Arlyne Moi

Towards a Justifiable Conception of ‘the Autonomous Artwork’ in Today’s Artworld

Thesis for a "Hovedfag" in Philosophy at the University of Bergen - Spring 2005.

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The goal of this chapter is to address how Martin Heidegger, Maurice Blanchot and Jacques Derrida re-figure the artwork’s autonomy. (The goal is not to address these thinkers’ entire philosophy of art.) Heidegger is an important point of origin for Postmodern approaches to art, since he tried to reconnect the artwork with truth. Could his conceptual pair earth/world be a better way of explicating a double character for artworks, the status of aesthetic features and what artworks are for? Blanchot aligned himself with many Heideggerian thoughts but jettisoned others, since he interprets earth in a more clearly material way, and may possibly give it ontological priority. Could his pair the autonomous slope/the dead slope of the artwork provide a better way of explicating these three issues? Meanwhile, Derrida’s conception of the artwork is an engagement with, reaction to and rejection of various aspects suggested by these first two thinkers. Can he successfully surmount the problems? I think he can, based on his explication of a series of successful failures and the undecidable artwork.


A. Heidegger’s artwork: earth and world striving

‘Double character’ is not an expression Heidegger uses, but it can easily be read into his essay, The Origin of the Work of Art,[178] in relation to his explication of the artwork’s ‘workly character’, Therefore before delving into how the artwork is autonomous, a few words must be said about its ‘workly character’. Heidegger specifically states that he wants to avoid describing the artwork in terms of form/content: an object or thing with a form on the one hand, and an allegorical, symbolic content on the other. The artwork, he says, is not a material thing/object, albeit the museum’s cleaning woman may think so.[179] “This incontestable fact [that there is a form and a content] proves neither that the distinction of matter and form is adequately founded, nor that it belongs originally to the domain of the artwork […] The prevailing thing-concepts obstruct the workly character of the work”.[180] Furthermore, the subjectivized and aestheticizing experience of the work’s formal character (in other words, the Modern Kantian approach to artworks) is the element in which art dies,[181] “and we know nothing at all of what we really and solely seek: the workly character of the work of art.”[182]

The workly character of the artwork

By ‘workly character’, is Heidegger trying to point to what the artwork does—it’s labour? If we turn to Sein und Zeit§15, ‘work’ refers to the Greek term pragmata. This would indicate that Heidegger thinks of the artwork as an action (like a verb rather than a noun) that is more than self-reflection; as pragmata,[183] it is always already ensconced in meaningful contexts of use. Therefore, what the receiver broaches first is a meaningful, useful artwork, and only at a later stage can the receiver countenance its thing-ness and materiality. Hence in stark contrast to Pater and others of an aestheticist persuasion, the work’s formal qualities and physical materiality are not primary, but must be thought out from the work’s workly being, not the other way around.[184]

What is this workly-being of the artwork? The artwork is a location where a meaningful event takes place—Aletheia—the unconcealedness of beings, what is given to view[185]: “The work being of the [art]work is the setting up of the world and a setting forth the earth.”[186] Heidegger’s idiosyncratic language is too strange to understand without further ado: By being confronted with an artwork, say the van Gogh shoe painting [Illustration 10], he claims that the being of the equipment—shoes—is made available. The artwork gives us the shoe’s truth—the equipment approaches us just as it is. This is, for Heidegger, the reason why the artwork can be conceived of as a putting-into-work-the-truth-of-being, and not as a representation of an already given telos or a production of the judgment of beauty, purely aesthetic and formal for a judgment of taste. This putting-to-work-of-truth happens only under the condition of the artwork participating in the world, which Heidegger denies lies in the Modern understanding of the work’s autonomy and in all the institutions that sustain that notion. If the artwork is placed in a museum or treated as an object for historical research, it is robbed of its essential room—a world. In contrast to great art of the pre-modern era, Modern autonomous artworks are placeless. In other words, they are torn from any specific context and therefore cannot set up a world. Of course there are problems with this, since van Gogh’s shoe painting is indeed Modern art, but anyway, in order to show the artwork’s “worlding” function, and in contrast to the modern artwork’s “placelessness”, Heidegger presents the Greek temple-artwork as setting up a world:[187] But what precisely is a world and how does the artwork set it up?

To “open up a world”, means that the artwork "opens a space" for Da-sein[188] to meaningfully live and act. The world is the entire structure of meaningful relations that constitute our experience as Da-sein, that range of possibilities—that "horizon of disclosure"—within which Da-sein lives as a purposeful human being, rather than simply as an animal or inanimate object. It is the nexus between existence’s different dimensions—political, religious and existential. Meanwhile, simultaneously as the artwork sets up a world, it also sets itself back in the earth, the side of the work that likes to hide. More will be said about the earth in a moment, but suffice it to say at this point that the world is an openness that rests on the stable, enduring all-sheltering earth. Through the pragmata-labour the artwork does, we experience the creative “strife” of world and earth, and investigating this strife is central to Heidegger's analysis of the art’s work.

