The demonstration ingeniously replayed,

tion of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) on the Senate floor.

without knowing it, the cinema of Blake’s great poem “Lon-

Serrano’s photograph showed a plastic crucifix immersed in

don,” where solitary, excluded voices smear or mar the cold

the artist’s own urine and had been shown in an exhibition

stone walls of society’s institutions’ (Paglia 1993: 41).

partially funded through the National Endowment for the

On July 26, the Senate approved restrictions proposed by Jesse


Helms, Republican senator for North Carolina. These restrictions demanded that the NEA would not ‘promote, disseminate or produce’ a veritable catalogue of offensive materials, namely: ‘(1) obscene or indecent materials, including but not limited to depictions of sadomasochism, homo-eroticism, the exploitation of children, or individuals engaged in sex acts; or (2) material which denigrates the objects or beliefs of the adherents of a particular religion or non-religion; or, (3) material which denigrates, debases, or reviles a person, group or class of citizens on the basis of race, creed, sex, handicap, age or national origin’ (Hughes 1994: 163). Much could be said about this amendment, first and foremost the fact that it casts its net so widely as to become virtually useless. Anything could be objected to by just about anyone according to 26

the phrasings of this text. What, for instance, could conceivably be meant by someone’s ‘religion or non-religion’? And would Helms support the suppression of religious speech that reviles homosexuals on the grounds that it denigrates on the basis of sex? In the end, it didn’t really matter because the Senate voted the restrictions down on September 29. But that was not the end of the controversy, for in March 1990 The Perfect Moment, by now surrounded by a heady atmosphere of scandal and prurience, opened at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, where obscenity charges were lodged against Dennis Barrie, the Center’s director. On October 5, 1990, however, both Barrie and the CAC were acquitted by a jury because the prosecution had failed to show that Mapplethorpe’s work lacked artistic merit. ‘The jury was unanimous in deciding that Mapplethorpe’s pictures appealed to a prurient interest in sex, and that they were patently offensive, but they couldn’t agree that they lacked artistic merit’



(Morrisroe 1995: 375). This in effect sunk the prosecution’s

lieved that art history was written by and for men and sought

case, for the three counts must be fulfilled in order to deem a

to redress the imbalance by recovering female artists from

work legally obscene.

the mists of the past. This research has brought to light some

The Perfect Moment controversy was a highly publicised case,

interesting women artists but it has not changed the general

but it was only one in a series of conservative attacks on the

outline of art history.

arts and the media. But the Left has been just as repressive

Parallel to the rise of gender feminism the 1980s also saw the

and many leftists, especially militant feminists (but also sev-

rise of so-called “issue-based art,” which is a highly politi-

eral other groups, notably gay activists), have made concerted

cised form of art about social oppression. In no particular

efforts to police public speech, education, the arts, and the

order this movement yielded feminist art, gay or lesbian

media in similar ways. The 1980s saw the rise of so-called

art, African-American art, and any kind of minority art one

“gender feminism”. Gender feminists are not ordinary femi-

cares to imagine. This vogue was born from ‘the notion that

nists. The tradition of feminism as it was conceived in the

one of the specific tasks of the contemporary artist was to

nineteenth century finds its expression in what is called “eq-

give a voice to groups that in some way saw themselves as

uity feminism”: the demand for equal rights and freedoms

disadvantaged’ (Lucie-Smith 2001: 207). Most issue-based

for women, but with no demands for special treatment and

art was dull and preachy and barely bothered to rise above

without rancour or hatred towards men. Gender feminism

the level of public whining. But there was no need to rise

is much more radical and displays an outspoken hostility

because feminists had made the idea of aesthetic quality

towards men. Christina Hoff Sommers has called it a ‘femi-

subservient to social concerns. A work could become valid as

nism of resentment that rationalises and fosters a wholesale

art on the strength of its being an expression of the suffer-

rancour in women that has little to do with moral indigna-

ing of the oppressed. According to Robert Hughes, who was

tion’ (Hoff Sommers 1995: 41). Gender feminism is a kind of

severely critical of this development, issue-based art led to

identity politics that claims that women have been, and still

‘the belief that mere expressiveness is enough; that I become

are, oppressed and abused by a patriarchy that condones

an artist by showing you my warm guts and defying you to

and even encourages violence against women. The mission

reject them. [...] I am a victim: how dare you impose your

of gender feminism is not simply to do away with the many

aesthetic standards on me?’ (Hughes 1994: 188). Feminists

grievous discriminations women face in the world, which is a

believed they had to police the arts for offensive materials,

project that no sensible person could oppose, but to create a

very much in the way that conservatives wanted to keep

rift between men and women. They are at war with the pa-

publicly funded art clean from immoral elements. Porn came

triarchy and seek to denounce, shame, and, if at all possible,

heavily under attack, especially from latter-day Puritans like

censor all utterances, writings, opinions, or works of art that

Catharine MacKinnon. Male artists such has Picasso became

they deem offensive to women. Gender feminists further be-

virtual untouchables in women’s studies because of their per-



ceived sexism and were replaced with the work of oppressed

approach considered to be unacceptable because it implicitly

women and with the joys of quilt-making, which became the

denigrates those who are given lesser status. The very idea of

ruling feminist metaphor for art in the new, liberated mode.

“genius” is regarded with suspicion as elitist and “masculin-

One of the most saddening aspects of the feminist hysteria

ist”’ (Hoff Sommers 1995: 64-65). The second response was of-

was its attack on beauty itself, lead by Naomi Wolf’s book The

ten used to buttress the first and relies on deconstruction in

Beauty Myth (1990), which claims that beauty is an ideological

the New Historicist mode: by “demonstrating” that works of

tool instilled in women as a form of self-surveillance. Beauty

art are mere “effects” of “social energies,” the idea of the in-

was perceived as making women complicit in their own sub-

dividual artist as a creative genius could be done away with.

ordination. Also, beauty, and especially physical beauty in

Thus, the death of the author was cheerfully proclaimed. Ob-

women, was guilty of inviting the male gaze, an objectifying

viously, there is nothing wrong with contextualising works of

way of looking that reduced beautiful women to mere sex

art to enhance understanding. But to see works of art as mere

objects in the eye of lascivious beholders of evil intent.

effects of anonymous social energies, about which very little

In literature departments the canon came under attack. If

can be proved (the idea of social energies is just as ephemeral

art history was a male conspiracy to keep women back, then

and metaphysical as Freud’s subconscious or the argument

the history of literature was the work of “dead white Euro-

from design in religious circles), is quite something else. Har-

pean males”. This diagnosis elicited two responses. The first

old Bloom opposed New Historicism and pointedly remarked

was the substitution of contemporary minority literature of

that ‘William Shakespeare wrote thirty-eight plays, twenty-

questionable literary quality for the more canonical texts that

four of them masterpieces, but social energy has never writ-

were read in the traditional curriculum. This was euphemisti-

ten a single scene. The death of the author is a trope, and a

cally called an “expansion” of the canon. Such an expansion

rather pernicious one; the life of the author is a quantifiable

might be marginally tolerable if the substitutes were works of

entity’ (Bloom 1994: 37).

literary merit, but, as Harold Bloom points out, ‘the “expan-

Bloom famously baptised these trends in feminism, minority

sion of the Canon” has meant the destruction of the Canon,

thinking, and New Historicism the “School of Resentment”:

since what is being taught includes by no means the best

fuelled by a misguided sense of egalitarianism and social

writers who happen to be women, African, Hispanic, or Asian,

justice they reject any kind of greatness and desperately try

but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment

to drag everything down to their own level. ‘Originality is the

they have developed as part of their sense of identity’ (Bloom

great scandal that resentment cannot accommodate’ (o.c. 25).

1994: 7). Christina Hoff Sommers remarks that the gender

Talent and genius are denied, standards of quality and excel-

feminists ‘challenge the very idea of “great art,” “great litera-

lence are jettisoned as oppressive tools of discrimination,

ture,” and [...] “great science.” Talk of “greatness” and “master-

and politics takes the place of aesthetics because beauty is in

pieces” implies a ranking of artists and works, a “hierarchical”

the gaze of the rapist. And so extremes meet in the American



culture wars. Both the Right and the Left have tried to censor

the new edition, leaving some pages virtually blank. This kind

art and language. The Right wants to censor anything that is

of ‘pre-emptive self-censorship’ is made necessary because,

offensive to their religious, patriotic, or other moral beliefs,

as Waugh dramatically but entirely justifiably claims, ‘we fear

the Left would like to censor anything that transgresses

for our livelihoods and our freedom and safety, as well as,

the norm of political correctness. So common sense, art,

more pragmatically and importantly, for the ability to distrib-

and education get stuck between what Robert Hughes has

ute this edition’ if such possibly offensive images are left in

called the two PCs: Patriotic Correctness and Political Cor-

(Falkon 2006: 21).

rectness (Hughes 1997: 619). In both cases the censorship is

The third example of PC censorship is taken from my own

founded on the belief that art has a public role to fulfil and

experience. Like many of my friends, I have a Facebook page.

that this role is somehow moral in nature. Art educates, art

One day I decided to create ‘The Aiden Shaw Appreciation

makes us better people. According to your definition of what

Society’ as a fan page for the now-legendary gay porn star.

constitutes a “good” human being you can write your own

It was meant in a tongue-in-cheek way, as the name of the

catalogue of unwanted expressions, language, art-works,

page suggests. There was no offensive material on the page,

ideas, television programs, and so on. This wave of Political

only a picture of Shaw’s bare chest (with pants on) and a brief

Correctness resulted in a series of cases of actual censorship

text extolling his fine physique. The page only had a hand-

that were often so bizarre that they could have been funny

ful of fans, since my stock of Facebook-friends is limited to

if the situation wasn’t so desperately depressing. In a much-

people I actually know, many of whom are not even gay. On

publicised case, Nancy Stumhofer, an English instructor at

January 31, 2010, I received a warning from Facebook that

Pennsylvania State University, pressured administrators into

my Appreciation Society had been removed because it vio-

removing a reproduction of Goya’s The Naked Maya from a

lated the Terms of Use, which forbid groups that are ‘hateful,

classroom because it created “a hostile work environment”

threatening, or obscene’. Since the page was in appreciation

(Hoff Sommers 1995: 270-271; Paglia 1995: 50). The sheer force

of a person, I assume it wasn’t hateful or threatening. So it

of the PC movement, and the very real dangers of legal ac-

must have been obscene, despite the fact that there were no

tion it entails, often resulted in self-censorship by authors

offensive pictures or foul language on it. Therefore, I must

and artists. This was the case when scholar Thomas Waugh

assume that the very fact that Shaw is a gay male porn star

edited what he diplomatically calls ‘a “reasonably faithful”

was deemed obscene and offensive by Facebook. At the same

facsimile edition’ of Felix Lance Falkon’s classic book of gay

time, however, several politicians from the (extreme) right

graphic art, Gay Art. A Historic Collection, originally published

maintain Facebook pages without interference, regardless of

in 1972. This book collected homo-erotic drawings from the

the fact that they stand for hateful, racist, and often threat-

sexual underground and contained several images that sug-

ening ideologies. Apparently, a gay male porn star is obscene

gested sex with minors. Several such images were cropped in

per se, but right-wing racists are not. This gives an idea of


the kind of PC democracy and freedom Facebook stands for.

was considered by many to be the Second Coming. By con-

Finally, the e-mail closed with the warning that ‘further she-

sequence, Shaker beliefs allowed great equality between the

nanigans wit’in Ye Olde Facebook’s borders mayhapse cause

sexes, as God had become manifest both through Jesus Christ

ye arrrrrcount t’ be used fer cannon fodder!’ There is some-

and through Ann Lee. But Lee also held strict views on world-

thing unsettling about this phrase. Its jocular tone suggests

liness. Of jewellery and decoration she said: ‘You may let the

that I’ve really just been a very bad boy and should know

moles and bats have them; that is, the children of this world;

better by now. It treats the whole affair as a quibble among

for they set their hearts upon such things; but the people of

friends. But where’s the joke in censorship?

God do not want them’ (Kirk 1997: 52). However, in his fine study of Shaker art and culture, James T. Kirk rightly points


The Power of Vision

out that the Shakers were ‘not against beauty, but against

The idea that art has a moral role to play in society is at the

ostentation’ (o.c. 54) and that they ‘usually sought to expunge

heart of the American concept of art and can be traced back

unnecessary details from thoughts, daily living, and designs’

to the historical roots of the republic. The three most impor-

(o.c. 37). As a consequence, Shaker culture has created objects

tant religious sects to seek refuge in America from religious

of great economy but splendid beauty. Several Shaker phrases

intolerance in the Old World, namely Puritans, Quakers, and

give us insight into the principles they used when creating

Shakers, disapproved of art to a great extent. The 17th century

objects for use, in the first instance architecture and furni-

New England Puritans had a profound distrust of the image.

ture: ‘Regularity is beautiful’; ‘There is great beauty in har-

This distrust extended to religious art because it fell under

mony’; ‘Order is the creation of beauty’; ‘Beauty rests on util-

the ban on graven images in Deuteronomy. And since the

ity’. So Shaker culture does not reject beauty, but for Shakers

Puritans did not approve of excessive worldliness the idea of

beauty ‘has to do with order [and] is judged by perception of

painting a landscape for the sake of a landscape was equally

unity and appropriateness’ (o.c. 55).

anathema. The only kind of painting they did commission

American attitudes towards art would change with the ad-

was portraiture, which had no “expressive” goal but simply

vent of Romanticism, not because the religious ideas behind

served to preserve a person’s features for posterity (Hughes

the dislike disappeared, but because Romanticism offered

1997: 32). The Quakers were in some respects the opposite

a concept of art, and especially of landscape painting, that

of the austere Puritans, for they celebrated ‘unstructured,

was commensurable with the religious ideas of Puritans. The

ecstatic, spirit-led relationships with God’ (Kirk 1997: 11). But

Romantics started to explore the relationship between man

just like the Puritans they disapproved of worldliness. The

and nature and saw nature as a guide to divine presence in

Shakers evolved out of the Quakers and were especially noto-

the material world. But the rise of landscape painting as the

rious for the ecstatic dancing during their religious services.

quintessential American genre did not happen overnight. In

Their most important early spiritual leader was Ann Lee, who

the early decades of the republic portraiture dominated the



visual arts to the extent that it became a burden on artists’

influences on health, morals and politics’ (o.c. 127). As John

ability to develop their craft: artists were so dependent upon

Armstrong points out, ‘the belief that it makes a difference

commissions that they had to devote most of their attention

what you contemplate relies upon the assumption that what

and energy to portraits. There was a group of artists, how-

you contemplate somehow gets inside you; contemplation

ever, who were fortunate enough to have wealthy families or

is the spiritual analogue to eating’ (Armstrong 2000: 99-100).

patrons who could afford (and were willing) to finance a trip

People become infected by what they see. An interesting

to the Old World in order that the artist might study the art

effect of this new moral perspective on art was ‘increased

of Europe. When these artists returned to the United States,

respect for mind and artistic creativity. Uncontaminated

they found that the European aristocratic approach to art

nature, the standard of perfection for Americans at home,

was at odds with the American perception of artists as crafts-

developed a competitor. God revealed His true greatness not

men. For Americans, painting was a trade like any other. But

through His own works, but through the man-made objects

as art-historian Neil Harris explains in his study of The Artist

which He inspired.’ From now on art could no longer be seen

in American Society (1966), the artists who had sojourned in

simply as a trade because ‘art’s triumphs were also nature’s,

Europe ‘had spent years developing techniques to differenti-

but nature ripened and extended. [...] True masterpieces were

ate themselves from mere visual craftsmen, and they did not

distinguished not by manual tricks or sleight of hand, but by

even consider surrendering their hard-won technical mastery

a grandeur of mind. [...] The purpose of painting, therefore,

and their intellectual objectives to straightforward record-

was not to imitate nature’s beauties but to present a great

ing of the ordinary. Higher, more transcendental goals alone

and original concept. “The great artists do not give us nature,

could justify their sacrifices and trials. Art was “divine,” and

but give us themselves,” wrote James Freeman Clarke. [...] The

divinity precluded compromises with vulgar needs’ (Harris

artist’s primary function was to be true to his own concep-

1982: 87).

tualisations, enriching natural views with personal insights’

Soon, American artists and critics ‘produced grandiose

(Harris 1982: 131).

conceptions of art as a moral and political instrument, and

The aesthetic experiences of Americans abroad often took

a panacea for human ills’ (o.c. 124). It is difficult to over-

on a near-religious intensity. This rapture was shared by the

estimate the importance of the Amercian artists’ travels

many clergy who travelled to Europe and who returned to

through Europe for this shift of perspective. As Neil Harris

the homeland to testify to the transforming power of the

has pointed out, ‘it is impossible to accept the continual

visual arts. One of the reasons the clergy became convinced

emphasis on the moral efficacy of art objects, as threats or

of art’s moral power was the fact that the Catholic church

bulwarks to the established order, unless it is understood

had for centuries been the most important patron of the arts

that the art experience of many travellers was so traumatic

in Europe. Aesthetic rapture was most often experienced

that they believed vision could exert permanent and radical

in front of Renaissance and Baroque saints in transports of


ecstasy. The very force of these works made it clear that art

the landscape experience was that of God as supreme artist,

could be a powerful ally for any religion and it seemed a pity

it need only be a short step to the idea that artists were seers

that American Puritans had denied themselves the benefits

or priests. [...] They were trained to read the Book of nature,

of such a valuable tool. From the 1830s on Americans began

in which God’s will was inscribed, as surely as in the Bible’

to look favourably upon such new ideas imported from the

(Hughes 1997: 138-139).

Old World. The idea of art as religious revelation pleased


Americans because there had always been an element of

Divine Substance

pantheism in Puritanism, which tended to see ‘evidence

But the Transcendentalists did not think of all this on their

of divine planning in natural disasters and windfalls’ (o.c.

own. In fact, much of their philosophy was also a European

171). This mystico-religious approach to nature was made

import. It was very close to German idealism, and especially

explicit in the philosophy of the Transcendentalist move-

to Schelling’s philosophy of Nature. Schelling had in turn

ment, whose most famous representatives were Ralph Waldo

been profoundly influenced by the work of Spinoza, who was

Emerson (1803-1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862).

generally held to be responsible for reintroducing the her-

Transcendentalism was the philosophy of the worship of

esy of pantheism into modern thought. The concept of the

Nature. As Neil Harris explains, ‘Transcendentalists held

American Sublime, the American brand of landscape painting

that material objects were significant only as emanations of

with its heroic concept of the artist and his relation to nature,

Spirit, the world being [...]. It was vital for man to understand

is very much a continuation of ideas that were at the heart

his proper relationship with the external world, for strang-

of Romantic philosophy in Europe. So it is useful to briefly

ers to nature were alienated from God. The energy of the

look at this history and see where Emerson and his kind got

Supreme Being, what Transcendentalists called “Spirit,” lay

their metaphysical ideas. It is a fascinating story that starts,

behind and throughout all material objects. All matter was

for our purposes, with Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), who

therefore good in the sight of God, and all of nature deserved

at the dawn of the eighteenth century was the world’s most

reverence’ (o.c. 172-3). This way, Transcendentalism ‘opened

despised philosopher because he had published a tract in

the door to art appreciation, but also constrained it. [...] Art’s

defence of religious tolerance and because his concept of God

only importance lay in its representation of nature’ (o.c. 173).

was felt to be nihilistic, pantheistic, and atheistic. Spinoza

Transcendentalism therefore provided the key element in the

saw God as infinite substance, an all-encompassing entity in

transition from Puritan suspicion of art to a celebration of

which all events were linked in an endless chain of causality.

art as the seat of moral and religious sentiment. ‘If American

God therefore is nature. But this was a tricky idea, for if the

nature was one vast church,’ Robert Hughes remarks, ‘then

world consists of a series of tightly connected causes, then

landscape artists were its clergy. This changed the status of

this raises the obvious question of the final cause: if every

American artists themselves. [...] If the presiding metaphor of

cause is in turn explained by another cause, this leaves the



problem of what caused the first cause, and whether a first

die Lehre des Spinoza (1785), which would become immensely

cause, namely God, can exist at all. Therefore, materialism

influential among young Romantic philosophers. Jacobi’s

and the denial of God’s existence were felt to be but a breath

book is a messy affair, a collage of fragments and snippets

away and Spinoza was duly condemned for his unorthodox

from letters. Mendelssohn was shocked and dismayed by it,

views. Henry More even called him ‘the most impudent of

especially since Jacobi had not bothered to ask permission

mortals’ (Israel 2001: 229). Within less than a century, how-

to publish extracts from Mendelssohn’s letters. Mendelssohn

ever, Spinoza would rise to prominence again thanks to Ger-

felt he should respond and soon a major philosophical con-

man Romantic philosophy. And it is one of those subtle iro-

troversy was in the making, with arguments being made for

nies of history that one of the chief thinkers responsible for

and against Lessing’s alleged Spinozism by both the original

this revival was a man who heartily disliked Spinoza. Moses

contenders and several other philosophers who felt the need

Mendelssohn (1729-1786) was profoundly critical of Spinoza

to contribute to the debate. In the end, the controversy would

but became an unwilling participant in Spinoza’s comeback

claim Mendelssohn’s life. Rushing to get the manuscript of

at the hands of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819), one of

An die Freunde Lessings, his final rebuttal to Jacobi, to his pub-

the first German Romantic philosophers.

lisher on December 31, 1785, the coldest day of the year, Men-

Jacobi claimed that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) had

delssohn forgot to put on his coat, fell seriously ill, and died

told him that ‘there is no philosophy other than Spinoza’s’

within days on January 4, 1786 (o.c. 74). Jacobi was widely

(Beiser 1987: 66). Lessing is now chiefly remembered as the

held to be responsible for Mendelssohn’s tragic and untimely

author of a famous essay on Laokoön oder über die Grenzen

demise. The controversy itself would continue a while longer,

der Malerei und Poesie (1766) but he was a man of formidable

but the main effect was that the name of Spinoza was now

stature in the eighteenth century and a personal friend of

once again foremost in philosophers’ minds. And no Roman-

Mendelssohn’s. Jacobi’s claim about Lessing’s supposed Spi-

tic philosopher would be more deeply influenced by Spinoza

nozism was not an unlikely suggestion since between 1774

than Schelling.

and 1778 Lessing had published the Wolffenbüttler Fragmente,

Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) was one of

selections from the Spinozist writings of one H.S. Reimarius.

the many young Romantic philosophers who read Jacobi’s

Lessing’s commentary on these fragments was widely felt to

book with passionate interest. He would go on to become the

be too impartial and not sufficiently critical of Spinoza. When

quintessential Romantic philosopher and is primarily re-

Mendelssohn heard about Jacobi’s intent to disclose Lessing’s

membered as the author of an ambitious philosophy of na-

Spinozism, he felt he should defend his friend’s posthumous

ture in a Spinozist vein. Schelling’s clearest statement of this

reputation and started to exchange letters with Jacobi on the

Romantic philosophy can be found in his System des transzen-

matter. Eager to make his case, Jacobi assembled a selection

dentalen Idealismus (1800). Schelling sees Nature as a produc-

from their correspondence and rushed it into print as Über

tive force that constantly creates itself. It is infinite self-real-



isation. Nature brings itself into being, which is reminiscent

man Romantic philosophers. Novalis had also claimed that

of Spinoza’s idea of God as perpetually creative substance (in

‘the sense of poetry has much in common with mysticism.

fact, Schelling’s philosophy on this point was also profoundly

[...] It sees the invisible, feels what cannot be felt [...]. The

influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who in the early 1790s

poet is truly out of his senses – that is why everything is in

was a terrific philosophical presence in Jena, where Schelling

him. [...] The sense of poetry is closely related to the sense of

studied). All the natural phenomena, be they plants, animals,

clairvoyance and to the religious, in fact to the art of the seer.

minerals, or human beings, are products of this process of

The poet establishes order, unites, chooses, creates – and yet

self-realisation. The end of the process is mankind because in

it is unclear to him why things must be so and not otherwise’

man Nature has generated something that is similar to itself:

(Frank 1989: 174). Robert Rosenblum has suggested that many

a being that wants to realise its own goals in nature. Just like

of the ideas about art and nature expressed in these philoso-

Nature, humans engage in self-realisation by transforming

phies could also be found in the art of Romanticism, and he

the world around them to suit their purposes. That is why

has pointed to the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840)

Schelling saw man as a microcosm: the basic dynamic of

as the clearest representative of this trend, which he has

Nature is also at work in man. With man, Nature has reached

called the Northern Romantic tradition. Rosenblum also sug-

the end of its self-realisation because, in a sense, it has recre-

gests that there is a link between this European tradition in

ated itself, or its double. Man is Nature’s crowning achieve-

landscape painting and a similar tradition in America, exem-

ment. And of all man’s endeavours, the greatest and most

plified by Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900), but he offers

divine is the creation of works of art through which man

no proof of this link. It seems possible, however, that the lines

expresses himself in the external world.

of influence can be traced through the Transcendentalists’

Schelling is a cardinal figure in the history of the philosophy

enthusiasm for German philosophy.

of art because he created the stereotype of the Romantic artist as a genius inspired by higher forces. In his System

The Therapeutic Fallacy

des transzendentalen Idealismus Schelling writes that genius

The idea of nature and the artist as gateways to the divine

is possible only in the arts, where he famously found ‘the

had important consequences for American art. For one thing,

expression of tranquillity and quiet greatness’ (‘der Ausdruck

the new concept of landscape and of landscape painting

der Ruhe und der stillen Grösse’; Schelling 2000: 291). And the

became linked to the idea of Manifest Destiny, which is ‘the

artist, in creating the work of art, is unconsciously driven by

belief that westward colonisation of America was not only a

a desire to fulfil an irrepressible natural urge within himself.

right but a sacred duty’ (Hughes 1997: 157). To the American

The artist’s genius is a gift from nature, granted at birth. Al-

mind, the continent was a land of plenty, most of which as

though Schelling is the locus classicus for this concept of the

yet unexplored, which had been created by God to be ex-

artist, such ideas were common currency among Early Ger-

plored, settled, and cultivated by the brave frontier man. If



the material world could be read like the Bible, then the mes-

sive book Kosmos was published in 1845. On the basis of

sage written down in it seemed to have been lifted straight

his wide-ranging research, supported by a global network

out of Genesis: submit the earth. In the name of Manifest

of correspondents and scientists who forwarded him their

Destiny explorers set out from the East coast to cross the

measurements of temperature, barometric pressure, rainfall,

continent, claiming the land they found and driving the Indi-

and other phenomena, Von Humboldt had reached an all-

ans before them. The classic formulation of Manifest Destiny

encompassing vision of the universe as one huge organism in

was written by the journalist William Gilpin and read to the

which everything is connected, a cosmos where, in his own

U.S. Senate in 1846: ‘The untransacted destiny of the American

words, there ‘is a unity in diversity of phenomena: a harmo-

people is to subdue the continent – to rush over this vast field

ny, blending together all created things, however dissimilar in

to the Pacific Ocean – to animate the many hundred mil-

form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath

lions of its people, and to cheer them upward... to teach old

of life’ (o.c. 158). This inspired in him a great respect for all of

nations a new civilisation – to confirm the destiny of the hu-

nature which would become the root of the environmentalist

man race... Divine task! Immortal mission! Let us tread fast and

movement in America, where the English translation of Kos-

joyfully the open trail before us! Let every American heart

mos, published in 1848, was a huge success. As Aaron Sachs

open wide for patriotism to glow undimmed, and confide

remarks, Von Humboldt ‘cared about each element of nature

with religious faith in the sublime and prodigious destiny of

because every weed, stinging insect, and poisonous snake

his well-loved country’ (Hughes 1997: 190). The West, to the

played a crucial role in what he came to think of as particular

Americans, was a Promised Land that was there for the tak-

ecosystems, all of which seemed to thrive on biodiversity’

ing, a divine gift to God’s new chosen people.

(Sachs 2006: 52).

Not everyone agreed with this vision. A major dissenter was

Von Humboldt’s success coincided with the rise of Transcen-

the German explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt

dentalism and his influence on Thoreau was massive. What

(1769-1859), who was a great admirer of the young Ameri-

made Von Humboldt especially attractive to Transcenden-

can republic but never tired of castigating it for what he

talists was the fact that he saw man as an element in the

considered its two greatest moral blights: slavery and the

cosmos. This meant that man was not immune to changes in

oppression of indigenous Indian cultures. Von Humboldt

the ecosystem: there was an intrinsic link between man and

had become very famous for his expedition, in the company

his world. It also meant that the experience of nature could

of Aimé Bonpland, to South- and Central-America between

transform men, not only in a physical, but also in a spiritual

1799 and 1804. At the end of his journey Von Humboldt was

way; and that man could relate this spiritual renewal to his

received by president Jefferson and the two men would keep

fellow men. One of the ways this spiritual experience could

in contact through correspondence. Von Humboldt reached

be communicated was through landscape painting. Its great-

a new level of global fame when the first volume of his mas-

est American exponent was Frederick Edwin Church, who



painted huge canvases of sublime American nature that

political in character’ (o.c. 103). It included a series of badges,

carried the force of revelation. But this was not the end of

created by Daniel Martinez, that bore part of the slogan “I

art’s moral mission. By the 1880s art as religion had begun

can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”. Every visitor was

to mutate into something only slightly less transcendent in

issued such a badge at the admission desk. Another “work”

nature: art as therapy. This change profoundly affected the

on display was the infamous video of the Rodney King beat-

shape of a new American institution, the museum. The earli-

ing, showing Los Angeles police officers kicking a black man.

est American museums originated from private collections.

The question whether such works were art at all (a question

As Robert Hughes explains, these museums were supposed

that is especially salient in the Rodney King tape, which was

to ‘create zones of transcendence within the society’ (Hughes

not made as a work of art but filmed by a man who happened

1994: 180). The museum was conceived of as a kind of health

to be on the scene with a camcorder), let alone good art, took

spa, a space where nervous conditions could be soothed.

a back seat to their political and emotional urgency: the only

This idea was born from the fact that many collectors had

thing that mattered was their ability to raise consciousness

turned to collecting for personal comfort. ‘Some of them,

among the public about social injustice. Similarly, in the Sep-

notably Charles Freer and Isabella Stewart Gardner, were

tember 26, 1993 issue of The Washington Post, Camille Paglia

deeply neurasthenic creatures who looked to art to cure their

wrote that when she and artist Alison Maddex ‘toured the

nervous afflictions and thought it could do the same for the

Whitney’s rape exhibit this summer, we were appalled and

less well off’ (o.c. 181). This attitude was heavily influenced

incredulous. Visitors were wandering around with tears in

by yet another European import: the psychoanalysis of Sig-

their eyes, as rape victims recited their sorrows on a video

mund Freud, where art was seen as symptom, the sublimated

monitor. When the offerings of a major museum are indistin-

expression of suppressed desires and drives. But it resulted

guishable from the victimisation soap opera of television talk

in a concept of art that is still pervasive in American culture

shows, art has ceased to exist’ (Paglia 1995: 114). It certainly

and which Robert Hughes has called ‘the therapeutic fallacy,’

does seem to be the case that such exhibits transgress the

namely the idea that ‘works of art were moral in themselves

boundary that separates art from non-art. It is part of the

because, whether you knew it or not at first, they pointed the

business of this chapter to explain why and how.

way to higher truths and so did you good’ (o.c. 183). It is essentially this approach to art that fuelled the politically

Narrative Didactics

correct backlash against “offensive” art and the promotion of

The locus classicus for art as therapy is obviously Aristotle’s

issue-based art in the 1980s and 1990s. According to Arthur

Poetics. In the sixth chapter of this book, which has only been

C. Danto the 1993 Whitney Biennial was ‘a high-water mark

partially transmitted, Aristotle writes that ‘a tragedy is an

of the politically tumultuous 1980s’ (Danto 2003: 106). ‘The

imitation of an action which is serious and, having grandeur,

work presented was for the most part accusatory, and angrily

complete in itself, done in language seasoned with embel-


lishments, each appearing separately in different parts of the work, in dramatic rather than narrative form, accomplishing by way of pity and fear the catharsis of such feelings’ (Barnes 1995: 276). The idea of catharsis has proved very enduring. In ancient Greek it could mean two things, either the purgation of the body through laxatives and emetics or ritual purification in religion. In his discussion of tragedy Aristotle suggests that in a good play a similar catharsis can be accomplished for feelings like fear and pity: we are purged of them by seeing them represented. This, in essence, is the root of the therapeutic fallacy: the notion that art can somehow “cure” us of something. As Jonathan Barnes points out, there is much uncertainty about how this “purification” should be understood. The idea of art as catharsis also raises many objections, and the most important is that ‘to suppose that the primary rea-


son, or even a main reason, for encouraging productions of Oedipus is that they clean up our feelings is to turn art into emotional therapy’ (o.c. 279). But that is exactly the approach to art that underlies the culture wars, both on the Right and on the Left: art is supposed to be good for us. It is something to help us deal with the perplexities of life, or at least to help us become better citizens. As literary critic Kenneth Burke assures us, ‘poetry is produced for purposes of comfort, as part of the consolatio philosophiae’ (Burke 1973: 61). In recent philosophy about art and its social uses and effects several influential theories have been put forward that seem to fit into the tradition of the therapeutic fallacy. In Contingency, irony, and solidarity (1989), Richard Rorty claims that all people have what he calls a “final vocabulary”. This vocabulary is ‘a set of words which they employ to justify Arthur C. Danto

their actions, their beliefs, and their lives’ (Rorty 1989: 73).



God, justice, nature, our nation, or decency, along with a host

ways possible, books can suitably substitute for actual people.

of other words, can all function as parts of a final vocabulary:

Martha Nussbaum has addressed similar issues and is equal-

they are the words in the name of which people take moral

ly persuaded of literature’s ability to alter our relationships

stands. Such a final vocabulary ‘is “final” in the sense that if

with other people. In Love’s Knowledge (1990) she suggests

doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no

that books can be “friends” to us in a way similar to our hu-

noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far

man friends. She illustrates this with an example from her

as he can go with language; beyond them there is only help-

own personal history as ‘a child whose best friends were, on

less passivity or a resort to force’ (ibid.). Rorty further intro-

the whole, novels’ (Nussbaum 1990: 11) and with the fictional

duces a type of person whom he calls an “ironist,” namely

example of David Copperfield, who also turns to books for

someone who ‘has radical and continuing doubts about the

companionship. Nussbaum next asks ‘what kinds of “people,”

final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been

as friends, novels are’ (o.c. 236). She has tried to answer that

impressed by other vocabularies’ (ibid.). So Rorty implies that

question in a series of books that argue for a philosophy of

our final vocabulary is not fixed: although we might cling

the emotions that also allows for a theory of the social uses

to it and defend it with great passion, to the point of being

and effects of the novel. She has developed the arguments

willing to give up our lives for the ideals expressed in it, the

for literature most clearly in Poetic Justice (1995), where she

contents of our vocabulary may shift throughout our life as a

explains how reading novels can be useful to reach con-

result of inner changes, emotional growth, or through contact

sidered judgements in the courts or in our dealings with

with other people’s vocabularies. The ironist is someone who

other people about whom we know very little and towards

accepts this fluidity and might even go one step further: the

whom we might otherwise feel distrust. This argument was

ironist is not unlikely to go out into the world to meet new

then further elaborated in Cultivating Humanity (1997), where

vocabularies to make sure that there is not some vocabulary

Nussbaum wants to ‘ask about the relationship of a liberal

out there that might be more worthwhile than the one she is

education to citizenship’ (Nussbaum 1997: 8). She feels that

currently living in.

the global and multicultural character of contemporary soci-

Considering the ironist’s quest for a more suitable vocabulary

ety requires future students of the world to be able to tackle

Rorty claims that ‘our doubts about our own characters or

the many differences between people and cultures they are

our own culture can be resolved or assuaged only by enlarg-

bound to encounter. To this end she argues for an educa-

ing our acquaintance. The easiest way of doing that is to

tion that ‘liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and

read books’ (o.c. 80) because in books we can find a ‘detailed

custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity

description of what unfamiliar people are like’ (o.c. xvi). To

and alertness as citizens of the whole world. This is what

enlarge our acquaintance with other vocabularies we should

Seneca means by the cultivation of humanity’ (ibid.). Such

ideally meet as many people as we can. Since this is not al-

an education must foster ‘the capacity for critical examina-



tion of oneself and one’s traditions’ (o.c. 9) and train people

of the kind of reasoning that a judge should engage in when

‘to see themselves not simply as citizens of some local region

judging criminals. The novel teaches us that ‘governments,

or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to

wherever they are, should attend to citizens in all their indi-

all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern’

viduality and variety, responding in a sensitive way to histori-

(o.c. 10). At the heart of this educational enterprise lies what

cal and personal contingencies’ (PJ 45). Just like the charac-

Nussbaum calls ‘the narrative imagination. This means the

ters in a novel, citizens and criminals have a personal history

ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a

that is entirely unique and that should not be set aside when

person different from oneself [and] to be an intelligent reader

judging their actions. In this sense Nussbaum sees the liter-

of that person’s story’ (o.c. 10-11). And what better way for

ary artist as ‘the equalizer of his age and land,’ a description

students, and citizens in general, to learn to read other peo-

she borrows from Walt Whitman (PJ 4): the literary artist who

ple’s stories than by reading novels, which are the paradigm

writes a novel or a poem (for Nussbaum stresses that her

of such human narratives?

views also apply to poetry) makes us aware of the fact that

Nussbaum suggests that the distinguishing feature of the

other people, no matter who they are, are very similar to us

novel is its close attention to the intricacies of individual

in their vulnerability and in the things they care about or the

lives and the complex contexts in which they are situated.

ways they care about them.

Novels help us understand the particular lives of particular

But the question this raises and that interests us most is how

people by giving us detailed insight into their daily doings,

this comes about. Nussbaum talks of ‘modes of interaction’

their ways of expressing themselves, and even their deepest

that are at work in the novel and that can fundamentally

thoughts and feelings. According to Nussbaum the novel is

change readers’ outlook on the world. Nussbaum claims that

‘a morally controversial form, expressing in its very shape

‘good literature is disturbing’ and that it ‘summons power-

and style, in its modes of interaction with its readers, a nor-

ful emotions, it disconcerts and puzzles. It inspires distrust

mative sense of life. It tells its readers to notice this and not

of conventional pieties and exacts a frequently painful con-

this, to be active in these and not those ways. It leads them

frontation with one’s own thoughts and intentions’ (PJ 5). But

into certain postures of the mind and heart and not others’

what are those ‘modes of interaction’? Nussbaum explains

(PJ 2). Novels stress how differences in education or social

that they have to do with the style of the novel and illustrates

circumstances form a person’s character and their actions. By

this elaborately with the example of Charles Dickens’ novel

sketching such a broad context for human action the novel

Hard Times (1853). Nussbaum describes how Dickens manipu-

is ‘a paradigm of a style of ethical reasoning that is context-

lates our experience as readers through his style and choice

specific without being relativistic’ (PJ 8). In this respect the

of words. By presenting one character in an ironic manner

novel is a fine example of the kind of thinking governments

and another character in a sentimental way, he directs our

should deploy when dealing with their citizens and especially

sympathies and instructs us about which characters and



actions to approve of and of which to disapprove. In fact,

pact that reasons sometimes have on us as feeling persons.

‘the structure of the novel – its ways of presenting the world

We feel the force of reasons’ (Siegel 1997: 48) and this force

to us and its enticements to identify ourselves with certain

in turn moves us in a dual way: first, felt reasons “move” us

characters rather than others – set us up, if we respond to

in the sense that they are emotionally gripping; but second,

them, in a posture of the heart and mind that is not one of

they also “move” us in the sense that they can cause us to

sceptical indifference, that does not feel that anything at all

act in a certain way, literally putting us into motion to act. It

that happens to these people is as good as every other thing’

is clear that there is a degree of similarity between Rorty’s

(PJ 83). But this does not really explain anything. The effect

final vocabularies and Siegel’s felt reasons: in both cases we

that the novel has upon the reader is explained in terms of

are dealing with a kind of reasons for our actions that can-

certain stylistic strategies cunningly deployed by the author.

not be fully explained with reasons. We cannot argue for our

But a more fundamental explanation would make us under-

final vocabularies. Similarly, a felt reason is a reason with a

stand how such strategies and stylistic devices come about

surplus of visceral power that is itself not subject to reason: it

and why they are at all successful. Nussbaum does not really

is a feeling that attaches itself to the reason. But Siegel ap-

explain, she simply describes, albeit in great detail and with

pears to be aware of the fact that to simply speak of felt rea-

much sensitivity, the literary strategies the effectiveness of

sons without any further explanation is unsatisfactory for at

which needs to be explained. To say that the novel (or art in

one point he exclaims: ‘But what are “felt” reasons? Are they

general) moves us because the author (or any artist) has used

some weird sort of abstract entity, altogether different from

a series of stylistic devices designed to elicit certain emo-

more garden variety sorts of reasons?’ Clearly, they are not:

tions, feelings, and evaluations in the reader is circular. It

‘Felt reasons [...] are ordinary reasons whose power to move

begs the question what it is about these stylistic devices that

people is made obvious or manifest by the way in which

makes them effective. Why does art move us?

those reasons, and the person for whom they are reasons,

A similar problem arises in the work of another, less well-

are portrayed. Felt reasons are not a different kind of reasons:

known, philosopher. In Rationality Redeemed? (1997) Harvey

they are rather a particular kind of presentation of reasons’

Siegel makes a plea for rational education. Siegel feels a

(o.c. 52). But this simply begs the question: if felt reasons be-

good education should equip young people with the skills

come powerful through the way they are presented or pack-

they will need to reflect upon and justify their choices and

aged, we should like to know what it is about this packaging

beliefs in life. Siegel also feels that novels have an important

that makes these ordinary reasons so much more powerful

part to play in this project. To explain how novels do this he

as to pack an emotional wallop. This is a problem similar to

introduces the concept of “felt reasons”. Despite their ratio-

the one we found in Nussbaum. Both Nussbaum and Siegel

nal nature reasons sometimes have a visceral quality: their

claim that the emotive force of the novel and felt reasons

urgency can be deeply felt. This visceral quality is ‘the im-

respectively has something to do with the form in which they


are presented. Neither explains how and why these forms,

In Philosophy in a New Key (1942) and especially in Feeling and

these stylised presentations, are at all effective. Or, to put it

Form (1953) Langer proposes that we see art as a form of sym-

in a more general way: what is it about art that moves us?

bolisation: ‘Art is the creation of forms symbolic of human

And how does this come about? What does art (the novel, the

feeling’ (FF 40). But this definition immediately entails a new

poem, the special presentation of reasons) do to move us?

question, for what is a symbol? ‘A symbol,’ Langer states, ‘is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction’


Feeling and Form

(FF xi). So works of art are manmade objects that present us

The question of the nature of art was of central concern to

with an abstraction of human feeling. How must we under-

Susanne K. Langer (1895-1985) and her philosophy of living

stand this? Langer explains that symbols are ‘vehicles for the

form is a very good point of reference for the kind of discus-

conception of objects’ (PNK 60-61). She distinguishes concep-

sion upon which we are about to engage. In fact, Nussbaum

tions from concepts. ‘Concepts are abstract forms embodied

herself at times comes very near the kind of reasoning we

in conceptions; their bare presentation may be approximated

find in Langer. In Love’s Knowledge she states that it is one

by so-called “abstract thought,” but in ordinary mental life

of her central claims ‘that there is, with respect to any text

they no more figure as naked factors than skeletons are seen

carefully written and fully imagined, an organic connection

walking the street. Concepts, like decent living skeletons,

between its form and its content’ (Nussbaum 1990: 4). Nuss-

are always embodied’ (PNK 61). So conceptions would seem

baum has stressed this organic connection repeatedly, as

to be more elaborate presentations of concepts. ‘A concept

when she claims that ‘in the reading of a literary text, there

is all that a symbol really conveys. But just as quickly as the

is a standard of correctness set by the author’s sense of life,

concept is symbolised to us, our own imagination dresses

as it finds its way into the work’ (o.c. 9). Unfortunately Nuss-

it up in a private, personal conception’ (PNK 71-72). If, for ex-

baum never really thinks through the organic metaphor for

ample, we think of a circle, we do not think of a concept (all

the way art works. Neither does she give a very satisfactory

the points in a field that are at the exact same distance from

account of how a “sense of life” may be present within a work

a given point) but we usually imagine a specific circle. The

beyond her claims about the stylistic devices used by authors

circle I have in mind may be smaller than the one you have

to steer the reader’s mind and feelings in a desired direction.

in mind, it might be drawn in a different colour than yours or

But these are exactly the kinds of issues Langer’s work does

against a different background, but whatever its imaginary

clarify. One of Langer’s central questions is how art moves

properties, it will still be a circle according to its geometrical

us. What kind of objects are works of art? What is their logi-

definition. The same thing applies when we think of the con-

cal structure and how does this structure affect the spectator

cept of a house. ‘Consider a photograph, a painting, a pencil

or reader? To answer these questions is to enter into a fresh

sketch, an architect’s elevation drawing, and a builder’s dia-

relationship with works of art.

gram, all showing the front view of one and the same house.



With a little attention, you will recognise the same house in

a periodic measure: it is the perceived connectedness of suc-

each representation [because] each one of the very different

cessive events. Langer now suggests that works of art ‘bear

images expresses the same relation of parts, which you have

a close logical similarity to the forms of human feeling’ (FF

fastened on in formulating your conception of the house. [...]

27), which are rhythmic in the sense just explained. Langer’s

Likewise, another person’s conception of that same house

preferred example to illustrate this is music, which shows

will agree in its essential pattern with the pictures and with

us ‘forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stow-

your conception, however many private aspects it may have’

ing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement,

(PNK 71).

calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses – [...] the great-

So works of art are abstractions or symbols of conceptions of

ness and brevity and eternal passing of everything vitally

human feelings. To explain this Langer famously introduced

felt. Such is the pattern, or logical form, of sentience; and the

the term “living form”. Human life and feeling are filled with

pattern of music is that same form worked out in pure, mea-

movement. ‘All life is rhythmic’ (FF 126) and is subject to

sured sound and silence. Music is a tonal analogue of emotive

processes of flowering and decay, birth and death, and all

life. Such formal analogy, or congruence of logical structures,

physical and mental developments in-between. Langer here

is the prime requisite for the relation between a symbol and

makes very specific use of the word “rhythm,” which she de-

whatever it is to mean. The symbol and the object symbol-

fines as ‘a functional involvement of successive events’ (PA

ised must have some common logical form’ (ibid.). Living

52). This means that ‘a rhythmic pattern arises whenever the

form ‘expresses life – feeling, growth, movement, emotion, and

completion of one distinct event appears as the beginning of

everything that characterises vital existence’ (FF 82). As these

another. The classic example is the swinging of a pendulum.

statements suggest, ‘the word “feeling” must be taken here

The momentum of its drop drives the weight upward in the

in its broadest sense, meaning everything that can be felt, from

opposite direction, and builds up the potential energy that

physical sensation, pain and comfort, excitement and repose,

will bring it down again; so the first swing prepares the sec-

to the most complex emotions, intellectual tensions, or the

ond; the second swing was actually begun in the first one,

steady feeling-tones of a conscious human life’ (PA 15).

and similarly, after that, each swing is prepared by the one

Langer’s concept of living form invites two remarks. First, it

before. The result is a rhythmical series’ (PA 51). But rhythm

might seem questionable to define feeling in such a broad

need not be serial or periodic. Whenever an action or move-

way. But this is necessary to the enterprise, for since art can

ment seems to beget another, a sense of rhythm manifests

be and is about everything that falls within human experi-

itself. All succession is rhythmic, even if it is not periodic.

ence, any theory that tries to say anything about art will have

This explains ‘why a tennis player, a wheeling bird, and a

to embrace the full scope of human experience. It will be up

modern dancer who does not necessarily repeat any motion

to the subsequent theory to specify this in view of the indi-

may exhibit rhythm, too’ (PA 52). So the rhythm of life is not

vidual kinds of art. Second, it is of vital importance to stress



that Langer speaks of a logical similarity between life and art.

art, but not abstract art, is a contradiction in terms’ (HC 323).

This means that the relationship between art and the feel-

Obviously, Arendt was not writing about Expressionism as

ings it expresses is a formal relationship. This formal aspect

a movement in the history of art, but about expressiveness

brings up the question of expression. If art expresses human

in the literal sense of venting one’s emotions in an immedi-

feeling, we must understand what “expression” means here.

ate way. What is created in art is not self-expression (which

It is a common mistake to think that art is a direct expression

does not require creation or art at all) but expressive form,

of the artist’s personal feelings. When Langer claims that art

‘perceptible forms expressive of human feeling’ (PS 84). The

works are symbols and therefore abstractions, she introduces

artist has conceived of human feeling and found a form that

an element of distance. The artist does not express his feel-

expresses this feeling.

ings directly but seeks a formal analogue for them. He steps

Langer was not entirely original in her use of the term “living

back, contemplates the feeling he wants to express in his

form”. She explicitly conceives it as a further development

work and then sets about finding a fitting form. ‘What art

and refinement of Clive Bell’s infamous “significant form” (FF

expresses is not actual feeling, but ideas of feeling; as lan-

31-33). But the term “living form” itself already appears in the

guage does not express actual things and events but ideas of

work of Friedrich Schiller, who introduces it in the fifteenth

them’ (FF 59). So we must be wary of ‘the confusions between

letter of his epistolary treatise Über die ästhetische Erziehung

feeling shown and feeling represented, symptom and symbol’

des Menschen (1795). Schiller’s thoughts on art are structured

(FF 184). It is of paramount importance to keep in mind ‘that

dialectically. He conceived of humans as beings with two

the feeling in a work of art is something the artist conceived as

basic but conflicting drives, the material or “sense drive”

he created the symbolic form to present it, rather than some-

(‘Stofftrieb’) and the rational or “form drive” (‘Formtrieb’). The

thing he was undergoing and involuntarily venting in an ar-

sense drive spurs man towards life in its organic and sensual

tistic process’ (FF 176). This act of conceiving transforms the

sense. It is also linked to individual existence and concerns

feeling from something experienced into something represent-

everything that has to do with our own particular experience

ed. ‘But as soon as an expressive act is performed without in-

of being alive. The form drive, on the other hand, represents

ner momentary compulsion it is no longer self-expressive; it is

the universal element within us, the reason that is common

expressive in the logical sense. It is not a sign of the emotion

to all human beings. These two drives are in constant dynam-

it conveys, but a symbol of it; instead of completing the natu-

ic intercourse with each other, seeking the balance of human

ral history of a feeling, it denotes the feeling, and may merely

life to make sure that our lives are neither too focused on one

bring it to mind [...]. When an action acquires such a meaning

or the other. For Schiller, art has an important role to play in

it becomes a gesture’ (PNK 152). Hannah Arendt was point-

this balancing act because it always presents us a message

ing in the same direction when she declared, in a footnote in

(which pleases the rational form drive) in an attractive shape

her great book The Human Condition (1958), that ‘expressionist

(which is agreeable to the sense drive). As such, art is “living



form” (‘lebendige Gestalt’): a fusion of mind and matter, of rea-

present’ (PA 66). In her Introduction to Symbolic Logic (1937)

son (and morality) with sensuality (or beauty). This dialectic

Langer had also spoken of ‘logical intuition’ as ‘the power of

of feeling (sense experience in a broad sense that comes very

discovering analogies’ (Innis 2009: 14). This formulation is

near Langer’s) and form (the higher meanings for which the

a clue to the fact that Langer’s concept of intuition is much

sense experience of the work of art is the vehicle) is the main

indebted to Gestalt psychology, which holds that ‘when sen-

theme throughout all of Schiller’s writings. It would also

sory elements are combined, they form some new pattern of

influence Hegel’s philosophy of art. And as we shall see in

configuration. Put together a group of musical notes, [...] and

Chapter Two, Hegel’s dialectical worldview resurfaces in Ar-

something new – a melody or a tune – emerges from their

thur C. Danto’s notion of “the transfiguration of the common-

combination, something that did not exist in any of the indi-

place,” which states that objects become works of art because

vidual elements (the notes). Stated succinctly: The whole is

meanings are embodied in them.

different from the sum of its parts’ (Schultz and Schultz 1996:

Langer calls the expressive form ‘an apparition given to

322). That is why Langer can say that we know the import of

our perception’ (o.c. 86). This takes us to the heart of what

a work of art by an act of intuition: the work of art is a Gestalt,

is at stake in her work. To make this clear we must turn to

something immediately perceived as a whole. In the first vol-

Langer’s concept of intuition. As early as The Practice of Phi-

ume of Mind she writes that a work of art ‘presents the sem-

losophy (1930) Langer wrote that intuition ‘is not a method,

blance of feeling so directly to logical intuition that we seem

but a natural phenomenon. It occurs; it cannot be invoked or

to perceive feeling itself in the work’ (MI 67). She even claims

taught. Moreover, its result is not knowledge, but that fun-

that ‘artistic import requires no interpretation; it requires a

damental experience which knowledge is about [...]. It is our

full and clear perception of the presented form’ (MI 84).

source of direct contact with the world’ (Innis 2009: 13-14).

It is a core tenet of Langer’s philosophy that ‘a work of art is

As Robert E. Innis explains in his survey of Langer’s work,

always a prime symbol,’ (FF 369) which is ‘the expression of

intuition ‘supplies us with the given in experience’ (o.c. 14).

human consciousness in a single metaphorical image’ (PA

This means that Langer conceives of intuition as our source

53). This symbol could ‘be analysed, in that its articulation

of felt experience. In the first volume of Mind (1967) she calls

may be traced and various elements in it distinguished; but

it ‘the basic intellectual function’ (MI 128) and compares it

it can never be constructed by a process of synthesis of ele-

to Locke’s ‘natural light’. In Problems of Art (1957), here she

ments, because no such elements exist outside it. They only

also refers to Locke, she calls it ‘the fundamental intellectual

occur in a total form’ (FF 369). Speaking of books Langer says

activity, which produces logical or semantical understand-

that they are ‘like a life: all that is in it is really of a piece’

ing. It comprises all acts of insight or recognition of formal

(PNK xi). ‘A work of art is a single, indivisible symbol,’ writes

properties, of relations, of significance, and of abstraction and

Langer, ‘although a highly articulated one; it is not, like a

exemplification. [...] Intuition is not true or false, but simply

discourse (which may also be regarded as a single symbolic



form), composite, analysable into more elementary symbols

ing that is not analysable into atomic parts. Put another way,

[...]. It may, indeed, be analysed, in that its articulation may

Langer is challenging the early Wittgenstein’s picture theory

be traced and various elements in it distinguished; but it can

of language and transforms it from the inside out. That is

never be constructed by a process of synthesis of elements,

why Robert E. Innis writes that Langer’s work deals with

because no such elements exist outside it. They only occur

‘meaning after language’ (Innis 2009: 48), although I would

in a total form’ (FF 369). Every good work of art is of a piece.

modify the expression to “meaning beyond language” because

This is related to the aspect of perception that is tradition-

Langer does not give up on language (after all, literature is

ally called hololepsis, the seizing of the whole that turns a

one of the great arts) but tries to show that meaning is pos-

work into something more than ‘a mere aggregate of separate

sible, and logically possible, beyond the limits of discursive

items’ (Armstrong 2000: 92). As John Armstrong explains,

language. To accomplish this, she broadens Wittgenstein’s

‘there is no sense in which a heap can be complete’ because

picture theory. Simply put, Wittgenstein’s theory says that

‘nothing in its own nature determines [its] maximum’ (ibid.).

sentences are propositions that logically represent a state of

To be complete, a work must have an internal dynamic that

affairs in the world. In this sense they are a logical picture

determines its limits. This is essentially what Aristotle meant

of reality. Words are names of things and sentences describe

when he said a good play should have a beginning, a middle,

how these things are related to each other. The truth-value

and an end. ‘His concern is with the way in which features

of a proposition depends upon the question whether a state

of the work can be seen to have internal qualities of develop-

of affairs in the outside world corresponds to its structure.

ment – a development which can be seen to start and can

Sentences that do not represent such a picture of the world

reach a conclusion. When the end does come, it has the char-

are essentially senseless. This means that all evaluative and

acter of finishing something rather than of being an arbitrary

expressive language, including ethics, aesthetics, religion,

halt. The end, as it were, makes sense in relation to what has

and metaphysics, are beyond the pale of meaning. In fact,

come before. Equally, the opening is not just a chance start

the only meaningful propositions are those of the natural

but seizes the origin of the process to be followed through’

sciences, which cannot say anything about what is really

(o.c. 93). As we shall see in a subsequent chapter, even works

important in life: love, art, religion. That is why Wittgenstein,

of art that are (partly) improvised or open-ended adhere to

after finishing the Tractatus (1921), felt he was through with

this structure because they are conceived to be improvised

philosophy, which was really a lot of talk about nothing. The

or open-ended. This is why a film indeed need not, as Godard

final proposition of his book famously states that ‘whereof

once quipped, produce beginning, middle, and end necessar-

one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ (Tractatus 7;

ily in that order.

Sluga and Stern 1996: 11). Not because such things are not

Seeing the art symbol as a prime symbol means that Langer

important, but because language simply fails to communi-

accepts the possibility of a logical representation of mean-

cate anything meaningful about them. Langer would prob-



ably have amended this final proposition to ‘whereof one

not determined yet, because there are many possible ways of

cannot speak, thereof one must make religion, ritual, and,

developing the composition’ (FF 121). This development, the

most essentially, art’. Langer agrees with Wittgenstein that

composition of the work itself, will often be a process of trial

the human mind creates a picture of the world and that this

and error. But the commanding form will guide this process

picture is logical. But the logic that guides Langer’s idea of

as a kind of blueprint because it is ‘the general Gestalt [that]

picture-making is not the discursive logic of science, but the

serves as a measure of right and wrong, too much and too

symbolic logic of living forms. What cannot be said in discur-

little, strong and weak’ (FF 122). In this sense, the work of

sive language can be expressed metaphorically, in ritual and

art enforces its own rules. Writers sometimes speak of the

art. A work of art is also a picture of the world, but it is not a

universe of their novel and of the fact that this universe does

scientific picture. As Robert E. Innis has stated, ‘a picture for

not allow them to write whatever they please. This is exactly

her is a symbol, not a duplicate. It shares only “salient fea-

the kind of restriction the commanding form would impose

tures” with what it is a symbol of (PNK 68), a “certain propor-

upon an artist. Sometimes the artist will simply have a nag-

tion of parts” (69). Saliency is contrasted with irrelevancy’ (Innis

ging feeling that something about the work is not right and

2009: 40). There are many essential things in the world and in

will keep tinkering with it until this feeling is dispelled. Very

life which discursive projections cannot adequately express

often the commanding form will command the artist to “kill

or convey. These things open up the ‘unexplored possibility of

his darlings” in order to make the living form reach its full

a genuine semantic beyond the limits of discursive language’

potential. I suggest that it is something like the commanding

(PNK 86). Where language fails, man will look for other means

form that Nussbaum was referring to when she wrote about

of expression. Therefore, ‘the field of semantics is wider than

‘a standard of correctness set by the author’s sense of life, as

that of language’ (PNK 87).

it finds its way into the work’ (Nussbaum 1990: 9). But instead

Speaking of works of art as prime symbols, or Gestalten, im-

of looking for this standard of correctness within the formal

plies an organic view of their form. This view is obviously also

character of the work of art, Nussbaum tried to find it in the

present in Langer’s discussion of the creation of works of art.

supposed discursive nature of narrative.

To explain how works of art come about Langer introduces

Such a confusion of art with discourse as we find in Nuss-

the notion of “commanding form”, which is ‘the fundamental

baum is a common error. Art shares its symbolic nature with

feeling to be explored and expressed. This is “the work of art

language, but at the same time there is a profound difference

in the artist’s head.” As soon as he conceives this matrix of the

between language and art. Every language has a vocabulary

work-to-be, he knows what must be its general structure, its

and a syntax. Within the vocabulary words have fixed mean-

proportions, its degree of elaboration’ (FF 389). Once this com-

ings that can be retrieved in a dictionary. If we apply the

manding form has been conceived, the work of art ‘is implicit

rules of syntax we can combine the smaller symbols that are

there, although its final, completely articulate character is

words into larger symbols that are propositions. Any proposi-



tion or sentence is in turn a single symbol and may be taken

also explains why it is impossible to translate a work of art

to symbolise or refer to a state of affairs in the world. A third

into another medium. There are no basic elements like words

characteristic of language, based on the first two of vocabu-

and no syntax. Therefore one cannot translate a painting into

lary and syntax, is its translatability. It is possible to translate

a poem, a novel into a sculpture, or a musical suite into prose.

a proposition into another language by substituting the cor-

There is, however, one art form that does seem to translate

rect words and applying the appropriate syntactic rules in the

works of art in a successful way and that is the cinema,

other language. Neither of these three features applies to the

where films are often based on novels or plays. This is un-

arts. Art, as we saw, does not have discriminate constituent

derstandable since novels, plays, and cinema share the abil-

parts analogous to words. To be sure, a picture, like language,

ity to tell a story in a quasi-discursive way. These arts allow

‘is composed of elements that represent various respective

of progressive narrative exposition. Art forms where linear

constituents in the object; but these elements are not units

narration is less prominent are not usually made into films.

with independent meanings’ (PNK 94). A line or a blot of co-

One rarely hears, for instance, of poems being filmed. Obvi-

lour may signify something in a work of art, but taken in iso-

ously, cinematic variations on poetry or visual poems have

lation it is meaningless. A patch of brownish paint may sug-

been a stock in trade of the experimental cinema for decades,

gest a figure in the background within the painting, but seen

but such works are rarely narrative. In fact, when the main-

in isolation it is simply an indiscriminate patch of brownish

stream cinema does translate poetry to the screen, it is usu-

paint. As regards syntax, there are no rules one can follow to

ally narrative poetry such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, Le Morte

create a work of art. There are certainly techniques one can

d’Arthur, or even The Raven. But nobody has yet attempted

learn to master, but there is no guidebook or recipe to help

the cinematic version of Emily Dickinson’s verse. However,

you make a good work of art with these techniques. That is

most films that adapt literary sources have to simplify and

why Langer speaks of the creation of works of art rather than

reduce the scope of the original work to an extensive degree

of merely making them. ‘The difference between creation and

and end up being little more than illustrations of the story

other productive work is this: an ordinary object, say a shoe,

that was told in more depth in the original work. But illustra-

is made by putting pieces of leather together; the pieces were

tion is an applied art and it is typical of the applied arts that

there before. [...] A picture is made by deploying pigments on

form is a function of content. The function or the message

a piece of canvas, but the picture is not a pigment-and-can-

of the object is primary and the form has been designed to

vas structure. The picture that emerges from the process is a

facilitate the function in the smoothest and most agreeable

structure of space, and the space itself is an emergent whole

way possible. The form is shaped as a vehicle for function or

of shapes, visible coloured forms. Neither the space nor the

meaning. That does not mean illustration can never rise to

things in it were in the room before’ (PA 28).

the level of the creative arts; it can, but to do so it would need

Finally, the total reference of works of art as prime symbols

to retain its expressive power outside the context for which



it was created. That is probably why we now value as art all

in art, is fictional. What is created in the visual arts is an im-

kinds of well-designed furniture and tools from the past, be

age of space. ‘This virtual space is the primary illusion of all

it Art Deco chairs, Biedermeier furniture, or space-age lamps

plastic art. Every element of design, every use of colour and

from the not-so-distant psychedelic 1960s: these objects

semblance of shape, serves to produce and support and de-

are now appreciated mainly for their form and not for their

velop the picture space that exists for vision alone. Being only

practical use. They have become objects to look at rather than

visual, this space has no continuity with the space in which

objects to use.

we live’ (FF 72). This last point is of cardinal importance. Art is

Virtual Spaces

about creating an illusion, an image. Art is fiction and noth-

In Feeling and Form Langer systematically addresses each

ing in it is real. The characters in a performance of Hamlet die,

of the arts to define its primary illusion, which is the basic

but not the actors performing them. The pasture captured in

way in which living form is expressed in that form of art.

paint is not an actual place, it is a painted image. A bronze

The primary illusion of an art form is the basic structure of

figure of a king is not the king himself but his likeness.

expression that all instances of that art have in common. So

We shall return to the importance of the fictional in art in a

it is necessarily a very general description of what unites all

subsequent chapter, but for our present purposes it is impor-

instances of that form of art. But at the same time it must be

tant to stress that what is represented in a work of art is not

sufficiently specific to clearly tell this art form apart from all

coextensive with the real world. A painting is not a window

the others. The primary illusion is the basic structural way

with a view of the world. It is a representation and interpre-

in which a given art form communicates its message. And

tation of the world. It is an image of the world seen. ‘Virtual

before we return to our discussion of Nussbaum we shall

space, being entirely independent and not a local area in ac-

look at the primary illusion of the visual arts. ‘The purpose of

tual space, is a self-contained, total system. [...] If, therefore,

all plastic art is to articulate visual form,’ Langer writes, ‘and

the artist presents semblances of objects, people, landscapes,

to present that form – so immediately expressive of human

etc., it is for their visual values as portions of perceptual

feeling that it seems to be charged with feeling – as the sole,

space’ (FF 75). In fact, all the elements that an artist intro-

or at least paramount, object of perception. This means that

duces in his image of space ‘have the purpose of making space

for the beholder the work of art must be not only a shape

visible and its continuity sensible. The space itself is a projected

in space, but a shaping of space – of all the space that he is

image, and everything pictured serves to define and organ-

given’ (FF 71). The visual arts, which are painting (and draw-

ise it. Even representation of familiar objects, if it occurs, is

ing), sculpture, and architecture, create what Langer calls

a means to this end’ (FF 77). It is clear that virtual space is

virtual space, which is not experiential space (namely space as

always subjective, experienced space. Even figurative art is

it is physically present around us) but a visual representation

never simply about presenting a representationally accurate

of space. The space created in a work of art, like everything

image of what it represents. All art, including representa-



tional art, expresses a way of seeing the world, or a mode of

ture, windows, etc. Very few pictures are so large as to fill our

experiencing space, and hence the vantage point of a sub-

physical field of vision completely at normal distance, i.e. at a

ject. Taking Cézanne as her example Langer writes that ‘the

distance that lets us see the forms presented in them to best

transformation of natural objects into pictorial elements took

advantage. Yet a picture is a total visual field. Its first office

place in his seeing, in the act of looking, not the act of paint-

is to create a single, self-contained, perceptual space, that

ing. Therefore, recording what he saw, he earnestly believed

seems to confront us as naturally as the scene before our

that he painted exactly what “was there”’ (FF 78). This means

eyes when we open them on the actual world. That is to say,

that art aims at truthfulness not in the sense of representa-

the illusion created in pictorial art is a virtual scene. I do not

tional fidelity but in the sense of a truthful representation of

mean a “scene” in the special sense of “scenery” – the picture

what our lived experience feels like. Rather than simply pro-

may represent only one object or even consist of pure decora-

vide us with a carbon copy of reality, art shows us reality as it

tive forms without representative value – but it always cre-

is perceived. For the visual arts this means that they show us

ates a space opposite the eye and related directly and essentially to

not simply space but how we perceive and experience space.

the eye. That is what I call “scene.”’ (FF 86). We shall elaborate

This is especially clear in the case of Modernism, which was

this concept of scene in the next section, but before we turn

an explosion of individual movements that sought the basic

to that discussion we must briefly address the primary illu-

elements that would allow of a faithful representation of

sion of sculpture and architecture. ‘Sculpture,’ Langer writes,

the world. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism sought to

‘even when it is wedded to a background as in true relief, is

accurately represent the way we actually perceive colour and

essentially volume, not scene. The volume, however, is not a

shapes. And Cubism is essentially about the perception of

cubic measure, like the space in a box. It is more than the

objects in space, as David Hockney pointed out when he said

bulk of the figure; it is a space made visible, and is more than

that Cubism was ‘about saving the possibility of figuration [...] at

the area which the figure actually occupies. The tangible form

the moment of its greatest crisis, what with the onslaught of

has a complement of empty space that it absolutely com-

photography with all its false claims to be able to accomplish

mands, that is given with it and only with it, and is, in fact,

such figuration better and more objectively. It was about as-

part of the sculptural volume. The figure itself seems to have

serting all the things photography couldn’t capture: time,

a sort of continuity with the emptiness around it, however

multiple vantages, and the sense of lived and living experi-

much its solid masses may assert themselves as such. The

ence’ (Weschler 2008: xix).

void enfolds it, and the enfolding space has vital form as a

Langer describes the primary illusion of each of the three

continuation of the figure’ (FF 88).

main plastic arts. The primary illusion of painting is what

Where a painting is framed in the sense that it is a total visu-

Langer calls “scene”. ‘Physically, a picture is usually one of

al field upon itself, regardless of its surroundings, a sculptural

several things in our sight; it is surrounded by a wall, furni-

work ‘is a centre of three-dimensional space. It is a virtual



kinetic volume, which dominates a surrounding space, and

We can profitably illustrate Langer’s idea of the ethnic do-

this environment derives all proportions and relations from

main with what Christopher Alexander has called The Time-

it, as the actual environment does from one’s self. The work

less Way of Building (1979), which takes “pattern languages” as

is the semblance of a self, and creates the semblance of a

the key to architecture. Just like Langer, Alexander puts the

tactual space’ (FF 91). Sculpture is the centre of its space in

human experience at the heart of architecture. The timeless

the same way that we, as subjects, are the centre of our expe-

way of building is ‘a process which brings order out of noth-

riential space. We are the perceiving subject that is aware of

ing but ourselves’ (Alexander 1979: 3). This process ‘lies deep

an object world that surrounds us. But all perception is fo-

in us: and only needs to be released’ (o.c. 14). That is why it

cused in us, the subject at the centre of experience. Sculpture

can be called timeless: it is inscribed almost in our genetic

is an image of this experience of selfhood, commanding the

make-up because it is a way of building that arises out of our

space it inhabits from its centre. This engagement with the

being and our needs as human beings who are alive in the

surrounding space is taken a step further in architecture. ‘As

world. Rather than build from the requirements of a mod-

scene is the basic abstraction of pictorial art, and kinetic volume

ern society that seeks to make optimal use of the minimal

of sculpture, that of architecture is an ethnic domain. Actually,

amount of space to store people in boxes that harbour them

of course, a domain is not a “thing” among other “things”; it

while awaiting the next day of work, the timeless way of

is the sphere of influence of a function or functions’ (FF 95).

building seeks to conceive of buildings and towns from the

This introduction of function into a discussion of architecture

needs of human being. The quality that distinguishes such

should not mislead us into thinking Langer was an adherent

timeless places (and place, for Alexander, encompasses ev-

of functionalism in architecture. The functions that she aims

erything as small as a room or a doorway and as large as a

to highlight are quite simply the vital aspects of human liv-

house, a town, or a major city) is that ‘they live’ (o.c. 9). Alex-

ing. ‘A culture is made up, factually, of the activities of human

ander suggests several ways of describing the timeless way,

being; it is a system of interlocking and intersecting actions,

but in the final reckoning it seems to be about ‘our liveliness’

a continuous functional pattern. [...] The architect creates

(o.c. 122) in a decidedly Langerian sense: a timeless place is

its image: a physically present human environment that

a place that is expressive of life entirely felt. The structure,

expresses the characteristic rhythmic functional patterns

or what Alexander calls the pattern language, that underlies

which constitute a culture. Such patterns are the alternations

a place that is alive ‘covers the whole of life’ (o.c. 230) and is

of sleep and waking, venture and safety, emotion and calm,

‘a tapestry of life’ (o.c. 347). To determine whether a building

austerity and abandon; the tempo, and the smoothness or

is alive and fit for human living all we have to do is consider

abruptness of life’ (FF 96). In this sense architecture is ‘a uni-

its effect upon our feeling. It is feeling and feeling alone that

verse created by man and for man,’ it is ‘the spatial semblance

determines whether a place is alive. ‘We can always ask our-

of a world’ (FF 97).

selves just how a pattern makes us feel. And we can always



ask the same of someone else. [...] It is not the same, at all,

stress of failure, of not being good enough, of never being al-

as asking someone his opinion. [...] It is also not the same as

lowed to be oneself. One must always check one’s behaviour

asking for a person’s taste. [...] And it is also not the same as

and be aware of the fact that the world is looking in. This is

asking what a person thinks of an idea. [...] It simply asks for

incredibly stressful, up to the point that it can make a person

feelings, and for nothing else’ (o.c. 290-291).

depressed. In any case, it will have a negative effect upon a

Since it is our feeling that determines aliveness, it is a quality

person’s performance, because people who are ill at ease are

that we can all recognise in buildings. For example, schools

never happy workers.

often make us feel uncomfortable and ill at ease just being

What kind of structure must a place have to be in any sense

there. This is often due to the fact that many schools were

alive rather than dead? Alexander claims that ‘every place

never built or designed for human living but for purposes of

is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep

surveillance, conditioning, and the inhibition of free move-

on happening there’ (o.c. 55). This reads like an almost literal

ment. Many schools are built to expose their inhabitants to

rendering of Langer’s principle of an ethnic domain, which is

the gaze of power. This often happens, quite perversely, in

determined by ‘characteristic rhythmic functional patterns’

the name of transparency or a sense of community. For ex-

(FF 96). And a building’s character is essentially determined

ample, many classrooms, especially in older school buildings,

by what happens there most often. For example, the structure

still have windows along the corridor, so that anyone pass-

of a family home should be determined by the rhythms of

ing in the hallway can see everything that happens within

family life, which includes such everyday acts as sleeping,

the classroom. This kind of transparency can put enormous

eating, resting, living together, taking showers, doing laundry,

stress, if not on the students, then on the teacher, who might

cooking, doing homework, repairing a bike, etc. Any build-

live with the daily fear of being exposed if a class is difficult

ing or town that is alive is thus created from the ‘fabric of

to handle and anyone passing can see their inability to keep

relationships’ that runs through them. This fabric ‘is the stuff

the group in check. The terror of visibility is built into many

that actually repeats itself’ in that place (Alexander 1979: 89).

schools, as it is built into many public buildings (just think

For a town or larger city this means that the structure and

of working environments where individual offices have glass

width of streets will be determined by their organic function

walls, making them look like cabinets or small cages in which

in the greater whole. Some roads are veritable arteries within

people seem to be both trapped and exposed). This is the

the fabric of a city, whilst others are simply narrow streets

inhumanity of much public building: instead of sheltering

lined with grocery shops. Similarly, on the small scale of the

us, it exposes us to something much more damaging than

family home, the kitchen should be structured around the

the natural elements, namely human cruelty. To be exposed

recurrent relationships between cooking, eating (and how

at all times to the gaze, and especially to the judging gaze,

we eat), being together for meals, and the storage of food,

of others and of one’s superiors, is to live under the constant

amongst others. The relationships that determine the alive-



ness of the kitchen are simply the activities that happen

to spend time with her children. The result of such situations

there most often and recurrently. These activities determine

is misery and unhappiness. A vivid memory I have of being

the quality (the sense of aliveness) of the place. And the

home sick from school as a child, is the silence in the neigh-

place will only feel alive as a kitchen if its structure allows of

bourhood and the occasional sounds of my mother’s pres-

all these activities. It will not do to simply cramp a stove, a

ence in the house. Otherwise, nothing could be heard. During

sink, some cupboards, and a table into a small room to pro-

the daytime, whole neighbourhoods seem to be deserted

duce a kitchen. For every place ‘there is a fundamental inner

areas. Homes are left abandoned, empty places that simply

connection between each pattern of events, and the pattern

spend the day waiting for someone to come home again. Be-

of space in which it happens’ (o.c. 92). Thus, every building,

cause such neighbourhoods are designed for the sole purpose

every neighbourhood, and every city is defined, ‘in everything

of providing “pleasant housing” (whatever that may be) for

that matters, by the patterns which keep on repeating there’

families, they end up being excluded from the fabric of every-

(o.c. 95).

day life. Every day people have to make the excursion to the

Our sense of life and our sense of well-being are determined

centre of town to do the shopping. Such towns are compart-

by the surroundings in which we have to (or may be doomed

mentalised. Furthermore, the crucial human activity of work

to) live out that life. ‘The specific patterns out of which a

has often been excised from them and transplanted to the

building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the ex-

bigger cities, abandoning life in the town (or in the suburbs)

tent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us

to diurnal dreariness.

free; but when they are dead they keep us locked in inner

But the deadness or aliveness of a place is not simply deter-

conflict’ (o.c. 101). In fact, ‘a person is so far formed by his

mined by such macroscopic elements. The smallest structural

surroundings, that his state of harmony depends entirely on

detail of a place is crucial. A fine example are windows. Imag-

his harmony with his surroundings’ (o.c. 106). For instance,

ine an apartment bedroom with only one window looking out

in towns ‘where work and family life are physically separate,

into an air-shaft. All one sees are brick walls and other dreary

people are harassed by inner conflicts which they can’t es-

windows with the curtains drawn. No natural daylight ever

cape’ (o.c. 107-108). A person who lives in a neighbourhood of

enters the room, which is dark and damp, a dreadful place

family houses, such as many suburbs or small communities,

that is hardly conducive to a good night’s rest. Such windows

must commute to work and will come home at night feeling

are not windows at all: they are simply holes in the wall. A

tired and stressed. Children come home from work to find

crucial pattern in the pattern language of the home is there-

the house empty, and when their parents do arrive, they are

fore “the light on two sides pattern,” which says that any

irritable, stressed, and pressed for time. Similarly, a woman

room should have at least two windows in opposite walls, to

who wants to be a working mother will find herself having to

assure a continual presence of natural light in the place. ‘At

make impossible choices between her career and her desire

one time,’ Alexander writes, ‘it would have been unthinkable


to build any room, except a stable or a workshed, without

ing in particular, modern art is essentially about representing

windows on two sides. In our own time, all knowledge of

subjective point of view. And as David Hockney pointed out, it

this pattern is forgotten. Most rooms, most buildings, have

is Cubism that was probably most successful at this because

light from one side only. And even a “great” architect like Le

it let go of one-point perspective. Kepler reportedly once said

Corbusier, builds whole apartments, long and narrow, with

that painters are ‘educated into blindness’ through linear

windows only at the narrow end [...] with terrible glare and

perspective because it is an unnatural way of looking (Hyman

discomfort as results’ (o.c. 234-235). In fact, Alexander more

1998: 159). Hockney would certainly concur. Nobody in the

than once offers Le Corbusier as an example of how not to

real world ever perceives the world the way it is in a Vermeer

build housing. ‘Le Corbusier’s radiant city [...] actively makes

painting. We are constantly passing through the world and

us feel bad. It may excite our intellect, or our imagination; but

our vantage point is constantly shifting. Moreover, the field

when we ask ourselves how we shall feel in a place which is

of focus of our eyes is limited, which means that our eyes

really built like this, we know again, that it will not make us

are constantly moving about and bringing new details of the

feel wonderful. Again, our feeling is the way our knowledge of

world into focus. Just put two pens in front of you on the ta-

its functional emptiness presents itself to us’ (o.c. 289).

ble, about twenty centimetres apart. Then try looking at them

Fields of Vision

pen and then jump to the other. This is the way we perceive

What ties the three modes of virtual space together is the

and it is this mode of perception that was being expressed in

structurally implied point of view. Scene, kinetic volume,

Cubism, which tried to bring together in a two-dimensional

and ethnic domain are all organised from the point of view

plane the many aspects and acts of perception that consti-

of a subject, a perceiver. This is the human point of view, the

tute our integrated sense of the world.

human measure of things. In architecture it is the functions

This means that the supposed distortion we find in Cub-

of human life that organise the domain. In sculpture the

ist painting is not distortion at all: it is a profound form of

structure of the piece functions as a semblance of selfhood,

realism, very true to life in its expression of sight and of

structuring space around it as we structure the space around

our experience of space. ‘People complained about Picasso,’

us through our sentient presence in it. And painting always

Hockney told Lawrence Weschler, ‘how he distorted the

represents point of view because something is always shown

human face. I don’t think there are any distortions at all.

from a vantage point. Even if the work is abstract, this ab-

For instance, those marvellous portraits of his lover Marie-

straction is always the result of a process of reflection on how

Thérèse Walter which he made during the thirties; he must

we perceive, on what are the essentials of perception, or even

have spent hours with her in bed, very close, looking at her

on how we would perceive (and therefore can conceive of)

face. A face looked at like that does look different from one

the sublime, the divine, the metaphysical. Looking at paint-

seen at five or six feet. Strange things begin to happen to the

both at the same time. You cannot. Your eyes first look at one




eyes, the cheeks, the nose – wonderful inversions and repeti-

the experience of space,’ (o.c. 112) he said about these works. A

tions. Certain “distortions” appear, but they can’t be distor-

point of departure for a discussion of this aspect of his work

tions because they’re reality. Those paintings are about that

might be Santa Monica Blvd. (1979), a huge canvas that was

kind of intimate seeing. [...] Analytic Cubism in particular [...]

left incomplete. In it Hockney tried to paint the panorama of

was about perception – about the difficulty of perception. I’ve

what one could see cruising down Santa Monica Blvd. The

recently been reading a lot of books about Cubism, and I keep

driver moving at a slow pace through the streets is like a

coming upon discussions of intersecting planes and so forth,

latter-day version of Baudelaire’s flâneur, taking in the sights

as if Cubism were about the structure of the object. But re-

from his crib of chrome with leather furnishings. The paint-

ally, it’s rather about the structure of seeing the object. If there

ing itself is a collage of sights and details that Hockney had

are three noses, this is not because the face has three noses,

photographed and then collaged together to make one inte-

or the nose has three aspects, but rather because it has been

grated painting. But he was displeased with the result. When

seen three times, and that is what seeing is like’ (Weschler

he returned to the motif of the visual cruise through scenery,

2008: 22-23). Pierre Bonnard, although not a Cubist, is a great

the results were quite different. The expansive Mulholland

master in this rendering of the searching eye. Consider the

Drive: The Road To The Studio (1980) has let go of traditional

many paintings of his wife Marthe, made within the enclo-

one-point perspective and shows the landscape as it pre-

sure of their home (due to illness, Marthe was confined to

sented itself to Hockney on his daily drive to his studio. It is a

the house for the better part of twenty years). Especially the

collage of aspects and vistas that are assembled next to each

paintings made in the bathroom show Bonnard looking for a

other in a Cubist manner. Hockney has stressed that this way

vantage point that captures the experience of being in there

of painting is ‘more realistic than you might think. When

with her. In an impressive series of three late Baignoires the

you look at Mulholland Drive – and “Drive” is not the name

bathroom is almost reduced to an abstract play of colours

of the road, but the act of driving – your eye moves around

and forms. Perspective is constantly being anamorphosed

the painting at about the same speed as a car drives along

and distorted, being painted from impossible bird’s-eye view

the road’ (Hockney 1993: 67). Just like Picasso and Bonnard,

or from distances that appear unreal within the confines of

Hockney is trying in Mulholland Drive to convey the constantly

a room. Bonnard abandons linear perspective and paints the

shifting field of vision of the eye in movement. The result is

actual experience of looking, the way the eye roves through

in a very literal sense a field of vision, flattened out, almost

space and registers details that are then assembled into our

the way a child might draw a street, with houses flat along

experience of that space. Eyesight is never linear, it is always

both sides of the street, or with several aspects of a building


piled one on top of the other. Hockney produced several other

In his paintings and photographic collages of the 1980s David

pieces conveying this sense of actual perception. A Visit with

Hockney undertook a similar project. ‘I’m trying to convey

Christopher and Don, Santa Monica Canyon (1984), for example,



takes us on an experiential tour of the home of Christopher

experience of the world’ (o.c. 10). ‘The general perspective

Isherwood and Don Bachardy, supposedly distorting space in

[of these composite images] is built up from hundreds of

order to make it more expressive of actual lived experience.

micro-perspectives’ (o.c. 20). But by mid-May 1981 Hockney

The space around the house and the rooms within it appear

had abandoned the Polaroids and moved on to traditional

to have been folded open and welded together, along with

photographs, which came with the added advantage that

the constantly shifting view of the surrounding landscape,

they did not have a white frame around the image. Hockney

to create a dynamic impression of what it is actually like to

now started to assemble immensely complex photo-collages

move up to and about in the house. Interestingly, the Dutch

that were meant to convey the actual experience of looking

experimental filmmaker Frans Zwartjes had earlier created

at space. This meant that the images would have to translate

similar visual effects in his short films, notably the film Living

how we experience space as our eyes move through it, from

(1971) in which he takes us on a guided tour of his new home

one point of focus to the next, assembling a sense of the

by holding his camera at arm’s length from his own face

overall space in the mind. ‘Everything we look at is in focus

and having it tilt and turn in all directions, an almost literal

as we look at it,’ Hockney explains. ‘Now, the actual size of

expression of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view of the self as a

the zone the eye can hold in focus at any given moment is

transparent eyeball, inviting us to turn our eyes upside down

relatively small in relation to the wider visual field, but the

to view the world in a fresh way (Sitney 2008: 7-8).

eye is always moving through that field and the focal point of

Hockney next took this new way of looking at space into

view, though moving, is always clear’ (o.c. 31). By using indi-

photography, which is the medium most closely connected to

vidual photographs to capture one such focal point of view,

(and structurally determined by) one-point perspective. His

Hockney could assemble large numbers of such photographs

first photographic experiments were made with a Polaroid

into overall impressions of a space. He soon found that this

camera. Hockney would photograph several aspects and de-

also allowed him to introduce an element of time in the im-

tails of his subject and afterwards assemble the Polaroid pic-

ages. Since the photographs were taken one at a time and

tures in a grid that offered a general overview of the subject,

since the eye of the viewer can only look at one photograph,

almost as if the complete picture had been made from one

or a limited cluster of photographs, at a time, the eye is con-

perspective. Only on closer inspection does it become clear

stantly moving over the composite image, travelling through

that every separate image has its own perspective. Hockney

space and time. In this way the composite image actually

correctly (and in Cubist tradition) assumed that this way of

conveys the experience of being in a room with other people,

looking was truer to life than linear perspective. ‘I realised

where several things happen at the same time. The fact that

that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see,

these many things are all captured in individual (clusters of)

which is to say, not all at once but rather in discrete, sepa-

photographs allows the viewer to see everything in detail

rate glimpses, which we then build up into our continuous

(and in focus), which he would not be able to do if he were



actually present at the event. It is as if, in such collages, we

for example, The Scrabble Game, Jan. 1, 1983 (1983). This shows

are allowed to endlessly walk around in one moment of time

a group of people, including Hockney’s mother, engaged in

that is made to stand still for us. But in its overall impression,

a game of Scrabble. Each participant’s face has been photo-

the image does feel like it is an entirely realistic representa-

graphed at several moments in time, but the resultant pic-

tion of how we actually experience a room and the people in

tures have been assembled to create a dynamic impression

it in the moment. This, Hockney says, allowed him to deal with

of their faces as they move through different expressions

people’s ‘liveliness’ (o.c. 27). Instead of having to sit still, his

and moods. Since the collage was assembled through time,

models could now simply go about their business as Hockney

the game of Scrabble can even be reconstructed, with several

snapped away with his camera.

pictures showing how the words aggregate on the board (We-

Initially, Hockney would include his own feet in such collages

schler 2008: 39). Similarly, Luncheon at the British Embassy, To-

to ‘plant’ both the image and the viewer in a specific point

kyo, Feb. 16, 1983 (1983) gives an impression (made from Hock-

of view. From this vantage point he would take in the scene

ney’s seat at the table) of a dinner party and its several guests

and translate it into a collage expressive of the actual experi-

as perceived from one point of view. The image strongly re-

ence of looking at the scene; that is to say, not one overall

calls Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Le Déjeuner (1876), an op-

image created through linear perspective, but an assembly of

pressively melancholy depiction of the elaborate dinner table

individual points of focus that, in themselves, are made with

at the home of the artist’s mother, painted from the vantage

linear perspective (that is to say, with a camera), but which

point of the artist himself. Like many of Caillebotte’s other

together do not add up to anything resembling such a tra-

paintings the image has a heavily anamorphosed perspective

ditional perspective. Impressive examples are both Sitting in

that is reminiscent of the way straight lines can become bent

the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, Feb. 1983 (1983) and

in a photograph. We see this ravine-like tilt of space also in

Walking in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto, Feb. 1983

his famous depiction of Rue de Paris; temps de pluie (1877) and

(1983). The former image shows an impression of the tem-

in his mighty Jeune homme à sa fenêtre (1875) (see Distel et al.

ple’s raked garden from one point of view, the latter gives an

1995: 194, 116, 148).

impression of the garden as Hockney is walking through it.