In the artwork, the earth and world strive or battle with each other. What immediately springs to mind is a sort of Hegelian dialectic, neither side favoured. This striving is not bad, for earth and world need each other, and the task of the artwork is to provide a location for battle: The earth, of its essential nature, seeks to hide itself, and the world to bring into the open, to set forth what is, namely truth—Aletheia, the unconcealedness of beings, what is given to view.[189] Aletheia, which etymologically can be interpreted as not forgetful, emphasizes that the Open and Available must always be grasped from out of the dark, hermetic earth. Heidegger refers back to a comment made by Albrecht Dürer, that “art lies hidden within nature, he who can wrest it from her, has it”.[190] To “wrest”, Heidegger surmises, means to draw out from nature; a rift in nature opens up and art is drawn out.[191] Hence, when Heidegger claims that the artwork sets to work Aletheia, this is not ‘truth’ understood as coherence, pragmatic success or correspondence with some external telos; Heidegger’s art-truth is disclosure, non-propositional; the artwork gives to things their look. It is an entwining of doing and making (praxis and poiesis); material comes into the “Open” of the work’s world.[192] Heidegger talks about the temple revealing the nature (physis) around it. For example, if the columns were not there, we would not notice the stone. Perhaps he means that if we had not been confronted with the temple juxtaposed with nature, we would not have noticed nature. [Illustration 11] This is an instigation of a knowing outside theoretical knowing. The world rests on the earth, and the earth (the stone of the column) juts through the world. Crudely put, the already meaningful temple (world) rests on stone (earth), and its materiality juts through, or makes itself noticeable, because when we look at the temple, we notice the earth in the materials. [Illustration 12]

But what about the Modern artwork? In stark contrast to Kant, even though, e.g., the van Gogh painting is not an object of use like temples or hammers, Heidegger presents it as more useful than just for the preserver’s[193] self-reflection; her contact with the work, the experience of it being here, binds her and the work together in the creation of history, and this expands culture. And at this point, it is also worth considering the ready-made, even though Heidegger himself did not reckon it: The ready-made could possibly be the most exemplary work from a Heideggarian perspective, since it opens up a field around the every-day object and makes it circumspect.[194] To open up a world and introduce time and history, to allow something to emerge “into the unconcealedness [truth] of its being”,[195] to allow an understanding of “what shoes are in truth”—this is a considerable list of tasks for a modern artwork to achieve, and one might conclude that Heidegger’s conception of the artwork renders it highly instrumental (workly). In what ways then, is Heidegger’s artwork autonomous? In at least three ways: The artwork is self-subsistent, the earth withdraws and is self-occluding, and the work remains unknowable.

The work subsists in itself

Although Heidegger clearly admits that the artwork is preconditioned upon a creator[196] and a receiver (a preserver), and thus is not independent from them, he explains that, in the unity of earth/world, the artwork exudes an “uninterrupted plain thrust”, which constitutes “[…] the steadfastness of the work’s self-subsistence”. [197] The distinction between what the artist can take credit for and the work’s self-genesis remains unclear, “this thrust, this “that it is” of createdness, emerges into view most purely from the work”.[198] Heidegger ponders the work’s self-subsistence, its “closed, unitary repose of self-support”.[199] The work seems to “cut all ties to human beings, the more simply does the thrust come into the Open […]”[200] Compared with the artwork, the artist is inconsequential, “[…] almost like a passageway that destroys itself in the creative process for the work to emerge”.[201] Although the creative act is performed by the artist, the nature of the work is not determined by the artist, but by the nature of the work itself.[202] It is not N. N. fecit (so and so has made this), but factus est (it is made).[203] Such assertions as these underscore the claim in the second paragraph of his essay, that “art is the origin of both artist and work”.[204]

The earth withdraws, occludes itself

The artwork is autonomous in the sense of unknowable, withdrawn, undiscloseable or severely limited knowledge. How so? Heidegger uses the term earth to indicate what is already there, the absolute ground from which worlds are constructed. Earth is the nature that is in plain view (rocks, dirt[205]). Since the artwork, of its essential nature, is self-occluding, this means it will seek always to remain on the side of the earth. “The earth is the “spontaneous forthcoming of that which is continually self-secluding and to that extent sheltering and concealing.”[206] Earth, bearing and jutting, strives to keep itself closed.[207] Earthiness resists administration; we are not “at home” with it on account of its preservation of otherness. We never can know it, except in a very minor way, not even through technical mastery. When we try to produce knowledge about the earth, say by cutting a rock open, it still “does not display in its fragments anything inward that has been disclosed.” And when we weigh it, “the precise determination of the stone remains a number, but the weight’s burden has escaped us.[208] Focusing on the artwork then, this could be interpreted to mean that when we focus on formal, material aspects, e.g., colour harmonies, the geometrical division of the pictorial field, or the sale-price from Southerby’s, the workly character of the artwork will have eschewed us. Although the artwork fixes in its form that which springs from the earth, the receiver’s and artist’s experience of its earthy character is one of mere exposure, of apprehension without comprehension. The work’s autonomy is described in terms of another kind of concealing or refusal; the “clearing” or “lighted area” the artwork sets up simultaneously conceals as it reveals:

But concealment, though of another sort…at the same time also occurs within what is lighted. One being places itself in front of another being, the one helps to hide the other, the former obscures the latter, a few obstruct many, one denies all. Here concealment is not simply refusal. Rather, a being appears, but it presents itself as other than it is. This concealment is dissembling.[209]

‘To dissemble’ means to hide under a false appearance. To try to explain this, recall that, as well as revealing what is around us, light can be blinding. Like, if I hold a mirror in my lap, it will reflect light into my face from below and will counteract other directional light sources that reveal my wrinkles. An easy face-lift, a false appearance. We start to get an idea of the tremendous extent to which we do not notice what is there in front of us all the time but still out of sight.

At this point it is possible to get the impression that, after all, earth is just another name for material: Has Heidegger fallen into a double character of raw material/meaningful content? If we jump to this conclusion, he pulls us back: “What this word [earth] says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere…”[210] This may be an aporia, but maybe it is just Heidegger’s way of trying to emphasize that the meaningful artwork is what Da-sein encounters first. For he says, “After the world is set up, the earth emerges as native ground.[211] “[…] the work sets itself back into the massiveness and heaviness of stone, the firmness and pliancy of wood, metal, colour, and colour harmony.”[212] The meaningful artwork is there first, and because it is, materiality and thingliness also are there.

The world is unknowable

Lest the reader jump to the conclusion that Heidegger sets up a duality between earth as autonomous/world as instrumental and heteronymous, then hopes are dashed, because the work is historical and the world a work sets up can also be unknowable and withdrawn: About the Bamberg cathedral [Illustration 13] and the sculptures in the Munich Glypotech [Illustration 14], Heidegger says, “[…] the world of the work that stands there has perished.”[213] World withdrawal and world-decay are permanent. We cannot recall the past since it is overtaken by tradition and conservation. Problematically then, one wonders why the world of the peasant woman who walks the earth [214] is available to us, since the painting is preserved in a museum, an apparently inauthentic place. Curiously therefore, while the work is meaningful and sets up a world, that world is historical, fragile and never an object that “stands before us and can be seen. It is the ever-non-objective to which we are subject as long as we live”.[215] Da-sein and the artwork’s world are bound together, but the world is not an object for circumspection. Thus Heidegger seems to assert that the workly character of the artwork cannot be an object of knowledge. If we treat the artwork’s world as an object of study, it will escape our attempt at conceptually determining it. Therefore, on the one hand, the workly character of the artwork is available to the preserver in the act of preserving, in the act of taking part in the event of truth, but on the other hand, as soon as the preserver tries to analyse the workly character, treat it as an object of study, it skirts away.

At first glance, the strife between earth and world may appear to be a double character where earth is autonomous and world is instrumental and heteronymous, but no. Both earth and world are instrumental, and, in their unity, the work is described in relation to some traditional hallmarks of autonomy: the work’s self-subsistence, the artist is like a conduit for the work’s self-creation, The earth’s hiding lends association to some chapter 4 descriptions of the artwork as unknowable. Meanwhile, Heidegger’s explanation of how the artwork conceals simultaneously as it brings into the open is an innovation in the history of describing the artwork’s autonomy. Or is it a recurrence of Plato’s scepticism about artworks in Republic X? If what is brought to light nevertheless conceals, then is this partial appearance partially false, given that it is not in the Open? But as partial false appearance, how can Heidegger assert that it is Truth—Aletheia? This aporetic appearance now is a way in which the artwork is understood as autonomous—its full unconcealment is un-available, its world remains unaccounted for. It seems that, for Heidegger, the conceptual pair would be between truth/concealed, not truth/falsity. At this point the reader may expect—demand?—a fuller discussion, but since Heidegger’s conception of earth/world profoundly informs Blanchot’s and Derrida’s conceptions of the artwork, discussions of it will resume at the end of the subsequent Blanchot section, as part of the Derridian section, and at the end of the chapter.


B. Blanchot’s double character

The dead and the autonomous artwork

In his essay “Literature and the Right to Death”,[216] the artwork has two “slopes”: the dead and the autonomous. For the autonomous slope, a great number of descriptions apply. The artwork is ontologically prior to logos; it is a radically singular, independent other; it is stubbornly ambiguous and beyond cognitive grasp; it is irreducible to a genre description; a fragment existing in essential ontological solitude; it is the negator of the artist, the receiver, and of meaning; only purposeful for signification in general.[217] To explicate these descriptions it is first worth asking: What if the autonomous artwork was not absolutely singular? What if it did not reside in ontological solitude? What if it was explainable, understandable, “talkative”? Blanchot would answer that such an artwork is a death, an absence of presence: The irreducibly singular phenomenon eschews the receiver when it is subsumed under a universal, intelligible, and thus comprehensible category. What the receiver hopes to address—the artwork itself—is occluded, and the conceptual apparatus never reaches the goal for which it aimed. From Blanchot’s perspective therefore, the autonomous artwork has a “language” remaining on the hither side of conceptual categories—“the speech of death”. Blanchot explains:

For me to be able to say, “This woman”, I must somehow take her flesh-and-blood reality away from her, cause her to be absent, annihilate her. The work gives me the being, but it gives it to me deprived of being. The word is the absence of that being, its nothingness, what is left of it is when it has lost being—the very fact that it does not exist.[218]

When the artwork signifies by means of general conceptual signifiers, it “kills” the particular in its full presence (the earth hides). Blanchot elucidates this further by quoting his mentor, A. Kojève: “Adam’s first act, which made him master of the animals, was to give them names, that is, he annihilated them in their existence (as existing creatures).”[219] In order for humans to experience meaning, we use general conceptual tools; artworks that signify something are like this, and by virtue of general symbolic signifiers, they negate their particularity. In exchange, their general conceptuality gives what is negated a transformed life in our minds. Think, for example, of bright yellow and black: In Western cultures this combination generally signifies danger or caution. It is pretty hard for us to experience the colour combination without inadvertently quickening our attentiveness to possible danger. Through such significations we establish meaning and comprehension, but, according to Blanchot, this is at great cost because we loose access to what is present: “[…] images that do not directly designate the thing but, rather, what the thing is not.”[220]