Hockney’s greatest masterpiece in this kind of collage is un-

‘When I first pieced them together,’ Hockney says, ‘I thought I

doubtedly Pearblossom Hwy., 11-18th April 1986 (Second Version)

had made a photograph without perspective’ (Hockney 1993:

(1986), ‘a panoramic assault on Renaissance one-point per-

100). Equally impressive are the highly subjective views of

spective’ (Hockney 1993: 112) that looks almost like a paint-

everyday places, such as his impression of a Telephone Pole,

ing of a stretch of highway in the desert, with some traffic

Los Angeles, Sep. 1982 (1982). As Hockney’s prowess in this new

signs, several trees, and some litter on the side of the road.

manner of photographic collage grew, the images became

Hockney explains that ‘it took me two days out there at that

more and more complex, and more and more lifelike. Take,

intersection in the desert to photograph all of those details;



I had to climb on a ladder, for example, to get the head-on

may be limited in scope, but we never see anything in a blur

shots of the stop sign, and for that matter to get the proper

(at least not under normal conditions and with healthy eyes):

down-gazing vantages of the foreground asphalt. Those beer

what the eyes see, they see in focus.

cans to the side, I had to get right up close to them and then

This brief overview of Hockney’s experiments in painting and

photograph them from an angle which subsequently would

photography can hope to convey but a small portion of the

meld with all the surrounding shots I was taking. And all of

artist’s insights in the art of representing the actual felt expe-

that is what accounts for the sense of immediacy, of close-

rience of space and sight. But it has convinced Hockney that

ness, of being right there’ (Weschler 2008: 176). Hockney’s

Cubism is probably the most important thing that happened

investigations into vision would eventually lead him to a

in the art of the twentieth century and that it is the aesthetic

revolutionary insight in the visual techniques of great paint-

question that contemporary art will have to return to sooner

ers of the past. This is his famous hypothesis, formulated in

or later because too many issues are still left unresolved. To

his book Secret Knowledge (2001), that artists of the past would

his mind, abstract and conceptual art, which would come to

sometimes use a camera obscura and other optical devices

dominate art in the latter half of the twentieth century, are

to help them achieve realistic effects in their paintings. Al-

temporary excursions and not the major line that art should

though controversial, Hockney’s argument is often extremely

be following. ‘The great misinterpretation of twentieth cen-

persuasive. It also overturned the traditional view of early

tury art is the claim advanced by many people, especially

masters as “primitives,” especially in the case of the Flemish

critics, that Cubism of necessity led to abstraction, that Cub-

primitives. With regard to Van Eyck’s famous altar piece with

ism’s only true heritage was this increasing tendency toward

the Adoration of the Lamb (ca. 1432), Hockney suggests that the

a more and more insular abstraction. But on the contrary,

Flemish master’s approach of the canvas might have been

Cubism was about the real world. [...] I mean, several paths

quite similar to the technique Hockney used on Pearblossom

led out from those initial discoveries of Picasso and Bracque,

Highway. ‘I’m convinced Van Eyck was doing something re-

and abstraction was no doubt one of them. [...] But still you

markably similar, pulling in close for each face in the crowd,

have to ask yourself, why didn’t Picasso and Bracque, who

for each clump of trees, for each flower, and then feathering

invented Cubism, ever follow that path? And I suspect that

all of those vanishing points one atop the next’ (ibid.). The

it’s because sitting there in Paris back in the early 1910s, play-

immense detail in Early Flemish Primitive painting is, ac-

ing out the various possibilities in their minds, they could

cording to Hockney, due to ‘hundreds of individual vantages,

already see that abstraction led into a cul-de-sac, eventually

one after the next, bringing every detail up close’ (o.c. 175).

even just an empty room, and they didn’t need to do it to find

The result is an image of great clarity and overall sharpness.

out. I mean, the urge to depict and the longing to see depic-

In fact, ‘the convention of the blur comes from photography’

tions is very strong and very deep within us. [...] And a long-

(o.c. 38): in real life everything we see is in focus. The focus

ing like that doesn’t just disappear in one generation. Art is


about making correspondences – making connections with

ing to say? And: What is the poet trying to make us feel?’ (FF

the world and to each other. It’s about love in that sense –

208-209). But this approach, which we find in Nussbaum, goes

that is the origin of the erotic quality of art. We love to study

against common sense because ‘every critic who is worth his

images of the world, and especially images of people, our

salt has enough literary intuition to know that the way of say-

fellow creatures. And the problem with abstraction, finally, is

ing things is somehow all-important’ (FF 208). After all, if the

that it goes too far inwards and the links become tenuous, or

object of literature is merely to communicate information or

dissolve, and it becomes too hard to make those connections.

to inspire adequate feelings and attitudes (“postures of the

You end up getting these claims by some of the formalist

heart and mind,” as Nussbaum calls them) in the reader, then

critics that art just isn’t for everybody – but that’s ridiculous’

why write literature in the first place? Why not simply state

(o.c. 50).

one’s case in plain language? Why create a work of literary art? Moreover, much poetry and quite a bit of narrative fiction


Virtual Life

is not easy to understand: does the poetic or narrative form

If we are to address the shortcomings we perceived in Nuss-

not hamper rather than facilitate the swift communication

baum’s pragmatic approach to literature we must now look

of ideas? Does it not endanger the presumed pragmatic func-

at how Langer sees expressive form at work in literary works

tions of language? If all one wants is to communicate, why do

of art. Langer puts poetry at the heart of her discussion of

it in such a roundabout and often absurdly embellished way?

literature but maintains that the basic principles at work in

The answer, obviously, is that literature does not aim at com-

poetry can easily be extended to the novel or any other work

munication at all. For this reason, Langer avoids speaking of

of literature. Right from the start Langer points to the lure

art’s “meaning” and prefers to speak of its import, because the

of the discursive: ‘The reason why literature is a standard

expressiveness of a work of art ‘is conveyed’ rather than com-

academic pursuit lies in the very fact that one can treat it

municated (PA 60 and 67). This distinction becomes especially

as something else than art. Since its normal material is lan-

crucial when dealing with literature, which uses language,

guage, and language is, after all, the medium of discourse, it

the very instrument of discursive thought, as its instrument.

is always possible to look at a literary work as an assertion of

But a poet or novelist ‘uses discourse to create an illusion, a

facts and opinions, that is, as a piece of discursive symbol-

pure appearance, which is a non-discursive symbolic form.

ism in the usual communicative way. [...] It is a truism for

The feeling expressed by this form is neither his, nor his he-

modern pragmatists that there are only two essential func-

ro’s, nor ours. [...] He has made an illusion, as complete and

tions of language (however much they talk about its many,

immediate as the illusion of space created by a few strokes

many uses), namely to convey information, and to stimulate

on paper [...]. He has made an illusion by means of words

feelings and attitudes in the hearer. The leading questions

[...]. But what he creates is not an arrangement of words, for

of poetry criticism, therefore, must be: What is the poet try-

words are only his materials, out of which he makes his poetic



elements. [...] The poet’s business is to create the appearance

we can experience directly), we do not yet know how all our

of “experiences,” the semblance of events lived and felt, and

experiences connect. I cannot know that the man I met this

to organise them so they constitute a purely and completely

afternoon will turn out to be the love of my life. In fact, it is

experienced reality, a piece of virtual life’ (FF 211-212). This,

possible that I hardly noticed him or heartily disliked him on

then, is the artistic import and primary illusion of the liter-

our first meeting. It is only many years from now that this af-

ary arts: they express the experience of life entirely felt. To

ternoon will take on the form of “the afternoon I met my fu-

do this, the literary artist uses words just like the visual art-

ture husband”. It is only with hindsight that we see connec-

ist uses lines and colours. As we stressed earlier, the work of

tions, reasons, or larger biographical narratives. It is only near

art is a total reference and none of its elements has mean-

the end of a life, or after a considerable part of life has been

ing outside of the total reference. This applies equally to the

lived, that a person can look back upon that life and write a

words used in a work of literature. It is obviously true that all

coherent (auto)biographical narrative. ‘Past experience, as we

the words used also have meaning outside the literary work:

remember it, takes on form and character, shows us persons

this is the meaning (or the meanings) we can find in the dic-

instead of vague presences and their utterances, and modi-

tionary. But outside of the literary work the words have none

fies our impressions by knowledge of things that came after,

of the import they have within it: a dictionary can tell us what

things that change one’s spontaneous evaluation. Memory is

a word means in general discourse, but it can never explain

the great organiser of consciousness. [...] It is the real maker

how the word functions and which feelings it conveys in the

of history – not recorded history, but the sense of history it-

fabric of a specific work of literature. And in that sense the

self, the recognition of the past as a completely established

words do indeed lose their (work-specific) meaning or import

(though not completely known) fabric of events, continuous

outside the total reference of the work.

in space and time, and causally connected throughout’ (FF

But we must explain how literature goes about creating vir-

262-263). This also implies that the past tense enables us to

tual life. How does it create the felt experience of life entirely

reflect upon history, because we can only evaluate events if

lived? Several aspects come into play and with regard to nar-

we have an overview of the entire fabric in which they are

rative prose, and especially the novel, the element of tense

integrated. The past tense also helps create a sense of dis-

is paramount. Novels are usually written in the past tense

tance which is crucial to the aesthetic experience: it conjures

because this is the tense of memory. If a novel is to tell a life

up the past, and in the case of the novel the virtual life that

or to tell a series of events, it must construct a history. In

is being offered for our perception, as a whole: ‘the mode in

this, the novel resembles memory: it endeavours to create

which events appear is the mode of completed experience,

‘a perception of the whole history as a fabric of contributive

i.e. of the past. This explains why the normal tense of literary

events. Actual experience has no such closed form’ (FF 262).

narration is the past tense’ (FF 264).

When we experience the present (and the present is really all

In a work of literature, as in any other work of art, life is



presented in an enclosed form that is not coextensive with

to switch the reader’s or hearer’s attitude from conversational

the real world in which we live. The novel is fiction and the

interest to literary interest, i.e. from actuality to fiction’ (FF

narrative presentation is a framing device that makes clear

213) so that ‘the reader is confronted at once with a virtual

that what is presented is not a real event but a virtual event.

order of experiences’ (FF 214). It is common knowledge that

‘Literary events are made, not reported, just as portraits are

lovers of literature will often read the first line of a novel

painted, not born and raised’ (FF 257). This element of fram-

before purchasing it. This makes perfect sense: if the first

ing should be well understood. It refers exclusively to the fact

line does not draw one into the fabric of the virtual world

that the world represented in a work of art is not an exten-

presented in the novel, one is not likely to persevere for the

sion of the real world. So the frame that cuts a work of art off

many following pages. A particularly fine example of a first

from the real world is the very fact of its being a work of art. This

line that immediately establishes an entire fictional world

applies equally to all the arts. The room depicted in a paint-

can be found in Virginia Woolf’s great modernist novel Mrs

ing is not an extension of the room in the museum where

Dalloway (1925): ‘Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers

the picture is hung. The painting is framed not because there

herself.’ This sentence does many things at once. By using a

happens to be a wooden frame around it but because it cre-

passive construction in the past tense, the events are imme-

ates a virtual space in itself and all of its own. Similarly, the

diately framed at a distance. The elegance of the short sen-

virtual space created by dancers on a stage is not coextensive

tence gives the illusion of something entirely self-contained:

with the space of the spectators in the theatre. As Langer

it is a marvel of concise expression. It also gives one a feeling

points out (and as we shall discuss at greater length in Chap-

of who this Mrs Dalloway is, for there is a sense of decisive-

ter Three), the dance creates a relation of forces in which the

ness in the utterance. Even in the passive she seems to speak

dancers seem to magnetise and attract each other: a virtual

with conviction. She is mistress of the house, something

space with no ties to the surrounding world (FF 175-176). So

which is also made clear by referring to her formally as “Mrs

framing has nothing whatsoever to do with the presence or

Dalloway,” although we will presently get to know her more

absence of an actual frame around the work of art. Simply

intimately as Clarissa. The sentence is at once distanced

by being presented as a work of art, namely something ficti-

and engaged with its subject. And it immediately propels us

tious, a virtual reality, the work of art is framed, cut off from

into the narrative for the use of the definite article to refer to

the everyday. So we may say that the frame is the fictional

“the” flowers implies that everyone in the virtual world of the

character of the work. Michael Polanyi, speaking of framing

novel knows which flowers are referred to, that there is a very

in literature, says that ‘the frame and the story embody each

specific reason for buying the flowers, and that this reason

other’ (Polanyi and Prosch 1975: 87): the work is framed by

is known to all relevant parties in the virtual world. So we

virtue of its being a virtual presentation.

are alerted to the fact that we are about to find out what the

Framing starts with the very first line of the work, ‘which has

flowers are for, why they are needed, and why Mrs Dalloway



announces so decidedly that she will get them herself. Final-

is successful we enter into it and imaginatively supplement

ly, and most brilliantly, the sentence encompasses the entire

other features. But even in our mind there is never an entire-

scope of the novel, for much of the subsequent life in the

ly detailed picture of the virtual world: we are happy to have

novel will consist in a stream of consciousness presentation

an overall sense or feel of the place. Once we have entered

of Clarissa Dalloway’s impressions, feelings, and thoughts as

into the novel, the fabric of its virtual world seems to weave

she journeys through London to get the flowers in question.

itself. That is why it was so apt of Clive Barker to situate the

Interestingly, once the virtual world of a novel is created, the

fantastical parallel world of his novel Weaveworld (1987) in

author need not go into detail about its individual proper-

the images depicted in the fabric of a carpet: the world he

ties. The reader will supply much of the material that is not

creates is embedded in an actual tapestry that can be read as

explicitly mentioned. Many novels do not bother to give us a

a metaphor for the creative act itself.

detailed outline of the scenery through which the characters

The fabric of the virtual world must be successfully created

move and a novel does not lose its vividness if we as read-

or the novel fails to capture our imagination. And once it

ers are not familiar with the detailed geography of the city in

is created it is not easy to isolate elements from the fabric

which it is set. Similarly, novels rarely elaborate on the furni-

without losing their artistic or emotive import. That is why,

ture, curtains, wallpaper, or other decorative aspects of each

when we look up a favourite passage in a novel, it sometimes

and every room the characters enter. Such details are only

seems colourless and unconvincing when read in isolation.

supplied when they are necessary for the fabric of the virtual

What seemed imaginative, lively, and highly original on the

world. Once the sense of life has been created, the reader’s

first reading, may even seem pedestrian on rereading. The

imagination will fill in the gaps. This means that no two read-

reason for this is that our first reading was embedded in our

ers will read exactly the same novel. But that is no matter, for

experience of the entire virtual world. The bare words were

all the details that do matter are mentioned. We may ad lib

doubly enhanced on that occasion: they were enhanced by

the rest at will. This is especially important in relation to the

their inclusion in the work of art made with words and by

more fantastical genres in literature such as fantasy or sci-

our engagement with the virtual world thus created. When

ence fiction. Authors of such literature often take time to de-

we reread such a passage or sentence in isolation, we are

scribe the scenery of, for example, an exotic planet on which

often confronted simply with the words. We often have simi-

the action is situated, but they too are not able to go into ex-

lar experiences with photographs. We take photographs to

haustive detail about the properties of the virtual world they

memorise a special occasion, special people, or the flavour of

create. But the illusion works as long as the author offers the

a place. Photographs are meant to capture the moment. But

salient features that make the scene, and therefore the sense

looking at them some time later we are often left with simply

of life, come alive. The elements they offer suggest a vital

the buildings, the surroundings, and the people in them. The

pattern of what the virtual world is like and if the suggestion

moment is lost to us and the photograph becomes merely



anecdotal. In fact, a good poem, a piece of music, or another

The life expressed in art is virtual, which means that a work

work of art is more likely to trigger in us the sentiment ex-

of art will always be a work of fiction. This is intrinsically

perienced on that specific occasion than a photograph that

linked to its framed nature, which cuts it off from the realm

leaves us feeling less than what it shows. Works of art that

of actual everyday life. So art is a fictional symbolic repre-

are unrelated to the memorialised event can bring back the

sentation of the felt experience of life that is (an apparition)

feel of the moment because they are works of the imagina-

presented to our perception. Turning at last to Nussbaum,

tion that offer us symbols of feeling. They succeed because

with whom we still have something of a philosophical quar-

they, unlike the photograph, create a virtual experience that

rel to resolve, we find that Nussbaum has very little time

is discontinuous with the realm of everyday life and evokes

for Langer’s theory of art. In Upheavals of Thought (2001) she

the feeling apart from the anecdotal event. That, incidentally,

dismisses it because she feels it rests on what she consid-

is probably also the reason why art can soothe and calm us:

ers to be a simplistic theory of the emotions that fails to see

not because art has some cathartic effect (as the aristotelians

emotions as intentional. According to Nussbaum, Langer

and pragmatists would claim) but because it envelops us in

sees emotions as immediate and unreflected reactions to

another reality, a virtual world in which our actual life is mo-

outward impulses whereas Nussbaum has convincingly ar-

mentarily suspended. Art does not resolve our emotions, its

gued that there is an evaluative moment in all emotions and

illusions give us temporary relief from our emotions by invit-

that emotions are therefore never entirely “expressive” in an

ing us to direct our complete attention and sense of felt life

unmediated way. But even if we were to accept this criticism

towards the logical expression of feeling in the forms of the

that does not mean that we should reject Langer’s theory of

work. Harold Bloom reports that during the week following

art. In fact, we might want to try and adjust it and introduce

the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade

an intentional theory of the emotions, such as Nussbaum’s,

Center in New York he ‘taught scheduled classes on Wallace

into it. It then becomes clear that such an operation would

Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop, on Shakespeare’s early come-

not invalidate or even change Langer’s theory of art. Whether

dies, and on the Odyssey. I cannot know whether I helped my

emotions are conceived of as intentional or not does not

students at all, but I momentarily held off my own trauma’

necessarily affect their relationship with the forms we create

(Bloom 2002: 3). Reading literature did not cathartically re-

to express them since Langer holds that art is never directly

solve or heal trauma but kept it at bay.

expressive of emotions. Whether an emotion is understood as intentional or not has nothing to do with the legitimacy

Against Form

of the claim that feeling is expressed in expressive forms. So

Let us summarise the Langerian insights into art we have

we could (if we were to pursue the issue) accept Nussbaum’s

gained. According to Langer, art is expressive form, a logical

criticism of Langer’s theory of the emotions and still stand by

symbol of the felt experience of life. But that is not enough.

Langer’s theory of art.



But Nussbaum is also critical of Langer because she is one of

But this is of course the issue that concerns Nussbaum most:

a series of ‘writers on art who are lovers of music and wish

following a tradition that she traces back to Aristotle, Nuss-

to give music a special place among the arts’ (Nussbaum

baum claims that the issues of citizenship and ethics that

2001: 261). But surely, if it is legitimate to take literature as a

she addresses in literature are themselves aesthetic issues

paradigmatic case of the arts, as Nussbaum does, it should

and that an aestheticist approach that focuses on formal

be equally legitimate to favour music in such a way. Besides,

qualities is too reductive. She claims that ‘one of the great-

Langer several times points out that the fact that music is

est contributions of both Plato and Aristotle to aesthetics

often her prime exhibit should not be taken to mean that

was their subtle account of the ways in which literary forms

it is somehow the “highest” form of art or the most pure or

themselves convey a content, a view of what is worth taking

the most representative. All the arts are equally pure in their

seriously, and what the world is like. What could someone

greatest accomplishments and there is no hierarchy of the

mean by saying that these questions are not aesthetic? Such

arts. I feel Nussbaum is so quick to dismiss Langer because

a claim can be seriously supported only by defending a pic-

Langer’s theory of living form is broader in scope than Nuss-

ture of the aesthetic that has had a relatively narrow and

baum’s ideas on literature and because many of Nussbaum’s

recent history in the Western tradition, namely the Kantian

observations can be more adequately explained through

and Post-Kantian formalist tradition, according to which the

Langer’s theory. To look at Nussbaum through Langer is to see

proper aesthetic attitude is one that abstracts of all practical

the limitations of Nussbaum’s approach, for it is clear that

interests’ (Nussbaum 1997: 102). But Nussbaum misrepre-

Nussbaum’s theory of literature does not travel well to the

sent the issue. Langer would never deny that literary form

other arts and that what she says about literature requires

conveys a content that we should take seriously. All content

more grounding in an analysis of literary form. Langer shows

present in a work of art is artistic by being part of the work.

that the “modes of interaction” Nussbaum isolates move us

But Nussbaum would have us believe that the presence of a

not for their discursive content but because they are integrat-

content that deserves to be taken seriously is often in itself

ed parts of the fabric of an illusion of life entirely felt. What

the full measure of a work’s artistic import. And this is sim-

Nussbaum claims literature tells or teaches us could just as

ply claiming too much for seriousness and demanding too

easily be stated, and in fact in a discursively much less am-

little from art. All art is serious, but not all serious things are

biguous way, in a statistic. Nussbaum’s theory does not show

art. Besides, to state that ‘literary forms themselves convey a

why literature needs to be literature because it fails to identify

content’ is a simplistic truism: how could one use words and

anything in literature that makes it specifically literary as

not convey some content? Even nonsense poetry relies on the

opposed to a social pamphlet or an elucidating statistic. She

fact that words, even words randomly put on paper, always

mentions style and form but never explains how they func-

suggest meanings and associations. Nussbaum might just as


well argue that the aesthetic import of Richard Strauss’ opera



Salomé lies in the fact that it narrates how the titular vixen

prejudice against non-discursive thought in her work. That

managed to trade her dance for a baptist’s head. And surely

may be a reason (but surely not the only reason) why she has

the supreme import of Bach’s Matthäus-Passion cannot lie in

tried to establish the reason of emotions in her work, notably

the fact that it reports how a man came to die on a cross.

in Upheavals of Thought. If emotions can be shown to have

The problem is now clear. Kant’s theory of aesthetic judge-

reason, they can be made to work in a discursive way and are

ment, which started the formalist-aestheticist tradition in

thus rescued from the shapeless muddle that we usually call

modern art theory, was primarily devised from the point of

“the emotional”. But even if we grant that this view of the

view of the visual arts and music, whereas the tradition to

emotions is correct, and Nussbaum’s writing on the issue is

which Nussbaum belongs has always been concerned more

persuasive enough, this does not mean that we need to reject

with literature, and especially the example of Greek tragedy.

Langer’s theory. But Nussbaum does so nevertheless. This

Langer shows that it is possible to expand the formalist ap-

rejection is probably due to the fact that Langer accepts that

proach to include all the arts, including literature, while re-

certain facts, feelings, or emotions do not allow of discursive

taining a keen awareness of each art’s individual characteris-

symbolisation. Langer accepts the limits of language and the

tics. But Langer also suggests that any approach that looks at

limits of discursive reason and subsequently suggests that

art discursively runs the risk of agreeing with the early (and

this need not lead us into unreason: it simply opens a new

only the early) Wittgenstein that it is best to keep silent about

perspective on a symbolism that is not discursive but still

matters about which it is not possible to speak. To take dis-

logical. Nussbaum would seem to stick with early Wittgen-

cursive meaning as the standard for evaluating all the arts is

stein: if something is not communicable in discursive lan-

to overlook the fact that some of the arts might be very well

guage (or translatable into it), it is senseless.

suited to express feelings and subtleties that discursive lan-

Nussbaum’s view of art, as represented in her very nar-

guage is often unable to communicate. A discursive approach

row focus on literature (and, one might add, only one very

to art makes two assumptions, namely ‘that language is the

specific kind of literature, namely the realistic novel of the

only means of articulating thought’ and that ‘everything

nineteenth century), is still utilitarian instead of aesthetic.

which is not speakable thought, is feeling’ (PNK 87) about

Basically, Nussbaum still sees art as what Kenneth Burke

which it is best to keep silent. But it is wrong to assume that

once called ‘equipment for living’: aesthetic objects that help

‘all articulate symbolism is discursive’ (PNK 88). Whenever

us cope with the many perplexities of life (Burke 1973: 61).

language encounters feelings or facts that do not allow of

Nussbaum’s work is a latter-day example of the therapeutic

discursive expression another kind of symbolism may be

fallacy that the ultimate legitimacy of art lies in its thera-

sought to express them. Such a symbolism would be a non-

peutic or social benefits. In a sometimes vicious criticism

discursive symbolism as can be found in the arts. Nuss-

of Nussbaum’s work Geoffrey Galt Harpham claims that for

baum’s stress on literature suggests that there is a utilitarian

Nussbaum ‘the specificity of literature as a discourse, an



object of professional study, is almost altogether erased and

which sets his work going, whether it comes suddenly like an

replaced by a conception that treats it bluntly as moral phi-

inspiration or only after much joyless and laboured fuddling,

losophy. [...] Her relation to literature, and to the world of the

is the envisagement of the “commanding form,” the funda-

mind in general, appears to have been based on the most

mental feeling to be explored and expressed’ (FF 389). This

“primitive” of all readerly responses, identification with fic-

‘power of conception’ is what Langer calls ‘genius’ (FF 408).

tional characters’ (Harpham 2002: 59). ‘Literature, she says, is

Genius is a much-maligned word and has become politically

useful because it cultivates emotions, and emotions are use-

incorrect since the triumph of the School of Resentment. It

ful because they foster a human community. The most useful

has also often been used in vague and pseudo-mystical ways.

literature is therefore realistic fiction’ (o.c. 68). Nussbaum’s

But the fact that many people have used a word badly should

social and moral goals may be laudable in themselves, but

not prevent us from using it correctly. There is nothing ob-

they cannot be imposed upon art without reducing art to

scure or arcane about genius: it is simply an artist’s ability

something which it is not. But this, in essence, is the error

to conceive of expressive form. Harold Bloom has called it

that lies at the heart of the therapeutic fallacy and that was

‘fierce originality’ (Bloom 2002: 11). In this, genius is differ-

also exposed by Langer when she pointed out that the ef-

ent from talent. ‘Although some degree of talent is necessary

fect of the pragmatic approach to art ‘is that aesthetic values

if genius is not to be still-born, great artists have not always

must be treated either as direct satisfactions, i.e. pleasure, or

had extraordinary technical ability; they have often struggled

as instrumental values, that is to say, means to fulfilment of

for expression, but the urgency of their ideas caused them to

biological needs. It is either a leisure interest, like sports and

develop every vestige of talent until it rose to their demands.

hobbies, or it is valuable for getting on with the world’s work

[...] But it is a mistake to think genius is complete from the

– strengthening morale, integrating social groups, or vent-

beginning. Talent is much more likely to be so, wherefore the

ing dangerous repressed feelings in a harmless emotional

infant prodigy is a well-known phenomenon. [...] Since ge-

catharsis. But in either case, artistic experience is not essen-

nius is not superlative talent, but the power to conceive invis-

tially different from ordinary physical, practical, and social

ible realities – sentience, vitality, emotion – in a new symbolic

experience’ (FF 35-36).

projection that reveals something of their nature for the first time, it does admit of degrees; and a small amount of genius

Genius Redeemed

is not a rare endowment. Whatever its scope, it is the mark of

A final question must be answered. We have said that art is

the true artist’ (FF 408-409).

expressive form. But what sets the creative dynamic in mo-

Harold Bloom explains that genius is derived from the Latin

tion? How does the artist engage upon a work of art? Cre-

and means ‘to be an attendant spirit for each person or place:

ation starts with an act of conception, namely when an artist

to be either a good or evil genius, and so to be someone who,

conceives of a commanding form. ‘The act of conception

for better or for worse, strongly influences someone else.’ It



is ‘our inclination or natural gift, our inborn intellectual or

the attitude of resentment. To enable communication with-

imaginative power’ (Bloom 2002: 7). Note that there is a dou-

out mental expansion Nussbaum approaches literature as a

ble aspect to genius: it is an inborn power, but at the same

mode of discourse while the New Historicists look at litera-

time it is a power that may influence someone else. This in-

ture as an effect of social forces: it could happen to anyone

fluence is what Harold Bloom calls authority. ‘Genius asserts

and you could discourse on it with everyone. This is equality

authority over me,’ Bloom claims, ‘when I recognise powers

as method.

greater than my own’ (o.c. 3). Quoting Emerson, Bloom writes

Does all this mean that art can have no social or moral ben-

that words of genius are words that ‘sound to you as old as

efits? Not entirely. But it does mean that we must understand

yourself’ (ibid.): we recognise genius when someone says

these benefits properly. Oscar Wilde prefaced his novel The

something about our deepest nature which we felt we always

Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) with a series of aphorisms and

knew but were never able to verbalise. This, too, is put most

one of the most famous states that ‘there is no such thing as

eloquently by Emerson when he writes that ‘in every work of

a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly

genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts: they come

written. That is all’ (Wilde 1991: 129). This is much more than

back to us with a certain alienated majesty’ (quoted in Bloom

a programme for aestheticism: it states the simple truth

2002: 246). By denying greatness and originality the School of

that no art can be successful if it is not successful as form.

Resentment limits human growth and rejects the possibility

It is the forms that allow us to conceive of import, not the

that a mind may be larger than our own and may help ours to

content. Harold Bloom has stated he has grave doubts about

expand through exposure to the expressive forms it creates.

literature’s value as educator since most of the great master-

Harold Bloom was very accurate to speak of resentment in

pieces are not the kinds of books one can read as benevolent

relation to many contemporary critics for there is something

social tracts in the way that Nussbaum reads Dickens. Most

narrow-minded and ungenerous in the inability or unwilling-

great literature is filled with villains and characters with

ness to see greatness anywhere. But as Langer points out, ‘a

grave moral flaws who display all kinds of behaviour that we

critic who cannot be awe-struck is not equal to his material’

might not judge very commendable for everyday use. There

(FF 246): his mind is incapable of imagination, of conceiv-

is dubious morality in much great literature and many great

ing feelings and ideas that he does not yet know. The cruel

literary characters would deserve our moral condemnation

irony of this, of course, is that the social reform that people

if they were real. As Harold Bloom sarcastically remarks, ‘the

like Nussbaum would like to generate through art depends

new commissars tell us that reading good books is bad for

entirely on our imaginative ability to put ourselves in the

the character, which I think is probably true. Reading the very

minds of unknown others. But this requires an expansion of

best writers [...] is not going to make us better citizens. Art is

the mind, of the possibilities of felt experience. There is no

perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who

attitude more pernicious to this generous state of mind than

was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry



is sincere’ (Bloom 1994: 16), a truth to bear in mind when

level [because] the arts we live with – our picture books and

confronting politically correct critics who feel that mere ex-

stories and the music we hear – actually form our emotive

pressiveness makes for good art. They are wrong: real artists

experience. [...] This influence of art on life gives us an indica-

don’t cry, they conceive of expressive forms.

tion why a period of efflorescence in the arts is apt to lead

What, then, is literature, or art in general, for? As Harold

a cultural advance: it formulates a new way of feeling, and

Bloom points out, ‘the true use of Shakespeare or of Cer-

that is the beginning of a cultural age. It suggests another

vantes, of Homer or of Dante, of Chaucer or of Rabelais, is

matter for reflection, too: that a wide neglect of artistic edu-

to augment one’s own growing inner self. [...] All that the

cation is a neglect in the education of feeling. Most people

Western Canon can bring one is the proper use of one’s own

are so imbued with the idea that feeling is a formless total

solitude, that solitude whose final form is one’s confronta-

organic excitement in human beings as in animals, that the

tion with one’s own mortality’ (o.c. 30). ‘What Johnson and

idea of educating feeling, developing its scope and quality,

Woolf after him called the Common Reader [...] does not read

seems odd to them, if not absurd. It is really, I think, at the

for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a

very heart of personal education’ (PA 71-72). In her Philosophi-

solitary existence’ (o.c. 518). The confrontation with great art

cal Sketches Langer adds that art is ‘the spearhead of human

cannot make us better people and it cannot cure social ills,

development, social and individual. The vulgarisation of art is

but it can expand our consciousness, deepen our insight, and

the surest symptom of ethnic decline’ (PS 83-84).

help us reach some kind of wisdom. ‘The question we need to put to any writer must be: does she or he augment our con-

Inventing the Human

sciousness, and how is it done? I find this a rough but effec-

As an example of the way art can help us shape our emotion-

tual test: however I have been entertained, has my awareness

al lives Langer points to Irwin Edman’s suggestion that ‘our

been intensified, my consciousness widened and clarified? If

emotions are largely Shakespeare’s poetry’ (PA 72). This idea

not, then I have encountered talent, not genius. What is best

has recently been elaborated by Harold Bloom in a massive

and oldest in myself has not been activated’ (Bloom 2002: 12).

study of Shakespeare’s work. But the notion that Shakspeare

Langer points to something similar when she writes that art

provided the model for the personality and emotional make-

can help us form and expand our emotional lives. ‘As soon as

up of modern man can be traced at least to Early German Ro-

the natural forms of subjective experience are abstracted to

manticism and the work of Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829) and

the point of symbolic presentation, we can use those forms

Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853), a context which Bloom does not

to imagine feeling and understand its nature. Self-knowledge,

mention but which is worth a detour here because it will take

insight into all phases of life and mind, springs from artistic

us right back to the problems we have been tackling in this

imagination. That is the cognitive value of the arts. But their

chapter. Friedrich Schlegel was probably the quintessential

influence on human life goes deeper than the intellectual

Early Romantic philosopher. His work includes a philosophy



of Romantic irony and fragmentation that often reads like a

Schlegel calls the tendency towards the Absolute within the

manifesto of postmodern sensibilities. Like the other Roman-

finite. This is a rather abstract way of saying that allegories

tics, Schlegel believed that the ultimate foundation of every-

are an attempt to somehow show or capture the Absolute in

thing, which was usually called the Absolute, was unattain-

a finite form. In an allegory we use an image to refer to some-

able. Therefore it became the object of a never-ending search.

thing else. It is an attempt to capture something elusive or

This search was the essence of philosophy, which Schlegel

abstract in an image. So an allegory uses an image of some-

defines as ‘Sehnsucht nach dem Unendlichen’ (Frank 1997: 521)

thing finite to focus on something beyond the finite: ‘Because

or a longing for the infinite. The destination of our longing is

it is ineffable, the highest can only be expressed allegori-

forever beyond reach, it remains a mystery. Because of his in-

cally’ (Frank 1989: 136; Frank 1997: 932). It should therefore

ability to gain access to his essential nature, man is split. Man

come as no surprise when Schlegel writes, in fragment 48 of

is a broken being that feels at once finite and infinite. This

his Ideen (1800), that ‘where philosophy ends, poetry must

double aspect is due to the unattainability of the Absolute:

begin’ (Frank 1997: 944). Poetry or allegory takes over from

we have an essence, a unity, a foundation, but we cannot

philosophy because philosophical reflection falls short of

attain it. Our most fundamental self remains forever alien to

its intended goal, which is to gain insight into the Absolute.

us. We cannot find out what we really are and can therefore

Reading fragment 48 one feels as if one were standing on

never be truly whole. Nevertheless, we feel ourselves whole.

the cross-roads between Langer and Wittgenstein: discursive

We feel or sense the Absolute. But every time we try to grasp

language and rational philosophical reflection fail to express

it, it eludes us. So we are on an infinite quest for insight into

the ineffable, but where Wittgenstein takes his silent leave

the Absolute. During this quest we feel at the same time fi-

and retreats into profound silence, Schlegel and Langer point

nite, namely a corporeal being that is limited and cut off from

towards a different symbolic order, a mode of expression that

the Absolute, and infinite, namely somehow linked to that

allows us to give form to what eludes rational discourse. But

elusive Absolute, attracted to it but never able to take hold of

allegory, which may surely be read here as shorthand for the

it. As a consequence, the subject experiences itself as a mere

arts, is not the only way Schlegel feels we can glimpse some-

fragment. It experiences a feeling of limitation that expresses

thing of the Absolute; there is also the joke, which is the op-

a most distressing truth: ‘dass wir nur ein Stück von uns selbst

posite of allegory. In the joke we actually find a short flash of

sind’ (o.c. 876). The other, missing part is the Absolute.

insight into the Absolute. Where allegory is directed upwards,

This longing for the Absolute which cannot be fulfilled, and

away from the finite and with the gaze fixed upon the beyond

cannot be fulfilled on principle, is expressed in a dialectic or to

of the Absolute, the joke tries to capture the Absolute firmly

and fro between the principles of allegory and the joke. The

within a piece of the finite. The joke is like a flash of insight

dialectical movement between these two principles is what

into the Absolute, like lightning striking into stone (lightning

Schlegel calls irony. Let us first look at allegory, which is what

or ‘Blitz’ was a preferred image of Schlegel’s to characterise



the joke). Jokes are funny because they are contradictory, they

to anything. So we can and will say anything and then sim-

go against logic and common sense. They turn the usual or-

ply deny it. What separates Romantic irony from postmod-

der upside down. In doing so, they illuminate our inner split.

ern irony is a sense of the tragic, of loss, of being bound to

Irony is the attitude man has when he confronts the Abso-

something we cannot attain. For postmodernists it no longer

lute. Fully aware of his lacking self, man mocks both the finite

seems to be tragic that we lack essence. It has simply become

and the infinite. This mockery is irony. Man mocks the finite

a joke. A shallow and hollow joke and a rather petite sort of

because it is always in conflict with itself, a constant chaos of

lightning. Postmodernity is simply irony made easy.

fragments and ever-changing individual positions that never

But now for Shakespeare. Romantic irony is not the everyday

come together in a coherent whole and always remain lack-

irony we use to distance ourselves from people or ideals.

ing in relation to the Absolute. But man also mocks the Abso-

Neither is it the famous Socratic irony that feigns ignorance

lute itself because it is unattainable. To be grasped by human

only to entrap an antagonist in debate. Romantic irony is a

reflection (or philosophy) the Absolute must limit itself (in

higher form of irony that is not even necessarily funny. To

allegory, in the lightning flash of the joke). But in doing so,

Tieck, it is a spirit that penetrates a complete work of litera-

the Absolute is simply not showing itself. Since the Absolute is

ture and both destroys and holds together everything in it.

infinite (and unattainable) no finite form can ever capture it.

Tieck himself has called this spirit an ‘Äthergeist, der [...] über

In showing itself, the Absolute retreats. So all fragments are

dem Ganzen schwebt’ (Frank 1989: 371). This means that irony

in the end revealed to be but failed images of the Absolute.

is not an element in the plot of a novel or play. It is not even

Irony is the tragic consciousness of one’s fragmentary condi-

an attitude of the characters. It might be those things, but it

tion. It is clear that what we have here is an early, and prob-

is essentially more. It is a spirit that pervades the entire work

ably the earliest, systematic description in the modern era of

and that must therefore be ingrained in its very fabric. And

what we have come to call “postmodern irony”. But there is a

that means that irony must be found in language itself. Both

difference, and an important one. Postmodern irony can be a

Schlegel and Novalis have spoken of a ‘Transzendentalpoesie’

very irritating attitude that easily lends itself to smugness. It

in this context, analogous to Kant’s concept of a ‘Transzen-

is often an excuse to not take any position at all. Postmodern

dentalphilosophie’. This is a philosophy that does not seek

irony can never be taken to account for anything because it

to describe what we know but how we know. This was also

never really stands up for anything. This smug irony repre-

the project of Kant’s first critique: to analyse how we gain

sents a shift away from Romantic irony. The Early Romantics

knowledge of the world and describe that epistemological

and Schlegel never denied the existence of the Absolute. They

mechanism. Similarly, transcendental poetry would be a po-

simply believed that it could never be attained. Postmodern

etry that reflects on itself as poetry while it is being written.

irony will usually do away with this belief in the Absolute.

It is a text that announces itself as text. ‘Transzendentalpoesie,’

Since nothing universally applies, we need not truly commit

Schlegel writes, ‘[stellt] in jeder ihrer Darstellungen sich selbst mit



dar’ and is ‘überall zugleich Poesie und Poesie der Poesie’ (o.c. 364).

losopher as Richard Rorty defined an ironist as a person who

It is at once poetry and poetry of poetry. This self-reflexivity

always maintains a distance towards his supposed essence

means that poetry loses its unequivocality and becomes all-

because such essences are never final).

encompassing in its meanings. No single word has one single

Tieck has described this concept of irony in his early essay

meaning anymore.

on Shakespeares Behandlung des Wunderbaren (1793), in which

So Romantic irony for Tieck is a stylistic irony. Robert Minder

he asks how Shakespeare gets us to suspend disbelief in the

has called it ‘la grâce tieckienne’ (o.c. 371). It is to be found in

face of the many wondrous and surreal things that happen

the way Tieck treats his language and can be gleaned only

in his plays. According to Tieck, Shakespeare succeeds by

indirectly, in the lightness of phrasing, in the inconsistent

making sure that the attention of the spectator can never

way characters are developed, and in the loose way in which

stay completely focused on one element. He constantly

drama is motivated. Negatively put, this means that Tieck’s

shifts from humour to terror, from horror to drama and back

irony can be seen in the fact that there is something light

to comedy, piling up stylistic and dramatic contrasts in such

and ephemeral in his phrasing, that his characters act in

a way that the mind is overwhelmed by the onslaught of

inconsistent and implausible ways, and that there is no firm

shifting moods and perspectives. There is such a clash of op-

causal relation between dramatic events, so that these events

posites, and it is sustained at such a level and for such a long

might at some times seem somewhat absurd or bizarre. The

time, that the mind simply starts to feel exhausted and is no

Romantics believed that this lack of consistency, this free-

longer able to find any reason or rationality in the proceed-

dom from solid character, was in fact the true freedom of

ings. This leaves the mind with only one option: to sit back

human nature. Why, after all, should man have substance?

and surrender wholly to the illusion of the play. To put it un-

What if the real freedom of man lies in the fact that he does

kindly, and profoundly unjustly, Shakespeare might be said

not have substance? This insight, which reads thoroughly

to beat his audience into submission by the sheer power of

postmodern to our eyes, was neatly expressed by Schelling

his mercurial imagination shooting all over the place. Inter-

in a 1820/21 lecture where he describes human subjectivity

estingly, Tieck believes that Shakespeare can do this because

as a ‘durch alles gehen und nichts sein, nämlich nicht so sein, dass

the human mind itself is very susceptible to this method.

es nicht auch anders sein könnte’ (o.c. 372). To be human is es-

The mind of man is nimble. It has no essence and is there-

sentially never to exist in such a way that existence could not

fore plastic. What we have here, is the un-essentialist Ro-

be different. In man, nothing is determined and all is possible

mantic view of the subject that we found in Schelling’s state-

because, as Novalis once wrote, ‘jeder Mensch ist ohne Maass

ment. For man, all is possible. So man is also receptive to a

veränderlich’ (Frank 1985: 23): there is no limit to our mutabil-

poetry (which stands pars pro toto for all the arts) in which

ity. Since the Early Romantics this lack of essence has been

everything is possible, even the wondrous and supernatural.

linked to the concept of irony (and as we saw, as recent a phi-

Romantic irony, in the sense of Tieck, but also in the sense



of Schlegel, expresses human nature through its agile to and

a ‘naturalistic unreality’ (o.c. 12). As Bloom points out, ‘the

fro between extremes of emotion and experience without

reading of character appears infinite in Shakespeare’ (Bloom

ever attaining an essence or an end. Of Tieck’s own literary

1994: 53) and ‘no other writer, before or since Shakespeare,

characters Manfred Frank has written that they are driven

has accomplished so well the virtual miracle of creating ut-

by an ‘inner Void’ (Frank 1989: 386). This void is the essence

terly different yet self-consistent voices for his more than

of Romantic subjectivity. If one writes for the stage, this sub-

one hundred major characters and many hundreds of highly

jectivity is expressed through sheer inconsistency. This was

distinctive minor personages’ (Bloom 1998: xix). Shakespeare

also the view held by Novalis, who demanded ‘Mannigfaltig-

achieved this through what Bloom calls ‘a psychology of

keit in der Darstellung von Menschen,’ and especially ‘nur keine

mutability’ that ‘originates the depiction of self-change on

Puppen, keine sogenannten Charaktere – lebendige, bizarre, inkon-

the basis of self-overhearing [...]. We all of us go around now

sequente, bunte Welt. Je bunteres Leben, je besser’ (ibid.).

talking to ourselves endlessly, overhearing what we say, then

This mercurial man, leaping from either extreme of the emo-

pondering and acting upon what we have learned’ (Bloom

tional gamut to the other and responsive to sudden violent

1994: 48).

swings in mood and perception, was invented by William

Through this self-discovery through speech Shakespeare’s

Shakespeare. Modern man, ironic and sceptical, forever

characters develop to a point beyond our grasp. They create

torn by the question whether to act or not to act, is Hamlet,

themselves through the art of speech and become larger

Prince of Denmark. ‘Even at its darkest,’ Bloom writes, ‘Ham-

than ordinary life. ‘Hamlet baffles us by altering with nearly

let’s grief has something tentative in it. “Hesitant mourning”

every phrase he utters’ (Bloom 1998: 410). In a similar way,

is almost an oxymoron; still, Hamlet’s quintessence is never

all of Shakespeare’s characters ‘become free artists of them-

to be wholly committed to any stance or attitude, any mis-

selves, which means that they are free to write themselves,

sion, or indeed to anything at all. His language reveals this

to will changes in the self. Overhearing their own speeches

throughout, no other character in all of literature changes

and pondering those expressions, they change and go on to

his verbal decorum so rapidly. He has no center: [...] Hamlet

contemplate an otherness in the self, or the possibility of

is too intelligent to be at one with any role’ (Bloom 1998:

such otherness’ (Bloom 1994: 70). This is the expansiveness

406). Hamlet’s character is ‘a dance of contraries’ (o.c. 407).

of Shakespearean character that makes the Bard, in Bloom’s

To him, ‘the self is an abyss, the chaos of virtual nothing-

view, the author of modern man. ‘Shakespeare so opens

ness’ (o.c. 5). Bloom argues that Shakespeare, in inventing

his characters to multiple perspectives that they become

Hamlet, ‘invented the human as we continue to know it’ (o.c.

analytical instruments for judging you. If you are a moral-

xx). But the argument should not be limited to the gloomy

ist, Falstaff outrages you; if you are rancid, Rosalind exposes

prince of Elsinore. All of Shakespeare’s great characters are

you; if you are dogmatic, Hamlet evades you forever. And if

constructed from ‘seeming contradictions’ that give them

you are an explainer, the great Shakespearean villains will



cause you to despair. Iago, Edmund, and MacBeth are not

opaque philosophy of human reflection in his Fichte-Studien

motiveless; they overflow with motives, most of which they

(1795/96). Novalis (1772-1801) asks how knowledge of the elu-

invent or imagine for themselves. [...] The most bewildering

sive Absolute, and of our truest self, is possible. As starting

of Shakespearean achievements is to have suggested more

point he takes the notion of “reflection” and takes it literally

contexts for explaining us than we are capable of supplying

to mean a mirror image. If we look in a mirror, we see every-

for explaining his characters’ (o.c. 64). Shakespeare robs us

thing reversed: left becomes right and everything is turned.

of the possibility to think ourselves original in our concept

But we also think of our self-consciousness as reflection,

of our self. Shakespeare, as Camille Paglia has pointed out,

namely as self-reflection, a reflection upon our own thoughts

‘is the first to reflect upon the fluid nature of modern gender

and actions. So Novalis asks if a similar reversal of images

and identity’ (Paglia 1991: 197) and many of his comedies

also applies there. And it does. If we try to fathom the Ab-

evolve around mistaken identities with characters dressing

solute (or ourselves) through reflection, and this obviously

up as persons of the opposite sex. This fluidity, blurring the

means through the activity of philosophy, we constantly feel

lines of fixed personality, infects Shakespeare’s language,

that we are missing the Absolute. It eludes us and cannot

teeming with mercurial metaphors that ‘spill from line to

be attained. We have a feeling (‘Gefühl’) of what the Absolute

line, abundant, florid, illogical. [...] Shakespeare’s metaphors,

might be, but when we try to capture this feeling in (discur-

like his sexual personae, flicker through a rolling stream of

sive) thought, ‘der Geist des Gefühls ist da heraus’ (Frank 1997:

development and process. Nothing in Shakespeare stays the

817). As Nietzsche would later write in Die fröhliche Wissen-

same for long. [...] Shakespeare is an alchemist. In his treat-

schaft (1882), thoughts are mere shadows of our perceptions,

ment of sex and personality, Shakespeare is a shape-shifter

darker, emptier and simpler (‘Gedanken sind die Schatten un-

and master of transformations’ (o.c. 197-198).

serer Empfindungen, – immer dunkler, leerer, einfacher, als diese’;

The constant change in self, Hamlet’s ‘metamorphic nature’

Nietzsche 1999b: 502). But if rational reflection results in a re-

(Bloom 1998: 430), makes it ‘very difficult to generalize about

flection, namely a reversal of the true image, then reflection

Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its

must also have the ability to reflect this reflection, to turn

opposite’ (o.c. 409). This has something of the to and fro that

it again and put it right. This would be a double reflection

marks the infinite Romantic consciousness that Schelling

that might be called self-reflection, namely a reflection upon

described as anti-essentialist openness. This becomes espe-

and of the reflection that happens in reflection. The inverted

cially clear in light of Bloom’s remark that ‘Hamlet’s players

image in a mirror is reverted again when reflected in another

hold the mirror up to nature, but Shakespeare’s is a mirror

mirror. If we seem to lose track of the Absolute in reflection,

within a mirror, and both are mirrors with many voices’

because we only get an inverted and therefore unreal image

(o.c. 15). The imagery of mirrors, which Bloom borrows from

of it, then the reflection of reflection might put the authentic

Shakespeare, can serve as a direct link to Novalis’ rather

image of the Absolute right again. If reflection is a movement


away from the Absolute towards a false image, then double

Chapter Two

reflection can be experienced as a movement of the Absolute towards us, opening and presenting itself in its true form. But this play of reflections is too easy an answer to our predicament. It would border on sophistry to make things look so easy. Novalis is aware of this and therefore denies that double reflection can give us insight into the Absolute. What the double reflection does do, however, is make us acutely aware of the falseness of the image captured in reflection (in thought, in philosophy). Our perceived knowledge at-


tained through reflection is unmasked as false knowledge. So double reflection does not lead to insight in the Absolute, but to a knowing-of-not-knowing, a docta ignorantia! This is the spirit of Romanticism: there is something within us that 120

is beyond our comprehension and that can only be traced,


as Schlegel would say, through fragments. The Absolute is

One of the most important relationships in an artist’s life

larger than we could ever be. It is the same expansiveness

is that between himself and the artworld: the international

of the human soul that makes Shakespeare’s characters so

network of artists, curators, critics, and collectors who shape

much larger than us, but at the same time so close to us. It

the public face of the cultural realm. It is the curators, critics,

is in Shakespeare that we first find this infinity within that

and collectors who decide who’s hot and who’s not, which

the Romantics described as the source of our infinite Sehn-

works will be shown, and what will be sold. On a deeper level

sucht. It has been with us ever since and has shaped the way

the artworld probably also decides to a certain degree what

we think about ourselves. In fact, the postmodern condition

kind of art can be made at a given time. Obviously, this does

was invented by Shakespeare and is modelled on Hamlet. So

not mean the artworld decides which works of art will or

Shakespeare’s is a strong case indeed to show how art can

will not be made; it means that the artworld to a large extent

shape our emotional and spiritual lives.

decides what kind of art will be taken seriously at a given moment. Needless to say, the artworld is not a monolithic thing: there are many subcultures in the artworld. And the artworld is also often wrong in retrospect. The fact that the work of the Impressionists was jeered at and went unrecognised at first shows how wrong the artworld can be. It also shows

that a group of artists can form a subcultural artworld that

35) Danto is careful to speak of an interesting perceptual dif-

turns out to be more important than the dominant artworld.

ference because as he knows there were differences between

At least two lessons can be learned from this. First, an artist

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes and the real items one could buy in the

must always make the kind of art he believes in. No amount

supermarket. Not only were Warhol’s boxes handmade, they

of contemporary success or lack of it can say anything about

were also slightly smaller in size than the real Brillo boxes.

the value or importance of your work in the long run. Second,

So there are perceptual differences between art and real-

whether he likes it or not, every artist will have some kind

ity, but for Danto these differences are not “interesting” in a

of relationship with the artworld, even if it is simple flat-out

perceptual way, although they are of huge importance on a

rejection. So it is to the artworld and its dynamics that we

conceptual level. In fact, we will see that Danto so overvalues

now turn.

their conceptual importance that he becomes blind to such perceptual and material differences as are readily at hand in


Art Criticism After the End of Art

a given work of art.

In 1984 Arthur C. Danto made a bizarre claim about what he

Danto takes great pains to explain why Warhol’s Brillo Boxes

called the end of art. The end of art as Danto saw it has often

are a historical watershed. ‘Until the twentieth century it was

been misunderstood. Danto did not mean that no more art

tacitly believed that works of art were always identifiable as

would be made in the future. Nor was his claim about the

such. The philosophical problem now is to explain why they

end of art meant as a critical judgement on the art of the pe-

are works of art. With Warhol it becomes clear that there is

riod. Danto did not claim that contemporary art was so abys-

no special way a work of art must be’ (ibid.). For centuries

mally bad that he was witnessing something like the end of

this had been different. Danto believes that the ending nar-

art in the sense of the end of good art. Danto’s claim pointed

rative about art was begun around 1400, with the dawn of the

at an evolution within the narratives about art. Something

Renaissance. For centuries afterwards the narrative about

about the way we think and talk about art had so profoundly

art had to do with mimesis: art was judged on its ability to

changed that Danto believed it signalled the end of an era.

represent reality. Representational fidelity of some kind was

Danto was very specific about the date and place the era

the norm and art was felt to progress in its increasing abil-

ended: it was in Andy Warhol’s exhibition of his Brillo Boxes

ity to represent the world in ever more accurate ways. This

at the Stable Gallery in 1964. Warhol’s exhibition made it

is ‘the progressive model of art history’ (PDA 86) that starts,

clear that henceforth it was no longer possible to distinguish

for Danto, with Vasari. In the nineteenth century another

works of art from other objects. Warhol’s exhibition raised a

narrative developed out of this: the story of artistic Modern-

fundamental question: ‘what makes the difference between

ism. For Danto, the invention of the cinema, with its ability

a work of art and something not a work of art when there is

to represent movement with the highest representational

no interesting perceptual difference between them?’ (AEA

fidelity, was crucial in making artists abandon representa-



tion and raise ‘the question of what could be left for them to

itself is gained, it becomes pointless to pursue any further

do, now that the torch had, as it were, been taken up by other

the search for insight into art’s essence.

technologies’ (PDA 100). Most art histories put this shift at a

For Danto, the end of art ‘lies in the Age of Manifestos being

much earlier date, with the invention of photography, but the

over because the underlying premiss of manifesto-driven art

outcome was the same either way: the practice of painting

is philosophically indefensible. A manifesto singles out the

changed fundamentally. Now that photography and cinema

art it justifies as the true and only art, as if the movement it

had taken over the representational function, painting had

expresses had made the philosophical discovery of what art

to look for something else to do because it simply could not

essentially is. But the true philosophical discovery, I think, is

compete with the new media’s representational fidelity. With

that there really is no art more true than any other, and that

Modernism art became self-referential: ‘the whole main point

there is no one way art has to be: all art is equally and indif-

of art in our century was to pursue the question of its own

ferently art’ (AEA 34). With the end of art we have entered a

identity while rejecting all available answers as insufficiently

new era which Danto calls the Post-Historical era. From 1400

general’ (PDA 110). Modernism was what Danto calls the Age

until Modernism we lived in the historical era, at least in

of the Manifesto: innumerable manifestos were written about

artistic terms, because there was a belief in progress. In the

the one true art. Every artistic movement within Modernism

Renaissance and afterwards artists believed they were getting

believed it held the key to what art really was. And no move-

better and better at representing reality. In Modernism, with

ment agreed with any other about the nature of art’s essence.

its many manifestos, every avant-garde believed it was some-

By consequence, ‘the history of art simply seemed to be the

how progressing towards aesthetic truth, the ultimate pure

history of discontinuities’ (PDA 108), an endless parade of

and true essence of art. Such progress is no longer possible in

conflicting models without any progressive narrative thread.

the Post-Historical era. Therefore we have reached the end of

What Warhol showed, was that all these discontinuous ap-

history, which ‘means that there can be no historical direc-

proaches to art had somehow missed the point: what art was

tion art can take from this point on’ (AEA 36). If the historical

actually about was the attainment of consciousness of itself as

era was about drawing lines between what is and what is

art. This is an approach to art and history that Danto borrows

not (true or pure) art, no such lines can be drawn in the Post-

from Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807), which sees

Historical era. ‘To say that history is over is to say that there

history as the gradual development of Spirit (which is every-

is no longer a pale of history for works of art to fall outside of.

thing) towards total self-knowledge. In his highly tendentious

Everything is possible. Anything can be art. And, because the

view of the history of art, which is made to fit the Hegelian

present situation is essentially unstructured, one can no lon-

model, Danto sees this process at work, culminating in War-

ger fit a master narrative to it’ (AEA 114). Since the 1960s we

hol, whose art is about nothing more than itself (at least in

have learned to accept everything as art.

Danto’s eyes). Once the insight that art is really just about

For the art critic the Post-Historical condition is somewhat



perplexing for he is confronted with a relativism in art that

of abstract art this presentation of his ideas is reductive and

seems to make any kind of standards-based criticism diffi-

highly tendentious. To understand this we must consider the

cult. Danto speaks of an ‘unforgiving sort of relativism’ with

role of feeling in Kant’s aesthetics. For Kant, all our informa-

which ‘the concept of quality became odious and chauvinist.

tion about the world comes from our senses. Sensory input

[...] In candour, [...] it would be altogether wonderful if one

is next processed in the mind, where it is ordered according

could turn to aesthetics as a discipline for guidance out of

to a set of twelve categories that shape the stream of sensory

the chaos’ (AEA 94). However, a theory of art criticism has be-

information into coherent wholes. Through this process,

come very difficult to obtain since the end of history means

which is an interplay between sensory experience and the

that ‘a philosophical definition of art must be compatible

analytical workings of the mind, an image of the world or

with every kind and order of art – with the pure art of Rein-

representation (Vorstellung) comes about. This representation

hardt, but also with illustrative and decorative, figurative and

is not in itself beautiful or ugly, it is simply the way the world

abstract, ancient and modern, Eastern and Western, primi-

is presented to our senses (at this point, the reader might

tive and nonprimitive art, much as these may differ from one

want to recall Langer’s similar concept of intuition).

another. A philosophical definition has to capture everything

To determine whether a representation is beautiful or not we

and so can exclude nothing’ (AEA 36). According to Danto, the

must submit it to our sense of pleasure or displeasure: ‘Hier

Kantian paradigm is no longer a suitable candidate for such

wird die Vorstellung gänzlich auf das Subjekt, und zwar auf das

criticism. ‘The mistake of Kantian art criticism is that it seg-

Lebensgefühl desselben, unter dem Namen des Gefühls der Lust

regates form from content’ (AEA 98). But this is a wrong read-

oder Unlust, bezogen’ (KdU §1). In other words, the aesthetic

ing of Kant based on a common misunderstanding of the Kri-

judgement is not cognitive, it is about how we feel and expe-

tik der Urteilskraft (1790). Danto takes issue with Kant’s notion

rience a representation. The aesthetic judgement expresses

of disinterestedness, the idea that we should judge beauty ‘ohne

how the subject feels itself while perceiving a representation:

alles Interesse’ (KdU §2). He takes Kant to mean that disinter-

it is an experience ‘in der das Subjekt [...] sich selbst fühlt’ (ibid.).

estedness implies that we must void ourselves of feeling and

This means that the representation or Vorstellung is submit-

become neutered perceivers who simply register forms. Read

ted to the felt experience or ‘Lebensgefühl’ of the subject. If the

in this way, and the reading is quite common among Kant’s

representation kindles a pleasurable felt experience, it may

critics, Kant’s aesthetics becomes reductively formalist and is

be called beautiful, if not, it may be called ugly. But Kant goes

merely about registering relations between shapes and forms.

on to say that for such a judgement to be pure it must be dis-

In this way, Kant’s work is read as essentially a philosophy of

interested. This means that the aesthetic judgement must be

abstract art: the sheer play of forms in space or on a plane.

wholly aesthetic: it must consider only the way the representa-

Something that you can apply to Mondriaan, but to not much

tion we perceive engages our felt experience. We must not be

else. But while Kant’s philosophy does allow of a philosophy

motivated in our judgement by any kind of extra-aesthetic



considerations, be they practical, moral, financial, or of any

or some abstract graph). It is simply erroneous to think that

other kind. The aesthetic judgement must be exclusively

Kant reduces all our perceptions to a set of geometric shapes

concerned with the aesthetic, namely perception and how this

with colours painted in. The things we perceive are not sche-

perception makes us feel. Disinterestedness implies that no

matic forms but landscapes, birds and birdsong, paintings,

non-aesthetic issues may come into play. This does indeed

boys and girls, a sunset, and so on. A Kantian perceiver does

sound like a formalist aesthetic: it is concerned only with

not reduce these objects to abstract geometric schemata, he

the way perceived shapes and forms address our sense of

judges them as they are. All these things are in themselves

felt self. But two observations should be made to qualify this

shapes and forms. The whole of their perceptual properties

statement. First, Kant does not limit perceived shapes and

is what constitutes their form. When looking at a red rose

forms to geometrical shapes and forms (as common use of the

a Kantian does not see an irregular globe-like mass with

words shapes and forms might lead us to suppose); perceived

curved lines and frilly borders, all of it dyed in reddish hue; a

shapes and forms really encompass all the sensory data we en-

Kantian simply sees a rose. The rose is itself the form. Simi-

counter. Hence, a sound or a smell is also a perceived shape

larly, a Kantian perceiver does not see identical schemata of

or form. Second, Kant’s approach may sound distanced and

people walk around in the street as if they were a bunch of

formalist, but it is by no means void of feeling. On the con-

clones; he sees actual individual people. But to judge whether

trary, disinterestedness means that there should only be feel-

these people are beautiful he must make abstraction of his

ing, but feeling about the forms and shapes perceived. Beauty

own extra-aesthetic feelings about these people and merely

is about what pleases us in perception.

judge their perceptual properties as a unitary form. That is

But Danto’s claim was not about the segregation of form and

to say, for example, that a Kantian will have to make abstrac-

feeling in Kantian aesthetics but about the segregation of

tion of his personal dislike for his neighbour if he wants to

form and content. Danto might well grant the central role of

judge whether his neighbour is beautiful. The content of the

feeling in Kant’s aesthetics and still hold that any amount of

neighbour (“who he is” as an individual) is not segregated

feeling in judgement does not bestow content upon form. So

from his form, it is simply the perceiver’s personal interest

our argument does not really answer Danto’s objection at all,

that is segregated from his aesthetic judgement. Kant himself

although it does point us in the right direction. The problem

states the point very clearly: ‘If someone asks me whether

is that Danto presupposes that form itself cannot be content.

I find the palace that I see before me beautiful, I may well

And this is really the crucial issue, for a Kantian may very

say that I don’t like that sort of thing, which is made merely

well hold that it is. Kant’s third critique is not a philosophy

to be gaped at, or, [...] I might even vilify the vanity of the

of art but an extension of Kant’s theory of perception. What

great who waste the sweat of the people on such superfluous

we perceive is never some abstract shape (except, of course,

things [...]. All of this might be conceded to me and approved;

if the object under consideration is itself an abstract painting

but that is not what is at issue here. One only wants to know



whether the mere representation of the object is accompa-

sensory experience with the innate categories of the mind.

nied with satisfaction in me’ (KdU §2; Guyer 2005: 557).

The trouble with this view, however, is the question of how

Obviously, Kant’s theory of beauty has many complexities

you bring the two together: where do senses and mind meet?

and raises many further difficulties that cannot be addressed

The third critique tried to bridge the gap in “reflecting judge-

here. What is important for us, however, is to make clear that

ment,” which comes about when the forms of perception and

a Kantian aesthetic does not preclude feeling or content,

the categories of the mind are allowed free play among each

which renders calling it “formalist” rather tricky and mislead-

other in the construction of perception. The power of judge-

ing. Kantian philosophy suggests that the feeling experienced

ment is the point where mind and body meet. To be sure, this

in aesthetic judgement is profoundly linked to the formal

is a highly simplified presentation of Kant’s argument. And it

properties of the object under consideration. These formal

remains open to question whether Kant’s bridging of the gap

properties are not some kind of abstraction but a particular

is at all successful and could pass the test of philosophical

content. But all particular content has a form or shape and

scrutiny. But that need not concern us here: what matters for

it is this form that must be judged. To see Kantian aesthet-

us is the mere fact that Kant had the intent to bridge the gap

ics as a disembodied formalist theory is therefore to miss its

between body and mind in the third critique, which puts the

point entirely, as art historian Amelia Jones does (but many

lie to any discussion of Kantian aesthetics that tries to sell it

others with her) when she claims that Kantian aesthetics and

off as an abstract and somehow “disembodied” enterprise.

the art criticism that derives from it ‘are predicated upon the suppression of the particular, embodied, desiring subject; the

Skirting Langer

artist and the critic must remain transcendent rather than

If anything, it is the Hegelian approach to art as we find it in

immanent (embodied)’ (Jones 2000: 20). It is true that Kant

Danto that appears to be guilty of a lack of embodiment. To

would consider a desiring subject a subject with interest, for

see this we should return to Danto’s discussion of Warhol’s

to desire something is the very definition of interest (KdU

Brillo Boxes, which he sees as very pure examples of what he

§2). But it is manifestly untrue that a Kantian perceiver must

calls “indiscernibles”: real objects and art objects that are so

be disembodied and transcendent. For Kant, there is beauty

similar that they cannot be told apart on the basis of visual

only in the particular because beauty is always grounded in

perception alone. But as we saw, Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are very

a judgement on subjective perception. The Kantian perceiver

easily told apart from the real thing: they are painted on

must be wholly embodied for it would be quite impossible

wood, handcrafted, and slightly smaller in size than the ac-

for him to judge anything if he had to go about without his

tual boxes. Nobody has ever approached a Warhol Brillo Box as

physical senses. In actual fact, Kant’s aesthetics were part

if it were an actual Brillo box. Danto seems to ignore this fact

of his attempt to bridge the gap between mind and body. As

and claims that with Warhol’s work ‘it becomes clear that

we saw, we construct our image of the world by combining

there is no special way a work of art must be – it can look like



a Brillo box, or it can look like a soup can’ (AEA 35). But this

the difference between the real and the counterfeit Napoleon.

is not really an issue about what art can be, it is about what

Danto seems to claim that the fact that an object is an indi-

can become a topic or motif in art. Warhol has never made a

vidually crafted and fictional work of art is not sufficient to

work of art that looks like a soup can. Warhol has painted im-

explain that it is different from the real thing it represents.

ages of soup cans, which is rather a different matter. Nobody

Danto’s inability to deal with the material facts of art is pain-

as yet has tried to open a Warhol painting of a Campbell’s

fully clear in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1981),

soup can to try and eat its contents for the very simple rea-

which relies almost entirely upon fictional examples of pos-

son that Warhol’s work is a painting and not a faux soup can

sible or hypothetical works of art. At one point Danto even

with misleading three-dimensional properties. A painting of

discusses a work that Picasso could have made (but obviously

a soup can is not a work of art that resembles a soup can: it

didn’t) at elaborate length. There is in fact very little actual

is an image that represents a soup can. That Danto overlooks

art under discussion in Danto’s book, which is devoted al-

the difference between an actual object and its representa-

most entirely to showing that art is now about philosophy.

tion in a two-dimensional image is rather alarming in a phi-

Danto’s main claim is that everyday or commonplace objects

losopher and critic. It clearly shows that his own theory of art

are turned into art (transfigured, so to speak) because of the

is so focused on the conceptual level, namely the idea that

meanings the artist or the critic attaches to them. But the

art has now become totally self-reflexive and hence a kind

transfigured object remains outwardly indiscernible from its

of philosophy about art, that he is totally blind to the material

non-artistic counterpart. As such, Danto’s book is an apol-

properties of the art under discussion. ‘It is true,’ he admits of

ogy for conceptual art. At one point in the discussion Danto

the Brillo Boxes, ‘that Warhol’s boxes were made of plywood,

brings up Nelson Goodman’s reasonable suggestion that total

stencilled by hand by Warhol and his assistants, and the

indiscernability between similar objects is highly unlikely

commercial cartons were made of printed cardboard on huge

and that close scrutiny of pairs of similar objects is almost

industrial presses. But that, surely, could not explain the dif-

logically determined to show up some difference between

ference between art and reality’ (Danto 2005: xi). But if that

them, especially if we are dealing with sets of objects one of

cannot explain the difference, I should like to know what can.

which is a work of art and one of which is not. Danto has a

To claim that the difference between the real thing and an

hard time refuting Goodman and reverts to the claim that ‘it

imitation cannot explain the difference between art and real-

is striking as a matter of concealed bias on Goodman’s part

ity is special pleading with a vengeance. In fact, I would say it

that he should spontaneously have assumed that all aesthetic

is simply stupid for by the same token one might claim that

differences are perceptual differences’ (CT 43). I fail to see the

the fact that the historical Napoleon Bonaparte was a physi-

bias in this: it is plain common sense. The only way to make

cal human being and David’s painting of Napoleon Bonaparte

Danto’s claim that aesthetic differences could be non-per-

is an image of the man in paint does not sufficiently explain

ceptual legitimate would be to assume that ideas or concepts



attached to objects are part of their aesthetic properties. As

The truth of the matter is that, contrary to Danto’s claims,

we will see, this is exactly what Danto assumes, but it ren-

most contemporary art is very clearly discernible as art.

ders the whole issue rather sterile. Since ideas and concepts

Most contemporary artists do not even try to make their

are not visible in themselves it is straining the meaning of

work look indistinguishably like an object in the real world.

“aesthetic” to categorise them in that rubric: to be percep-

It is certainly true that any object or any image can now be

tible (aesthetic in the etymological sense of “present to the

appropriated into art and that artists can now freely move

senses”) ideas and concepts must be expressed in material

between media and kinds of art, making a painting today, a

containers, not simply attached to them as some invisible

sculpture tomorrow, and maybe write a book or direct a film

Platonic Idea. But Danto is systematic in his madness for

next year. It is true that most of what we now happily con-

in the same paragraph he claims that ‘future investigation

cede is art could only become art in our Post-Historical age

may reveal differences between two objects which are not

of pluralism. But that does not mean that all those works are

perceptual differences’ (ibid.) but, we may now assume, dif-

not distinguishable from ordinary objects. Or, to paraphrase

ferences in meaning. The problem with this (apart from the

the title of Danto’s own book, the commonplace has not

fact that an appeal to hypothetical results of possible future

simply or even primarily been transformed in a conceptual

research is a council of despair even in the most speculative

way: when artists work with commonplace objects they usu-

of metaphysics) is of course that the presence of some idea

ally change a lot about their material conditions and hence

or concept in or around an object can be neither proved nor

their form, their presentation, their context, their stylistic

disproved, which makes the entire argument facile or void or,

features. Most art that deals with the commonplace does not

at least, uninteresting. Hence, Danto’s entire claim is (in Witt-

transform the commonplace rather than depict it or use it as a

genstein’s sense) senseless.

material. A Wolfgang Tillmans photograph of the Concorde is

But let us return to the indiscernibles. Danto’s claim that it

not the Concorde itself, just as David’s portrait of Napoleon

is now impossible to tell art objects apart from “real” objects

Bonaparte is not the actual chieftain of the French. And a

because anything can be art has only ever been true of a very

Sarah Lucas sculpture made of cigarettes is itself hardly an

limited class of conceptual art objects. It certainly does not

object for smoking (I was going to add that so far nobody has

hold of Duchamp’s urinal, which is often the prime exhibit of

tried to shove Paul McCarthy’s giant butt-plugs up his be-

Hegelian conceptual theories, but of which Elizabeth Frank

hind as if they were real all-kinds-of-anal-pleasure-inducing

has rightly pointed out that it ‘was turned upside down

butt-plugs, but I refrain). What these artists do, and what in

when first shown in New York in 1917; it had a signature,

fact artists have done through most of art history, is to take

“R. Mutt” and, however much it scandalised people, nobody

objects or people that are present in the real world and use

peed in it, at least not to my knowledge; had it been placed

them as a motif, a topic, a model, a tool, an ingredient, a

in a real men’s room, nobody would have’ (Frank 1996: 279).

material. They represent or alter the commonplace object.



Hence, the object is no longer a commonplace object, just

seems problematic to me, especially since her work offers so

like the paint applied to a canvas by a painter is no longer

many valid answers to the questions Danto poses. Further-

the commonplace object it was while it was still inside the

more, in a criticism of Langer in Art After the End of Art (1997),

tube. The artist does not transform the commonplace paint

Danto claims that feeling and form (the title of Langer’s great

itself into art but uses it as a material for art. Danto does not

work) ‘have tended overall to rule one another out’ (AEA

get this. For example, he refers to 1960s ‘avant-garde dance,

112). But to say that feeling and form rule each other out one

where dance movements, outwardly indistinguishable from

must hold a naive traditional view of feelings as irrational

simple bodily movements, began to be performed. What was

and shapeless and therefore opposed to the rational clarity

the difference between walking and performing a dance

of forms. But as Langer points out, feelings and emotions

movement that consisted in walking?’ (Danto 2005: xi-xii)

only seem irrational ‘because language does not help to make

The difference is very simply that in the dance the walking

them conceivable, and most people cannot conceive any-

movement has become a motif that is used within the pri-

thing without the logical scaffolding of words’ (PS 88). To be

mary illusion of the dance.

more precise, it is discursive language that fails to adequately

This takes us right into the work of Susanne K. Langer, who

express emotions because it ‘does not reflect the material

claims that anything, even the most commonplace object or

form of feeling’ (PS 89). This is why man develops art, ritual,

movement, can become a motif in art if it is integrated in an

religion, and metaphor: their symbolism offers logical forms

expressive form. For Langer the formal properties of a work

that do express the forms of feeling. Danto’s claim that feel-

of art are related to the feeling or content they are meant to

ing and form are at odds becomes even more bizarre in light

convey. In this sense her work is a fine example of how one

of passages in his own work that have a decidedly Langerian

can develop an aesthetic theory that is Kantian in inspiration

ring. For instance, Danto uses (late) Wittgenstein’s notion

(but developed via Ernst Cassirer and John Dewey, amongst

of “forms of life” to illustrate that every style of painting is

others) without segregating form and content or form and

embedded in a form of life and cannot simply be transposed

feeling. Langer manages to evade the segregation through her

to another period. Such a period ‘is not simply an interval of

keen insight into symbolism and language. But Danto rarely

time, but rather such an interval in which the forms of life

mentions Langer. This is odd, for when he does mention

lived by men and women have a complex philosophical iden-

her, he refers to her as ‘my teacher, and my friend’ (AB 2; cfr.

tity, as something lived and known about in the way we know

AEA 112). I do not know the details of Danto’s relationship to

about things by living them’ (AEA 201). When Danto claims

Langer, whether he studied under her or simply sat in on her

that the way art is made, including its style, is closely related

lectures. But I do assume that you may be taken to be conver-

to a form of life as it is experienced by the people living it, he

sant with a philosopher’s ideas if you label that philosopher

is really suggesting that there is link between subjective feel-

your teacher and friend. So Langer’s absence in Danto’s work

ing (of which daily experience is a part) and the forms that



may be used to express it.

any object, any gesture, any motif, no matter how common-

There are probably several reasons why Danto skirts Langer.

place. Judging by the brief Foreword Danto fabricated for the

It is not uncommon for thinkers to develop a blind spot for

abridged edition of Langer’s three-volume Mind, published in

other thinkers by whom they have been profoundly influ-

1988, it certainly seems as if Langer’s hovering intellectual

enced or whose ideas they perceive as a philosophical threat

presence was in need of exorcism for Danto calls Mind ‘a

to their own theories because they get too close for comfort.

work inadequate in its original execution’ and ‘an unwieldy

So Langer beat Danto to the idea of the Post-Historical era

book’ in which ‘the supporting material obscures the philo-

by at least a decade (Danto first formulated his views in a

sophical architecture’ (Danto 1988: vi). Coming from the au-

paper published in 1964). But there may be a strategic reason

thor of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, which is one of

behind Danto’s tiptoeing around Langer. Danto has the clear

recent philosophy’s most plodding books, comments about

intention of promoting himself as a key historical figure. In

obscured philosophical architecture are somewhat ironic.

the Introduction to Unnatural Wonders (2005) Danto writes

More importantly, Danto completely disregards the custom

about his own experience after publishing his essay about

that a Foreword, especially the Foreword to a book by a friend

the end of art in 1984. ‘Though it took awhile for the fact to

who had died only a brief few years before and was therefore

dawn on me, I was in a sense the first posthistorical critic of

no longer around to defend herself, is supposed to be lauda-

art. There were of course plenty of art critics in the period we

tory. That Danto uses such a Foreword to disparage Langer’s

had now entered. What was special about me was that I was

work is in very poor taste to say the least. But whatever Dan-

the only one whose writing was inflected by the belief that

to’s (obviously conflicted) relation to Langer may be, I believe

we were not just in a new era of art, but in a new kind of era’

that Langer’s theory of art is exactly what Danto needs to

(Danto 2005b: 3). Danto’s inflated sense of his own impor-

get out of the chaos the art critic in the Post-Historical era

tance is illustrated when he next claims that he only has one

finds himself in. Langer’s view of art as expressive form is

real forerunner: Hegel. Danto does put himself in rather lofty

sufficiently general to take in all the arts. She discusses all

company, although a more sober-minded critic might argue

the major forms of art that were about when she was writ-

that what made Danto special was the way he developed a

ing. She obviously does not address performance or video art

sense of his own towering historical importance from getting

or other more recent kinds of art that have developed in the

his Kant all backwards.

pluralist era. But as we will see in the next chapter, her ideas

The one thing that could deflate Danto’s self-promotion is

can very easily be expanded to include newer forms of art in

to find another thinker who had already proposed similar

a meaningful way. But at the same time Langer’s ideas are

claims in the recent past. To be sure, Langer never suggests

sufficiently specific to make criticism possible. This is in fact

we have entered a new era, but she did suggest already in

the great strength of her concept of “primary illusion,” which

Feeling and Form that anything could be integrated in art:

defines in a clear but general way what is the basic structure


of every kind of art. Langer tells us what art is, what it does,

forever seeking out anything that is new and has a radical

and how it does that in its several forms. The implications of

ring to it, so we may be sure that they have done the Danto

her theory therefore make it ideally suited to deal with art in

thing). Or maybe Danto was right when he said that art had

the Post-Historical era.

ended in 1964 but his theory no longer applies to more recent art because history has moved on after all. That would mean


A Short History of the Avant-Garde

that art after art has not necessarily been made in the mode

Let us return to Danto’s claim that the Post-Historical era

of the end of history. Possibly, something entirely different

means the end of the Age of Manifestos. This claim is clearly

may be going on. But whatever it is, we shall make it the

related to the claim that we have witnessed, in recent times,

business of the present section to try and see more clearly

the end of the avant-garde. The avant-garde, after all, was a

into the matter of what has happened to the avant-garde in

Modernist idea that expressed many artists’ sense that they

the current pluralistic age.

were in the vanguard of history. But if there are no more

The first thing to consider is that several noted authors of-

master narratives there can be no more avant-gardes. In

fer readings of the history of the avant-garde that seem to

reality, however, the rhetoric of avant-garde has never left

discredit several aspects of Danto’s presentation. In his clas-

the artworld. In fact, with the advent of postmodern Theory

sic theory of the avant-garde Peter Bürger distinguishes the

imported from France since the late 1960s, great progress into

historical avant-garde from the neo-avant-garde (Bürger 1974:

ever new areas of profound new theoretical insight has been

44-45). The historical avant-garde emerged at the end of the

announced with numbing regularity. It sometimes sounds

nineteenth century and is exemplified by Dadaism and Surre-

as if every new book by every famous critic were rewriting

alism. Its core project was to dissolve art into life. The histori-

the whole of history from the point of view of new theoreti-

cal avant-garde was a reaction to bourgeois culture. Bourgeois

cal insights that are invariably shaking the foundations of

culture saw a gradual division of society into several autono-

Western culture. Despite the widespread belief in historical

mous areas, similar to the division of labour in the industrial

relativism and the end of the master narratives talk of prog-

area. This means that art also gradually developed into an

ress towards new insights has continually poured forth from

autonomous practice, with the artist emerging as a “special-

people, mostly theorists, who seem to firmly believe they are

ist” in the same way that any other craftsman or labourer

at the vanguard of the very history presumed dead. This is

could be a specialist in some specific activity (o.c. 42). This

odd, to say the least, and several explanations come to mind.

emancipation of art culminated in Aestheticism, which is the

Maybe Danto was simply wrong in talking of the end of art

final consolidation of art as a separate institution within soci-

and the dawn of the Post-Historical era. Maybe he was right

ety. As art grew more independent from other areas of society

but the trendies of Theory are simply still having to catch up

it also lost its influence in society and ceased to play a defin-

with the fact (but this seems unlikely since the trendies are

ing social role. In earlier times, especially in the Middle Ages



and the Renaissance, art had been closely linked to the needs

avant-garde art had been more or less limited in its expres-

and demands of the church or the aristocratic classes. In the

sive possibilities by an epochal style that determined more

Renaissance the evolution towards emancipation started

or less what ways of making art were available to artists. In

with the emergence of highly idiosyncratic personal styles.

contrast, the avant-garde never developed a canonical style.