The project or labour for autonomous artworks is therefore to recover that which general conceptualization pushes away—the work’s presence—and this is achieved through the work’s materiality. “Everything physical takes precedence”: rhythm, weight, mass, shape, the material base, the trail of ink.[221] The materiality of artworks returns their presence to us. As such, the fragmentary nature of the artwork is also realized: It is a piece barely detached from its subterranean surroundings. No longer a name, the work is an anonymous moment that has the ambiguous status of not being “beyond the world” (in the Heideggerian sense); simultaneously it is the presence of things before the world exists, their perseverance after the world wanes.[222]

But why is the fragment an exemplary instance of the autonomous artwork? On one hand, of course, there are always contexts to experience the work in; first and foremost, the context of non-contextuality, and this entails the context of Modernism and Modern art theories.[223] On the other hand, it is as if the receiver just sees one detail of a much larger work that has become lost or is unavailable; the fragment seems to be all there is because there is no immediate context to help the receiver understand its significance. An example of this could be where an artist takes a brushstroke or a detail from a human figure, tears it from its first context, and blows it up into an artwork in its own right. Many Antoni Tàpies works could be described thus.[224] [Illustration 15] If one examines the phenomenological experience of being confronted with a fragment, it is as if the artist’s claims for the work and the theories withdraw from the receiver’s experience. No longer intoned as the expression of a particular theory or person, our focus centres on the physical phenomenon. It could be a mark made by anything! Blanchot believes that the single fragment can communicate in its own right. This is also a “death”, but now, a death of all contexts for knowledge, meaning and significance, and it is the “birth” of the autonomous work. Blanchot explains the being of the autonomous artwork as follows:

It is not beyond the world, but neither is it the world itself: it is the presence of things before the world exists, their perseverance after the world has disappeared, the stubbornness of what remains when everything banishes and the dumbfoundedness of what appears when nothing exists. That is why it cannot be confused with consciousness, which illuminates things and makes decisions; it is my consciousness without me, the radiant passivity of mineral substances, the lucidity of the depths of torpor.[225]

“Not beyond the world, but neither is it the world.”[226] Notice the parallels with Heidegger’s earth: It is present before the world is set up, and it preserves, just as did Heidegger’s earthy character. The “dumbfounded silent witness” is akin to Heidegger’s work that instigates a knowing outside theoretical knowing. But what seems most different from Heidegger’s explication is that Blanchot is quite clear about earth’s pure materiality: it is radiantly passive mineral substance. Heidegger would disclaim this, for he says: “What this word [earth] says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere […]”[227] So an important distinction between Heidegger and Blanchot is that Heidegger does not limit the autonomous character to its materiality, but opens up the possibility of it also being metaphysical. Still, it unclear what the autonomous artwork is if it is “not beyond the world, but neither the world itself”, so let’s press on.

‘The autonomous artwork’ as the negator of artist, of the receiver and of meaning

Perhaps it can help to explicate Blanchot’s autonomous artwork if we examine three negations he claims it achieves: Whereas the “dead artwork” (i.e., the meaningful, instrumental artwork) negated the presence of particulars, the autonomous artwork negates 1) the artist, 2) the receiver and 3) meaning. First, as far as negating the artist, Blanchot describes the artwork’s insisting on “playing its own game”, without the one who created it. “[…] the work cannot be planned but only carried out […] he will begin to write, but starting from nothing and with nothing in mind—like a nothingness working in nothingness…”[228] This is highly reminiscent of Woolf’s oyster shell analogy. The artist is tempted to think that she has thought it up, but it is Art that has made the work through her.[229] “[…] the work is made outside of him, and all the rigor he put into the consciousness of his deliberate actions, his careful rhetoric, is soon absorbed into the workings of a vital contingency which he cannot control or even observe.”[230] The artist’s intentions are laid waste; whatever sort of result it is, is beyond what could have been anticipated. No goal existed in the artist’s mind that can correspond with what is now unfolded in time and inscribed in space. This seems much like Heidegger’s self-subsisting artwork, and it also resonates with Mukarovskij’s non-intentionality discussed in chapter 4. Meanwhile, although the artist is not in control of the work, this does not mean she is irrelevant, for the work creates the artist, just as did Heidegger’s work. And where there is no intention by an artist for the work to attain to, the artwork is necessarily true and faithful to itself because it is not a correspondence to anything. At this point the artist examines it and has intentions about it. But these intentions, in their turn, are negated when the artwork goes public. At that point the receiver’s intentions re-define, re-describe and re-value it.[231] Therefore Blanchot goes on to argue that the artist cannot be asked to justify the artwork.[232] In sum, the artwork is responsible for creating the artist but the artist is not responsible for the meaning of the work, its significance, message, etc., because these things belong to everyone who interprets it, who reads into it conventional, conceptually defined or private meanings. Thus the work is every receiver’s responsibility and the artist’s only inasmuch as she too is a receiver, because general concepts cannot be the property of anyone in particular.

Secondly, the artwork negates the receiver: Even though the work only exists when it has become a public reality, alienated from the artist’s belated intentions, the work is constantly made and unmade when it collides with the receivers intentions.[233] Nevertheless, the results are “infinitely varied, meshed with a future that cannot be grasped”.[234] Hence, in the work’s reception, the unified Cartesian subject-receiver fragments:

[Consciousness] tares itself away from the meticulousness of an I, it is recreated beyond consciousness as an impersonal spontaneity, the desperate eagerness of a haggard knowledge which knows nothing, which no one knows, and which ignorance always discovers behind itself as its own shadow changed into a gaze.[235]

Now Blanchot’s earlier claim that the work is “not beyond the world, but neither is it the world” becomes more lucid: It is a statement about an artwork that has fragmented the receiver’s consciousness, and it is also an explication of the third negation, that of meaning. Blanchot speaks of “the stupor of confrontation in the depths of obscurity”,[236] or “the negation that negates nothing, the refusal to take part in the world”.[237] The a-signifying artwork is not a meaningful, power-wielding instrument. Its nugatory being is unable to reveal anything. Non-representing, non-signifying, it merely presents. In its refusal to mean, it becomes “the language of no one and the light of a consciousness deprived of self, this insane effort to bury itself in itself, to hide itself behind the fact of its visibility”.[238] If you ask me, this is not the same thing as Heidegger’s earth that likes to hide; consciousness deprived of self is a good description of the way a zombie would experience an artwork: a will-less, speech-less being.

‘The autonomous artwork’ as only purposeful for signification in general

What is gained by these negations? When the autonomous artwork negates the meaning and signification that is derived through concepts, signification in general is gained: “Although precise meaning fades, what asserts itself now is the very possibility of signifying, the empty power of bestowing meaning.”[239] This sounds like it might be in harmony with Kant’s advancement of “the culture of mental powers in the interest of social communication”,[240] for as Kant says, “We judge the beautiful not according to concepts, but according to the purposive attunement of the imagination that brings it into harmony with the power of concepts as such.”[241] Blanchot’s autonomous artwork is the condition of possibility for signification and communication, whereas Kant’s is an opportunity to become aware of the imagination’s purposive attunement for the possibility of signification and communication. Still, Blanchot’s conception is a criticism of Kant’s, because to his mind, Kant misses what is particular about the artwork and the experience of it. Furthermore, Blanchot denies the unified receiving subject Kant readily assumes.

The relationship between the two slopes

Blanchot juxtaposes the autonomous artwork with the dead artwork, describing them as “two slopes” of the same ambiguous artwork, but how do they interact? Is there a clear advantage given to one slope? First of all, the slope of the meaningful, dead artwork is assumed to “have gotten control of everything”; real things all refer back to an unreal whole which they form together, “to the world which is their meaning as a group […]”[242] But since this meaning is dishonest (it is madness to think that something is completely present through the absence that determines it), art sets off “in quest of a language that can recapture this absence itself and represent the endless movement of comprehension.”[243] Now the autonomous slope arrives—the artwork’s concern for the presence of things, for their unknown, free and silent existence, their innocence and refusal to come into the world. The receiver flounders back and forth across a watershed:

Where, in a work, lies the beginning of the moment when the words [the material] become stronger than their meaning […] At what moment in this labyrinth of order, in this maze of clarity, did meaning stray from the path? […] But if reason now retraces its steps, the illusion immediately vanishes into thin air, reason finds only itself there […] so that reason starts off again and loses its way again. [244]

There is a “powerful trickery” in artworks, a “mysterious bad faith” that allows them to play everything both ways. Blanchot goes on to conclude that the two slopes are the source (origin) of literature (the artwork).[245] Let us start discussing Heidegger’s and Blanchot’s conceptions.




As my introductory comments indicated, one of the purposes of this chapter is to examine how Heidegger and Blanchot can help resolve problems experienced in chapter 4, particularly with regard to the double character (Adorno’s understanding of the double character seemed to undermine itself) and in light of this, for the autonomous character, we were in a quandary as to whether aesthetic, material or formal features are there first, and if so, would that imply that they should be favoured in understanding and interpretation, and in using their ontological priority as an explication of the work’s autonomy. The main thrust of this discussion will revolve around these issues, and in the discussion section at the end of the chapter, more Heidegger/Blanchot issues will be addressed in light of Derrida. The Derrida section of the chapter will also include explicit criticisms of Heidegger.

Ambiguity with the status of the earth and world, and the dead and autonomous slopes

Heidegger’s earth and world are both physical and metaphysical; neither “character” is favoured in the workly character (Aletheia) of the artwork. But since the workly character—what Heidegger claims to really be seeking—eschews him when he focuses on it as an object of study—the world withers or decays—then it may be argued that the work on the whole is a hider, since we never can have access to it as an object of study. Moving the focus to Blanchot, such ambiguity is readily admitted in his explication of the artwork:

[we do not know] if it is expressing or representing, if it is a thing or means that thing; […] if it is transparent because what it says has so little meaning, or clear because of the exactness with which it says it, obscure because it says too much, opaque because it says nothing. There is ambiguity everywhere: in its disinterestedness—but behind this disinterestedness lie the forces of the world, and it connives with them without knowing them, or again, ambiguity uses this disinterestedness to safeguard the absolute nature of the values without which action would stop or become mortal; its unreality is therefore both a principle of action and the incapacity to act, in the same way that the fiction in itself is truth and also indifference to truth; in the same way that if it allies itself with morality, it corrupts itself and, if it rejects morality, it still perverts itself; in the same way that it is nothing if it is not its own end, but it cannot have its end in itself, because it is without end, it ends outside itself, in history, etc.[246]