In the Middle Ages most artistic production had been anony-

Not only were there many strands within the avant-garde,

mous, in the Renaissance the individual genius took centre

but even within every strand there was no canon for creation.

stage. With the triumph of bourgeois culture over aristocratic

No two Dadaist works look alike and neither do two Surreal-

culture art’s function within society changed dramatically:

ist works. With the avant-garde everything becomes possible:

the artist now became a merchant trying to sell his goods on

every style and every means of expression suddenly comes at

the art market. Individual style and excellence became all-

the artist’s disposal (o.c. 23-24). This means that Bürger situ-

important whereas traditional social or moral messages de-

ates the switch to what Danto would call the Post-Historical

creased in importance because the average collector was now

era, where everything is possible, in the era of the historical

a bourgeois individual who did not seek political statements

avant-garde. Its prime exhibit is, obviously, Duchamp’s urinal.

but art that would enhance his own conception of himself as

In this work Duchamp questions several core tenets of art in

a citizen and bourgeois. In the bourgeois period the classical

the bourgeois period, first and foremost the institution of art

tension in art between form and message was eliminated in

itself. By placing a urinal in a museum Duchamp questions

a decisive shift towards the dominance of form (or a signa-

the position of the artist as the unique creator of the work.

ture style). It is this shift that would help make Modernism

He also questions the institutions that were linked to the

possible, the series of artistic movements that question the

bourgeois conception of art: the museum and the exhibition.

nature of artistic representation itself.

The prime tactic of the historical avant-garde was provoca-

Aestheticism is the end point of the evolution of bourgeois

tion, a kind of shock tactics that was aimed at taunting the

art. It clearly shows the dual nature of art in bourgeois soci-

public and making it reflect on art and life. A favoured prin-

ety. On the one hand Aestheticism shows the full autonomy

ciple in this project was estrangement (‘Verfremdung’; o.c. 24).

of art: it is only about itself, it is sheer form. But by implica-

However, the avant-garde never really exploded the au-

tion it also shows the full emancipation of art from society in

tonomy of art. It simply subverted its categories. The reason

the sense that such an Aestheticist art has lost all influence

for this is quite simply that any art that merges entirely with

in society. It is socially impotent and at worst (from the point

life would cease to be art at all. The success of Duchamp’s

of view of social influence) merely decorative. For Bürger the

provocation is entirely dependent upon the existence of the

historical avant-garde was a reaction against the impotent

category of the artist as the autonomous maker of the work

autonomy of art. It rejected bourgeois art in a radical way and

of art. Without such a framing theory the urinal becomes

sought to re-integrate art into life. Until the emergence of the

simply a urinal and loses all its subversive power. This is


what makes the neo-avant-garde an impossibility. For Bürger

if it wants to have any kind of critical or subversive effect in

the neo-avant-garde comprises the conceptual, minimalist,

society, i.e. if art wants to be some kind of protest, it needs to

and performance movements emerging since the late 1950s.

be autonomous, which means that art must be separate from

The problem with art such as Duchamp’s urinal lies in its

the practice of everyday life (o.c. 73). This certainly raises

nature as a unique event. One cannot repeat it. ‘Duchamp’s

many questions about community art or any kind of activity

ready-mades are not works of art,’ Bürger writes, ‘but mani-

aimed at the strengthening of the social fabric that is pre-

festations’ (o.c. 71). Contrary to Danto, Bürger claims that

sented as art. Despite the many claims of conceptual art and

the power of the urinal has nothing to do with the classical

other kinds of “critical” art since the 1960s, Bürger’s analysis

tension between form and content (or meaning), but with

suggests that all this recent art is not really critical at all be-

the tension between a factory-made serial object on the one

cause it simply repeats gestures that were critical only when

hand and the fact that the artist has signed it and thus in-

they first emerged in the historical avant-garde.

scribes it into the bourgeois narrative of the artist as the au-


tonomous maker of art. Once the idea that the individual is

Kondylian Combinations

necessarily the creator of the work has been dispensed with

Bürger’s history of the avant-garde is corroborated in an

within the artworld such gestures lose all force. Art after Duch-

interesting way in Panajotis Kondylis’ history of the decay

amp has been very willing to accept ready-mades (or indis-

of the bourgeois way of life and the emergence of mass de-

cernibles) as “real” works of art. This means that the idea of

mocracy. Kondylis argues that every culture looks at reality

the artist as individual creator has been abandoned and that

from a specific perspective or worldview. Such a worldview

the category of “the work of art,” which the historical avant-

is created to cope with the world: it is a means of survival in

garde sought to dismantle, has been restored (o.c. 78). So all

a hostile environment. By imposing a certain view upon the

such provocation after Duchamp simply falls flat because the

world, a culture establishes an identity that allows it to con-

avant-garde has been institutionalised: in the 1960s nobody

trol the world. Through this control a culture and its inhabit-

was shocked when commonplace objects were presented

ants are able to keep themselves alive (Kondylis 1984: 14).

as art. We had seen it before and the thrill was gone. This,

This means that every worldview is designed in relation to

according to Bürger, was the problem facing the neo-avant-

whatever may threaten a culture’s survival. These threats are

garde of the 1950s and 1960s. The ideas of the historical

the culture’s enemies. In primitive cultures the enemy may

avant-garde have become common currency in the artworld

be wild animals or poisonous plants, but in our more devel-

of the late twentieth century, ‘so the gestures of protest of the

oped societies the worldview is usually designed to identify

neo-avant-garde become prey to inauthenticity. Their claim

and do battle with ideological enemies, namely groups of

to protest can no longer be sustained because it cannot be

people or cultures that live by another and usually conflicting

made good on’ (ibid.). This leads Bürger to conclude that art,

worldview. This means that for Kondylis ‘es gibt keinen anderen


methodischen Zugang zur Erfassung des Charakters einer Epoche oder einer Gesellschaftsformation als ihre Abgrenzung gegen eine frühere oder eine andere’ (Kondylis 1991: 287). To understand a culture or epoch one must understand against what or whom it was constructed. For instance, the worldview of the Enlightenment was developed as a strategic answer to the christian worldview of the Middle Ages. The christian worldview saw everything from the perspective of religion and salvation, with the main focus of attention lying in the afterworld. It was a world of disembodiment and spirituality. The Enlightenment was a strategic answer to the challenge of gaining victory over this worldview by trying to rethink the relationship between mind and body (Kondylis 2002: 19). A specific way in which this strategic answer took form can be seen in modern aesthetics, notably in the works of Schil-


ler and Kant. As we saw before, Kant’s aesthetic theory was an attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind. This means that he was trying to undo the bifurcation of body and mind that was at the heart of Christianity, where the body had to be mortified and only the immortal soul would be saved. A similar tactic is at work in Schiller’s work, where the arts, and notably the theatre, are engaged in a didactic process: the theatre can be used as a stage for attractively packaged moral messages. However, Schiller argued for the autonomy of art: whatever moral message a work of art may present, it could only be successfully conveyed if the work of art was not subservient to morality. There had to be harmony of form and content and neither of the two should dominate the other. Kondylis has called the mechanism at work in modern aesthetics ‘the rehabilitation of the sensual’ (‘die Panajotis Kondylis

Rehabilitation der Sinnlichkeit’; ibid.): both Kant’s and Schiller’s



works (but the works of many others too, and not merely in

according to Kondylis, is therefore time: there is a trend to-

aesthetics) can be seen as attempts to re-enfranchise the

wards harmony that develops through time. Modernity is the

physical realm in view of the traditional hostility towards it.

culture of perfectibility. History is a process of progress. In

One way of doing this was to stress the moral potential of art:

the arts bourgeois culture is expressed in Classicism, where

aesthetic enjoyment (which is sinful in a christian perspec-

there is a symmetrical relation between the whole and its

tive) could serve higher moral ends. But both Kant and Schil-

parts and a perfect union of form and content, as in Schiller’s

ler stress the autonomy of art in this process, which chimes

proposals for the theatre. In the modern view, art is included

with Bürger’s claim that bourgeois culture evolved towards

in the history of organic progress for it is usually seen as the

an emancipation of the aesthetic into an autonomous realm.

highest triumph of nature: it is in art that mankind achieves

In Kant this trend towards autonomy of the aesthetic is most

the highest expression of himself. It is no coincidence that

clear in the element of disinterestedness which we have al-

this idea was also at the heart of Schiller’s aesthetics, where

ready discussed.

it is art that allows man to bind together his sensual and his

Kondylis has sketched bourgeois culture as ‘synthetic-

moral self (Kant’s body and mind) in a greater harmony that

harmonising’ (‘synthetisch-harmonisierend’; Kondylis 1991:

is his highest human calling.

15): it is a worldview that is well-ordered and scientific and

Bourgeois culture in its pure form only existed for a very

aims at a harmonic synthesis of opposites. It tries to bring

brief period of time. It soon started to erode from within.

everything together in what can be called le juste milieu. This

This process becomes especially visible in the second half of

term is borrowed from the arts, but we find it equally at work

the nineteenth century, when the emancipation of the sev-

in the other aspects of culture. For example, deism seeks to

eral spheres of action becomes clearly visible. The decline of

harmonise the existence of a superior being with the find-

bourgeois culture is in many ways a parallel process to the

ings of modern science, thus saving both traditional moral-

division of labour, as Bürger also claimed. The nineteenth

ity and modern science from mutual embarrassment (and

century saw the gradual emancipation of the labourer in the

philosophical writers from possible prosecution by church or

emergence of social movements. This started a process of at-

state). In the case of Kant, the harmonising middle ground

omisation of society: as the twentieth century progresses, the

lies in his attempt to bridge the gap between body and mind,

individual comes more and more to the fore and egalitarian

whereas Schiller epitomised the rehabilitation of the sensual

ideals gain ground. This is an effect of the process of emanci-

in his moral mission for the theatre. But apart from harmo-

pation of bourgeois culture. Artistically, this process came to

nising, the modern bourgeois worldview is also organic in

an end with Aestheticism, art for art’s sake. This means that

structure. This is expressed in the idea of Bildung: man has

the autonomy of art, which we saw emerge in Kant’s idea of

an essential nature which must be nurtured to bring it to

disinterestedness, had finally run its course. On this point,

fruition. The prime metaphor to understand modern culture,

Kondylis’ analysis merges with Bürger’s: the avant-garde



(or what Bürger calls the historical avant-garde) demands

space in which all individuals, lifestyles, values, or objects are

the end of art in the sense that art and life must merge. On

simply at hand. There is no hierarchy. There is no individual

a more general level, the synthetic-harmonising culture of

more valuable than any other, no lifestyle more favourable

bourgeois modernity makes way for a new culture that will

than any other. Everything is equal. Which means that things

evolve into the postmodern. The postmodern is no longer

are simply at hand in space as in a huge window display or

aimed at synthesis or harmony and is described by Kondylis

on a counter. This is the analytical aspect: everything is bro-

as ‘analytical-combinatory’ (‘analytisch-kombinatorisch’; ibid.).

ken down into its most basic constituents. The combinatory

Society is no longer harmonised but analysed into its con-

aspect next says that all these elements can be combined in

stituent parts. This means that the process of emancipation

whatever combinations we please. This means that personal-

started in bourgeois culture is taken to its logical extreme:

ity is no longer seen as a temporal thing, as in the ideal of Bil-

every individual becomes important in its unique individual-

dung. People construct their personality: they make choices,

ity. This is the emergence of the atomised society that we call

identify themselves as belonging to specific subcultures, they

mass democracy. In a 1961 lecture Langer has referred to this

choose their gender roles, their jobs, their dress, everything.

as a process of individuation; a process that she felt had ‘all

And no choice is ever final: there are no essences and every

but reached its limit. Society is breaking up into its ultimate

choice can always be traded for another styling of the self

units – single individuals, persons’ (PS 140). Langer looked at

and its mercurial identities. We no longer accumulate our

this process with some concern because ‘the fact is that in

personality through time but assemble it as a work of art. For

our Western culture [...] each individual really stands alone’

the arts this means that artists can use whatever they want

(ibid.) and many people ‘feel, but cannot understand, their

in whatever combination they want. The prime example of

loss of the sense of involvement, which makes the world

postmodern or analytical-combinatory art is the collage, or

seem like a meaningless rat race in which they are reduced

the collection of perspectives in a Cubist painting. In fact,

to nothingness, alone in life and in death’ (PS 141). A parallel

Bürger maintains that montage should be considered ‘the

process can be seen in the arts of what we now call Mod-

basic principle of avant-garde art’ (Bürger 1974: 97), partly

ernism: artists seek the primary elements of art, be it pure

because its explicitly constructed nature is the exact oppo-

colours or shapes, basic forms, or the basic elements of per-

site of the organic concept of art found in bourgeois culture

ception (Kondylis points out that modernism in history and

(Robert Rauschenberg tellingly referred to some of his works

Modernism in the arts do not coincide: artistic Modernism is

as “combines”). This again means that what Danto has called

in fact the kind of art developed in the postmodern era). This

the Post-Historical condition in art, namely the fact that

is what Danto calls the Age of Manifestos.

anything can become art or be integrated in art, is in fact a

The guiding metaphor of postmodernity is not time but

feature of artistic Modernism. Both Bürger and Kondylis show

space. Mass democracy can be represented as a huge plane or

that Danto is at least fifty years behind when he defines 1964



as the point in time where the Post-Historical era emerges.

gardless of its intent, was an actual urinal, whereas Warhol’s

If we hold that Danto errs when he sees 1964 as a watershed

Brillo Boxes, for all their resemblance to the real thing, were

in the history of art we must ask why he preferred Warhol’s

fictional representations of the actual boxes. In fact, since

Brillo Boxes over Duchamp’s upturned urinal as the crucial

Warhol’s boxes were handmade and smaller than the real

turning point in art. This choice was motivated in part by

thing they had far less formal similarities to reality than Du-

his concept of Pop Art, which, according to Danto, ‘set itself

champ’s urinal, which was (we must repeat) an actual urinal.

against art as a whole in favour of real life’. In fact, Pop Art

Because he never looks at the materiality of art, Danto simply

answered to a ‘universal sense that people wanted to en-

gets his Duchamp and his Warhol mixed up. Warhol’s faux

joy their lives now, as they were, and not on some different

boxes are much more in the tradition of the imitation of real-

plane or in some different world or in some later stage of

ity than Duchamp’s ready-mades because they are fictional

history for which the present was a preparation’ (AEA 131).

representations of the real world. If Warhol feels free to take

There is certainly truth in this: Pop Art did celebrate the or-

ordinary boxes as a motif in his art, Duchamp had already

dinary world and often had a decidedly upbeat feel. On the

gone one step further and simply used real objects as art in

other hand, much of Warhol’s and Rauschenberg’s work is

themselves. So from Danto’s point of view Duchamp’s act is

concerned with death, disaster, or neurosis, and much Pop

much more telling than Warhol’s.

is highly ironic or critical towards the reality it depicts. Nev-

But in order to see this, one must take the materiality of the

ertheless, Danto feels that what happened in Pop was pro-

works into consideration, which Danto simply does not do. So

foundly different from what happened in Duchamp. ‘What-

the fact that Danto is about fifty years behind in situating the

ever he achieved, Duchamp was not celebrating the ordinary.

turn towards the Post-Historical in 1964 is much more than

He was, perhaps, diminishing the aesthetic and testing the

an error in chronology: it points towards a deficient grasp of

boundaries of art.’ But the resemblances between Duchamp’s

what happens in art. Danto has simply magnified his own

ready-mades and Pop Art ‘are far less striking than those be-

misguided response to Warhol’s boxes to historic propor-

tween Brillo Box and ordinary Brillo cartons. What makes the

tions. Danto should have realised by now that it was his own

difference between Duchamp and Warhol is similarly far less

lack of knowledge about the recent history of art that made

difficult to state than what is the difference between art and

Warhol’s Brillo Boxes such an overwhelming experience. His

reality’ (AEA 132). Again, there is some truth in this. We can

instincts about a shift in what art was about was correct, but

agree that Duchamp’s gestures were primarily an attempt to

he should have realised that the shift had already occurred

test the boundaries of art. But then we again meet Danto’s

much earlier. Danto has simply taken the moment when he

claim that Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are much more profoundly

became aware of the shift, namely 1964, as the moment that

indiscernible from reality than a Duchamp urinal. And this, I

the actual shift took place. But that is of course a fatal error.

believe, is not the case. For one thing, Duchamp’s urinal, re-

In Danto’s case the error leads to an interpretation that is



further discredited by his highly tendentious reading, or lack

Commonplace (1981) is the best place to start. Danto here ar-

of reading, of works of art as material objects. For instance,

gues his claim that ‘the philosophical question of its status

commenting on Warhol’s early paintings of comic strips and

has almost become the very essence of art itself, so that the

advertisements, Danto writes that ‘in 1961 no one would have

philosophy of art, instead of standing outside the subject and

seriously considered either the comic strip images or the

addressing it from an alien and external perspective, became

pictures used in the advertisements as art, but the Pop move-

instead the articulation of the internal energies of the sub-

ment assigned artistic value to the images of everyday life’

ject. It would today require a special kind of effort at times to

(Danto 2005b: xi). But we should not accept too readily that

distinguish art from its own philosophy. It has seemed almost

Pop Art did that. Pop artists certainly felt justified in using

the case that the entirety of the artwork has been condensed

such images as motifs in art, but that is something quite dif-

to that portion of the artwork which has always been of phil-

ferent from attributing artistic value to the everyday images

osophical interest, so that little if anything is left for the plea-

themselves. The fact that I paint a Campbell’s soup can or a

sure of artlovers. Art [...] has turned into self-consciousness,

hot-dog does not necessarily imply that I believe the soup

the consciousness of art being art in a reflexive way that bears

can or hot-dog itself to be a work of art. Here we once again

comparison with philosophy, which itself is consciousness

see Danto’s inability or unwillingness to discriminate be-

of philosophy; and the question now remains as to what in

tween an object and its artistic representation. That a paint-

fact distinguishes art from its own philosophy.’ According to

ing of a comic strip is art does not imply that the comic strip

Danto, ‘artworks have been transfigured into exercises in the

itself is art (although it might well be argued that it is if it can

philosophy of art’ and ‘the definition of art has become part

be shown to have artistic import). This is exactly what makes

of the nature of art in a very explicit way’ (TC 56). This shift

Danto an exasperating critic to argue with, for how do you

means that the Kantian-formalist approach to art has lost its

argue with a critic who claims that the fact that a painting is

relevance because the element of aesthetic pleasure is now

a painted representation is not relevant to distinguish it from its

outmoded. Art is about meanings. Danto compares art to the

model in real life?

philosophy of science, ‘which holds that there is no observation without interpretation’ and claims ‘that something of

Art and Philosophy

the same order is true in art. To seek a neutral description is

Let us return to the suggestion that the end of a master nar-

to see the work as a thing and hence not as an artwork: it is

rative about art also signals (or should logically signal) the

analytical to the concept of an artwork that there has to be

end of the avant-garde. To understand how the artworld

an interpretation’ (TC 124). This is fair enough, and Langer

has reacted to the end of the avant-garde we must first get

would certainly not dispute this since her definition of art as

a clearer understanding of what Danto sees as the special

expressive form immediately entails that there is meaning in

nature of art after the end of art. The Transfiguration of the

art, which in turn always entails the possibility of and pos-



sible need for interpretation of some kind.

meaning of “aesthetic” presupposes the first, which means

But then Danto does something interesting. He claims that

that our perception of objects cannot change in the sense

‘seeing an object, and seeing an object that interpretation

of “pertaining to beauty” either. A possible third meaning of

transforms into a work, are clearly distinct things, even when

“aesthetic” is “pertaining to whether something is or is not

in fact the interpretation gives the object back to itself, as

a work of art”. This means that to judge aesthetically is to

it were, by saying the work is the object’ (TC 125). This sug-

make an ontological differentiation between objects that are

gests that an ordinary object is somehow transformed or

and objects that are not works of art. But this third meaning

transfigured in our perception (‘seeing’) by our interpretation

of “aesthetic” renders Danto’s claim about our changed per-

of it as art. ‘As a transformative procedure, interpretation is

ception circular because he holds that there are two orders

something like baptism, not in the sense of giving a name

of aesthetic response depending on whether something is

but a new identity, participation in the community of the

a work of art or not. This means that the first two mean-

elect’ (TC 126). Taken together, these two claims suggest that

ings of “aesthetic” can only become operative after an object

the same object will be perceived differently before and after

has been evaluated under the third. But how we perceive an

“baptism” because of the interpretation attached to it. I look

object (and whether it is beautiful in perception) is hardly

at a urinal and I see a urinal. Then along comes Duchamp,

a function of its being a work of art or not. In fact, only the

who declares the urinal a work of art, and suddenly, the uri-

question of whether we will attach an interpretation to it is

nal is changed in my perception. This leads Danto to claim that

a function of its being art or not. Artworks may be declared

‘there are two orders of aesthetic response, depending upon

different kinds of objects thanks to some inaugural transfigu-

whether the response is to an artwork or to a mere real thing

rative magic, but that does not make them differently percep-

that cannot be told apart from it’ (TC 94). But this is nonsense

tible kinds of objects in comparison to ordinary things, a fact

for several reasons. First, the meaning of the word “aesthetic”

Danto will again dispute in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement

in Danto’s claim is not at all clear. Since he is discussing the

of Art, where he claims that ‘the fact that something is an

act of “seeing” indiscernible works, aesthetic could mean, as

artwork makes an aesthetic difference, even if the artwork it

it etymologically means, “pertaining to perception”. But since

is is not to be told apart from a mere thing’ (PDA 26).

interpretations are in themselves invisible, the claim that

It is an indisputable and rather unsurprising fact that works

their presence changes our perception of objects is untenable

of art become works of art because they are presented as

in this sense of “aesthetic”. But “aesthetic” could also mean,

works of art. But we must be clear about what we mean by

and is most commonly used to mean, “pertaining to beauty”.

this. I am not defending an Institutional Theory of Art by

An “aesthetic” object is then simply a “beautiful” object. But

which an object is a work of art because you or I or the art-

since an object’s beauty is a function of its sensory qualities (I

world in general say so, although I do not want to deny that

must see, touch, or hear it before I can judge it beautiful) this

the Institutional Theory has a point either: an object must



be recognised as art by someone (but that could be anyone)

The symbolic nature of art offers an important clue to an-

before it becomes a candidate for the considerations usu-

other deficiency in Danto’s meaning-centred theory of art. To

ally bestowed upon art. This is not a great postmodern or

say that a work of art is a symbol with total reference (as we

Post-Historical insight but a truth of cultural relativism that

claimed earlier) is to say that a work of art is more than the

sociologists, anthropologists, and historians have been aware

sum of its parts: the elements must come together in a uni-

of for quite some time now. Several philosophers have known

fied symbol. To say that a commonplace object and a set of

it at least since Nietzsche, and a few others might even have

meanings or theoretical musings about the nature of art can

gleaned this relativist insight in Plato’s Republic. It is, in fact,

be combined to transfigure an everyday object into a work of

common sense, and has been since the modern era opened

art is to say that the sum of the parts does make up the work

up the world to New Worlds with different cultural practices.

of art. The word “transfiguration” is simply used to hide this

The problem with the claims of the Institutional Theory, or

fact, for when object and meanings meet there is never any

with Danto’s claim that it is an interpretation that turns an

fusion of the two into a greater organic whole. In fact, with a

object into art, is therefore not that it is wrong, but that it is

gullible public (or an audience greedy for a sense of trendy

banal; it teaches us nothing new, and, most damning, it tells

insiderness) you can attach just about any meaning to any

us nothing at all about what art actually is. And if we do want

everyday object. Take a chair, any chair, and theorise about

to learn something about the nature of art, I feel we should

how it expresses anguish, and sooner or later people will see

once again turn to Langer, who has shown that what turns an

anguish in it because they project anguish onto it. But they

object into art is something in the work itself, namely what we

need to be instructed to project anguish, for very few chairs

have called its framed or fictional or symbolic nature, which

exude anguish of their own accord. This is made clear when

presents it as not coextensive with the real world and an-

we consider that another critic or artist might just as easily

nounces its utter practical uselessness. The fictional nature of

make us see the chair as expressive of joy. Really good art

a work means that it is offered merely for our contemplation.

may have many meanings for many different people, but it is

The fictional, framed, or symbolic character of the work is in-

rarely that extensive or contradictory in its possible meanings

herent in the work itself: a painting, a novel, or a play are not

because good art does not simply have meanings attached

fictional symbols because you or I say so but because they

to it, the meanings inhere in it and emerge form the symbol;

were created that way. Works of art are created to be fictional

not by some kind of semantic magic, but because the artist

symbolic representations with no practical use: that is their

has inscribed the meanings into the form (in fact, it is Dan-

purpose (a purpose without practical purpose!). To be sure, I

to’s idea of transfiguration as a kind of creative baptism that

could make practical use of a book to kindle a fire, but every-

smacks of magic). Take for example Munch’s The Scream. This

one would immediately see that this is not the appropriate

painting is not simply an expression of anguish because you

use of a book, which is made for reading.

or I say so but because the anguish is there, in the material



conditions of the work, in its form, in the colours, in the han-

sort of way) that the mere fact that one shovel is isolated,

dling of the brushwork. Similarly, a performance of Waiting for

given a title, and presented as a work of art “baptises” it as a

Godot is not about nothingness because we so decree it but if

work of art (whether it is also good or even interesting art is

and only if the performance gives us a persuasive impression

a different matter entirely). But, Danto continues, if naming

of life in the mode of nothingness. And no amount of mean-

an object can transform it into art, ‘then, surely, appreciation

ing-pandering will ever convince me or you that The Scream

of these works must in part consist in feeling the philosophi-

is all about life-enhancing joy and that Beckett’s play is about

cal tensions they must give rise to, rather than, as it were,

the responsiveness of the natural world to our deeper emo-

mooning over their Significant Forms or whatever’ (PDA 31-

tional yearnings. In fact, even Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s

32). The cheap slur against Clive Bell aside (whose notion of

Brillo Boxes will not suffer just any meaning attached to them.

“significant form” Langer developed into “expressive form”)

Meanings and interpretations do not determine whether

this is true: the whole point of such works would seem to be

something is art; let alone that they would transfigure an

philosophical. But the case again remains that we can attach

object into a different kind of object.

any manner of title or meaning to any manner of common-

These issues are so complicated, and so confusingly handled

place object and philosophise about it all we like and none

in The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, that Danto felt com-

of this will make any kind of aesthetic difference, unless you

pelled to return to them in The Philosophical Disenfranchisement

take “aesthetic” to mean “pertaining to whether something

of Art (1986) to try and state his case more clearly, which he

is or is not art”. This meaning, of which Danto seems to be

did in some measure (and with greater wit), but to no avail

rather fond, certainly lies behind Danto’s statement that ‘my

since his case remains unpersuasive. To illustrate his argu-

view, philosophically, is that interpretations constitute works

ment Danto now introduces another set of indiscernibles,

of art’ (PDA 23), thereby shifting the question of what deter-

which in this case happen to be Duchamp’s snow shovel and

mines whether something is art to the inaugural moment

an indiscernible counterpart. One of the shovels is given a

when some applier of interpretation bestows artness upon it;

title and turned into a work of art, the other is not. Danto

which, despite Danto’s protestations to the contrary, sounds

claims of the shovel that is “also” a work of art that ‘its pro-

suspiciously like something akin to the Institutional Theory

motion to the status of art lifts it above, or at any rate outside

of Art. And regardless of the fact that Danto now speaks of

the domain of the mere utensil, and so there is a tension af-

a “tension” between works of art and commonplace objects,

ter all between work of art and tool’ (PDA 31). I have no more

this “tension” soon evolves back into ‘an aesthetic difference,

quarrel with this, for a “tension” is surely something different

even if the artwork it is is not to be told apart from a mere

from a perceptual difference. But we now see that there is

thing like a snow shovel’ (PDA 26); so our quarrel appears to

really nothing especially remarkable about Danto’s claims,

remain after all and Danto’s text is still a muddle of confused

for it is obviously true (in a banal, Institutional Theory of Art



A final point. If Danto argues that ‘interpretation is in effect

quality was to be found in the interpretations attached to

the lever with which an object is lifted out of the real world

them, I might well wonder why I should bother to visit it at

and into the artworld’ (PDA 39) this claim really only holds in

all. Surely someone could tell me all about those meanings

a relevant way for a very specific set of works which we com-

without my having to make the excursion to a room full of

monly call conceptual works of art. Put differently, Danto’s

objects adorned with nothing but bare meanings.

theory would only hold for works of art that are well and


truly indiscernibles. But as we saw, such indiscernibles are

Beauty and Ugliness

very rare indeed. Even some of Danto’s prime exhibits like

Both Danto’s inability to really look at art and his dire need

Duchamp’s urinal and Warhol’s Brillo Boxes can be convinc-

for some Langerian insight are put in perspective if we look

ingly shown not to be indiscernibles after all; which leaves

at some cases of practical criticism in his work. In his book

Danto building a theory on a gallery of fictional or hypotheti-

The Abuse of Beauty (2003) Danto is puzzled by the fact that

cal works of art fashioned by such luminaries as the fictional

some people describe ugly art as beautiful. He addresses this

artists J and M, who are featured throughout The Transfigura-

problem in relation to Roger Fry’s important exhibitions of

tion of the Commonplace. Danto’s theory will not withstand

“Post-Impressionist” art at the Grafton Gallery in London in

scrutiny as a general principle, for as was shown above, it is

1910 and 1912. Fry argued that such works were experienced

the fictional character, the framing of the work, that makes

by many as ugly but that people would learn to appreciate

an object a work of art; if only because the recognition of its

their beauty once they had grown accustomed to their visual

artistic nature so often precedes interpretation. I would hardly

language: ‘every work of creative design is ugly until it be-

be induced to reflect upon a snow shovel’s metaphysical or

comes beautiful,’ Fry claims (Danto 2003: 34). But Danto dis-

other meanings had I not been told beforehand that this is

agrees with Fry and claims that the works in the shows were

not a mere snow shovel but a work of art and hence must

not beautiful and that one could never learn to perceive them

have some kind of surplus meaning beyond its practical func-

as beautiful. This does not diminish the works’ importance

tion in the Zeugzusammenhang of the everyday world. Danto

or their artistic import and value. It just means that not all

might now reasonably claim that interpreting and naming an

good art is beautiful (and that not all beautiful art is good art).

object and thus lifting it into the artworld is the very act of

Danto claims that ‘Matisse’s Blue Nude [1907] is a good, even

framing it and making it fictional. If this is his meaning, we

a great painting – but someone who claims it is beautiful is

can heartily agree and we probably have no quarrel after all.

talking through his or her hat’ (o.c. 36-37). In fact, ‘when one

But even though this may be a legitimate way of turning a

says that Blue Nude is beautiful, one is merely expressing ad-

commonplace object into art, it is surely the least interesting

miration for its strength and power’ (o.c. 88). For Danto, this

(and it is certainly not a “transfiguration”). In fact, if I were

is one of the central problems with Modernism: henceforth

invited to visit an exhibition of objects whose sole artistic

there was no longer a necessary link between beauty and ar-



tistic import. Great art could be, and would be, unmistakably

objects that are manifestly ugly. It is, on the contrary, to wield

ugly. ‘But Fry made it sound as if they were going to look aes-

a concept of beauty that is more well-defined and precise,

thetically beautiful once they were understood. But [...] works

and certainly more helpful, than the traditional “aesthetic”

might still be perceived as ugly even when we have come to

one. But there is a deeper problem still, because Matisse’s

see their “artistic excellence.” The recognition of excellence

Blue Nude is not at all ‘unmistakably ugly,’ as Danto would

need not entail a transformation in aesthetic perception.

have it. The work is supremely sensual and wonderfully ex-

They don’t change before one’s eyes, like frogs into princes.

pressive. Just look at the way the breasts of the woman are

[...] The ugly does not become beautiful just because the ugly

voluptuously rendered. Look at the curves of her left leg, the

art is good. My sense is that artistic excellence is connected

slight dent in her buttocks. Although it lacks representational

with what the art is supposed to do, what effect it is intended

fidelity, this image has the look and the feel of real human

to have’ (o.c. 107).

flesh. It seems that Danto’s judgement of Matisse’s painting

One problem with this argument (besides the fact that he still

is prejudiced by Danto’s own preconceptions about what art

believes artistic import cannot lie in a work’s formal prop-

should be and how it functions. If he cannot see the stunning

erties) once again lies in the fact that Danto never defines

beauty of Matisse’s Blue Nude, Danto has no business being an

“beauty” or “aesthetic”. He here seems to use the terms in a

art critic. He is blind.

common way, referring to things that are pleasing to the eye.

But maybe we should use Danto’s arguments against him.

He uses beauty in the sense of something being beautiful to

We can do this by referring to his discussion of another

look at, in the way one might say of a person that he or she

body of work in which he does address the tension between

is beautiful. Danto does claim at one point that ‘the meaning

feeling and form and comes closer to the kind of reading

of a work of art is an intellectual product, which is grasped

that he should have applied to Matisse and Modernism. I

through interpretation by someone other than the artist, and

am referring to his discussion of Robert Mapplethorpe in

the beauty of the work, if indeed it is beautiful, is seen as en-

Playing with the Edge (1996), where Danto explains how Map-

tailed by that meaning’ (o.c. 13). But this complicates matters

plethorpe could make beautiful art out of a source material

even further because it seems to suggest that even beauty

(extreme sexual behaviour) that many would call ugly or

in the aesthetic/perceptual sense is a product of first having

disgusting. For a long time, Mapplethorpe was mostly known

seen a meaning attached to the art object. However, Danto’s

for his rather tepid classicising nudes and formulaic flower

problem, and especially his problem with Matisse’s Blue Nude,

photographs. But as several critics, Danto among them, have

disappears once we adopt a Langerian view of beauty. If

pointed out, Mapplethorpe’s greatest artistic achievement

beauty is expressiveness, then it is indeed the ‘strength and

were his infamous sex pictures, the so-called X Portfolio and

power’ of the work that we call beautiful. This is not simply a

related images that caused the uproar over the Perfect Mo-

matter of semantics, expanding the term “beauty” to include

ment exhibition. Danto argues that Mapplethorpe’s sex photos



display an unflinchingly honesty, both in the sense that they

twentieth century. For instance, when discussing the triptych

do not hypocritically seek to soften their subject matter and

Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977), which shows a man pissing in

in the sense that Mapplethorpe himself never tried to hide

another man’s mouth, Danto claims that ‘nothing in my ex-

his deep personal involvement with this subject. The sado-

perience or fantasy had prepared me for an image of that sort

masochists that appear in these images were friends of the

of act’ (o.c. 8). I wonder how any educated, worldly-wise in-

artist. Moreover, Mapplethorpe shared their sexuality and

tellectual of the 1990s could not have been aware of the fact

their fetishes and probably engaged in sexual rituals with

that some people like to engage in that kind of sexual play?

them on more than one occasion. So Mapplethorpe has cre-

For someone who has built his career on the work of Andy

ated these pictures as a kind of intimate record of a subcul-

Warhol, whose films and artwork very often address issues

ture to which he belonged. The fact that his photographs are

of sexual edge-play, not to mention pissing, Danto seems to

often very stylishly composed can cloud the fact that these

be striking a very coy pose here. But regardless of the undeni-

are intensely personal images. But Danto argues, persua-

able brutality of some of the images, such as those of a blood-

sively, that it is their stylisation that allows them to succeed

scattered penis trapped in what looks like a kind of mouse-

as art. For Danto, Mapplethorpe’s personal engagement with

trap, it was not Mapplethorpe’s primary intent to shock.

his subject sets him apart from other photographers, such as

Rather, as he himself liked to point out, he was “playing with

Diane Arbus. ‘With Arbus, one feels, over and over again, that

the edge”. For Danto, this means that Mapplethorpe’s work

she found ways of betraying the trust that permitted her to

was a balancing act between art and porn, an attempt ‘to

get the pictures we see. There is something vaguely exploit-

achieve “smut that is also art”’ (o.c. 76). To argue this point,

ative about her work’ (Danto 1996: 43). Mapplethorpe, on the

Danto uses Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung, which is a process

contrary, ‘was remorselessly sincere’ as an artist. ‘In a video

in which two radical opposites are brought together and

made for Spanish television, Sam Wagstaff [Mapplethorpe’s

lifted up on a higher plane, where they coexist in a new unity

benefactor, collector, and lover] said that Mapplethorpe was

that somehow neutralises their opposition. For Mappletho-

the most honest person he had ever known. This is borne out

rpe’s work, Aufhebung means two things. First, the subject

in the interviews. Mapplethorpe is unflinching. One cannot

matter of the photographs should be frankly acknowledged:

read very many of them without being struck by his absolute

it is a sometimes brutally explicit rendering of extreme sex-

candour. He never dodges a question. It is this honesty that

ual acts. But second, the images are composed in a way that

characterises the self-portraits as well. Even when he got

often makes them strangely beautiful. This is how Aufhebung

himself up as a devil or a girl, or a punk, it was in the interest

comes about in Mapplethorpe’s pictures. ‘There is the energy

of discovery and personal truth’ (o.c. 55).

of the displayed sex, and there is its containment, its absorp-

The sex pictures are sometimes disturbing, depending on

tion, into the work of art. It is preserved and negated at the

one’s naiveté about the sexual realities of life in the late

same moment’ (Danto 1996: 82).


But we need not make a detour trough Hegel to make this

(such as offal) in their art. But it does show that people who

point for the dynamic of Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures is a

claim that seemingly ugly works of art are beautiful are not

fine example of the coming together of feeling and form in

talking trough their hats.

Langer’s sense. Perusing Mapplethorpe’s sex pictures, one is


struck by the tension between form and content. This tension

Killing Art

is especially noticeable in the fact that the subjects of the pic-

When art strives towards the condition of philosophy it be-

tures always retain their humanity. Mapplethorpe makes the

comes conceptual art. According to Danto the path towards

trust between the men, and between them and him as a pho-

this transfiguration starts in the eighteenth century, with the

tographer, almost palpably present. The stylised features of

invention of the discipline of aesthetics as a way of keep-

these photographs do not seek to embellish what would oth-

ing art separate from what really matters in the shaping of

erwise be brutally shocking or “merely” pornographic; they

human life and society: politics. This is Danto’s objection

express the calm dedication and trust with which these men

to Kantian disinterestedness: just like Plato kept art at bay

explore the limits of their bodies and their sexuality. And it

because it was too distant from the real reality (of the realm

is in this sense, and not in the more superficial “aesthetic”

of Ideas) the element of disinterestedness assured that art

sense, that form fits feeling in these works. Obviously, Map-

would not get involved with the things that ‘normally move

plethorpe’s photographs exhibit a classical composition that

men and women – money, power, sex, love’ (PDA 9). So Danto

makes them eligible for “beauty” in the traditional “aesthetic”

reads disinterestedness in a political way, and an interesting

sense. But what makes them great art is not this composi-

political way in view of our earlier historical survey, which

tional feature, but the way feeling and form are welded to-

showed that bourgeois culture developed towards the au-

gether in their features. I would argue that this same welding

tonomy of art (its disinterestedness) with a concomitant in-

of feeling and form occurs in Matisse’s Blue Nude and in many

efficiency of art. Aesthetics thus becomes part, for Danto, of

other works of art that Danto would judge “unmistakably

something politically oppressive. That is probably why Danto

ugly (although great art)”. What we gain from this approach

somewhat sarcastically (and not quite correctly) describes

is not only a relevant increase of beautiful objects (things

Kantian disinterestedness as ‘a tepid gratification since un-

that are called ugly turn out not to be ugly at all) but also

connected with the satisfaction of real needs or the achieve-

increased insight in our own reasons for finding such objects

ment of real goals. So it is a kind of narcoleptic pleasure, the

beautiful (we now know that their welding of feeling and

pleasure which consists in the absence of pain’ (PDA 11).

form appeals to a sense of beauty that is more complex than

Danto next claims that this modern aesthetics has left ‘seri-

the traditional aesthetic one). This does not deny the fact that

ous artists to suppose it their task to make beauty’ (PDA 12),

there is indeed a lot of art that is (meant to be) manifestly

which seems to me wholly unpersuasive in view of both the

ugly, as when artists consciously use disgusting materials

political charge of Romanticism and Realism and the formal



investigations of the many kinds of Modernism, not to men-

have become indiscernibles: everyday objects with no signifi-

tion the provocations of the historical avant-garde; none of

cant aesthetic properties to mark their difference from other

which were concerned with anything so “parochial” as mak-

everyday objects. What turns them into art is the theory at-

ing beauty. Even Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism was considered

tached to them. And to top it all off, Danto obviously sees a

such a subversive affront to polite society that the man was

historical necessity in this late condition of art. ‘If something

brutally destroyed by genteel backwardness.

like this view has the remotest chance of being plausible, it

But we might save our dispute over Danto’s historical survey

is possible to suppose that art had come to an end. Of course,

for another occasion and look at what was the philosophical

there will go on to be art-making. But art-makers, living in

present for Danto when he was writing down these ideas in

what I like to call the post-historical period of art, will bring

The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art (1986). At that point

into existence works which lack the historical importance or

(which for Danto had begun in 1964) the central question had

meaning we have for a very long time come to expect. The

become ‘what should art be if it throws off the bondage to

historical stage of art is done with when it is known what art

prettiness?’ (PDA 13) We started our discussion with Danto’s

is and means. The artists have made the way open for phi-

claim about the end of art in the sense that art had become

losophy, and the moment has arrived at which the task must

essentially self-reflexive, and self-reflection now unsurpris-

be transferred finally into the hands of philosophers’ (ibid.).

ingly turns out to be exactly the sort of thing that art without

All of this may well make one wonder if art should really

prettiness should be: ‘if we look at the art of our recent past

continue to be made at all. If art is really about philosophy

in these terms, grandiose as they are, what we see is some-

and not about crafting expressive forms then why not simply

thing which depends more and more upon theory for its

do away with art schools and academies and recognise that

existence as art, so that theory is not something external to

philosophers, or people with an MA in philosophy, are the

a world it seeks to understand, so that in understanding its

real artists now? What could conceivably be taught at an art

object it has to understand itself. But there is another feature

school that is not already and better taught at the philosophy

exhibited by these late productions which is that the objects

departments of universities? By the same token we might

approach zero as their theory approaches infinity, so that

now suggest that all philosophers are really simply artists

virtually all there is at the end is theory, art having finally

and that they have failed to understand their own identity in

become vaporised in a dazzle of pure thought about itself,

thinking themselves to be only philosophers (as distinct from

and remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theo-

artists). In any case, the suggestion that art is now philoso-

retical consciousness’ (PDA 111). Behold, then, o reader, the

phy is both elucidating and problematic for several reasons.

birth of conceptual art from the mind of the Hegelian theorist

First, it offers us a clue to the lamentable state of art itself in

as the Great Transfigurator of the Commonplace Object. Ap-

the wake of the big turn towards the conceptual. In the 1970s

proaching zero in the arts simply means that works of art

art schools all but acted upon the suggestion to do away



with themselves in the sense that many academies simply

ience of matter. But most of all, it will give him something to

stopped training their students in elementary draughtsman-

revolt against. The idea of artists who cannot and were never

ship and painting because such skills had become outmoded

taught to draw rejecting or revolting against the idea of draw-

and had been superseded by the conceptual and the mini-

ing is preposterous: it is mere posturing because there is no

malist modes. In lieu of academic technique students got

true knowledge of what one is rebelling against. The attitude

Theory. In Unnatural Wonders (2005) Danto has described this

is simply facile, if only because it insults other artists who did

evolution: ‘The institutions of the art world began to change

submit to the discipline of the hand and emerged with mean-

radically in response to the radical pluralism that overtook

ingful art. It also overlooks the fact that many of the artists

it in what I spoke of in the “posthistorical” period we had

who lead the way towards the Post-Historical era, including

entered. In art schools, for example, skills were no longer

Warhol, were accomplished craftsmen in their chosen art

taught. The student was treated from the beginning as an

who could draw and paint well and whose swerve away from

artist, and the faculty existed to help the students realise

the classical approaches to the visual arts was motivated by

their ideas. The attitude was that the student would learn

a sincere search for new ways of expression. But the dam-

whatever he or she needed in order to make what he or she

age was done and few seemed to care. In fact, young artists

wanted. Everyone used everything and anything – audio, vid-

(or rather: young people who for many reasons believed they

eo, photography, performance, installation. Students could be

were, could, or should be artists) were now being tutored in

painters or sculptors if they liked, but the main thing was to

the resentment of skill by artists who no longer mastered or

find the means to embody the meanings they were interested

cared about those skills. Today, many instructors are very bad

in conveying’ (Danto 2005b: xiv-xv).

craftsmen themselves. They are ill-placed to teach younger

You see the folly of this approach: an artist, let alone a young

artists their craft. The damage done in one generation will

student, cannot suddenly decide to sojourn for a while in a

take several generations to undo as artists who are interested

new branch of the arts for which he or she neither has train-

in skill will have to find out on their own what had previously

ing nor talent or inclination. There is a difference between a

been transmitted from master to student for centuries. The

pluralist and a lacklustre approach to art, and what we were

scandal of art education in the so-called pluralist era shows

getting here was definitely not any kind of focused art-mak-

how easy it is to destroy a tradition. The results of this hor-

ing. To check in on what’s happening and help students em-

ribly misguided evolution are everywhere on display in the

body their ideas du jour hardly amounts to what I would call

dismal art that has poured forth since the 1970s: mediocre (or

an education. To begin with, it is at odds with the very psy-

worse) painting where the artist’s inability to master form is

chology of education: even if one disapproves of a classical

sold as a conscious rejection, a revolt, a highly moral gesture,

training in the arts, at least it will hone a budding artist’s skill

or what you will. Ineptitude was now being paraded around

and perseverance, it will teach him patience and the resil-

as expressiveness. But in order to deconstruct a technique



you have to know it from the inside. Artists like Picasso had

make good films if one has (developed) the cinematic sensi-

earned the moral right to subvert form because they had

bility that this requires. Some of the great masters of modern

submitted to its discipline and knew exactly what they were

cinema, such as Pasolini or Derek Jarman, came to the film

doing when they distorted shapes in their work. In fact, their

without one iota of technical know-how, for which they relied

distortions often testify to superior craftsmanship where

on trained technicians. But they had vision and were able to

most of the latter-day work is not even convincing as distor-

translate that vision to the screen. Obviously, an artist should

tion to begin with.

carefully consider in which medium he or she wants to work.

Obviously, I applaud the artist’s freedom to tackle any me-

Nobody is forced to draw or paint, but if you insist on doing

dium in the pluralist era and nobody would want to condemn

so, you had better learn something about the skills you are

the contemporary artist to so pedestrian a practice as to draw

addressing. It is all very well to speak of expressiveness to

accurately from life (God forbid!). But it would be nice if an

cover up your inability, and no doubt you will find some critic

artist could consider, before venturing into any new medium,

willing to rave about your expressiveness, but the discerning

whether he or she has any inclination or gift for that particu-

eye of the true art-lover can often tell at a glance whether a

lar branch of the Muse. I do not think I am asking for much.

painting is a deliberate distortion by a gifted hand or a mere

In fact, I am asking for very little for I do not even believe

symptom of ineptitude. Again, to distort form you must first

one needs to have any particular technical knowledge of cer-

master it. For the same reason, being a dyslectic will not help

tain media to create superior work in them. Surely, to draw

you write the next Finnegans Wake. It takes intimate knowl-

or paint one needs to master some technique. But consider

edge of how language works in order to subvert it in a mean-

experimental film-making. In the 1960s first 16mm and then

ingful way. It takes much deliberation and a firm purpose of

8mm equipment became affordable for the average person,

gesture to do anything well in the arts. In the final reckoning,

allowing literally anyone to become a filmmaker. And for a

it even takes a lot of very good thought to produce a convinc-

brief time it seemed that everyone actually did. But the great

ing work of conceptual art, although we should consider very

masters who finally emerged as the leaders of the move-

carefully whether a thought and nothing but a thought (ad-

ment, such as Warhol, Brakhage, and Markopoulos, were not

mittedly with a commonplace object attached to it) is a work

necessarily the greatest technicians. In fact, filming equip-

of art at all or mere pedantry.

ment became so user-friendly that sometimes all you had to

All of this leaves us with the obvious question of what con-

do was literally aim the camera and press a button to record,

ceptual art is, whether it is art at all and when, if it is, it

as Warhol did. These days, with digital video technology, we

should be considered good art. In view of our severe criticism

are witnessing a similar revival. But despite the enormous

of the conceptual mode of artistic interpretation, I feel an

simplicity of the technology, very few filmmakers achieved

answer to these questions is certainly not too much to ask.

great works for the very simple reason that one can only

And my answer is brief. I suggest we agree that conceptual



art is not art at all. Since interpretations do not add anything

Avant-Garde After the End of Avant-Garde

aesthetic to a commonplace object, or at least nothing in an

A second problem with art as philosophy has to do with

interesting sense of aesthetic (which would be the first two of

the philosophy itself and leads us straight into the complex

the possible three listed before), and since all this talk about

problem of the avant-garde after the end of the avant-garde.

transfiguration through interpretation is very much rhetori-

If conceptual art, and Post-Historical art in general, ap-

cal because no transformative fusion of object and interpre-

proaches zero it also becomes more and more cerebral. This

tation ever takes place (in opposition, for example, to the way

trend found a parallel movement in the world of philosophy,

forms, colours, and canvas are fused to create a painting that,

where postmodern Theory became all the rage in the 1960s.

as a prime symbol, is more than the sum of those constituent

Gradually, several kinds of structuralist and post-structuralist

parts), conceptual art really offers us two things: a piece of

French philosophy became the leading school of thought.

philosophy or theory on the one hand, and on the other hand

This kind of postmodern philosophy is so idiosyncratic that

an object that is supposed to convince us of the artistic and

it is often simply called “theory” instead of philosophy and

creative nature of the person ushering it in. I do not dispute

I shall continue to refer to it as “Theory,” capitalised to refer

that conceptual art has often raised very interesting issues,

to its status as a kind of movement. To understand the sud-

even issues of the greatest importance. But an issue is not a

den rise of this very cerebral branch of philosophy we must

work of art and a commonplace object is not turned into art

understand the dire straits the humanities found themselves

because it comes, reportedly, with an issue attached to it. If

in in the late 1960s. It was a crisis that is still not over today

the issues raised by conceptual art are interesting and rel-

and that revolved around the justification of the humanities.

evant, they are interesting philosophy. But philosophy is not

In a world obsessed with economy, growth, progress, and

art, unless it happens to be expressed in a book or an essay

productivity it is very difficult to argue for the legitimacy of

that displays remarkable literary qualities (for the essay, we

the humanities, which seem to be going nowhere and usu-

should remember, is a literary genre and hence belongs in the

ally produce nothing remotely marketable. They tend to be as

realm of art). All the conceptual object serves is the supposed

useless as the arts they study. The advent of Theory suddenly

artist’s ego. Conceptual art now offers even the person void of

allowed professors and critics in the humanities to pretend

any talent except a talent for sophistry to present herself as

they were involved in something scientific and progressive.

an artist. “Conceptual artist” is the chosen profession for any

The jargon involved in Theory created and arcane aura of

art-hack who would like to have his cookie and eat it: to have

cutting edge concepts that were constantly yielding new in-

an opinion about art is now a work of art in itself. What bet-

sights into power, social structures, sexuality, or what not. It

ter way to boost your ego and create an inflated sense of your

suddenly appeared that the humanities might yield knowl-

own importance?

edge as verifiable and quantifiable as the knowledge generated by physics and biology. And the jargon involved certainly



sounded as if this new Theory was just as state of the art and

umbrella of male authority and one-man rule: the French big-

just as fine-tuned as the theories that were used in physics.

wigs offered to their disciples a soothing esoteric code and a

For such reasons the appeal of postmodern Theory was very

sense of belonging to an elite, an intellectually superior unit,

strong. Suddenly people in the humanities started practising

at a time when the market told academics they were useless

all manner of “deconstruction” if they happened to be follow-

and dispensable’ (Paglia 1992: 220). In an Open Letter to the

ers of Derrida while those in thrall with Foucault decided en

students of Harvard, published in the February 17, 1994 issue

masse that they should apply themselves to sex, or sexuality,

of the Harvard Crimson, Paglia added that ‘the bottom fell out

and set about hunting for phalluses and androcentrism in

of the Harvard literature departments in the Seventies. They

works of art previously innocent of any kind of political in-

had failed to find new blood to continue Harvard’s reputa-


tion into the next generation [...]. The English department

The results of all this activity were often disastrous because

nearly went into receivership. [...]. Desperate, the Harvard

the people who ventured into these new areas were not very

administration went on a fast shopping expedition and filled

well-prepared to deal with the issues at hand. To begin with,

the faculty with the current hot property, theorists, many of

their knowledge of philosophy was usually too limited to see

them women, as an affirmative action sop. Now you’re stuck

the philosophical tradition that had shaped the postmodern

with them. [...] Harvard, which sacrificed scholarly standards

mode. For example, there is little point in discussing decen-

for expedience, has condemned itself to at least two genera-

tredness without having a clue that decentredness was not a

tions of mediocrity in the humanities, since these people are

new invention by Lacan but something that had already been

certain to hire only those who will prop up their decaying

analysed very well by the Romantics, especially Friedrich

reputations’ (Paglia 1995: 119-120).

Schlegel, Novalis, Hölderlin, and the much-neglected Lud-

But even among the critics who did manage to get things

wig Tieck (see Chapter One). Furthermore, much of Lacan’s

right there arose a problem. This problem is linked to the pro-

theories of language had already been formulated in the

fessionalisation of the arts. We have recently witnessed the

dialectics and hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher. But

introduction of PhD programmes in the arts. This innovation

academics were simply blinded by the wordplay of the French

was sold as an initiative beneficial to artists when it was in

philosophes and the mileage their careers could get from quot-

fact only beneficial to a specific group of artists: those whose

ing them. Referring specifically to the situation at American

work had close links with the kind of Theory that emerged

universities, Camille Paglia writes that ‘the collapse of the job

in the Post-Historical era. If art is about philosophy, and phi-

market, due to recession and university retrenchment after

losophy is about Theory, it is not difficult to guess what kind

the baby-boom era, caused economic hysteria. As faculties

of art would now become the very image of PhD-worthy art.

were cut, commercial self-packaging became a priority. Aca-

It is clear that the PhD in the arts entails the very grave risk

demics, never renowned for courage, fled beneath the safe

of splitting the already rivalry-ridden art community even



further into the haves and the have-nots. If sufficient artists

uses the PhD as a tool to hold the profession in what William

attain a PhD to make this a substantial group within the art

James has compared, in an indictment of the PhD system

community a difference is bound to arise sooner or later be-

written in 1903, with the stranglehold of an octopus (James

tween those who did get it and those who didn’t, with those

1987: 1111-1118). I think that the PhD in the arts serves at

who did enjoying greater stature because they are obviously

least three highly interconnected purposes in the artworld,

the more clever ones and therefore the more profound or bet-

where it is used as a strategic device in the struggle for power

ter artists. Obviously, art is never that easy. But markets usu-

(in the kondylian sense). By giving art the aura of scientific

ally are. And the sad thing about art is that really good art has

legitimacy the PhD in the arts shows administrators and

really nothing in common with a real art market: their aims

politicians that art is not simply about subjective expression

and methods are completely at odds. Advocates of the PhD

but about something analysable, something positive, tangible,

in the arts usually speak of art as a form of research, which

and somehow measurable; or at least measurable in the

sounds innocent enough because art obviously does entail a

sense that a committee of “experts� is able to discriminate

kind of research, as we saw in our discussion of David Hock-

between art that is worthy of a PhD-label and art that regret-

ney. Unfortunately, artistic research has little in common

tably is not. But in the careerist world of academe and the

with the kind of research involved in science, even in the

greedy world of the art market one scores no points for try-

humanities, and is first and foremost an inner exploration,

ing, so not winning the PhD race means something like losing

a process of thought and reflection, and finally an attempt

the art race: you become something like what Katlijne Van

to shape matter (paint, wood, words, clay, sound) into an

der Stighelen, one of my teachers at Louvain University, liked

expressive form. This is research all right, but only in a very

to call the zweite Garnitur: the secondary artists whose names

specific and non-objective sense. After all, we saw that a work

are known only to specialists and not to the general public.

of art is one indivisible symbol that cannot be analysed into

These artists are the filler of history because their work,

its constituent parts. This should make us suspicious of any

while often popular in their own time, is second-rate. In this

kind of programme that looks at art from what is basically a

sense, the PhD in the arts signals the icing on the cake of the

discursive point of view: art as PhD-oriented research means

yuppification of the arts that started with the surge of the art

that the process of creation can be tracked and analysed,

market in the 1980s: sooner or later it will become a career-

resulting in a manual or PhD thesis to accompany whatever

making or -breaking certificate that determines whether your

work is presented as a PhD project.

art will sink or swim, or, more importantly, sell or not. The

I would suggest that the introduction of the PhD in the arts is

second purpose served by the PhD in the arts is a direct con-

mainly a very clever marketing tool in artworld politics that

sequence of the first. Since the PhD-programme is a direct

has been created for the benefit of a group or school of critics

consequence of the Post-Historical condition of art in its nar-

and artists with high stakes in the marketplace. This group

row sense of conceptual art (art striving to the condition of



philosophy), it creates a false sense of progressiveness in the

artists-as-researchers mutually sustain each other’s reputa-

arts and in the humanities. Researchers, artists-as-research-

tions. Obviously, such mechanisms have always been at work

ers, and critics are now explorers of new frontiers of thought

in the artworld. The finest and probably most tragic example

where no man hath thought before, making ever new prog-

is without doubt the huge influence of Clement Greenberg in

ress into the vast and as yet unclaimed fields of theoretical

the 1950s and his slow withdrawal into total silence as the

insight. The history of art-as-research is then portrayed as

1960s progressed and the Bright Young Things of the Concep-

an epic history of artistic exploration, phrased in Theory. It is

tual Era took over. What is different from the past, however, is

very easy to see how this can lead to a renewed sense of the

that the very people who maintain a power elite in the art-

avant-garde: there is now a small elite of insiders, Those Who

world are also the people who are constantly babbling about

Know And Speak Theory, who are at the vanguard of art and

multiculturalism, diversity, and open discourse, which are

philosophy, urging history on even after its much-publicised

reportedly central concerns in their high-minded theoreti-

and even more elaborately theorised demise. Those of us who

cal endeavours. But these are false claims to diversity. What

do not think or write Theory are the poor sods who missed

these careerist theorists have really done is create theoretical

the gravy-train of history, the silly naifs who still cling to an

enclaves that effectively bar many dissident voices from be-

outdated belief in form, matter, or aesthetics. We are the dull

ing heard or included in the debate. In many circles a critic,

duds, whereas the international magnates of Theory are the

artist, or hanger-on is only allowed to join the party if he or

shining sophisticates.

she either speaks theoretical newspeak or is willing to wor-

The third purpose of the PhD in the arts is again a function of

ship at the feet of those who do. Gullibility and sycophantism

the previous two, for the dynamics of false progressiveness

seem to be the prime characteristics of The Person Sure To

and neo-avant-garde sensibilities allows collectors, curators,

Rise Fast In The Cultural Realm. The system of Theory in-

and critics (what Danto calls the three C’s of the artworld) to

cludes a network of academics, curators, journal editors, and

determine just where the really hot stuff is happening. Here

critics who have created a power zone that determines who’s

another layer of insidious insiderness is added to the game,

in and who’s not.

for many of the curators and critics involved are themselves

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the problems with the

the product of an academic education drenched in Theory.

PhD in the arts are similar to the problems we found in

So they have a lot at stake: their intellectual credibility de-

Danto’s idea of embodied meanings. We said earlier that the

pends on the continuing reign of Theory as the One True

meanings attached to a commonplace object do not become

Form of Criticism. Writing about cerebral art allows these

embodied in it by fiat; which is to say that if you claim that

critics to flex their theoretical muscles, display their astute-

certain meanings are embodied in an object, they should be

ness in selecting the Art That Matters, and hence forward

there for our perception and we should be able to see those

their upwardly mobile careers. This way, critics, theorists, and

meanings inscribed into the object itself. Similarly, if a PhD in



the arts results in an object (or a performance or whatever)

called street art. Obviously, street art is not entirely new. Its

with an accompanying explanatory thesis, I feel we should

inclusion in the world of high art started with the inflated

say that it has failed as art. If the art object (or performance

reputations of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the

or whatever) requires a text on the side to explain its mean-

1980s. But since the turn of the millennium the artworld has

ings, then the art work in itself lacks expressive force. It

been especially receptive to street art, street photography and

needs crutches to tell us what it is about. So what you get, is

similar forms of artistic expression that have emerged from

bad art with a theoretical statement attached to it. Neither

youth cultures. The exhibition and catalogue Beautiful Losers

the work nor the text are successful art or philosophy on

(2004) were something of a watershed in this development,

their own. What has been achieved is not a PhD in the arts

but arguably the critical success of Larry Clark’s film Kids

but, at best, a PhD in philosophy of the arts, in theory, in so-

(1995) was equally a tell-tale sign that there was a growing

ciology, or whatever, but with an object attached. The PhD in

awareness within the broader artworld of what was happen-

the arts is only justified if the research is expressed and com-

ing in the street. If we look, ever so briefly, at the precedents

municated in the work itself. Recalling David Hockney’s re-

for this development, it could be argued that the tradition of

search into our perception of space, it is clear that his works

street photography harks back to the 1960s and 1970s, when

do not need texts to explain them (although good criticism

photographers like Lee Friedlander, Danny Lyons, and espe-

can often be illuminating, good art should not depend on

cially Dian Arbus took to the streets to photograph the grim

it). The research and its findings are there in the works if you

realities of everyday life. This eased the way for Larry Clark,

only know how to look. Similarly, Matisse once said that if you

whose seminal book Tulsa (1971) collected photographs of his

want to be a painter, ‘then begin by cutting off your tongue.

friends on the fringes of society. Clark in turn proved a huge

Henceforth, your expression will be left to your brushes’

influence on a generation of photographers who emerged at

(Parry 2004: 4). This brings us full circle back to Langer, whose

the end of the 1970s. Nan Goldin is the most remarkable pho-

concept of living form is of course the very definition of em-

tographer of this generation. Her work, which we shall dis-

bodiment of meaning in a work of art. In Hockney’s work, as

cuss in more detail in Chapter Five, is decidedly narrative in

in all good art, the meanings he expresses are truly embodied

tone, often autobiographical, draws on human sexuality and

because his meanings, and his research, are there for us to

emotions, and casts a critical eye upon society through its fo-

see. They shape the very works that express them.

cus on the lives of society’s rejects and minorities (transvestites, drug addicts, people with aids). Goldin’s signature work

Radical Chic for Chic Radicals

was The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1982), a feature-length

But the new sense of avant-gardism is not only apparent in

narrative slide presentation of her photographs which was

the use of Theory. I believe it is equally at work in the way

influenced by the work of the underground filmmaker Jack

the artworld has dealt with a relatively recent phenomenon

Smith who, through lack of funding, had largely abandoned



film-making at the beginning of the 1970s and turned to cre-

the screenplay for Clark’s film Kids before turning to directing

ating outrageous slide presentations with exotic imagery that


often featured, beside himself and several underground per-

Several trends within the artworld helped to smoothen the

sonalities, a toy penguin.

way for street art into the gallery. To see this we must again

The critical success of Goldin and Clark paved the way for

return to the 1980s and the emergence of issue-based and

another generation of street photographers. Ari Marcopoulos,

identity art. This was a highly politicised form of art in which

for instance, originally heralded from the Netherlands and

victimhood and identity often took precedence over aesthetic

worked for a while as an assistant to Warhol before produc-

issues. Certain artists such as David Wojnarowicz, whose

ing his own body of work for which he often gets inside spe-

writing is especially persuasive, managed to transcend the

cific subcultures such as the world of skaters or snowboard-

merely political and personal claims of this movement, but

ers. In Transitions and Exits (2000), his book on snowboard

much of the work created within its framework was of dis-

culture, Marcopoulos explains that he sees his work as a form

mal quality. The work of such luminaries as Judy Chicago,

of artistic anthropology, ‘investigating who these people were,

Karen Finley, and Barbara Kruger has dated badly and seems

how they were connected to each other, what their rituals

to have lost much of its relevance with the passing of the

were, how they constituted themselves’. Probably the most

time-bound political issues it addressed. This is indeed a sign

gifted photographer of this new generation is Ed Templeton, a

of bad art, because there is no intrinsic reason why politi-

former skateboard champion whose reputation as an athlete

cal art could not also be good or great art (let us not forget,

has secured his privileged access to this particular subcul-

for example, that Michelangelo’s David was also a work of

ture. But Templeton also documents his personal life and

propaganda art, a warning against the Medici tyrants who

often presents very intimate imagery of his wife and himself.

had been expelled from Florence; Hibbard 1992: 58). Whether

Templeton has also produced a considerable body of work as

political and issue-based art will prove enduring depends on

a painter, but this is considerably less accomplished than his

whether it will be art first or political first. A second influence

work in photography. The Beautiful Losers exhibition of 2004

within the artworld was the explosion of the art-market in

brought together the work of Templeton with that of many

the wake of Reaganomics. In the 1980s prices for often me-

of his contemporaries, including Mark Gonzalez, Harmony

diocre contemporary art soared beyond belief, leading to the

Korine, Cheryl Dunn, Spike Jonze, Margaret Kilgallen, Ryan

inevitable burst of the bubble by the end of the decade. Since

McGinley, Mike Mills, Terry Richardson, and many others.

then the situation has hardly changed, as Saatchi’s pushing

Several of these artists, notably Jonze and Richardson, have

of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) clearly showed: if an art-

since acquired considerable fame and artistic reputations. It

ist’s reputation can be made or unmade by the buy-and-sell

is interesting to note that Larry Clark has actively sought to

policies of an influential collector (who might not even be an

engage this new generation. In fact, Harmony Korine wrote

actual connoisseur of art, but simply an entrepreneur) then



there is nothing left to distinguish the artworld from the free

always been rejected by the dominant culture, including the

market at large.

artistic establishment. But they erroneously infer from this

In fact, capitalist logic now controls the art-market. Markets

that what is misunderstood by the mainstream cultural press

are in constant need of input of fresh faces, fresh work, fresh

must necessarily be the next great avant-garde. But some-

reputations, and the next hot thing. Every new season and

times art is overlooked or dismissed because it just isn’t good

every new opening is supposed to bring us new revelations

enough. It is true that much and perhaps even most great

and revolutions. In this sense, the artworld has come to re-

modern art was initially rejected, sometimes even for years

semble the porn industry, where careers are brief and new

and decades on end, but that obviously does not imply that

faces appear with deadening regularity. The artworld is now

to be neglected is to be great by definition.

constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, living from

Much of the art that is reproduced in the Beautiful Losers

hype to hype. This explains the hugely inflated reputations

catalogue is not very sophisticated. And I do not mean so-

of such middling talents as Haring, Basquiat, or Jeff Koons.

phisticated on a theoretical or conceptual level, but simply

Interestingly, Koons once claimed that his then-wife, Ilona

on a stylistic or even painterly level. It often looks bland and

Staller, better known as the Italian porn star La Cicciolina, ‘is

sometimes even amateurish. One gets the impression that

one of the greatest artists in the world. She is a great com-

the basic artistic and iconographical language that underlies

municator, a great liberator. Other artists use a paintbrush.

such street art has not notably developed since the time of

Ilona uses her genitalia’ (Muthesius 1992: 142). Koons did not

Haring and Basquiat. There is a reason for this. Street art

half know how right he was, for La Cicciolina’s work in erotic

works within specific codes and has a very distinctive aes-

cinema is probably much more interesting than anything

thetic. It ranges from skateboard and surf design through

Koons ever did. In any case, since the 1980s high-profile art-

graffiti art and tagging. I think this suggests that we are deal-

ists have often presented themselves as entrepreneurs and

ing here with a form of folk art, a subcultural phenomenon

careerists, working for the market rather than working from

that is comparable to biker culture, surf culture, and maybe

necessity or compulsion. Today there are artists who do not

even sports culture and the iconography that it inspires. Per-

work if they do not get paid. But the fear of missing the next

haps an exhibition of such work, which is very valuable in

big thing also informs the Beautiful Losers catalogue, and this

itself, would be more honestly at home in an institution such

is especially revealing of the way the artworld operates today.

as the Smithsonian than in a museum for contemporary art.

In an instructive piece of artworld marketing strategy, the

There is still a difference between design, folk art, and what

authors of the catalogue compare the neglect that street art

we might call, for better or for worse, high art or fine art. In

had previously suffered to the neglect the artworld initially

this sense it is very telling that Ed Templeton has kept his ac-

lavished upon such important movements as the Beat poets

tivities as a designer of skateboards strictly separate from his

and Pop Art. The authors point out that the avant-garde has

work as a visual artist. The design shop is a job, the photogra-



phy and the painting are his art. Similarly, graffiti has proved

ence life on the fringe is possibly a reason why explicit sexual

to be a highly intelligent and subversive means of expression,

photography such as that of Larry Clark has become so popu-

especially in the hands of gifted artists such as Banksy. But

lar: it feeds a voyeuristic need to boldly go and see where no

we must ask ourselves if we are really doing these artists a

proper artworld person has ever gone or seen before. Similar-

favour by bringing them into museums for contemporary

ly, the wave of porn chic we have seen in the artworld is clad

art. Does this not undermine the purpose of their work? This

in the same hypocritical garb. The curators who set up porn

kind of work has been described as non-commissioned pub-

in their galleries or who commission artists to produce tepid

lic art (a great euphemism to describe the fact that graffiti

pieces for portmanteau film projects such as Destricted would

is often simply illegal from the point of view of the powers

probably not be caught dead in an actual sex shop or perus-

that be), and this shows that much of it is intimately linked

ing the adult section of their local video store. Yes, we want

to contemporary forms of activism, such as the Reclaim The

images of whores and call-boys in our gallery, but would you

Streets manifestations that seek to oppose oppressive domi-

sit down with them for dinner? Would you go out into the

nant culture. But to treat such subversive work as high art is

streets at night and spend an hour with them on a bench,

often to aestheticise and hence defuse it.

discussing the hardships of life on the street? I don’t think

However, the political charge of much street art is possibly

so. All of this is not a criticism of the art involved. As with all

the reason why the artworld is so eager to bring it into its

art, there is a lot of very bad street art, a considerable amount

museums. This has everything to do with radical chic. Since

of good street art, and some of it will no doubt turn out to be

the avant-garde is officially dead, it has become difficult for

great. What I am critical of is the way the artworld deals with

artists and art institutions to prove their edge merely on the

this kind of art. There is a lingering feeling that the easy ac-

basis of aesthetic or formal properties. So the edge must be

ceptance of street art in the artworld has less to do with the

sought elsewhere. To flaunt street art in one’s gallery or mu-

artistic merits of the work itself than with the desire of the

seum is to bask in the light of the streetwise. It is to dress

artworld to maintain a sense of the avant-garde after the end

oneself up in an air of hipness. It is to live the life of the

of avant-garde.

street vicariously. The new avant-garde is an avant-garde of radical chic and lifestyle. You prove how open-minded and radical you are by embracing the marginal, the transsexual, the criminal, the radical. If art itself has become obsolete, attitude is everything. No matter that the artist cannot paint, he is a drug fiend and this makes him cool. And we, showing his work, share in his coolness. It is the facade of daring, it is playing at being radical. This desire to vicariously experi-


Chapter Three

was purchased, which died within two days and again had to be replaced. In this bizarre anecdote of an artist braving ridiculously unnecessary dangers, not to mention sacrific-


ing the life of several innocent goats, for the sake of painting


and even braved death for their art. Some actors, for ex-

a picture, we sense something of the dedication that artists often feel towards their work. Artists have starved, fought, ample, submit their bodies to terrific alterations for the sake of a part. For American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) Christian Bale honed his flesh to what a skilled observer of the male


While sojourning in the Holy Land in 1854 William Holman

physique has called an ‘exquisitely cut-glass body’ (Reuter

Hunt painted one of the nineteenth century’s most fasci-

2000: 140), only to starve its skeletal remains for the haunt-

nating paintings: The Scapegoat (1855). The picture shows a

ing The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004). But the artist who

vicious-looking goat on the desolate shores of the Dead Sea.

most clearly puts his body in jeopardy today is undoubtedly

It is based on an image found in Leviticus, where, as Hunt

the performance artist or body artist, who will often put his

wrote to his friend John Everett Millais, ‘you will read an ac-

physical well-being on the line for the sake of art.

count of the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, bearing all the sins of the children of Israel, which, of course, was insti-

A Body of Art

tuted as a type of Christ’ (Amor 1989: 125). Hunt had bought

Performance art is difficult to define. It seems to be so wide

a white goat to serve as his model for the painting. Led by

a concept, and so often draws on materials and techniques

a group of Arabs, Hunt set out into the wilderness, braving

that are usually considered kinds of art in themselves (such

desolation and the lurking presence of armed brigands (not

as video, painting, film, theatre, poetry, and many others)

to mention the artist at one point sinking into a pit of slime

that it cannot be defined. In fact, if we consult surveys of

and nearly perishing), until he found a suitable spot on the

performance art or of the related topic of body art, such

shores of the Dead Sea that proved a suitable scene for the

books rarely offer insight into what is the specific nature of

picture. Every morning, Hunt would venture out to the shores

performance art. In a classic survey, RoseLee Goldberg claims

of the ‘pestilential lake’ (o.c. 128), set up his easel and paint

that ‘by its very nature, performance art defies precise or easy

while the armed enemy looming in the hills stared at him in

definition beyond the simple declaration that it is live art by

baffled amazement. In the end, the Arab soldiers accompany-

artists’ (Goldberg 2001: 9). In the introduction to her book she

ing him wanted to return and Hunt had to finish the painting

suggests that ‘tribal ritual, medieval passion play, Renais-

in Jerusalem, by which time the goat had died and a new one

sance spectacle or the “soirées” arranged by artists in the



1920s in their Paris studios’ are all examples of performance

performance art; and he is certainly not the only critic to do

art (o.c. 8). But Goldberg’s description is too general and

so. But there is really a marked difference between the two.

wildly inaccurate, for I would claim that the medieval pas-

In the case of Oppenheim’s piece, for instance, one should

sion play is an example of the theatre and that a tribal ritual

wonder how two photographs could constitute a performance.

is not even art at all but, as is clear from the description, an

They document the results of an action on Oppenheim’s part

example of ritual. It would seem that with performance art

that may or may not have been a performance depending on

things are very much as they are with pornography: we all

whether the exposure to sunburn was in itself a public event

know what it is, especially when we see it, but don’t ask us

(a performance) or something Oppenheim engaged in in pri-

to define it. Such an approach, however, will not do. We can-

vate for the sole purpose of creating the photographs, which

not engage in any kind of profitable discussion of anything if

are then the actual works of art (getting sunburnt would then

we do not have clearly defined terms. So we will have to en-

be the preparation for the creation of the work, much like

deavour to find a more satisfying description of what makes

a painter buying tubes of paint, grinding pigment to make

performance art a specific form of art that is distinct from

paint, or preparing a canvas). In the latter case, Reading Posi-

the other arts. Since performance art was still in its infancy

tion would be a work of photographic art, not performance

when Langer wrote Feeling and Form that book does not offer

art, and should be judged as such. So Lucie-Smith’s descrip-

a discussion of the primary illusion created in performance.

tion is a muddle, but not an uncommon one in writing on

Our first task should therefore be to try and define this pri-

body and performance art.

mary illusion so that we may understand what happens in a

In her classic 1974 essay on body art Lea Vergine offers an

performance. Once we have insight in the primary illusion of

interesting clue towards the distinction between body art and

performance art we will also be able to argue why some kinds

performance art. She observes that in body art the body ‘is

of performance art are successful and others not.

being used as an art language’ (Vergine 2000: 7). Body art is

First, we shall have to distinguish between body art and

art in which the body is crucially and actually involved: the

performance art. The two are often discussed together, and

body itself becomes an art language. Body art happens to or

both categories do seem to flow naturally into each other.

with the body or intrinsically concerns the body. It has the

Consider Edward Lucie-Smith’s comment on Dennis Op-

body physical as its locus of expression: what is relevant in

penheim’s Reading Position (1970), a work that ‘consists of

such art is expressed through or impressed upon the body.

two photographs which record the effects of sunburn on the

As Tracey Warr has noted, in body art the body is ‘used not

artist’s own torso – part of it sheltered by an open book, and

simply as the “content” of the work, but also as canvas, brush,

part left exposed. This kind of expression is often classified as

frame and platform’ (Warr 2000: 11). In The Artist’s Body (2000)

body art or performance art’ (Lucie-Smith 2001: 159). Lucie-

Amelia Jones offers an overview of body art that considers

Smith clearly suggests an equivalence between body art and

‘the histrionically virile action painting body’ of Jackson Pol-



lock a crucial point of reference for body art (Jones 2000: 21,

achieve a performance in a way similar to the agency of the

23). After action painting the history of body art is taken to

body in achieving a painting: the body is, so to speak, the tool

include the ‘strategic banality’ (o.c. 26) of everyday gestures

required to create the actual work of art. For instance, when

used in the dance of Merce Cunningham or the Judson Dance

Dutch artist Wim T. Schippers emptied a bottle of lemonade

Theater; a 1962 Happening in which ‘Wolf Vostell instructed

into the ocean he was clearly performing a performance.

the audience to board a city bus, ride around Paris and take

But this performance was not body art: the artist’s body was

note of their aural and visual experiences’ (o.c. 28); Laurie

not intrinsically relevant to the proceedings, except as the

Anderson’s ‘large scale theatrical productions performed at

necessary agent for emptying the bottle of lemonade. The

large-capacity venues’ (o.c. 32); Yves Klein’s Anthropometries;

performance was not about the body physical but about an

the mechanical body extensions of Stelarc; the photographs

action undertaken by the artist as a person. The locus of sig-

of Cindy Sherman; Piero Manzoni’s canned Merda d’artista

nificance in this performance was not the body physical but

(1961); Duchamp’s masquerading as Rrose Sélavy; Niki de

the action itself. So a work can be performance art regardless

Saint-Phalle’s ‘bleeding’ Tir à Volonté-paintings; Warhol’s ‘piss’

of whether it is also body art. What seems to be crucial to

or Oxidation Paintings (1978); Marcel Duchamp’s small Paysage

performance art is the spectacle of action. Performance art

fautif (1946) which was in 1989 revealed to consist of semen

would then be a work of art in which taking action is itself

on black satin; the work of the Viennese Actionists; and even

presented as the work of art. In this sense it is related to Han-

‘the antics of the Spice Girls’ (o.c. 32). But if body art covers

nah Arendt’s notion of action. The creation of artefacts such

such a diverse range of artistic practices then body art as a

as works of art is what Arendt calls “work”. In “action,” on the

term becomes merely descriptive and has very little, if any,

other hand, no final product is created. The clearest example

critical power. Body art sounds like a kind of art (like paint-

of action is politics, where people act for the common good

ing or sculpture) but it is really just a genre within the arts.

but where every act (a law or “act” passed, a decision made,

Hence, we may assume that much performance art will also

a stand taken) can always be undone or overturned by future

be a kind of body art because it usually presupposes the use

acts. In this sense, action is open-ended: its results are never

of the body. But that is all the insight to be gleaned from such

certain and always temporary. If one sets out to act, one nev-

a general approach. After all, most art, even writing, presup-

er knows where one is going to end up.

poses the use of the body.

But performance art is not identical with action. There are

I would suggest that not all performance art is body art in

two reasons for this. First, performance art may leave behind

the sense described here. Not all performance art involves

a final object as end result, be it an artefact created in the

the body in its physicality. Sometimes the body is merely the

performance, some relic of the performance (as when Her-

agent that performs an action which is the actual focus of

mann Nitsch exhibits the paint-splattered and bloodstained

the performance. In this sense the body is sometimes used to

robes he wore during his performances), or a photographic


or other audio-visual record of the performance which may

perceived as politically charged acts of resistance, which

come to substitute for the actual performance in exhibitions.

makes them eligible as examples of actual political action. In

Second, insofar as it is art, performance art is not action as

Happenings the line between art and reality, between action

such, but the illusion of action. This becomes especially clear

and illusion, becomes blurred and our definitions flounder.

if we consider that performance art is usually limited in time.