In contrast to Heidegger’s work setting up a world, giving men their outlook [on life], Blanchot’s artwork only “plays at working in the world.”[247] But does Blanchot favour one of the two slopes? Hard to say. On the one hand, in become meaningful, the dead artwork raises us up from mere existence into rational beings: “Death is man’s possibility, his chance […] Death is man’s greatest hope…Death works with us in the world; it is a power that humanizes nature, that raises existence to being, and it is within each one of us as our most human quality[…]”[248] On the other hand, the autonomous “zombifying” artwork is the condition of possibility for Heidegger’s worlding/significatory artwork. The autonomous artwork has “the empty power of bestowing meaning “a strange impersonal light”[249] what asserts itself is the very possibility of signifying. Still, it is unclear if Blanchot favours the aesthetic artwork over the meaningful artwork, since this could be interpreted in two ways: a) Flesh comes before logos, in other words, the material is there first, then the formal features, and only at a later stage comes meaning. Therefore the material and formal features are grounds for claiming the work’s autonomy. b) The material and formal features should be favoured when understanding, interpretation and valuing the work. As far as I can see, Blanchot agrees with a, not b, since he readily admits that “death is man’s greatest hope”.[250] From this, it can be argued that he agrees with Heidegger about the artwork’s “worlding” task. Nevertheless, inasmuch as both are unclear about the status of earth/world and dead/autonomous slope, they are “on the road” to Derrida’s undecidability.

Is the autonomous artwork prior, and thus the condition for signification?

Has Blanchot argued successfully that materiality (“the radiant passivity of mineral substance”) is prior to and therefore the condition for signification, and that focusing on the work’s materiality returns the artwork’s real presence to the receiver? And with regard to Heidegger, how does his statement hold up—that the earth, which the artwork is set back into, “emerges as native ground”? I do not think Blanchot or Heidegger can justify these assertions. This is because they cannot avoid concepts when applying mental powers to non-conceptual phenomena. Blanchot assumes that—passive material substance—is the precondition for logos to arise.[251] This cannot be proved, only assumed with a religious-like belief.[252] He uses concepts (entailing absence/death of presence) to claim that real presence is returned; he assumes to have access to what is out there—earth, rhythm, weight, mass, shape—as presence minus conceptual thought. Blanchot uses concepts to perform the task of understanding aesthetic experience in general and artworks in particular. In sum, the argument that general concepts cannot point out particulars is irrelevant because ‘artwork’ in either of its slopes, is always already beyond the stage of particulars. If artworks are symbolic form, then identifying something as an artwork presupposes that concepts are already present; the world and earth already vie with each other. Heidegger, while obscure, manages more successfully to skirt the priority of aesthetic features with his earth “emerging as native ground”. This need not be synonymous with claiming that the earth is native ground. The ‘as’ can mean that the earth merely appears to be there first.[253] Yet ambiguity abounds; according to standard usage of ‘native’, whatever is native is there first. If earth (rocks and such) “emerges as” native ground, this might mean that he deems it is ontologically prior. Heidegger seems to contradict himself here, in relation to his other assertion that “nowhere in the work is there any trace of a work-material” (p. 685).

A problem with Blanchot’s fragmented consciousness vis a vis the zombifying artwork

Blanchot can hardly deny consciousness as such in relation to the autonomous artwork, and at the same time claim that a “haggard knowledge that knows nothing” is “desperately eager”.[254] What could be the condition for this eagerness if not a consciousness intending? Even if the self of the receiver were at its lowest common denominator, say an inebriated human holding a TV remote control—this could be an instance of “the depths of torpor”, a state of mental and motor inactivity with partial insensibility—but extreme sluggishness cannot simultaneously be “desperately eager”. Generally, when a human is confronted with an artwork, there is some directedness of attention/intention and some comprehension, at least the comprehension that there is something one does not grasp. And this still leaves open the possibility for Blanchot’s insight that we apprehend the artwork without comprehending it.

But can a receiver enter into a state of mere apprehension? This would be like an instance of wilfully induced amnesia (memory loss) and agnosia: A-gnosis,[255] Can a healthy person wilfully induce such a state? If we recall Walter Pater’s description of the aesthetic experience of an artwork[256] it certainly seems possible, and Pater has the right to his own experience: “each object is loosed into a group of impressions—colour, odour, texture”.[257] Meanwhile, we land back in indecision, just where we were in chapter 4: We do not have any evidence that the material, formal features are there first since we are already inside language.

Is ontological priority at all a relevant issue for contemporary artworks?

The problem also recurs in Blanchot’s text, which we also experienced in the earlier Pater discussion, that at the level of rhythm, weight, mass, etc., the autonomous earth side of the artwork is too distant from the phenomena it is supposed to inform—the artwork. At the level of Blanchot’s autonomous artwork (Pater’s ‘aesthetic experience’), it cannot be an artwork for ‘artwork’ is suppressed.[258] With regard to contemporary artworks: What if the artwork is a readymade, say Hoovers in a Plexiglas case? [Illustration 16] External information, such as that the Hoovers have never been used, or that through the work’s title, New Hoover Convertible/New Shelton Wet Drys 5 Gallon Double-decker (1981-87), the artist has intended to make an ironic connection to the desirability of products such as sports cars—is not this information more helpful for the receiver than that the work’s presence be returned? Such artworks as this render the ontological priority of aesthetic features irrelevant; it simply does not matter what came first when trying to construct their meaning and import, so why should it have anything to do with their autonomy? A text with a photo is enough to engage us. But if this is the case, then why should we suddenly turn about-face and start to prioritize formal features and material etc., when the artwork needs defending from political onslaught?[259] Wouldn’t it be more consistent to find a way of expressing their autonomy that was related to their meaning?