It starts and it ends and in that sense it is not open-ended:

From Performance to Concept

when one starts a performance one has some idea of where

Trying to define performance art in terms of action seems

one is going and where one wants to end up. This means that

logical but has proved to be a conceptual dead end. So we

the performance is scripted, or at least outlined, and that it is

must try and find a better definition. But before we attempt a

not in its overall structure improvised or spontaneous (which

more satisfactory definition of performance art we might do

really simply means that there must be some kind of com-

well to dwell awhile on the reasons why the present defini-

manding form at work). All improvisation that does occur

tion of performance as action is insufficient. To do this we

must be framed within a pre-established pattern that should

might approach the problem from a different vantage point.

at least be known to all the participants involved in the per-

As we said, a performance must have some element of pre-

formance. Therefore a performance is never open-ended in

meditation to be art: there must be commanding form. But

the sense that (political) action is: it has a form and the act

from this an interesting issue emerges. Suppose that an art-

of performing is the presentation or elaboration of this form.

ist has planned a performance and sends out invitations to

But this description of performance art immediately raises

artworld people to be present at the performance. For the

several grave problems. For we might legitimately ask what it

benefit of the press and other attendants a brief statement

is about performance art that makes it an illusion of action?

has been prepared in which the artist outlines what he will

How can we distinguish between action per se (in the sense

do and what will be its meaning. An interesting way to deter-

of Arendt) and an illusion of action? If performance art is art,

mine the artistic value of the performance might be to ask if

it must have some formal quality that makes it so. Clearly,

the actual performance will add anything of an aesthetic nature

our definition of performance art as the illusion of action is

to the brief outline presented in prose. If the actual perfor-

not sufficiently specific and soon becomes a conceptual mud-

mance does indeed not add anything of an aesthetic nature

dle because it is too difficult to determine when an action

to the work (which means that it really does not matter very

should be perceived as actual or illusory. This issue becomes

much whether you are actually present at the performance

especially vexing in relation to a kind of performance art that

to grasp its meaning and intent), we might judge the per-

was particularly popular in the late 1960s, the Happening.

formance non-artistic, or at least failed or bad art. If the full

As Allan Kaprow pointed out, ‘a Happening cannot be repro-

import of the performance can be grasped in a set of instruc-

duced’ (Jones 2000: 28). In this way Happenings were often

tions or a detailed description to which the actual perfor-



mance as event has little or nothing to add, the work would

definition about ideas and not about form. It is very facile to

seem to be merely discursive: the performance-as-event has

place an object (which can then be called a “ready-made,” as

no aesthetic value in itself and simply serves as a vehicle for

if such renaming of everyday objects magically turns them

an idea or an argument that remains just as valid in an es-

into something other than what they are) in a museum and

say or any other discursive presentation. In fact, the value of

then elaborate on the many critical or political meanings that

the work seems to lie in the description and not at all in the

are attached to it.

action itself. When this redundancy of the performance-as-

But we must ask ourselves, after having read an essay about

event occurs, we might say that the performance is not art

the meanings of a certain conceptual artist’s work, if it is

but illustration.

really necessary to our understanding of the work to actu-

This approach to the problem of the artistic stature of per-

ally go to the museum and see with our own eyes the objects

formance art opens interesting perspectives on other fields

displayed as the carriers of such lofty meanings and radi-

of controversy in recent art, such as the doctorate in the arts.

cal sentiments. I dare suggest that a urinal, regardless of its

As we saw in the previous chapter, several academies and

geographical location, is still very much a urinal after such

universities now offer PhD programmes in art. Such pro-

meanings have been attached to it and that Duchamp’s ac-

grammes usually require the artist to create a work with an

tual urinal as installed in a museum has very little to add

accompanying treatise on the work’s meanings and the cre-

to the idea of Duchamp’s urinal as installed in a museum. So the

ative process involved. This sets the stage for much bad art,

urinal is probably not very great art, although we must grant

for any work of art worth its salt should be able to communi-

that Duchamp, being the first to create such ready-mades, did

cate with its audience in a relevant way without the require-

make a radical gesture and was too intelligent an artist not to

ment of the previous perusal of a theoretical manual. If art

be aware of the ironies and conceptual complexities involved

needs theory to make itself understood, the artist has simply

in it. It is mostly his followers who are flukes. This does not

failed to make a successful work of art. Much such work

mean that the ideas at work behind conceptual art cannot in

tries to redeem itself by being presented as a form of “artis-

themselves be legitimate and interesting. Much conceptual

tic research”. But this, we claimed, is bad faith. Not because

art raises very interesting questions. But the nature of the

artistic research does not exist, but because all good artists

questions or their tentative answers is not in any way en-

do their research in their work. The work is the research, not

hanced by calling them art. A question is not a work of art.

the commentary. David Hockney once mentioned ‘a wonder-

And a non-aesthetic object does not become art because a

ful quote of Picasso’s, which I keep referring to, where he

question is attached to it. It simply gives the whole operation

says he never made a painting as a work of art; it was always

some artistic cachet. In fact, it now becomes clear that much

research’ (Weschler 2008: 61). From this perspective we can

performance art and conceptual art, in setting forth critical

also take a fresh look at conceptual art, which is almost by

statements about the world and the objects in it, are much



nearer to what Arendt called action than to art. People who

seen, for a brief period of time, as a counter-force to the com-

do performances or who raise interesting questions through

mercialisation of the art market: here, at last, were works of

conceptual art do something more akin to politics, journal-

art that could not be bought or sold. But the artworld cynics

ism, and civil action than to art.

soon changed that: if you can’t sell the work, market the at-

The political component of performance art, its breaking of

titude. Hence the introduction of a new cultural currency: the

taboos and challenging of social norms, can also be seen as

avant-garde identity rather than the avant-garde work of art.

another way in which the artworld has tried to regain the al-

Finally, the link between performance art and political action

lure of avant-gardism after it had fashionably declared avant-

becomes especially salient if we keep in mind that the rise of

gardes dead: by subscribing to supposedly radical political,

performance art and conceptual art was closely linked to the

social, or sexual ideas they substitute an avant-garde of the

rise of issue-based and identity art in the 1970s and 1980s.

political and the sexual for an avant-garde of the formal or

In all these kinds of art content matters more than form

the aesthetic. The mechanism at work in the sudden popu-

and the content is often overtly political. In this respect, Lea

larity of street art is also at work in the radical posturing of

Vergine’s early theoretical statement is especially instructive

performance art and its politically charged discourse. Thus,

when it claims that performance and body artists ‘want an

street art and performance art both function along similar

intimate acquaintance with all of the possibilities of self-

lines: they provide the artworld with a new sense of hip

knowledge that can stem from the body and the investigation

avant-gardism, a trendy with-it attitude that recreates the

of the body. The body is stripped bare in an extreme attempt

exclusive sense of an inner circle that was once generated

to acquire the right to a rebirth back into the world. Most of

through formal aesthetic experiments within the actual work

the time, the experiences we are dealing with are authentic,

of art. The result is an artworld that is not really interested

and they are consequently cruel and painful. Those who are

in art anymore but in a politics of the personal. And it might

in pain will tell you that they have the right to be taken seriously.

certainly be true that the personal is the political (for every-

These artists do not “take a long look at life,” and their forms

thing political has repercussions for the way we live our per-

of expression are not genteel. They make no a priori exclu-

sonal lives), but art is not politics. Even politically engaged art

sions and in most of them suffering is not transformed into

is not politics (at worst it is propaganda). And politics, apart

mysticism. This is particularly true when they are involved in

from not being art, cares very little about art to begin with,

the investigation of our infirmities and the monstrous organi-

unless when art can serve political purposes (by becoming

sation of the real. It’s a question of facing up to death through

propaganda) or offers an opportunity to sound moral alarms

life, rummaging around in the under and seamy sides of life,

that will generate votes (as in the culture wars). What is es-

bringing to light the secret and the hidden’ (Vergine 2000: 8-9).

pecially ironic about this evolution within the artworld is the

This passage shows how the rhetoric of victimhood was in-

fact that performance art, along with land art, was actually

troduced into discussions of performance and issue-based art


almost from the start. The italics in the passage are Vergine’s

death, since the vomit would have no place to go. And should

and they stress the inalienable right of the victim to be taken

any one of us vomit, we might trigger him to do likewise”’

seriously, even when she is not creating any artistic form but

(Warr 2000: 104). From this description it is clear that to wit-

simply acting out her victimhood. It is surely no coincidence

ness McCarthy’s performance is a perplexing experience. To

that much issue-based art subsequently took the form of

act in such a provocative and disgusting way clearly affects

performances, as in the work of such feminist luminaries

the audience. Who would not become nauseous while watch-

as Karen Finley or the self-dramatisations of Bob Flanagan.

ing such a spectacle? But the question is of course why this

As Amelia Jones breathlessly points out, the ‘leaky bodies’

performance should be a work of art. Similar gross acts are

of Ron Athey, Gina Pane, and Orlan ‘violently recorporealise

perpetrated in such pseudo-reality television shows as Jack-

the subjects of culture who spew, shit, piss and vomit their

ass and Dirty Sanchez, and yet nobody has made claims for

woundedness (as female, gay, sick)’ (Jones 2000: 33). But is

the superior artistic quality of such shows. So there must be

there artistic achievement or aesthetic merit in displaying

something about McCarthy’s performance that sets it apart

one’s woundedness?

from mere provocation. As we saw earlier, the presence of all kinds of “subversive or critical meanings” hardly qualifies


Engaging the Audience

as such a difference, for we might well argue that any act of

We must now try again to find the primary illusion created

gross indecency, by virtue of its offensive nature, challenges

in performance art. Several classic instances of performance

established moral codes and should therefore be considered

art offer clues towards such a definition. Our first exhibit is

of artistic merit. And yet such acts, when perpetrated in pub-

a description of Paul McCarthy’s Hot Dog (1974), one of the

lic without prior consent of government officials, are usually

artist’s ‘earliest performances enacting masochistic culinary

condemned as indecent exposure and not celebrated as ma-

rituals. McCarthy stripped and shaved his body in front of a

jor feats of artistic achievement.

small group of friends in his basement studio. Artist Barbara

Let us look at two further examples. Gina Pane’s seminal

Smith, present at the event, reported: “He [then] stuffs his

performance Le Lait Chaud (1972) showed the artist cutting

penis into a hotdog bun and tapes it on, then smears his ass

herself with a razor blade. Pane herself describes what hap-

with mustard... He approaches the tables and sits nearby,

pened: ‘Suddenly I turned to face my public and approached

drinking ketchup and stuffing his mouth with hot dogs...

the razor blade to my face. The tension was explosive and

Binding his head with gauze and adding more hot dogs, he

broke when I cut my face on either cheek. They yelled “No,

finally tapes his bulging mouth closed so that the protruding

no, not the face, no!” So I touched an essential problem – the

mouth looks like a snout... He stands alone struggling with

aestheticism in every person. The face is taboo, it’s the core

himself, trying to prevent his own retching. It is apparent that

of human aesthetics’ (o.c. 121). A more extreme form of au-

he is about to vomit... Should he vomit he might choke to

tomutilation is performed in the “performance-surgery” of



French artist Orlan. Tracey Warr describes such an operation

art, where audience response and even audience participa-

as it was broadcast live to fifteen sites worldwide: ‘Specta-

tion are often made part of the work itself. To clarify this

tors around the world could ask the artist questions both

we might compare performance art with the theatrical arts,

before and during the operation, to which she responded as

where the presence of an audience is also highly desirable (if

the procedure permitted. Elaborately staging the events with

only to prevent the act of performing a play from being a pro-

colourful drapery, costumes created by famous designers,

foundly depressing experience for the actors involved). But

and extra personnel to translate into English and sign for the

in theatre, as in dance, the fictional space of the work is al-

deaf, Orlan transformed the operating theatre into her studio,

ways demarcated from the space of the audience. Langer has

while her operation provided the material for the production

written incisively about this feature, especially in relation to

of film, video, photographs and objects to be exhibited later.

dance. Langer suggests that ‘all dance motion is gesture [...].

The operation was performed by a feminist plastic surgeon,

Gesture is the basic abstraction whereby the dance illusion is

Dr Marjorie Cramer, who inserted implants above Orlan’s

made and organised’ (FF 174). But gesture is not gesticulation.

eyes and in her cheeks and chin. The artist was conscious but

‘Gesticulation, as part of our actual behaviour, is not art. It is

locally anaesthetised, and it is therefore the spectator who

simply vital movement’ (FF 175). Gesticulation, bodily move-

suffers as a result of the discomfort produced by images of

ments brought about by the hustle and bustle of daily exis-

the operation. The artist retains ultimate (conscious) control

tence, is not art. It is a symptom of our being actively alive in

of the process of her facial remoulding and thus the repre-

the world. ‘Virtual gestures,’ on the other hand, namely the

sentation of her (female) face and body in art’ (o.c. 185). The

gestures created in the illusion of dance, ‘are symbols of will.

case of Orlan is especially instructive. It is clearly a perfor-

The spontaneous gestic character of dance motions is illu-

mance in the sense that it is elaborately staged as an event

sory, and the vital force they express is illusory; the “powers”

that is limited in time. It produces a series of artefacts com-

(i.e. centers of vital force) in dance are created beings – cre-

memorating the event. By having it performed by a feminist

ated by the semblance of gesture’ (FF 175). The dance turns

surgeon, the performance raises (admittedly rather trite and

gesture into fiction, an illusion. ‘The primary illusion of dance

unexciting) political issues. And by remoulding a woman’s

is a virtual realm of Power – not actual, physically exerted

face it confronts issues of canons of beauty and how ideas of

power, but appearances of influence and agency created by

the body beautiful are projected onto women’s bodies.

virtual gesture. In watching a collective dance – say, an ar-

But the really salient issue which is present in all three cases

tistically successful ballet – one does not see people running

discussed, is the issue of audience involvement and audience

around; one sees the dance driving this way, drawn that way,

response. Obviously, all art addresses an audience. But a paint-

gathering here, spreading there – fleeing, resting, rising, and

ing, a film, a sculpture, or a novel is offered the audience as a

so forth; and all the motion seems to spring from powers be-

finished product. This is not usually the case in performance

yond the performers. In a pas de deux the two dancers appear



to magnetise each other; the relation between them is more

magnetising the dancers, is not coextensive with the space

than a spatial one, it is a relation of forces; but the forces they

of the audience. The dance illusion is given the audience as a

exercise, that seem to be as physical as those which orient

spectacle, an illusory world, to look at. In this, it differs from

the compass needle toward its pole, really do not exist physi-

sculpture and architecture. As Langer notes, sculpture often

cally at all. They are dance forces, virtual powers’ (FF 175-176).

kindles in people a desire to touch it because ‘volume is real-

But these virtual powers immediately generate another effect

ly given originally to touch, [...] and the business of sculpture

which is crucial to their success. ‘Every dancer sees the dance

is to translate its data into entirely visual terms, i.e. to make

sufficiently to let his imagination grasp it as a whole; and

tactual space visible’ (FF 89-90). With architecture, we actually

with his own body-feeling he understands the gestic forms

inhabit its ethnic domain. This does not diminish the fact

that are its interwoven, basic elements. He cannot see his

that such virtual spaces are given primarily to our perception,

own form as such, but he knows his appearance – the lines

but it does mean that the self-contained world created in

described by his body are implied in the shifts of his vision,

these arts functions in a way different from the field of Power

even if he is dancing alone, and are guaranteed but the rhyth-

in dance gestures. With dance, as with the theatre, the spec-

mic play of his muscles, the freedom with which his impuls-

tator is usually kept at a further distance from the work than

es spend themselves in complete and intended movements.

in sculpture or architecture.

He sees the world in which his body dances, and that is the

I believe that Langer’s notion of a magnetic field of powers

primary illusion of his work; in this closed realm he develops

between dancers in a dance is a crucial clue to the primary

his ideas’ (FF 197). This last observation is crucial: the dance

illusion of performance art, where the audience itself be-

creates a closed realm, a world on its own. ‘The dance cre-

comes involved in the force-field created in the work. It is the

ates an image of nameless and even bodiless Powers filling a

incorporation of audience response or participation into the

complete, autonomous realm, a “world”’ (FF 190). ‘The dance,

work rather than the action-like nature of the event that is

or dancers,’ Langer continues, ‘must transform the stage for

crucial to the primary illusion of performance art (which sub-

the audience as well as for themselves into an autonomous,

sequently may or may not also be body art, depending on the

complete, virtual realm, and all motions into a play of visible

role of the body physical in the proceedings). Performance

forces in unbroken, virtual time’ (FF 204). This recalls, to some

art can never be complete as a work without the audience.

extent, the primary illusion of the visual arts, the creation

We must understand this well. As we said before, all art re-

of virtual space in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Es-

quires an audience. But most art is finished as a work before

pecially the way sculpture inhabits and organises the empty

the audience becomes involved. In temporal terms, the work

space around it seems to be akin to the way the realm of

of art is usually completed before the audience comes in (in

Power of dance generates a world of its own. This means that

the case of the theatre or the dance, where the individual

the space of the world of the dance, its virtual field of powers

performance only starts when the audience is present in the



theatre, the work was actually completed during rehearsals,

form of art that differs crucially from all other forms of art:

and what is presented to the audience is the accomplished

it breaks open its virtual world to include the audience and

living symbol of the play or the dance as it was conceived,

in that sense becomes somehow world-encompassing. Since

achieved, and perfected through rehearsal: the play or the

performance art emerged as a full-fledged art form in the

dance that the audience will see is already finished in the

1960s, when it was charged with political and emancipatory

minds and bodies of the performers, who are ready to perform

intentions, such breaking-open towards the world should

it again, and again, and again, usually without much adjust-

not surprise us. By encompassing the audience, and hence

ment of the original form). In performance art the work cannot

the entire phenomenologically present environment, perfor-

be complete before the audience comes in. As a matter of fact,

mance art generates a sense of claustrophobia that is crucial

the audience becomes instrumental in the completion of the

to its success: the magnetic force-field that ties dancers in a

work because its response to or participation in it is crucial to

pas de deux here includes the audience, which is given a sense

the accomplishment of the work. Clearly, McCarthy’s Hot Dog

of being locked in. To be present at a performance is to have

includes the audience response (the felt experience of nausea

the feeling that one cannot get away. One is part of the event.

and the simultaneous knowledge that to give way to nausea

This means that it is far more difficult for the spectator to

might endanger the artist) as part of the work. Take away the

remain a disinterested spectator. Because one is involved in

tension between the performer and his audience and there is

the force-field, one is drawn almost physically into the per-

simply no work, only the masochistic shenanigans of a man

formance. This dynamic is especially clear in Barbara Smith’s

involved in a highly inventive form of sexual adventurous-

response to McCarthy’s Hot Dog: it is as if the audience is tak-

ness. The acts performed by McCarthy might still be mean-

en hostage by the work and is made to feel McCarthy’s nausea

ingful or (sexually, masochistically) exciting to the artist as a

instead of simply watching it. Obviously, the examples we

private person, but they would no longer be art (although we

have used here are extreme forms of performance and much

should allow for the fact that the presence of a camera docu-

performance art is far less confrontational or aggressive

menting the solitary performance might substitute for an

towards the audience. But even in more demure cases the

audience). Similarly, what would be the use of Gina Pane cut-

audience becomes directly involved because the performance

ting her face if there were no audience present to be shocked

engages both its response and, it should by now be clear, its

by her action? In performance the audience becomes part of

reflection. Given the politically charged nature of much per-

the fabric of the work itself.

formance art, which is further illustrated in its popularity

We can now endeavour a new definition of performance art. I

among artists engaged in issue-based art, the performance

suggest that the primary illusion created in performance art

often has the specific goal of triggering a political or critical

is the illusion of action within a virtual realm of power that

insight in the audience. It wants to make the audience aware

includes both the performer and the audience. In this, it is a

of some injustice. But in a good performance, this triggering



of insight in the audience is part of the fabric of the work (as

merely an illusion: the real world is still out there, beyond the

it would also be in conceptual art).

boundaries of the virtual realm of the performance. But the

But the political charge of much performance art also circles

effect of this coup is that the experience of watching a per-

back to action in the sense of Arendt. Therefore our defini-

formance becomes part of the performance itself. Hence a

tion once again states that the primary illusion created in

performance is a kind of art in which consciousness-raising

performance art is an illusion of action. This is the very aspect

can become an integral part of the virtual world because it is

that we earlier identified as profoundly problematic: it lead

integrated into the artistic fabric.

us straight into a conceptual muddle. But I believe we can

It should be clear that our definition of the primary illusion

evade the muddle this time because we situate the illusion

of performance art does not solve all our problems. But the

of action within a virtual realm of power that includes both

primary illusion does offer us a clue as to what performance

performer(s) and audience. This addition is crucial. Our ear-

art is good art. In fact, insofar as much performance art takes

lier problems with the illusion of action as a definition of the

on a decidedly discursive form by letting ideological or po-

primary illusion of performance art stemmed mainly from

litical intentions prevail over formal concerns, an unusually

the fact that it was impossible to determine whether any

high degree of performance art may be rather mediocre. It

action was real or illusory. But if we situate the illusion of ac-

is surely the challenge of the performance artist to create

tion within a power-field that is itself already a virtual world

a form that does something considerably more ambitious

on its own, this problem disappears: all action performed in

than provoke a visceral reaction in the audience (as in the

the performance pertains not to the real world, but only to

nausea experienced while watching Hot Dog), denounce some

the virtual world created in the work. The audience present

social injustice (as in the work of Karen Finley), or engage

at a performance is never really an audience and is never re-

in an exhibitionism of the ailing body (as in the work of Bob

ally in front of the stage: it is on the stage, part of the action,

Flanagan). All the objections against performance and con-

and part of the virtual realm created. In this sense we might

ceptual art that were raised earlier remain valid now that we

say that performance art has something of the ideal, which

have determined the primary illusion of the performance.

was very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, of turning one’s life

But the primary illusion should help us explain why so much

into a work of art. By creating a virtual realm that encom-

performance art is failed art, bad art, or maybe not even art

passes a realm that is not usually supposed to be part of the

at all. It is one thing to say that performance art includes the

virtual world, namely the realm of the spectator, the artist

audience in its primary illusion, it is another thing to say that

is actually performing a coup on the world: he obliterates

any work that includes the audience in its primary illusion

the world (insofar as it is phenomenologically present to the

is therefore by definition good (performance) art. It offers us

performers and the audience) by including it in his action. So

a criterion for distinguishing true works of performance art

the real and the fictional are conflated. But this is obviously

from works that are falsely seen as performance art. For in-


stance, it might be argued that works such as Chris Burden’s

single most notorious piece of performance art in which the

Oh, Dracula (1974), which had the artist sleep in a chrysalis-

artist put her own life in jeopardy was Marina Abramovic’s

like sheet attached to the wall of the museum, or a Peter

Rhythm 0 (1974) in which ‘Abramovic stood by a table and of-

Greenaway exhibit of a naked woman (The Physical Self, 1991)

fered herself passively to spectators, who could do what they

really belong in a survey of sculpture rather than one of per-

liked with a range of objects and her body. A text on the wall

formance art. To the extent that there is no explicit illusion of

read, “There are seventy-two objects on the table that can be

action in these works and that they are primarily presented

used on me as desired. I am the object.” The objects included

as exhibits rather than audience-inclusive events, such works

a gun, a bullet, a saw, an axe, a fork, a comb, a whip, lipstick,

seem to be extreme cases of sculpture.

a bottle of perfume, paint, knives, matches, a feather, a rose, a candle, water, chains, nails, needles, scissors, honey, grapes,


Lethal Objections

plaster, sulphur and olive oil. By the end of the performance

As noted before, the boundary between performance art and

all her clothes had been sliced off her body with razor blades,

body art is often blurred. This is especially the case in the

she had been cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, crowned with

most sensational, and often the most effective, kind of per-

thorns and had had the loaded gun pressed against her head.

formance art, namely the performance in which the body is

After six hours the performance was halted by concerned

shown to accomplish immense feats of physical endurance,

spectators’ (Warr 2000: 125).

often to the point of putting the artist’s physical well-being

Rhythm 0 is an extreme case of audience involvement in art

at risk. McCarthy’s Hot Dog and Pane’s Le Lait Chaud are clear

that develops ideas that can be traced back to Yoko Ono’s

examples of such performance art. But other and more noto-

Cut Piece (1964) and similar works in which the artist’s body

rious instances have become the topic of controversy. Chris

becomes the willing passive recipient of aggressive acts. It

Burden famously had a friend shoot him in the arm for Shoot

is a matter of dispute whether such performances are still

(1971), for Trans-fixed (1974) he was nailed to a car in the pos-

art. The inclusion of the audience in the virtual world of the

ture of the crucified Christ, and for the notorious Deadman

action is certainly taken to the limit in Abramovic’s piece

(1972) Burden himself explains that ‘at 8 pm I lay down on La

since it was up to members of the audience to determine

Cienega Boulevard and was covered completely with a canvas

when the performance was over; when, in other words, they

tarpaulin. Two 15-minute flares were placed near me to alert

themselves had had enough. Apart from that, the entire per-

cars. Just before the flares extinguished, a police car arrived. I

formance smacks of abject nihilism. The fact that a loaded

was arrested and booked for causing a false emergency to be

gun was held to Abramovic’s head seems to defy all reason:

reported. The trial took place in Beverly Hills. After three days

why would an artist put her life at risk simply to make some

of deliberations, the jury failed to reach a decision and the

point? Such nihilistic acts of self-destruction are usually the

judge dismissed the case’ (Hoffman 2007: 158). Perhaps the

preserve of suicide bombers or political or religious fanat-



ics who engage in self-immolation. There is no denying the

Or would he simply be deemed a fierce critic of a contentious

incredible force such extreme performances have for the

work of art? If Abramovic offers the means and the opportu-

people present. As Gina Pane remarked of Le Lait Chaud, ‘the

nity for her murder as an artistic event, an open invitation

tension was explosive,’ and we may be sure that it was even

to trigger-pulling, does that entitle me to pull that trigger?

more so for the people present at Rhythm 0. The question we

I doubt it. To the extent that killing Abramovic would have

are faced with is whether such tension has anything artistic

very real extra-artistic consequences in the real world (for

about it if it involves such reckless risk-taking. For there is a

one thing, it would certainly make prices for her works soar

very definite line that runs between Pane’s Le Lait Chaud on

in the art market) the entire event is decidedly not a work

the one hand and Deadman or Rhythm 0 on the other. Pane

of art. The fact that I hire someone to kill me does not make

is always in charge of the proceedings, as is Orlan when she

that hired killer innocent of murder in the eyes of the law (if

submits to surgery. But both Burden and Abramovic introduce

it did, the whole question of euthanasia would not cause so

an element of unpredictability by relinquishing control to

much legal and political debate). The fact that I send out invi-

coincidence or the wiles of other people. A person with mur-

tations to the act does not make it art. So it is clear that any

derous intent may well use the occasion of Rhythm 0 to act

performance that wants to include its audience in its risk-

upon his impulses. A driver passing Deadman may not notice

taking must first make sure that the audience is complicit

the flares and run over Burden. In both cases the question is

and knows exactly what it is in for. Ironically, this would

if both artists have not simply behaved in a grossly irrespon-

often spoil the shock value of the performance itself. But it

sible way rather than created a work of art. Also, the case of

need not. That prepping the audience is possible without

Deadman raises the question of the participation of people

destroying the thrill of risk was shown in Santiago Sierra’s

who are not willing members of the audience. If the hypo-

performance-slash-installation 300 Tons, created at the Kun-

thetical driver runs over Burden, has he not been made an

sthaus Bregenz in April 2004. Here is Sierra’s written concept

unwilling accomplice to murder/suicide? Does any innocent

for the event: ‘292 tons of concrete bricks were carried to the

passer-by deserve to be faced with the possible consequences

top floor of the Kunsthaus Bregenz and their weight distrib-

of Burden’s behaviour?

uted on temporary supports over the whole building. That

These are troubling questions and the fact that the works

will almost result, though with sufficient leeway, in the entire

themselves might be intended to raise and debate these

building collapsing due to the overload. For this reason the

questions hardly seems to redeem them as art. Suppose for

number of visitors present at any time may never be more

a moment that a person had actually pulled the trigger on

than 100, which represents an additional 8 tons’ (Schneider

Abramovic. How would the authorities have reacted to that?

2004: 13).

Would the trigger-puller be arrested? Charged with murder

The Kunsthaus Bregenz is designed to carry a maximum

or manslaughter (or woman-slaughter; or person-slaughter)?

weight of 300 tons. Above that limit (but, we may assume,


even approaching that limit from below) the building might

has anything resembling the stunning beauty of Serra’s metal

crack. So it is up to the visitor to decide if he or she wants to

constructions. If it does, I do not think this redeems the work

take the risk of hoisting inside his extra pounds of art fod-

as art (a beautiful stupid risk is still a stupid risk), but if it

der that will bring the entire construction down, causing all

does not, then all we are left with is the thrill. And the idea

present to die a gloriously artistic death. I strongly feel that,

behind this thrill, including its possible critical meanings, is

in a free world, every person has the right to behave the way

again sufficiently expressed in the written concept. To actu-

they like, no matter how stupid, as long as they don’t hurt

ally visit it would be carelessness (and just imagine making it

anybody. But this is very stupid behaviour. And I dare sug-

a family outing and losing both one’s parents in the event).

gest that those engaging in it are fooling themselves no end


if they think that what they are doing is artistic or artistically

The Meating of Porn and Art on a Dissecting Table

relevant. Again, the question we must ask ourselves is if the

When feats of physical endurance become enmeshed with is-

thrill of risk and of possible death makes for good art. Or, to

sues of the sexual body, the question of pornography rears it

state it another way, would it not be possible to create the

naughty head. Just like much performance art, pornographic

thrill of risk without any actual risk involved; which means:

films (and we shall restrict ourselves primarily to porno-

to create an illusion of risk, which would immediately take

graphic films, although it will become instantly clear that the

us back into the realm of art, where all realities are virtual.

argument we are about to make can easily be expanded to

Consider, for example, the imposing installations of Rich-

include erotic cabarets and stripping) offer feats of physical

ard Serra, huge constructions that loom ominously over the

endurance. Even tepidly mainstream porn films often require

viewer. Serra’s work is there to be looked at and to be experi-

performers to be contortionists: they must bend and stretch

enced. I find Serra’s work extremely successful, and part of its

their bodies to allow the camera maximum visibility. On top

success lies in the fact that it does not count upon the cheap

of that, they must be sexually active, perform sometimes

thrill of real risk to engage its audience. Serra makes us feel

challenging acts of sexual prowess, such as double penetra-

uncomfortable without putting our physical integrity at risk

tions, all the while trying to look glamorous and aroused.

(although, tragically, in the early 1970s one of his installations

That porn might be an Olympic discipline becomes especially

did collapse during construction, killing a worker; but this

clear if we look at a pornographic genre that has remark-

was a tragic accident, not something intended as a calculated

able affinities with performance and ritual: sadomasochistic

possibility). Also, Serra’s work not only deals with the per-

porn, which often includes such transgressive acts as fisting,

ceived threat of sublime sculpture, he is also concerned with

bondage, and urolagnia (it were these kinds of acts that were

issues of texture, choice of materials, architecture, and the

deemed unacceptably offensive in Robert Mapplethorpe’s

geography of space. I did not visit 300 Tons, nor would I feel

X Portfolio). Both in the performances of Marina Abramovic

inclined to, so I do not know if the sight of 292 tons of bricks

and Chris Burden and in the acrobatics of porn stars there is



a test of the body and its endurance. If Abramovic cuts her

supposed to become art when it is done in an “artistic con-

stomach with a razor or if Burden lets a friend shoot a bul-

text” (whatever that may be) but cannot be art, or at least not

let through his arm, they are submitting themselves to acts

as easily be regarded as art, if it takes place in a porn film. An

that are painful, potentially dangerous, and that require great

obvious answer would be that the two are different in kind.

endurance in the performer. The same can be said of porn

We might say that art tries to communicate, for want of a

performers. It requires considerable endurance to take anoth-

better word, deeper meanings or make critical comments on

er person’s fist or arm up the ass, submit to several forms of

certain topics. The meaning of the sex does not lie in the sex

sexual abuse, or endure the soiling of the body, both its skin

itself. This is different with pornography, which is really just

and its inside, with urine or other bodily secretions.

about instant gratification. But this difference rests on sev-

This risk-taking with the body is pushed to the limit in un-

eral unchallenged and profoundly problematic assumptions.

safe sex. In gay porn there is a vogue for what is called bare-

First, there is no reason to assume that art does not also offer

backing: performers who fuck without condoms, knowingly

instant gratification. If a work of art is beautiful, it can give

exposing themselves to the risk of contracting hiv/aids. The

us a jolt and instantly uplift our mood. Certain genres of film

odd thing is that we are apparently very willing to accept

that are usually associated with instant gratification, such as

death-defying performances by Burden or Abramovic as art,

horror films or the thriller, have practitioners who are highly

but when porn performers (or indeed any visitor of a kinky

regarded as artists, such as Alfred Hitchcock. The thrills and

sex club) engage in acrobatic sex without the protection of

shocks of these films, although integrated in a fabric of ex-

a condom this is regarded as unnecessary risk-taking and

quisite expressive form, could be considered instant gratifica-

as irresponsible behaviour (in fact, many people who prac-

tion and they are undeniably part of the reason we like to see

tice an extreme or dangerous sport take similar calculated

such films. Obviously, these films also do many other things

risks without incurring our moral disapprobation). But surely

beyond delivering effects and shocks, but it is an unwar-

Abramovic and Burden are putting their bodies’ well-being

ranted assumption to suggest that pornography by definition

equally at risk as the porn performers. And whatever mes-

does not also offer anything more in such a way.

sage these performances try to communicate could surely

But this defence of pornography is itself guilty of prejudice,

be communicated just as clearly and effectively without put-

for in making it we are assuming that the supposed instant

ting the body at risk. So there is no clear way in which porn

gratification of porn could not be valuable in itself and hence

is in any sense more “gratuitous” than extreme performance

not worthy of being considered art. This is odd. If a tragic

art: in both cases, performers willingly and knowingly take

novel or play makes us care for its characters and maybe

calculated risks with their own bodies in a spectacle. The

even shed tears because we are moved by their fate, the work

question we are facing is why such behaviour, and especially

is considered a success. If the pornographic film succeeds in

such extreme or risk-taking behaviour of a sexual nature, is

stimulating us to orgasm, it is also considered a success, but



of a rather vulgar kind. This is hypocrisy. We should not judge

films that have incorporated explicit sexual imagery. Patrice

porn on account of the fact that it is pornographic. That porn

Chéreau’s remarkable film Intimacy (2000) and Larry Clark’s

is not about telling complex psychological stories is hardly

unsettling and decidedly horny Ken Park (2002) are exceptions,

surprising. We should judge porn as a genre in itself and ap-

but usually such films turn out banal or fail both as works

ply the same standard that we apply to all other genres or all

of art and as works of pornography. They become sterile and

other arts: we should simply discriminate between good porn

unmoving. It would seem that porn is at its best when it is

and bad porn. And it is an undeniable fact that the ability to

allowed to be what it is and endeavours to excel at its usual

arouse sexual lust in the viewer is a sign that a pornographic


film is a success. But we should not be naive either. Of all the

What kind of art, then, is porn and what kinds of bodies are

possible effects a work of art can have on the human organ-

represented in it? Pornography is the art of the sexual body

ism, sexual arousal is surely among the easiest to achieve.

in motion: it creates symbols, forms expressive of the ec-

Mother Nature has kindly programmed us to react swiftly

static body. It might be objected that it is glib to suggest that

and with great dedication to almost any erotic stimulus. It

the naked bodies in pornographic films are “expressive of”

does not take much artistry to push the buttons of arousal.

something else which just happens to be the naked human

But then, many other effects such as laughter or emotional

body. This formulation seems to introduce a new kind of coy

involvement with a fictional character are almost just as eas-

prudery: it’s not really dicks and cunts, its “expressive of”

ily accomplished in a mediocre way, which accounts for the

arousal. And yet the formulation is necessary, for we should

many formulaic films and novels that are about. Such works,

never allow ourselves to forget that porn, like all art, is an

whether films, novels, pornographic films, or any other art,

illusion. It is, in fact, a performance in the truest sense of the

are simply mediocre art. But in porn as in any other art

word. The actors in such films do perform in the sense that

form there are outstanding works that deserve our serious

what they are showing us is not self-expressive or spontane-

consideration. And that means, among other things, to ac-

ous. The actors in the scenes do not usually play themselves,

knowledge that the success of any kind of erotic art depends

the scenes are scripted, and the performers do not usually

to a large extent on its ability to provoke in us the desired

have the choice as to which sexual acts to perform when and

response, which is arousal. As Kenneth Clark justly remarked

with whom. Commenting on her starring but sexually ex-

in his outstanding study of The Nude (1956), ‘no nude, how-

plicit role in Curt McDowell’s cult classic Thundercrack! (1975)

ever abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some

actress Marion Eaton says that she ‘used an actor’s technique

vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest

to portray sexuality as “erotic realism,” but kept a line there

shadow – and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false mor-

to prevent it from being my own personal masturbation. I

als’ (Clark 1960: 6). In fact, pornographic materials often fail if

created a bigger-than-life masturbation so that it would be

they try too hard to be “artistic,” as in many recent art-house

everybody’s masturbation’ (Stevenson 1996: 241). The porn



film is directed. The action in porn films is often filmed from

this at length. She claims that ‘pornography without obscen-

different angles, there are different takes, scenes are shot

ity is sad’ (Guilló et al. 2002: 80). Ovidie gives a very precise

several times over, the material is then edited and all kinds

definition of pornography as ‘the realistic representation

of effects are introduced, from lighting effects during filming

in film or video of non-simulated sexual acts’ (o.c. 78). So

to sound effects and dubbing on the edited scene. The fact

books and paintings or drawings are never pornographic for

that there is much bad porn and some good porn and that we

Ovidie, although photographs and performance art can be.

can very easily tell the difference (because so much bad porn

Furthermore, not all pornography is obscene, and not every-

is abysmally bad) suggests that it does take talent, or an eye

thing that is obscene is also pornographic. In fact, ‘obscenity

for the erotic, to be successful at making such films, that not

only begins when something upsets us emotionally’ (o.c. 79).

anybody can do it well and that some (a very few) people do it

This means that pornography, to be obscene, must have an

with considerable vision and dedication. The pornographic is

emotional impact on the viewer, who must be somewhat

in fact a very difficult genre, one of the most difficult, which

shaken by what he or she sees. This was not usually the case

probably explains why there is so little successful material

in the 1990s, when porn became more and more tailor-made

around (another obvious reason is that most “legitimate”

for a mainstream audience, with predictable and repetitive

directors with genuine talent tend to steer clear from mak-

action, clinical presentations, and professional actresses fak-

ing porn, leaving the field to the hacks and the cynics). So it

ing orgasms. The situation is similar in gay porn, where, as

is legitimate and necessary to say that the bodies in porno-

maverick gay porn director Joe Gage puts it, professional porn

graphic films are expressive of something else, even though

actors often ‘have that West-Hollywood-escort vibe that to

they are very explicitly present. The thing they are expressive

a large degree doesn’t interest me. Because with them, the

of is the body ecstatic: successful pornographic imagery is

meter is always running and they’re into it because they can

expressive of the felt experience of the human body in its full

do it, they’re not into it because they are compelled to do it’

sexual capacity and at its highest level of sensual alertness.

(Rodriguez 2007: 20). In such films, Ovidie explains, ‘there is

When its expressive illusion is successful, we are moved by

definitely the sexual act, but there is nothing because there is

the work and (usually) become aroused, although this is not a

only the sexual act, there is no sexual dimension. If you watch

necessary outcome: sometimes the sight of bodies in rest and

the thing, there is only the sex act itself’ (Guilló et al. 2002:

motion is so moving to watch that it transcends arousal.

80). Such pornography has lost its obscenity and therefore

To achieve this kind of expressiveness it is probably neces-

its power to shock, unsettle, or even arouse the viewer in an

sary to take pornography into the realm of the obscene. One

exciting or relevant way. This is one of the reasons why some

of the failings of much porn is its coldness, its clinical pre-

performers have tried to branch out into more challenging

sentation of body parts. French porn actress Ovidie, who is a

terrain. Virginie Despentes co-directed the film Baise-moi

vocal advocate for her chosen profession, has commented on

(2000) with porn star Coralie. And male French porn star HPG



(Hervé-Pierre Gustave) managed to attract the attention of

these first experiments, it would be two years before Bour-

an art-house audience with several short subjects, notably

don made porn again, after a chance meeting with director

Acteur X pour vous servir (2001). Even if we admit that these ef-

José Bénazéraf during a private screening of one of his films.

forts were not entirely successful, the very fact that they were

The director would put her in several of his films, notably La

being made is in itself interesting because its shows that the

Soubrette perverse (1974) and La Veuve lubrique (1975). Since

idea of pornography as a form of art is now quite accepted,

such films only included simulated sex, the experience was

especially among a younger generation of performers who

a disillusionment for Bourdon, who wanted to make porn to

see their work as more than simply a kind of videographed

further her sexual enjoyment. Her chance to do so came with


Frédéric Lansac’s classic Le Sexe qui parle (1975) and the highly

But this recent wave of art-porn consciousness was not the

successful Candice Candy (Pierre Unia, 1976).

first. Pornography became widespread in the wake of the sex-

In the span of about a year, Bourdon would appear in a host

ual revolution of the 1960s and many early performers and

of interesting sex and porn films, including Jean Rollin’s gor-

directors believed that their work was part of the revolution,

geous Lèvres de Sang (1976). Her sexual quest also took her to

part of the attempt to break down oppressive moral codes.

the furthest edges of sexuality. For Sylvia dans l’extase (1976)

Several early porn stars were on a mission, not just on a trip

she became the first French porn star to have sex with a dog.

down exploitation road. One of the best examples of a porn

She saw this scene as an ideological statement: ‘It is time,

star whose work was equally the expression of an ideologi-

dear cinephiles, to destroy the hypocrisy of loving animals

cal belief in sexual liberation was French porn legend Sylvia

without giving them the legitimate satisfactions of a real

Bourdon. When her memoir L’Amour est une fête (1976) was

relationship. But truth compels me to admit that I was royally

republished in 2001 Bourdon added a preface in which she

paid for this scene: but I did it with pleasure because it was

wrote that, for her, pornography, along with her many other

one of my fantasies made flesh’ (o.c. 82). She also became

sexual exploits, ‘was simply part of my exploration’ (Bourdon

the subject of Jean-François Davy’s documentary Exhibition 2

2001: 8). As a sexually liberated and adventurous woman,

(1976), which painted a rather one-sided portrait of her as a

Bourdon wanted to explore all the aspects of her sexuality.

sexually voracious obsessive with dangerous ideas border-

And as exhibitionism was part of her sexual character, por-

ing on the fascist. Davy had earlier made Exhibition (1975), a

nographic films were a logical venture. In 1972 an acquain-

fascinating and intelligent portrait-as-exposure of porn star

tance brought Bourdon into contact with porn pioneer Lasse

Claudine Beccarie. The film on Bourdon included scenes of

Braun, who made a set of three 8mm shorts with her, most

sadomasochistic torture and culminated in a dinner party

famously Cake Orgy (1972), in which a group of people have

where Bourdon first gorged herself on food and then sat on

sex with each other and six cakes on a beach (this short sub-

the table, shat, and ate her own excrement. When the film

ject also featured the future star Claudine Beccarie). After

was forbidden by the censor (and later released in a heavily



truncated form, purged of its scatological finale) Davy all but

ity of the performers or characters involved are portrayed

distanced himself from his star, whom he called ‘a pathologi-

as being profoundly sexual. In a porn film everything, even

cal case,’ something for which Bourdon has never forgiven

the most commonplace situations or persons, are occasions

the man whom she in 2001 still referred to as (in deliciously

for sexual adventures. There is nothing in porn that cannot

scatological French) ‘ce lâche et ignoble salopard, cet infâme in-

become sexual. Most kitchen appliances have by now been

dividu,’ a man who grovelled before authority in the hope of

called upon to perform sexual services upon some human

salvaging his investment rather than defend his work. She

orifice. Any kind of fabric, from black lace stockings through

calls the film her one regret in life (o.c. 9). In 1977, Bourdon

rubber masks and latex briefs, have lifted fetishists up to

quit the porn business because it had become repetitive

the highest transports of ecstasy. In pornography the whole

and unchallenging. Bourdon next opened a gallery for erotic

body becomes responsive to sexual impulses, no touch is

art where she hosted, among other things, artist Journiac’s

ever innocent of sexual meaning, and our sexual desires are

performance Action érotico-patriotique (1978), a ritual piece in

projected onto everything around us. The whole world is a

which Bourdon herself partook and that was documented in

sexual cornucopia. It is a world of plenty where pleasure, and

a rarely seen 8mm film (Gayet 2002). Clearly, Bourdon’s brief

people willing and able to administer it, are amply available.

but highly publicised involvement with pornography was

Every orgasm is a blast and all desires are fulfilled. In short,

first and foremost about achieving her own aims in life: a

the world as portrayed in pornography seems like an alto-

full development of her sexual experience. She expected the

gether more desirable world than the one in which we have

projects in which she became involved to rise to the occa-

to live out our everyday lives. But it is this all-over-field of

sion. When they failed to do so, the challenge was gone and

sexual responsiveness that is often singled out as the major

she quit the scene. What remains, is a body of work that is a

moral issue in porn. Especially feminist criticism of porn has

fascinating mixture of politics, pornography, art, and sheer

complained that women in porn are portrayed as objects for


sexual use and that their bodies are presented as automata to be used and abused at will. It is bootless to disagree with

Do Androids Wank to Electric Wet Dreams?

such an observation because it is an undeniable fact that

Now that we have agreed to take porn seriously as art we

much porn usually presents all bodies (and not just female

will have to explore more fully what we mean when we say

bodies, for there is also such a thing as gay porn and straight

that the image of felt life created in pornography is the rep-

porn in which dominant women are seen to objectify men)

resentation of the fully sexual body. I suggest that we take

as automata for sexual fulfilment. The body in porn is in-

this expression very literally for in much porn the body is

deed one huge erogenous zone that can be bent, stretched,

shown as entirely sexual: not just the sexual organs but the

and penetrated at will like an inflatable doll or a mechanical

entire surface of the body and in fact the entire personal-

bride. And instead of taking issue with this fact (for is it not



the very automaton-like quality of pornographic bodies that

there saw two androids of young boys who could write entire

makes them such a turn-on?) we should accept and applaud

sentences and which had first been exhibited in 1774.

it and try to understand its importance for the primary illu-

One of the most interesting characters in the history of the

sion of porn.

automaton or android was Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782),

A first way to reach such understanding takes us into the

who created several such inventions. In 1738 he exhibited

world of the mechanical body. Ken Russell’s film Gothic (1986),

his life-size Flute Player, who actually played the flute be-

an energetic and highly idiosyncratic recounting of the night

cause the mechanism Vaucanson had devised was a detailed

Mary Shelley allegedly conceived the story for her novel Fran-

imitation of human anatomy: ‘There was a mechanism to

kenstein (1818), is set in the Villa Diodati on the shores of lake

correspond to every muscle. [...] Inside the mouth was a

Léman near Geneva, where Lord Byron lived in exile with his

moveable metal tongue, which governed the air let through

personal physician and sometime lover Dr Polidori. Among

and created pauses. There were four levers to operate the

the many exotic and outrageous objects that people Byron’s

tongue and to modify the wind’ (o.c. 22-23). The only differ-

abode is a set of life-size mechanical dolls of women. One

ence between this automaton and a human flute player was

of these mechanical ladies plays the harpsichord when her

that the automaton never grew tired and could go on playing

mechanism is cranked up by a handle in the back, while an-

indefinitely. A year later, in 1739, Vaucanson improved upon

other more exotic looking specimen performs a rudimentary

his invention and diverted audiences with the automaton of

belly-dance. Such automata were very much en vogue in the

a figure that played a pipe and drum. But his most famous

eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In fact, in 1776 a

invention was a mechanical duck, also created in 1739 and

“Musical Lady” who played he harpsichord had been exhib-

subsequently included in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclo-

ited in London. It was the handiwork of the father and son

pédie as an example in the entry for “androïde” (o.c. 21). The

team of Pierre and Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droze. ‘As she played

mechanical duck was small in stature, but it was a great ac-

the five tunes in her repertoire,’ Gaby Wood notes of the

complishment because it actually ‘ate food out of the exhibi-

Musical Lady, ‘her eyes would move coyly from side to side,

tor’s hand, swallowed it, digested it, and excreted it, all before

and her bosom would heave lightly, as if she were breathing’

an audience. It became Vaucanson’s most famous creation;

(Wood 2002: xiv). The automaton in Russell’s film behaves in

without the shitting duck, Voltaire commented wryly, there

exactly this way. Interestingly, Gaby Wood suggests that it is

would be nothing to remind us of the glory of France. It was

possible that Mary Shelley was first inspired with the idea for

made of gold-plated copper, but it was the same size as a

the novel Frankenstein, which is after all the story of the cre-

living duck, and it moved just like one. Aside from its main

ation of an artificial man, when she saw another of the Ja-

digesting function, it could drink, muddle the water with its

quet-Drozes’ inventions. When touring Europe Shelley visited

beak, quack, rise, and settle back on its legs, and, spectators

Neuchâtel, home of the inventors, and it is possible that she

were amazed to see, it swallowed food with a quick, realis-



tic gulping action in its flexible neck. In a single wing alone,

After Kempelen’s death the Chess Player was sold to Johann

it was later revealed, there were more than 400 articulated

Nepomuk Maelzel, who is often credited with the invention

parts’ (o.c. 27). It was claimed that the digestive process was

of the metronome. Maelzel was court mechanician ‘or, as one

achieved in a small chemical laboratory Vaucanson had in-

evocative translation put it, “philosophical instrument maker,”

stalled in the duck’s intestines. However, a later owner of the

to the Hapsburgs. He was a close friend of Beethoven, whom

duck, the German writer Christian Friedrich Nicolai, ‘found

he persuaded to compose what became his “Battle” Sym-

that it did not digest its food at all. There was no “chemical

phony (Opus 91), for Maelzel’s Panharmonicon, an automated

laboratory,” he revealed – the food was simply aspirated into

orchestra of forty-two mechanical musicians’ (Wood 2002: 72-

the neck with the aid of bellows and tubes, and a separate

73). Somewhat less grand, but just as fascinating, is the fact

substance made to look like the digested version was held at

that the first mechanised waxwork in Madame Tussaud’s was

the ready in another compartment near the bird’s rear end’ to

Sleeping Beauty, who was reportedly modelled on Louis XV’s

be expelled at the desired time (o.c. 33).

mistress, Mme. du Barry. Sleeping Beauty’s ‘sole mechanical

There were other such marvels to baffle audiences of the

feature was a heaving chest’ (o.c. 25).

eighteenth century. In 1769 one Wolfgang von Kempelen cre-

In modern philosophy the idea of man as an automaton is

ated an Automaton Chess Player, a mechanical man dressed

closely linked to the context of libertinism and materialist

like a Turk who apparently played chess of his own accord

philosophy. The materialist atheists of the eighteenth century

and managed to beat even the best chess players at the game

launched an assault on the church and its moral dogmas.

(Faber 1983). It was later revealed that the Chess Player was

They combined this assault with a philosophy of pleasure

actually handled by a man hidden in the big box under the

and physical enjoyment. Such ideas were hardly new. In fact,

chess set on which the games were played. Through an in-

they originated in the thought of Epicurus and his Roman

genious system of magnets attached to the bottom of the

follower Lucretius. The rise of materialist philosophy in the

chess board the hidden man could follow the moves of the

modern era was closely linked to the rise of science in the

opponent. He would then guide the mechanical arm of the

Renaissance. Several scientists and thinkers took up ideas

automaton to make the desired counter-move. The Chess

that belonged to the atomist-materialist tradition. One such

Player hardly ever lost a game because the automaton was

thinker was Giulio Cesare Vanini (1585-1619), who set forth

often operated by several of the century’s greatest chess play-

a theory of evolution that predates that of Darwin by several

ers. In fact, the secret of the Chess Player was several times

centuries. For Vanini the entire world consists of a kind of

revealed in the press, but the public was so keen on being

primal substance which begins to mutate under the influ-

tricked that it simply ignored the common knowledge that

ence of the heat of the sun. Through this process of mutation

a man was hidden inside the automaton and assumed that

objects and creatures take form and finally man arises. This

here indeed was an automaton that had the gift of thought.

means that man himself is the object and temporary result


of evolution. In fact, Vanini claims that man has evolved from primate ancestors, as Darwin would later hold. Man’s mental life is a brain function. Mechanistic materialism subsequently became all the rage in the French Enlightenment, especially in the circle of the Encyclopédistes. Diderot developed a materialistic and mechanistic view of the world that was expressed in the remarkable dialogue Le Rêve de d’Alembert, written in 1769 but not published until 1830. In this dialogue Diderot has his characters expound an evolutionary view of the world that has several fascinating features. Movement is seen as inherent in matter. So Diderot does away with the dieu horlogier that the deists had kept handy to set the machinery of nature in motion. No such push was needed anymore for nature could now move of her own accord. Movement is in fact a process 234

of fermentation which causes dead matter to come to life and live matter to die. This means that all change takes place through internal processes that inhere in matter. Second, Diderot sees nature as one huge organism that constantly develops and engenders new life-forms. The key to this evolution can be found in the so-called monstra or monsters: the freaks of nature. Since nature is in constant change, some changes are bound to be unsuccessful and are discarded. That is how freaks of nature come about: they are nature’s failed experiments. Continual experimenting means that nature is in constant flux. Change is the rule, not constancy. No species, not even the human species, has an essence: ‘All things change into and out of each other; consequently all species... everything is a perpetual flux... Every animal is somewhat human; every mineral has something of the plant in it; every plant is partly animal. There is nothing distinct in nature’ (Diderot 2002: 103).



This means that mankind as we know it today is probably

l’individu’), which is simply ‘a need; and if one weren’t invited

merely a transitory phenomenon, a way-station in the con-

to do it by need, it would still be a pleasant thing’ (o.c. 173).

tinuing process of fermentation, and not something necessary

It is a small step from Diderot’s materialistic views to the

or final. Man is not the goal or purpose of nature, but a mere

idea of the human as an organic machine, a notion that was

phenomenon in it: a life-form that has emerged and will dis-

quite popular among the libertines and materialists. Pierre

appear again. ‘Who can say if fermentation and its products

Jean Georges Cabanis (1757-1808), for example, ‘summed up

have run their course? Who can say at which point in the suc-

his view of man in the words Les nerfs – voilà tout l’homme and

cession of animal life-forms we have arrived? Who can say if

declared that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes

this deformed four foot high biped that is still called a man on

bile’ (Copleston 1960: 51). But the writer most readily associ-

the North pole, but who will surely loose this name as soon

ated with the idea of man as a machine is of course Julien

as his deformation advances, is not simply the image of a

Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751), whose most famous work

passing species? Who can say whether everything isn’t about

is entitled L’Homme machine (1747). La Mettrie, who makes

to reduce itself to a great inert and immobile sediment? Who

explicit mention of Vaucanson in the course of his book, of-

can say how long this inertia will last? Who can say which

fers a radically materialistic view of the world (Israel 2001:

new race could emerge from such a huge mass of sensitive

704-709). He studied with the Dutch medical writer Hermann

living points?’ (o.c. 95-96) Such a materialistic view obviously

Boerhaave, whose books he translated and edited. The pub-

entails radical consequences for morality. Since the organism

lication of L’Homme machine caused so much uproar that La

is merely a collection of biological and chemical processes,

Mettrie had to flee France, seeking refuge in The Netherlands.

it is senseless to attach moral values or judgements to the

La Mettrie held that there was only one substance and that it

organism’s actions. Diderot makes this point in the third part

was governed by a force called “Nature”. This means that man

of the Rêve, where he applies this logic to sexuality. The organ-

is simply a link in a chain of mechanical causes and events.

ism has yearnings, desires, needs, drives. These are neither

This obviously leaves no room for a spiritual dimension. La

good nor bad in themselves: they are simply there. ‘So despite

Mettrie further claimed that religion is a political and social

the magnificent praise the fanatics have wasted on them,

device that is instituted for the benefit of the community and

and despite the civic laws that protect them, we will remove

to ensure social order. Many of these teachings were Spinozist

[chastity and temperance] from the catalogue of virtues. And

in origin. As we saw in Chapter One, Spinoza was at that time

we shall be agreed that, besides evil acts done on purpose,

considered to be one of the most evil thinkers in the history

there is nothing so childish, nothing so absurd, nothing so

of the world. For that reason, La Mettrie was recalcitrant to

detrimental, nothing so contemptible, nothing worse than

out himself as a follower of Spinoza. But as Romanticism ap-

those two rare qualities’ (o.c. 172). This rejection of morality

proached, Spinoza’s fortunes took a turn for the better. If Less-

famously leads Diderot to a defense of masturbation (‘plaisir à

ing could be a Spinozist, anyone could. And they would.



Mathesis Sexualis

the spirit to achieve its opposite. He applies reason to a cel-

The man whose work most clearly reflects the materialism

ebration of crime, debauchery, and licentiousness. Religious

of the eighteenth century is of course the divine Donatien

sentiments are mocked and the holy host is inserted into

Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), who might

inappropriate orifices to defile it. Chastity is ravished all over

best be typified as the ‘Anti-Rousseau’ because he believed

the place. Man is an animal in search of pleasure and lust at

that cruelty was man’s deepest nature. Sade rejected the

the expense of others, who are objectified and treated like

humane pieties of both Christianity and optimistic Enlighten-

living automata to be used in the ritual of sexual gratification.

ment. He was an atheist and a blasphemer and subsequently

The cerebral nature of Sade’s work becomes manifest in the

rejected all moral principles based on anything other than

inordinate amount of talk his novels contain. Sade’s charac-

individual desire. He was a radical materialist for whom there

ters are forever discoursing on philosophy, on the pleasures

was no essential difference between humans, animals, and

of the flesh, or on some parodist version of Enlightenment

plants. In this he echoes La Mettrie, who followed his treatise

pursuits. They discourse on sex even as they are experiencing

on L’homme machine with a further treatise on L’homme plante

it. During sex, Sade’s characters speak prose. They continue

(1748). Philosophically, Sade’s work represents the triumph of

to speak prose as they reach orgasm. The diarrhetic flow of

mind over matter: it is the ultimate intellectualisation of the

elegantly phrased obscene language that pours forth from

body, which is merely used as a medium in which to inscribe

these characters is as constant and as abundant as the flow

a libertine philosophy of unbridled pleasure. In spite of its

of bodily fluids pouring forth from every excreting orifice.

obscene and scabrous explicitness Sade’s work is profoundly

Sex is not just an occasion for orgasm, but for philosophical

cerebral in its attempt to systematically organise bodily plea-

discourse on carnality. Sex and talk become interchangeable.

sure. His infamous unfinished novel Les cent-vingt journées

As Camille Paglia points out, ‘the excretory voiding of one

de Sodome (recovered in 1904 and published in 1931-35) was

person into the mouth of another is Dionysian monologue, a

written on a long roll of paper during his imprisonment in

pagan oratory’ (Paglia 1992: 239). Since there are no tradition-

the Bastille in 1785 (it appropriately resembles a roll of toilet

al values in this universe, and since the body is intellectu-

paper). This very fact proves to Camille Paglia that Sade’s

ally reduced to a pleasure automaton with sexual functions,

work was in the first instance a feat of mental defiance: ‘He

every fetish and every perversion or passion is wholeheart-

was trying, in prison, to reach the limits of the human sexual

edly embraced by Sade’s libertines. Sucking, fucking, coming,

imagination, and put it down on paper’ (Paglia 1995: 125).

swallowing, shitting, and pissing become intellectual activi-

But because Sade uses the freedom of the mind from the

ties. Everything about the body is sexualised and fetishised.

shackles of the material world to create a libertine paradise

Sade’s characters eat and defecate and eat each other’s excre-

of sexual crime his entire oeuvre ridicules the very Enlighten-

ment as if they lived in a miniature natural universe where

ment belief in progress and reason. He uses the freedom of

everything dissolves into everything. It is the world as flux



as dreamt by d’Alembert, with no clear boundaries between

society, economic exploitation, oppression of the masses.

species. It is blind nature or, as Freud would say, an infantile

The endless sexual combinations and inexhaustible inven-

sexuality that rejoices even in its own waste products (which

tion of ever new kinds of sexual acrobatics that fill the pages

are, after all, fertile manure). Nature is a continuum and the

of Sade’s novels read not like Descartes’ mathesis universalis

body ecstatic is a link in its chain. Sade shows us nature’s

but as a sarcastic mathesis sexualis, a sexual mathematics

true face. It has always been an Enlightenment belief that,

where enjoyment is calculated to maximum effect. This is

without civil society or a social contract, the world would

nowhere more clear than in the Sodome, which begins with

come to chaos, a jungle where the struggle for life reigns

an exposition of the novel’s architecture. Sade introduces

supreme. Sade accepts the struggle for life but does not see

his characters and describes how their exploits will be struc-

it as chaotic. If you do away with morality and social order,

tured. He explains the way the number of participants and

Sade claims, you are not left with anarchy or chaos, but with

the number of possible sexual positions that can be achieved

rigid hierarchy, a world in which the stronger kill the weaker

in twosomes or in group will be calculated to make sure that

and the powerful exploit the powerless. In this respect, Sade’s

everyone copulates with everyone in a series of sexual com-

work offers a devastating critique of economic liberalism and

binations and perversions. Furthermore, there is a sequence

capitalism, which are not modes of civilisation: they are or-

from day to day, with specific perversions reserved for spe-

ganised nature, the well-structured exploitation of the pow-

cific days. So if torture or scatology are on the menu for

erless by the powerful. The nature we find in Sade is what I

Monday one cannot indulge in them on Sunday or Tuesday.

would call “une nature claire et distincte,” a Cartesian parody of

It is sex like clockwork, as if one were proceeding through

the Rousseauist belief in the fundamental goodness of man

a sexualised version of Dante’s Inferno, starting with heavy

and nature. It is the genius of Sade that he rejects both Rous-

petting and ending with the bludgeoning of pregnant women.

seau’s naive romantic optimism and the equally preposterous

Sade calculates how many combinations of how many sexual

optimism of the rationalists. Instead, Sade makes us look at

positions are possible with the participants available and

and acknowledge the blind materiality of nature.

then draws up the graph of debauchery. The novel itself sim-

Reason is nature and nature is reason. This is in fact a very

ply puts the meat on this skeleton. And when the narration

old thought. It is at the heart of the christian belief that na-

breaks off because Sade couldn’t finish the work, he takes

ture is God’s creation, therefore has order and that science

recourse to a simple enumeration of the sexual activities that

amounts to reading the book of nature. What Sade rejects, is

still had to be executed. At some point he even introduces a

the underlying assumption that nature is beautiful and well-

note to himself pointing out an error in the numbering. This

ordered because it is divine creation. In reality it is no such

is the cerebral triumph of Sade’s work: it is pornography with

thing. Reason simply reproduces the power relationships

the detached coldness of science. It is Enlightenment logic

already present in nature in a more sophisticated way: class

turned against itself.



The structure of the Sodome is also a parody of Boccaccio’s

steady resolve towards its logical conclusion. As in the day-

Decamerone and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those neatly or-

by-day increase of outrage in Sade’s novel, there is no need to

ganised epics of sexual bawdy. But sex is neither bawdy nor

hurry the pace for nobody is going anywhere anyway. There

fun in Sade, except for the torturers. There is no uplifting

is no sensationalism in Pasolini’s film as there is no pas-

sense of vitality, as in the delightful shenanigans of Boccac-

sion in Sade’s novel. We are simply locked in a self-sufficient

cio, there is only the sordid mechanism of jaded debauch-

universe where, as in mechanical nature, all moves steadily

ery that reaches ever deeper into the abyss of depravity to

towards its inevitable end in death. The logic of this universe

find yet another more extreme thrill that might trigger the

is the logic of the libertine who tries and tests the sexual

stumped senses. Sade’s characters go all the way, and then

automata at his disposal. The bodies of the victims are me-

some. Just like Boccaccio and Chaucer, Sade sets his story

chanical dolls to be toyed with, to be opened and scrutinised

in a secluded environment. Boccaccio’s narrators flee the

and to be submitted to any and every imaginable cruelty,

plague-ridden city of Florence and take refuge in a pleasant

similar to the way the wanton gods kill flies for their sport.

villa in the country. Chaucer’s merry company of pilgrims are

The detached frontality and theatricality of Pasolini’s film is

gathered in a coach on their way to Canterbury, a pilgrimage

a parody of the scientific principles at work in Sade’s novel. It

that, as Harold Bloom points out, was the fourteenth cen-

is a parody of absolute visibility: all that is obscene is brought

tury’s equivalent of our cruises (Bloom 2002: 107). Sade locks

on-scene, literally, as the victims are made to parade around

his libertines and their victims in a secluded castle on the top

in long-shot, filling the screen as if we were looking at a the-

of a mountain, where the outside world cannot reach them.

atre scene. All is exposed, either in word or in deed (and there

There, in sublime isolation, no rules apply but the rules of

is much talk in Pasolini’s film, as there is in Sade’s novel). It

excess. This excess is presented to our inner eye with all the

is a voyeuristic gorge-fest, a visceral indigestion of disinter-

clinical detachment of an operating theatre. It is here, in his

estedness that either nauseates or leaves us stone cold. It is

cold detachment, that Sade mocks modern science and its

sexual pleasure as the ultimate parody of the disinterested-

quest for total visibility. Autopsy is the visual logic at work in

ness of Kantian aesthetics: sexualised murder as a cold, cal-

Sade: a theatre of visibility that is the perverse double of the

culated, classicist spectacle. In Pasolini’s version it is Art Deco

belief that science could and should make visible all that lies

murder in bare halls of beige.

hidden in the human innards. Sade displays the body and its manifold functions. Pier Paolo Pasolini understood this very

Scientia Sexualis

well when he translated the cold and distanced theatricality

The spectacle of sex is the logic of porn as it is the logic of

of Sade to the screen for Saló (1975), his film version of the

voyeurism. Linda Williams has tried ‘to define film pornogra-

Sodome which is presented as a slow-paced, measured, and

phy minimally, and as neutrally as possible, as the visual (and

unhurried sequence of theatrical tableaux that moves with

sometimes aural) representation of living, moving bodies en-



gaged in explicit, usually unfaked, sexual acts with a primary

sible reason why so many (especially early) porn films engage

intent of arousing viewers’ (Williams 1999: 29-30). For the

in scenarios where women are overwhelmed, ravaged, or

viewer this material offers the promise of true knowledge.

even raped because in such scenes ‘the unwilling victim’s

Viewers watch pornography because they want to see the re-

eventual manifestations of pleasure are offered as the genre’s

ality of sexual pleasure in others. This is why Williams speaks

proof of a sincerity that under other conditions might seem

of a scientia sexualis, a sexual science: the intent is to know the

less sure’ (o.c. 50).

body and to penetrate its mysteries with the gaze. Williams

The voyeuristic elements in pornography are put to work in

explains that ‘I call the visual, hard-core knowledge-pleasure

an interesting way in several of the short films that photogra-

produced by the scientia sexualis a “frenzy of the visible”’ (o.c.

pher and filmmaker Richard Kern made in the 1980s as part

36), which is ‘a voyeurism structured as a coginitive urge’

of the Cinema of Transgression movement. Kern has built a

(o.c. 48). Porn strives to ‘maximum visibility’ (ibid.) and ‘ob-

career on his (male heterosexual) voyeurism and usually in-

sessively seeks knowledge, through a voyeuristic record of

vited friends and hangers-on to perform some sexual fantasy

confessional, involuntary paroxysm, of the “thing” itself’ (o.c.

in front of his camera. This resulted in collage-films such as

49). The involuntary aspect is both the most crucial and the

Submit To Me (1985) and Submit To Me Now (1987) and a series

most problematic aspect or porn, especially in its most com-

of brief films of female stripping routines. As the titles of the

mon form: the pornographic film aimed at the heterosexual

films suggest, there is an element of dominance in Kern’s

male. The involuntary aspect is crucial because it is only

films. The voyeur, especially if he is looking at a person with-

when action becomes involuntary that we can have any kind

out himself being perceived, is in a dominant position: he is

of assurance that what we are seeing is real. In the moment

gaining intimate knowledge of another body. In Kern’s films

of orgasm, there is no holding back: for a brief moment, we

this dominating aspect is stressed by the often sadomas-

lose control over our body and are surrendered to its spasms.

ochistic routines the performers engage in and by the bird’s-

To be in orgasm is to exist in an involuntary mode. This is

eye point of view that Kern himself often uses to film their

an instance of certified reality: it cannot be faked. Except, of

performances. But voyeurism also entails a distancing: the

course, by women, who apparently fake orgasm all the time

looking device, whether it is a camera, binoculars, or a key-

to spare their spouses’ feelings. But in porn it is quite impos-

hole, keeps the desired object at a distance. This is a defence

sible to tell whether a woman, and especially a professional

mechanism, allowing the voyeur to look at the world without

porn actress, is actually experiencing orgasm or merely fak-

having to partake in it. Kern has acknowledged that the voy-

ing one. This problem does not pose itself in relation to the

euristic element in his films allows him to maintain a safe

male body, where the penis is either erect/aroused or not and

distance: ‘if there’s something I want to do and I’m nervous

where orgasm is a visible event through ejaculation. Williams

about doing it, I’ll turn on the camera and do it in front of the

suggests that the impenetrability of the female body is a pos-

camera and then it’s okay’ (Sargeant 1995: 101). The only risk



involved for the voyeur is being caught more or less literally

prise us since voyeurism is all about auto-eroticism: it is a fe-

with his pants down. This risk is in itself an exhibitionistic

tish that uses the person looked at as a canvas on which the

thrill that seems to be part and parcel of a voyeur’s delight.

voyeur can project all his fantasies. Because no real contact

But such exhibitionism is conspicuously absent in voyeuristic

is ever made, the person looked at never becomes a specific

cinema, where the performers know they are being filmed

individual and can therefore never disappoint the fantasies

and the filmmaker cannot get “caught” red-handed, or at

projected onto him or her. This way voyeurism avoids the

least with cum on his fingers. In two films, however, Kern

disappointment of mere flesh, as when a body desired from

has dramatised his role as voyeur. The first is The Evil Camera-

afar turns out, upon closer inspection, to have flaws, a nasty

man (1987-1990). The title refers to Kern himself, sneaking

body odour, a foul breath, or another unpleasant feature that

up on his subjects and cinematically stealing their private

renders it at once undesirable. The voyeur’s fantasy is never

moments. The evil in the cameraman is the spectre of the

shattered and therefore it can go on indefinitely. In this sense

male gaze, objectifying and visually raping all females in

voyeurism is probably the sexual fetish closest to the arts

sight, making Victims of them all. The first part of the film

because it seems to exemplify Kant’s principle of purposive-

clearly plays on this violence and shows several aggressive

ness without purpose: as long as the voyeur is looking, his

sexual rituals. The second part of the film was made after an

desire goes on and on, turning upon itself, feeding off itself. It

interval of several years and is markedly different in tone:

is not unusual for the confirmed voyeur to prefer voyeurism

it is more ironic and also shows Kern himself displaying his

to actual sex. As Kern confides, ‘the best part of anything is

penis and a swastika drawn on his stomach. The second film

watching’ (o.c. 102). And the best part of watching is the illu-

to dramatise Kern’s voyeurism is My Nightmare (1993), which

sion of intimate knowledge obtained from watching people

is literally presented as a masturbatory fantasy in which Kern

who do not know they are being watched and who therefore

is overpowered by sexually aggressive women. The explicit

have no reason to fake their behaviour. To observe people in

dream sequences are interrupted by shots of Kern lying on

private without them knowing you are watching is to see

his bed naked and masturbating. There is something decid-

them as they really are. One is witness to private gestures

edly auto-erotic about these scenes. There are several full

and intimate movements that seem to contain traces of what

shots of his body, but mostly Kern focuses on his penis, film-

that person is really like. It suggests deeper, more intimate

ing it with the camera positioned at his knees so that his

knowledge. This, in essence, is also the illusion that porn

body appears extremely foreshortened and his penis fills the

tries to create. Speaking of his own use of pornographic vid-

screen. When he reaches orgasm, Kern again fills the screen

eos, Kern comments that ‘you can use the same tape over

with his penis, but now filmed from the chest, so that his

and over, and you have to develop relationships with people

sperm shoots up at the lens of the camera.

in the movie... that’s the whole thing. I think the way most

The auto-erotic elements in this short film should not sur-

people watch is, you scan the entire movie to find the people



that appeal to you and the action that appeals to you and you

in the copious couplings and orgasms put on display) it can-

watch these scenes over and over. [...] It’s like having little

not really deliver for what is shown always remains an illu-

relationships’ (o.c. 116).

sion. The same thing occurs in voyeurism. The voyeur can

The very idea that you might develop a relationship with a

only maintain his erotic haze by keeping the desired object

person in a pornographic movie presupposes that some kind

at bay: he looks from a distance. But the voyeur, very much

of intimacy is involved (despite the fact that pornographic

like the spectator of porn, has never seen enough or has never

films are obviously about performance). But I think that Kern

seen what he really wanted to see. Therefore there is always

might be too idiosyncratic in his description of the uses of

the promise (in porn) or the possibility (in voyeurism) of

pornography. One of the cardinal features of the genre is

more knowledge the next time. A voyeur may have watched his

its endless trotting out of new and fresh faces. Porn careers

neighbour a hundred times, but every day there will be the

rarely last longer than several years, except where the really

anticipation that maybe today he will see something hitherto

big stars are concerned. Porn faces get used up and discarded

unseen that will reveal “it” truly and fully for the first time.

real fast. The reason for this seems obvious: there are limits

Obviously, “it” never occurs. And even if something like “it”

to the amount of times you can stage the revelation of the

does occur, as in an unexpected event that offers unusual in-

real in the same body. But paradoxically the fact that the real

sight in the object’s privacy, this seeing of something special

is staged is also the key to the success of the genre because

will not quench the desire to see “it” but will simply make the

the staged nature of its content is what makes us come back

voyeur thirst for more. This is why voyeurism and pornogra-

for more. This calls for an explanation. Porn is probably one

phy are so addictive.

of the most predictable genres about. Usually the spectator

The mechanism of non-fulfilment that is at work in voyeur-

knows exactly what he is going to get. Often the number of

ism and pornography is a structural component of the so-

scenes or sexual encounters is announced on the packaging

called soft-sex film: erotic films in which erotic action is not

of the film, so that the viewer knows that the fourth or fifth

real but only suggested. This genre is built on the public’s

encounter is the point for orgasm because no more sex will

desire to be led on. If the public did not want to know that

be forthcoming after that. But given that porn can never re-

the Automaton Chess Player did not really play on its own

ally give us a true revelation of the real thing, especially in

but was operated by a man inside the box, then the public

the female body, and given that the real thing in a male body

flocking to see soft-sex films wilfully overlooks the certain

(ejaculation) can only ever be watched and never experienced

knowledge that they will yet again not see the real thing

in the body itself, porn has the mechanism of disillusionment

in the film they are about to see. The entire business of the

built into it. Porn promises the gratification of the real yet

erotic (as opposed to explicit pornographic) film is built on

cannot deliver. Even if it tries to deliver by giving us plenty

the principle of the tease: you did not get to see it today, but

of truth to gape at (and some porn films are very generous

come again tomorrow and perhaps you will see it then. Of



course, you are not going to see it tomorrow either, but the

Pleasure Machines

public apparently likes to be lead on. It seems unpersuasive

There is a heroics at work in pornography. The performers

to me to condemn this tease as a ploy to con the public out

in these films descend into the maelstrom of material life:

of their money. People who go and see erotic films (or went

the sex performer faces the deep material truths about our

to see them, for the paying public for cinematic showings of

physical bodies and is not afraid of being reduced to them.

erotic films is very much a phenomenon that died in the mid-

To explain this, we might refer to medical textbooks, where

1980s, when video technology made cinematic screenings of

the naked material facts of the human body and its physi-

erotic and pornographic films redundant) know exactly what

cal functions are displayed. This is not attractive, except for

they are in for and it might be argued that the tease that is

those for whom the abject is a particular sexual fetish. Just

never fulfilled works for them in the same way that the voy-

like the pictures and graphs in such manuals, the sex per-

eur and the spectator of porn are constantly looking forward

former reduces his or her body to the pipes and tubes, the

towards a more intimate knowledge. I suggest that this is an-

valves and ligaments that constitute it. But this reduction

other instance of the Kantian idea of purposiveness without

to matter is deliberate. The medical manual shows the body

purpose: more than anything else, we want to keep desire,

reduced to its material facts despite itself. The sex performer

which is the felt experience of the body physical in a state of

chooses to display his body as material fact, and to do this

sensual alertness, going. To perpetuate this experience by any

he or she must transcend materiality: the body is trained to

and all means possible is one of the leading pursuits in hu-

look fit, it is often decorated (with make-up, with seductive

man life. The one thing we sometimes want more than to be

clothes that can be shed, with elaborate tattoos), a sexual

fulfilled, is to desire. Or, as legendary gay porn director Fred

sequence, whether performed for the camera or on stage, is

Halsted once said about his sex-life, ‘coming is not the point.

scripted, lighted, and perceived from different angles. The

The point is revelation – the why. Orgasm is fun, but you can

experience of the sexual body on display is an aesthetic

do that anytime, anywhere. I am not interested in orgasms. I

construct. The body thus displayed is indeed presented to

am interested in me. I can jack off better than I can have sex

resemble an automaton, but unlike an actual automaton it

with anybody. Celibacy is great. I like it. It is more pure, more

is not soulless, dead, or mechanical. It has a soul. It wills. It

strong, more real than sex’ (Jones 2008: 27). This, in essence,

even wills its reduction to matter. Its objectification, which

is the dual mechanism of voyeurism and narcissism at work

feminists object to, is knowingly engaged in. The performer

in pornography: the indefinitely extended dialogue of the

descends into materiality.

aroused with himself. It is purposiveness without purpose

This is the illusion at the heart of pornography, striptease,

with a vengeance: all that one desires is to maintain desire,

and prostitution: the allure of the performance (for even

like an engine running stationary, not going anywhere, but

prostitution is a performance: the prostitute must incarnate

burning fuel nevertheless.

the client’s fantasies) lies in the performer’s ability to present



him- or herself as a human android, a human toy. But in doing

phy (or the masochist in total submission) is in fact trying to

this, the performer does not become a victim or a soulless

symbolically resemble just such a digestive tract; a human

object. On the contrary, the performer gains enormous power

tube in which to insert things. Many porn films include im-

for he or she is seen as inhabiting a realm most of us would

ages of a man or woman on all fours who is being penetrated

not care or dare inhabit, except in fantasy: the realm of sheer

from behind while also giving a blow job. Seen from the side,

physicality. Since the performance creates the illusion of a

this can create a back-and-forth motion: as the penis glides

body existing in brutal physicality, physical reduction is not

into the mouth, the backside penis glides out of the ass or

something that befalls the performer, but something that the

vagina; and vice versa: when the body glides over the penis

performer actively stages as an illusion, an act, a creation.

in the back, the other penis is pulled out of the mouth. This

And the illusion created is that of bodily regression. The body

way, the body in the middle can be seen as if it were glid-

is presented as reduced to its fundamental status of passage-

ing back and forth on a string or a pole that penetrates the

way for matter. It is a machine or organism where something

body from ass to mouth. Something similar can be seen in

enters on one end and exits again on the other end. This is

an iconic image from the cult film Cannibal Holocaust (Rug-

almost literally a regression to the embryonic stage. In one

gero Deodato, 1979) in which a woman has been pierced on a

of its earliest stages, the human embryo consists of three

vertical pole. The pole enters her from behind and reappears

primary germ layers that lie on top of each other ‘like a three-

from her mouth. Presumably, she will slowly slide down the

layered cellular pancake’ (Marieb and Hoehn 2010: 141). The

pole until she touches the ground. In many ways, this is the

most superficial of these is the ectoderm, the middle is the

ultimate objectification of the human body, being reduced to

mesoderm, and the third is the endoderm. Out of these three

a tube without feelings or thoughts. But obviously, in sexual

layers all organs will develop. This process begins with the

situations this regression is being enacted as a source of

flat three-layered embryo being folded into a tube. The ecto-

pleasure. The sex performer creates an illusion of being an

derm then becomes the outside of the tube, the endoderm

automaton, whereas the masochist revels in the humiliation

lines the inside of the tube. The tube of the endoderm is

of being treated as nothing more than a digestive tract, some-

called the primitive gut. At about four weeks, it extends from

thing you can plug, fill, and empty at will. We should also not

one end of the small embryo to the other. The top end will

underestimate the great liberating power that can be found

develop into the mouth, the bottom end will become the anal

in such theatre of physicality. We live in a world in which

opening. The tube in-between will develop into the digestive

almost superhuman demands are being made on our bodies

tract, including oesophagus, stomach, and bowels (o.c. 1084-

and minds. We are exposed to inordinate amounts of stress.


For those who can stomach it, there is undoubtedly a terrific

In presenting himself as a machine for sex or as a receptacle

sense of relief to be found in the experience of becoming, for

for semen or other bodily fluids, the performer in pornogra-

the duration of a sexual ritual, mere body, mere tube, mere



sperm spittoon. To be subjected and annihilated into sexual

has been suspended from a crane for airborne copulation.

nothingness is the dark side of nirvana. It’s emptiness laced

One of the most notorious instances of machine sex is J.G.

with pheromones.

Ballard’s novel Crash (1973), about people who derive erotic

The human body as organic machine allows of many modifi-

pleasure from car-wrecks (in 1970 Ballard had also organised

cations. Prostheses can be added to it, from the strap-on dil-

an exhibition of crashed cars). And in Dean R. Koontz’s novel

do for everyday use to the electronic extensions attached to

Demon Seed (1973) a computer accomplishes sexual congress

Stelarc’s body. But it is also possible to create machines that

between human and machine when it uses its control over

act upon the body, almost as if they were partners in the sex-

the computer system that governs a house to imprison and

ual game. The photographer Timothy Archibald has produced

rape the woman who lives there and impregnate her with its

a volume of portraits of ordinary people who are ‘reworking


domestic hardware into complex sex machines’ (Archibald

But the first place to look for sexual machines and the

2005: 6). Household appliances, steel boxes, electric drills, and

sexual attraction of metal, chrome, and grease, is probably

even a dentist’s chair are transformed into sexual automa-

the world of gay SM films, whether they be the avant-porn

tons designed to provide pleasure. Although several of these

of Fred Halsted’s Sex Garage (1972), where a man reportedly

inventions have been successfully marketed, most originated

fucks the exhaust pipe of his motorcycle (Stevenson 2002:

as devices created with a specific body in mind, usually the

113), or Kenneth Anger’s seminal film Scorpio Rising (1963),

body of a lover or spouse. Making the machine started out as

which evokes a stylised vision of the aggressive eroticism of

a labour of love, both in the sense that it was a sexual gift for

motorcyclists and the gleaming fetishism of their customised

a loved-one and in the sense that it was created with great

bikes. Scorpio Rising is a four-part film that consist of thirteen

dedication in the privacy of their own home, without any

sections linked to pop songs. The film combines new mate-

prior intention of marketing the object. The idea of the ma-

rial shot by Anger with stock footage and excerpts from older

chine as a pleasure-inducing extension of the body is taken

films, which are used, along with the pop songs, as ironic

to the limit in French porn director John Love’s film Chantier

commentary on the action of the film. P. Adams Sitney has

interdit au public (1999), which shows the sexual goings on at

called Scorpio Rising ‘a mythographic film. It self-consciously

a construction site, including a woman being fucked by an

creates its own myth of the motorcyclist’ (Sitney 2002: 106).

electrically powered drill mounted on a small fork-lift truck

The motorcyclist Scorpio presents himself as a kind of pagan

(the drill is wearing a condom for safety). Similarly, Matthew

demon god who proclaims his godhead in a homosexual orgy

Barney has more than once used machinery in sexual con-

of sadomasochistic ritual, including the humiliation of the

structions, notably in his segment for the portmanteau film

male body (by, among other things, smearing hot mustard on

Destricted (2006), which shows a naked man rubbing his hard

exposed genitals) and the desecration of an altar by pissing

dick against the spinning innards of a giant bulldozer that

in a helmet and elevating it as if it were a chalice. At the end



of the film Scorpio demands the sacrifice of a young motor-

films are more akin to the experimental cinema of the under-

cyclist who is killed in a race. Throughout the film Anger uses

ground than to commercial porn. Where later porn is often

low-key lighting that creates ‘a lush pastel view of motorcycle

filmed in studio-built sets that are crisp and clean, these

cushions, lights, and portions of chrome with stars of light

early films were filmed on location with actors who actu-

reflecting off them’ (o.c. 104). Significant parts of the film are

ally had dirty feet from walking barefoot on the dirty floors.

spent looking at the ‘unveiling, greasing, shining, and com-

Sex scenes were filmed in actual urinals, not on studio sets.

pleting of motorcycles’ (ibid.). But the male bodies in the film

The sex acts in such early films often have the intensity of

are equally customised. We observe them getting dressed in

real abandon. They thrive on the male body as a customised

a ritual that is almost equivalent to the finishing of the bikes.

organic sex machine. The same gritty and realistic approach

As an exercise in highly charged erotic imagery, the film jux-

to sex was also visible in the early shorts produced by Falcon

taposes ‘slow, sensuous, vertical pans down the toned, rip-

Studios. Films like Weekend Lockup (1976), starring gay porn

pling chests, navels and crotches of the Brooklyn biker-gang

legend Al Parker, Ramcharger (1978), or Biker’s Liberty (1982), to

boys as they ceremonially deck their bodies with leather and

name but a few, have a sweaty intensity. They are cinematic

chains’ with ‘horizontal pans acres the garage floor, motor-

miniatures, capsules of living testosterone, executed with

cycles, tools and spare parts’ (Hutchison 2004: 133).

total focus on the body as fetish-object. Asked in an interview

This heady atmosphere of grease and chrome made its way

how he would describe himself in a personal ad, director Fred

into some of the most interesting gay porn of the 1970s. For

Halsted replied: ‘Five feet nine and a half, sixteen-inch biceps,

Fred Halsted there was never any question that his films

under ten inches, thirty-three years old, smooth skin. Into

were works of art and not merely porn. ‘Up to that time,

scat, S&M, bondage, water sports, wrestling, Levi’s, jockstraps,

porno was always considered something you made money off

motorcycles, dirty socks, boots, leather, amyl nitrate, belts,

of, but never a thing you were proud of, something you did

whips, masks’ (Jones 2008: 26). If you’re talking about the

secretly. Well, I just barged into fucking New York and said,

body as a customised sex machine, this is the package.

“This is film, a work of art.” It also happened to be hard-core

In later porn, this gritty approach would often deteriorate

gay porno. A sadomasochistic, fistfucking faggot film, but that

into a pose, a game of dressing up and playing at thugs.

is not the point. No one had ever done this before with a sex

Halsted himself remarks that ‘almost all gays are masoch-

film. To me sex is the most viable area of human interest, it

ists, if not overtly, at least subliminally’ (Jones 2008: 26). This

is the most important area, so I was proud of what I was do-

is maybe a reason why the straight thug, or rough trade

ing’ (Jones 2008: 27). Besides Halsted’s films, there was also

(straight men who have sex with other men for money), are

the work of Joe Gage, who made the famous trilogy Kansas

so much part of gay lore. If real masculinity is hard to find in

City Trucking Co. (1975), El Paso Wrecking Corp. (1978), and LA

the gay community, the aggressive straight fucker becomes

Tool & Die (1979). In the way they are filmed and edited these

an object of attraction. Whether it is rape by a gang of sailors,


as in Kenneth Anger’s seminal underground film Fireworks

It’s like Dr Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in-

(1947), or assault by skinheads or scally lads, as in a host of

viting us all to come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab.

recent porn films from British production company Triga,

In the case of the blood-red fisting scene in Deviant Detours

your local beer-heaving thug is a gay sex icon. It is interest-

the menu reads much like a Matthew Barney performance.

ing that recent porn films have attempted to return to the

The performers in such films are themselves objets d’art: lean

style of early porn, with heavier action and grittier settings.

and muscular men, intricately tattooed, going about their

A case in point are the films produced by Triga in the United

brutal business with the fearful symmetry of a tyger in heat.

Kingdom and by Cazzo in Germany. Triga’s trilogy of Lost In-

It is obvious that the worlds of porn and performance do

nocence films (2007), for example, directed by Maxwell Barber,

meat somewhere in the middle ground between a good fuck

sometimes seems like a series of performance pieces for star

at The Anvil and a mental fuck at the MoMA.