Even if one chooses to focus upon the seemingly prior aspects, moral/epistemologically informed considerations do not necessarily distract one’s attention from them; quite the contrary—such aspects may draw one’s attention to precisely those formal features of objects or events that a culture values. For example, if a receiver is aware of the moral codes expressed in an artwork, this may encourage the receiver to take more time and examine the relevant formal features more thoroughly. Take for instance a feminist reading of female portraiture: Equipping oneself with knowledge about culturally entrenched perceptions of women can focus attention on the formal qualities (e.g., how the compositional lines dissect the body, or how light/dark pictorial planes are organized). So the benefits of prioritizing the supposedly ontologically prior aspects, or the formal features of contemporary artworks are at least suspect.

Ontological solitude

Indeed, some artworks are strange; we enter into their proximity, are exposed to them but are not subjects of conceptual mastery and control. But Blanchot claims that the autonomous artwork is never an object for us, only the dead artwork is, and that we constantly flip back and forth between the “two slopes”; we experience the continuous striving between autonomous earth and dead world. The problem is, a conceptual artwork such as Koon’s New Hover Convertibles spends no time whatsoever in ontological solitude, nor is there much striving once the receiver accepts that the work is conceptual art. Formal analysis is almost irrelevant; it is sufficient to read about the work. But if we ignore conceptual art for the present, and focus our attention of other sorts of artworks, is there a necessary, constant striving between earth and world? A receiver has to start somewhere with strange, discombobulating artworks, from the side of the earth, exposing oneself to them is as good a place to start as any. But artworks do not remain beyond cognitive grasp for very long because humans are clever at learning new codes. Even Abstract Expressionist works and obtuse Surrealist works by Max Ernst and Duchamp have been quite satisfyingly accounted for.[260] It may be up to each receiver to decide how much explanation and interpretation is satisfying, and although no finite human can demand absolute explanations of artworks, still, satisfaction often obtains, and in the process, even the aesthete traverses over to the “dead slope”. It is unlikely the receiver will return to being a subject of mere apprehension once this happens. Therefore Blanchot fails to show either that there is a constant striving between the dead world and the silent and autonomous earth, or that the artwork is ontologically alone. Artworks are not exhaustibly knowable, but this does not mean that one half of them is radically unknowable and that there is a constant back and forth movement. Moreover, if one draws a general conclusion about all artworks from a particular instance of a multivalent artwork, instead of showing that artworks exist in solitude, the multivalent artwork becomes an illustration for a theory. Would this not contradict their solitary being? Consider also that when the experimental style of Blanchot’s literary texts makes them difficult to interpret—at first glance they might seem ontologically alone—recourse to his literary theory helps in understanding what he is getting at, and this experience would seem to breach his claim for ontological solitude, or the irreducible nature of anonymous, impersonal consciousness.

The artwork’s fragmentary nature

When examining artworks’ fragmental character, truly this can occur via a number of means: the teeth of time and circumstance could have turned the work into a fragment, the work could be the result of total non-intentionality (what Blanchot and MukaYovský call “art’s own intentions”), or fragmentaryness can follows a formula. This is the case also with Tàpies’ works: Fragmentality may be designed specifically by the artist to look that way, and this would indicate that they are products of consciousness rather than “what preserves after the world has disappeared”.[261] Fragmentality in contemporary art is most often a convention intended to conform with a theory—say one written by an art theorist like Blanchot. One gets the suspicion that for the fragmentary nature of the autonomous artwork to be authentic, it would have to be something totally accidental. Also, if something is a fragment, a bit torn from a wider context, we can also imagine it inserted into contexts and loosing its fragmental status. As such, the fact of a work’s fragmentality is ambivalent; it proves neither to support nor weaken the claim of a connection between fragmentality and autonomy.

In sum, it seems like the best thing about Blanchot’s double-charactered artwork is that it is highly ambiguous; this is a standard explication of the work’s autonomy. Otherwise, it is a fraught account in at least four ways: First, Blanchot’s claim of the artwork’s radical unknowability due to its particularity is problematic because, if art is truly the other and all we ever are is exposed to it (we apprehend but do not comprehend), then how is Blanchot able to describe its unknowability so well? He uses conceptual thought to describe the presence of the work, something that is supposed to be minus conceptual thought. He is like a person who says, “I know nothing” but then proceeds to tell all sorts of things he knows. Secondly, Blanchot is also inconsistent in claiming that the consciousness that broaches an autonomous artwork is fragmented into a “desperately eager haggard knowledge that knows nothing”. Third, the work’s fragmentary nature is ambivalent, neither supporting nor weakening the claim of autonomy. Finally, ontological solitude can only be conjectured, and the thought struck that ontological priority is probably not a very relevant issue for contemporary artworks anyway. Let us move on to Jacques Derrida, to see how he deals with the autonomous artwork and the double character issue. After presenting this, the discussion will resume.