Ashley Ryder, whose ass can take anything, turning the performer’s body into a receptacle for any manner of penetrative


Bodice Rest And Motion

object or organ. Two other examples of what ambitious porn

No artist ever wanted to be a machine more than Andy War-

can look like are Cazzo’s films Original Options (2003) and Devi-

hol did. In a famous interview with G.R. Swenson for the

ant Detours (2003), both directed by Hans Peter Hagen. These

November, 1963 issue of ARTnews Warhol famously said that

films, shot in crystal clear high definition digital video, use a

‘I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do

minimal story to present a series of sexual encounters that

machine-like is what I want to do’ (Goldsmith 2004: 18). In

involve serious edge-play. In Original Options a man is beaten

the same interview he also suggested that ‘everybody should

up by skinheads (the beating is quite real, although staged

be a machine’. And being a machine is the same as ‘linking

for the camera) and another is hung upside down with a

things’ because ‘you do the same thing every time. You do

gas mask on his face and lowered into a tank of water. Devi-

it over and over again’ (o.c. 16). The idea of the human body,

ant Detours contains a bizarre scene featuring two heavily

the artist’s body, as a machine for the production of art is the

tattooed men in white butcher’s aprons and boots. One of

prime metaphor for Warhol’s practice. He was, after all, the

them is hacking meat while the other is fisting another man.

artist who turned his studio into a Factory, cranking out art

But instead of using grease to make a smooth entry into

in the steady flow of a conveyor belt. Several commentators

the man’s rectum, he uses a red goo that literally makes the

on Warhol’s work have linked this preoccupation with the

whole affair look like a bloody mess. The link between animal

mechanical to Warhol’s many traumas. Andy Warhol was a

and human meat being manhandled by impressive-looking

profoundly injured man who spent most of his life and not a

bastards makes clear that the attraction of this kind of porn-

little of his art trying to cope with the traumas the world had

as-performance relies to a large extent on the presentation

bestowed upon him. Warhol’s entire life and art, the way he

of human flesh as an object for penetration and pummelling.

made them and the style he devised for them, are an attempt



to cope with the trauma of living. But that does not mean

because it causes uncontrollable spasms in the body. It also

that Warhol’s work is in any way self-expressive. Rather,

causes the pigmentation of the skin to change, which possi-

his work is an extended philosophical quest for insight into

bly explains Warhol’s extremely pale complexion. The severe

embodiment, which is his prime subject as an artist. Warhol

bouts of shaking terrified the young child: he feared he would

spent a lifetime coming to terms with the fact that he had a

never regain control over his body. Wayne Koestenbaum has

body. His work is the symbolic expression of this quest, it is

persuasively argued that Warhol’s mature desire to be a ma-

the text of his findings. What does it mean to have a body?

chine was a response to the trauma of Saint Vitus Dance: to

What does it mean to exist in time? These are the questions

be a machine is to be automated. Just like Warhol’s shaking

that troubled Warhol. But Warhol’s work cannot be reduced

body, the machine operates on its own. But uncontrollable

to the life, the neuroses, or the anxieties that fuelled it. Four

shaking was not the only humiliation Warhol had to suffer.

topics are at the heart of Warhol’s work: body, sex, time, and

Julia, his mother, who would later come to live with him, was

death, and they are intrinsically linked to each other. War-

an immigrant from Eastern Europe who had a firm belief

hol’s favoured way of dealing with them was through voyeur-

that enemas were a certain cure for just about everything.

ism, the art of looking; or rather: the art of gazing. A voyeur

So she administered enemas to the young Andy, making the

maintains a safe distance from the object of his desire, push-

intestines and their excretory function a point of obsession

ing fulfilment of desire, and hence physical gratification,

for the boy. At school, his shaking hand caused the other stu-

forward in time. Voyeurism is a disembodied sexuality: it

dents to laugh at him and Warhol refused to go back. When

thrives on not reaching climax. It keeps the yearning body in

he seemed cured of the disease, Warhol still didn’t want to go


back. When he was forcefully dragged to school, the boy had

This yearning body, at least in Warhol’s case, was riddled with

a nervous breakdown and was bedridden for four weeks.

trauma. Warhol’s biographers (David Bockris, David Bourdon,

His time in bed was made more pleasurable by Julia, who

and Wayne Koestenbaum chief among them) have done a

brought him magazines to read with pictures of movie stars.

good job of assembling and analysing the sad story of Warhol

Warhol wanted to be Shirley Temple and imagined having sex

the youthful body, so we need do little more than refer to

with Popeye. But then, when he was thirteen, Warhol’s father

their insights and check the list of physical humiliations that

died after a long illness. Andrew Warhola senior had suffered

would haunt Warhol his entire life. At the age of six, young

jaundice for which he had had his gallbladder removed. He

Andrew Warhola (he would drop the a when he became a

fell ill again after drinking soiled water (ironically, Andy War-

professional artist) got scarlet fever, which inflames the nose

hol would die after routine gallbladder surgery in 1987). The

and mouth. It is possible that this inflamation caused the

body was laid out in a coffin in the house and Warhol refused

disfigurement of his nose. When he was eight, Warhol fell ill

to go see his dead father. He was so terrified he hid under

with Saint Vitus Dance, a terrifying affliction for the sufferer

the bed and went to stay with a friend. But the trauma of



his father’s death would instill in the young artist a lifelong

sessed with his body and his image. The two are closely

obsession with motionlessness and death. The final trauma

linked, because one’s image is how one chooses to present

came when Andy was sixteen. Julia was diagnosed with colon

oneself to the world. It is through our physical bodies that

cancer. To save her life a colostomy was performed, a proce-

we are present in the world. The body physical is the car-

dure that was then still experimental and in which part of

rier of both our inner self and our image. Warhol’s response

the intestines was removed and replaced with a bag outside

to his many traumas was to treat the outward appearance

the body. Henceforth, Julia would carry her insides on the

of his body like a screen, something to hide behind. In time,

outside. It is impossible to comprehend what this dramatic

the body itself would become screened by further screens,

change in his mother’s physiology did to the young Warhol,

usually mechanical in nature. These layers of protective

but one thing is clear: intestines, and the threat of having

coating became especially prolific after the Solanas shoot-

them spill uncontrollably out of the body, would occupy him

ing, when Warhol felt extremely vulnerable. One of Warhol’s

for the rest of his life and would become a central element in

most famous screens was the wig (or the long series of wigs)

his work. And again, ironically, Warhol would somehow suffer

he started to wear to hide the fact that he started balding

through a similar affliction as his mother. If Warhol’s death

at a very young age (another instance of his body escaping

mimicked his father’s gallbladder ailment, then Warhol’s

control). As his reputation grew, Warhol exploited his image

first death mimicked his mother’s scarred body. Obviously,

as a fey waif by dressing up in a thrift shop style. He affected

Warhol’s first death refers to Monday June 3, 1968, when Val-

his speech and deliberately cultivated a more feminine way

erie Solanas shot Warhol. When he arrived in the emergency

of walking and behaving. He tried to disappear behind his

room, Warhol was declared dead. Only when the doctors

masks. But from behind the screen, Warhol looked at the

were informed of the fact that he was rich and famous did

world with a keen and often cold eye. In Stargazer (1971),

they spend an hour bringing him back to life. But Warhol

the first serious study of Warhol’s film work and still one of

would carry the scars of Valerie’s attack for the rest of his life,

the best and most insightful books about the artist, Stephen

both inside and outside. The bullet had pierced just about

Koch has argued that Warhol is a classic example of what

every vital organ in Warhol’s body. The surgeons had to open

Baudelaire called the dandy. ‘The dandy refuses to be moved,’

up his chest and sow it closed again. Warhol’s body was now

Koch writes, ‘he will not respond’ (Koch 1991: 114). This is

permanently scarred, and just like his mother he had had his

Warhol’s affected coldness, his seeming lack of emotional

insides taken out to save him. Humiliatingly, he would have

involvement. ‘The passions are mute but immanent within

to wear a corset for the rest of his life to keep his intestines

him’ (ibid.): obviously, Warhol did have feelings; in fact, he

in place. Warhol’s body had become a container of insides

was almost pathologically sensitive to his surroundings,

about to spill, forever under threat of falling apart.

to people, and to outward impulses. That is why he had to

It should come as no surprise, then, that Warhol was ob-

screen this input out and hide behind a mask of distanced



coldness. The image that Warhol created for himself ‘looks

geous Italian American, to assist him in the process. Warhol

isolated and luminous, an image on the silver screen. But

would screen pictures over a prepared canvas on which the

there is no image of the self that does not entail – invisibly,

background colours had already been applied. This means

perhaps, out of frame – the image of others. And the dandy’s

that the image often does not fit the screened picture. This is

narcissistic isolation is haunted by the spectre of others’ (o.c.

again ironic, for this supposedly mechanical way of making

114-115). The dandy is mute and betrays no need, no desire,

paintings has produced hundreds of canvases that superfi-

no sentiment. ‘Need is humiliation,‘ Koch explains, ‘it is loss

cially look alike but no two of which are identical. His works

of self; it is death’ (o.c. 119). This is what Warhol feared most:

are just as unique as every painting of a more traditional art-

to lose control of his self again, like a child surrendered to the

ist; it’s just that the uniqueness is less obvious. As the 1960s

spasms of Saint Vitus Dance. But inside this muted exterior

progressed, other machines were placed between Warhol and

lived a voracious animal, a man who fed on those around

the world, first and foremost the camera he bought in 1962

him. Warhol surrounded himself with weirdos, artists, per-

to start making films. In 1964 he added the tape-recorder he

formers, and hangers-on through whom he lived vicariously.

used, among other things, to tape his telephone conversa-

He observed them and urged them on as they performed

tions and to write his novel a: a novel (1965), which is the

the many physical feats that Warhol did not dare engage in

transcript of a twenty-four hour monologue by Ondine, one

himself: anonymous sex, dirty sex, drugtaking, self-exposure.

of Warhol’s greatest superstars. Finally, after he had been

In this sense, Warhol’s entourage was a physical extension

shot, the Polaroid camera became one of Warhol’s most trust-

of himself. It was part of his world and hence part of who he

ed companions. Flashing away at everyone and everything

was. Warhol was the sun around whom the entire universe

and thrusting the microphone of his tape-recorder into other

of his entourage evolved. He was, as Stephen Koch has very

people’s faces Warhol maintained a safe distance and man-

aptly described him, ‘a star who is in fact a stargazer’ (o.c.

aged to screen himself out. A muted presence, he succeeded


to get others to open up and expose themselves to his cam-

To eliminate his body physical Warhol replaced many of

era/microphone while he himself lingered in the shadows.

its functions with machinery. The most obvious example is

The star as stargazer is a black hole: it never shows itself but

the Factory, a studio for industrial art production where, as

sucks in everything around it.

he explained, ‘we’re turning out a painting every day and a

As Wayne Koestenbaum argues, Warhol’s preoccupation with

sculpture every day and a movie every day’ (Goldsmith 2004:

the body is also of central concern to his most important

89). By silkscreening his works, Warhol deliberately sought to

work as a painter. Consider his famous images of Campbell’s

make his work less personal, taking out the trace of the hand

soup cans. There are many ways to read these paintings,

of the artist. Ironically, the silkscreening process is actually

although David Bourdon has suggested that they may have

very laborious and Warhol hired Gerard Malanga, a gor-

been nothing more than a desperate attempt by the artist



to do something so outrageous that the artworld would be

the world, time is stopped and the chemical balance of the

forced to take notice of him (Bourdon 1989: 90). If we look for

food remains unchanged. Soup cans are bodies in temporal

meaning in these works, as we should with all works of art,


then it certainly seems that these are pastiches of a tradi-

Stopping time in the body is tantamount to trying to cheat

tional theme: the Baroque still lives of vegetables and other

death, another of Warhol’s major concerns. Death is every-

food, spread out on a counter in rich and elaborate Dutch

where in Warhol, who is probably one of the most morbid

paintings. Warhol’s soup cans are also such a banquet, but

of the Romantics. One of his most iconic series of images

customised and condensed in a tin can. The artist is playing

is that of Marilyn Monroe, the first of which, Gold Marilyn

a joke on art history. Also, the images are not identical. When

(1962), was produced within days of the star’s death on

Warhol first exhibited the series of soup cans, every flavour

August 5, 1962. This canvas, which shows a small image of

of the Campbell’s brand was represented. Warhol would also

Marilyn silkscreened onto a gold canvas, was Warhol’s first

paint soup cans with torn labels, or crushed and destroyed

silkscreen. The gold ground recalls his youth: Warhol grew

cans. Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Vegetable Beef) and Big Torn

up in a Greek-Orthodox church community where icons with

Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot) (both 1962) are like memento

gold ground were very common. Warhol also used gold in his

mori, reminders of the hurtability of the body. For that is

gorgeous A Gold Book (1957) with drawings of street boys that

what they most conspicuously are: bodies. The soup cans are

have ‘a rare, contemplative intensity’ (Bastian 1996: 25). After

containers holding intestines. In fact, they hold the mixed

Gold Marilyn, many more Marilyns would follow, along with

foodstuffs of soup, which often looks like half digested food,

a series of so-called Death and Disaster Paintings. Violent

the stuff one finds in the stomach. The soup can contains this

death, whether by food poisoning (Tunafish Disaster, 1963),

stuff in the same way that Julia’s and Warhol’s bodies contain

car crash (a whole series, in various hues, in 1963), race riot

intestines. And just like Julia’s and Warhol’s bodies, the inner

(for example, Red Race Riot, 1963) or suicide (several Suicides

stuff can fall out if the can is crushed or opened. In the 1970s

of 1963), obsessed Warhol. Hal Foster has called Warhol’s

Warhol would start another collection of cans with his time

method in these works “traumatic realism”: an attempt to

capsules: hundreds of cilinder-shaped boxes in which he kept

cope with a world experienced as traumatic. In these works

all manner of objects, from issues of magazines over film

Warhol is trying to understand and master death. Like many

tickets and unopened mail to film scripts and personal ob-

of his silkscreens, the Death and Disaster paintings contain

jects. Each of these boxes contains a part of Warhol’s life, as

series. Within one canvas, the same image of violent death is

if in an attempt to stop time and hold it there, enclosed. This

often repeated several times. But repetition is a way of trying

again links to the soup cans, because food can keep a mighty

to stop time. Repetition also neutralises the threat of death:

long time in a tin can: as long as it is untouched by oxygen,

by repeating the same image again and again, it becomes

the food will not spoil. In other words: contained away from

more and more abstract and less painful or threatening.


What is traumatising when first seen, soon becomes a mere

good a place to start a discussion of his films as any other. For

visual motif, an arrangement of forms on a canvas. As he told

several years, but ending somewhere in early 1966, every in-

Gretchen Berg in what is probably the most famous interview

teresting visitor to Warhol’s silver Factory was required to sit

he ever gave, ‘when I read magazines I just look at the pic-

for their portrait. This was a moving portrait: the subject was

tures and the words, I don’t usually read it. There’s no mean-

sat on a chair in front of some nondescript background, lit,

ing to the words, I just feel the shapes with my eye and if you

and required not to move or blink for the next three minutes,

look at something long enough, I’ve discovered, the meaning

which was the duration of a reel of film. Once the camera had

goes away’ (Goldsmith 2004: 95). To cheat death by casting

started filming, Warhol abandoned it and everybody went

a cold eye upon it: this is Warhol’s method. And it found its

about their business, leaving the sitter to sit. Every sitter in

strongest expression in his films, where the impersonal eye

this catalogue of moving pictures makes an effort to comply,

of the camera strengthened Warhol’s gaze and turned it into

but not moving, and especially not blinking, is a strenuous

a scalpel with which he could open up the psychical bodies

exercise. Sooner or later the subject has to give in. They blink.

of the stars that moved in orbit around it.

Their eyes begin to water. They look sideways because they are distracted. They become visibly uncomfortable. They


Moving Towards Stillness

move, often involuntarily and spontaneously.

Time and the body: these are the axes around which Warhol’s

This is exactly what Warhol hopes to achieve. By leaving his

cinema turns. What happens when we gaze at something?

subject alone with the camera Warhol forces the person to

What do we see or hope to see when we gaze? Warhol’s cine-

confront himself. Three minutes is a very long time if one is

ma is grounded in the belief that if you wait and look long and

waiting for it to elapse. One becomes very self-conscious. One

hard enough, something will be revealed. A gift will be given;

may ask oneself if one is doing it well, even though one is not

a gift of knowledge. Intimate knowledge at that. The reward

supposed to be doing anything at all. Many of the sitters have

for gazing is illumination. Just like his paintings, Warhol’s

testified to the uncomfortable and even traumatic experience

films are about the tension between the inside and the out-

of having one’s Screen Test made by Warhol. In fact, the Screen

side. By staring at things, you can break the shell of the out-

Tests were a form of torture. By confronting the sitters with

side and see what is within. The gaze waits for a revelation.

themselves, Warhol is soliciting a crack in their image. At first,

It is a patient way of looking. It is waiting for it to happen, as

every sitter tries to maintain some dignity, some image, some

Warhol would put it. The “it” he waits for, is the point where

facade. But unable to maintain this facade, they sooner or lat-

something unexpected, something revealing breaks through

er become themselves. Their real personality breaks through.

the surface of the ordinary and offers us a glimpse of the hid-

It is these glimpses of reality that Warhol is hoping to see.

den, the inside, the real. In this sense, Warhol’s hundreds of

The camera is the disembodied and cold machine eye that is

Screen Tests are the paradigm of his cinematic activity and as

preying on the innocent sitter until the inevitable cracks ap-



pear, just like a portrait in oil-paint might crack. ‘The screen

gaze and thoughts inwards, as it does for the sitters in the

tests were explicitly acts of coercion, of psychological torture,’

Screen Tests who have three excruciatingly long minutes of

Wayne Koestenbaum explains. ‘The experience of watching

time on their hands to contemplate their existence, then and

these tests in bulk has permanently changed my attitude

there, in front of the peering camera eye. But if extended time

toward the human face: I realise that I have never looked with

turns us inwards, it is by extension possible to afford insight

enough love or forgiveness at the features of strangers. Not

into another person. This, too, is the logic of the Screen Tests:

that Warhol’s gaze is loving: to judge by their expressions,

the moment time becomes unbearable and the sitter retreats

the sitters experience the screen test as an ordeal, a punitive

into himself is usually also the moment he cracks and his hid-

sounding-of-depths, which they resist by not emoting’ (Koes-

den inside becomes visible. This desire to see the unseen and

tenbaum 2001: 99-100). Until the facade cracks and the victim

the hidden is the key to the pornographic gaze. The viewer

is provoked ‘into a visible breakdown’ (o.c. 100). This visible

of pornography hopes to see a moment of release, of loss of

breakdown is the emergence of the invisible interior: some-

control, when reality breaks through the surface. This is the

thing that was hidden and is therefore more real than what

moment of orgasm. Wayne Koestenbaum writes that Warhol

can readily be seen on the surface. In spite of themselves the

‘reconfigured the pornographic impulse into a sage, serious

sitters reveal themselves, in a way that is similar to the sur-

quest for the essence of matter – to approach, more and more

render in orgasm: you cannot hold back and are overtaken,

closely, the miraculous core of the material world by watch-

briefly, by something irrepressible. This is the erotics of the

ing (and reproducing) other people’s bodies [...]. The puritani-

gaze at work in Warhol’s cinema: to provoke the emergence of

cal moralism that surrounds the contemporary debate over

the hidden. It is coerced intimacy, cinema as ocular rape.

pornography overlooks the honest, near-religious motive for

Warhol’s early films were projected at silent speed. Sound

sexually explicit images: curiosity, or the laudable hunger to

speed is twenty-four frames per second; silent speed can be

see more than the eye can hold’ (Koestenbaum 2001: 9).

as slow as eighteen or sixteen frames per second. This means

The main virtue the pornographic perceiver in this meta-

that Warhol’s silent films take longer to show than they took

physical sense must have is patience: the willingness to wait

to film. Here, Warhol is extending time. This is the ultimate

it out, to wait for it to happen, for revelation to come. Warhol

preoccupation of Warhol’s cinema. Time is related to embodi-

was certainly a master of patience, to such an extent even

ment: we experience time because we are physical beings in

that Stephen Koch has rightfully dubbed him ‘the tycoon of

the world. It is especially when we are bored and nothing is

passivity’ (Koch 1991: 23). One of Warhol’s greatest exercises

happening that we can almost feel time dragging at our bod-

in gazing was one of his earliest films, Sleep (1962). This is

ies. Time becomes something viscous, something that stifles

an extended portrait of the sleeping body of the poet John

and irritates. We become acutely aware of the fact that we are

Giorno, who was Warhol’s boyfriend at the time. Contrary to

here, a body in space. Awareness of time’s passing turns our

popular lore, Sleep is not an unmoving six hour long shot of



Giorno’s sleeping body. It is in fact a highly crafted film and

is receiving the titular service of the film. We do not know

nothing like the primitive document it is often made out to

whether the blower is a man or a woman. In fact, we do not

be. The film was not even made in one night. Over a period

even know whether the blow job actually occurs or whether

of six weeks Warhol filmed a series of three-minute reels of

the entire film is a put-on, for Warhol’s camera stubbornly

Giorno sleeping (the same kind of reels used for the Screen

refuses to move and show us anything happening below the

Tests). With the help of the British student Sarah Dalton he

blowee’s shoulders. Throughout the film the young man goes

edited this mass of footage into one extended sleep in which

through all the movements that are associated with a blow-

the point of view of the camera changes from reel to reel,

job: enjoyment, ecstasy, boredom, and, finally, in the eighth

with several reels being repeated throughout the film (Watson

reel, orgasm. We know this because in the ninth reel he lights

2003: 133-134). Sometimes Giorno is lying on his back, then

a cigarette, which is a standard post-coital practice among

on his side. Sometimes the camera teasingly reveals the edge

nicotine fiends. The “real” orgasm is never shown. Instead, the

of his pubic hair, at other times it focuses on the movement

film experiences it for us. Every reel (also those used for the

of his belly, which slowly rises and falls with the rhythm of

Screen Tests and other Warhol films) ends with a leader. This

Giorno’s breathing (an extended, slowed-down rise and fall

is a stretch of white film. First it is announced in the form of

projected at silent speed). This film is a highly charged erotic

a white blur that momentarily mists up the screen, notifying

document. It offers us something we never again will see for

us of the impending end of the film. Moments later, the whit-

while Giorno is sleeping, he is unconscious and everything he

ing returns to engulf the image entirely and the reel ends. In

does is involuntary. So despite the fact that the film contains

Blow-Job the leader seems to climax by proxy. It ejaculates in

no action or events in the traditional sense, every detail of

the place of the young man (and maybe even in the place of

Gionro’s body, every movement, even the slightest shift in the

the aroused viewer).

way the body is present on the screen, is an event. Everything

Ironically, these white-outs circle back to the possible put-on

that happens is real, and hence meaningful. We see Giorno as

of the film, because it is remarkable that reel after reel the

he really is, an erotic revelation of the highest order.

young man seems to attain some kind of climax as the white-

This erotics of the cinema can even be inscribed in the mate-

out engulfs the screen. One gets the feeling the young actor

rial of the film itself. This happens in another one of Warhol’s

was being directed by Warhol, or by someone. In the third reel

legendary early films, Blow-Job (1963). This film is composed of

the young man briefly nods and smiles to someone off screen.

nine three-minute reels. Each reel shows the same thing: the

Is he reacting to something Warhol said? Was he not aware

head and shoulders of an anonymous young man in a leather

that the camera was rolling again? At the end of the fourth

jacket (since identified as the actor DeVerne Bookwalter; An-

reel his gaze goes ecstatically skyward at the moment the Er-

gell 2006: 41) against the brick wall of the Factory. To judge

satz ejaculation takes off. This remarkable coincidence repeats

from his facial expressions and movements, the young man

itself at the end of the fifth reel. And at the end of reel six he



opens his eyes in amazement, as if experiencing a vision (like

eyes. One of the most disconcerting experiences of watching

Bernini’s Theresa of Avila, which is sometimes called the first

a Warhol film is that they make time tangible by being any-

female orgasm in art). The game is given away at the start of

thing but boring. Images remain on the screen for so long that

reel eight, the climactic reel. First, the young man can be seen

we are able to take in every detail. We can gorge ourselves on

saying something to someone off screen (possibly Warhol),

the image. And yet, when the image finally does change, one

then he looks at that person (his look is clearly the look of

is still left with the feeling that one has not yet seen enough.

someone looking at another person) and then becomes (starts

The longer we stare at a Warhol film, the more intense be-

acting?) ecstatic. Shortly after, the unmistakable orgasm is

comes the unrest that is kindled within us: we actually start

attained. Since Blow-Job is a silent film, we cannot know how

fearing the approaching moment when the image will be

much of all this is real and how much staged. Some of the

taken away from us. The gaze becomes searching, agitated,

reaction shots in which we “catch” the young man being

active. It is looking for anything, any minute detail, any kind

spontaneous towards people off screen may be actual reac-

of revelatory aspect that it might have overlooked. It wants to

tion shots, but they might just as well have been created in-

find it before the image is taken away. This, again, is the black

tentionally to confuse the audience. And even if most of the

hole of Warhol sucking us in. Warhol creates images that fas-

film is staged, this would not preclude the possibility of real

cinate beyond the limits of the tolerable. His is a cinema that

orgasm at the end or, perversely, in one of the earlier reels (for

it is impossible to turn away from. Watching Warhol’s films is

who can say with any amount of certainty that the reels have

an oddly transformative experience. Afterwards, one can nev-

been edited in the actual chronological order in which they

er look at moving images again with the same innocence one

were filmed or the blowee was blown?).

had before Warhol. One becomes acutely aware of the sexual

One thing is for sure: Warhol gives us plenty of time to con-

nature of every act of looking. To be ocular, to be a creature of

template all these questions as the erotic proceedings unfold

sight, is to be sexual, sensually in, within, and of the world.

in time. Roy Grundmann has commented that Warhol’s obses-

The sensory is the sexual in its fullest dimension. ‘Warhol

sion with extended looking at people is linked to his desire

didn’t sublimate sex,’ Koestenbaum has correctly noted of

to create his own miniature Hollywood in the Factory. In his

Warhol’s work, ‘he simply extended its jurisdiction, allowing

famous interview with Gretchen Berg, Warhol suggests that

it to dominate every process and pastime. For Warhol, every-

‘people usually go to the movies to see only the star, to eat

thing is sexual. Contemplation is sexual. Movement is sexual.

him up, so here at last is a chance to look only at the star for

Stillness is sexual. Looking and being looked at are sexual.

as long as you like, no matter what he does and to eat him up

Time is sexual: that is why it must be stopped’ (Koestenbaum

all you want to’ (in Goldsmith 2004: 90). Warhol isolates this

2001: 5).

obsessive element of star-worship and makes it into the topic

I started this discussion of Warhol’s films with the claim that

of his films, which are all about devouring people with our

his cinematic work is a conscious philosophical exploration



of the problem of embodiment. This claim is supported by

The Belly of a Dyslectic

the fact that Warhol very consciously chose to be the kind

Just like Hollywood before him, Warhol evolved from silent

of filmmaker he was. Among his early films we find several

films into talkies, films with sound. This forced him to change

projects that are decidedly different in style, flirting with the

his approach to filmmaking. For one thing, screening films at

camp style of film-making that was very influential in the

slowed-down silent speed was now out of the question. This

early 1960s. The biggest star of the camp film was Jack Smith,

meant other means of truth-gathering had to be devised. The

director of the legendary Flaming Creatures (1963) but also a

introduction of sound meant that Warhol’s films were now

gifted performer in front of the camera. One of Warhol’s earli-

more involved with plot. At least the semblance of a story or

est films is a reel called Andy Warhol Films Jack Smith Filming

event had to be created. But narratives were never Warhol’s

Normal Love (1963), a record of Smith and his collaborators

strong suit. On top of his many other traumas, Warhol had

filming Normal Love (1963), a camp film in which Warhol also

a severe case of dyslexia. He basically could not write. Para-

made an appearance. Warhol made several films in this ex-

doxically, he published a great many books, almost entirely

cessive camp style. One such film is Tarzan and Jane Regained...

ghostwritten by others. For his novel a he simply taped On-

Sort Of (1963), featuring the waif-like underground superstar

dine’s monologue extérieure and had someone type it up. The

Taylor Mead as an unlikely Tarzan and boasting a cameo ap-

transcript was published with all the typing errors intact.

pearance of a hunky, loin-clothed (actually towel-wrapped)

Later, he would dictate his diaries to Pat Hackett. Since con-

Dennis Hopper. Another was the epic but uncompleted Bat-

structing language was a problem for Warhol, he feigned not

man Dracula (1964), featuring Jack Smith in the double lead

being able to think, which requires the use of language. Lan-

role. Significantly, Warhol soon abandoned this line of film-

guage was alien to Warhol. As he told Gretchen Berg, ‘I always

making to concentrate on his own minimalist, near-abstract

feel that my words are coming from behind me, not from me.

way of filming, doing what he did best: stare and wait for it

The interviewer should just tell me the words he wants me

to happen, but obviously giving “it” a hand by coaxing coin-

to say and I’ll repeat them after him. I think that would be

cidence out of hiding, as in the torture tactics of the Screen

so great because I’m so empty I just can’t think of anything

Tests. But gazing was the name of the game. As Warhol him-

to say’ (Goldsmith 2004: 96). That Warhol was a dyslectic also

self once testified: ‘Everything is interesting. Years ago, people

means that he had trouble with the progressive nature of

used to sit looking out of their windows at the street. Or on a

language, which moves, letter by letter, from one side of the

park bench. They would stay for hours without being bored

page to the other. Language is another manifestation of time.

although nothing much was going on. This is my favourite

And it troubled Warhol. So he decided not to have plot in the

theme in movie making – just watching something happening

talkies. Ronald Tavel, the playwright for the Theatre of the Ri-

for two hours or so’ (Bockris 1997: 327).

diculous, scripted a series of Warhol’s most important talkies. But Warhol resisted elaborate scripts and demanded ‘No plot,



but incident’ (Koch 1991: 63). It was Tavel’s job to devise situa-

two scenes. The second reel of the film is a traditional Warhol

tions in which the actors would have to perform. Within that

talkie with two people confined in a small space for the dura-

framework Warhol’s usual torture practices would take over.

tion of the film. Paul America and another man, an ageing

As a rule, reels for sound film ran for something more than

hustler played by Ed McDermott, are in the bathroom of the

half an hour. As with the Screen Tests, Warhol would turn the

beach house. America has taken a shower and has a towel

camera on and let it run until the film ended. The end of the

wrapped around his waist. He is combing his hair, primping

reel signified the end of the film, regardless of whether the

his body, and takes a piss while MacDermott looks on, hoping

events evolving in front of the camera had reached any kind

to score with America. The tension in the film arises from the

of climax or resolution. For the duration of the reel, the actors

fact that these two men are circling around each other like

had to perform for dear life. There were no pauses, no second

animals, trying to fathom each other’s intentions without giv-

takes. No matter what happened, the show had to go on. As

ing away too much about their own desires. In the confined

with the Screen Tests, this process of filming was devised to

space of the bathroom, however, they cannot help but touch

make the actors crack by confronting them with themselves.

each other. Within this erotic huis clos, which (like all Warhol’s

But the body and its secrets were still a central concern in

best films) is very stylishly and intelligently filmed, making

these films. Witness My Hustler (1965), the first Warhol film on

the most of the frame of the bathroom door, the bathroom

which Paul Morrissey played an important role as Warhol’s

mirror, and the cabin of the shower to create a multi-layered

assistant. It was Morrissey’s idea to introduce the panning

sense of spatial depth, the seemingly banal situation of two

movement of the camera in this film: the camera moves back

men talking to each other in the bathroom becomes an event

and forth horizontally between two scenes: the porch of a

of the highest erotico-voyeuristic import.

beach house and the beach itself where a young man is sit-

The high point of Warhol’s cinematic endeavours in this

ting in the sand. On the porch a conversation can be heard

second, talking part of his career is undoubtedly The Chelsea

between a man, played by Ed Hood, and several of his friends.

Girls (1966), more than three hours of double-screen projec-

The blond hunk on the beach is played by Paul America. It ap-

tion that encompasses a whole series of one-reel films and

pears that Hood has rented the stud via a Dial-a-Hustler ser-

situations. Two such segments have become deservedly fa-

vice. In the first reel of the film Hood’s envious friends make

mous and are of the highest importance for our discussion of

catty comments on America, who is oblivious to what is be-

Warhol. Both are outstanding examples of what Warhol could

ing said. During this dialogue the camera pans back and forth

accomplish by letting his performers expose themselves. The

between the conversationalists and America. Some of these

first segment is ‘Eric’s Trip’. This is a monologue by angelic

pans are very fast and involve a quick zoom of the camera.

blond Eric Emerson, who was required to talk about himself

The effect is disorienting: it is difficult for the viewer to es-

for half an hour while Warhol projected coloured lights on

tablish the exact distance and spatial relation between the

him. But Eric is on an LSD-trip. As he slowly disrobes in what



must be one of the most gloriously extended stripteases in

go, so he decides to give himself a shot of heroin, after which

film history, Eric starts grooving on his own body. His im-

he rinses his syringe with Coke. The psychological theatre of

provised monologue is sheer verbal poetry. Metaphors and

this stunning piece of cinéma vérité shows the great strength

images seem to come effortlessly to Emerson, who ambles

of Warhol’s cinema. It is the finale to The Chelsea Girls, and

through expressive language with a relaxed ease that Warhol

after the almost three hours of double-projected film that

surely must have envied. His speech is a sensual revelation

preceded it, it still packs a wallop. But it also shows how

of his holistic consciousness of himself as part of the physi-

the psychological tactics of the performers can turn against

cal world. He speaks of ingesting particles of the world and of

them; something Ronald Tavel also experienced while shoot-

the connection between body and world. ‘Eric’s Trip’ is glori-

ing Screen Test #2 (1964), which is not a screen test as such

ous cinema, especially because it was not tortured out of the

but a film about a screen test. The star being tested is Mario

actor. Rather, it blooms forth from him. As his high rises, War-

Montez, a drag queen who named herself after Maria Montez

hol trips up the lighting effects until the image explodes into

and who had attained underground fame in the films of Jack

an abstract pattern of light and darkness that seems to recall

Smith, notably in Flaming Creatures. Screen Test #2 is a classic

the work of Francis Bacon. As Eric looses himself in himself,

exercise in Warholian torture cinema. Tavel, who scripted

the image disintegrates into a stroboscopic vision of shooting

the film, tests Montez by giving her directions. Tavel himself

colours. It is one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of

remains disembodied, off-screen. Only his voice is present.

film ever made and it remains profoundly moving even after

As the film progresses, Tavel clearly tries to make Montez

one has seen it several times.

break down in front of the camera by asking prurient and

Equally revealing, but driven by an entirely different dynamic,

humiliating questions. The film reaches something of a nadir

is one of the most famous segments Warhol ever filmed:

when the star is asked, as an exercise in diction, to clearly

‘Pope Ondine’. In this segment Ondine, verbal author of a and

and repetitively pronounce the word “diarrhoea”. Tavel also

proprietor of the Factory’s sharpest tongue, holds court as the

forces her to confess that she is not really a woman. When

Pope. He hears confession while sipping Coke from a bottle.

the completed film was shown to the Factory crowd, Tavel

He is clearly high. But events take a turn for the worse when

was mortified at how much the film revealed about him, and

one of the confessors, a young woman named Rona Page,

not about Montez.

accuses Ondine of being a “phoney,” a poseur. Ondine looses

One of the greatest sites of Warholian revelations, and

his temper with her and smacks her in the face. From then

also one of Warhol’s greatest but least discussed films, is

on, the scene degenerates into a fascinating deconstruction

Vinyl (1965), a two-reeler vaguely based on Anthony Bur-

of Ondine, who is lost somewhere between his character and

gess’ novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) to which Warhol had

his real identity. After he has chased Page off the set and has

bought the rights (in the event also making a masterpiece

calmed down again, he still has about ten minutes of reel to

that far outshines the tepid exercise in épater la bourgeoisie



that Stanley Kubrick was to concoct from the novel). In Vinyl

Malanga really suffers through this film, for the poppers are

Gerard Malanga plays Victor, a juvenile delinquent dressed

clearly real, as is his helpless high (interestingly, Malanga is

Brando-style in a white T-shirt and a fake black leather jacket

a heterosexual who performed several homosexual acts in

(fake leather is vinyl). As the film starts, the camera shows a

front of Warhol’s camera, actually engaging in gay sex in a

close-up of Victor as he is training with weights. The camera

segment of the 1964 film Couch).

then slowly pans back to reveal the other performers who are

But all of the above is merely what happens middle and left

grouped around Malanga in a composition that will be main-

of the foreground of the image. Warhol’s camera is positioned

tained more or less throughout the film. This means that

very high, creating an extreme bird’s eye point of view that

throughout the film the image is actually split up in several

creates a very strong sense of depth. So the camera sees

areas of action that are highlighted in the darkened space of

much more than the scenes involving Victor/Malanga. And

the Factory. That way the image is stuffed with visual infor-

this is where Warhol’s aesthetic is put to work: the image is

mation, for the viewer has several strands of action to follow

crowded with information and all manner of incident. While

in the several segments of the image. On the foreground the

Victor is being tortured in the foreground, Jacques Potin (a

main action takes place: a young student (Larry Latreille) is

marginal member of Warhol’s crew of performers) is loung-

hassled and beaten up by Victor, then dragged to the back-

ing in the background, waiting to get involved in some of

ground where, in a second area of action, he is subjected to

the subsequent action. In the left top corner, in the back of

an SM session by Ondine and Tosh Carillo. After this, Victor

the space of the film, stands the Factory’s famous mirrorball,

himself gets into a fight with Ondine, who roughs him up and

sparkling away regardless of the events. The image is cut in

hands him over to the police (J.D. MacDermott), who forces

half vertically by a slender pole, which is first used by Victor

Victor to sign a waiver allowing the police to subject him to

to tie the hapless student to. While Victor is being tortured,

aversion therapy. This therapy consists in a ‘doctor’ (Carillo)

the space to the right of this pole is occupied by another SM

strapping Victor to a chair on the left side of the foreground,

scene, with Latreille being liberated from the pole only to be

where Victor is forced to watch violent films. This is supposed

tied to a chair and tortured. This is where Potin gets involved,

to make Victor feel so sick that it will cure him of his violent

dripping hot wax on Latreille’s chest and whipping him softly

behaviour. We do not get to see the films that are projected,

with a leather belt. Ondine tears the boy’s pants. And finally,

but Victor describes them to us, adding another, merely ver-

on the right side of the image but prominently in the fore-

bal narrative layer to the film. In the course of this treatment

ground, is the only female in the film. This is Edie Sedgewick,

Victor is forced to inhale poppers until he gets so high he

sitting on a trunk, sipping a drink from a paper cup, having a

sinks to his knees, all but catatonic. Completely out of it, Vic-

smoke, and pretending none of the above is going on around

tor tries to dance with Carillo and clutches the knees of his

her. Throughout the entire film, she does not utter a word.

torturer. Part of Vinyl’s fascination stems from the fact that

She just sits and is fabulous. She sometimes moves. At one



point, she exits the screen for a while (she needed to go to

closed, while the other actors move around him in the frame.

the toilet). Edie would become one of Warhol’s most legend-

It is a stunning tableau that comes and goes for a brief mo-

ary performers, making a string of films with him in 1965,

ment. Just before the second reel runs out, Carillo cuts a lock

and Warhol had added her to the cast of Vinyl as a last-min-

of Malanga’s hair. Just as abruptly as it started, the film ends.

ute decision to balance the all-male cast.

Its reel was up.

All of this is going on in Vinyl and it is all going on at the

The effect of watching Vinyl is quite unlike any other a cine-

same time within the cramped space of the film image. It is

phile might have experienced in his movie-going career. It

simply too much for the viewer to take in. One must see Vinyl

is a mesmerising and profoundly disturbing work. It has a

several times to register everything that happens in it. One

visual intelligence that is rarely seen even in the most so-

moment one is following or trying to follow the main story,

phisticated of films. Few films I know of are able to squeeze

but the next moment something in the background catches

so much information into one frame and maintain that nar-

the eye. The eye is next pulled towards Edie’s luminous pres-

rative tension for more than an hour. But if we stick to analy-

ence, losing the thread of the main story, causing it to keep

sis, I believe that all Warhol’s concerns as I have sketched

on roaming through the events. And Warhol adds even more

them come together in this film. I submit that Vinyl, as a film,

distracting elements. As was usual for the talkies, there are

is a transit-machine: the claustrophobic image, stuffed to

no credits. Warhol had the habit of having someone, either

the limit with visual information, should be read as a visual

on screen or off, read the credits out loud at a moment when

equivalent of the digestive system. This digestive system is

the action in a film seemed to flag. The actors are not at all

literally filled with debris. At the beginning of the film the

convincing. Their acting is stilted, and sometimes they are

student is carrying a pile of books, which are really issues

clearly reading their lines from cue cards. Warhol consciously

of magazines. These are ripped, torn, and thrown about by

sabotaged Malanga’s performance by taking the actor out on

Malanga and Ondine. As the film continues and chaos takes

the town on the eve of the filming, so that he would not have

over, the film is literally cluttered with actions (the several

time to memorise his lines, which outraged Tavel. But this

areas of events), violence, torn clothing, and a collage of loud

matters very little since the dialogue is hard to follow any-

music, sounds, movement, and dialogue. As the film nears its

way. The in-camera sound of Warhol’s films is often less than

end, Warhol doesn’t even play songs anymore, but fragments,

crystal clear, something that is exacerbated near the end of

snippets of songs following each other in nervous succes-

Vinyl by the fact that Warhol starts playing pop records (vinyl,

sion. In this way, Vinyl is a case of cinematic indigestion, a

again) at maximum volume. At that point, total chaos erupts.

digestive system in which the waste keeps sloshing about

Malanga is liberated from his chair, but is so high that he falls

without ever being excreted. In this, the film resembles the

to the floor, crawls around and then, for one magical mo-

Campbell’s soup cans, which contain soup, which resembles

ment, sits on his knees, with his back straight and his eyes

half-digested food. It also resembles the time capsules, in



which Warhol randomly collected all manner of items and

and unexpectedly converge in an Andachtsbild. The composi-

trash. And in light of these resemblances it is surely no coin-

tion is maintained for a moment. Then chaos returns and the

cidence that reels of film like Vinyl are usually stored in cans.

moment is gone. But the moment, however brief, is not with-

A finished scene is often said to be “in the can”. And finally,

out importance. It is like those coincidental constellations of

the brackish slosh of Vinyl’s visual content resembles the

beauty that sometimes come about between elements that

inside of Julia’s and Warhol’s bodies with their tortured, mal-

are not connected to each other. Every body is moving on its

functioning innards. In the final reckoning, Vinyl is an anally

own, but for a moment they are configured in a pattern. This

retentive film: it derives its pleasures from not excreting. It is

is what happens in that tableau in Vinyl. It is sheer coinci-

an exercise in controlling one’s bowels. The debris is inside

dence, to be sure, but it is Warhol’s art to provoke coincidence

the body, and the form of this particular cinematic body is

(there are limits to the amount of gorgeous coincidences one

pristinely antiseptic and streamlined: it is a can, a cylinder, a

can be granted by coincidence; a strong artist can force the

frame, a factory.

hand of Fate a bit and create a fertile environment for such

But this cannot be the end, for if Warhol’s torture tactics

coincidences to occur). Warhol’s patience in waiting for it to

serve any purpose, it is to bring out the long-awaited revela-

happen has been rewarded. Sooner or later, if you wait long

tion of the unsuspected miraculous event of “it happening”.

enough, chaos will yield harmony. For if bodies are moving

And “it” does happen at the end of Vinyl. The “it” of Vinyl is

about at random, it is a statistical fact that sooner or later

the visual tableau I mentioned earlier. Near the end of the

(but possibly later rather than sooner) some ordered constel-

second real, chaos erupts and all performers become free

lation will occur. Not because the moving bodies are geared

radicals, moving about at will, degenerating into licentious-

towards harmony, but because that visually pleasing constel-

ness and other naughty doings. Latreille tries to impress

lation is just one out of the virtually endless series of possible

Edie by acting tough and placing his booted foot on helpless

constellations that are available with these variables. There

Malanga’s behind. SM, indeed. For this final descent into

is no order in the bodies: they merely move. Therefore, the

disorder even the camera joins in. It leaves its immobile posi-

tableau that is the crowning achievement of Vinyl is a gift in

tion and, like the eye of the viewer, starts roaming through

the true sense of the word. It is a revelation. If anything (and,

the visual space, veritably eating up (like the movie-goer’s

to be sure, there is much more) Vinyl teaches and urges us to

voracious eye) Malanga’s malleable but tortured flesh. The

appreciate such gifts of beauty. It teaches us to celebrate the

camera joins in the chaos, dancing to Warhol’s tune of dis-

beauty of coincidence, the splendour of the unexpected. By

connected pop records. Until, suddenly, the image of saintly

playing the game of authenticity and improvisation, Warhol

Malanga, kneeling centrally in the frame, appears, with the

has created a space for real beauty to occur: a beauty that is

other performers arranged around him. It is a glorious sight,

not classical or academic, but emergent.

as if all the variables of the film’s visual universe suddenly


Chapter Four

Making the World In her book on The Body in Pain (1985) Elaine Scarry asks what the felt experience of pain is like and how this experience


affects our physical and mental existence. What does pain


she mean by this? Clearly, it cannot mean that the experi-

do to us? What does it do to our sense of self? Scarry claims that ‘intense pain is world-destroying’ (BP 29). But what does ence of pain within my body somehow wreaks havoc upon the objects and buildings around me. On the contrary, the world often seems infuriatingly indifferent to our pain or


In the new millennium art has swerved away from the philo-

the pain of our loved-ones. So the destruction of the world

sophical condition and beauty has taken centre stage again.

through pain should not be taken literally, in the sense of

The next two chapters are devoted to that rediscovered

a physical destruction of the material world. It is therefore

beauty. But to get to it, we must first go through the mire.

our first business to determine what Scarry means by “the

Beauty must often be salvaged from chaos. It is often found

world”. What world is she talking about? As will become

in fragments, in little scraps of reality that seem of no con-

clear, the world she writes about is phenomenological: it is

sequence whatever in the greater scheme of things. In the

the world for me, the environment I inhabit, the whole of ob-

case of the American philosopher Elaine Scarry, beauty was

jects and structures that is present to my senses and which

a topic she came to after she had descended into the worlds

establishes the space in which I move and live. World must

of pain and torture. We will follow her there and learn that

be understood as Lebenswelt: not the whole physical universe

to gain beauty we must re-establish contact with the world.

but the extent of my sentient extension into that world as it

This will lead us into an exploration of the Dionysian, the

presents itself to my felt experience.

dark undercurrent of reality. Following Scarry and the work

According to Scarry, Marx ‘throughout his writings assumes

of Hermann Nitsch we will immerse ourselves in the muck

that the made world is the human being’s body and that,

of brutal nature, only to emerge cleansed on the other side,

having projected that body into the made world, men and

ready to experience beauty, and possibly in possession of a

women are themselves disembodied, spiritualized’ (BP 244).

metaphysical foundation for the processes of sadomasoch-

This is the basic idea behind Das Kapital (1867): through la-

ism that were explored in the previous chapter.

bour people invest themselves in the world and make that world human. This, in essence, is the process at work in commodity fetishism. We create artefacts through the labour of our bodies. A certain amount of human labour was


expended in the production of the commodity and the duration of the labour required to produce it is the measure of value. So two objects will have the same value if the same amount of time was required to produce them. Marx is very acutely aware of the almost magical or alchemical process that this implies and that is surely one of the reasons he called it a fetishism: a perception of value that is projected rather that objectively present in an object. We create the world, and the value we attach to it, by extending ourselves into it, by investing our labour and through our labour a piece of ourselves in the material world. So, in a very real sense, we are part of the world. ‘For Marx, material making is a recreation of the body and the body is itself recreated in that activity’ (BP 256). Through our labour, we are present in the world. This means that it is not sufficient to say that


we, being organisms, are part of the world in the sense that we are dependent on the eco-system of our planet or on the cosmos in general. We must add that we are also part of the non-natural and made world of manufactured objects. They too are part of us and we are part of them. Humans and their world are coextensive. In creating objects, we become invested in them. This is one-way magic, for once this investment has been established, the composing parts cannot be separated again: ‘the human creature is immersed in his interaction with the world, far too immersed to extricate himself from it’ (Scarry 1994: 52). Created objects, artefacts, are expressive of who we are. This investment is also expressed in our attachment to the objects around us. Even if an object has very little objective value in itself it can still mean a lot to us because of some Elaine Scarry

emotional attachment (this pen is not simply a pen but my


late grandfather’s pen) or because it is simply part of the everyday world in which we feel at home, our Lebenswelt. Our investment in the world is most clear in the comforting feeling of being at home in our own living space, the space that we assembled (we picked the furniture, the wall-paper, the paintings on the wall) to express who we are. The worldbuilding ability of humans was of central concern to Hannah Arendt. In The Human Condition (1958) she famously distinguished three types of human activity: labour, work, and action. Labour is an activity that is involved in the cycle of life. What is created through labour is immediately consumed again. I bake a bread to eat it, I till the earth to grow vegetables to feed my family. Labour is the sphere of consumption: what is made is immediately reinvested in the digestive cycle of human existence. What is consumed, disappears


again from the world. Nothing remains. Work, on the other hand, is the realm of worldliness. This means that the activity of work results in the creation of a shared world. We make things that outlast us. If we build a house, the house is not demolished when we die: other people come to live there and very often this change of inhabitants will repeat itself many times over the generations. Finally, the third and most distinctly human activity Arendt distinguishes is action. Typical of action is the fact that nothing is produced. There is no product, only an endless process that is undertaken for its own sake and because we deem it meaningful. The greatest example of action is politics, where people gather and speak up in public for the common good. To act is to take action in the world, to stand up for something, not because this gives immediate results (because every political deciKarl Marx

sion can always be overturned and every action can always



be undone by a counter-action) but because we take upon us

disabled because our disability is too widespread or common

the burden of responsibility for the world we share. Action

to be seen as a disability. Furthermore, nobody is able to get

is the realm of the unpredictable: we never know what the

to the second floor of any building without the prosthetic

effects of our actions will be.

use of stairs or an elevator. We are all disabled to some ex-

In our present context the activity of work is the most fasci-

tent. Imperfection is our nature. And we build the world in a

nating because of its lasting effects. It is a kind of production

way that helps us overcome our physical shortcomings. That

that does not get spent in the digestive cycle of consump-

is what tools are for: they are prostheses, extensions of the

tion. Through work we change the world, we turn resources

body that help us get about in the world. But for the person

into lasting artefacts. And we most commonly do this with

labelled “disabled” the fact that a tool is an extension of the

the help of tools. Marx and Scarry perceive tools as exten-

body becomes especially salient. If one needs an artificial leg

sions of the self and they are therefore considered to be

to walk, the tool is literally an extension of the body.

readily at hand. We do not reflect upon the tool-character of

As extensions of the body, tools and objects are an attempt

a door handle when we use it to open a door. We do not re-

to deal with our awareness of the world in a way that is

flect upon the tool-character of the hammer when we pick it

beneficial to ourselves. The shape of a chair, for example, is

up to drive a nail into the wall. We unconsciously treat these

designed to alleviate the burden of our spine. It gives rest to

tools as a self-evident presence in our world and therefore

the body by mimicking the body. So ‘the chair [can] be recog-

as part of our own extension into our world. This point be-

nised as mimetic of sentient awareness. [...] The shape of

comes more clear if we consider that we usually use our

the chair is not the shape of the skeleton, the shape of body

hands to handle tools. As Scarry notes, Friedrich Engels once

weight, nor even the shape of pain-perceived, but the shape

pointed out that the human hand ‘is itself an artefact, gradu-

of perceived-pain-wished-gone’ (BP 289-90). Chairs exist as

ally altered by its own activity of altering the external world’

an expression of the human wish to prevent pain that fol-

(BP 253). In Hiding from Humanity (2004) Martha Nussbaum

lows from being on our feet too long. But chairs no longer

has written about the use we make of prostheses in our

come about because of my individual desire to alleviate a

everyday existence. We distinguish healthy from disabled

back-ache, they are now being industrially manufactured.

people, assuming that people are disabled because their

And this, to Scarry’s mind, is a positive and world-building

body is imperfect in a way that makes it impossible for them

aspect of industrial labour that is easily overlooked. ‘It is

to have unrestricted access to (everyday human activities in)

almost universally the case in everyday life that the most

the world. A paralysed person, for example, needs a wheel-

cherished object is one that has been hand-made by a friend:

chair to get about and blind people need a stick or a dog to

[...] the object’s material attributes themselves record and

guide them. But Nussbaum points out that we are all dis-

memorialize the intensely personal [...] feelings of the maker

abled. Many of us need glasses, but we do not call ourselves

for just this person [...]. But anonymous, mass-produced



objects contain a collective and equally extraordinary mes-

goes to the very nature of man. Man is only happy if he is

sage: Whoever you are, and whether or not I personally like

able to express himself through meaningful activities. If we

or even know you, in at least this small way, be well’ (BP

introduce Arendt’s distinction between labour and work into

292). So even mass-production is engaged in the building of

Marx’s thought, we might say that what Arendt calls labour

a communal human world in which we can be at home. The

is related to what Marx would call exploitation: bodily activ-

most fundamental example of the body-extensiveness of the

ity that does not break the body free from the cycle of sub-

world is probably the nature of our homes and the rooms

sistence. If the worker gets fair earnings that are expressive

we inhabit within them. For Scarry ‘the room, the simplest

of the value he produces, he will be able to use his earnings

form of shelter, expresses the most benign potential of hu-

to buy goods for the sole purpose of expressing his human-

man life. It is, one the one hand, an enlargement of the body:

ity. This means that to become human is to be able to buy

it keeps warm and safe the individual it houses [...]; like the

luxury goods, namely goods that no longer contribute to our

body, its walls put boundaries around the self [...], yet in its

subsistence. We have already mentioned Susanne K. Langer’s

windows and doors, crude versions of the senses, it enables

claim that such expressive action is not at all frivolous or

the self to move out into the world and allows that world

some kind of surplus activity to indulge in when our more

to enter’ (BP 38). Scarry has further elaborated this view in

fundamental needs have been met. On the contrary, man has

Dreaming by the Book (2001), where she addresses the meta-

‘a primary need’ that she calls ‘the need of symbolisation. The

phor of the eyes as the windows of the soul. ‘It is estimated

symbol-making function is one of man’s primary activities,

that the total skin surface in an adult human being is three

like eating, looking, or moving about’ (PNK 40-41). Langer

thousand square inches. Compared to that expanse, the

writes that ‘the organism yearns to express’ ideas and feel-

surface covered by the retinas is a tiny patch of membrane

ings ‘without practical purpose’ (o.c. 43). This she sees as

[...]. Yet, physiologically, 38 percent of all sensory experience

the source of religion, ritual, art, and all kinds of expressive

takes place against that tiny surface. Eyes are, according to

behaviour in the human. In his anthropological survey of

neurobiologists, the direct outcropping of the brain: not con-

ancient Greek ritual Walter Burkert explains the sacrifice

tent to receive messages by mediation, the brain has moved

of food in the form of libations from this perspective. ‘Milk,

out to the surface of the skull in order to rub up against the

honey, oil, and wine, the precious commodities of a society

world directly (no wonder it is overwhelming to look into

familiar with dearth and hunger, were poured away irretriev-

another person’s eyes; one beholds directly the moist tissue

ably; similarly, grain was mashed into pap so it could drain

of the person’s brain)’ (DB 68).

into the ground. In southern regions, even water is a pre-

A final point on world-making must be made. As we saw,

cious commodity and hence played a part in some libations.

humans build a world that is an extension and a projection

[...] No other act of destruction can be expressed by gestures

of themselves. It was one of Marx’s assumptions that this

so noble and sublime: Achilles pouring wine for his dead



friend Patroklos, an unforgettable poetical image. The artful-

ing, better food, or medical care. This should not surprise us.

ly shaped libation vessels stress the grandeur of the proceed-

To feed, clothe, or medicate oneself does not yet make one

ings. By renouncing personal profit, man can uplift himself;

human. People prefer televisions over food because the tele-

by humbling himself in spite of his needs, he displays his

vision is a way of expressing who they are. It is also a way

wealth or at least his freedom. Alexander the Great acted in

of being part of the world, as it is literally a window on that

this way in the Gedrosian desert when he emptied into the

world. To indulge in expressive deficit spending (or comfort

sand a helmet filled with water’ (Burkert 1983: 54-55).

shopping) when one is poor is a way of claiming one’s hu-

This can help us understand why human beings are so fond

manity in the face of dehumanising poverty. It is to say: I am

of beautiful things, and especially of useless beauty. Art for

not an animal, I am a creature of expression. On this logic,

art’s sake or acquiring commodities for commodities’ sake, is

to keep social benefits intentionally (too) low as an “incen-

not an absurd concept. There is something profoundly hu-

tive” to work is to blackmail people with their very human-

man and healthy in our quest to gather around us objects we

ity. It denies people the means to be expressive. It is to deny

value. As Elaine Scarry has pointed out, we have a tendency

them access to the world. It is, in effect, to deny them their

to ‘verbally disavow and discredit our immersion in materi-


alism, sometimes even scorning the tendency of less materi-


ally privileged cultures to aspire to the possession of these

Unmaking the World

same objects: that blue jeans are cherished in the Soviet

Marx’s analysis of the creation of the world through object

Union, that a picture from a Sears Roebuck catalogue should

fetishism is also the basis of Scarry’s analysis of the unmak-

appear on the wall of a hut in Nairobi, that Sony recorders

ing of the world. Labour is the basis on which capital is ac-

are prized in Iran, are events sometimes greeted by Western

cumulated. In the most primitive state of man, labour value

populations with bewilderment, as though the universal

would be exchanged for labour value: I exchange one hour’s

aspiration to such objects [...] were a form of incomprehen-

worth of baking bread for your one hour’s worth of knitting

sible corruption or an act of senseless imitation rather than

sweaters. In this way we all labour and trade the products

itself a confirmation and signal that something deep and

of our labour. This is the circuit of commodities: created

transforming is intuitively felt to happen when one dwells in

objects change hands in a constant dynamic of trade. But

proximity to such objects’ (BP 243). Humans like beauty for

with the emergence of money something changes in the

beauty’s sake, they like useless things, gadgets, and decora-

circuit of commodities. Originally commodities are traded

tive trivialities because of their potential for expressiveness.

for commodities, which could be schematically rendered as:

This, incidentally, explains why the poor often exasperate

C-C. With the introduction of money an intermediate stage

other people by spending their limited social benefits or

is introduced into this process. One will now exchange an

other resources on luxury goods instead of on better hous-

amount of goods for an equal amount of money, which in


turn can be used to purchase an equal amount of other com-

hen wir den Inbegriff der physischen und geistigen Fähigkeiten, die

modities. I sell you a loaf of bread for one euro if and only if

in der Leiblichkeit, der lebendigen Persönlichkeit eines Menschen

it takes me one euro’s worth of labour-time to produce the

existieren und die er in Bewegung setzt, sooft er Gebrauchswerte

loaf of bread. With the euro I thus acquire I can go and buy

irgendeiner Art produziert’; o.c. 181). It is noteworthy that Marx

one euro’s worth of vegetables, clothes, or any other com-

considers both our physical and our mental abilities to be

modity I desire. Schematically, this circuit of metamorphoses

part of our physicality (‘Leiblichkeit’), for there is nothing,

(for, remembering the magical nature of commodity fetish-

not even voice, that man can express without the use of

ism, it is apt to speak of a metamorphosis in this regard)

his physical being. There is no soul without the brains. But

runs as follows: C-M-C, Commodity is exchanged for Money

how can this labour power be used to generate capital? The

is exchanged for Commodity. But the emergence of money

value of labour power is determined the same way all value

immediately causes a new circuit to come into play. This is

is determined: by the average amount of labour necessary to

what Marx calls the circuit of capital. The aim will now no

produce it. In the case of labour power this amount of neces-

longer be to exchange equivalent values but to generate a

sary labour is ‘the time it takes to produce the commodities

profit at the end of the circuit. Schematically, the circuit of

necessary to sustain the worker for the day. Not only food,

capital runs as follows: M-C-M’. Two changes have taken

but a contribution to the cost of housing, clothes, and so on’

place. The circuit no longer starts with commodities but

(Wolff 2002: 71). In essence, the value of labour is the money

with money. Money is used to buy a commodity. The second

the worker needs to buy the goods that keep him alive. Let

change occurs when that commodity is sold again: it is sold

us now suppose that the average amount of time required

for profit. That means that it is sold for an amount of money

to generate these necessary commodities is four hours of

that is higher than the price originally paid for it (hence M’

labour. So the worker must work for four hours to earn the

instead of M).

wages necessary to sustain himself. However, the capitalist

The profit is what Marx calls surplus value: ‘Diese Inkrement

employs the worker for a full day’s work, namely (in our rela-

oder den Überschuss über den ursprünglichen Wert nenne ich –

tively humane times) eight hours. So the worker is required

Mehrwert (surplus value)’ (Marx 1962: 165). Surplus value

to work the last four hours for free. The worker exchanges

generates capital. If equivalents are exchanged, no surplus

a day’s labour for a day’s worth of sustenance. However, he

value can emerge and by consequence no capital can be

need only work half a day to obtain a day’s sustenance. The

acquired. The capitalist will therefore have to seek out a

four supplementary hours of work generate surplus value for

commodity that allows to generate surplus value. Labour

the capitalist. This is what Marx calls exploitation.

power is this kind of commodity. Labour power is man’s

This raises the obvious question why the labourer would be

physical and mental ability to create objects that can be sold

so stupid as to sell his labour so cheaply; indeed to some-

in the market (‘Unter Arbeitskraft oder Arbeitsvermögen verste-

times work for an amount of money that barely amounts



to subsistence wages. The answer to this question lies, per-

force will wear itself out and ultimately die, which is coun-

versely, in what Marx calls the labourer’s double freedom.

terproductive. Whatever the capitalist does, he will keep la-

The labourer is free in the sense that he is an individual in

bour force alive. But if at all possible, he will do nothing more

free control of his own commodity, namely his labour. He is

than that. It is of course not inconceivable that, for some rea-

free to trade its value in the market-place. But the labourer

son or other, labour force becomes scarce, causing the price

is also “free” in the sense that he has no access to what is

of labour force to rise. In that case one of the great spectres

needed for him to make his labour work for him. That is to

of Marxism appears: the replacement of the labourer with

say that the labourer has no access to the means of produc-

machines. This is the image of poorly paid labourers who are

tion or the resources to practice his skills. ‘Zur Verwandlung

making the very machines that will make their labour super-

von Geld in Kapital muss der Geldbesitzer also den freien Arbeiter

fluous. As a consequence of the introduction of machines,

auf dem Warenmarkt vorfinden, frei in dem Doppelsinn, dass er als

unemployment will rise and this will restock the labour force

freie Person über seine Arbeitskraft als seine Ware verfügt, dass er

market, enabling the capitalist to cut down labour prices, so

andrerseits andre Waren nicht zu verkaufen hat, los und ledig, frei

that labourers will be re-hired to work the machines at lower

ist von allen zur Verwirklichung seiner Arbeitskraft nötigen Sa-

wages than the ones they got before. It is a vicious cycle in

chen’ (K 183). So the labourer finds himself with many skills

which only the capitalist ever wins because he holds the key

and much labour power but with no way or means to put

to both resources and means of production.

these skills and this force to work. What good is your skill at

The overall result of this capitalist system for human beings

baking bread if you do not have an oven? This means that

is what Marx has famously called alienation. Alienation is

the labourer may be free in theory, but to the extent that he

not just a subjective perception but an objective state of af-

is poor, he will still be forced to submit to the capitalist. The

fairs that consists of three factors. First, the worker is alien-

labourers ‘must both be able to work for capitalists and need

ated from the product he makes. His labour or work produc-

to. They acquiesce in their own exploitation only because

es a product over which he has no control: once it is made,

they have no alternative. They cannot work for themselves

it belongs to the capitalist. The worker cannot take it home

as they have nothing to work on or with, no land or other

with him. He simply invests his labour and is then separated

resources. Thus they must hire our their labour power to

from it. As a result, we rarely think of the world as created

the highest bidder’ (Wolff 2002: 73). Capitalists will take

by humans. We fail to see the human labour expended in

advantage of the enormous amount of labour force avail-

bringing it about because we are not even aware of the way

able on the market to keep the prices for labour low. This

our own labour has been invested in this world. The second

can be maintained as long as the price for labour does not

element of alienation is the division of labour which results

fall beneath subsistence wages, which is the ‘Minimalgrenze

in a de-skilling of the worker, who only needs to mechani-

des Werts’ (K 187). If it does fall below this minimum, labour

cally repeat the same action over and over. This kind of work



is repetitive, numbing, and depressing. It reduces the worker

ten find it nearly impossible to verbalise and share their pain

to an element in a machine. Finally, there is alienation from

with others. ‘Physical pain does not simply resist language

our species-being. Here we reach the most fundamental

but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate rever-

presupposition of Marx’s philosophy: man creates the world

sion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries

in which he lives. Animals also create a world, but only to

a human being makes before language is learned’ (BP 4). This

the extent that their instincts incite them to build a nest or

reversion is due to the fact that pain ‘has no referential con-

other requirements for survival and reproduction. Man goes

tent. It is not of or for anything. It is precisely because it takes

far beyond the necessary changes required for subsistence.

no object that it, more than any other phenomenon, resists

For example, humans also embellish the world and make

objectification in language’ (BP 5). Pain, Scarry writes, ‘is it-

art. These world-changing activities are what makes humans

self alone’ (BP 162). Thus to have pain is to be locked inside

human. It is Marx’s belief that work under capitalism de-

one’s body. This is also a form of alienation from the self

stroys this world-making capacity. Capitalism limits our free

because ‘the person in great pain experiences his own body

ability to shape ourselves and the world because it makes

as the agent of his agony. The ceaseless, self-announcing

our work subservient to the needs of capital. This way it per-

signal of the body in pain [...] contains not only the feeling

verts our very humanity. In light of this it should come as no

“my body hurts” but the feeling “my body hurts me”’ (BP 47).

surprise that Marx claims that ‘many of us feel human only

Pain leaves no room for the self because ‘the pain itself is

when we are not working’ (Wolff 2002: 36): ‘Der Arbeiter fühlt

felt from the inside where, by appropriating all attention, it

sich daher erst ausser der Arbeit bei sich und in der Arbeit ausser

has become total [...]. Pain sabotages and subverts person-

sich. Zu Hause ist er, wenn er nicht arbeitet und wenn er arbeitet,

hood.’ That is why Scarry calls pain ‘the monolithic destroyer

ist er nicht zu Hause’ (Marx 2005: 59).

of persons’ (Scarry 1994: 31): ‘as the body becomes the only world, so pain becomes the only body’ (o.c. 34).

The Brutality of Fact

The felt experience of pain explains why torture is such a

But it is not only exploitation that alienates us. The analysis

powerful political tool. By torturing people, one takes away

of commodity fetishism and its projection of value can also

their world. This is done in many small and less small ways.

be extended into an analysis of the way the experience of

If a chair is an extension of the spine, relieving it from the

pain can destroy our world. Scarry has analysed the world-

burden of carrying the body, then kicking a chair from under

destroying power of pain in chilling detail. People who suf-

a prisoner is an efficient way of undermining the prisoner’s

fer extreme pain retreat into themselves and gradually lose

trust in the world. What was once comfortable and reliable,

interest in the world. According to Scarry, this regression has

now becomes a source of pain and uncertainty. Similarly,

to do with the “unsharability” of pain, which is linked to “its

giving prisoners spoiled food to eat and brackish water to

resistance to language”. This means that people in pain of-

drink not only makes them sick, which is temporary, but



undermines their faith in the essentially beneficial and

ternalisation) are wholly self-isolating. Only in the culture

life-giving qualities of food and, especially, water. And this

of language, ideas, and objects does sharing originate’ (BP

is a much less temporary intrusion into a person’s sense of

256). It is through language, through voice, that we com-

world. Finally, to actually inflict pain, often debilitating pain,

mune with mankind, not through our body. In fact, our body

to disorient the victim, or to make them feel as if they are

can (be used to) impose limits on this voice if it is made to

drowning, or to expose them to extreme changes in temper-

feel extreme pain. It is, however, not through our bodies but

ature, or to extreme and disturbing sounds: all these actions

through our voice that we share the world with other human

undermine a person’s ability to extend themselves into the

beings, for ‘so long as one is speaking, the self extends out

world. They withdraw upon themselves and, sooner or later,

beyond the boundaries of the body, occupies a space larger

they break. Efficient torture can bring a person on the brink

than the body’ (BP 33). So speech is revealed to probably

of psychosis in a matter of hours. But we need not even turn

be an even more fundamental form of world-making than

to torture to see the world-destroying power that people can

the collective efforts of work. ‘Through his ability to project

wield over others. There is an unsettling Wolfgang Tillmans

words and sounds out into his environment, a human being

photograph called Anti-homeless device (2000). It shows a

inhabits, humanises, and makes his own a space much larg-

homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk outside a building.

er than that occupied by his body alone’ (BP 49). This neces-

But he cannot huddle up against the wall of the building

sarily leads us back to Arendt’s claim that it is action, which

because the tiles that line the wall are featured with pyra-

usually leaves no material trace, that distinguishes humans

mid-like spikes that make it impossible to walk, let alone

from other animals. The activity of speaking to other people

sleep on them. Such features, which are part of the way the

and engaging them in debate about the shared world is what

system structures our shared environment to induce desired

makes us human. By robbing people of this voice, pain de-

patterns of behaviour in us, show how viciously easy it is to

humanises people in a way that is very similar to, but even

turn part of our environment into something uninhabitable;

more destructive than, alienated labour: ‘the absence of pain

something anti-human.

is a presence of world; the presence of pain is the absence of

In view of the phenomenological structure of pain we must

world’ (BP 37).

also rethink the distinction between body and mind, be-

The felt experience of being incarcerated within the body by

tween public and private. ‘The notion that everyone is alike

pain is memorably expressed in the work of Francis Bacon

by having a body and that what differentiates one person

and Scarry has commented on the way his paintings exhibit

from another is the soul or intellect or personality can

the debilitating and world-destroying power of pain. Pain

mislead one into thinking that the body is “shared” and

destroys the boundaries between the inside and the outside

the other part is “private” when exactly the opposite is the

of the body and so causes ‘an almost obscene conflation of

case. The mute facts of sentience (deprived of cultural ex-

private and public. It brings with it all the solitude of abso-



lute privacy with none of its safety, all the self-exposure of

ness in the image that is achieved if one narrows the space

the utterly public with none of its possibility for camaraderie

around a figure by framing it. Bacon returns to the question

or shared experience. Artistic objectifications of pain often

while discussing the introduction of a hypodermic syringe

concentrate on this combination of isolation and exposure.

into the arm of a Lying Figure with Hypodermic Syringe (1963).

[...]. The solitary figure in the typical canvas of Francis Bacon

He explains that he painted the syringe ‘as a form of nail-

is made emphatically alone by his position on a dais, by an

ing the image more strongly into reality or appearance. [...]

arbitrary geometric box inserted over him, and by his naked

I put the syringe because I want a nailing of the flesh onto

presence against a uniform (and in its uniformity, almost

the bed’ (o.c. 78). This explanation simply shifts the problem

absolute) orange-red background; yet while he is intensely

to the area of reality and appearance, two very important

separate from the viewer [...] he is simultaneously merciless-

notions that Bacon uses in a very specific way. Bacon con-

ly exposed to us [...] because his melting body is turned in-

sidered his art to be a realistic art, painting images ‘as ac-

side out, revealing the most inward and secret parts of him’

curately off my nervous system as I can’ (o.c. 82). This means

(BP 53). The sense of extreme alienation that pain entails is

that realism for Bacon is related to expressiveness and not

also expressed in the motif of the scream: ‘the open mouth

to representational fidelity in painting. He illustrates this by

with no sound reaching anyone in the sketches, paintings, or

contrasting an illustrational style of painting, which ‘tells

film stills of Grünewald, Stanzione, Munch, Bacon, Bergman,

you through the intelligence immediately what the form is

or Eisenstein, a human being so utterly consumed in the act

about,’ with a non-illustrational way of painting where ‘form

of making a sound that cannot be heard, coincides with the

works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into

way in which pain engulfs the one in pain but remains un-

the fact’ (o.c. 56). If this non-illustrational manner is suc-

sensed by anyone else’ (BP 52).

cessful it gives you more than a mere likeness of a person: it

Despite the fact that many critics have read Bacon’s work

gives you their appearance, it reveals something about who

this way, the artist himself was not very hospitable to such

they are and how they experience the world. This is where

an interpretation. As early as 1962, talking to David Sylvester,

the deformation of the figures comes in because ‘I’m always

he dismisses the idea that the frames in his work should be

hoping to deform people into appearance; I can’t paint them

read as glass boxes in which the figures are imprisoned. ‘I

literally. For instance, I think that, of those two paintings of

use that frame to see the image,’ Bacon claims, ‘for no other

Michel Leiris [Portrait of Michel Leiris, 1976 and 1978 respec-

reason. [...] I cut down the scale of the canvas by drawing

tively], the one I did which is less literally like him is in fact

rectangles which concentrate the image down. Just to see it

more poignantly like him’ (o.c. 146).

better’ (Sylvester 1987: 22-23). It remains somewhat unclear

From a Langerian point of view such remarks are very inter-

what Bacon means by “seeing better” but presumably he is

esting because they show how close Bacon’s working meth-

talking about an enhanced vividness and increased direct-

ods and his ideas about them were to Langer’s theory of



expressive form. ‘Every form that you make has an implica-

have an overall image of what I want to do, but it’s in the

tion,’ Bacon explains, ‘so that when you are painting some-

working that it develops’. Talking to David Sylvester Bacon

body, you know that you are, of course, trying to get near

has further explained that ‘I don’t really think my pictures

not only to their appearance but also to the way they have

out, you know; I think of the disposition of the forms and

affected you, because every shape has an implication’ (o.c.

then I watch the forms form themselves’ (o.c. 136). In an-

130). Chance plays a considerably part in the process of mak-

other interview, discussing his habit of rubbing paint with

ing such works. As is well known, Bacon would sometimes

pieces of cloth, Bacon remarks that in such gestures he is

simply throw paint at a canvas and work from the accidental

trying ‘to break the willed articulation of the image, so that

patterns that this created. But no matter how much coinci-

the image will grow, as it were, spontaneously and within its

dence and accidental elements are incorporated into a work,

own structure, and not my structure. Afterwards, your sense

it is always a moment of conscious deliberation that deter-

of what you want comes into play, so that you begin to work

mines its success as a work. ‘It’s really a continuous question

on the hazard that has been left to you on the canvas. And

of the fight between accident and criticism. Because what I

out of all that, possibly, a more organic image arises than if it

call accident may give you some mark that seems to be more

was a willed image’ (o.c. 160).

real, truer to the image than another one, but it’s only your

The aim of this to and fro between accident and criticism

critical sense that can select it. So that your critical faculty is

is expressiveness, which Bacon calls appearance. It is also

going on at the same time as the sort of half-conscious ma-

‘what I think of as art. One brings the sensation and the

nipulation’ (o.c. 121-122). The critical sense, however, is not

feeling of life over the only way one can’ (o.c. 43). Foreshad-

an objective faculty and it has ‘no defined criteria; it’s a pure-

owing the end of artistic narratives as proclaimed by Danto,

ly instinctive kind of criticism’ (o.c. 149) which can be justifi-

Bacon adds that ‘when you’re outside a tradition, as every

ably linked to Langer’s idea of the commanding form, which

artist is today, one can only want to record one’s own feel-

is a constant measure for the work being created without

ings about certain situations as closely to one’s own nervous

being an objective standard that exists outside the creative

system as one possibly can’ (ibid.). Such suggestions are very

process. This means, in fact, that the critical function that

close to Langer’s philosophy of living form. Expressiveness

Bacon talks about is simply the fact that the creative process

in art is the creation of a symbolic form that represents the

is continually self-reflexive, holding up everything it brings

felt experience of life. This would seem to be exactly what

about to the standard of the commanding form that draws

Bacon was aiming at in bringing together accident and criti-

the lines beyond which the form would loose its expressive

cism. And although Bacon seemed keen on minimising the

power. This is further corroborated by Bacon’s own descrip-

anxiety expressed through his distortions, undoubtedly

tion of the creative process. In an interview with Melvyn

wanting to stress their formal properties, it is clear that their

Bragg for the South Bank Show (1988) Bacon explains that ‘I

precarious position between form and feeling is an effect



of their immense success as forms. It is because they are so

says that when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand

well-achieved through criticism that they become expressive

wants to draw it. Beauty brings copies of itself into being’

of the person represented and become this person’s appear-

(BBJ 3). This experience can give rise to ‘the idea of eternity,

ance. This all becomes quite clear in Bacon’s own description

the perpetual duplicating of a moment that never stops. But

of the difficulty inherent in painting portraits: ‘The living

it also sponsors the idea of terrestrial plenitude and distri-

quality is what you have to get. In painting a portrait the

bution, the will to make “more and more” so that there will

problem is to find a technique by which you can give over

eventually be “enough”’ (BBJ 5). The urge to produce beautiful

all the pulsations of a person. It’s why portrait painting is

things (and not just soulless commodities) is a fundamental

so fascinating and so difficult. Most people go to the most

human need, as Marx and Langer also suggested. And once

academic painters when they want to have their portraits

beauty is in the world it sponsors a continual reproduction

made because for some reason they prefer a sort of colour

of itself. ‘The simplest manifestation of this phenomenon

photograph of themselves instead of thinking of having

is the everyday fact of staring’ (ibid.). As an example, Scarry

themselves really trapped and caught. The sitter is someone

cites Leonardo da Vinci’s habit of following beautiful people

of flesh and blood and what has to be caught is their ema-

through the streets of Florence. Another example is the

nation. [...] There is the appearance and there is the energy

desire of people in love to have children together because

within the appearance. And that is an extremely difficult

‘when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants

thing to trap’ (o.c. 174-175).

to reproduce the person’ (BBJ 4). Lovers are forever seeking each other’s distinctive facial features in the face of their

The Quickening

child, which is the physical continuation of what they love in

Elaine Scarry has followed her philosophical investigations

their partner.

into pain with reflections on aesthetics. This is not as big a

It is interesting to note that Scarry’s suggestion about the

leap as it might seem. Especially in her beautiful little book

unceasing repetition of the beautiful can be linked to Kant’s

On Beauty and Being Just (1999) Scarry explains how beauty

idea of purposiveness without purpose. This is the third mo-

makes us aware of the preciousness and vulnerability of the

ment in the aesthetic judgement, where Kant writes that

world and all things in it. Through this awareness beauty

the experience of beauty, as felt experience, has no goal or

invites us to extend human sympathy to lifeless things that

purpose other than to perpetuate itself. When we experience

suddenly appear to us as “hurtable” as human beings. Let

beauty we want to make that moment last. A good example

us track this argument step by step. ‘What,’ Scarry asks, ‘is

is the difficulty we often have to tear ourselves away from

the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands

a beautiful work of art in an exhibition. We compulsively

in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems

return to it, unable to satiate our desire to be in its presence.

to incite, even require, the act of replication. Wittgenstein

It is here that I believe the root of obsession can be found,



especially with regard to voyeurism, the obsession with look-

become aware of an object’s vulnerability and to experience

ing at things that quicken us. The urge to repeat or maintain

an urge to protect the object perceived as vulnerable. ‘A vase

the sensation of being engulfed by sensual rapture is noth-

crafted by Gallé [...] can, although nonsentient, be harmed by

ing other than an attempt to maintain this purposiveness

being mishandled. Noticing its beauty increases the possibil-

without purpose. The voyeur, or any other fetishist, will often

ity that it will be carefully handled’ (BBJ 65). This increased

collect a library of images and experiences that he may draw

awareness of the ease with which things can be hurt and the

upon in future fantasies. That is why such fetishes become

demand for care that this awareness entails are the effect

addictive: they are in need of constant new input, as in

of all experiences of beauty, which leads Scarry to conclude

pornography’s constant flow of new faces and new starlets,

that ‘the concern demanded by the perfect vase or god or

which is reminiscent of beauty’s capacity for bringing copies

poem [introduces] a standard of care that [is then extended]

of itself into the world. The fetishist never reaches a point

to more ordinary objects’ (BBJ 66). By noticing beauty we

where he feels fulfilled: there is always the possibility of a

notice vulnerability and start noticing it everywhere and not

more exciting, more profound experience to collect. For the

just in the objects traditionally categorised as beautiful. ‘It is

fetishist, as for the aesthete who loves to surround himself

as though beautiful things have been placed here and there

with beauty, there can never be enough beauty. Even a world

throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to

of plenty is never enough. But there is no perversion in this

perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute

obsession: it is the very dynamic of creation, the same dy-

level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us

namic that propels the continual production of new goods

to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search

that continue to find new purchasers in the market. As long

it out, it comes and finds us’ (BBJ 81). That is why beauty

as there are beautiful things to look at or to buy, there will be

can be found anywhere and everywhere. Beauty is not an

people wanting to look or buy.

abstract Idea, it is everywhere apparent, in ‘the moon, the

One of Scarry’s aims in her book is to deflate the politically

Milky Way, individual stars, the daylit sky, birds, birdsongs,

correct claim that it is aggressive, demeaning, or otherwise

musical instruments, meadows, dances, woven cloth, stones,

hurtful or simply wrong to look at beautiful people or things

staircases, good prose certainly, airplanes of course, math-

because to look or stare at them is (among other evil things)

ematical proofs, the sea, its surf, its spray’ (BBJ 72).

to objectify them. This is the spectre of the infamous “male

Beauty is the world’s way of reaching out to us. And by

gaze,” a rapacious ocular predator that ravages all it lays its

making us aware of the vulnerability of people and things,

greedy little eyes on. ‘Beauty, according to its critics, causes

beauty ‘assists us in our attention to justice’ (BBJ 86) because

us to gape and suspend all thought. This complaint is mani-

it makes clear to us that it is important to treat all people,

festly true’ (BBJ 29). But there is nothing wrong with this

all creatures, and all objects with care and fairness. ‘Beauty

because to notice beauty and to stare at it in admiration is to

seems to place requirements on us for attending to the alive-



ness or (in the case of objects) quasi-aliveness of our world,

cess should really be extended to include the entire human

and for entering into its protection’ (BBJ 90). The importance

world. As extensions of ourselves the objects in the world

of this quasi-aliveness for our argument is dual. On the one

come to share in our humanity and in our emotions. This is

hand, it refers us back to Scarry’s own argument, made in

made very clear in Alexander Kluge’s mammoth cinematic

The Body in Pain, that the world we make is an extension of

essay Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike (2008), which

our own body and therefore shares in its aliveness. But it is

investigates Sergei Eisenstein’s failed attempt to film Marx’s

quasi- or only seeming aliveness because paintings, books,

Kapital in 1927. The second part of Kluge’s film is called Alle

and other objects of beauty are not, as a rule, actual living

Dinge sind bezauberte Menschen, which expresses the idea

entities (but flowers, birds, and beautiful boys are). On the

that the line between subject and object is blurred because

other hand the quasi-aliveness of beautiful objects (which is

we invest part of our humanity in the things we make. At

in fact a pleonasm as it is their quasi-aliveness that renders

several points in his film Kluge shows that objects can also

objects beautiful) is simply a restating of the principle of liv-

project their humanity back at us. In the chapter Lamento der

ing form proposed by Langer. As we remember, living form is

liegengebliebenen Ware he describes how the composer Wolf-

expressive of the felt experience of life. Beauty is intrinsical-

gang Rihm was struck by the sight of a bottle left behind on

ly linked to aliveness. Through these two meanings of quasi-

the shelves of a supermarket. It made him notice the sad-

aliveness, a dual dynamic lights up: the perceiver and the

ness of unsold goods that are sent back to the manufacturer

object of beauty perceived mutually bestow life upon each

to be destroyed. Many goods remain unsold, loved by no

other. The perceiver is a human being, who takes part in

one, and are therefore deemed useless and dispensable. This

the continual making of the world, which invests the world

continual destruction of perfectly good goods is a daily holo-

with quasi-aliveness and therefore the potential for beauty.

caust, for with each object a piece of humanity is destroyed.

The beautiful object perceived in turn reflects the projected

There is a profound sadness in waste. This melancholy of

aliveness and its concomitant beauty back at us as a symbol

the objects is expressed and given voice in Rihm’s Lamento.

of the felt experience of life that is the stuff of beauty. If this

Even more clear is Kluge’s chapter on Max Brand’s industrial

process seems circular, its circularity is not a weakness but

opera Maschinist Hopkins (1929), which has the abandoned

its essence: all meaning is created by human beings, there-

machines in a nocturnal factory lament their servile exis-

fore there is no meaning, and no beauty, in the world which

tence as slaves to the production process. By giving voice to

is not in our consciousness, in our mind. Man is constitutive

the machines, Brand’s opera brings their spirit back to life,

of beauty. The world is how we reflect this beauty back at

extending it into the world to appeal to our human compas-

each other. To destroy beauty is to destroy mankind.

sion. But if Brand’s opera tries to give voice to objects in their

Children are very happy to bestow aliveness on inanimate

quasi-aliveness, then German band Einstürzende Neubauten

objects. They do it all the time with their toys. But the pro-

go one better: they actually extract voice from the objects



themselves. As they put it in their song ‘NNNAAAMMM’,

gut in a knot and makes us tremble with anxious or grateful

songs simply lie dormant in machines (‘das Lied schläft in

anticipation. It quickens the pulse and wreaks havoc upon

der Maschine’) and it is up to us to wake them up and make

our bodily functions. Reflexes become uncontrollable, people

them sing. The music of the Neubauten is like an extended

tremble, some shudder or shiver, others break out in hyster-

urban symphony conjured up from the inanimate waste of

ics of tears or laughter, our eyes go blurry, and we gener-

so-called civilisation and its destructive industry. Especially

ally feel our mind contracting like a sponge, with a strange,

their early music was often extremely aggressive and atonal,

stinging sensation in the lower neck: the control over our

an explosion of anger at the world, an aural manifesto of re-

body eludes us and yet the sensation is vaguely pleasurable.

jection, isolation, and alienation. Many of these soundscapes

Obviously, not all experiences of sudden aliveness have such

were created by relentless banging or scraping on scrap

an intensity; it would in fact be most detrimental to the

metal or debris, or simply by drilling into concrete. But mak-

orderly practice of everyday life if they were. But it is clear

ing art out of refuse, as the Neubaten do, implies a cyclical

that apart from forms of beauty that have a very general

view of the world: to appropriate the rejected and turn it into

attraction (the beauty of roses, say) there is for each person

poetry is to salvage humanity from destruction and bring it

a realm of quickening which is highly idiosyncratic, deeply

back into the shared world.

personal, and profoundly private.

We are now sufficiently prepared to answer the question

These private sensations are entirely legitimate as the stuff

what exactly triggers the experience of beauty in us: it is that

of beauty and art. As we saw in our discussion of Langer,

which quickens, which gives us a jolt of life. To experience

such private interests are legitimate and often even neces-

beauty is to experience a quickening, a sudden uplifting and

sary as motifs in art: they are transformed into something

invigorating gust of aliveness and its concomitant assent

artistic if they are integrated into the fabric of an expressive

to the world. For a brief moment (or, if we are lucky and the

form, lifted up from a symptom of experience to a symbol of

sensation is particularly intense, an extended period of time)

life. That is why the private role-play of mistress and slave

we feel reconciled to the world. Obviously, what quickens

in the bedroom is usually not considered to be a work of art,

one person is not necessarily what quickens another. Many

whereas Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs (1869) or Hans

things may give many people a sense of enhanced aliveness,

Bellmer’s obsessively lurid photographs of his obscenely

but some such jolts are bound to be highly personal. One

twisted sex-doll are: they are not (or not primarily) about

of the most intimate experiences of enhanced aliveness is

private gratification for the artist. In creating such images

the electrifying effect of a sexual fetish, which is more than

the artist is not seeking sexual release. On the contrary, the

mere arousal: the sudden presence of the object of our deep-

creation of the image might even require the artist not to

est fetish (be it a piece of clothing, a shoe, the exposure of a

release any tension, so that he may work in a mood of hight-

body-part, a scent, a situation, or a word whispered) ties the

ened alertness bordering on the feverish. But if he is not



releasing or gratifying his sexual desire, he is expressing it

ever level of intensity it operates, it is a fuse that is being lit

in a symbolic way, which is to say that he is articulating it:

and that gets, as is said colloquially, our juices flowing. But

presenting its many moments and aspects in a unified image

the colloquialism is very apt, for the quickening is indeed

that aims to express the felt experience of the actual fetish-

a biological process: at the very least, it is a mild release of

istic sensation. As I argued in the previous chapter, the pres-

adrenaline or some other chemical into the bloodstream.

ence of actually aroused performers in pornographic films

And once the jolt is delivered it is the hand, as Wittgenstein

(or, we might add, in theatrical presentations in an erotic

noted, or the imagination that takes over. That this dyna-

cabaret) has often blinded critics to the artistic potential of

mism is sometimes born from our most private sentiments

such films. There is nothing inartistic about pornography, it

and desires is no blight: all art arises from felt experience.

is simply a sad fact that most pornography is abysmally bad.

What lifts it up into the realm of art is the genius of concep-

But in good pornography the aroused bodies are integrated

tion: the artist’s ability to translate something personal into

into the greater work of the film (which may be a success-

a symbol of potentially universal appeal. And this, inciden-

ful work of art or, as is often the sad case, a dismal failure).

tally, again chimes with what Kant wrote in his critique of

Similarly, the erotic dancers performing as strippers are not

aesthetic judgement: that our judgement on beauty is at

as a rule aroused while performing: it is work to them. The

the same time subjective and universal. The paradox was

stripper must control her own desires to achieve the erotic

resolved, for Kant, by pointing out that the subjectivity of our

dance as a work of art, which is a performance.

judgement was impartial, not tainted by any personal inter-

This, then, I would argue to be the nature of fascination: the

est, and therefore immediately entailed the illusion (and it is

sustained gripping force of an object or form that delivers a

an illusion for Kant, who calls it an als ob) of universality. In

jolt of aliveness to our physical or psychical system. Fascina-

our view, which builds on the Kantian tradition, the personal

tion is a quickening that sets the mind and the imagination

and the universal are linked through the genius of concep-

on their way on a journey of endless repetition of and varia-

tion: the work of art that lifts the particular up to make it

tions on the particular motif or form that triggers our most

into a potentially universal symbol of life vitally felt.

profound sense of vitality and thus enhances our felt experience of aliveness. It can be modest, as when we notice the

The Order of Things

first flowers of spring or the scent of rain on a hot summer

With fascination we have entered a part of our being that is

night, but it can also be a fierce and terrific jolt, as when we

often experienced as dark and unruly. It is linked to sexual-

are suddenly in the presence of our deepest sexual fetish or

ity and its hidden urges. We have entered the realm of the

an object of overwhelming beauty. Whether beauty is over-

uncontrollable. There are many things in life that we cannot

whelming is simply a function of the intensity of the sense

control. To be surrendered to events or forces that are be-

of aliveness it triggers in us. But whatever it is and on what-

yond our grasp often feels like submission to some kind of



violence. The uncontrollable is a force that manifests itself,

work in it. So to be kosmos is to be logos, to be orderly is to

it exerts power over us and we are unable to get away from

be governed by some rule, and the rule is the order (Peters

it. Anything that affects our being in a profound way with-

1967: 111). But that there is such a rule does not mean that

out our being able to master or direct it is a manifestation

we, mere mortals, can grasp it. That is the rupture we ex-

of the uncontrollable. In this sense the uncontrollable is not

perience in the intrusion of the unruly into our lives: there

simply an act of violence that disrupts our life or the order of

is something out there, a kosmos, that does not operate ac-

society, it is often perceived as a meaningless interruption:

cording to our human logos. There is alter-logos at work in

it is an act or an event that literally has no place in the order

the world. It is the function of rituals to remedy the rupture

that we have created for ourselves. That is why the uncon-

of kosmos by the violence of the uncontrollable. Whenever

trollable is often situated in those aspects of human life that

we experience such a rupture, we feel as if the logos of the

are particularly difficult to contain. The Greeks called it Fate,

kosmos is suddenly in retreat, beyond our grasp. We fail to

others call it destiny. In our mass democracies there is much

see the logic or order of events in the broader whole of our

talk of the threat of random violence. It is exactly its unpre-

meaningful existence. Rituals are ways to try and represent

dictable nature and the fact that it can strike at any time and

that violence as something that we can comprehend after

that any of us can be its victim that makes random violence

all. They give violence a controllable place in the order of

such a fearful thing. In the aftermath of the attacks of Sep-

things. Rituals represent violence to make it containable and

tember 11, 2001, it sometimes seemed as if a mass psychosis

imaginable as part of the larger whole of existence or kosmos.

had overtaken the world: we were all in danger, all possibly

That way it seeks to tame the violence of the uncontrol-

under attack, but nobody could be sure when or where or

lable. This means that rituals are a form of symbolic action:

against whom violence would strike. However, the locus clas-

they are actions that have a symbolic function. As we saw

sicus of the uncontrollable is obviously human sexuality. Sex

already in the first chapter, a symbol is ‘any device whereby

is an urge that manifests itself in our body without invita-

we are enabled to make an abstraction’ (FF xi). So rituals are

tion. And once it is there, it is very difficult to resist.

schematised actions that are expressive of meaning, they are

People introduce rituals to try and give the violence of the

abstract representations of our felt experience of life. The felt

unexpected, the unpredictable, and the uncontrollable some

experience expressed in ritual is the irruption of the violence

place within the social order. Another way of putting this is

of the uncontrollable and our desire to restore the kosmos. In

to say that rituals are attempts to give violence a place in the

this sense rituals are expressive of what we feel is our place

kosmos. For the ancient Greeks the kosmos was not simply the

in the universe and our relationship to the kosmos. They

entirety of all existence, the word also referred to order or

express our relationship to a higher order that eludes our

logos. The kosmos as the system of the entire existing world

control. By expressing that relationship the ritual helps us

was perceived to be logos, reasonable. There was a logic at

to accept it and integrate it into the fabric of our lives. This,



in essence, is the root meaning of “religious,” which refers to

that of communication’ (Burkert 1983: 23). He returns to this

the Latin religio or bondage to a higher Power.

point several times and his discussion is very corroborative

Rituals serve absolutely no practical use. Rituals, and by ex-

of Langer’s approach. ‘Ritual is a pattern of action redirected

tension all symbolic actions (including art), do not contribute

to serve for communication, and this means that the terms

to the survival of the species, although we have suggested

of expression are open to substitution, i.e., symbolisation.

that they are inscribed into the very nature of the human

[...] Every communication is symbolic inasmuch as it does

animal, which is a creature of expression. Nor do rituals

not use the real object it wants to communicate, but sub-

have any real impact on the world. Offerings to the gods,

stitutes a sign that is familiar to and, hence, understood by

ritual dance, magic charms, works of art: all these are expres-

the addressee. The object serving as sign is exchangeable.

sions of our felt experience and our desires, but they have no

If the sender and the receiver are sufficiently familiar with

practical value whatsoever. As Langer has correctly pointed

one another, the complex of signs can be greatly reduced. On

out, ‘no savage tries to induce a snowstorm in midsummer,

the other hand, when in competition with rival communi-

nor prays for the ripening of fruits entirely out of season,

cations, the sign is exaggerated and heightened. Substitute

as he certainly would if he considered his dance and prayer

signs thus used – whether consisting of natural or artificial

the physical causes of such events. He dances with the rain,

objects, pictures, cries, or words – may be called symbols in

he invites the elements to do their part, as they are thought

a pregnant sense’ (o.c. 41). So ritual is a symbolic action and

to be somewhere about and merely unresponsive. This ac-

‘its function is to dramatise the order of life, expressing itself

counts for the fact that no evidence of past failures discour-

in basic modes of behaviour, especially aggression’ (o.c. 33).

ages his practices; for if heaven and earth do not answer

There are three elements that are almost universal ingredi-

him, the rite is simply unconsummated; it was not therefore

ents of ritual: killing, eating, and sex (o.c. 58). This is hardly

a “mistake”’ (PNK 158-159). The Indian performing the rain

surprising since the triad goes to the core of human survival:

dance is not so naive to think that he can induce the rain

we must kill in order not to be killed, we must kill to eat, and

to fall, he simply expresses his own dependence upon the

we must procreate. Violence is inherent in all three elements

rain for his survival. So the purpose of rituals is not to attain

and is especially important in ritual because ‘a sense of com-

practical goals but ‘to symbolise great conceptions’ and ‘to

munity arises from collective aggression’ ( o.c. 35). But the

aid in the formulation of a religious universe’ (PNK 49). In his

ritual contains the violence (or the killing, or the sexuality)

anthropological study of ancient Greek ritual Walter Burk-

because it is made discontinuous with the ordinary world.

ert used a similar concept of ritual and symbolism. Burkert

‘In a sacrifice the circle of participants is segregated from the

explains that ‘biology has defined ritual as a behavioural

outside world. Complicated social structures find expression

pattern that has lost its primary function – present in its

in the diverse roles the participants assume in the course

unritualised model – but which persists in a new function,

of the ritual, from the various “beginnings,” through prayer,



slaughter, skinning, and cutting up, to roasting and, above

Similarly, a monk in his cell or an artist working in the se-

all, distributing the meat. There is a “lord of the sacrifice”

clusion of his studio may be profoundly isolated from the

who demonstrates his vitae necisque potestas [...]. And as for

outside world and yet not feel the least bit lonely. Isolation

the rest, each participant has a set function and acts ac-

is simply a physical circumstance, a situation in which we

cording to a precisely fixed order. The sacrificial community

find ourselves, usually only temporarily. Loneliness, on the

is thus a model of society as a whole’ (o.c. 37). In this sense

other hand, is an existential condition. To be lonely is to feel

rituals have a “cosmic” meaning: they express the order or

cast out of the company of mankind. When there is no-one

logos/kosmos of things. But despite their cosmic nature rituals

to turn to (despite the possible presence of a great many

often consist of very commonplace actions. Usually everyday

people), when one is entirely thrown back upon oneself, one

gestures and actions such as washing, preparing foods, eat-

feels lonely. That is why Arendt writes that loneliness ‘is

ing and drinking, the slaughter of an animal or even forms

closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness

of sexual communion are chosen to figure in ritual. It is the

[...]. To be uprooted means to have no place in the world,

intimate familiarity of these actions that makes them eli-

recognised and guaranteed by others; to be superfluous

gible for ritual. But in ritual these actions lose their prosaic

means not to belong to the world at all’ (Arendt 1968: 475).

nature and acquire a new symbolic meaning. ‘Before a be-

Panajotis Kondylis has claimed that such an experience

haviour-pattern can become imbued with secondary mean-

of loneliness is part of the existential condition of man in

ings, it must be definite, and to the smallest detail familiar.

postmodern mass society. If we recall his master metaphor

Such forms are naturally evolved only in activities that are

for postmodernity, which is characterised by an analytical-

often repeated. An act that is habitually performed acquires an

combinatory mode of being, it was the image of an infinite

almost mechanical form, a sequence of motions that prac-

space, a plane on which all humans, all values, all ideas, and

tice makes quite invariable’ (PNK 160). It is only what is most

all objects are simultaneously present in total equality. It is

intimately known that can carry the force of new meanings

the condition of ultimate relativism. Every individual has the

without disintegrating.

fundamental right, but by extension also the fundamental

Rituals are used to symbolically heal a rupture between man

duty, to construct his own identity from the myriad choices

and his kosmos. This rupture is most acutely experienced as

available. However, there are no more master narratives (as

a form of profound loneliness. In The Origins of Totalitarian-

Danto would call them) to fall back upon for guidance in this

ism (1951) Hannah Arendt distinguished between loneliness

project. The individual is an atom left to its own devices in

and isolation. It is quite possible for us to be isolated without

the construction of his identity. Those of us who cannot cope

being lonely, just as we can be lonely without being isolated.

with the pressures of self-creation will perish. They are des-

We can experience abject loneliness in a crowd, where we

tined to loneliness, an existence without any kind of anchor-

are anything but isolated from our fellow human beings.

age in the world. Self-creation is a freedom that often entails



cruelty, for not only is it challenging and often paralysing to

is not a coincidence: as she would argue in her Lectures on

try and construct one’s identity, there is a veritable pressure

Kant’s Political Philosophy, which were published posthumous-

to do so, because everywhere in society we are constantly

ly, it is only our ability to share our experiences of the world

urged to identify ourselves and say who and what we are.

with others that makes our experiences, and therefore the

From our sexual identity to our tastes in music and furni-

world, real. This was also Kant’s belief in the first and third

ture: everything is now supposed to be highly individual and

critiques, where he suggests that the only reason we can

articulated. We must define ourselves. This is the burden and

even talk with each other is that we must have some kind of

terror of identity.

Gemeinsinn or common sense. For Kant this meant that the

Obviously, for Arendt it was the experience of the extermina-

structure of perception was the same in all humans. Because

tion camps that signified more than anything else the pro-

our minds all share the same categories to structure our sen-

foundly dissociative experience of the atomised individual.

sory experience, we all see the same world and can therefore

The people transported to the extermination camps were

talk to each other about that world. That is the source of

literally erased from the world, they were taken out of the

our companionship. Incidentally, it is also the source for his

communal world and placed in a non-place of which many

claim that a disinterested and universally valid judgement

Germans would later claim that they “had not even known”

on beauty was possible: if we look at the world disinterest-

such a place existed (or could exist). For the people in the

edly, and if we all perceive the world in the same way, then

camps the experience was dissociative because their world

it follows that we should all experience beauty in relation to

had been taken away from them, an existential condition

the same objects. Of course, Kant knew that this was false

that was exacerbated by the fact that they were also physi-

logic because it is our subjective felt experience of perception

cally tortured: their bodies were starved and humiliated,

that makes us claim beauty for an object. Therefore Kant

riddled with parasites; they were not allowed to keep their

said that the objective or universally valid nature of judge-

bodies clean; they were subjected to gruesome medical ex-

ments on beauty was only an “as if”-objectivity, an “als ob”.

periments; they were subjected to forced labour; and finally they were terminated like vermin. If we recall the discussion

Dionysian Mysteries

of The Body in Pain, it is clear that the extermination camps

The memory of the holocaust was still fresh in the German-

epitomise the strategies available to man to destroy another

speaking world when a group of young Viennese artists

person’s world entirely. As Arendt points out, only because

around 1960 began a series of controversial performances.

we share the world with others, ‘because we have common

Their actions were partly meant as a violent reaction against

sense, that is only because not one man, but men in the

the all-too-comfortable and constrained conformism of the

plural inhabit the earth can we trust our immediate sensual

1950s, when bourgeois Europe tried very hard to bounce

experience’ (o.c. 476). Arendt’s reference to common sense

through the atomic age as if there wasn’t a care, let alone



a Cold War, in the world. All was bliss in the new era of the

ful. For example, earlier scholars often too eagerly accepted

shiny nuclear family. Everyone was doing his utmost to for-

mythological accounts of Dionysian ritual found in literary

get there had ever been such a thing as a Second World War.

sources as reliable guides to actual ritual practice. More re-

But for many young people growing up in that stifled air of

cent scholarship has corrected this view, but many of the old

enforced optimism the violence of the holocaust was felt

misunderstandings about Dionysos and his revels remain

to be seething under the thin veneer of preppy brightness.

popular and are often repeated in non-academic books.

The Viennese actionists wanted, among other things, to let

Similarly, working in the 1960s and 1970s, some of the earlier

this violence erupt so that it might be faced and dealt with.

scholarship has found its way into Nitsch’s thinking about

The most well-known artists from this circle were Günter

Dionysian ritual. And since Nitsch’s project is artistic rather

Brus, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Otto Mühl, and Hermann Nitsch.

than anthropological the artist is entitled to appropriate any

Since Schwarzkogler tragically took his own life in 1969 and

interpretation or motif he likes, regardless of whether it is

Mühl degenerated into sexually obsessed debauchery that

still anthropologically sound. Similarly, a scientific “debunk-

ultimately landed him in jail for sexual assault of a minor, it

ing” of Nitsch’s concept of Dionysian ritual would be quite

was left to Brus and Nitsch to represent what was best and

pointless and would merely illustrate a critic’s less than suf-

most enduring about Viennese Actionism. It is Nitsch who

ficient grasp of the difference between art and science. The

has in fact been the most visible and controversial artist of

main purpose of the present section is therefore to sketch

the group. His actions were often enacted in a ritual way,

a portrait of Dionysos and his ritual that helps to elucidate

including the slaughter of animals and the rubbing of naked

Nitsch’s art. While some references to recent scholarship will

human bodies with blood and entrails. The apparently ob-

point to common misinterpretations, such an anthropologi-

scene nature of his work often brought him to the attention

cal critique is not the point or purpose of this discussion. In

of the police, who raided several of his performances. In 1971

this sense the present discussion is necessarily and to a con-

Nitsch bought Prinzendorf, a large estate that enabled him to

siderable extent complicit with Nitsch’s interpretative eclec-

perform his large-scale works on his own private property.

ticism, if only because it is his vision that we seek to under-

Prinzendorf henceforth became the home of what Nitsch

stand and not the scientifically correct historical record.

calls his Orgien Mysterien Theater, a clear reference to the

Dionysos’ origins are cloaked in mystery. For a long time,

mystery cults of ancient Greece, notably the cult of Dio-

scholars thought he must have been a non-Greek god whose

nysos. But before we look at Dionysian ritual and the way

cult originated in what W.K.C. Guthrie calls ‘the homeland

it operates in Nitsch’s work, we should make clear that no

of orgiastic religion, Asia Minor’ (Guthrie 1954: 150). He was

such discussion of Dionysos could ever be straightforward.

therefore a barbarian god who had to be naturalised into

Since the mid-nineteenth century scholarship on Dionysos

the Hellenic pantheon, a process that was supposed to have

has taken many forms, several of which were rather fanci-

been accomplished by the fifth century BCE, when Eurip-



ides’ Bacchai offers us the fullest literary source of informa-

brought to life again, Dionysos was the god of rebirth, which

tion available about the Dionysian cults. However, Linear B

made him eligible as a fertility god, linked to the cycle of the

tablets found in Mycenaean palaces suggest that the cult of

seasons that shows nature dying and coming to life again.

Dionysos is probably as old as that of the other gods (Burk-

In this sense earth both brings forth life (which grows from

ert 1985: 162; Bowden 2010: 106). The mythological facts

it) and swallows it (the dead return to the earth). ‘Greatest

about Dionysos’ birth are somewhat obscure and two ma-

of Dionysian feasts was the Anthesteria, held in the month

jor accounts are known. In both the Iliad and the Theogony

of Anthesterion or January-February; it united Dionysos and

Dionysos is presented as the child of Zeus and Semele, the

the dead and expressed the dual function of the earth. It

daughter of Kadmos, king of Thebes. This makes Dionysos

also celebrated the opening of the new wine, for on the first

the only Olympian god to be born from a mortal (Gantz 1993:

day the huge jars were unsealed and on the second the par-

112). ‘According to the story, not wholly explained, of his

ticipants gathered to try it, each with his own pitcher (from

birth, Semele when pregnant with him was blasted by the

which the day was known as Choes, ‘Pitchers’). On the third

lightning. [...] Zeus saved his son by snatching him from her

day they cooked a panspermia, a mixture of seeds and fruits

womb and thrusting him into his own thigh until the time

of the earth, in pots that gave the day its special name of

came for his birth’ (Guthrie 1954: 153). The second version

Chytroi’ (Kirk 1974: 230). Among the many other Dionysian

of the events surrounding Dionysos’ birth belongs to an Or-

festivals the most well-known are undoubtedly the ‘Oscho-

phic tradition and claims that Dionysos was the son of Zeus

phoria, the “Branch-carrying”: a procession set out from one

and his own daughter Persephone. This version entails a

of Dionysos’ sanctuaries in Athens and made its way to a

myth about the origin of mankind that is linked to ‘the kill-

shrine of Athena by the sea; it was led by two boys dressed

ing of Dionysos by the Titans, the old giants who were the

as girls and carrying vine-branches and grapes’ (o.c. 232).

enemies of the gods of Zeus’ generation. They gave toys to

Dionysos, and later his Roman counterpart Bacchus, was ex-

the infant god, and while his attention was thus distracted

pressly known as the god of wine and Caravaggio famously

set on him, killed him and feasted on his flesh. Zeus hurled

painted the god as a sickly jaundiced young man crowned

a thunderbolt to burn them up, and from the soot arose the

with vine-branches. In Homer and Hesiod the references

race of men. [...] The heart of Dionysos was saved by Athena.

to Dionysos as the god of wine are scarce (Gantz 1993: 114;

She brought it to Zeus, and from it he caused Dionysos to be

Guthrie 1954: 164). But it has been suggested that Dionysos

reborn’ (o.c. 319-320). Another version of this tradition claims

brought the gift of wine with him from his many wanderings

that it was Demeter who put the pieces of the boy back to-

in the East (Graves 1960: I, 27.b, p. 104).

gether (Gantz 1993: 113).

The two most characteristic and sensational aspects associ-

The story of Dionysos’ birth and childhood misadventures

ated with Dionysian cult are undoubtedly sparagmos and

explains much about his rituals. For, having died and been

omophagia, respectively ‘the tearing to pieces, and swallowing



raw, of an animal body’ (Dodds 1951: 276). Sparagmos means

captured in free-standing sculpture by the fourth century

that the worshippers tore sacrificial animals from limb to

artist Scopas.

limb, often scattering the pieces around. Several myths tes-

The practice of omophagia, the eating of the raw sacrificial

tify to the way Dionysos took terrific vengeance upon cities

flesh, was a logical consequence of enthusiasm, which is

or peoples who rejected his worship. Usually, ‘the god’s ven-

the experience of the god entering the worshipper’s body.

geance takes the form of visiting with madness the women

According to Professor Guthrie ‘the culminating point of the

of the land where he has been spurned. This usually leads to

rite was often the eating of a newly slain animal who was

their tearing a victim in pieces, either the king who has been

thought to embody the god. By imbibing the fresh life-blood,

the god’s opponent, or, when the women themselves have

the visible, physical form or symbol of deity, the worship-

been the offenders, one of their own children’ (Guthrie 1954:

per believed himself to acquire the spirit, strength, holiness

165-166). The chief participants in Dionysian ritual appear to

or whatever of the divine characteristics was most desired’

have been women because ‘the greatest gift of Dionysos was

(Guthrie 1954: 45). In this sense the practice expresses what

the sense of utter freedom, and in Greece it was the women,

professor Dodds calls ‘a very simple piece of savage logic.

with their normally confined and straitened lives, to whom

The homeopathic effects of a flesh diet are known all over

the temptation of release made the strongest appeal’ (o.c.

the world. If you want to be lion-hearted, you must eat lion;

148). This release was taken to excessive extremes, culminat-

if you want to be subtle, you must eat snake [...]. By parity of

ing in ekstasis, which literally means ‘standing outside one-

reasoning, if you want to be like god you must eat god [...].

self,’ and enthousiasmos or possession by the god. This pos-

And you must eat him quick and raw, before the blood has

session is expressed in uncontrolled raving (baccheia). In their

oozed from him: only so can you add his life to yours, for

ravings women would dance frantically in movements that

“the blood is the life”’ (Dodds 1951: 277). But this is a roman-

express what Camille Paglia has called ‘a rupturing extremi-

ticised vision of Dionysian ritual. Recent scholarship sug-

ty of torsion’ (Paglia 1991: 94), tossing their heads and expos-

gests that the eating of raw sacrifical meat was mainly the

ing their throats as if trying to extend their bodies to the full-

stuff of myth and that it occurred only very rarely in actual

est. The head would also be jerked forwards and backwards.

ritual, where the meat was usually boiled or roasted before

In his magisterial study of the nude in art, Kenneth Clark

its distribution among the participants (Burkert 1983: 139;

discusses the maenad or ‘the nude of ecstasy’ (Clark 1960:

Christopher and Parker 2004: 628). As Walter Burkert ex-

264) at considerable length, describing in detail how the ec-

plains, Greek sacrificial ritual was in fact ‘a straightforward

static body ‘twists and leaps, and flings itself backwards, as

and far from miraculous process: the slaughter and con-

if trying to escape from the inexorable, ever-present laws of

sumption of a domestic animal for a god’ (Burkert 1985: 55).

gravity’ (o.c. 264). The twisting of the maenadic body is what

If myth tells us that Dionysos took his vengeance by tearing

Clark calls ‘the Scopaic twist’ (o.c. 270) because it was first

people apart, the Dionysian ritual replaced these unfortu-



nate people with sacrificial animals, which in turn had to

governs everything that happens to us while we are unable

be cooked before they could be eaten in the sacrificial meal.

to control it in any way. To explain this, Nietzsche contrasted

Burkert further notes that ‘in the Dionysian realm, as else-

Dionysos with his opposite, Apollo, who was the god of light

where, animal-sacrifice guarantees that the ritual functions

and reason. Dionysos embodies the will-to-life and the cycle

sensibly’ and illustrates the point with ‘our one securely

of life and death. He refers to the primal realm of nature,

attested instance of human sacrifice’. This was the case of

where everything is moist and damp and where all life be-

Zoilus, the priest of the Dionysian cult in Orchomenos of

gins. Camille Paglia explains that ‘Dionysos rules what Plu-

whom Plutarch claims that he actually killed a young wom-

tarch calls the hygra physis, wet or liquid nature. [...] Diony-

an during a ritual of flight and pursuit. The community was

sian liquidity is the invisible sea of organic life’ (Paglia 1991:

so shocked by this fanatical breach of sacrificial decorum

91), it is ‘the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long

that Zoilus was put to death and the ritual was reformed

slow suck, the muck and ooze’ (o.c. 5-6) of primal matter. In

(Burkert 1983: 175). This shows that the violence enacted in

this sense Dionysos symbolises the primal force of the kos-

ritual was clearly distinguished from the violence narrated

mos or of Being. Apollo, in contrast, is the rational principle

in myth. Ritual is symbolic action and must therefore remain

of order. Because of its shapeless and incomprehensible na-

firmly fictional.

ture, Being (or the kosmos, or Fate) can never be expressed in

All these aspects of Dionysian ritual help us ‘to find out what

a rational form. What governs the kosmos is what constantly

effect [Dionysos] had on the Greek conception of man’s re-

eludes us. This means that the Dionysian can take no form.

lation to the divine powers’ (Guthrie 1954: 147). Dionysos’

Tragedy was an attempt to give it some form after all. It puts

role had everything to do with the way the uncontrollable

the tragic story of our dependence on a higher order on the

invades our well-ordered human kosmos and shatters its

stage in the form of a story. That is why Nietzsche says that

logos. Dionysian ritual expresses ‘a deep and abiding truth

Dionysos never appears naked on the stage: he is always

about human nature [...]. No man can submit without a

masked, clothed in some Apollonian guise. This means that

struggle to the experience of having his distinctively human

the unruliness of his primal power is clothed in the structure

faculty of reason, and all that connects him with the normal

of a story that makes his workings more comprehensible

world, overwhelmed and submerged by those animal ele-

to us. But while it illuminates the Dionysian, tragedy at the

ments which, normally dormant or at least in subjection,

same time shrouds it: it does not and cannot ever really re-

are released and made dominant by the irresistible surge

veal what it wants to reveal because the Dionysian is elusive

of Dionysian power’ (o.c. 172). According to Nietzsche in Die

on principle. Therefore tragedy symbolises the primary dy-

Geburt der Tragödie (1872) Greek tragedy played an important

namic of Being.

role in making present this truth: tragedy helped the Greeks

But ‘the impressive antithesis which [...] Nietzsche had

to accept the fact that man is dependent upon Fate, which

drawn between the “rational” religion of Apollo and the “ir-


rational” religion of Dionysos’ (Dodds 1951: 68-69) might be

normal everyday life, can free himself in the orgies from

too strong, for the opposition between the two deities is less

all that is oppressive and develop his true self. Raving be-

radical than is often suggested. In fact, both Dionysos and

comes divine revelation, a centre of meaning in the midst

Apollo had rituals concerning enthousiasmos and ecstasy. But

of a world that is increasingly profane and rational’ (Burkert

there was a different kind of ecstasy involved. The ecstasy

1985: 292). But this invasion by the god was only a temporary

in the rituals of Apollo is what professor Dodds has called

experience. ‘While it lasted there was nothing on earth to

‘prophetic madness’ ( o.c. 64) or a ‘shamanistic’ (o.c. 71) type

compare with it, but it left them as they were before [...]. The

of ecstasy where the god speaks through a human vessel

ekstasis was temporary, [...] and as it receded they felt that

to reveal himself. The ecstasy or enthousiasmos offered by

the god had left them and that they were human [...] once

Dionysian ritual was quite a different matter: ‘its social func-

more’ (Guthrie 1954: 180). To partake in Dionysian ritual was

tion was essentially cathartic, in the psychological sense: it

to be engulfed by brutal Being and to be brought back to the

purged the individual of those infectious irrational impulses

kosmos of societal life.

which, if dammed up, had given rise, as they have done in 338

other cultures, to outbreaks of dancing mania and similar

Cleansing Cleanliness

manifestations of collective hysteria; it relieved them by

The movement of immersion in the Dionysian and subse-

providing them with a ritual outlet. If that is so, Dionysos

quent return to the human realm is structurally at work

was in the Archaic Age as much a social necessity as Apollo;

in the performances of Hermann Nitsch. Nitsch’s perfor-

each ministered in his own way to the anxieties charac-

mances contain so many elements that it would require a

teristic of [Greek culture]. Apollo promised security [while]

book-length study to discuss them all in detail. To sketch a

Dionysos offered freedom [and] was essentially a god of joy’

general overview of his intentions we shall therefore take

(o.c. 76). But Dionysian ritual had a profoundly altering ef-

as starting-point the manifesto for the Orgien Mysterien The-

fect on its participants. If Apollo simply used his ecstatic

ater that Nitsch wrote in 1962. From that programmatic text

priestesses as a medium through which he could reveal his

we shall expand the discussion to take in later statements.

wisdom, the Dionysian revellers actually came to partake of

Nitsch starts by explaining his own role in the actions. ‘In

the god’s divinity. ‘The Dionysian worshipper, at the height

my artwork (a form of mysticism of being) I take the seem-

of his ecstasy, was one with his god. Divinity had entered

ingly negative, the unappealing, the perverse, the obscene,

into him, he was entheos, and the one name Bacchos covered

rut, and the sacrificial hysteria that results from these upon

both deity and devotee’ (Guthrie 1954: 174). Walter Burkert

me so that YOU can be spared the soiled, shameless descent

further explains that ‘this state of frenzy is blessedness [...].

into the extreme. I am the expression of the entire creation.

An atavistic spring of vital energy breaks through the crust

I have dissolved myself in it and identified myself with it.

of refined urban culture. Man, humbled and intimidated by

All pain and lust, mixed together into one single expressive



condition of rush, will penetrate me and therefore you’ (OMT

intensely in the rush of orgiastic ritual, where ‘we identify

8). In a gesture that has earned him the derision of many a

with the entire universe, with the entirety of all that exists’

sober-minded critic Nitsch clearly posits himself as a kind of

(OMT 115-116). The Dionysian orgia achieves this level of

artist-priest carrying the burden of sacrifice and absolution

consciousness because all our senses are activated in it. In

of mankind: ‘I want to deliver humanity from the bestial’

Nitsch’s ritual, there is touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound:

(OMT 10). But behind this claim there is a complex meta-

the ritual is experienced through the senses just like ‘life

physical view of being that closely resembles the ecstatic

is experienced through all five senses at once’ (OMT 118).

worldview that we find in Dionysian ritual, but also in pan-

Hence the Orgien Mysterien Theater is ‘a feast of all senses’

theism and Neoplatonism.

(ibid.) and through its sensory intensity ‘the true experience

For Nitsch Dionysos represents the realm of the repressed.

of our universe, the embodiment of the universe, comes

Society civilises us at the cost of restraining many of our

into being. We recognise the universe as our own body. [...]

biological and animalistic urges, primarily the desire to kill,

The fully grasped and lived through moment (drunkenness

but obviously also sexual lust. The Dionysian expresses the

of being) brings identity with the essence of creation, with

need for abreaction, for acting out what is repressed: ‘Das

its moving, its changing, its never-ending realisation, in the

Dionysische ist ein anderes Wort für Abreaktionsbedürfnis’ (OMT

infinity of eternity’ (OMT 119).

12). To be Dionysian is to live and experience life to the full-

To break the chains of civilised repression the Dionysian

est, including all the desires and urges that society seeks to

cult ‘wakes up anal sensuality. The prohibition against lust-

cancel out. In a 1978 manifesto Nitsch formulates a vision

fully touching the genitals, the prohibition against smearing

that is somewhat reminiscent of Neoplatonic emanation

excrement, connects the anal to the sexual realm’ (OMT 36).

from the One. He sees the entire material universe as one

Children are taught not to play with themselves, with their

all-encompassing and self-creating organism in search of

excrement or with any bodily secretion. They are taught to

self-awareness. It is an atheist pantheism, a materialistic

feel shame about their bodies’ most natural and pleasure-in-

religion of the earth. Everything in the universe is intercon-

ducing functions and to submit to strict rules of cleanliness.

nected: ‘creation (all that is and that comes about) strives

This robs them of some of the most elementary sensual

towards experience of itself through the living. The course

experiences available to man and makes it impossible for

of the worlds, the whole of everything, creates itself through

them (or for any socialised mature person) to fully under-

the living, through all living creatures, all organisms, to know

stand the existential import of the surrounding world, which

itself’ (OMT 115). We, as organisms, are part of that system,

is thoroughly organic. We are no longer part of the universe.

so that Nitsch can claim that ‘I believe that the universe is

We have cut ourselves off from it. And because this cutting

my true body’ (OMT 116). This cosmic expansiveness, this

off occurs at a very young age the damage is lasting. It also

belonging to the organism of the all, is experienced most

accounts for much violence, such as hatred against the body,



especially bodies that remind us of the organic nature of all

and partridges. It is sad when a bullet tears apart the heart

being: the female body (with its connections to the bloody

of a doe, a deer, or a boar. But it is beautiful to eat game and

mess of childbirth) and the homosexual body (with its sym-

drink red wine with it’ (OMT 120). The problem is not with

bolic connection to passive anal pleasure, which the domi-

eating meat but with the way that meat is obtained. The

nant heterosexual male must edit out of his sexual being).

meat we buy in the supermarket is prepared and packaged

Because these cultural restrictions must be breached Nitsch’s

in a way that allows us to forget the bloody slaughter that

ritual attaches great importance to the ritual soiling of the

preceded it. Our societies have placed a major taboo on kill-

body, which is covered in blood and intestines while fluids

ing, but Nitsch claims it is ‘a fake taboo, for killing goes on

such as wine, milk, honey, and egg-yolk are smeared on it.

on a daily basis. We just don’t want to get our hands dirty.

There is a strong sadomasochistic current at work in these

[...] We are the strongest, most insatiable and most relent-

acts. But sadomasochism simply expresses the reversed

less killing predator’ (OMT 130). It is therefore necessary to

violence of breaking the shackles of violent repression. To

acknowledge the bloody facts of murder and slaughter to

submit to the sadomasochistic soiling of oneself is to regain

fully achieve our humanity, not because cruelty and slaugh-

contact with one’s true physical and therefore essential self.

ter are good, but because one must pass through the darkest

In the loud and hysterical explosion of ritual man seeks to

knowledge of oneself to be able to truly civilise oneself. We

reconnect with what is at once most intimate and most for-

must face what and who we really are. Ritual is our opportu-

eign within him: the body physical, which is the universe of

nity to embrace this dark knowledge without causing actual

all nature, with all its urges, desires, and functions. The body

harm to our fellow beings. Obviously, this argument also

and its manifold desires exist, as all of nature exists, beyond

entails a profound indictment of capitalism, which is really

good and evil: it is simply there. And its existence must be

no mode of civilisation at all. Capitalism is merely barba-

fully and honestly acknowledged.

rism masquerading as civilisation, for it is the culture of the

This does not mean that Nitsch endorses violence. On the

benefit of the few at the cost of the destruction of the many.

contrary, he points out that no animal is slaughtered in his

Our supposedly civilised democracies prate much of equality

actions that would not otherwise have been slaughtered as

and human rights, but at the same time there is inequality

well: ‘No animal should be killed on my account’ (OMT 10).

and exploitation everywhere. Our societies choose money

All the animals that are disembowelled in the Orgien Mys-

over people on principle. But we flinch at the sight of blood

terien Theater have either died of old age or had to be killed

and feign to abhor violence. It is therefore necessary to live

of necessity (because of illness or injury). ‘Pain and torture

and experience our extremes intensely. In his most frenzied

of animals are fundamentally avoided in my actions’ (OMT

moments, which are reminiscent of Sade’s Sodome, Nitsch

32). In the 1978 manifesto Nitsch returns to this point and

even writes that actual human corpses, preferably corpses of

writes that ‘it is sad when shot rips apart hares, pheasants,

young boys, should be butchered, cut up, and fucked in the



ritual (OMT 38). Obviously, these passages are not meant as

ing unartistic can work in art, only those things which lead

incitements to actual crimes: they are merely provocative

to art can work through it’ (OMT 40). Hence Nitsch is very

expressions of the deep necessity of facing our most violent

sceptical about contemporary political art because it ‘confus-

impulses. ‘Through the theatre we can make our abreaction

es art with a politically-historical mode of sharing informa-

conscious and achieve catharsis. I show flesh and blood,

tion; the possibility to penetrate into the depth of the actual

things to which people react very strongly, they avoid them;

dimension of art, namely form, is not acted upon’ (ibid.). So

but those who look and experience intensely achieve a con-

Nitsch would probably agree with Langer that art is not and

scious abreaction and catharsis through aesthetics’ (OMT

should not be discursive, for that puts the goal of art outside


the work of art itself. Nitsch also points out that ‘form is

Nitsch often stresses that the line between art and life is

not usually something external, not something superficially

obliterated in his work: everything in his actions is real. ‘The

aesthetic, but it is that essential thing that makes art art.

most important thing about my theatre – which I perform

It is false to speak of formalism very often: it is a complete

together with the spectator – is that all that happens is real.

misunderstanding of form. Formalism usually refers to an

In the old, conventional theatre, the actor “plays” his part.

art that uses only form and lacks all content. Of all that art

That is not reality. In contrast, in my theatre everything is

has to offer, form is the most profound. [...] The actual depth

real. The objects I use, such as animals, blood, sugar, are real.

of art lies in the extreme penetration into the ever unfath-

They are not symbols for something else, as was the case in

omable and inexhaustible possibilities of form. Art expresses

the old theatre’ (OMT 20-21). But all these real elements are

nothing but itself. Art is embedded in form’ (OMT 41). By

not there for their own sake: they are motifs integrated into

consequence, ‘the form-content problem does not exist for

a Gesammtkunstwerk which expresses Nitsch’s philosophy.

me, the most significant and only content of art is its form’

And if the individual motifs do not symbolically represent

(OMT 42). In fact, the whole form-content issue is simply a

anything else, the action in its entirety is very much a sym-

result of our Christian heritage, which spurns the material

bol or, as Nitsch puts it, a form. In fact, Nitsch is very insis-

(form), bifurcates body and mind, and urges us to find deeper

tent about the importance of form in all art, including his

spiritual meanings in the physical, which becomes illegiti-

own. ‘The most important goal of my work is form. [...] Art

mate if no such meanings can be found.

must be beautiful. And that means that it is formal. With-

The strong formal element guarantees that Nitsch’s actions,

out form there is no art. Form is the real message that art

no matter how much reality they incorporate, remain fiction-

can bring people. Art is form’ (OMT 23). In a lecture of 1970

al. The excess of his actions ‘is restrained in the theatre, it is

Nitsch has discussed his ideas about form extensively. He

achieved within the orders of play, rules, it is safeguarded,

claims that ‘the specific nature of art lies in purely formal

it becomes visible as an aesthetic phenomenon [...]. Pain is

elaboration. Form represents the deepest nature of art. Noth-

avoided. As pointed out before, all my actions are supported



by the principle of form, they all really take place, but their

is eliminated, the inclusion of the spectator is never in the

meaning lies in the form, in the retrieval of new aesthetic

least coercive.

values’ (OMT 39). Hence the sacrifice in the ritualistic action

If loneliness is indeed at the heart of the postmodern hu-

‘is performed bloodless, symbolic, abstractly spiritualised,

man condition, as Kondylis claims, and if Arendt is correct to

but it is not therefore less real’ (OMT 9). This tension be-

suggest that loneliness was cultivated in the most perverse

tween fiction and reality makes Nitsch’s actions an ideal

way in the extermination camps of nazism, then the work of

test-case for our definition of the primary illusion of perfor-

Nitsch tries to undo this violence and re-establish a connec-

mance. All the art forms and real elements that Nitsch uses

tion with the world. Nitsch’s rituals allow their participants

are incorporated into the Gesammtkunstwerk that is the ac-

to enter into contact with the kosmos or nature or Being. Be-

tion, the ritual as work. But it is a work that also includes the

ing is a kosmos the logos of which eludes us. For Nitsch the

audience. In fact, since Nitsch wants to obliterate the bound-

ritual is the place where Being can be experienced without

aries between life and art within the ritual, his work fits our

the interface of language or reason. We are immersed in it.

definition perfectly. By making the estate of Prinzendorf in

Instead of trying to explain Being, and hence explain it away

its entirety the scene of his theatre, it becomes an enclosure.

or circle around it without touching its essence, we can get

It is a magic circle. All who enter, enter the forcefield of the

into unmediated contact with Being through ritual. This al-

performance and become part of its transformative ritual.

lows man to feel grounded again in the world because he

To enter the estate is to become a participant. And because

is brought into direct contact with what is at once most

the idea that underlies the entire performance is the idea

intimate and most foreign in him: Being. It is obvious that

of fundamental connectedness within the universe, what

Nitsch’s work here echoes Martin Heidegger’s remarkable

happens to Nitsch or the participants in the performance,

claim that Western culture suffers from what he calls Seins-

also happens to the spectators who are in communion with

vergessenheit or forgetfulness of Being. This means that the

them. This is similar to Aristotle’s concept of katharsis, where

Western philosophical tradition since Plato has objectified

the audience finds release through empathy with what is

Being into some kind of Highest Being, whether a Platonic

enacted. But there is a difference because in Nitsch’s work

Idea of the Good or an almighty god. By objectifying Being

there is no distance between the spectators and the partici-

the sense of it as an unruly, invisible and impenetrable force

pants. Such a distance is part of the “old” theatre. But unlike

is somehow lost. Being is given clear Apollonian form, it is

the unwitting participants (the passers-by) in Burden’s Dead

a benign Father or a transcendent Idea, and it can be ad-

Man, all spectators at the Orgien Mysterien Theater are free to

dressed through prayer or penetrated through philosophical

come and go as they please and can decide for themselves to

reflection. Heidegger urges us to see Being again as it really

what extent (if at all) they want to get involved in the ritual.

is. And its true nature is what the Greeks called Fate. The

So although the distance between spectator and participant

German word for Fate is Schicksal, which has the same root


as Geschick, something which is sent us. And this, Heidegger

of pain (the sadism of Sade) with the lustful experience of

remarks, is exactly what Being actually is: it is not an object,

inflicted pain (the submission of baron Von Sacher-Masoch).

not a person or person-like instance, but it is “what hap-

The instrument of the ritual is pain. As we saw, pain destroys

pens” or “what befalls us”. Geschick is visited upon us in the

the world. But since the pain is restrained within the rules

same way the Greeks were visited by Fate. It comes from

of the sexual game, its world-destroying power is curtailed.

nowhere and nobody is responsible for it. It is again the vio-

This is a paradoxical process that requires explanation. If a

lent intrusion of the unruly kosmos into the neatly rational

person is tortured, the combination of physical distress and

human world, ‘an incursion from the fathomless depths

psychological terror encloses her in her body. Pain is inflicted

beyond the limits of sane and conscious human personal-

as a way of destroying the world. Although many practices

ity’ (Guthrie 1954: 173). Our brutal animality is part of our

known to torturers are also used in sadomasochism, their

Fate, our Geschick, which we must work through and come to

role and meaning there are fundamentally different. The

terms with if we are ever to achieve any kind of authentically

most important difference lies in the relationship between

full humanity.

the participants. In torture, there is an aggressor who violates a victim. In sadomasochism there is an equal relation


Irreligious Rituals

between sexual partners. There are firmly set rules about

Eroticism is the formalising of unruly sexuality. It is lust cap-

what is and what is not allowed. Hence, the submissive

tured in the ritualised form of the spectacle. And the most

partner does retain control at all times, even if she submits

ritualistic form of eroticism is sadomasochism. In its theatri-

to a ritual in which many of the events visited upon her are

cal enactment of brutal violence the sadomasochistic ritual

unexpected. The submissive person chooses to play the part,

comes very close to Dionysian ritual, both in structure and in

derives enjoyment from it, and normally has a way of ending

meaning. In essence, sadomasochism is a ritual of surrender:

the ritual at any time by giving a prescribed sign. This means

the passive partner submits to the dominant partner, who

that the sexual ritual of sadomasochism is never arbitrary in

gains control over another person’s body. The submissive

the way that torture is. This links sadomasochism to Diony-

partner surrenders himself. In games of bondage he or she

sian ritual with its many rules and prescriptions. It is a the-

is literally tied up and sometimes even gagged, preventing

atre of excess, and hence a measure of control and restraint

them from speaking or screaming. In certain extreme games

is exercised. Between the sexual partners there is not an

full sensory deprivation is applied, as when the submis-

aggressive relation but a relation of trust: both partners sur-

sive partner’s body is wrapped in cellophane or dressed in

render to each other.

a rubber body-suit. The most well-known version of the

This reciprocity is very important. It is a common mistake

sadomasochistic ritual, however, is the one from which it

to assume that it is merely the passive partner who sur-

takes its double name: a combination of the lustful infliction

renders. But by accepting the token of the submissive body,



the dominant partner gains not only power over that body,

nant partner. Once the passive partner is pulled back into

but also responsibility; not simply the responsibility of play-

the real world, the ritual ends. So the sexual ritual has the

ing by the rules as they are set, and hence not inflict actual

structure of a passage: just like Dionysos (or Christ) the pas-

violence, but also the responsibility of providing enjoyment

sive partner descends into the underworld but returns (rises

for the passive partner. To dominate is an exhausting task: if

from the dead) unscathed, or at least relatively so, and usual-

the passive partner does not experience ecstasy (but rather

ly not scathed beyond what measure he or she had declared

boredom or, worse still, non-pleasurable discomfort) the

desirable at the beginning of the ritual.

dominant partner has failed miserably. In this sense there

This structure of descent-release-return is not only a game

certainly is a dialectic of master and slave: by surrender-

of trust between partners, one of its possible effects is a

ing, the passive partner surrenders his ego; by accepting the

growing trust in the world. By embracing the Dionysian, one

body of the passive partner, the dominant partner invests

can learn not to fear it, or to fear it less. Hence, sadomasoch-

his ego. If the ritual fails, it is the dominant partner who is

ism, and especially masochism, is probably one of the surest

to blame. It is he or she who stands to lose face, no matter

cures for neurosis available. To face one’s fears and anxieties,

how much he or she humiliates the passive partner. The

to wallow in the excrement that society forbids us to seek

passive partner chooses and embraces humiliation, which is

pleasure in, is to master them and put them to rest. To be

a source of tremendous relief. It is also a gesture of tremen-

a masochist is to commune with both the cosmos and the

dous trust and courage. It is a leap into the void. The passive

kosmos: one becomes part of both universal materialist na-

partner descends into the Dionysian realm of the formless:

ture and unruly Fate that disinterestedly governs our ways.

by giving up identity he or she returns to the primal unity

The sense of surrender and its concomitant release can be

with the universe. By losing or giving up, temporarily, the

exceptionally forceful. There is an astonishing chapter in Pier

sense of self, one is reduced to one’s physical being, a part of

Paolo Pasolini’s last and unfinished novel Petrolio in which a

cosmic nature. One becomes organism. To be dominant is to

man drives to the outskirts of Rome, ventures out to a der-

cling to Apollonian form: one must act upon the other, and

elict stretch of urban wasteland, and lets himself be fucked

action requires determination and deliberation. The release

by a group of riff-raff. He (for the man is himself the narra-

experienced by the passive partner is to a large extent due

tor of the chapter) describes his masochistic submission in

to the ritualistic nature of the sexual game. In this respect

almost mystical terms. This is no coincidence: to be anally

it resembles performance art: it is known more or less from

penetrated is to be exceptionally vulnerable. One is literally

the start what the ritual will be like and how long it will take.

open; witness the remarkable shots in porn films of assholes

This means that the passive partner knows that he will be

that stay spread open even after the penis has been pulled

pulled back from the Dionysian abyss, which makes it easier

out. To have one’s ass opened to that extent, and maintain

for him or her to surrender in trust to the power of the domi-

this openness even when there is no intrusive foreign body



squeezing it open, is to invite everything and anything to

should probably simply speak of a masochistic ritual rather

enter. It is small wonder that most cultures have morally

than a sadomasochistic one. Anita Phillips explains that ‘the

condemned anal sex, especially between men; not because

two species are anything but complementary [...]. Sadism is

such intercourse is somehow unnatural, but because the

characterised by a sullen, resentful apathy punctuated by

symbolical link with total submission and shameful loss of

bursts of self-pitying rage, in Sade’s case directed at god and

self is obvious. In fact, it is the whole point of the practice.

his mother-in-law. My sense of Sade’s driving impulse is of

Interestingly, this again shows how the power-relations in

violence fantasised as compensation for the feeling of being

sadomasochism are inverted. It is usually the dominant

weighed down by an oppressive figure. [...] Sadism is a story

partner who is depicted as masculine, forceful, and virile. But

of great pathos and even failure, in that the violence never

in actual fact, it is the passive partner who engages in hero-

accomplishes its goal of clearing a free space for action, for

ics for it is he or she who performs the role that really takes

intervention into history. Highly autonomous, the masoch-

heroic guts. To be anally submissive is to be at once superbly

ist’s faults are vanity and posturing. While the sadist seeks

heroic and inexcusably slutty. It is no doubt this paradoxical

a victim, and is repelled by the masochist’s capacity for

feature of masochism and sexual submission that accounts

pleasure, which diminishes his own, the masochist wants to

for its enormous rush. It is a short-circuit that results in loss

find a playmate. The opposite number is someone who can

of self. And as Anita Phillips remarks in her lucid defence

be convinced or charmed into acting the role of torturer, not

of masochism, ‘there is nothing so unusual about wanting

a brutal heavyweight [...]. No sadist is any good for a mas-

to leave one’s identity behind. Any kind of real enjoyment

ochist, since each is disqualified from dancing to the other’s

enables a temporary forgetting of the self, whether it is gaz-

tune, with the result that both are wrong-footed. The perfect

ing at a Giotto fresco or betting on the dogs. There is nothing

choice may be another masochist’ (o.c. 12). The key to this

so helpful and invigorating as excessive enjoyment. [...] The

paradox probably lies in the fact that there is a sadist in ev-

reason that boredom is so miserable is because it means

ery masochist. Sadomasochism is an ambivalent fetish, not

being continually conscious of oneself. The same applies to

in the sense that it needs two different kinds of people to be

the jaded person who is unable to make use of the resources

realised (namely a sadist and a masochist), but in the sense

around them because a sense of surfeit allows no space in-

that what we call a masochist is probably a sadomasochist

side, no hunger to draw on external stimuli’ (Phillips 1998:

(and vice versa) while a sadist is quite something else. Part of

105). The masochist is mystically cleansed of the burden of

the enjoyment of the dominant partner in sadomasochism is

identity through immersion in the muck.

undoubtedly an experience of projection: he or she is inflict-

In a very real sense, sadomasochism is a misleading term be-

ing upon the submissive partner what they would probably

cause it suggests that in the sadomasochistic ritual a sadist

like to have inflicted upon themselves but are too chicken

and a masochist meet to their mutual contentment. But we

to submit to. Sadism, on the other hand, is a rage that rises,


as Phillips suggests, from frustration. It is a rage against the

function of the physical: there is nothing in heaven that was

world. Which is not to suggest that the masochist is at peace

not first experienced in the body. If we may paraphrase Aris-

with the world: he has simply found an entirely opposite

totle, it is unnecessary to create a superfluous order of supe-

way of dealing with his frustration. What the masochist

rior beings. We do not need god if we are willing and able to

needs, is someone who is willing to slow down time with

listen to nature; not in some corny New Age way, but in the

him or her, someone who will make it their own desire and

sense of beginning to think and feel about ourselves as an

enjoyment to see the submissive partner experience ex-

organism. ‘That man is an animal I certainly believe,’ writes

tended pleasure. To torture a masochist, one needs empathy,

Langer, ‘and also, that he has no supernatural essence, “soul”

not sadism.

or “entelechy” or “mind-stuff,” enclosed in his skin. He is an organism, his substance is chemical’ (PNK 40). Hence, god


Lost in the Stars: A Materialist Manifesto

is an unnecessary, or at best an aesthetic, hypothesis. We

In masochism, as in all Dionysian ecstasy, we temporarily

should not kneel down for gods of our own (or others’) mak-

give up the world to have it given back to us; or to have our-

ing. One should only ever kneel down to give a blow-job.

selves be reborn into it. As Phillips points out, ‘the achieve-

Immanuel Kant once remarked that there were two things

ment of the masochist is to attempt to grasp, with the imagi-

that filled him with awe: the infinite sky above him and the

nation, to suffer passively, with the body and will, the transi-

infinite moral law within him. In both instances we are con-

tion between life and death’ (o.c. 154). To hover between life

fronted with our own insignificance. There is nothing quite

and death is to hover on the threshold of kosmos, it is to gaze

so dizzying as to put one’s head back in the night and stare

into its abyss and not be annihilated by it. It is to sense its

at the star-lit sky, which seems to tilt and turn above us and

pull and then be pulled away from it again. It is playing with

which seems to suck us in if we look long enough. When the

the edge. In this sense it is a truly religious experience, far

night is especially clear, it may even seem as if the stars or

more so than any of the traditional monotheistic religions. It

the moon are moving towards us, or we towards them. We

is often claimed by religious people that atheists do not re-

are indeed lost in the stars, hidden away on a speck of dirt in

ally have any kind of profound spiritual life, as if to dismiss

the cosmos. There is no sense in the universe. It simply ex-

the transcendent is to be void of the spiritual. But there is

ists. It changes according to several physical, chemical, and

great spirit in the material world. In fact, it is probably far

biological principles, but to no purpose and with no intent.

more authentically profound to worship the earth and the

There is simply infinity gaping at us. What both Nitsch and

body than to worship any kind of fictional superior being. As

the masochist attempt to achieve is an intensified experi-

we saw in our discussion of Langer, man is by nature sym-

ence of that void, that emptiness, and the great havoc it

bolic. It is a yearning of the organism to express itself sym-

makes of our certainties, our sense of self and purpose. The

bolically. Religions are symbolic systems. Hence, they are a

point of ecstasy is to come into contact with that void and to



accept it. There is release in accepting one’s futility. And the

undoing what should be an unsettling transcendence. To

odd thing is that suddenly, when one accepts one’s futility,

have an almighty Father or other superior being is to shut

nothing is futile anymore, for one suddenly sees the things

the door on any real transcendence before you have even

that really matter in life, in the world. Our passage in this life

started. To have a god is a clever way of having your infin-

is brief at best. And there is no other life. So all we can do is

ity and eating it, too. What transcendence is possible in a

live our life in constant awareness of its finite nature. This

universe where one man has already died to save us all? To

attitude makes a mockery of our vanities, of the bustle of ev-

have religious convictions is to be cuddled to death. It is life

eryday business. It shows the obscenity of capitalism, career-

made easy, with a never-faltering moral compass to tell you

ism, and crude materialism while highlighting the blessings

what the universe is like and what your particular place in it

of small pleasures, beauty, art, human companionship, and

should be. It’s the Rough Guide to Creation, telling you what is

the appeal of the sensual (and sexual) world. It is a release

natural and what is not, what is orderly and what is not, and

to be able to accept insignificance on a cosmic scale (and is

hence which parts of creation you may oppress or destroy

there, could there be, any other scale?).

without sinning against the great immortal code of the cre-

This acceptance is true religion. And it is a truth that or-

ator. It separates the chosen or the pure from the rejects and

ganised religion rarely yields. To the extent that traditional

the impure. Metaphysically, it is an Apollonian mask slapped

religions identify Being with a god, and usually a benign

over Dionysian truth, but not to allow Dionysos to appear,

god at that, they simply stunt our sensitivity for the infinite,

but to hide him, to make him invisible. Religions tell us that

the meaningless, the annihilating void that stares back at

the mask is all the reality there is. For all their talk of deeper

us from Kant’s starlit heaven. The mortification of the flesh,

and ever deepening dimensions of meaning, religions are

the denial of the physical, the belief in the transcendent, the

shockingly one-dimensional, for there is no place in them for

rejection of the organism and its manifold functions: these

either the infinite or the material. This is as true of Islam and

are the bad faith of religion. There is no real spirituality in

Judaism as it is of Christianity. The true way to ecstasy is the

any belief system that has a benign god as guarantor that

way of all flesh. This is what sex, and particularly masoch-

all is or will be well. There is only fake transcendence if one

ism, does: it takes us to the threshold of death and brings us

transcends into the secure knowledge that there is a benign

into contact with the great void into which we will one day,

logos governing both the temporary and the eternal worlds.

inevitably, collapse.

As the highest instance, the god is literally the lid on the universe: he contains and makes pleasant all that is incom-

Demonic Time

prehensible, material, and unruly. Life is a mystery, religion

The sense of cosmic and existential unrest is nowhere more

proclaims, but happily there is a god at hand to explain away

tangible than in the films of Béla Tarr. Tilda Swinton, who

our perplexity with tales of creation and a cozy afterlife,

worked with Tarr on The Man from London (2009), has justifi-



ably described his cinema as a ‘medieval space programme’

including the little Estikes of this world. To make his dream

(Quandt 2009: 11). The description sounds iconoclastic but

come true, he invites the villagers to give him their money

evokes very well the coming together of the ancient and the

to start up the community. Then they must wait for him in

contemporary in Tarr’s work. Tarr’s films speak of our pres-

a ruined house outside the village, where he will come to

ent times, but they do it by using a symbolism and a visual

collect them. Most villagers are so wrecked with guilt over

language that seem to speak to us from some dark backward

Estike’s death that they willingly hand over their money and

in the abysm of time. ‘We have some ontological problems,’

leave the village behind to follow Irimias, who takes them to

the director has claimed with some understatement, ‘and

the nearest city and splits them up in several houses and ap-

now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos’

partments, where they are to wait for further instructions. It

(Daly and Le Cain 2001). Tarr has filmed this cosmic excre-

is forbidden for them to seek contact with one another. Once

ment most impressively in his trilogy of films based on the

the group of villagers has been split up in this miniature

work of novelist László Krasznahorkai: Damnation (Kárhozat,

diaspora, Irimias alerts the police to their presence, accusing

1988), Sátántangó (1994) and Werckmeister Harmóniák (2000).

them of being an organisation of immoral anarchists, and

If anything, Tarr’s films deal in cosmic entropy, showing the

bolts with the money.

gradual disintegration of communities in the wake of some

An important key to understanding Sátántangó is the mys-

intrusive event. This is the basic structure of Sátántangó,

terious figure of Irimias, who shares his name with the

Tarr’s most important and most ambitious film with a run-

prophet of the Old Testament Jeremiah, who foretold the

ning time of over seven hours. The film is set in a small rural

destruction in 587 BC of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Hence,

community in Hungary where the farmers drink away their

he is the prophet of doom. In the film, it is never made en-

meagre income in the local pub. Until they hear of the im-

tirely clear who he is and what his secret might be. But it

minent return of one Irimias (Míhály Víg) and his companion

is clear that he is driven by greed. He also seems to know a

Petrina (István Horváth). For some reason, which is never

lot about the villagers, things that they would prefer to keep

made clear, the news of their return causes a lot of commo-

hidden, and that he wields a lot of power over them through

tion among the villagers. Apparently both men had disap-

this knowledge. In this, Irimias resembles Karrer (Míklos B.

peared more than a year before and were presumed dead.

Székely), the main figure in Damnation. Karrer is a nihilistic

The unrest in the village reaches its peak with the death of

loner who wastes his days away sitting around his appart-

the young girl Estike (Erika Bók), who commits suicide with

ment. His only diversion are his visits to the local bar, wittily

rat poison. Irimias arrives in time to act upon Estike’s death.

called the Titanik Bar, and his liaison with his mistress, who

He gathers the villagers around her body and tells them

is the singer in the bar. One day, the proprietor of the bar

his dream: to create a collective farm, a harmonious living

offers him the job of picking up a package in another town. It

environment where the world would be safe for everyone,

is clear that this is a shady and illegal business. Karrer ac-



cepts the job, but gets his mistress’ husband to do it for him,

wreaks havoc upon the community. The morning after, some

after which he goes to the police and denounces the propri-

calm has returned, but this calm lacks the innocence which

etor of the bar and the husband, so that they will be arrested.

seemed to be present before the cataclysmic events of the

Both Irimias and Karrer have some knowledge about others

night before. In theory, the sun structures the universe again,

that allows them to move them about like pawns on a chess

but in reality the damage of chaos cannot be entirely un-

board. Their actions bring about a dissolution of the estab-

done. It is like the story of the Fall: once we have eaten from

lished order in the community, whether it is the relation-

the tree of knowledge of good and bad, there is no way back.

ships between a very small group of people, as in Damnation,

We cannot pretend it never happened, we cannot pretend

or an entire community, as in Sátántangó.

we do not know, or, in the film, we cannot go on living as if

In Werckmeister Harmóniák this theme is taken up again. The

the outbreak of violence had never occurred. The community

quiet life in a small town is suddenly disrupted when a car-

has been ruptured and ravaged and life from now on will

nival moves into town, sporting as its main attraction a huge

have to be lived and rebuilt on the ruins of that violence.

stuffed whale and a mysterious “Prince” who speaks of the

Sátántangó has a figure similar to Janos in the Doctor (Peter

end of time and soon gathers around him a great number of

Berling). This burly man is a drunk who spends his time

followers. One night, these people march through town and

looking through his window, observing the villagers and

beat up everything and everyone they can find in a terrifying

recording their actions in drawings and notebooks (there is

explosion of violence. Just like the other two films, Werck-

a notebook for each villager). The voice of the Doctor is the

meister Harmóniák has a central figure who seems to know

voice of the narrator, so we cannot exclude the possibility

everything about everyone, but he is much more benevolent

that he is somehow orchestrating the events in the film, or

than in the other films. It is Janos Valuska (Lars Rudolph), the

even conjuring them up. His position as a possible demiurge

mailman who also functions as the town dunce. Janos’ privi-

or god-like figure is attested by the fact that a picture of the

leged status as one who knows about others is symbolised in

solar system hangs next to his window. It is possible that his

a map of the universe that hangs above his bed. At the be-

record-keeping activities are a way of imposing some kind of

ginning of the film there is a magnificent scene where Janos

order on the events in the village. It would seem he is writ-

choreographs some men in the pub into playing the earth,

ing and recording against chaos and against dissolution. But

the sun, and the moon who circle around each other until

on the night of Estike’s death, the Doctor runs out of alcohol

they achieve the constellation of a solar eclipse. When the

and heads out into the night to buy some more. Wandering

eclipse occurs, Janos explains, chaos breaks loose on earth.

through the darkness, he happens upon Estike, who has run

When the sun reappears, order is established again. This, in

away from home. He tries to follow her through the pouring

essence, is also the structure of events in the film, where the

rain, but he collapses and she gets away. At this point, events

appearance of an unusual event, the arrival of the carnival,

take a turn for the chaotic. The next morning, Estike is dead



and the Doctor is taken away to hospital, leaving the scene

of ritual. It is an event we must schedule into our lives. We

open for Irimias to start his demonic operations, undoing

must take time to withdraw from the everyday world, shut

the work the Doctor has done by sowing schism among the

the world out and engage these films. Obviously, we have to

villagers and breaking up their community. When the Doctor

do this every time we watch a film, read a book, or go see a

returns to the village at the end of the film, it lies deserted.

play, but we are rarely asked to do it with such commitment,

There is nothing left to record, nothing left to orchestrate.

and to such overwhelming effect, as in Tarr’s films (but I am

The kosmos, which was the Greek word for both the cos-

writing as one who has never been made to sit through an

mos and the order that kept it together, has disappeared. So

entire cycle of Wagner’s Ring). His films engulf you and draw

the Doctor nails shut his window, slowly creating the black

you into their own universe. In the end, time takes over. This

screen on which the film ends: there is no more world to

is very important, for usually watching a film is still a very

look at, no more world to record.

structured event. Most narrative films, and even quite a few

One of the key features of Tarr’s films is their length. The

experimental films, adhere to some kind of basic structure

long running time, usually filmed in real time and with only

that allows us to stay oriented in time. We have a gut sense

the barest minimum of cuts, is often associated in the film

of how far the film has developed, and we usually sense

with the act of walking or running. But the people who walk

when the final act has begun. Most films, but also most nov-

in Tarr’s films do not seem to be going anywhere. They walk

els and plays, have a curve of action that we can follow and

through fields or wander through the night or through rain,

that tells us how much film is still left (reading a book, turn-

but their actions often seem to lack any clear goal. When

ing page after page, the amount of remaining pages visibly

there is a goal, it is often negative, as when Janos runs away

diminishes, like the time remaining on a film diminishes).

from the village along a railway track at the end of Werck-

Tarr’s films do not allow us to do this. This is especially true

meister Harmóniák. Another negative or meaningless goal

of Sátántangó. If one is watching a film that runs for about

is the endless walking of the villagers in Sátántangó, deter-

seven hours, there is really no point in anticipating the mid-

minedly marching towards their own doom in a city they

dle, the end, or anything. Even the film’s individual chapters

do not know. We are also made to watch Irimias and Petrina

sometimes run longer than an average feature film. And yet

walking towards the village in the rain, which gives us

the film is not meant to be seen on several occasions, like a

plenty of time to contemplate their identity and intentions;

television mini-series: ideally, it must be submitted to in one

questions that mostly go unanswered. But there is a very

extended sitting. But to do so is to surrender to time. And

important formal point to these extended scenes. The mas-

in surrendering to time, one breaks away from everyday life

sive length of these films forces us to submit to them. You

and sojourns, for the duration of the film, in a parallel uni-

cannot casually watch a Tarr film, you have to make time


for it and commit to it. This gives the act of watching an air



Comes Undone

the same time. Similarly, Sátántangó is structured in twelve

If we take an even closer look at time in Tarr’s films, it would

chapters, but they are not of equal length and especially in

appear that time, or maybe we should now speak of Time,

the first half of the film they are not presented chronologi-

is the true protagonist of these films. And time in Tarr’s uni-

cally. The expanses of time that Tarr presents overlap and

verse, and especially in the universe of Sátántangó, is firmly

change perspectives. This way, time is shown not only out

out of joint. The centre cannot hold and kosmos or order

of joint but unfolded, deconstructed from the inside (Tarr’s

comes undone. One of the basic structuring devices for order

film walks through time and space in a way similar to Da-

in the world is time. But there is something exceedingly odd

vid Hockney’s Visit with Christopher and Don). In such an un-

about time as a unit for measuring anything. Phenomeno-

hinged universe the folds of time become visible as demonic

logically, time is an absurd thing. To measure space we have

openings: black holes in time through which decay seeps in.

metric systems which, although culturally relative and even

And before long the universe starts to rot.

variable (centimetres and metres are not feet and inches),

Sátántangó contains several elements that point towards

are linked to tangible standards in the material world. But

such a demonic unhinging of time. First, objective time is

where can one find the standard second? How can it be mea-

revealed to be unreliable. In the first chapter, that is set in

sured or circumscribed? If a clock goes tic-toc, where does

the home of an adulterous couple, a ticking clock is insis-

the second begin or end? Is the second the space of time

tently present on the soundtrack. The ticking is unnerving

between the tics? Are the tics included? And if the second tic

because it seems to be going slightly too fast. In the second

ends the second, does the second second begin after the end

chapter, titled “The resurrection of the dead,” Irimias and

of the tic? To which second does any given tic belong? These

Petrina arrive in the city where they will later take the vil-

questions of course hark back to Zeno, who showed that any

lagers. They go to the police office for some administrative

unit of time or space is in itself infinite. With regard to time

business. As they sit waiting in the hallway, Irimias notices

these problems are especially vexing because there is no way

that the two clocks in the hall both give a different time

for us to perceive and thus verify time. The only reasonable

and that neither gives the correct time. This could be an

material measures for temporal rhythms at our disposal are

example of the carelessness of civil servants in a decay-

the heartbeat and the cycle of day and night. By disrupting

ing social system (we might call it “civil servant fatigue” or,

our normal experience of time, Tarr’s films question not only

worse, the first onset of the banality of evil), but on another

standard time but any sense of order, for without time every-

level it could also suggest that this community has lost

thing falls apart. If the universe (the kosmos or order) is un-

track of time or has come to find time irrelevant. We could

hooked from time, all events begin to drift apart like islands.

also interpret these insurgent clocks as symptoms of the

This brings to mind again Kondylis’ concept of the postmod-

isolated world in which Sátántangó is set. Then the clocks

ern as an extensive space in which everything is available at

might suggest that time itself simply disregards this part of



the world and does not bother to make itself known there. In

traditional motif: the earth breaks open and pushes the dead

any case, this community seems to exist outside of ordinary

back to the surface. All these signs foretell that apocalypse is

time and therefore seems to no longer be part of the greater

upon us.

world. Later, when Irimias and Petrina are having a drink

But no discussion of evil in Sátántangó can be complete with-

in a café, there is a humming sound on the soundtrack. But

out addressing the innocent body that lies at the heart of

when Irimias draws attention to it, it becomes clear that this

this apocalypse: the corpse of Estike. This young girl is the

sound is not a mood-enhancing feature of the soundtrack.

central character of the central chapter of the movie, namely

It is part of the material universe of the film. It is difficult to

the fifth chapter that is titled “Comes Unstitched” and in

point out the source of this humming, but we might inter-

which the young girl seems to become possessed by the dev-

pret it as the opening of time, in a metaphysical sense. If

il. Estike is the diminutive form of the Hungarian word for

shit is indeed coming from the cosmos, then the sphincter

evening. So Estike might be taken to symbolise the twilight

of the cosmos must be opening. The humming that breathes

of this world: she is the evening on which the apocalypse

through Sátántangó could be interpreted as the draught blow-

begins towards which the world is already tilting. When we

ing through this opening of time. Something wicked this

first meet Estike, she is shut out of the house by her mother.

way comes and this cosmic humming heralds its imminent

She seeks solace in the granary, where she tortures her pet

arrival. In Werckmeister Harmóniák its arrival is announced by

cat. She looks the animal straight in the eyes and tells it she

equally insubstantial means. When the car carrying the huge

can do with it whatever she wants because she is the stron-

stuffed whale drives into town, crawling through the dark

gest of the two. This recalls a scene in Damnation where Kar-

(and evil often comes under the cloak of night), its arrival is

rer is addressed by an old lady guarding the wardrobe at the

announced by the ominous humming of its engine. The first

Titanik Bar. At one point she refers to a passage in the Old

thing we see, is not the car itself but something immaterial:

Testament where God foretells how Israel will rise against

the bright headlights that sneak up on the houses that line

him but that he will squash its resistance, ‘and then they

the street. Next the shadow cast by the car creeps across the

will know that I am the Lord’. This avenging and angry god

houses. Only in the last instance does the car itself appear.

seems to have taken possession of Estike: banished from her

So the source of evil in this film almost literally appears out

own home she continues the chain of repression by venting

of a tear in the darkness of night, materialising out of sound

her anger on a weaker creature. The endlessly protracted

and light. A final motif that heralds the arrival of evil, partic-

scene in which the girl tortures and finally poisons the cat is

ularly in Sátántangó, is the stench of the earth. In the fourth

brutal cinema, not in the least because the entire sequence,

chapter of the film several of the villagers are sitting in the

which runs for over three quarters of an hour, consist of a

pub at night when a woman notices the stench and crawls

minimal number of unblinking shots so that there can be

under the table to find out where it is coming from. This is a

no doubt about the fact that the cat is actually suffering



through this excruciating calvary. Tarr is exceedingly per-

in Tarr’s films, and especially in Sátántangó, which seems to

verse here, getting a young girl to enact in real time the cruel

come full circle only to start the same story again. But in its

and merciless torture of a helpless animal, beating it around

detached cruelty, showing us the workings of evil in excru-

and poisoning it (or, we might hope, simply sedating it for

ciating real time, unhurried and confident that everything

fictional effect). After this demonic act of violence, Estike

needs must take its fatal course, the film is also stoic in

takes the cat’s dead body under her arm and begins her long

tone. The ancient Stoa saw history as a constant repetition

wandering through the village; a journey that will last an

of the same process. In Stoic cosmology a cosmic fire brings

entire day and night. First, she is sent away by her brother,

about order in the universe. Once this order is created, things

dismissed again. Next, she is outside the pub at night, look-

move with logical regularity to their predestined conclusion.

ing in through the steamy windows and contemplating the

Then everything is destroyed again in a cosmic fire out of

tired revels inside. Finally, she tries to accost the Doctor, but

which the same process starts again. The same fatalism is

in vain. He, too, dismisses her. We see the pain of rejection

at work in Tarr’s films. It also typifies his characters, who are

crawl over her face like the shadow of death. And then she

depressed and dejected, always on their way to nowhere,

runs. The Doctor tries in vain to keep up with her. And the

endlessly walking without a goal. There is no hope in their

next morning, drenched and cold to the bone, she is still

lives, only absurdity and resignation. This makes sense: if ev-

walking. Finally, she reaches an abandoned ruin of a house,

erything that happens has been orchestrated by some malin

lies down on the ground, and swallows the rest of the rat

génie then hope is a pointless sentiment. And if everything

poison she used on the cat.

constantly repeats itself, time becomes irrelevant. Lost in

After Estike has committed suicide the narrator’s voice re-

the stars, man has nothing to look forward to except his own

counts her final thoughts. The last thing Estike experiences

pointlessness. What makes Karrer stare out of his window

is a sense of calm and acceptance, a profound confidence in

and betray his rival, what makes the villagers in Werckmeister

the ultimate connectedness of everything in the universe.

Harmóniák turn to violence, and what makes Estike take her

Nothing happens in vain, the voice tells us, and there is a

own life is the one certainty we all have in life: the eternal

reason for everything. The great architect has planned every-

return of doom.

thing and everyone has his or her role to play in this plan, including Estike. But as the film makes clear, this great choreographer in the sky is an architect of evil. People are like flies to this wanton god, who kills them for his sport. And at the end, when the tale is told and destruction wrought upon the world, he shuts the window on this theatre of Fate and starts his story all over again. There is a fatalistic circularity


Chapter Five

a return to Langer. At the end of Feeling and Form Langer introduces a brief note on cinema in which she claims that the primary illusion of the film is what she calls ‘the dream



mode’ because the film ‘creates a virtual present, an order of


Taking our cue from Elaine Scarry, we will take the cinema as

direct apparition. That is the mode of dream’ (FF 412). It is a fascinating suggestion that she does not very much elaborate. dream mode and explore it from within, conjuring up images from imagination and memory. Lie with them awhile.

We started this book with the spectre of the male gaze. We

Pathetic Fallacies

have argued with Elaine Scarry that this supposedly hurtful

If one wanted to summarise Langer’s philosophy of art, one

gaze is not at all malicious by definition and that there is no

could say, as she does in the first volume of Mind, that ‘art

evil in looking at beauty. In this long concluding chapter we

is the objectification of feeling, and the subjectification of

will look at beauty and several of the many meanings it can

nature’ (MI 87). Art objectifies feeling because it is a presenta-

have for us. In looking at beauty we will replace the male

tional symbolism that presents us with a prime symbol of the

gaze with what I would like to call the “frail gaze”: a way of

felt experience of life. But in doing so, art gradually subjecti-

looking that revels in beauty and is moved by its frailty. It

fies nature because ‘in developing our intuition, teaching eye

is a gaze that is capable of being moved by beauty because

and ear to perceive expressive form, it makes form expressive

it recognises itself, its own projection, in objects of beauty.

for us wherever we confront it, in actuality as well as in art.

Scarry suggests that the experience of beauty can teach us

Natural forms become articulate and seem like projections

to find beauty where we previously thought no beauty could

of the “inner forms” of feeling’ (ibid.). Anything can become

be found. Such an expansive way of looking could ideally

a material or an element in art because anything and every-

culminate in a gaze that finds beauty everywhere and in

thing can be seen as expressive of human feeling and mean-

everything. In its search for beauty this chapter is a kind of

ing. All meaning and all beauty are projections of the human

indulgence, an invitation to dwell on beauty longer than is

mind onto the surrounding world. But if art is the projection

strictly necessary. It is a rhizome, a patchwork of intercon-

of feeling onto the world, it soon allows us to see expression

nected discussions of works of art. It is a brief for beauty and

in objects that are not man-made. The entire world then

an invitation to its indulgence. It is a walk through a garden

becomes expressive and meaningful. Most images ‘fit more

of delights, and as such it comes with an invitation for the

than one actual experience. We [...] impose them on new per-

reader to stop at will to take in the sights. Finally, it is also

ceptions, constantly, without intent or effort [...]. Consequent-



ly we tend to see the form of one thing in another, which is

inanimate things as animate, or at least imbued with feeling,

the most essential factor in making the maelstrom of events

is not immature or childish. In other words, a distanced, cool,

and things pressing upon our sense organs a single world’

disaffected approach of the material world surrounding us is

(MI 60). This is how our symbolic intuition works, effortlessly

truly an inhuman approach. In the human world, meanings

perceiving Gestalten in the constant flow of sensory input that

are everywhere. Some such meanings may be extremely fan-

reaches our organism. As Langer points out, ‘the abstraction

ciful, but no part of the human world is ever without mean-

of gestalt from an actually given object by seeing it as an

ing and to look upon it as devoid of meaning or feeling is to

image of some entirely different thing [...] is a very ancient

look upon it as if one were not human oneself. This, as we

source of representational art’ (MI 169). She illustrates this

suggested with Marx and Scarry, is what makes liberal capi-

with a quote from Leonardo da Vinci, describing how we can

talism a fundamentally inhuman world order: it reduces the

see many objects in ‘the texture and crack of old walls’ (ibid.).

world to quantifiable economic entities. There is nothing hu-

This does not mean, however, that Langer would like us to

man about efficiency, because to be efficient one must deny

embrace an animistic view of life. She never allows us to

all the meanings that we find in the world and to deny those

forget, nor should she, that these operations of our symbolic

meanings is to deny our very humanity.

intuition are acts of projection: the cracked texture of a wall

So, in a sense, we should become like children. Not, to be

is never actually a face or a bird or a plant. Nor is a cloud

sure, in the sense that our behavioural patterns should now

ever a whale or a face, even if it seems to resemble one. But

become childish, but in the sense that we should become

the constant seeing of familiar forms in new patterns of

childlike in our perceptual engagement with the world. In

perception is the way our symbolic intuition makes sense of

other words, we should not deny ourselves or others the

our perceptual input and enables us to construct a coherent

pleasure of seeing the entire world as imbued with beauty

world out of the many sensory stimuli that reach us. Asso-

and meaning. And, as we saw in our discussion of Scarry, the

ciating familiar meanings with new impressions is simply

entire world is not limited to nature and art but also includes

the way we get about in the world. But it also opens the door

the beauty of airplanes and cars, buildings and freeways,

to many aesthetic and artistic possibilities. In fact, the pro-

windmills and industrial ruins – in short, anything that al-

cess of perceiving Gestalten in the constant flow of sensory

lows us to experience beauty in the sense of expressiveness.

input should remind us of the quasi-aliveness of inanimate

There is beauty in all things human. If we fail to see the im-

objects that Elaine Scarry made us aware of. Objects become

port of beauty, it is because we choose to ignore it. There are

quasi-alive when we project life into or onto them. It was

indeed people who value the economic potential of a stretch

Scarry’s claim that this projection broadens the scope of our

of land over the wild flowers growing there. They might pre-

care in going about in the world. This has several important

fer to bulldoze and exploit the land. We, on the other hand,

implications. It now appears that the childlike habit of seeing

may feel free to doubt whether these economic busybodies



are human at all (don’t these people know that life is just a

salad took on an air of crisis’ (Hollinghurst 2005: 332). Apart

bowl of cherries and that you can’t take your dow when you

from the way this observation manages to balance irony and

go?). Obviously, we need industry and its benefits. But to ac-

tragedy by noticing the specifics of the interrupted dinner,

knowledge this need is a far cry from sacrificing anything and

Hollinghurst (or the narrator) projects the feelings the ab-

everything on the altar of economic expansion. Sometimes

sent woman is experiencing, namely a sense of crisis at the

a shrub should come first, especially if it is a particularly

news of a dear friend’s death, onto her food. This would be

beautiful shrub. Factories can be built almost anywhere. A

unacceptable to Ruskin because side plates of salad simply

beautiful stretch of land, a green pasture, or a picturesque

do not experience crises. Ruskin himself offers the example

moor cannot usually be transported for exhibition in another

of a line in a poem that speaks of “the cruel, crawling foam”

locale. So let us make the industry fit the landscape and not

on the waves of the sea; an observation Ruskin dryly rebuts

the other way around.

by pointing out that ‘foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl’

The importance of projected meanings in the realm of hu-

(Ruskin 2000: 369).

man experience was somewhat lost on John Ruskin (1819-

However, Ruskin does not disapprove of the use of compari-

1900). It is odd that a critic and expert draughtsman with

sons. He gives the example of Dante, who describes spirits

such a splendidly lucid eye for the beauty of nature should

falling “as dead leaves flutter from a bough”. In this compari-

have disapproved so thoroughly of the projection of human

son Dante never loses ‘his own clear perception that these

meanings onto that beauty. But this process is in fact what

are souls, and those are leaves; he makes no confusion of one

he famously dismissed, in volume III (1856) of Modern Paint-

with the other’ (o.c. 369-370). For Ruskin, the superior artist

ers, as the “pathetic fallacy”. The pathetic fallacy occurs when

will always ‘keep his eyes fixed firmly on the pure fact’ (o.c.

‘violent feelings [...] produce in us a falseness in all our im-

372). But since many artists are not very partial to record-

pressions of external things’ (Ruskin 2000: 369). This means

ing pure facts, Ruskin famously decimated the pantheon of

that the pathetic fallacy is a “fallacy of sight” that consists in

great artists, both in the visual arts and in literature. Besides

perceiving the world differently than it really is by project-

Coleridge, Ruskin berates both Keats and Pope for indulging

ing our feelings or ideas upon it. Let me give an example

in the pathetic fallacy, marking them as ‘poets of the second

from a passage in Alan Hollinghurst’s exquisitely beautiful

order’ (ibid.). Reading this, one cannot help but wonder how

novel The Line of Beauty (2004), which is about style and how

Ruskin would have judged Shakespeare’s disingenuous de-

it both hides and betrays feelings. The main characters are

cision to let churchyards yawn at Hamlet in the night. But

gathered for dinner when the phone rings and the lady of

Ruskin’s disapproval of the pathetic fallacy does not simply

the house leaves the room to hear of the death of a very dear

stem from a boorish insensitivity to metaphor or from a

friend. During her extended absence the narrator observes

simplistic kind of realism; it is also, and more interestingly,

that ‘her half-eaten grilled trout and untouched side plate of

related to truthfulness in expression. It is his feeling that



many instances of the pathetic fallacy are introduced to ex-

time maintains a critical distance towards them. Like the

press strong feelings but end up sounding trite, formulaic,

ironist we must maintain our awareness of the fact that what

and contrived in their symbolism. Ruskin feels that poetry

meanings we perceive are projected by us. This is one of the

that indulges in the pathetic fallacy is often hypocritical

things that makes fiction work: we know that the events seen

about the feelings it purports to express. Such poetry does so

in a film, acted out on a stage, or described in a novel are

much hard work looking for interesting images to use that

not actual events, but that does not stop us from becoming

it loses sight of the actual emotion or feeling that needs to

involved with them, crying about them, laughing with them,

be expressed, which ultimately leads to poetic posturing. In

or being upset by them. In other words, if the world is the

this sense the pathetic fallacy ‘is a sign of the incapacity of

projection of our meanings, then the world will certainly be

[the poet’s] human sight or thought to bear what has been

pathetic to our experience (which is not exactly the same as

revealed to it’ (o.c. 373).

our perception of it). And as Simon Shama has shown in his

But we need not accept Ruskin’s severe criticism of the

remarkable book on Landscape and Memory (1995), even the

pathetic fallacy. In fact, it is probably not a fallacy at all. Re-

natural world has ceased to be merely natural but now bears

membering arguments from Marx and Scarry we might sug-

traces of human meanings, even at the heart of supposedly

gest that Ruskin has a wrong take on the pathetic fallacy: he

primeval forests. There is really nothing on this planet un-

identifies the phenomenon but fails to see its true import. In

touched by human hand. So there is nothing void of mean-

reality, people do not, as a rule, misperceive reality in such a

ing. And hence the entire world may appear to us as pathetic.

way that they think all kinds of feelings are actually present

Of course, projected meanings are not limited to practical

in objects. We are very much aware of the fact that we project

interventions. A deforested area clearly bears the stamp of

such feelings and meanings onto these objects. But once they

human meaning, as does a freeway, a skyscraper, or an air-

have been projected, it is very difficult to withdraw them and

plane. But meanings also include symbols and the metaphors

pretend they are not there. In this sense, artists who commit

of myth and religion. They even include a child’s habit of

the pathetic fallacy are really being responsive to the way

seeing the inanimate world as animate, as when they con-

the human world is structured. All meanings are projections,

verse with dolls (or imaginary friends) as if they were actual

and without such projection there simply is no human world

people. If the human world is thus alive with meanings, we

to speak of. If the whole of the human world is the world of

come very near an animistic concept of the world. And that,

human meanings, and if all such meanings are projected by

I believe, is the beauty of our “Marxist-phenomenological”

us upon the world, then it would be quite inhuman to see

approach of meaning: our discussion of Marx, Scarry, and,

(or want to see) the world without such meanings in it. In

of course, Langer allows us to envisage a re-enchantment of

this sense, we really must become a little like Richard Rorty’s

the world without seeking recourse to the esoteric, airy-fairy

ironist, who is attached to his convictions but at the same

nonsense that this often entails. In fact, the re-enchantment



that lies before us is really thoroughly realistic. It is grounded

explain this we must deal with Ruskin in relation to the work

in cold hard facts about the world. It relies on our organic

of the Pre-Raphaelites. Ruskin is often portrayed as their

link to the organisms around us. It relies on our biological

great advocate and we must briefly investigate how this came

nature and on our ability to generate meanings, which are

about. In his history of the Pre-Raphaelite movement Timo-

then projected onto the world. It relies, in fact, on our ability

thy Hilton claims that with Ruskin, ‘natural history was to

for imagination, which is not something esoteric but a matter

become natural art history’ because Ruskin had a firm belief

of neurology. The re-enchantment we have been developing

in ‘the ability of man to reproduce and interpret the world

does not mean we submit to New Age fashions; nor does it

through pictorial art’ (Hilton 1970: 11). As is well known,

entail any kind of belief in gods, spirits, or other supernatural

Ruskin valued representational fidelity in art more than

beings; it is simply to accept that meaning and (of course)

anything else. He could easily be claimed as a forerunner of

beauty are wherever we may find them. We can embrace

photorealism in painting. But we should be cautious, because

meaning and beauty in the world and accept them as part

Ruskin’s adherence to realistic representation was linked

of reality because reality, and especially reality’s value and

both to his religious beliefs and to his very specific concept of

meaning, are our own creations. To dismiss projection is to

Truth. Ruskin’s religious fervour can be glimpsed in several

dismiss human nature. The meanings and feelings we find in

passages in Modern Painters, for example when he writes that

the external world are not put there by some superior force;

‘true criticism of art never can consist in the mere applica-

it is we who put them there and they are ours to enjoy as

tion of rules; it can be just only when it is founded on quick

reflections of ourselves. And as reflections, they offer insight

sympathy with the innumerable instincts and changeful ef-

(an idea, I imagine, that would not have been foreign to No-

forts of human nature, chastened and guided by unchanging

valis). There is no magic here, no mysticism, and no esoteric

love of all things that God has created to be beautiful, and

belief. This is simply what being human is about.

pronounced to be good’ (Ruskin 2000: 310). Ruskin quite simply believed that all of creation was beautiful and deserved

Having the World

to be scrutinised with aesthetic generosity because it was the

So let us have the world. Let us see its manifold beauty and

creation of a benevolent God. Empirical science, for Ruskin,

revel in it. In the following sections of this chapter we shall

was simply the way to read the book of creation most faith-

embrace this world of plenty through the work of several

fully. ‘Rocks, stones, and water, winds and clouds, leaves and

outstanding artists who will provide us with new insights

grasses and flowers,’ Hilton writes, ‘all these, the various ma-

in our own nature as beings of meaning. But first we must

terials of the natural world, came under an intensely empiri-

redress an injustice, for the previous section might very well

cal scrutiny. [...] He recorded, analysed, and classified, and did

have given the reader the impression that John Ruskin was

so, ultimately, to glorify’ (Hilton 1970: 13).

immune to beauty. In reality, he was quite the opposite. To

Against such a religious background it is obvious that faithful



pictorial representation was never simply about disinterested

great artist to faithfully represent both. This means that the

science. Ruskin was an expert draughtsman of great sensi-

visual artist must be able to faithfully express spiritual truths

tivity, but he ‘is not interested in making pictures; he hardly

with the means of material truth that painting offers him.

ever framed and hung his own work. He never alters what he

This means that the artist must be able to see and represent

sees in front of him and he hardly ever draws from memory.

the deeper meaning of the natural elements that he is rep-

He is concerned only with the precise recording of natural

resenting. In his discussion of Truth, Ruskin makes several

appearances. And yet he is not dispassionate, for everything

claims that put him in an interesting proximity to Susanne K.

he draws seems now to proclaim that he has indeed exam-

Langer. For example, Ruskin writes that ‘Truth may be stated

ined the natural world with the eyes of love’ (o.c. 17). For

by any signs or symbols which have a definite signification

Ruskin, faithfully recording natural appearances is only the

in the minds of those to whom they are addressed, although

beginning of a great artist’s work. Young artists should only

such signs be themselves no image nor likeness of anything.

draw from nature, but as they mature, they should use their

Whatever can excite in the mind the conception of certain

ability to reproduce nature faithfully to paint images that

facts, can give ideas of truth, though it be in no degree the

express what Ruskin called great ideas. As Ruskin explains

imitation or resemblance of those facts’ (ibid.). This, by and

at the beginning of Modern Painters, painting, but by exten-

large, is a theory of metaphor and could be put alongside

sion all art, ‘is nothing but a noble and expressive language’

Langer’s claim that anything can become expressive of an

(Ruskin 2000: 49). To draw faithfully from nature is to master

idea of feeling if it is expressively included in the fabric of a

that language; but it is not the language that matters in the

work of art.

end, but rather the ideas that are expressed through its use.

Ruskin’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites came about

‘It is not by the mode of representing and saying, but by what

somewhat by chance when Coventry Patmore prevailed upon

is represented and said, that the respective greatness either

the critic to write something in defence of the much-reviled

of the painter or the writer is to be finally determined’ (ibid.).

Brotherhood. In response, Ruskin wrote a letter to The Times

To explain this, it is important to understand the two differ-

which is usually taken to be a turning point in the Brother-

ent meanings that Ruskin attached to the word Truth. ‘Truth,’

hood’s fortunes. Initially, however, Ruskin was not overly

he proclaims, ‘signifies the faithful statement, either to the

enthusiastic about the Brotherhood, writing that he had ‘only

mind or senses, of any fact of nature’ (o.c. 56). But Truth is not

a very imperfect sympathy with them’ (Hilton 1970: 66). But

the same as imitation; imitation is but a small part of it. ‘Imi-

he did very much approve of their naturalism and attention

tation can only be of something material, but truth has refer-

to representational detail. This would lead, eventually, to a

ence to statements both of the qualities of material things,

very close involvement with the movement and especially

and of emotions, impressions, and thoughts. There is a moral

with John Everett Millais, who would rob Ruskin of a wife.

as well as a material truth’ (ibid.) and it is the business of the

Like Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites felt that art after Raphael



had degenerated into mannerisms and they wanted to return

see if suddenly gifted with sight’ (o.c. 135). The innocent eye is a

to the purity of early Renaissance painting. When Pre-Rapha-

way of looking that is free from preconceptions and therefore

elite art was first exhibited in 1849 and 1850, critics were very

receptive to the manifold wonders of the world. This may

dismissive. Two elements in the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic

sound rather excessively Romantic, but the experience of

were found especially unappealing. First, the critics rejected

the innocent eye is still available to us. In fact, Elaine Scarry

the Pre-Raphaelite habit of painting the entire canvas in great

introduces something quite like it when she discusses what

detail. Second, they objected to the fact that everything in

she calls errors in beauty. An error in beauty occurs when

the paintings was bathed in equal light, so that there was no

we claim that something is beautiful when it is not, or claim

visual focus. There was no point of interest that was liter-

that something is not beautiful when it actually is. We be-

ally highlighted by being surrounded with a glow or by being

come aware of the error when we are suddenly struck by the

painted in more detail than the murkier surroundings. In

insight that our judgement was wrong: the beautiful thing

fact, the Pre-Raphaelites painted like a camera would make

is suddenly revealed to be ugly, or what was considered not

a picture: even the smallest and most insignificant detail will

beautiful at all is suddenly revealed to be beautiful after all.

still come out sharp because the camera has a disinterested

Scarry offers an example from her own life: ‘I had ruled out

mechanical eye. It simply and democratically registers every-

palm trees as objects of beauty and then one day discovered

thing and anything that is reflected through its lense in equal

I had made a mistake’ (BBJ 12). The mistake dawned on her

measure of clarity and sharpness. The fully detailed picture

when she was suddenly confronted with the swaying leaves

and the evenness of light were the signature traits of Pre-

of a palm tree next to the balcony of her hotel room. The

Raphaelite painting. And they were exactly what critics ob-

revelation of the beauty of an object previously deemed not

jected to. But the obvious answer to this objection, which was

beautiful is disconcerting and overwhelming because ‘a beau-

given by Ruskin in their defence, ‘was that their system of

tiful object is suddenly present, not because a new object

lighting was that of the sun. The sun illuminates everything,

has entered the sensory horizon bringing its beauty with it

and they painted what they saw’ (o.c. 57).

[...] but because an object, already within the horizon, has its

But in order to paint what one sees, one must look and know

beauty, like late luggage, suddenly placed in your hands’ (BBJ

how to look. In a public lecture at the opening of the Cam-

16). What is especially interesting is that the revelation of the

bridge School of Art, where he would teach drawing classes

error in beauty is almost always linked to a particular experi-

for the working classes, Ruskin explained that the artist

ence. ‘When I used to say the sentence (softly and to myself)

must be taught Sight. Attempting to explain what he meant,

“I hate palms” or “Palms are not beautiful; possibly they are

Ruskin said that ‘the whole technical power of painting de-

not even trees,” it was a composite palm that I had somehow

pends on the recovery of what may be called the innocence of

succeeded in making without even ever having seen, close

the eye... a sort of childish perception... as a blind man would

up, many particular instances. Conversely, when I now say,



“Palms are beautiful,” or “I love palms,” it is really individual

feeling onto the world. This obviously brings us back to the

palms that I have in mind” (BBJ 19).

main theme of the present book: all meaning, all expressive-

What Scarry illustrates here, is that ‘beauty always takes

ness, and hence all beauty, are created by man. ‘Indeed,’ Read

place in the particular’ (BBJ 18), a point also stressed by Kant.

continues, ‘the primacy of feeling is the bracket in which we

Composite ideas, and by extension idealised concepts of a

can include the whole romantic movement’ (ibid.).

class of things, can mislead us into formulating erroneous

Let us retrace our steps before we open up this discussion to

aesthetic (but obviously also ethical or moral) judgements

introduce a host of beautiful works of art. It all starts with

about these objects. Beauty is particular and it is always an

careful attention to the world, which leads us to a feeling of

individual object or experience that alerts one to the beauty

beauty. This sense of beauty may prompt us to copy the world

of an object or a class of objects. So if any conclusion can be

in a work of art, but it may also (and simultaneously) prompt

drawn from Scarry’s palms, then it surely is that we must

us to project values and feelings onto the object. In fact, find-

be alive to the world and always exercise a generosity of

ing beauty and projecting meaning are really two sides of a

perception while moving through it. As a rule, everything is

constantly revolving coin. This is what Ruskin would call the

beautiful until proved ugly. Scarry writes that falsely reject-

pathetic fallacy. But as was pointed out before, we are usually

ing objects as not beautiful is an error ‘on the side of a failed

aware of the fact that such meanings and feelings are merely

generosity’ (BBJ 14) and that this error is much graver than

projected. They will surely prompt us, as Scarry claimed, to

claiming beauty for something that turns out to not be beau-

care for the world, but we will not as a rule forget that we

tiful after all; in the second case, one had been overly gener-

are the creators of the world’s beauty. I believe that this is an

ous, which one can never really seriously be. This attitude

important insight for contemporary art, for we have a great

was also expressed by Constable, who once said that ‘there is

number of artists working today who make works that show

nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: for let the

how commonplace objects can reveal deeper meanings. This

form of an object be what it may, light, shade, and perspec-

I believe to be the real transfiguration of the commonplace

tive will always make it beautiful’. But Herbert Read, who

at work in contemporary art: it is not the attachment of criti-

uses this quote in The Philosophy of Modern Art (1952), warns

cal meanings to objects in the way that Danto describes but

us that we should not take this claim at face value because

rather the ability to see beauty in the commonplace because

Constable ‘is making an ethical judgement. It is not light,

the commonplace is infused with meanings and feelings

shade, and perspective which in themselves transform or-

that matter to us. Commonplace objects are today being seen

dinary or even ugly objects into works of art; they are rather

again as what they really are: carriers of meaning. It is one of

transformed by the artist’s feeling’ (Read 1952: 79). So beauty

Marx’s great achievements as a philosopher that he was very

(for I believe it would be better to substitute beauty for art in

keenly aware of this capacity of objects to embody the hu-

Read’s statement) is the effect of a projection of the artist’s

man world. And it is a capacity that is being exploited to the


full in the works of a number of important contemporary art-

ing is the mother of all the visual arts: it always comes first.

ists. Several of these will take the limelight in the following

Along with dancing, singing, and writing it is the art form

sections, notably Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Derek Jarman,

that requires the least instruments and the least financial

and Wolfgang Tillmans; but our discussion of their work will

investment: almost anyone can do it almost anywhere. The

in turn prompt us to look at other, equally wonderful bodies

hand, as Marx and Scarry would remind us, is our primary

of work. These discussions are meant to further illuminate

tool to explore, alter, and copy the world. If children with a

our philosophical claims, although I hope the reader will also

talent for the visual arts start making creative works, drawing

enjoy them as a kind of indulgence (we are, after all, dealing

is often the first thing they do. But even in the developed arts,

with beauty, not long division).

the drawing often comes first. There is little sculpture without a preliminary sketch, there is no building built without



a previous drawing being made, and few figurative paintings

If the eye sees something that is beautiful, the hand wants

are ever painted without a preliminary pencil sketch. Even

to draw it. What better place to start this extended stroll

artists who seek release from form and work in an abstract

through a gallery of beautiful things? But beauty, as we recall,

manner must first master form before they can deconstruct

is expressiveness. And expressive is that which has a form

it. It will not do to simply apply paint randomly to a surface.

evocative of life entirely felt. Beauty is living form. But beauty

To undermine form in a relevant way, one must know it in-

is not only found in art, it is also alive in the everyday world

timately, and many of the great abstract painters or ravish-

and in nature. And for us, human beings, the greatest seat of

ers of classical form were expert draughtsmen themselves,

beauty has always been the human body itself. What form

whether they were Picasso or Andy Warhol.

could be more expressive of life than the vital human body

There is great artistic honesty in the drawing. It provides no

in all its splendour? Whether it is the beautiful youth who

refuge for the mediocre artist. We live in a society that likes

guides Plato to the realm of Ideas or the youth who steps

to think that everything can be taught and that everything

forth as William Blake’s vision of Albion, whether it is Sally

is socially constructed, but it is not. No amount of schooling

Mann’s sensual eye cast upon her children or Courbet’s rivet-

will turn someone with no or only middling talent for draw-

ing portrait of the origin of the world, art never ceases to sing

ing into the next Michelangelo. When pencil and paper are all

the body electric, representing it again and again in its many

there is, the artist cannot hide. No amount of precious theo-

vital manifestations. It is the body beautiful that we most

rising can erase the blemish of a bad drawing. No amount of

revel in. And the medium that is most ready to hand to ex-

theory can convince us that what looks bad on paper is in

press this beauty in art is the human hand. To have the hand

fact a great work of art. Similarly, the fact that no critical or

draw the beautiful body is an amazingly intimate and exhila-

theoretical meanings can be found in a stunningly successful

rating experience. But this should not surprise us since draw-

drawing will never dissuade us from valuing that drawing as



a wonderful work of art. With drawing you can either do it,

can do what a painting or drawing does. Since a painting or a

or you cannot (in fact, David Hockney has argued that paint-

drawing is always the result of a search, it incorporates many

ing in watercolours requires even greater skill, because no

different moments of looking at the model. Many artists have

mark can be erased; Weschler 2008: 197). Nothing can undo

started to use photographs as source material for their paint-

the immediate effect that good draughtsmanship has on the

ings. And, conversely, photographers have started organising

viewer. But to draw is also an extremely intimate experience.

their portraits like paintings, either modelling their subjects

When the draughtsman puts pencil to paper to draw a beau-

in a specific way or putting them in carefully organised set-

tiful body from life, his hand is following the lines of the body

tings, or simply altering the image afterwards by manipulat-

to repeat them on paper. Drawing is a form of touching: it is

ing the image or, in the case of digital photography, by using

to caress from afar. The eye must sound the depths of every

computer technology to alter the original image or bring

blemish of the body, it must stroke every curve, feel the run

elements from several images together in a new composite

of every line, unfold every fold, and gauge the weight of ev-

image. Either way, whether one paints, draws, or photographs

ery mass. To draw a body is to get to know it intimately. The

a subject, the result will only ever be successful if the art-

draughtman’s primary virtue is attentiveness. He must be

ist succeeds in capturing what Francis Bacon has called a

attentive to the body, both in the sense that he must pay the

person’s emanation or energy. And there are ways in which

closest possible attention to its every detail and in the reli-

drawings or paintings can do this that are not readily avail-

gious sense of Andacht, which approaches the object observed

able to the photographer, and vice versa.

with respectful reservation. To draw is to engage in a profane form of worship.

Body Doubles

As photography became more and more widespread in the

But the doubling of subjects can become especially interest-

nineteenth century, it was widely felt that this new technol-

ing if it does not stop at mere doubling but multiplies the

ogy endangered the art of painting. Photographs could ac-

doubles. This is what the American artist Anthony Goicolea

complish in mere seconds what it took painters much longer

has been doing in his photographs. Goicolea creates bizarre

to do. If painters had spent centuries painting likenesses of

and surrealistic images that are peopled with identical look-

people, their services suddenly seemed to become obsolete

ing boys and girls that seem to have been cloned from one

in view of the photograph’s ability to really capture the mo-

source specimen. This source specimen is the artist himself.

ment. As we know, the advent of photography was one of

In his work, Goicolea is constantly doubling his own image,

the factors that motivated Modernism in its turn away from

but in manipulated and altered ways. In Porn (2000) a bunch

representational art. But in the long run, photography has

of randy teenage Goicolea lookalikes are gorging themselves

not been the undoing of painting or drawing. No photograph,

on junk food while gaping at a porn video. In Premature (2002)

no matter how realistically representational of its subject,

they are having a collective wank as spilt milk drips from



their hands and onto the floor as if it were sperm. Parochial

these images also evoke a context that lies further back in

(2000) takes us into the dorm of an exclusive Catholic school

time. In Greek mythology there is talk of a very early period

where the boys are defiling the host, the cross, and a bottle

that is called the Golden Age (Kirk 1974: 132-136). Sources

of holy water. In Stigmata (2000) Goicolea has organised three

are unclear about how we should imagine this period, but

of his clones in a mock version of Titian’s Ascension with a

it was clearly a paradisaical period when the land bore fruit

boy clad in candy-coloured sportswear ecstatically casting

without the need for tilling. It was an age of purity, which is

his eyes to heaven while stigmata bleed from his hands.

expressed through ‘parthogenesis, just as Christian salvation

Sanitary towels and tampons lie about in abundance as if

later imagines beginnings in immaculate conception and

they are meant to stop the bleeding. To the side of the image,

virgin birth: flowers blossom sine semine, without seed, with-

a Goicolea clone is taking a shower in a position that seems

out semen, without sexual congress, emissions, and organs’

reminiscent of either the immaculate conception or, more

(Warner 2002: 62). Goicolea has also evoked such a garden

likely, Zeus entering Danaë in a shower of golden rain. Most

of delight in a series of photographs. Cherry Island (2002) is a

of Goicolea’s images are critiques of the American capital-

pleasure garden filled with birds of paradise; until, looking a

ist system, but they are highly ironic and seem to have been

second time, one notices that these gorgeous creatures are

orchestrated by the producers of gay porn films, revelling in

birds of less lofty plumage: peacocks, ducks, pigeons, and

assorted Adidasboys and Scally Lads. Offering up his own

even rabbits people this landscape which, it now also tran-

body as an endlessly repeated altar for our horny libations

spires, is ironically furnished with white plastic garden furni-

Goicolea practices Creation Through Masturbation, which is

ture. Similarly, the idyllic Nesting (2002) shows us the cabin of

a deliciously new way of playing with one’s self. He wanks

a postmodern family Robinson, living among colourful flow-

in the house of mirrors and we are all invited to look on and

ers that have been draped with toilet paper. By peopling his

share in the rubbings.

pictures with clones of himself, Goicolea obviously invokes

Goicolea’s photographs are obviously reminiscent of Fernand

parthogenesis, but in many of his pictures he takes this pro-

Khnopff’s Symbolist paintings in which the ghost-like figure

cess one step further and also reproduces himself as a series

of his sister Marguerite appears simultaneously as several

of girls. In Pregnant (2001) sexual dimorphism is complete:

figures within one image. Similar clones can be seen in the

sporting white socks and a sleaveless undershirt to accentu-

work of Edward Burne-Jones, either in the knights tied to The

ate his smoothly shaved prick, Goicolea looks like the ulti-

Wheel of Fortune (1883) or in the endless row of musical ladies

mate ephebophile’s pin-up; except for his very pregnant belly.

descending The Golden Stairs (1880). Camille Paglia has called

Goicolea’s pictures are luscious, sensual, ironic, narcissistic,

this kind of self-replenishing imagery “allegorical repletion”

and shamelessly sexy. His is truly a world that is constantly

or ‘the filling up of fictive space with a single identity appear-

self-replenishing and self-regenerating. In the video Nail Biter

ing simultaneously in different forms’ (Paglia 1991: 447). But

(2002) he sits up in his bed, anxiously biting his nails which



seem to grow back instantly until a revolting stream of saliva,

ning L’homme blessé (1983). Next, he showed us the plague-rid-

sticky with masses of bitten nails, drips from his chin onto

den flesh of La reine Margot (1994) and proceeded to Intimacy

the bedclothes. Linked to such fantasies of the self-regen-

(2000), a film about sex without love, and Son Frère (2002),

erating body are the revolutions in gender-bending body-

which displays the frail body invaded by a mysterious dis-

alteration that new developments in medicine have made

ease. The latter film contains a concussively unsettling scene

possible. Orlan’s auto-mutilation through surgery is no longer

in which the protagonist’s naked body is entirely shaved in

the limit of physical metamorphosis in art. Modern surgery

preparation for surgery. The procedure is shown matter-of-

allows the genders to blend together and come apart again.

factly in real time and is almost unbearable to watch. Other

For instance, the porn performer Buck Angel is a hunky, bald-

filmmakers have followed down this path of explicit carnal

headed, and tattooed truck driver who used to be a woman.

imagery, but not always with comparable artistic success.

But he has kept his vagina. Questions of whether his work as

Cathérine Breillat usually casts a cold analytical eye on the

a performer should be labelled gay, straight, or bisexual seem

naked body, most violently in the disturbing À ma soeur

rather beside the point, especially since Buck will bed it all.

(2001). Ulrich Seidl is relentlessly humanist in his disclosures

Sexuality has become polymorphous again. In fact, auto-mu-

of the flesh, particularly in the harsh light he shines on the

tation without a genetic trigger, which is basically what such

inflated fleshy ego of degenerated bourgeois in Hundstage

gender-bending surgery accomplishes, is not even neces-

(2001) and in the unflinching way he confronts us with the

sarily linked to questions of sexual identity anymore. Singer

marginalised body in Tierische Liebe (1995), a stylised docu-

and performance artist Genesis P-Orridge has submitted to

mentary about people and the intimacies they share with

surgery which is meant to make him look like his wife, Jaye

their pets, and Import/Export (2007), his harrowing account

Breyer, whom he married in 1995. P-Orridge is not a transsex-

of the human body as trafficable commodity in contempo-

ual. His desire to change his body to incorporate elements of

rary Europe. Other notable films dealing with the body in its

the opposite sex is triggered by an ideological desire to erase

frail beauty are Sébastien Lifshitz’s melancholy and moving

the boundaries of gender, bring the sexes together within one

Presque rien (2000), the same director’s sensitive exploration

body and hence do away with the politics of sexual oppres-

of transgender bodies in Wild Side (2004), or Jean-Marc Barr’s

sion and objectification that still taint our culture.

bizarre but intensely erotic Too Much Flesh (2000), which is a film about the fuss about foreskin (it is also a film about

Pictures Imperfect

Barr’s own body, which, given Barr’s body, is entirely justifi-

Let us dwell somewhat longer on the human body. In con-

able narcissism).

temporary cinema it has become a primary site of visual

What is striking about all of these films, compared to Goico-

interest. The work of Patrice Chéreau is a wonderful example.

lea’s playfulness, is the fact that the display of the human

The director first made us feel masochistic flesh in the stun-

body is rarely simply about sensuality. The body is shown as



frail, in pain, diseased, restrained, or hysterical. It is rarely

our own body. This makes us uneasy. The unease is born from

simply erotic. One might well wonder why these filmmakers

the sudden awareness that internal processes might elude

feel they have not adequately expressed their characters’ un-

our control at any time. It takes shockingly little to make the

ease and suffering unless they have shown it inscribed in the

body break, not just literally in the sense of physically break-

characters’ flesh. Why does the body’s surface become the

ing its limbs or back, but also figuratively in the sense that

mirror of the soul and its ailments? Why must the body’s fail-

our intestines and bodily fluids can escape our control at any

ing be shown in such unsettlingly explicit detail? The answer

time and confront us with our debilitating and humiliating

to this question was at least partly given in our earlier dis-

dependency upon the imperfect organic machinery of that

cussion of voyeurism. What is read upon the body contains

soiled interior. What scares us the most is the possibility that

the stuff of truth. The abject body, the body overcome by it-

the inside might come out; that pain or illness might literally

self, is a body surrendered. To show the body in explicit detail

tear us inside out, ripping our body apart with the horrors of

is a mark of authenticity, even in a work of fiction. By con-

vomiting, diarrhoea, and uncontrollable bloodshed through

fronting us with the naked truth about our physical body and

any and every orifice. The body is a vessel, neat and tidy like

its failings these films confront us with our shared humanity.

a Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can. But as Wayne

In this respect the bodies they display are comparable to the

Koestenbaum pointed out, inside the can there is the chaos

Andachtsbild in religious art: they are not in the first place

of half-digested foodstuffs. Wanting to keep the lid firmly

objects for the erotic gaze (although they can become that)

shut, we are shocked and upset by films that open up the

but objects for contemplation. This is most clear when the

body physical to our gaze.

body is taken to extremes of suffering because this often also

But the flesh can also be the parchment on which the po-

requires the actor playing the part to submit his own body

etry of our solitude and psychological distress is written.

to punishing alterations. We have already mentioned Chris-

Chéreau’s Intimacy and the series of novellas by Hanif Kurei-

tian Bale’s shocking transformation in The Machinist (2001). A

shi on which it is based offer a fine example of this. Kureishi’s

similar unsettling confrontation with the body takes place in

novella Intimacy (1998) is a relentlessly tender account of the

Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (2008), which is ostensibly about

night in which fortysomething Jay decides to leave his wife

a hunger strike by a group of IRA activists in a British prison

and child. The themes of the novella are further developed in

but which is really an attempt to show us the way the suffer-

a series of associated short stories, as if Kureishi were explor-

ing body comes undone. By taking us into close proximity to

ing the same theme from different angles. All the characters

the frail body of its protagonist (Michael Fassbaender), Hunger

in these stories lack a sense of fulfilment. According to the

traps the viewer in a pavlovian commitment to its subject.

story Nightlight (1997) they are ‘on the move from wife to wife,

Watching the painful torture and undoing of the body on the

husband to husband, lover to lover. A city of love vampires,

screen makes us acutely aware of similar processes inside

turning from person to person, hunting the one who will



make the difference’ (o.c. 101). The nameless male protago-

reason the sex scenes are unusual is that we rehearsed them

nist of this story seeks solace in weekly Wednesday meetings

in the same way as dialogue scenes.’ For him, ‘the point was

with an anonymous woman in his basement flat. They do

not to show something in particular, but also not to hide

not talk, they have sex, she leaves. ‘He dismisses the idea of

anything. [...] The actors didn’t improvise in these scenes:

speaking, because he can’t take any more disappointment.

each gesture was discussed and they knew exactly where

Nothing must disturb their perfect evenings’ (ibid.). Anony-

the camera was – a matter of respect – so they could hide

mous lust is safe: ‘desiring other women kept me from the

parts of their bodies if they wanted to’ (Falcon 2001: 24). So

exposure and susceptibility of loving just the one. There are

the revelation of the body and its intimate secrets is staged

perils in deep knowledge’ (o.c. 12-13). But carnal knowledge,

in the film. Even though the actors are naked, it is not their

displaying and caressing the intimacies of the flesh, inadver-

nakedness that we see but their characters’ nakedness. This

tently becomes deep knowledge, especially when the ritual

might sound like a facile denial of the actor’s nudity, but it is

is repeated and the body becomes familiar. ‘After a certain

nevertheless an important distinction to make. Just like the

age sex can never be casual. I couldn’t ask for so little. To lay

body in dance, the naked body in film is engaged in creating

your hand on another’s body, or to put your mouth against

living form. It is part of a greater whole, which is the living

another’s – what a commitment that is! To choose someone

symbol of the film. The paradoxical fact that it is not really

is to uncover a whole life. And it is to invite them to uncover

the actors we are watching is in fact often suggested by our

you!’ (o.c. 13)

response to a film. It is very difficult to watch Intimacy as a

This commitment is tied to the fact that the naked body is a

porn film. Although the sex in the film is real and explicit, it

story that involuntarily reveals itself. You cannot have carnal

never addresses us on an exclusively or even primarily sexual

knowledge of another body without being intimate with it.

level. Although explicit, the film’s sex scenes do not turn us

This is the shattering lesson learned by Kureishi’s characters.

on. This is because the naked bodies are vehicles of expres-

But to translate this insight to the screen for the film Intimacy

sion. To use an old distinction: the actors are nude to express

the involuntary revelation of the body had to be undone. Pre-

nakedness. What we see is the characters’ nakedness, not the

paring the film, Kureishi and Chéreau ‘talked about bodies,

actors’. The actors are nude rather than naked because their

about death and decay; about Lucian Freud and Bacon, and

bodies are covered by the form of expression, the fact that

the hyper-realism of some recent photography. [...] We talked

the nakedness they are expressing is not their own.

about what bodies do and what they tell us’ (o.c. xiii). And

Issues of the body as expressive in its nudity are very im-

it very soon became clear that mere exposure of the actors’

portant in contemporary photography. This is especially the

bodies would not do as a means of expressing the characters’

case in the work of the photographers that make up the so-

distress. To attain expressiveness in the film the explicit sex

called “Boston School”. The central figure in this group, who

scenes had to be choreographed. Chéreau explains that ‘the

were also personal friends, is Nan Goldin. The group further



includes David Armstrong, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson, and

a small blot, a little cut’ (Bathes 1980: 49). It unsettles the

Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Especially the work of Goldin, Morris-

studium because it is unintended, unexpected, and yet sud-

roe, and Pierson seems to be focused on a generous respon-

denly all-important, to the point of becoming, for the viewer,

siveness to people and to the world. But to understand the

the very reason why he or she feels drawn to the photograph.

formal ways in which they create works of emotional inten-

Obviously, this means that the punctum, unlike the studium, is

sity and beauty we must look at Roland Barthes’ beautiful

often intensely personal. It is something that seems to come

book on photography, La chambre claire (1980), where Barthes

out of the picture itself, and yet it is very much something

makes a famous distinction between studium and punctum in

that only becomes visible in the picture through the gaze of a

photography. The studium, as the word itself implies, is about

specific person.

the photographer’s intentions in making a photograph. It is

In many cases the punctum is the real reason why we like a

what he or she wants to show us. The enjoyment derived

photograph. It could be argued that many of the classicis-

from appreciating a photograph’s studium is intellectual or

ing nudes of, say, Herbert List, George Platt-Lines, or Robert

academic: it is about “getting” the message and reading all

Mapplethorpe are very successful in an academic sense but

the signs correctly. As Margaret Iversen explains, ‘a photo-

not very exciting in a sensual way. It would be interesting to

graph with only a studium stays put within the confines of

ask oneself, while perusing their work, whether we like the

the picture – its coherence is entirely internal. In contrast, the

pictures we especially like because they are better than the

punctum breaks up that coherence bursting through the frame

others stylistically (because of their studium) or because we

and plane’ (Iversen 1994: 456). The punctum shatters the well-

are personally more attracted to the body or the face of the

organised surface (or discourse) of the picture. It disturbs the

men who are portrayed. The same question seems relevant to

photograph’s coherence because it is an element in the pho-

all erotic art: do we like an image because it is a good image

tograph that was not meant to be there, but it is there never-

or because we find the bodies in it attractive? And hot on the

theless and suddenly draws all our attention to it. The punc-

heels of this question should come another question, namely

tum can be many things. In a photograph that is a portrait of

whether liking an image because the bodies in it are attrac-

a sports team our attention can be drawn by a figure in the

tive is not at least part of the point of erotic art. In any case,

background; and suddenly the picture becomes all about that

it is clear that punctum will often play a large part in deciding

person and not about the team. It can be a detail in clothing,

whether we like an image; and it is certainly instrumental in

a fascinating element in a body, something taking place in

deciding whether we will become obsessed with a certain im-

the background; in fact, it can be anything that grasps our at-

age. The most powerful images in our experience are usually

tention but that was not meant to be part of the photograph’s

not experienced as powerful on the strength of their studium

studium or subject when the photographer made the picture.

alone. This means that it can be to the benefit of a photog-

In this sense, says Barthes, punctum is ‘a prick, a puncture,

rapher to have a punctum-effect in photography. This would



mean, in a very general way, that a photographer might at-

137). Goldin’s attitude was profoundly influenced by the New

tempt to consciously introduce elements in his or her work

York underground scene of the 1960s, and especially Warhol’s

that have a considerable chance of being experienced as a

Factory with its glamorous transvestites, and the work of

kind of punctum. In this way, and somewhat perversely, punc-

Larry Clark. ‘I was documenting my life,’ Goldin explains. ‘The

tum would become part of the studium, something one at-

only person who was documenting his own experience was

tempts to achieve. To be sure, this is not a simple thing to do

Larry Clark. His work gave me some sense of a precedent’

and is often a good recipe for certain failure: by wanting the

(ibid.). The basis of Goldin’s work is therefore the snapshot,

punctum too much, the photograph might very well end up

‘the form of photography that is most defined by love’ (o.c.

looking contrived.

450) because it captures an intimate moment in an image. For

But there is a way around this problem. The solution might

Goldin, ‘it’s not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of

be to engage in a kind of photography that is essentially

touching somebody – it’s a caress. I’m looking with a warm

about the kinds of themes and motifs that are intimately as-

eye, not a cold eye’ (o.c. 452).

sociated with punctum. This would mean a very personal and

Making a photograph of the human body, then, need not be

intimate kind of photography that would be related to the di-

about “objectification” at all. In fact, Goldin claims that ‘it’s

ary format in literature. The “Boston School” to a large extent

about trying to feel what another person is feeling. There’s a

fits such an approach of photography, although they were not

glass wall between people, and I want to break it’ (o.c. 448).

the first photographers to attempt it. It could be argued that

But to attain such intimacy in a photographic image it is of-

the invention of “street photography” in the 1960s (which we

ten not sufficient to simply record the intimate. Creating the

discussed in Chapter Two) set the tone for images that were

punctum, not as a willed detail in an image but as the overall

not academically perfect and that actively sought out themes

feel of a body of photographic work, often involves consider-

and motifs that related to the casual, the incidental, the per-

able skill and craft. This becomes especially clear in the work

sonal, and the individual. One of the first artists to actively

of Mark Morrisroe (1959-1989). Where Goldin’s photographs

turn the diary-like photography of his life and the life of his

often have the feel of the documentary approach, including

friends into photographic art was Larry Clark, notably in his

the fact that she often works in series and has produced an

book Tulsa (1971). A similar approach, but much less focused

immense amount of images for semi-narrative books like

on the seamy side of life, is to be found in the underrated

The Devil’s Playground (2003), Morrisroe’s works is much more

work of Will McBride. As Nan Goldin explains, ‘when I started

obviously technically manipulated. Jack Pierson once claimed

photographing seriously in ’71, ’72, ’73, art photography was

that ‘Mark’s work is like Caspar David Friedrich in a donut

basically rocks and trees and perfect printing and, right from

shop’ (Heinrich 1998: 109), a claim that goes some way to

the beginning, David [Armstrong] and I were the dust-and-

describing the texture of Morrisroe’s work. Morrisroe’s photo-

scratch school. We only cared about content’ (Goldin 1996:

graphs often look grainy and sensual. They seem to have the



texture of oil painting. To achieve this effect, the artist would

simply express or record intimate occasions. In order for it to

use two negatives, one in colour and one in black and white,

be art, it must be processed into an object given for our aes-

put one on top of the other and then print the image. He

thetic consideration; something more than a page torn from

would further add all kinds of blemishes and errors, such as

a diary. Jack Pierson, for example, also achieves a very intense

scratches and fingerprints, to enhance a sense of found pho-

overall punctum in his work, but in contrast to Goldin and

tography, as if these grainy, slightly discoloured images had

Morrisroe he achieves it through a form of hightened reality.

only recently been retrieved from someone’s attic: relics from

He emphasises the momentary and the melancholy through

other lives and other voices in other rooms. To match this ef-

under- or over-exposure and especially through painting over

fect, the content of Morrisroe’s images is often melancholy. In

his printed images in sometimes very vivid colours. Just like

Self-Portrait with Broken Finger, Christmas 1984 (1984) Morrisroe

the other artists of the “Boston School” his aim is to create a

turned his camera on his own body, and not for the last time,

personal record of people and places. ‘What I primarily want

crouching naked in front of a mirror, his right hand bandaged

is an emotional reaction,’ he explains. But he adds that ‘it

and his lean naked body cloaked in the half-light. Fascination

was easier to evoke feelings if things were not perfect. The

(1983) is one of his most striking self-portraits, lying in bed,

pictures are simply more real then’ (Heinrich 1998: 141). Peter

looking vaguely like Rimbaud, but with his arm outstretched

Weiermair has written that in Pierson’s work ‘photography

above him and a small bird perched on top of it. Much of his

becomes a medium for escape from the world, for stylisation

work is devoted to chronicling his own physical decline as he

and also for lies’. He also claims that photography for Pierson

battled aids, a theme that is also a major thread in Goldin’s

is ‘a means of transforming real circumstances into a state of


glamour’ (in Pierson 1997: 6). But such a glamorised version

It is clear that artists such as Clark, Goldin, and Morrisroe

of a melancholy reality need not be a place of lies. It can just

practice a highly stylised form of photographic autobiogra-

as easily be read as a vision infused with dream reality. It is

phy. Although their work is intensely personal, it is so in two

the hyperreality of dreams, where events take on a slightly

ways. First, and most obviously, in the choice of subject mat-

exaggerated feel which makes them even more evocative of

ter. But second, and less obviously, in several kinds of formal

reality. To heighten an image’s intensity through glamour can

procedures that clearly mark these photographs as works

also result in a heightened emotional impact, in Pierson’s

of art. These formal procedures are also intensely personal

case a sense of melancholy sensuality, a world of lovers in

in the sense that they are highly individual. Lovers of their

motel rooms, abandoned fairgrounds, and kitchen sinks scat-

work can spot a Goldin picture or a Morrisroe from afar: these

tered with the colour patterns of plastic flowers and bottles

photographers have a signature style that is all their own.

of detergent.

This again underscores the intimate link between feeling and form that Langer never tired of stressing. It is not sufficient to



Scattergorising the World

look, rules formed by others. Instead one can create a perso-

The most generous photographic outlook on the world can

na and identity of one’s own beyond all commercial interests’

be found in the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, whose engage-

(Birnbaum 2006: 28). This attitude has remained central to

ment with the world is adequately summarised in the title

Tillmans’ work and should remind us of Kondylis’ notion of

of his 2003 exhibition at the Tate in London: if one thing mat-

the spatial expanse of equality that is foundational for post-

ters, everything matters. In a conscious swerve away from what

modern culture. The belief that one’s identity is something

he calls the “language of importance” (Birnbaum 2006: 18)

that one can largely piece together without guidance from

Tillmans’ art is radically anti-hierarchical. Contrary to what

any kind of authority is intrinsically linked to the idea that

is a widespread assumption Tillmans did not start his career

any kind of choice or combination, except those harmful to

as a photographer for fashion magazines. In fact, Russell

others, is legitimate. The patchwork concept of postmodern

Ferguson points out that ‘Tillmans has never had anything

identity necessarily implies the principle of equality in diver-

resembling a conventional career as a fashion photographer.


He has never shot for any advertising campaign, and he

Tillmans has introduced this principle into his work, which

does not allow his work to be used for advertising. His sub-

centres on a wide array of topics. There are portraits of

jects are rarely wearing high-profile logos or brands, except

friends and lovers, there is landscape photography, urban

perhaps the ubiquitous and inescapable Levis and Adidas.

landscapes, still lives, and even abstract work. Tillmans

[...] His recurrent themes – quiet observation of nature and

treats every subject with the same kind of love and atten-

everyday things; hanging out with friends; sex; political activ-

tion, whether it is Damon Albarn taking a shower or a piece

ism; dancing – are all free. None of them involves buying or

of fruit on the window sill. His choice of subjects and style

selling’ (Ferguson 2006: 76). But Tillmans did use magazine

of photography has proved immensely influential, not only

spreads, and especially the works he published in i-D in the

among other artists but among the larger populace. ‘Life

early 1990s, as a way of finding new, less elitist ways of com-

imitates art,’ Daniel Birnbaum has noted, ‘and thanks to the

municating with the world; a world that would be consider-

“Tillmans effect” many of us recognise our own Tillmans pic-

ably larger than the artworld in-crowd. In fact, Tillmans came

tures or situations right in front of us, out there in the world’

to prominence as the most important photographer of the

(o.c. 18). In this sense Tillmans’ work clearly illustrates how

Love Generation of the 1990s, the culture of house music and

art can alter the way we look at the world. His way of look-

Berlin Love Parades that seemed to herald a new era that

ing often fundamentally alters the way his audience looks at

would be less materialistic and less capitalist than the 1980s

the world through what Paul Flynn has called ‘his signature

of Reaganomics and Thatcherist oppression. When Tillmans

ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary through his

was publishing in i-D the magazine ‘made clear that nobody

camera’ (Flynn 2010: 96). But it should be clear that Tillmans

has to subscribe to official rules of how to behave and how to

does not simply stumble upon the extraordinary by chance,



as if he were somehow prone to uncovering it. He seeks it

photographs, too. Paradoxically, they seem all the more im-

out. Mark Wigley has quoted Tillmans as saying ‘that “photog-

mediate’ (ibid.). But Tillmans’ style does not stop at lighting.

raphy always lies about what it is in front of the camera but

His sense of space is stunning and extremely precise. Mark

never lies about what is behind.” It captures the experience,

Wigley has pointed out that Tillmans’ kind of ‘architectural

the thinking, behind the image. Photography is a psychologi-

space is not simply found in the world. The majority of Till-

cal rather than a technological medium. It is a way of pro-

mans’ images are in some way staged. [...] In each case, all

jecting thinking into the world and sharing that experience’

evidence of rearrangement is removed so that the staged

(Wigley 2006: 150-154). This implies that Tillmans is anything

scenes are experienced as found, and the found scenes are

but a snapshot photographer. He is an artist who takes great

experienced as precisely staged. [...] No clue is offered as to

care in creating his images; but he creates them in a way that

the choreographing of each scene, preserving the sense of a

makes them look casual.

rich found world. So each image appears halfway between

The fact that Tillmans’ images are very deliberately authored

the world and the photographer’ (Wigley 2006: 150). As a con-

is especially obvious in one of the genres for which he initial-

sequence, fact and fiction merge, as do feeling and form, in

ly became recognised: portraiture. What sets Tillmans’ photo-

the way Tillmans guides the world into appearance.

graphic portraits apart from others is the way they are light-

One of the double layers in Tillmans’ work is the way his

ed. As Tillmans himself explains, ‘I got rid of everything that’s

loving looks at the world imply an unobtrusive but very radi-

artistic in portraiture [...]. I found a way of indirect lighting

cal political statement that is exactly about his belief that

that looks like the absence of artificial light. That’s often

everything in the world is deserving of equal consideration.

been misunderstood as a lack of formality, and dismissed as

As Tillmans himself puts it, ‘the eyes are a great subversive

the dreaded “snapshot aesthetic”’ (Ferguson 2006: 81). What

tool because they technically don’t underlie any control, they

looks least formal in Tillmans is in fact the most deliberately

are free when used freely’ (Birnbaum 2006: 16). Tillmans sug-

formalised aspect of his work. But his lighting technique is

gests that our ability to see for ourselves and to use our gaze

so firmly welded to the content of his images that it is barely

consciously is a strong subversive tool because it allows us

noticed by the viewer. As Russell Ferguson has said, ‘it is all

to deconstruct and undermine the stories that are told about

but invisible, but it is very important. He generally keeps it

the world and that are presented us as truth, as inescapable

flat, most often by bouncing a hand flashgun intuitively into

realities, or as economic, political, or cultural necessities.

the room, preferably off a white wall somewhere. This tech-

By looking at the world with a generous eye that spreads its

nique largely eliminates shadows, thus giving the picture a

attention equally among all things we can develop a sense

clarity and a directness that is understated but unmistakable.

of reality that is at odds with the requirements and needs of

We tend to edit out shadows from our consciousness of what

global capitalism. Like Baudelaire’s painter of modern life,

we see in daily life. Tillmans keeps them mostly out of his

Tillmans’ roving eye seeks out the eternal in the everyday,



not in the sense of reading the world as metaphysical scrip-

Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” which sees natural and

ture, but by finding value, and lasting and profound value, in

social tragedies and disasters as opportunities for lucrative

everything, even in that which the dominant culture wants

moneymaking (Klein 2008: 6). Along with this new and ag-

to discard. This sense of equality also lies at the heart of

gressive capitalist culture a new world order has come about

Tillmans’ exhibition practices. When showing his works, he

that was given fuel by the attacks on the World Trade Center

often hangs them with binder clips or tape. He also hangs

on September 11, 2001. Since then the world is often repre-

original works next to magazine spreads. Although it is com-

sented as bifurcated along the lines of Them and Us. But the

mon for artists to present their works in new combinations

fault-lines that divide us do not simply run along continents

at every exhibition it is far less common for every presenta-

or cultures, they are within every community, where differ-

tion of the work to consciously display this openness to new

ences in race, religion, class, and gender cause communities

combinations. By using binder clips or tape Tillmans always

to disintegrate from within. Tillmans has said that ‘I believe

shows that whatever the presentation is, it could always have

that the greatest problem of our time are people who claim to

been different. Every combination of images is temporary and

possess absolute truths’ (Jäger 2008: 35). The truth study center

everything is constantly being rearranged, both in the exhibi-

started as a reflection on the nature of truth. But instead of

tion and in the world that is represented in it.

hanging his images on walls, Tillmans now presented them

The fundamental importance of these ever-changing com-

on cheap-looking, vitrine-like tables, where he would often

binations in Tillmans’ exhibitions should again remind us

combine them with newspaper clippings and advertisements.

of Kondylis’ analysis of the postmodern. We build our world,

By presenting the images on tables the relative nature of the

and project our meanings onto the world, by continually

combinations is even more in evidence, producing serendipi-

combining new elements, undoing existing combinations

tous associations of all kinds of imagery and texts. As Russell

and initiating new ones. This approach has become especially

Ferguson has observed, the images in truth study center are

clear in Tillmans’ exhibition project truth study center, which

categorised in a non-systematic way through ‘undeclared

was also made into a book. If the world is the result of our

categories, non-categories. The flow from one to another is

combinations of meanings and objects, the entire concept

continuous’ (Ferguson 2006: 66). As a result, Truth is held in

of truth becomes problematic. But where our continual con-

abeyance. But this does not entail a facile kind of relativism.

frontation with the relative value of truths should make us

Rather, Tillmans would hold that truth is always in the par-

more tolerant of diversity, the opposite is happening in the

ticular, created by and for human beings in the here and now

world. The change in culture that Tillmans’ generation of the

of lived experience.

early 1990s expected has not come about. On the contrary, the new millennium has brought a new upsurge of capitalist greed, notably in the relentless destruction of what Naomi



Optics of Desire

there is something in the image that renders it inexhaustible.

Tillman’s generosity in looking at the world is particularly in

It takes possession of us and of our gaze. It makes the image

evidence in the way he looks at people. His portraits, but also


his male nudes, are a continuation of the punctum-centred

In Tillmans’ erotic imagery, this punctum is linked to pieces of

photography we found in the work of Nan Goldin. Whether

clothing. This requires us to further elaborate our discussion

he photographs bodies or the clothes that have been shed by

of fetishism and voyeurism. For a fetishist, pieces of cloth-

those bodies, whether he photographs individual bodies or

ing, and especially items of clothing that are associated with

groups of dancing bodies in ecstasy, Tillmans’ work always

intimate parts of the body or with bodily secretions such as

has the feel of immediate experience. They hover on the

sweat, become carriers of meaning. They are infused with

verge of becoming tangible. Helen Molesworth claims that

the wearer’s essence, drenched in what is hidden inside the

she cannot find any punctum in Tillmans’ work, no moments

body and carried outside in minute particles. This concept of

of desire or longing (Tillmans 1996: x). This is true only in the

fetishism is brilliantly illustrated in Tillmans’ Genome (2002),

sense that his images, and especially his early portraits, are

a duotone photograph of a hallway that is littered with dis-

so consciously staged as to leave nothing to coincidence. But

carded black socks. The socks look like short strands of the

what is created through this highly stylised approach is an

human DNA-string, which is the map of our bodies’ inner

image that is all-over-punctum: what is created, is the illusion

structure. But at the same time the socks are obvious objects

of something spontaneous. I would say that many of Till-

of fetishistic attention: worn for sports, they are imbued

mans’ pictures express nothing but desire and longing. Except

with sweat, they carry skin flakes and randy smells. By call-

that this longing and this desire are not to be found in the

ing them genomes Tillmans makes us see in them the shape

details that usually carry the punctum-effect. Longing and de-

of genomes, which in turn recalls the profound biological

sire are the very fabric of the images. ‘Confronted by a wall of

foundation of fetishism, which is about possessing the body’s

his photographs,’ David Deitcher observes in Tillmans’ mono-

interior. By stuffing the sock in his mouth, a masochist might

graph Burg (1998), ‘I am possessed by a powerful desire to

very well suck up (or might very well imagine he were suck-

know things. [...] I look for the links between them. [...] I look

ing up) a person’s most intimate biological body chart along

for the significant detail, as if it might provide me with ac-

with the sweat. But despite this strong fetishistic charge the

cess to domestic places and private rituals.’ Daniel Birnbaum

image retains a sense of fun, recalling that fetishism is also a

has commented that many of Tillmans’ photographs, and

kind of game, and a form of edge-play. It is a roundabout way

not simply the erotic images, ‘seem inexhaustible. [...] I can

of dealing with the body. But it is crucial to Tillmans’ sense

return to some of his pictures over and over again and every

of eroticism for, as David Deitcher observes in Burg, ‘when

time experience the same sense of something fundamentally

Tillmans wants to project sexual longing, he focuses on the

inscrutable’ (Birnbaum 2006: 16). This is the effect of punctum:

fetish instead of the man’.



Tillmans has an entire wardrobe of fetishist imagery, most

us feel the erotic tension, the thrill of the forbidden and of

famously, and also most beautifully, his Faltenwurf-series,

maybe getting caught, that must have guided Tillmans’ hand

which shows pieces of clothing draped or casually thrown

as he took the photograph.

(staged or found) on pieces of furniture or on a staircase.

‘I had this desire for many years to capture what I see in front

Another series shows glistening close-up shots of Adidas

of my eyes during rush hour,’ Tillmans once explained in an

shorts in glorious red or blue. One of his most iconic erotic

interview. ‘This public intimacy, this closeness is only pos-

images is Sportflecken (1996), a white T-shirt that is stained

sible or workable because we accept that it’s taboo’ (Eshun

yellow with an abundance of sweat. ‘To look at Sportflecken,’

2000: 105). We know that people packed on trains and buses

Deitcher correctly notes, ‘is to imagine the body of the person

are in fact engaged in a possibly explosive sexual exchange.

who once filled that T-shirt.’ Although the body is gone and

They invade each other’s private space with their smells,

the T-shirt discarded, it can almost make us feel the pres-

their clothes, their bags and cases, and with their bodies. To

ence of warm flesh, heated by the exertions of sports (When

keep public life manageable we often deny the erotic charge

Robert Mapplethorpe used pieces of clothing in his fetishistic

of such situations. The voyeur takes advantage of this small

early sculptures, Patti Smith would sometimes ask him: ‘Can

rupture between what we know and what we acknowledge

I wear this? Or is it art?’; Morrisroe 1995: 75). But as his erotic

we know and peers in through the edges. Public intimacy

imagery developed, Tillmans sometimes skipped the fetish

is at the heart of a series of photographs Tillmans made of

and went straight for the man, albeit still in a furtive man-

people, or rather fragments of people, on the London subway,

ner. When they look at men with a desiring eye, Tillmans’

simply naming the photographs after the line on which the

photographs often operate along the lines of the voyeur’s

picture was made. Again, it is not at all clear to what extent

gaze. Jeremy (1993), for instance, shows us the bare torso of a

these pictures were staged and lighted or simply made with-

young man, the tough looking buckle of his belt, and the can

out their subjects’ knowledge. One of Tillmans’ most power-

of beer he is holding in his hand. This image brings us into

ful erotic images is Bakerloo Line (2000), a black and white

close proximity to a man who looks like the type who would

photograph that looks into the short sleeve of a man’s T-shirt

not welcome this kind of homosexual attention in real life.

as he steadies himself on the subway. The photograph’s and

Similar furtive glances can be found in the book Soldiers: the

our gaze are directed straight at the young man’s armpit.

nineties (1999), a collage of found photographs of soldiers and

Armpits have a very high erotic charge in gay fetishism. This

some of Tillmans’ own photographs. Among his own works,

should not surprise us since it is one of the places where the

Tillmans included two shots of a soldier seen from the rear as

human body is apt to sweat and smell the most. By peeping

he leans against a door in a train (Soldat I and Soldat II, 1996).

into the young man’s armpit Bakerloo Line allows us to share

It is unclear whether the soldier knew his picture was be-

the furtive erotic charge of secretly looking at other people’s

ing taken, but the photograph suggests he didn’t and makes

bodies in public. The title of the photograph, as indeed the



titles of all the photographs in the series, stresses the ano-

and no doubt a coincidence subsequently exploited by Till-

nymity and fleeting nature of such visual encounters, noting

mans, that the patterns that these experiments brought into

the geographical location where it occurred rather than the

being should have both cosmic and fleshly connections. By

person’s name (which is presumably unknown anyway).

taking on the texture and structure of the human body seen

But this was not Tillmans’ first photograph of an armpit. He

up close, and especially the texture of muscle tissue, these

had earlier portrayed one in the aptly titled armpit (1992; Fer-

abstract images seem to take us into the moist inner space of

guson and Molon 2006: 85). This was a close-up of an armpit

the human body, moving among and feeling the soft tissues

sticky with sweat, retrieved from the club scene. But I feel it

and pulsating masses that generate the movements that in

has an uncanny resemblance to one of Tillmans’ abstract im-

turn cause sweat to be excreted. Journeying inside the body,

ages, Freischwimmer 40 (2004). The latter picture is part of a se-

these abstract images fall back into cosmic surrender.

ries of abstract images that Tillmans started to create in 1998.

This ties together many strands of Tillmans’ work. As the

These are pictures created without a camera, simply by dis-

artist himself once said, ‘paradise is maybe when you dis-

persing or scattering photosensitive materials on paper and

solve your ego – a loss of self, being in a bundle of other bod-

exposing them to light. The series have luscious names like

ies’ (Birnbaum 2006: 28). But it were such bundles of bodies

Freischwimmer, Blushes, or Peaches and the texture of the pat-

that filled the clubs where Tillmans started his career. In fact,

terns created by the crystals on the paper has a curvacious

the photograph Knotenmutter (1994) shows a knot of two bod-

sensuality that often resembles body parts or the texture of

ies intertwined, making it difficult to tell at first sight which

muscles. Daniel Birnbaum has called these works ‘ecstatic

arms and legs belong to which of the two bodies. It is as if

pages of cosmic flesh’ (Birnbaum 2006: 24) and ‘a pure writ-

these boys were melting together to form one new entity.

ing of light’ (Birnbaum 2008b: 7), which recalls the language

Taking this erotic loss of self even further, we might connect

of alchemy. But Birnbaum also links these images to August

back to Hermann Nitsch and his Dionysian revels. Camille

Strindberg’s so-called “celestographs”: photographs created

Paglia has suggested that the ecstatic dancing at discos and

by exposing photographic plates directly to the starry sky (o.c.

clubs could be interpreted as a resurgence of pagan ritual in

8). So the cosmos and the body seem to merge in these imag-

a post-Christian world (Paglia 1993: 23). Like the maenads

es, creating expanses of matter that echo the textures of the

dancing in honour of Dionysos, connecting with the void, the

body physical. It could even be argued that they represent yet

revellers at contemporary clubs become one with the bodies

another step in Tillmans’ voyeuristic endeavour to lay bare

around them and together make up the cosmos of the physi-

the hidden depths of the body. After all, Mark Wigley urges

cal. There may be melancholy quiet in Tillmans’ work, and

us not to forget that ‘for all its sensuous beauty, the image is

tender politics of polymorphous erotics, but in connecting

a laboratory test, a forensic exposure of the raw materials of

back to the world the tremendous force of something cosmic

the art’ (Wigley 2006: 156). It is a most fortuitous coincidence,

is always at play.



Imagining Petals

O’Keeffe takes the imagining of flowers out of our mind and

One of Tillmans’ greatest images is Grey jeans over stair post

into the real world. To understand how she does that, we

(1991), which shows a pair of grey jeans draped over a stair

must look at Elaine Scarry’s investigation of imagination in

post. To the right of the jeans we see the soft red tones of

Dreaming by the Book (2001).

the carpet on the stairs, to the left there is simply a bright

Scarry starts from the observation that we actually seem to

white light, probably daylight. The banister, in the middle

experience imagination going on in our forehead. ‘When we

of the image, is covered by a white T-shirt. The stair post

think of images somewhere on the inside of the body, we

bulges phallus-like through the bottom of the jeans. The

habitually think of them as residing inside the head’ (DB 46).

image recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexualised images of

The forehead is ‘the habitual space for interior imagining’

Calla Lilies, which are in turn indebted to Georgia O’Keeffe’s

(DB 47). But she adds that it is equally easy ‘to carry out one’s

lusciously sexual images of flowers. O’Keeffe’s flower imag-

imagining in other parts of the body: for example, one may

ery has long been controversial, not in the least because the

picture Pegasus in one’s forehead, but one can also imagine

artist herself was often unhappy about the sexual meanings

him in one’s forearm or in one’s forefinger’ (DB 46). But Scarry

that were read into them. But these meanings are obviously

adds a note in which she records Robert Nozick’s reaction to

there. In fact, since flowers actually are the sexual organs of

this mental experiment. In fact, Nozick ‘questioned whether

plants, the visual link between them and human genitals is

the image in the forearm is really in the forearm or in a pic-

a very natural one. By choosing flowers as a subject, O’Keeffe

ture of the forearm held in the forehead’ (DB 256). I believe

was challenging traditional ideas about what was a suitable

Nozick’s observation is quite correct: if I try to imagine a

subject for women artists. Instead of painting her flowers in

minute Pegasus in my finger, this is remarkably easy, but I

nice little watercolours, O’Keeffe painted them in oils and

am not imagining Pegasus in my finger in the sense that my

on a grand scale that was usually the preserve of sublime

finger becomes the space of imagining; rather, I am imagin-

landscapes or cityscapes. She simply dismissed the idea

ing in my forehead a picture of my finger in which a minus-

that flowers were not an appropriate subject for serious art.

cule Pegasus can be found. So the forehead does seem to be

‘I’m one of the few artists, maybe the only one today, who is

the primary space for imagining. And one of the remarkable

willing to talk about my work as pretty,’ she wrote in 1924. ‘I

things Scarry notices, is the ease with which we can imagine

don’t mind it being pretty. I think it’s a shame to discard this

flowers inside that space. If we imagine a human figure, a

word; maybe if we work on it hard enough we can make it

horse, a landscape, or even a human face, it is very difficult

fashionable again’ (Drohojowska-Philp 2004: 246). But apart

to see all the details in our mind’s eye. But a flower emerges

from that, the giant size of her flowers also forces the audi-

in full detail with very little effort. The ease with which we

ence to really look at them. Flowers are easy to overlook.

imagine flowers is due to what Scarry calls ‘the ratio of ex-

But they are easy to imagine. By painting them extra-large,

tension to intensity’ (DB 53). If an imagined object has a size



that is comparable to the size of our interior space of imagi-

our space of imagining, emerging in vibrant directness. But

nation, the image is perceived in greater detail. To imagine a

an opposite approach is also possible, as is shown in the work

horse or a landscape, the image must be reduced in size to

of the Swiss-Dutch artist Regula Maria Müller. She creates

fit it into our mental projection room. In reduction, details,

small sculptures of flowers and other organisms out of beads,

and hence a degree of intensity, get lost. But flowers are just

threads, and pieces of blown glass. She reproduces in reality

the right size to fit the inside of our head. That is why, when

the kind of intense detail that Scarry associates with flowers

they emerge, they immediately emerge in full detail. Another

imagined in the mind. By using beads and glass, shimmer-

reason why we so easily imagine flowers is what Scarry calls

ing materials that are fragile to the touch, Müller enhances

(with a word borrowed from Aristotle) their rarity: the fact

the preciousness we naturally associate with flowers. There

that their petals are thin and veil-like, so that one can see the

is a tremendous vivacity in her work, making it seem almost

light shining through them. Things imagined, Scarry writes,

more alive than actual reality. This way, Müller seems to in-

are rarely solid. Images in the mind have a ghost-like quality:

vert the normal creative process. As we saw, the artist usually

they appear to be weightless and hover before the mind’s eye.

takes a motif or a material from the world and transforms

When the object imagined shares this gossamer-like quality

it into something imaginary, something fictional. Müller, on

in real life, it is very easy to imagine it. That is why it is very

the other hand, seems to have taken something imaginary,

easy to imagine a fog, a veil, or a ghost, which are all sheer

namely the vivacity of imagined flowers, and made it real.

substances, but it is difficult to image a car, a face, or a build-

In her work, she creates the illusion of aliveness that is usu-

ing. ‘Phenomena in the actual physical world that have [the]

ally associated with objects imagined. If we remember David

attributes of transparency and filminess (such as thin cur-

Hockney’s observation that our eyes can only focus on one

tains, fog, and mist) can be more easily imitated in the mind

point at a time, it is clear that we can never really take in the

than can thick or substantive phenomena. The gossamer

splendour of beautiful things in one view. Since mental im-

quality of many flowers [...], the thinness and transparency of

ages do not rely on the optics of the eye, they can appear to

the petals [...] gives them a kinship with the filmy substance-

us in greater vivacity and with greater directness than objects

lessness of mental images’ (DB 59-60). Therefore flowers are

in the real world. By reproducing such mental images on a

easy to summon before the mind’s eye.

small scale, and with materials that reproduce an experience

It is now clear what we mean when we say that O’Keeffe took

of vivacity through effects of shimmering colours and light,

imagined flowers out of our heads and into the world. By

Müller creates the illusion of objects, and flowers at that, that

painting flowers on a size much larger than the human head,

have been lifted straight out of the mind’s eye and put out

she forces us to look at them with an intensity that is even

there in the world for our physical perception and delecta-

greater than the intensity of imaginary flowers. The paintings

tion. In their elaborate yet refined beauty, Müller’s objects

flood our field of vision in the same way imagined flowers fill

seem hyperreal and preternaturally beautiful.



The same opulence can be found in the work of Welsh artist

What the Dreamachine incites you to see is yours... your

Cerith Wyn Evans, who also addresses imagination and vi-

own. The brilliant interior visions you so suddenly see whirl-

sion in his work, whether it is in the rarity of super-imposed

ing around inside your head are produced by your own brain

slide projections (The sky is thin as paper here..., 2004) or in

activity’ (Dwyer 1999: 70).

his use of neon lights in his many installations. A series of

Evans’ installatians are radiant works of light and transpar-

chandeliers created between 2003 and 2007 are attempts to

ency. Their gorgeous beauty derives from the fact that they

bring into consciousness processes of meaning that usually

can turn a commonplace environment into something that

remain beneath the radar of felt experience. The chandeliers,

looks as if it is dreamed. He bestows upon the material world

which often were opulent works of design or hand-blown

the rarity of imagined worlds. For instance, Arr/Dep (Imaginary

glass, burned in pulsating light patterns. These patterns were

Landscape for the Birds) (2006) was a project created for the

anything but random: they were transmitting texts in Morse

Lufthansa Aviation Center at Frankfort airport. It is a chande-

code, ‘transformed into pulsing light’ (Birnbaum 2008a: 23).

lier that was assembled from lines representing the air routes

Literary texts, poems, philosophical tracts, or any other kind

that connect cities all over the world (one cannot help but see

of text were translated into Morse code and programmed into

this work in conjunction with Wolfgang Tillmans’ series of

the pulsating pattern of the chandelier. Daniel Birnbaum has

photos of the Concorde, 1997, following its tracks through the

compared the messages of the chandeliers to channelling

sky). Daniel Birnbaum describes the work as ‘a kind of three-

because ‘voices – translated into light signals – reach us from

dimensional drawing [that] hovers weightlessly and mysteri-

the past, from the future or from a place that is impossible

ously in its crystal container, and in the evening and the early

to define in temporal terms’ (ibid.). The works are ‘about in-

morning hours you get the sense that the entire building is

voking other subjects, other zones of experience that remain

turned into one massive lamp’ (o.c. 27). But despite its beauty,

radically inaccessible to the viewer’ (o.c. 25). But the idea of

the work is also political, for in its representation of global

channelling messages through light was not entirely original

aerial trade routes it is in a very real sense ‘the most alluring

to Evans, who was inspired by Brion Gysin’s famous Dreama-

and stylish portrayal of something that probably cannot be

chine, an instrument that was designed to generate mental

portrayed, Global capital’ (ibid.). If we agree with Birnbaum’s

visions. The Dreamachine is a metal cylinder with a series of

interpretation then Arr/Dep takes the project of the earlier

geometric patterns stamped out. Inside there is a light that

chandeliers a step further. Instead of broadcasting existing

shines through the openings. Once the Dreamachine starts

texts through chandeliers, Arr/Dep succeeds in visualising a

spinning one must look at it with the eyes closed. The stro-

concept that only exists as an idea in our collective imagina-

boscopic effect of the light flashes will then generate visions

tion. As such, it underlines the fantasmatic nature of global

in the mind. As Gysin himself explained, ‘you are the artist

capital. It is a fiction, a dream dreamt by the rich and power-

when you approach a Dreamachine with your eyes closed.

ful on the backs of the poor and the oppressed. That is the


sting in the tail of its beauty, for what it represents is the

a metaphor for the loss of memory, then it could be argued

dialectic of Enlightenment, where, according to Adorno and

that Apichatpong’s cinema is an act of resistance against

Horkheimer, ‘the whole enlightened earth is radiant with

this loss. It is an attempt to pull back into consciousness the

triumphant calamity’ (ibid.). In a sense, then, Arr/Dep is a

memory of things nearly lost. ‘We are in the age of extinc-

beautiful wreck, a global tragedy only imagined. As a work of

tion,’ Weerasethakul writes. ‘The cultures, the languages, the

precious beauty, it at once dazzles us, presents us with imagi-

forests, the animals, the treasures hidden in the vast tunnels

nation made flesh, and shows us the cynicism of global capi-

in the mountains. We are then forced to move to the Age of

tal, which generates a rhetoric of progress and civilisation at

Enlightenment when Nothing is meaningful. But the spirits

the cost of tremendous human exploitation. It is a perfect fit

remain, the spirits of the artefacts’ (Quandt 2009: 239-240).

of meaning and form.

Memory is the organising principle in Apichatpong’s cinema, where it is related to the strategy of the exquisite corpse. Le


Living Memory

corps exquis was an artistic method used by Marcel Duchamp

To see the plentiful world as beautiful is to see the objects in

to introduce chance and random coincidence into the artistic

it as carriers of meaning. But in our world of global capital-

process. In the exquisite body ‘drawings or texts are passed

ism, objects are constantly being slaughtered on the altar of

from person to person to elaborate upon, with the original

profit. This entails the risk that the meanings might perish

materials hidden so that each addition does not adhere in

along with the objects, leaving the scope of human experi-

any “logical” or predetermined way, resulting in a collective,

ence greatly impoverished. What remains is the rule of rea-

randomly assembled piece’ (Quandt 2009: 31). Apichatpong

son, the law of efficiency and profit that bleeds all meaning

used this practice in his first feature film, Mysterious Object

from life and leaves us with the Nothing of the capitalist

at Noon (2000), where a series of characters take turns to tell

void. In this void, which is really the egalitarian expanse of

their own version of the same story, each adding their own

the postmodern field (a collection of equal things stretching

twists or details. Some of these stories are dramatised in the

beyond the horizon), nothing is really of value since distinc-

film, so that Mysterious Object evolves into a rhizome of shift-

tions no longer apply. In his film Syndromes and a Century

ing narrative strands that blurs the line between fact and

(2006) Apichatpong Weerasethakul offered an unforgettably

fiction. But the exquisite corpse technique expands beyond

ominous visual metaphor for this process: in a sterile subter-

individual films. Many of Apichatpong’s films contain clues

ranean space the black hole of a large funnel slowly sucks

and references pointing back and forth between them. For in-

in the mist that hovers in the room, as if it were sucking the

stance, in the opening scene of Tropical Malady (2004) a group

place empty. This drain is what is happening to human expe-

of soldiers find a dead body, which is implied to be (and has

rience in capitalist culture: our inner lives are being bled or

been identified by the director as) the body of a young man

sucked dry by the logic of corporate vampirism. If this pipe is

who was presumably shot dead in Blissfully Yours (2002), Api-



chatpong’s previous film. One of the two main characters in

ity that it is true”’ (o.c. 104). By combining his own memories

Tropical Malady is the soldier Keng, who was also mentioned

and the memories of others, or his own vision of a film and

in Blissfully Yours. The other main character of Tropical Malady,

the input of his collaborators, Apichatpong blurs the line

Tong, seems to reappear in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His

between reality and fiction, between real past and imagined

Past Lives (2010), but is there played by Sakda Kaewbuadee,

past. This undermines the reliability of the accounts present-

the actor who played Keng in Tropical Malady and who has

ed but also brings them closer to actually lived life, where we

since become the director’s muse.

are constantly having to deal with the tricks memory plays

However, the practice of the exquisite corpse is most struc-

on us. In the final reckoning, it is even possible for memory to

turally present in Apichatpong’s way of making films. He

forget, to eliminate people and events from the realm of real-

is a director who allows his collaborators much freedom to

ity by suppressing them or consciously omitting them from

introduce their own contributions into the film. Comment-

a narrative. This is a topic that has occupied Apichatpong in

ing on the process of editing his films, Apichatpong says that

the Primitive project, which finally resulted in his film Uncle

both he himself and his editor cut their version of the film.

Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

‘Then we compare. Or we separate scenes. Or I break down

The Primitive project originates with a monk who gave Api-

the script and add my notes on editing for him’ (o.c. 186).

chatpong a copy of his book A Man Who Can Recall His Past

This open approach also extends to both the professional and

Lives, which tells of a man called Boonmee who had memo-

non-professional actors, who often decide what will happen

ries of previous existences. This fascinated Apichatpong

to the characters, a practice that is most explicit in Mysterious

because he felt that this Boonmee carried around his own

Object, which is constructed according to this very principle.

cinema: he did not need film to project his (reconstructed)

For Apichatpong himself this method is closely related to the

memories because everything was in his mind. In an inter-

importance of memory in his work. ‘I think this is one of the

view Apichatpong also explains that a monk (possibly the

reasons I make films,’ he explains. ‘My personal memories

same monk who gave him the book) told him ‘that medita-

are always interwoven with those from various other sources,

tion was like filmmaking. He said that when one meditates,

reading, listening and travelling (my own travels and those

one doesn’t need film. As if film was an excess. In a way he’s

of others). It was hard then to remember the real past clearly,

right. Our brain is the best camera and a projector. If only we

so I made films without knowing how true they really were.

can find a way to operate it properly’ (o.c. 184). The idea that

This was an important detail; it was like waking the dead

there is a link between imagination, meditation, and cinema

and giving them a new soul, making them walk once more. It

is a fundamental key to Apichatpong’s cinema. This link is

is the same when writing, sometimes it is just our imagina-

also mentioned by Elaine Scarry in Dreaming by the Book, when

tion, arising from our desire to remember, as Gabriel García

she claims that imagination operates like a projection in our

Márquez wrote: “The memory is clear but there is no possibil-

forehead. But to comprehend the full import of the mind as



an interior cinematic space for Apichatpong’s work we must

of the most memorable results of the project was the short

say something more about the Primitive project. Apichatpong

subject Ghosts of Nabua (2009), which shows a group of young

decided he would try and track down this Boonmee who

men playing soccer with a burning ball in the light of a single

could recall his past lives, or at least people who had known

neon lamp in the village of Nabua.

him. This had an added attraction for the director because

But the Primitive project also yielded the feature film Uncle

Boonmee had lived in the Northeast of Thailand, which was

Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. In this film Boonmee

also where Apichatpong grew up (in the city of Khon Kaen).

is dying of an unspecified affliction of the kidneys. He is

But this region has a very violent history, much of which has

cared for by his sister-in-law and by his nephew Tong. As

been repressed. In the 1960s the army used extreme violence

death approaches, spirits and animals from the forest gather

against communist peasants who revolted against the gov-

around the house. On the eve of his death, the spirit of his

ernment. Many men were slaughtered or disappeared in the

deceased wife and his long-lost son come to visit. During the

wilderness. This violent history, dragging on for years on end,

film Boonmee also recalls several of his past lives. In one of

is a deep trauma in the region, but it has been repressed.

his previous existences he was a princess with a scarred face

People do not spontaneously speak about it. The past is pres-

who visits a magical well where she makes love to a fish to

ent, but it is not mentioned. Apichatpong’s search for Boon-

regain her earlier beauty. But at the end Boonmee also has

mee eventually took him to Nabua, which had served as a

a dream about a future world in which the government has

centre to organise the government’s repressive actions and

the power to make any undesired subject disappear from

was in a state of siege from the 1960s through the 1980s. In-

the world; a totalitarian nightmare that not only refers back

terviewing locals about the past, stories began to emerge and

to the disappearance of countless men in the 1960s, but also

Apichatpong felt he should start a project working with the

points towards the political and military reality of Thailand in

teenagers of today who are the descendants of the forgotten

2010. Thus, Boonmee’s memories of his previous lives serve

men who disappeared or were slaughtered in the violence of

to link past to future in the present, which is haunted by the

earlier decades. So remembrance, memory, and reincarna-

ghosts of lives past. In fact, Boonmee himself is haunted by

tion (the return of dead spirits in a different guise) are at the

the past, for it is revealed, almost in passing, that he killed a

heart of the Primitive project, which seeks to make present

lot of communists back in the 1960s. Through Boonmee the

the past, reincarnated in a different form. The project yielded

film creates a continuum in time, where the ghosts of people

several short films, including A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009)

move through us (through Boonmee), undoing the forgetful-

which centres on the narrative of a man who claimed to be

ness forced upon them. But these political themes are not the

Boonmee’s son. Apichatpong also made a video short for a lo-

main focus of the film, which is really about the descent into

cal band and had the teenagers assemble a spaceship which

a man’s self-consciousness. The film takes us into an interior

served both as film set and as a hangout for the youths. One

world in which the lines between man and animal, between



dream and reality, and eventually also the lines between par-

to be looking at a representation of what happens when we

allel worlds are blurred. The film surrenders linear time to an

remember. Taking our cue from Scarry’s image of memory as

associative stream of consciousness that presents us with an

a mental cinema, we could argue that watching a film is like

organic vision of man and his world.

watching the operations of our own imagination being objec-

The scene of Boonmee’s death provides a mighty metaphor

tified. But since the projected film in the dark theatre fills the

for this vision. Led by the spirit of his deceased wife and ac-

visual field of perception, this objectification is immediately

companied by this sister-in-law and Tong, Boonmee ventures

blasted onto the screen of our interior cinema, which is over-

into the wilderness and is taken into a magical cave where

whelmed by it. This is a more roundabout way of saying what

the ceiling is lined with little specks of light that look like an

is more commonly expressed when people say that they

expanse of stars. It is a stunningly moving sequence. Inside

feel “inside” a film. Cinema is an intimate medium because

the cave the dying Boonmee is spied upon by spirits and

it emulates the deep structure of our most intimate faculty:

ghosts, dark shadows that have glaring red eyes. These are

imagination, which projects images onto our forehead. In this

the spirits of the past who have come to welcome Boonmee

sense Langer was correct to suggest that the primary illusion

into their midst. Boonmee remembers the cave: it is the

of cinema is the virtual dream or ‘the dream mode’ (FF 412).

womb of the earth, the place where he was born without

But she also points out that the camera is not the dreamer: it

consciousness of the differences between man and animal,

is ‘the mind’s eye and nothing more’ (FF 413). But saying that

male or female. Several lines of interpretation open up at

the camera is the mind’s eye is saying that cinema is an ex-

this point. It seems plausible to see the cave as a place where

ternalised representation of the felt experience of imagining.

some king of collective unconscious is located (it seems

Apichatpong has compared the experience of watching a

unlikely that such a cave of birth and remembrance would

film in a darkened theatre to a return to the womb: ‘we seem

exist for the sole benefit of Boonmee’s memories). But for

instinctively to want to enter dark halls; we are excited by

us it is interesting to link this sequence to Scarry’s image of

the prospect of hearing stories that emanate from that light

the internal cinema. In making a film that takes us into the

in the darkness. It is like returning to our mother’s womb’

enclosed space where a man’s memories (his internal cin-

(Quandt 2009: 114). In his films, this return to the womb,

ema) become real, Apichatpong seems to attempt to repeat

which is linked to remembrance, is symbolised by the de-

in a cinematic image the deep structure of imagination and

scent into forests and caves. Apichatpong has said that be-

remembrance. The descent of the characters into the cave is

ing in a forest ‘forces us to reflect on ourselves’ (o.c. 50) and

filmed in such a way that it takes the viewer, if he is willing

can be a transformative experience. Apichatpong’s film that

to submit to the experience, into the internal cave of his own

expresses the transformative power of the forest most force-

imagining and remembering. Or, put the other way around:

fully is Tropical Malady, a miraculous work of art and a truly

looking at Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives we seem

original cinematic experience. Its story is deceptively simple.



It tells of two young men, the provincial lad Tong (Sakda

halves, but it seems clear that the second half of the film

Kaewbuadee) and the soldier Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) who fall

is an internal reprise of the first half: it shows the internal

in love. The film observes their budding relationship with

struggle of the boys, who must come to terms with the vio-

remarkably demure spontaneity. But then, halfway through

lent emotions that love unleashes in them. It shows their

the film, something odd happens. The two boys are driving

inner quest of finding each other. The fact that the same ac-

through the night on a motorbike and have stopped to relieve

tors return in the second part underlines such a reading. It is

them selves. When Tong is done pissing, Keng takes his hand

the wild beast of love and lust that is metaphorically being

and starts smelling, sniffing, and licking it; and Tong returns

tamed in the second half of the film. This is also indicated by

the gesture by licking Keng’s hand in what James Quandt has

a quote from the Japanese author Atsushi Nakajima who says

called an ‘ingestive sexuality’ (o.c. 72-74). But suddenly Tong

that we must learn to master our animal desires because ‘all

turns away and walks into the dark forest. He disappears. The

of us are by nature wild beasts’ (o.c. 65-66). Benedict Ander-

next morning, Keng sits in Tong’s room, mourning his friend’s

son has pointed out that the second half of the film can also

disappearance. At the same time, rumours start circulat-

be given an Orphic interpretation as the story of a man (the

ing around the village: there is a ‘strange beast’ roaming the

soldier) who must journey into the underworld (the wilder-

area, killing cattle. This strange beast translates as the literal

ness of the forest) to bring back his beloved (the boy who has

meaning of the film’s original title Sud pralad. Benedict Ander-

been transmogrified into a were-tiger that must be tamed)

son has noted that the title was also, for a brief period in the

(o.c. 76). On either reading the forest is a place of inner explo-

early 1980s, gay slang for the penis or for a male homosexual

ration and discovery, similar to the way Uncle Boonmee pres-

(o.c. 158). Keng decides to set out into the forest to find Tong,

ents the cave where Boonmee dies as a place where Boonmee

after which the screen goes black and an entirely new film

returns to his origins. As such it also recalls the principle of

seems to begin. The second half of the film follows an anony-

the Dionysian, a primeval realm where the categories of cul-

mous soldier, again played by Banlop Lomnoi, who is hunting

ture do not apply. For example, Boonmee clearly recalls that

a were-tiger, a shape-shifter who can turn from human into

he did not know the difference between male and female or

tiger and back again. His hunt takes him deep into the forest

between man and animal when was born in the cave. Hence,

until he finally meets his opponent eye to eye. In a stunning

the cave represents a realm before such differences applied,

sequence the tiger (who, when in human shape, is again

if not a Golden Age such as Greek mythology tells of, then at

played by Sakda Kaewbuadee) looks down at the soldier from

least a primary biological miasma of brimming life, polymor-

a tree and the soldier offers him his body and soul. It is clear

phous and polysexual. Apichatpong’s characters certainly

that hunter and hunted are really one soul, leaving open the

seem to exist in such a realm. This is made especially clear in

question who is hunting whom.

the many transmutations that they undergo and in the blur-

Much has been made of the symbolism of the film’s two

ring of the lines between species. Boonmee has had earlier


lives as a woman and as a buffalo (among others). When he

his son and himself and who is changed by the experience:

was a woman, namely the princess with the scarred face, she

once the son is found, the man leaves him with the tribe,

had intercourse with a fish. Inter-species sex was also sup-

which is his new home, and destroys the dam that would

posed to make an appearance in Tropical Malady, where, it

destroy that home. He sacrifices the supposed progress of

should not be forgotten, a man and a tiger share a soul and

Western society and his own life’s work as an engineer to the

hence are meant for each other. In an interview with James

higher good of preservationism. But there is also a stylistic

Quandt Apichatpong has explained that ‘we shot the soldier

influence, for Apichatpong has expressed his amazement at

licking, eating Tong in the end (for one of the three endings).

the many shades of green Boorman’s film brings out in the

And we shot the soldier making love with a tiger’ (o.c. 130).

forest (Quandt 2009: 44, 189). As Boorman himself explains in

Man, woman, and animal, male and female, human and

an interview included on the 2008 dvd release of the film, the

spirit: all live together in a continuum extending infinitely

film has been heralded for its very realistic depiction of what

through time and space.

the rain forest actually looks like. But ironically, this effect was achieved with artificial means because the dense forest


Inner Space

is so dark that it must be artificially lighted to translate its

Apichatpong has pointed out that an important influence on

visual impact to film. Boorman explains that the rain forest

his work was John Boorman’s film The Emerald Forest (1985).

usually looks murky on film because cinematographers make

This ambitious but flawed film, which is hampered by some

the mistake of treating it like an exterior when it is really an

stilted acting and an overreaching finale, is based on true

interior that must be lighted the way you would light a room.

events and tells of a young boy who is taken from his parents

This same artificial take on the forest returns in Tropical Mal-

while they are working on a dam on the Amazon river. The

ady, where the stunning light effects of the nocturnal forest

father spends ten years of his life looking for his son, who

were actually created with matte effects in a German studio.

has grown up as a member of the tribe called the “Invisible

The Emerald Forest is a continuation of core elements from

People”. Father and son meet again when the dam is near

Boorman’s earlier work. After all, Boorman directed what is

completion and the expansion of the white man’s world into

possibly the locus classicus of films about men who descend

the rain forest is about to destroy the territory of the Invis-

into the wilderness to find themselves: Deliverance (1972),

ible People. Much research into Amerindian tribes went into

based on a novel by James Dickey. Deliverance tells of four

the film and director Boorman even spent three weeks living

city-dwellers who want to spend a weekend in a canoe on

with such a tribe. It is easy to see the link to Apichatpong’s

a river in the Deep South of the United States. The river will

work. The Emerald Forest is about resistance to the extinction

soon dry up because it (like the river in The Emerald Forest) is

of a tribe, of a culture, and of the rain forest. It shows the

being dammed. The expedition is meant to renew contact

quest of a man who must descend into the forest to find both

with something essential these men feel they have lost.



Glibly, one could say they want to find their inner selves or

men do not live in nature, they embody it, brutally indifferent

reconnect with nature. Fashionable as such sentiments may

and ingeniously brutal.

be, they do point towards a fundamental problem in Western

The forest as a primeval scene of self-exploration was taken

culture, which is so focused on rationality, control, and order

up again in Excalibur (1981), Boorman’s mighty take on the

that we have become neurotic beings that are alienated from

legend of King Arthur and Merlin. This, too, is a film about ex-

the natural rhythms of life. Throughout his career, Boorman

tinction, for as Merlin points out in the film and Boorman has

has dealt with this problem, which he perceives as a very

explained in interviews, ‘the Arthurian legend is about the

real danger: ‘I really feel the most dangerous thing – and it’s

passing of the old gods and the coming of the Age of Man, of

a cliché – is to be totally cut off from the source of things:

rationality, of laws – of man controlling his affairs. The price

to have no sense of where our food comes from, how the

he pays for this is the loss of harmony with nature, which

machines we operate work... It’s a process of profound alien-

includes magic. [...] The only way to regain it is by some form

ation and leads to neurosis: that’s what the modern city is all

of transcendence, which the quest for the Grail represents

about’ (Yakir 1981: 50). The four men’s expedition turns into

– to transcend the material world and find a spiritual solu-

a nightmare when they happen upon a group of mountain-

tion’ (Yakir 1981: 50). The Age of Reason means that man is

dwellers: a bunch of inbred farmers who seem to have lost

no longer part of nature, as he was in the Middle Ages, but

contact with civilisation. These mountain-men start hunting

its opponent. ‘The most significant thing about the Middle

down the intruders, who are now facing two enemies: nature

Ages,’ Boorman explains, ‘is that it was an untamed world

and its inhabitants. If looked at metaphorically, one could say

and man had a minor role in relation to the animal kingdom.

that the mountain-men are the henchmen that nature sends

It was the mystery of the forest’ (ibid.). Merlin (Nicol William-

out to rape these arrogant intruders as punishment for the

son) is still from this old world and it is his task to introduce

rape they have perpetrated on her by building a dam. Nature

the young Arthur into the world of magic. Merlin compares

takes revenge, and the rape is literal, for one of the four men

the forest to a Dragon, ‘a creature that came out of the slime

is humiliatingly raped by the savages in an unsettling scene.

and had to do with the memory of emerging from the reptile’

If civilised man violently penetrates nature (damming rivers,

(ibid.). As part of his spiritual journey to become king of the

cutting rain forests, soiling oceans) then nature will penetrate

Britons, young Arthur (Nigel Terry) must sojourn in the forest

him right back. And just like the benign Invisible People in

and hold his own among the many creatures that come out

The Emerald Forest, who seem to blend in with the green of the

in the night and fill it with strange sounds. Again, the forest

forest, the mountain-men of Deliverance seem to sprout from

in Excalibur is similar to that in The Emerald Forest and Tropical

the primal soil of the Deep South. ‘I shot the mountain men,’

Malady: filled with eerie light that shows in great detail the

Boorman explains, ‘as though they were emerging from trees

many strange bugs and beasts that crawl around. Its hues

like malevolent spirits of the forest’ (Kemp 2001: 23). These

are preternaturally green or violently red and orange, lighted



like a visionary landscape of Pre-Raphaelite invention. The

fled with youthful exuberance and great dedication, tramping

mist that hangs between the trees is the Dragon’s breath. The

around the country without a safety net. Then McCandless

knowledge of the forest’s innards has been forgotten by man

found that, come the spring, a river he had crossed when it

and now only lives in the minds of witches and sorceresses

was frozen had turned into a giant wall of water, barring his

like Morgana (a formidable Helen Mirren), who seduces Mer-

way back to the human world. Trapped in the abandoned bus

lin and traps him in a stone.

he has found, he dies after eating poisonous berries. Ironi-

In Excalibur nature is kosmos, all-encompassing. In Deliver-

cally, McCandless’ camp was a mere few miles away from a

ance and The Emerald Forest it has been instrumentalised,

luxurious holiday resort.

functionalised, commodified. It is an adventure to indulge in

The forest has always been a place for introspection and

during the weekend, renting a canoe and getting in sync with

transformation, as Apichatpong also pointed out. And in

your inner self. It is a picturesque event, something that is

many primitive tribes it is customary to send young men out

supposed to look primeval but not be it: tracks, guided tours,

into the forest as part of their ritual transition to manhood.

refreshments, and the necessary emergency exits are pro-

Several contemporary films have taken up this theme. Ariel

vided for the happy campers seeking to commune with Gaia.

Rotter’s film El otro (2007) tells the story of Juan (Julio Chavez),

But nature, as Björk sings, is ancient and she always gets the

a middle-aged man whose younger girlfriend informs him

upper hand. Man may pass through and do some damage,

that she is pregnant. A business trip to another town turns

but the world-encompassing organism that is our planet will

into a journey of self-exploration as Juan ponders what di-

always prevail and will finally undo all that man has done. As

rection his life should now take. This journey is framed like

Boorman points out in his comments on The Emerald Forest,

a dream or a metaphorical “trip”: during the bus ride Juan is

the rain forest itself is not much bothered by its deforesta-

lulled to sleep. When he wakes upon arrival, he discovers that

tion. It is we, the humans, who will suffer the ecological con-

the man sitting next to him, a doctor, has died. Wanting to

sequences. The forest itself might need thousands of years

extend his stay in the foreign city for a day, Juan takes rooms

to grow back, but that is really a very brief period of time in

in two hotels. In the first one he checks in under his own

the life of the planet. Similarly, in Deliverance nature reminds

name, in the other under the name of the deceased doctor.

arrogant Western man of her might. Even on a charted river

Finally, a friend wants to take Juan for a night out in a club,

only a few miles away from the civilised world these four

but feeling in no mood to party, Juan flees the scene and finds

adult men succeed in getting lost. In this respect their plight

himself running along a highway in the middle of the night,

is almost pathetic and reminds one of the tragic case of

with the lights of passing trucks looming ominously in the

Christopher McCandless, which was filmed by Sean Penn in

dark. The next morning he wakes up in the forest, picks fresh

Into The Wild (2007). McCandless also wanted to flee the fake

fruit for breakfast and spies on a group of young girls swim-

civilisation of large cities, but unlike the men in Deliverance he

ming in a river. Chastened, Juan takes the bus back home, is



lulled to sleep again and takes up the thread of ordinary life.

apply themselves to their craft because in prison nobody is

Whether the events in the other city were real or not remains

going anywhere. There is no rush, just a steady and unhur-

unclear. But the otherworldly nature of events is stressed

ried communion with each other and with the objects at

by the fact that the other city, the city of Juan’s inner trans-

hand. Vargas’s last night in jail is a stunning evocation of his

formation, seems bare and desolate, without inhabitants or

physical being. Lying in bed, he tries to read the paper, but

traffic, almost like a ghost town. The other of the title is really

cannot concentrate. Finally, he simply lies down, unbuttons

three others in the film: it is the other man, the doctor whose

his shirt and starts caressing his abdomen. It is as if we can

identity Juan steals; it is Juan himself, who is going through a

actually feel the masturbation Vargas is thinking about but

process of inner change; and it is the unborn child that con-

not performing. This scene is of great importance to the film,

fronted Juan with himself in the first place.

for the rest of Los Muertos basically evolves around Vargas’s

Lisandro Alonso’s film Los Muertos (2004) also highlights the

physical relationship to and presence in the forest. So it must

relation of man to primeval nature. The film’s narrative is

be made tangibly clear to us that he has a body.

sparse and may lend itself to several, indeed, to a host of in-

The use of extended takes, which make real time palpable,

terpretations. Los Muertos follows a middle-aged man, Vargas

is a very efficient way to create such a sense of physicality.

(Argentino Vargas), who is released from prison where he has

But since Alonso’s films always focus on male protagonists,

served a long sentence for the murder of his brothers. The

there is a lingering sense of homo-eroticism here that is not

film actually opens with an extended, three-minute point of

easily dismissed. Possibly it is a consequence of the fact that

view shot of the camera wandering through the green jungle

Alonso’s characters are loners, solitary figures who necessar-

and happening upon (presumably) the murdered bodies of

ily commune primarily with themselves. In La Libertad (2001),

the boys. This is all we learn about (what we assume to be)

his first feature, Alonso focused on a day in the life of a young

Vargas’s crime (although an earlier treatment of the film

Argentinean woodcutter, showing him both as he washes

provided the added information that Vargas killed his broth-

his chiselled body and as he takes a shit. In Los Muertos, Var-

ers because they were starving, which would turn him from

gas’s body is alone in its dialogue with the forest. He glides

a possible homicidal maniac into a complex moral being;

up a stream in a small boat in a hypnotising journey through

Quandt 2008: 334). At first, it is not clear that Vargas is actu-

the green belly of nature. The journey has a purpose: to find

ally in prison, for the prison seems to function like a village,

Vargas’s daughter and grandchildren. Alonso constantly em-

a miniature community where only the occasional presence

phasises the presence of the forest. Vargas, who seems to

of guards and bars serves as a reminder of what kind of place

feel entirely at home in the forest, is an expert at procuring

this is. In these early scenes we get a very close feel of the

food from it. When he sees a goat on the edge of the river, he

physical aspect of Vargas’s existence. Most inmates learn a

stops the boat, catches it and slaughters and guts it with his

craft and we see them at work. They can take their time to

machete. In a stunning sequence, Vargas ravages a beehive


to extract big slabs of honeycomb, which he eats with a rel-

take note of the very different use to which these directors

ish that makes the mouth water. When Vargas finally reaches

are putting a style of filming that is superficially similar. There

his destination, it appears that his daughter lives in a shabby

is a harshness in Alonso’s universe, expressed, among other

tent-like construction on an island in the stream. She is out

things, in the extended sequences of animal slaughter and in

and all Vargas finds is his twelve year old grandson who is

the rugged inexpressiveness of his male protagonists, that is

looking after his little sister. The boy enters the tent while

entirely missing from Apichatpong’s work. To be sure, there

Vargas remains seated outside. Finally, he gets up, puts his

is darkness in Apichatpong, too, but it is his love of the world,

machete on the table and follows the boy inside. The camera

or his love of worlds, that fuels his cinema. Both filmmakers

slowly pans to an abandoned toy on the ground. In the back-

unsettle and leave their images unresolved, and both have

ground we hear the ominous sound of joints that are being

created works of genius. But in Alonso, nature is ‘immense,

torn. Is a chicken being slaughtered or the little boy? Has the

entropic, indifferent’ (Quandt 2008: 332) whereas in Apichat-

film come full circle to the scene of slaughter with which it

pong it is equally immense, certainly entropic, but never indif-

opened? The shot of the abandoned toy is held for an uncom-

ferent. It is (inside) us.

fortably long time. Then, without any explanation or warning, 440

the film abruptly stops.

Magmatic Poetics

What ties all these films together is much more than the

Filming from the inside is not a new idea. It is what Pier Paolo

use of a forest as the site for reflection and transformation.

Pasolini, in a famous essay published in the October 1965 is-

They share a use of landscape as a means for illuminating

sue of Cahiers du Cinéma, has called “the cinema of poetry”. In

psychology; something that Ruskin would surely condemn as

poetic cinema the filmmaker uses the cinematic equivalent of

a pathetic fallacy. There is an immense power in this kind of

free indirect speech in literature (‘soggetiva libera indirecta’; Ber-

minimalist cinema, whether it is done by Alonso or by Api-

tolucci and Comolli 1965: 24; Pasolini 1965: 59). In the poetic

chatpong. But there is also a difference. As James Quandt has

cinema, Pasolini explains, ‘the director entirely penetrates the

written, ‘Alonso wants to besot with the ordinary’ (o.c. 333): he

soul of his character, whose psychology and language he thus

hypnotises his audience with intense observations of the ev-

adopts’ (Pasolini 1965: 59). There is no mediation between the

eryday that are made eerie by the obsessive way in which they

character’s interior and what is communicated, no authorial

are lingered on. Quandt also wrote about Apichatpong that

intervention. This means that the cinema of poetry is a stylis-

he has ‘a predilection for employing the camera to “just look

tic device: it is a kind of visual interior monologue. In practice

at beauty”’ (Quandt 2009: 28) and for revelling in what Elaine

it means that narrative makes way for mood. The filmmaker

Scarry (in another context) has called ‘the intense somatic

writes poetry in images instead of telling a story. A key way of

pleasure, the sentient immediacy of the experience of beauty’

doing this is to make the style of the film palpable. The viewer

(BBJ 122). Despite the similarities in description, we should

is constantly reminded that he is watching a film because



‘one feels the camera very strongly, there are a lot of zooms,

the film has the characteristic features of a Catholic work. But

intentional faux raccords’ (Bertolucci and Comolli 1965: 25) that

internally nothing I’ve ever done has been more fitted to me

express the character’s subjective perception of events. Paso-

myself than The Gospel [because of] my tendency always to

lini called this cinema of poetry a ‘stilistic magma’ (ibid.) that

see something sacred and mythic and epic in everything, even

he achieved by filming a lot of documentary footage and by

the most humdrum, simple and banal objects and events. So

working with non-professional actors. From this rough mate-

in this sense The Gospel was just right for me, even though I

rial he constructed the final film. Pasolini explained that ‘the

don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, because my vision of the

films of the cinema of poetry are not made according to the

world is religious’ (Stack 1969: 77). This tendency to see some-

ordinary rules and conventions of the script, they do not obey

thing sacred in everything is of course linked to an animistic

the usual narrative rhythms. On the contrary, disproportion is

concept of the world, which should not surprise us since Pa-

the rule: details are enormously exaggerated, points that are

solini was a practising Marxist rather than a practising Catho-

traditionally deemed important are dealt with rapidly. Also,

lic. In fact, Pasolini told Oswald Stack that ‘I am not interested

there is no narrative peak, no catharsis, no narrative closure.

in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit bourgeois.

Through the technique of free indirect speech the film is en-

I want to re-consecrate things as much as possible, I want to

tirely reconstructed from within’ (o.c. 76). It is remarkable that

re-mythicise them’ (o.c. 83). But to re-mythicise things implies

Pasolini’s description of free indirect speech comes extremely

exactly the kind of projection of quasi-aliveness and the pro-

close to Warhol’s filmic practice. In fact, the principles of the

jection of value that we have been discussing. ‘Shooting films

cinema of poetry were central to many of the filmmakers in-

is a little bit like a drug for me,’ Pasolini once claimed. ‘it’s like

volved in the New American Cinema.

being drunk on reality. [...] When I make a film I am in reality

Pasolini used the cinema of poetry in Edipo Re (1967), in Medea

and I make reality’ (Snyder 1980: 29). To both be in reality and

(1970), and in the Trilogy of Life. But his greatest achieve-

make it: aliveness to the quasi-aliveness of the world never

ment in this style of filming is Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964),

sounded so solipsistic and yet so expansive.

which in a sense generated the style. ‘The Gospel confronted

There is much of this cinema of poetry in Apichatpong’s work.

me with the following problem,’ Pasolini told Bernardo Berto-

In Blissfully Yours he ‘misconstrues topography’ by combining

lucci and Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘I could not tell it like a classical

mismatched shots that undermine continuity. For example,

narrative because I am not religious, I am an atheist. [...] So

an image of a woman on a moving boat is followed by an im-

I had to tell a story in which I did not believe. So I could not

age of a boy on an elephant filmed from a moving vehicle, a

be the one telling it. That is how, without really wanting it, I

combination that is ‘geographically impossible’ (Quandt 2009:

wound up changing my entire cinematographical style’ (o.c.

37). More importantly, however, Apichatpong also uses the

25). Despite his own atheism Pasolini claimed that the film

free indirect speech of Pasolini’s cinema of poetry in his strat-

was probably his most personal work. ‘It’s only externally that

egy of filming from the inside out. This becomes especially



clear in the treatment of time. Pasolini claimed that the idea

Perchance to Dream

of temporary progress was an illusion. In Volker Koch’s film

One of the greatest filmmakers of memory is Terence Da-

S.P.Q.R. (1972) Pasolini explained that ‘time is not a sequence,

vies. His entire body of work, which is small but immensely

as is shown not only by the philosophy of mysticism, but also

powerful, is a glorious metaphor for the moving fabric of

by science. Therefore there is neither progress nor regress.

remembrance. His films most clearly illustrate the process

Time does not exist; and since time does not exist, there is

of the inner cinema described by Scarry in Dreaming by the

no history either; there is an eternal absolute present’ (Koch

Book and taken up by Apichatpong as a cinematic metaphor

1982: 209). I believe we should read this observation in the

for memory. In his film Of Time and the City (2008), which is a

light of Kondylis’ concept of the postmodern, for which space

portrait of Liverpool, the city where he was born and grew up

is the master metaphor. As we saw earlier, the postmodern

in, Davies speaks of a feeling he calls “unrequited regret”. The

is an expansive field in which everything is present, like a

notion is paradoxical, but it is a very accurate definition of

counter from which we can pick and choose our identities,

what is more generally called melancholy. In melancholy we

personalities, and worlds. In the cinema, this postmodern

feel sadness about a past that cannot be undone or relived

condition is expressed in the techniques of flash-forward and

and that has withdrawn into time, existing beyond our reach,

flashback, which allow the filmmaker to juxtapose several

as a memory. Memories are experiences and events that we

temporal strands. Similarly, several narrative strands, or sev-

know to be real but the reality of which can no longer be ex-

eral narrative strands situated in different timeframes, can be

perienced. It is one of the strangest aspects of time that it is

combined and interlaced within the continual visual stream

entirely punctual: only the now is ever real for our conscious-

of a single film. Pasolini used this technique in his Trilogy of

ness. The future is sure to be and the past has unquestion-

Life, which consists of Il Decamerone (1971), I Racconti di Canter-

ably been, but we cannot know or even comprehend where the

bury (1972) and Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (1975), his film ver-

past is now. Where are past events? Where are past places? It

sion of The Arabian Nights. Especially in the latter film Pasolini

seems absurd to suppose that the past has been stored away

jumps from story to story and from story-within-a-story back

somewhere. In fact, the places where the past took place are

to story or to another story-within-a-story without bother-

still here, but in the mode of the present. The places have

ing to keep us informed of the jumps he is making. Similarly,

not gone, it is simply the past that eludes us. So where do

Apichatpong drifts in and out of Boonmee’s past lives in Uncle

past events go? Does anything ever have any kind of reality

Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and it is up to the viewer

beyond the brief split second in which it occurs and is really,

to determine when and where the stories shift; a task we ac-

tangibly here? These are questions that have long gone unan-

complish with considerable ease because postmodern cinema

swered and that the present book, alas, is not going to answer

has trained us to do this.

either. But what we can do, and what Terence Davies’ work greatly helps us to do, is to try and explain the deep structure



of memory as it is also discussed by Elaine Scarry. This struc-

narrative strategies used. If the first two instalments of the

ture of memory seems to be more than superficially linked to

trilogy showed events as they occurred, the feature film pres-

the condition of unrequited regret, so we would do well to see

ents the autobiographical elements as memories. That we

how Davies translates this regret to film.

are watching memories is made clear with several stylistic

Davies was raised a Catholic and suffered the guilt associated

devices. First, the film is structured like a dream: characters

with it more strongly than most, especially because he had

come and go and events are linked together in an associa-

to come to terms with his homosexuality. That he became a

tive way that moves back and forth in time. Weaving through

filmmaker is almost a coincidence. The first twelve years of

the years and picking up scenes to highlight before they melt

his adult life were spent working as a bookkeeper. Internally,

away again to give way to other memories, the film generates

Davies was torn apart by frustration. He tried to deal with his

a tapestry of life remembered. Music is the glue that holds

misery by writing it down in a screenplay. The script turned

everything together. In most of the scenes the characters

out to be impossible to sell, until the British Film Institute

are singing. This is an important aspect of the film because

took it up and gave Davies a minuscule budget to film it, de-

it canalises private emotions through popular tunes of the

spite the fact that he had no experience in directing and had

1940s and 1950s, opening them up to the experiences of the

not even seen a camera up close. The resulting autobiograph-

viewer. We all have personal memories associated with spe-

ical short Children (1976), filmed in forbiddingly stark black

cific songs. Davies is counting upon our willingness to inject

and white, tells the story of how Robert Tucker grows up in

our own memories into the memories portrayed in the film.

a poor workers’ area of Liverpool. He has to suffer a boorish

The music kindles our own feelings of melancholy because

father at home and sadistic bullies at school and is repeat-

it takes us back to times long gone, especially if we happen

edly beaten up. After the success of this first short, Davies

to be familiar with the music and the era to which it belongs.

took lessons at a film school and next produced Madonna and

Thus, the music helps us to bring the film’s memories closer

Child (1980), a second short subject in which Robert Tucker

to our own, enhancing our emotional investment in the

has entered adult life, living with his aged mother who pre-

events of the film.

tends not to know about his nightly forays into the homo-

Another important shift in comparison with the trilogy is the

sexual underground. The final instalment of what would be

fact that Distant Voices, Still Lives discards the often despon-

assembled into The Terence Davies Trilogy was Death and Trans-

dent realism of the earlier films. In the last two segments of

figuration (1983), where Tucker is seen on his deathbed, lonely

the trilogy there was already a shift towards symbolism and

and deserted, visited by memories of his past. The sense of

impressionism, especially in Robert Tucker’s visions on his

total desolation and loneliness that imbues these three films

deathbed, but also in the way his sexual encounters were

returns in Davies’ first feature, the heart-rendingly beautiful

depicted in Madonna and Child. But Distant Voices, Still Lives is

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). But a shift takes place in the

entirely and unabashedly anti-naturalistic. In fact, it takes



its title quite literally because in most scenes the characters

present in any of the earlier films: the cinema as an escape

are positioned frontally in relation to the camera and they

from the depressing humdrum of everyday life. We should

are lighted as if they belonged in a painting by Vermeer. In

remember that in 1956 cinemas were still impressive palaces,

this way the film is literally structured as a series of still lives

sumptuous and luxurious theatres; not the multiplex screen-

that are filled with the absent voices of memories and songs,

ing boxes of recent times. In The Long Day Closes films play the

voices that seem to echo from afar to linger ever so briefly

part that was played by music in Distant Voices, Still Lives: they

and then make way for another scene, another story. A third

are carriers of collective memory. Just like songs, films can

structural shift in relation to the earlier shorts is that Distant

trigger memories of the olden days, they can project us back

Voices, Still Lives is no longer concerned simply with the mem-

through time to events and feelings long gone. In this sense

ories of one person. The memories that are interwoven in the

they really do function as memory banks. As we saw earlier,

film belong to several members of the same family. The web

Elaine Scarry writes that dreams and daydreams are experi-

that is woven by the film is a fabric of collective memory. This

enced as projections on the inside of our forehead. Taking up

forces the viewer to take up the role of narrator, or rather the

this analogy, it could be argued that the magic of the cinema

role of authorial rememberer. Because there is not one per-

lies in the fact that the beam emanating from the projector

son to whom the memories can be linked, there is an empty

and captured on the screen appears to us as an externalisa-

place at the heart of the film which the viewer must fill. In

tion of the interior processes of dreaming, daydreaming, and

doing that, he or she engages in the labour of remembrance

remembering. Or, as Deborah Harry sings in a Blondie song:

that the film accomplishes. Distant Voices, Still Lives is a mo-

the beam becomes my dream, with electric faces rising from

saic of memories that is structured in a floating mood.

the glow. This way, the cinema as a metaphor for memory

This changes again in Davies’ next film, The Long Day Closes

brings together all the important elements in Davies’ work:

(1992), which is once again structured around one central

just like a dream a film is a sequence of images that move

character, the eleven year old Bud who is facing the chal-

outside the normal laws of time and space; they are linked

lenge and horrors of secondary school, where he is bound

emotionally and are rife with cores of expressive imagery.

to become the butt of bullies. The film, which is set in 1956,

Music, film, dream, and memory exist in a phenomenological

harks back to the memories of Children, but in a milder tone.

continuum. All Davies’ films contribute to this metaphorical

The story has a warm glow and the family is tangibly pres-

vision and use of the cinema, but it is in Distant Voices, Still

ent, whereas the earlier film simply showed Robert Tucker in

Lives that he hones it to perfection, creating an associative

abject isolation. The only person who is conspicuously absent

fabric of luminous dream reality.

is the abusive father; and it seems that nobody really misses his presence. Taking yet another step beyond all the previous films, The Long Day Closes introduces an element that was not



Soft Sightings

that in fog the physical universe approaches the condition

The phenomenology of dream and remembrance can help

of the imagination’ (DB 22-23). This is a possible reason why

us understand one of the most reviled techniques in the

filmmakers and photographers resort to soft focus in pre-

cinema: the use of soft focus to suggest dreams, flashbacks,

senting us with erotic imagery. In fact, the effect they achieve

or, most commonly, to suggest an erotic atmosphere. Nubile

is double. On the one hand, there is the by now familiar effect

young girls in soft focus have been a stock in trade of erotic

of presenting us with an outward objectification of the in-

imagery for a very long time (interestingly, homosexual erotic

ward process of daydreaming. But by wrapping their imagery

imagery seems to rely much less on soft focus, but it does

in soft focus they also take the edge of the obscene away, pre-

have other conventions for cloying erotic photography). The

venting the shock of the pornographic by softening it into the

logic behind soft focus might very well have something to do

instant recognition of the image as resembling images in our

with the phenomenology of the daydream as it was described

imagination. What is shown with greater reality than it has

by Elaine Scarry. What links dreams, daydreams, and imagi-

in the inner eye of imagination is wrapped in the soft focus of

nation to soft focus photography is the element of vagueness,

the imagination to prevent it from being all-too-real.

the inability to get an image clearly into focus. This is no co-

By wrapping erotic imagery in soft focus, the edge is taken

incidence. Scarry has noted that mental images are anything

off the images. This is often done to make the images more

but solid. She points out that it is very difficult even to imag-

palatable for a mainstream audience that would shrink from

ine the face of a beloved person in clear detail. Whenever

outright pornography. This probably explains why the moral

we want to bring specific features of a face into focus they

outcry over erotic films often seems disproportionate to the

seem to elude us. Scarry comes to this point through some

rather unexciting films themselves. The mainstream erotic

experiments that she invites the reader to share with her,

cinema is paradoxically among the most conservative genres

notably trying to imagine one’s mother’s face in the clearest

in film because it wants to entertain its mainstream audience

possible detail. According to Scarry, this is more difficult than

without alienating it. So the story is usually highly moralistic

one would imagine. Whenever we seem to grasp the image, it

(with love prevailing and licentiousness often leading to un-

eludes us again. This kind of fuzziness, clouding our mental

happiness) and the presentation is neat and tidy. But there

view or wrapping our imaginings and daydreams in cotton

are also maverick directors who have infused their erotic

wool clouds of mist, also appears in reality. ‘Some physical

films with a sexual energy that explodes these restrictive

objects have features that more closely approximate the phe-

genre conventions. One of the most interesting is the prolific

nomenology of imaginary objects than do others. We often

Spanish director Jesús ‘Jess’ Franco. Tim Lucas, a critic of

speak of actual mist, actual gauze, filmy curtains, fog, and

fringe cinema, has once stated that it is impossible to watch

blurry rain as dreamlike.’ Especially a mist has the property

one Franco film without watching them all (Du Mesnildot

of making the world appear as in a dream. So ‘we might say

2004: 102). He meant that Franco’s oeuvre is of a piece and



that there are unifying themes, motifs, and stylistic char-

views that, incidentally, lend themselves to interesting views

acteristics that clearly mark a Franco film as a Franco film.

of the lower parts of women’s legs. Franco claims that Chet

Admirers of the filmmaker can usually tell after one scene of

Baker once told him that ‘when you are playing, it’s wonder-

a film whether it is or is not a Franco: the director has an un-

ful to close your eyes, begin to improvise and, to pass the

mistakable signature style that you either love or (as is appar-

time, see your life fragment by fragment, to feel transported

ently most commonly the case) hate. Every Franco film con-

to an unreal world... and when you finish the solo, and two

tains visual and narrative echoes from previous films. Names

minutes have passed, you look at the faces of the specta-

of characters and the actors who perform their parts appear

tors, which are the same as before you closed your eyes – but

and reappear from film to film, but with slight alterations, as

you’ve been away and you’ve come back’ (Tohill and Tombs

if every film were a variation on a theme. Franco obsessively

1995: 100; see also Aguilar 1999: 158). Whether Baker actually

returns to these themes again and again, turning his body of

told Franco this is of no real importance; what matters is that

work into a rhizome of references. This works both for and

this description fits Franco’s style very well. His films are in-

against him. His detractors will see this obsession as a clear

deed structured like visits to a parallel universe that is organ-

indication of his lack of talent or vision, whereas his admirers

ised around the filmmaker’s own obsessions. In this sense,

will simply point out that all great artists have always obses-

Franco’s work is much closer to the experimental cinema of

sively returned to a given set of themes and motifs. When

the 1960s than it is to commercial sex-films or pornography.

they do so in mainstream cinema, they are usually referred to

Many of his best films have a framing device that sets the

as auteurs.

erotic vision apart form the everyday world. Very often the

Stéphane du Mesnildot has called Franco’s cinema a ‘cinema

scenes that establish this frame are either set in a bar or

of trance’ (o.c. 93). It is not through their plots that Franco’s

introduce us to dreams or hallucinations. Another possible

films intrigue, but through the way they are filmed. There is

framing device is setting the film in a remote or isolated loca-

something in the images themselves that mesmerises the

tion, be it an exotic island, an exclusive club, or a mansion

spectator. In this sense, Franco’s work is entirely visual and

high on a hill. Such devices are very popular in mainstream

exceedingly cinematic. His best films (and it should be admit-

erotic films as well, and for exactly the same reason as the

ted that he has also made his share of very bad films) are not

use of soft focus is popular: it clearly identifies the film as

structured around narrative, but along a musical line. Franco

a daydream and a fantasy, a form of escapism into sensual

has often been forced to improvise due to budget restraints.

reverie. What sets Franco apart is the intensity with which he

And when he improvises, he likes to do so to jazz rhythms.

obsessively fills the realm of fantasy that is cleared by closing

Franco’s love of jazz music is in evidence even in his earliest

the film off from the real world.

films, where his eccentric camera positions echo the imag-

In Vampyros Lesbos (1970), possibly Franco’s most famous film,

ery of jazz album covers of the 1950s, often taking low angle

the blonde lawyer Linda (Ewa Strömberg) is hired by Nadine



von Karlstein (Soledad Miranda) to take care of the inheri-

of sadistic libertines who torture her (at one point assaulting

tance of the Dracula family. To do this Linda must travel to

her with no less an aphrodisiac than the mace) while she is

Nadine’s private island, where she soon comes under the

sedated, so that they can tell her afterwards that the whole

enthralling influence of the vampiric brunette. The first

hellish experience was only a bad dream. So the erotic imag-

scene of the film is very famous and is a key to the structure

ery of Eugénie is framed twice, as a dream-within-the-dream.

of what follows. Linda is sitting in a bar where a brunette is

A paradigmatic image of Franco cinema is the title sequence

performing an erotic cabaret with a mannequin. We will later

of La comtesse noire (1973), which is an erotic film of unusual

learn that the dancer is in fact Nadine, who apparently has

intensity. It tells of Irina von Karlstein, the last descendant of

the gift of travelling through time and space. Right from the

a family of vampires, who wants to free both herself and the

start, Nadine infiltrates Linda’s mind, speaking to her sub-

world from the curse of her family. As the title credits roll we

consciously as she performs. Other successful Franco films

see Irina appear from a fog as she walks towards the camera.

begin with similar scenes that blur the lines between fact

She is naked, except for a black cape, a black belt, and black

and fiction. Both Necronomicon (1967) and the very fascinating

boots. She approaches the camera until her black pubic hair

Exorcisme (1974; probably best known under its alternative

almost fills the screen (abundant pubic hair is a particular

titles Le Sadique de Notre Dame and Demoniac, but best enjoyed

obsession of Franco’s). Since she seems to materialise out

in its original French language version since bad dubbing

of the fog, Irina becomes an immaterial creature, inhabiting

spoils the atmosphere of the film) open with sadistic torture

a shadow world between the material world and the realm

scenes that are revealed to be cabaret acts performed for a

of the spirit. The film clearly illustrates her ability to move

select crowd of jet-set libertines. Both performances end in

between worlds. Every time she kills, we see Irina leading

a murder that is revealed to be staged. Such scenes make

her victims through a misty forest to the underworld. But

clear the theatrical and phantasmatic nature of the film: be-

the clearest sign of her otherworldly nature is the fact that

yond this point the viewer is invited and in fact required to

she remains mute throughout the film. Irina communicates

leave behind all his presuppositions about ordinary reality.

with her victims telepathically and it is her disembodied

We are cautioned to consider that we are entering a parallel

voice that also provides the narrative in an interior mono-

universe. Justine (1968) is framed by scenes of the Marquis de

logue on the soundtrack (considering the economic context

Sade (Klaus Kinski) writing in his cell, inspired by the pres-

of sex-films, the fact that Lina Romay, who plays the part of

ence of naked tortured women. The entire film is a visualisa-

Irina, never actually speaks on-screen is a great advantage

tion of his fantasies about the virtuous Justine and her licen-

when it comes to dubbing the film in other languages, giv-

tious sister Juliette. And the stunning Eugénie (1969) is in fact

ing the film a potentially global market). This means that all

simply an onanistic daydream of the heroine in question. In

the characters who fall for Irina’s charms are subconsciously

this daydream she imagines falling into the hands of a bunch

seduced by her. They can feel her presence even when she is



not there. One character who is especially aware of her pres-

of a jewel’ (o.c. 447). Among the examples she lists are Leon-

ence in Madeira is the mortician Dr. Orloff, played by critic

ardo da Vinci’s The Virgin with St. Anne, where both women

Jean-Pierre Bouyxou. When a police officer who is trying to

look like twin sisters (o.c. 156); Hymen’s doubling of Rosalind

track Irina down (and who is played by Franco himself) visits

in her reading of As You Like It (o.c. 211); and Dante Gabriel

the doctor to gather information, he is urged by the mortician

Rossetti’s The Bower Meadow and Astarte Syriaca (o.c. 447); to

to leave reason behind and submit to Irina’s call. This way, he

which I would add the almost clone-like figures that fill many

will discover real life. But to surrender to Irina means to sur-

paintings of Burne-Jones or Puvis de Chavannes. To be sure,

render to the fantasy, to the sexual force-field that lies at the

Franco does not fill a single image with multiple Romays;

heart of this film. We are not simply invited to have sex with

but if we look at his body of work as one extended work,

Irina but to engage a style of living and of experiencing that

then the recurrence of bodies, scenes, motifs, and characters

is drenched in sensuality. It is an invitation to leave the ratio-

throughout his many films blurs the lines that separate each

nal universe behind and enter the world of phantasm.

individual film from every other to the point that titles might

It is this interior world of lust that Franco wants to capture in

even become interchangeable. If allegorical repletion does

images. At its heart lie a series of images, scenes, and motifs

not figure within any one scene, it is surely the driving force

to which Franco obsessively returns again and again. And at

behind the oeuvre, which, in its most intensely fascinating

the heart of this obsession there also lies a body, which is the

moments, simply reproduces itself in countless variations on

body of Lina Romay, who started making films with Franco in

the same theme. In the eye of this sexually obsessive storm

1972 and who has since starred in most of his many dozens

lies the powerful body of Romay, who was given free range

of films. She is also his partner in real life, despite an age

by Franco to improvise her many sex scenes and whose flesh

difference of a generation. This circling around a hard core of

seems to harbour infinite resources of sexual ecstasy.

images and a given set of bodies (for apart from Romay, Fran-

It is in the recording of Romay’s sexual convulsions that soft

co had a stock of several actresses who reappear in film after

focus comes into play again. Unlike his more mainstream

film) recalls the way the Pre-Raphaelites would obsessively

colleagues Franco does not usually use soft focus as a sty-

reproduce Jane Burden’s face or the way Fernand Khnopff

listic tool; it simply occurs in his films. It is often said, and

would paint all the figures in a painting in the image of his

usually not by way of praise, that Franco is obsessed with

beloved sister. As was already mentioned in our discussion of

the so-called crash zoom, which means that the camera will

Anthony Goicolea, Camille Paglia has called this process al-

frantically zoom to single out a point of interest in an image.

legorical repletion, ‘a redundant proliferation of homologous

The crash zoom is a cheap way of avoiding an edit, which

identities in a matrix of sexual ambiguity’ (Paglia 1991: 157)

would require a new shot and a new camera position during

or ‘the filling up of fictive space with a single identity appear-

filming. Instead, Franco allows Romay her performance, cir-

ing simultaneously in different forms, juxtaposed like facets

cles around it with the camera and zooms in on anything and



everything that grabs his attention. But Franco often uses this

other filmmaker using his camera this way, recreates ‘the

technique to great poetic effect, especially when he combines

interior space of thought’ (Du Mesnildot 2004: 127). This con-

it with reflected images or images filmed through windows

nects back to Scarry, with whom we started this discussion.

with a moving camera. The results of such cheap but effec-

Scarry has pointed out that, neurologically, the eyes are an

tive filming can be stunningly poetical, as in several scenes

extension of the brain (DB 68). In the hands of filmmakers

in Vampyros Lesbos, especially a surreal sequence where blood

like Franco or Warhol the camera becomes the extension of

trickles down a window pane in which several layers of re-

their eyes, and hence of their brains, and hence of their deep-

flected images jump in and out of focus. This sequence plays

est desires. These filmmakers reveal (themselves) through

like a magic lantern for voyeurs. In such sequences Franco’s

their gaze. The restless camera eye, making soft focus occur

films almost become abstract and recall the lyrical cinema

through obsessive movement rather than consciously con-

of Stan Brakhage. In La Comtesse noire Franco uses the zoom

structing it, is constantly trying to focus when it is almost too

in the sex scenes, and especially in an extended sequence of

late to see anything. It makes visible the frustration and ob-

Romay masturbating. Franco tries to focus on Romay’s crotch,

sessive searching of the voyeur or the lover who feels he has

but the image becomes blurry, jumps into focus, goes blurry

never “really” or “fully” seen the desired or beloved body. That

again and then glides away along her thighs. When several

is why he keeps looking. He keeps looking for the body’s se-

people are involved in sex it is sometimes difficult to tell the

cret, and to do this, he must keep looking at the body, return-

bodies apart. But all the time the camera is roving the scene,

ing to it again and again. As an effect of this obsessive gaze,

anxious not to miss anything.

soft focus becomes something entirely different from a cheap

Franco is a true voyeur, constantly looking for that one mo-

commercial trick: it is the phenomenology of desire.

ment or that one detail that will unlock the mystery of the body before him. ‘When I use the zoom,’ Franco explains, ‘it


is because at that moment there appears on the actor’s face

Apichatpong likes to combine his own memories with those

a unique expression, which will not be repeated and which

of his collaborators to create a new, fictional memory that

must be captured’ (Du Mesnildot 2004: 121-122). Franco has

seems to exist in a parallel universe that is very similar to

also called himself ‘a voyeur not just of fucking, but of ev-

ours and yet ever so slightly different. In Uncle Boonmee Who

erything’ (Tohill and Tombs 1995: 119; Aguilar 1999: 157). And

Can Recall His Past Lives this merging of memories becomes

Franco’s obsessively wandering gaze indeed does not limit

very clear in the remembering-ahead of a society that will be

itself to sexual matters. Very often his camera will drift to a

able to do away with all unwanted individuals. The sensual

detail in a scene that is not dramatically relevant, echoing

flow of the film is suddenly interrupted by a series of still

Warhol’s errant camera eye. Jean-Louis Leutrat has claimed

photos that show the violence of the army against helpless

that in doing so Franco, and by extension Warhol and any

citizens. In an interview in the Belgian press kit for the film



Apichatpong explains that ‘with that photo scene in the film,

a series of memories of the king in his cell before his execu-

Boonmee’s and my memories merge’ because, obviously, the

tion. The biopic Wittgenstein (1992) is seen through the eyes of

pictures that are remembered-ahead by Boonmee actually

the child Wittgenstein who narrates his own life story in the

refer back to the violence of the 1960s that Apichatpong was

past tense. And, finally, Blue is a sheer projection of inward-

researching for the Primitive project and in which Boonmee

ness, the mind’s eye made cinematic in a monochrome field

is said to have participated. A similar merging of memories

of blue. This structural characteristic of Jarman’s films puts

occurs in Terence Davies’ film Of Time and the City, where Da-

them in the avant-garde tradition of what P. Adams Sitney

vies overlays the general memories of archive footage with

has called the lyrical film. Sitney explains that ‘the lyrical

the more intimate reminiscences of his very personal com-

film postulates the film-maker behind the camera as the

mentary. But the artist and filmmaker who has most radically

first-person protagonist of the film. The images of the film are

fused his own memories with collective history to create a

what he sees, filmed in such a way that we never forget his

synthetic visionary experience of cinematic remembrance is

presence and we know how he is reacting to his vision. In the

Derek Jarman. His film Caravaggio (1986) opens with a shot

lyrical form there is no longer a hero; instead, the screen is

of the painter’s hand preparing the ground on a canvas in

filled with movement, and that movement, both of the cam-

strong repetitive streaks. The canvas fills the screen and is a

era and the editing, reverberates with the idea of a person

fitting metaphor for Jarman’s cinematic practices. For Jarman,

looking. As viewers we see this mediator’s intense experience

the film screen was a moving painting, a celluloid canvas for

of seeing’ (Sitney 2002: 160). The lyrical film was invented

private dreams and memories. This applies most strongly to

by Stan Brakhage, and Pasolini’s notion of the “cinema of

his early experimental shorts, but also to his features, where

poetry” clearly has a family resemblance to the lyrical film.

Jarman often brings his own point of view into the material.

It is also clear that much of Jarman’s work, especially the

Many of Jarman’s features are structured like dreams, memo-

alchemical shorts and the great features The Last of England,

ries, or visions. Jubilee (1978) is framed as a vision of a future

The Garden, and Blue, are firmly anchored in this tradition.

England conjured up by John Dee for Elizabeth I. The Tempest

Other features, such as The Angelic Conversation, fit the form of

(1979) is framed as a pageant dreamt by Prospero. The Angelic

the psychodrama or trance film, out of which the lyrical film

Conversation (1984) is entirely presented as a series of dream

developed. A trance film shows a protagonist (often played by

images. Caravaggio is structured as a series of memories that

the filmmaker him- or herself) engaged in a dreamlike quest

linger in the mind’s eye of the artist on his deathbed. The Last

for sexual identity. The great classical psychodrama’s are Jean

of England (1987) and The Garden (1990) are both framed by im-

Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (1930), which can be said to have

ages of Jarman himself, writing at his desk, conjuring up the

invented the genre, and American films such as Maya Deren’s

films’ episodes and visions. Edward II (1991), based on the play

Meshes of the Afternoon (1942) and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks

by Christopher Marlowe, has been restructured to resemble

(1947). In fact, Jarman often works in the space between the



two genres, mixing highly lyrical passages of almost abstract

same time an image and a word. So in hieroglyphs and, by

imagery with fragmented narratives centred on the quest for

extension, in Jarman’s films, word becomes image (and vice

a gay or queer identity.

versa). Jarman once referred to super-8 cinema as ‘contrac-

Jarman started out as a painter and designer, but in 1970 he

tion to a point, the 20th century hieroglyphic monad’ (O’Pray

took up an 8mm camera and started to make experimental

1996: 71). And in his memoir Dancing Ledge (1984) Jarman ex-

shorts. At this time, and partly inspired by his research for

plains that ‘the pleasure of Super 8s is the pleasure of seeing

the sets he designed for Ken Russell’s furious film poem The

language put through the magic lantern. [...] The first viewers

Devils (1971), Jarman was very much influenced by hermetism

wracked their brains for a meaning instead of relaxing into

and alchemy, a Renaissance tradition that was (falsely) traced

the ambient tapestry of random images’ (Jarman 1991: 129).

to Hermes Trismegistos and which had flourished particularly

Jarman’s most ambitious experiments in this personal form

in the English Renaissance with such figures as John Dee and

of cinema are In the Shadow of the Sun (1980), which is to a

Robert Fludd. The idea of the alchemist as a man who can see

large extent a collage of material culled from the earlier

past and future in a mirror fascinated Jarman and inspired

shorts, and The Angelic Conversation (1985), which combines al-

him to introduce alchemical imagery into his films: mirrors,

chemical imagery referring to John Dee’s conversations with

but also fire (as the purifying element), and an expressive

angels with Shakespeare’s homosexual sonnets to create a

use of colour. Jarman’s most important film from this period

reverie of homosexual desire. In these films the screen be-

is The Art of Mirrors (1973), a highly stylised collage of highly

comes a canvas that is engulfed by images that overlap and

symbolical images. The most impressive sequences show

melt away into abstract patches of colour; effects that were

three figures clad in black who move through a maze of burn-

realised through a series of technical manipulations ranging

ing patterns on the ground in a derelict urban site. As they

from double exposures and re-filming of videotaped footage

move about, they use small mirrors to reflect the sunlight

through the use of unusual film speeds and transferring vid-

directly into the camera. The mirrors refer both to the alche-

eotape to film and vice versa. Jarman especially loved to film

mist’s practice of scrying, or: seeing the future in a reflecting

or project (and refilm) at three (or sometimes six) frames per

surface, and to the cult of the sun disc in ancient Egypt. Apart

second, a speed of which he said that it equalled the rhythm

from that the film’s iconography seems rather opaque. This

of the human heartbeat (Peake 2001: 179; O’Pray 1996: 127-

holds for most of Jarman’s experimental work. This is due to

128). The first of Jarman’s films to be made this way was Gar-

the fact that Jarman saw the alchemical imagery mainly as a

den of Luxor (1972), for which he ‘projected two films, one on

visual motif and not as a key to a belief system. Jarman never

top of the other, on his living-room wall and refilmed the re-

practised magic nor did he believe in it. What did fascinate

sult. He used this primitive but perfectly adequate means of

him was the fact that in hieroglyphs and hermetic symbols

achieving such an effect without the use of an optical printer

the visual and the verbal coincide: a hieroglyph is at the

until the mid-80s’ (O’Pray 1996: 65). At some points, the films



seem to become a cinematic equivalent of the all-over field

violently hypnotic series of visual explosions. A young man

of Abstract Expressionism. The effect amounts to a trance

is seen shooting up in the bombed-out remnants of a house;

film in which the smallest movement of the figures becomes

another young man aggressively kicks a painted reproduction

important, a poetic event, because every single frame of the

of a Caravaggio painting (originally created as a prop for Cara-

film is treated as if it were a self-sufficient painting. In Kicking

vaggio) and proceeds to rub against it in a fucking movement;

the Pricks (1987) Jarman explains that ‘the single frame makes

a naked man gnaws at a raw cauliflower; and there are travel-

for extreme attention, a concentration that is voyeuristic.

ling shots through derelict suburbs shot through with violent

Time seems suspended. The slightest movement is amplified.

visual effects created through manic montage that could be

This is the reason I call it “a cinema of small gestures”’ (Jar-

the envy of Stan Brakhage. The very bare elements of narra-

man 1996a: 146). This phrase was first introduced in the final

tive that hold this despairing vision together point towards

intertitle of Imagining October (1984) but seems especially apt

a totalitarian system. Masked men herd people together at

to describe The Angelic Conversation, which is the tenderest of

gunpoint on the London docks. A young man (Spencer Leigh)

films, focusing to a large extent on the gestures of longing

roams around this urban wasteland, separated from his be-

and love that two young men exchange.

loved (Tilda Swinton). Finally, he is captured and shot by the

But despite its poetic imagery The Angelic Conversation also

masked men. The film culminates in his beloved’s furious

has an undercurrent of menace. ‘Destruction hovers in the

dance on the docks during which she cuts apart her wed-

background of The Angelic Conversation,’ Jarman writes, ‘the

ding dress. This sequence is a whirling montage of image and

feeling one is under psychic attack [...]. In the background of

sound set to a Diamanda Galás soundscape. The imagery of

The Angelic Conversation there is surveillance by Nobodaddy’

The Last of England is at once entirely fragmented and entirely

(o.c. 133). This is made clear in recurrent images of a radar,

coherent. It is a kaleidoscopic mental landscape that entirely

sounding back the silence of the surroundings it is scan-

overwhelms the viewer.

ning, or in a sequence where the lovers toil on the rocky

In a sense, The Last of England is the cinematic culmination

coast, carrying barrels about. The latent threat of The Angelic

of Jarman’s practice of assemblage and montage, which is a

Conversation would become manifest in Jarman’s greatest

constant factor throughout his work. Discussing assemblage,

trance film, The Last of England (1987), which is also one of

Roger Wollen points to ‘Jarman’s interest in film superimpo-

the great achievements in modern experimental cinema. The

sition; montages of positive and negative, black and white,

Last of England takes us into a furiously fragmented world

colour, tinted and untinted sequences in his films and videos;

that is filmed in highly anti-naturalistic colours and seems

and in the books, the interweaving of journal entries, autobi-

to be situated in a vision of London gutted by fire. The film

ography, personal philosophising, gardening notes, social and

is apocalyptic in every sense of the word, both in its themes

political campaigning, poetry and commonplace book com-

and in the way it translates these themes to the screen in a

position’ (Wollen 1996: 26). To which we should add Jarman’s



work as a painter in the 1980s, assembling found objects and

style of filmmaking, especially in the painting of Giotto and

broken glass onto heavily worked surfaces of pitch or oil. As

Duccio. Similarly, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966) also

a filmmaker, narration was never Jarman’s strong suit and

juxtaposes, in non-synchronised double projection, vignettes

his best work is always intuitive and associative. But it is held

or stories that supposedly take place in different rooms of the

together by his strong and persistent vision as an artist who

Chelsea Hotel. This technique of storytelling is in a way taken

knows very well what he wants to achieve. But in fracturing

to its extreme in The Last of England, where not only stories or

even the non-narrative sequences that make up The Last of

sequences but sometimes sheer clusters of film frames are

England Jarman in a sense achieves a profoundly postmod-

put next to each other in a whirl of imagery. In the final reck-

ern style. If we remember that Kondylis saw the postmodern

oning, Jarman’s montage leads us back to his claim, referred

sensibility as one constructed through the metaphor of space,

to earlier, that every frame of a film should be treated like a

with all the elements in the world available at once and next

self-contained painting. In his case, an abstract painting with

to each other and in total equality, then the art of montage

leanings towards the all-over field of Abstract Expressionism;

in cinema is clearly a thoroughly postmodern art for it allows

but in spirit there is also a similarity with Giotto and Duccio

the creator to shift time and space about at random (as we

and their series of narrative panel-paintings for altarpieces.

saw already in our discussion of Uncle Boonmee). But Jarman


is certainly not the only or even the first director to use mon-

Gardens of the Underworld

tage in such a way and he has in fact acknowledged a debt to

Another important key to The Last of England, but also more

Eisenstein. But other interesting parallels can be suggested.

broadly to Jarman’s work in general, is that the city of London

For instance, Pasolini used the technique of putting several

is itself a character in this film. It is a burned-out ruin that lies

stories next to each other in his Trilogy of Life. In Il Decamerone

broken with its torched innards exposed. Michael O’Pray has

(1970) and in I Racconti di Canterbury (1971) he used a fram-

argued that Jarman was inspired by the work of William Blake

ing story with himself in the role of the narrator or, more

to create this vision. ‘Like Blake,’ O’Pray writes, ‘Jarman was a

precisely, the dreamer of the stories. But in the stunningly

Londoner who believed the city physically embodied the woes

beautiful Il Fiore delle mille e una notte (1973), his film version of

of its times – in sixteenth-century alchemical terms, it was

the Arabian Nights, Pasolini eliminates the framing device of

a microcosm’ (O’Pray 1996: 12). In his poem ‘London’ Blake

Sheherazade and lets the stories melt into each other. It could

describes the city as a claustrophobic space where factories

be argued that the juxtapositioning of several stories in the

devour pale and sickly men. As Blake wanders through this

films and in the literary sources on which they are based is

suffering city, the clamour of the oppressed rises up around

related to the panel painting of the early Renaissance, which

him. Camille Paglia has called this ‘the cinema of Blake’s great

shares a cultural space with the Decamerone and the Canter-

poem “London,” where solitary, excluded voices smear or mar

bury Tales and which was a profound influence on Pasolini’s

the cold stone walls of society’s institutions’ (Paglia 1993:


41). But there is also another way in which London functions

describes this underworld as a labyrinthine parallel universe.

as a microcosm in Jarman’s work. Since the 1960s Jarman

Writing of his expeditions to the piers of New York, where

had been part of the homosexual underworld of London. We

men come to cruise at all hours of the day and the night, he

should remember that until the late 1960s, homosexual acts

comments that ‘as you stepped into the dark you entered

were still illegal in Britain. So gay men would meet in illicit

the world of strangers, on the derelict piers you left the im-

bars and meeting places. The homosexual underworld, in

prisoned daylight world behind. The ground was strewn with

London as in any major city, was a parallel world governed

glittering glass from the smashed windows, every shadow

by codes and signs that the straight world did not (want to)

was a potential danger, you kept your money in your shoes.

notice. On this level, the city splits up in two Londons, the

You walked through a succession of huge empty rooms,

“visible” city of the normal world, and the shadow city of the

with young men often naked in the shafts of light which fell

underworld. Geographically, these places are the same. But for

through the windows. The piers had their own beauty; sur-

the members of the underworld society, everyday places have

rounded by water, they were a secret island’ (Jarman 1996a:

a double meaning. A subway station, a bar, or a public lava-

63). The vision of Rome in Pasolini’s unfinished novel Petrolio

tory are often not simply what they seem, but double their

is a similar island, and we last visited it when Carlo was giv-

function as meeting places and points of orientation for those

ing himself to twenty young street thugs on a derelict patch

who are moving among the normal people, visibly indistin-

of urban wasteland. Pasolini, too, makes the city a character

guishable from them, but guided by a different set of cues and

in the novel, as if it were an organism, alive on its many dif-

signs. Under every major city such a clandestine geography

ferent levels, a moloch that harbours its inhabitants like

lies hidden, an alternative lay-out with places and signs that,

micro-organisms that make their ways through its arteries

like hieroglyphs, speak a coded language to those who are in

and organs. On these endless journeys many of the inhabit-

the know about their hermetic meanings. It is a world within

ants end up in the dark crevices of the urban body, where

the world that is guided by a language all its own. Still today

the organism delights in excretory functions that have been

tourists or families with children will lounge on the grass in

edited out of the neatly structured, normalised top-layers of

public parks while unbeknownst to them men are cruising in

external tissue. The normal world is but the surface of such

the shrubbery. Meeting places, secret holes, and corners that

an urban body, the aesthetic bag that holds together all that

are damp with the libations of decades of lubricated nightly

moves and wallows inside.

meetings are spread out through these parks like dots on a

Jim Ellis has made an interesting and convincing connection

map that is not announced at the entrance. There is more to

between Jarman’s creation of parallel worlds and the practic-

any city than its official layout, but one needs the key to the

es of the Situationist International. The Situationists argued

code to be able to read the hidden geography.

for an art that would undermine the commodified world of

In Jarman’s diaries there are exquisite passages in which he

capitalism, which they famously labelled the society of the



spectacle. Among their favoured practices was the dérive or

cinquecento street urchins have bicycles to roam the streets

drift, which would be a walk through an urban environment

of Rome: these are but a few of Jarman’s many anachronis-

that was unplanned and in which the participants would

tic interventions in these films. But even in their narrative

simply be guided by what drew their attention as they moved

structure the films happily jump back and forth between past

along. This introduces an element of chance that also allows

and present or between reality and dream. ‘When Caravag-

for unconscious desires and longings to surface in the choice

gio is just ten minutes underway,’ Kevin Dillon argues, ‘we

of elements that guide the walk. ‘The dérive has as its goal

have passed through six or seven sheets of time: we see the

the discovery of a certain knowledge about the authentic life

dying Caravaggio, Caravaggio buying the little Jerusaleme,

of the city and the everyday, knowledge that can be used to

Caravaggio’s brief memory of the adult Jerusaleme, and the

challenge modern urban alienation’ (Ellis 2009: 5). Ellis argues

young Caravaggio. Later, we will even see the little Michele

that Jarman has used the dérive in several of his early films,

as he seems to look upon his adult self’ (Dillon 2004: 160). All

notably in his very first film, Studio Bankside (1972), which is a

places, objects, and sheets of time (as Dillon very beautifully

portrait of his studio that moves from object to object in the

calls them) are interchangeable and can flow in and out of

room, mapping a journey through space by connecting com-

each other. This approach is especially salient in Caravag-

monplace points of interest. A similar approach can be found

gio because the artist himself also engaged in such breaking

in Duggie Fields (1973), which records the studio of the art-

open of time and space: his historical and biblical scenes

ist Duggie Fields, and Journey to Avebury (1973), among other

are clearly peopled with contemporary figures. Caravaggio’s

films. The technique of the dérive ‘has the effect of rendering

saints are street people from contemporary Rome. ‘Part of

everything within the studio as equivalent. The paintings,

Jarman’s method in the film is to pick up on Caravaggio’s use

furniture, props, photographs, and the artist himself all be-

of lowlife models and extend it, making the models all char-

come interrelated elements of a larger experience of space’

acters in an invented biography: del Monte, whose surname

(o.c. 24). But this experience of space is the postmodern

was Francesco, becomes the model for the Saint Francis

notion of space that Panajotis Kondylis introduced, where

paintings; Pipo, a young hustler, becomes Love in Amor Vincit

everything and everyone is set on a plane of equality. Every-

Omnia’ (o.c. 123). And the dead Virgin, both in Caravaggio’s

thing, even the most commonplace object, can be a point of

painting and in Jarman’s film, is possibly a drowned prosti-

interest or a source of beauty. Hierarchies fall away.

tute. In the end, such postmodern levelling of space and time

In line with Kondylian space, Jarman also expands this ap-

can result in a form of nihilism that is linked to the ethos of

proach to the experience of time. Several of his films, and

Punk. Jarman developed this in his film Jubilee through the

notably the “historical” films Caravaggio and Edward II, revel in

character of Amyl Nitrate, who is a self-styled ‘historian of

anachronism. Historical characters appear in twentieth cen-

the void’ (o.c. 58). Amyl is writing a new history of England,

tury dress, cardinal Del Monte has a pocket calculator, and

titled Teach Yourself History, from which she reads in the film:



‘history still fascinates me – it’s so intangible. You can weave

native, parallel universe for the oppressed to live in. This is

facts any way you like. Good guys can swap places with bad

one reason why Jarman often wrote very poetically about his

guys. You might think Richard III of England was bad, but

cruising forays in public parks and on Hampstead Heath. The

you’d be wrong. What separates Hitler from Napoleon or even

surreal night-time world of anonymous sexual encounters is

Alexander? The size of the destruction? Or was he closer to

part of the clandestine urban parallel world that exists under

us in time?’ (Jarman 1996b: 49). It is also in light of this ‘radi-

the neat surface of London. Jim Ellis has linked this creation

cal levelling of the past’ (Ellis 2009: 59) that Punk’s use of the

of parallel spaces to Michel Foucault’s idea of heterotopias,

swastika as a decorative motif should be read. It had nothing

‘real spaces that do not conform to a society’s dominant

to do with anti-Semitism but was an indictment of a govern-

spatial paradigm, that offer space for refuge, resistance, or

ment that claimed to reject fascism and prided itself on hav-

retreat. [...] Foremost among Foucault’s examples of the het-

ing fought Hitler, while at the same time organising totalitar-

erotopia is the garden; other spaces include the theatre, the

ian oppression at home. In levelling history Punk was simply

cinema, prisons, cemeteries, and old-age homes’ (Ellis 2009:

spitting the majority’s moral degeneracy back in its corporate

xiii). Jean Genet’s film Un chant d’amour (1950) chose a prison


as its setting for heterotopia, and in Terence Davies’ films we

In Jubilee it is the capitalist entrepreneur Borgia Ginz (Jack

found that the cinema could be a powerful space of escape.

Birkett) who represents this corrupt society. It is also he

But when he finally set about creating his own heterotopia,

who delivers a leering speech that quite accurately sums up

Derek Jarman chose to retreat into the garden.

the dark side of postmodern relativism: ‘You wanna know my story, babe, it’s easy. This is the generation who grew up

Into The Garden

and forgot to lead their lives. They were so busy watching

Shortly after finishing The Last of England Jarman was diag-

my endless movie. It’s power, babe, Power! I don’t create it, I

nosed hiv-positive. In the remaining years of his life he was

own it. I sucked, and sucked, and sucked. The media became

very open about his status and used it as a way to shape his

their only reality and I owned their world of flickering shad-

activism for the cause of gay rights. About the same time of


his diagnosis, Jarman discovered and bought Prospect Cot-

You name it, I bought them all and rearranged the alphabet.

tage, a fisherman’s cabin in Dungeness on the coast of Kent, a

Without me they don’t exist’ (Jarman 1996b: 56-57). It is from

rough and uninhabitable place with a shingle coast. The area

this totalitarian reality that the refugees of The Last of England

was dominated by two nuclear sites. And as there was no soil

are trying to escape. Living in the United Kingdom under

under the shingle, only the most robust plants could flourish

Thatcher, Jarman, as a homosexual, an artist, and a person

in the area. Remarkably, Jarman succeeded in cultivating a

with aids, felt himself, and many others with him, under

garden at Prospect Cottage which has since become famous

attack. Much of his artistic work is aimed at creating an alter-

as one of the most original contemporary gardens. It was also



to become the centre of his film The Garden (1990), which is

mimicks the working of memory, as we saw in our discussion

a requiem for the many victims of aids. It is a film of anger

of Terence Davies through Elaine Scarry. But The Garden also

and remembrance that is anchored to a poem that expresses

highlights the frailty of memory. The film in fact ends with a

very succinctly what the film is about: ‘I walk in this garden /

stunningly beautiful scene that expresses this frailty better

holding the hands of dead friends’ (Jarman and Sooley 1995:

than any other cinematic image I know. The two young men

81). Like Orpheus descending into the netherworld Jarman

sit together with a woman (Tilda Swinton), a boy, and an old

invites us to share his memories of lives lost in the cold and

man at a table in a bare space. The woman brings in a basket

desperate years of Thatcherism. The film is structured from

of Amaretti sweets. They eat the sweets and then light the

memory, Jarman’s memories of a life spent in an oppressive

wrappers, which rise above them in a brief flurry of fire. Then

society and of lives wasted by that society’s negligence in

the ashes slowly drift down and are caught in the cups of the

dealing with a major health crisis. The film thus takes us into

characters’ hands. In touching the ashes, they are careful not

a very personal garden of remembrance. But this personal

to destroy the remains of the wrappers, which seem to repre-

meditation is combined with an evocation of the Passion,

sent all that is fragile and beautiful in life, in our memories,

with Christ represented by a young gay couple who are ar-

and on this planet.

rested, tortured and humiliated by (who else?) the police. The

In Modern Nature (1991), his published diary of the period

two young men sit bound and gagged at a table, are smeared

when he was making The Garden, Jarman also repeatedly ad-

with syrup, humiliated, intimidated, and flogged. It is a har-

dresses memory and its fragility and links it explicitly to the

rowing sequence that is genuinely infuriating.

garden and to the frailty of flowers. ‘The gardener digs in an-

But The Garden is also a film about resilience in the face of

other time,’ Jarman writes, ‘without past or future, beginning

violence. Living in a society that would be happy to erase

or end. A time that does not cleave the day with rush hours,

homosexuality from its surface of normality, the oppressed

lunch breaks, the last bus home. As you walk in the garden

have gone underground and created a parallel world to

you pass into this time – the moment of entering can never

live out their lives. It is the heterotopia of Jarman’s garden

be remembered. Around you the landscape lies transfigured’

at Dungeness. There is a moving montage near the end of

(Jarman 1992: 30). The garden is a world outside the world,

the film that brings together the elements of nature within

or, a world within the world, similar to the way the vision-

the compass of the garden. In a stream of lyrical images,

ary London of The Last of England appeared to be a parallel

filmed at faster than normal speed, visions of the sea, the

universe that Jarman had projected over the actual city. The

shore, and the surrounding landscape are welded together

visionary power of the garden of remembrance is stressed by

into a visual poem. In this burst of vital imagery Jarman’s

Jarman’s repeated quoting, in the diaries, of medieval her-

film brings the repressed world of the garden back into the

baria that highlight the medicinal or visionary properties of

viewer’s conscious experience. This is the way the cinema

herbs and flowers. Many of the properties Jarman singles out



have to do with the gift of the seer. ‘My garden is a memo-

thousand pieces’ (Jarman 2001: 330).

rial,’ Jarman writes, ‘each circular bed and dial a true lover’s

As the symptoms of his illness intensified, as they did rap-

knot – planted with lavender, helichryssum and santolina’

idly after the filming of Edward II (1991), a noticeable shift

(o.c. 55). He notes that ‘a sprig of lavender held in the hand or

occurred in Jarman’s diaries. Modern Nature revelled in a lyri-

placed under the pillow enables you to see ghosts, travel to

cism of looking, recording the details and colours of plants

the land of the dead’ (ibid.). ‘Egyptian seers placed the flowers

and herbs. As his eyesight deteriorated in the period covered

of forget-me-not on the eyes of initiates to bring dreams’ (o.c.

in Smiling in Slow Motion Jarman’s observations shifted to-

60). In the garden of memory the various aspects of time, past

wards a lyricism of the hazy: he observes the mist hanging

and future, coalesce. The mind’s eye is free to rove through

over the sea, the haze of dawn, and the almost abstract ex-

time. Dream becomes reality and reality is made dreamlike.

panse of landscapes. But even with failing eyesight his pow-

This means we can see the future, like the alchemist could

ers of perception are remarkable. He writes of ‘a cotton wool

see it in a reflecting surface, and we can bring the past to

mist blowing in veils from the sea, the horizon disappears

life again. Flowers are of central concern in this imagery of

making a very secret garden’ (o.c. 43). ‘Half an hour before the

memory. This should not surprise us in light of Elaine Scarry’s

sun rose, in the first white light of dawn, the shingles are a

discussion of flowers and the space of memory. Their petals

ghostly bleached bone, grisaille silhouetting the grey of the

are sheer and luminous, like the transparent visions of cine-

shrubs and black of the broom, a silent light unshattered by

ma or the interior screen of the mind’s eye. And like the base-

colour’ (o.c. 131). Jarman describes how ‘the grey washes an

less fabric of this inner vision or the ashen texture of burnt

intense colour into the garden’ (o.c. 136) and how a dense

Amaretti wrappers the petals of flowers are easily destroyed;

mist ‘left the garden sparkling with dewy spiders’ webs. As

all it takes, is a careless flick of the finger or the crushing

the sun came up the mist glowed an iridescent white’ (o.c.

step of a foot. ‘You can’t pick bluebells,’ Jarman reminds us

140). Alongside the observations there is another shift, away

in Kicking the Pricks, ‘they wilt, even as you touch them. How

from the material world and towards the mystical, as if Jar-

often that happened as a child: the terrible guilt you felt, put-

man’s losing battle with aids were preparing him for his final

ting them in water you knew would never revive them. The

goodbye to this world. Elaine Scarry has described how pain

feeling of loss the next morning as you threw them into the

locks people in their bodies and Jarman’s observations on his

dustbin. It’s easy to murder a bluebell wood’ (Jarman 1996a:

own agonies express this with painful accuracy. ‘At moments

237-239). In the posthumously published diaries of Smiling in

I wish my physical self would evaporate, cease, no more

Slow Motion (2000) Jarman tells us how Keith Collins, his true

aches and pains’ (o.c. 114). He describes his increasing blind-

love, ‘shocked us by picking up a daffodil and plunging it into

ness as a ‘strange feeling, disembodied eyesight; there is a

the liquid nitrogen for burning my molluscum. It came out

distinct falling off of vision on my left, a grey area that comes

smoking. He flicked it with his finger and it shattered into a

and goes’ (o.c. 187) almost like a mist blowing in from over



the sea and retreating again. ‘One interviewer asked me how

intimidating about mere formlessness: it is a muddle. What

much the illness dictated my life. At this moment almost

makes the true sublime so discomforting is the fact that it

completely, there’s no life outside it, I’m locked in. My entire

still harbours the shape that it is about to undo. The sublime

physical self is a ruin that hurts’ (o.c. 372).

is a form shown on the verge of its disappearance, as in the

Turning inward Jarman produced one final film, Blue (1993),

melting figures of Francis Bacon’s paintings. Similarly, Blue

a monochrome blue screen over which we hear a collage of

invites us in to partake in Jarman’s experience of self as the

diary entries, observations, street sounds, and music. The text

outside world takes its leave with encroaching blindness. But

of the film is included in his book Chroma (1993), in which

the inner eye, the mind’s eye, is as quick and alert as ever.

the objects in the world give way to colour, an abstract haze

Jim Ellis writes that because of the monochrome blue screen,

that fills the field of vision as blindness takes over. Just as he

‘the film’s image track is constructed in the viewer’s head.

was careful to note the alchemical and magical properties of

This intimacy of film and audience is furthered by the physi-

flowers in his diaries, Jarman here remarks on the magical

cal properties of the medium: the blue screen lulls us into

or ritual significance of colours. About the black draperies

receptivity, while we are surrounded and penetrated by the

that are the backdrop for his immaculate film on Wittgen-

soundtrack. Sound is a more intimate medium than vision.

stein (1992) he writes that ‘black velvet registers as infinity

It is vision that allows for the separation between ourselves

on film with no form or boundary, a black without end, that

and the object or the image, and we can shut our eyes to

lurks behind the blue sky’ (Jarman 1995: 137). Kevin Dillon

close off the experience. There is less voluntary control of

notes that the film is set in ‘a series of open interiors with-

the sense of sound, and it serves to connect us rather than

out horizons’ (Dillon 2004: 218). Finally, Jarman accepts and

separate us from the world, helping us to orient ourselves in

embraces with relief the liberating abstraction of the colour

space’ (Ellis 2009: 241). Observing and acutely experiencing

field: ‘From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from

his own disappearance from this world, Jarman has found

image’ (Jarman 1995: 115). Having reduced (or replenished)

in Blue an artistic form that objectively represents this most

cinema to an immaculate blue screen that whispers voices

subjective of processes. Memories rise up and mingle with

into our consciousness, Jarman is literally living among the

the experience of the present, again obliterating the ordinary

voices of dead friends (he once said that ‘the only real thing

relations of time and space. Experience becomes an eternal,

I like about my films is that it is possible to see my dead and

expansive now where past and present coalesce, aware of

dying friends in all the nooks and crannies’; Hacker and Price

the fact that there is precious little future left to turn to. ‘Why

1991: 260). Blue captures a consciousness on the verge of its

have I escaped from the garden?’ Jarman asks (Jarman and

disappearance. This makes it a sublime work. It is a common

Sooley 1995: 63). ‘Because it has no fence or boundaries, so

misconception to link the sublime in art with shapelessness.

who can guess where it ends?’

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gression, London, Creation Books, 1995.


of Emerson, New York, Oxford Univer-

stmuseum Wolfsburg/Cantz, 1996.

Jack Sargeant, Deathtripping. An Illus-


Stuttgart, Reclam, 2000.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Wer Liebe wagt

Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain. The

Duane P. Schultz and Sydney Ellen

Making and Unmaking of the World,

Schultz, A History of Modern Psychol-

New York/Oxford, Oxford University

ogy, sixth edition, Fort Worth, Harcourt

The Cambridge Companion to Wittgen-

Wolfgang Tillmans, Soldiers: The nine-

Press, 1985

Brace College Publishers, 1996.

stein, Cambridge, Cambridge Univer-

ties, Cologne, Verlag der Buchhandlung

sity Press, 1996.

Walther König, 1999.

Elaine Scarry, Resisting Representation,

David Sedley (ed.), The Cambridge

sity Press, 2008. Hans Sluga and David G. Stern (eds.),

Wolfgang Tillmans, Burg, Cologne, Taschen, 1998.

New York/Oxford, Oxford University

Companion to Greek and Roman Phi-

Press, 1994.

losophy, Cambridge, Cambridge Uni-

and Films, Ann Arbor/London, UMI

Zdenek Felix, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz,

versity Press, 2003.

Research Press, 1986.


Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999.

David Sedley, ‘Hellenistic physics and metaphysics’, in: Keimpe Algra, Jona-

Patrick S. Smith, Andy Warhol’s Art

Stephen Snyder, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Boston, Twayne, 1980.

Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book,

than Barnes, Jaap Mansfeld and Mal-

Princeton, Princeton University Press,

colm Schofield (eds.), The Cambridge

London, Thames and Hudson/British


History of Hellenistic Philosophy, Cam-

Film Institute, 1969.

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory [1995], New York, Vintage, 1996. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealis-

bridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 355-411. Richard Sennett, The Craftsman [2008], Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2009.

mus [1800], edited by Horst D. Brandt

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The

and Peter Müller with an introduction by Walter Schulz and notes by Walter E. Ehrhardt, Hamburg, Meiner, 2000.

Hindle, Harmondsworth, Penguin,

Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe

Oswald Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini,

Wolfgang Tillmans, Aufsicht, edited by

Wolfgang Tillmans, truth study center, Cologne, Taschen, 2005. Wolfgang Tillmans, Lighter, Ostfildern, Hatje Cantz, 2008. Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, Immoral

Alan Stanbrook, ‘Is God In Showbusi-

Tales. European Sex and Horror Mov-

ness Too?’, in: Sight and Sound, Vol. 59,

ies 1956-1984, New York, St. Martin’s

Nr. 4, Fall 1990, p. 259-263.

Griffin, 1995.

Jack Stevenson (ed.), Fleshpot. Cin-

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Tijgers Tem-

ema’s Sexual Myth makers & Taboo

men. Voor een Cinema van de Traa-

Modern Prometheus, edited with an

Breakers, second edition, Manchester,

gheid’, in: Cinemagie, Nr. 251, Summer

introduction and notes by Maurice

Headpress, 2002.

2005a, p. 5-10.

1992. Roy Sherwood, ‘John Boorman’, in:

von Briefen. Mit den Augustenburger

John Wakeman (ed.), World Film Direc-

Briefen, edited by Klaus L. Berghahn,

tors. Volume II: 1945-1985, New York,

Philip Strick, ‘Zardoz and John Boor-

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Lust Wil

man’, in: Sight and Sound, Vol. 43, Nr. 2,

Eeuwigheid. Een Metafysica van het

Spring 1974, p. 73-77.

Gluren’, in: Streven, Vol. 72, Nr. 9, Octo-

David Sylvester, The Brutality of Fact. Interviews with Francis Bacon, enlarged

ber 2005b, p. 783-794. Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Cinetrauma.


Ontreddering is een Plek naar Ner-


gens’, in: rekto:verso, Nr. 17, May-June


2006a, p. 10. Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Begeestering. Manifest voor een Nieuwe Kunstkritiek’, in: rekto:verso, Nr. 18, July-August 2006b, p. 10-11. Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Andy Warhol’,

Fragment, Breda, Lokaal 01, 2009e ( ABSOLUTEBEGINNINGSdefinitief.pdf). Christophe Van Eecke, Stock Footage

in: Cinemagie, Nr. 256, Fall 2006c, p.

& Shock Tactics. Marx, Eisenstein and


Filming ‘Capital’, Breda, Lokaal 01, 2009f

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Arendtsogen. Over de Verbeelding van Geweld’, in: Streven, Vol. 74, Nr. 2, February 2007a, p. 114-124. Christophe Van Eecke, ‘De Mythen van een Late Pasolini’, in: Cinemagie, Nr. 259, Summer 2007b, p. 73-89.


Christophe Van Eecke, Absolute Beginnings. Detours Towards a History of the

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Nel Mezzo del

( STOCKFOOTAGEdefinitief.pdf). Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Vlees is het Taaiste. Kleine Fenomenologie van The

New York/London, Harvest/Harcourt

Press, 2002.

Brace & Company, 1990. Marina Warner, Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds. Ways of Telling the Self, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002. Tracey Warr (ed.), The Artist’s Body, London, Phaidon, 2000. Steven Watson, Factory Made. Warhol

Tomalin, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Lawrence Weschler, True to life.

p. 49-53.

Dream. De Herinneringscinema van

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘De Kelder van

London, University of California Press, 2008. Mark Wigley, ‘The Space of Exposure’, in: Russell Ferguson and Dominic Molon (eds.), Wolfgang Tillmans, Los Angeles/Chicago/New Haven/London, Hammer Museum/Museum of Con-

Tarr’, in: Cinemagie, Nr. 266, Spring

2010b, p. 13.

temporary Art/Yale University Press,

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Mad Caps and

2006, p. 145-156. Oscar Wilde, Plays, Prose Writings and

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Lijnen Van

Flowered Cups. Some Notes on Seeing

Geleidelijkheid’, in: Kris Van Dessel

Regula Maria Müller’s Work’, in: Regula

Poems, with an introduction by Terry

(ed.), Drawing Actions, exhib. cat., Geel,

Maria Müller, De Muzen van Erasmus/

Eagleton, London, Everyman’s Library,

De halle, 2009b, [p. 2-7].

The Muses of Erasmus, s.l., RTBOOKS,


2010c, [p. 1-3].

Linda Williams, Hard Core. Power,

And Radiate. De Verloren Talen van de

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Zij Cool, Wij

Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”

Dia’, in: rekto:verso, Nr. 36, July-August

Cool. De Kinderen van Larry Clark’, in:

[1989], expanded edition, Berkeley/Los

2009c, p. 22.

Metropolis M, Vol. 31, Nr. 3, June-July

Angeles/London, University of Califor-

2010d, p. 38-47 (English translation, p.

nia Press, 1999.


Dan Yakir, ‘The Sorcerer’, in: Film

David Hockney, Berkeley/Los Angeles/

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Perchance To

geten’, in: rekto:verso, Nr. 41, May-June

Moderne Kunst, Breda, Lokaal 01, 2009d

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway [1925], edited with an introduction by Claire

Books, 2003.

Het Demonische Universum van Béla

This Placement. Het Standpunt in de

New York, Knopf, 2002.

and the Sixties, New York, Pantheon

Kruithof. Verzamelen Tegen het Ver-

Christophe Van Eecke, Displacement/

Gaby Wood, Edison’s Eve. A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life,

269, Winter 2009g, p. 37-47.

January-February 2010a, p. 5-6.

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Fade Away


Comment, Vol. 17, Nr. 3, May-June 1981,

Film’, in: Cinemagie, Nr. 265, Winter

2009a, p. 46-53.

Roger Wollen (ed.), Derek Jarman: A Portrait, London, Thames and Hudson,

Twenty-five years of conversations with

Terence Davies’, in: rekto:verso, Nr. 39,

Christophe Van Eecke, ‘Verdoemenis.

Jonathan Wolff, Why Read Marx Today?, Oxford, Oxford University

Wrestler en Hunger’, in: Cinemagie, Nr.

Camin. Moeilijke Mannelijkheid in de 2008, p. 25-36.

Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism. The Warhol ‘60s [1980], San Diego/

105-107). Lea Vergine, Body Art and Performance.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logicophilosophicus. Logisch-philosophische

The Body as Language, Milan, Skira,

Abhandlung [1921], Frankfurt am Main,


Suhrkamp, 1963.


Only Connect is een uitgave van Lokaal 01 en is verschenen naar aanleiding van de tentoonstelling Pleasure Ground (25 februari – 18 juni 2010) Tekst Christophe Van Eecke Vormgeving M/vG ontwerpers, Berry van Gerwen, Breda Druk Gianotten, Tilburg oplage 500 ISBN 978-90-811954-7-8 Niets uit deze uitgave mag openbaar gemaakt worden of verveelvuidigd zonder voorafgaande schriftelijke toestemming van de uitgever, kunstenaars en auteurs.


Lokaal 01_Breda Kloosterlaan 138 4811 EE Breda +31 (0)76 514 1928 Š Lokaal 01, 2011