C. Derrida: The undecidable artwork

In “The Truth in Painting”,[262] Derrida might be describing the artwork as having a double character, but it is not at all clear. The work’s character is undecidable; sometimes it seems to have a double character, but as soon as the judge makes this decision, the floodgates of doubt open. I would like to argue that because of this, Derrida, more so than Heidegger and Blanchot, is able to surpass the problems of the ontological priority of aesthetic features. Furthermore, he avoids the difficulty of having to explain how the receiver constantly flips back and forth between the two characters. Derrida also avoids the metaphysical problem Heidegger and Blanchot have, of needing to return the work to an origin.

I see Derrida’s ‘autonomous artwork’ in three ways: For him the expression would mean, first, that the work is undecideable in form, secondly, it refers to the artwork’s non-restitution to a referent, to a corresponding truth, and thirdly, non-restitution to a purpose/undecidability of purpose. After spending a brief two pages on Derrida’s deconstructive practice, these three descriptions/claims will be addressed in turn, followed by discussion.

Derrida’s deconstructive practice[263]

Of course it is entirely beyond the scope of this paper to address Derrida’s philosophy as a whole. Nevertheless, a few points are worth mentioning that will aid in understanding his position on the artwork’s autonomy. First of all, an important thesis of his is that there is nothing outside the text.[264] What does this mean? A text is usually thought of as something written, but in an even broader sense, the term ‘text’ is used to indicate anything humans have made or constructed, e.g., an artistic creation. ‘Text’ traditionally implies that there are other things in the world that have not been made but which just have their existence (being, truth), regardless of whether or not anyone is aware of them. According to this view, everything in the world belongs either on the side of representation (text) or presence (the real). This metaphysical view—we can call it the metaphysics of presence—has been the dominant philosophical tradition since ancient times. However, Derrida thinks differently: For him, ‘text’ carries the sense of something that is made—that is all. There is no inference that there is something outside the text that just has its being.[265] There are two consequences from this: first, everything is text; secondly, because everything is text, nothing is prior to textuality, hence there can be no such thing as ‘earth existing in ontological solitude’, or earth in the sense of originary native ground, beyond the scope of a world. “A text is not an imitation of presence; instead presence is an effect of textuality.”[266] (This much agrees with Heidegger’s notion that the artwork allows earth to jut through the world.) “What I call “text” implies all the structures called “real”, “economic”, “historical”, socio-institutional, in short: all possible referents.”[267] A point of confusion is that, what Semiotic theory speaks of as a referent,[268] Derrida would call another text. But this does not mean that all reference is denied: “Every referent, all reality has the structure of a differential trace, and that one cannot refer to this “real” except in an interpretive experience.”[269] In other words, to claim that there is nothing outside of the text is to acknowledge that one can never get to a point where something no longer refers to something else: there is nothing outside of context. From this, it would be impossible to claim that there would be something rightfully internal to the proper experience of an artwork, and neither would there be anything we could rightfully exclude. All of the experiences in our life-world can come to bear. As such, Derrida would have to agree with Nelson Goodman that feelings are also cognitive.[270]

Derrida’s method for arguing—deconstruction—has as its goal to dismantle the metaphysics of presence.[271] This is a philosophical position that understands truth-as-correspondence and art as representation; the truthfulness of an artwork depends upon it corresponding to some external, non-present referent. The representational theory dominates the otherness art is, by refusing to acknowledge what is present to view, for sake of the abstract, external and non-present logos. Already it should be apparent that this is the same goal Heidegger and Blanchot aimed for: To overcome this philosophical position and the way it has determined the way we think about artworks. But Derrida’s method is not shared by either Heidegger or Blanchot, and, I claim, he is more radical than his precursors’ in the way he construes ‘the autonomous artwork’, because the deconstructive method extends beyond arguments for ontological priority (that material features are there first) and ontological solitude (the earth hiding), by insisting upon the artwork’s unanswerable quality of différance. This sounds just like “difference” but is spelled with an a. It is perhaps analogous to Heidegger’s riss that is wrestled forth in the strife between earth and world.[272] Derrida uses the term to descry a field that cannot be clearly established, which is there but only noticed indirectly, through finding places in an artwork/text which fail at whatever they were deployed to achieve. Such is the hallmark of the aesthetic field: failure—to correspond to a referent, to establish borders or distinctions, to establish formal qualities, to identify object from subject, to be instrumental. All this culminates in achieving the successful failure of not being able to finally judge the artwork, either with regard to form, content, meaning or value; whatever judgment we make, it will necessarily be inconclusive. This, as I see it, is ground for claiming that Derrida’s conception of the artwork’s autonomy is more radical than either Heidegger’s or Blanchot’s, although it may be that Heidegger’s ‘earth hiding’ and Blanchot’s ‘the ambiguity of the work that only plays at working in the world’ also suggests such a conclusion. Failure is a structure that does not “bridge a gap” between truth/epistemology/origin/logos and the text. Seeking out the places in an artwork where différance resides is a means by which to argue the artwork’s autonomy—its successful failure to return to a referent.

Derrida achieves the failure by interrogating his object of study with a double reading. This could be understood as Derrida’s way of thinking the double character: The first reading interprets the artwork so that it has some conventional coherence in relation to the system of ciphers we call the artwork. The second reading, which reveals différance, exceeds the first, occurring when Derrida feigns to hold a strong position of truth-as-correspondence and demands such rigorous adherence between the artwork and its claimed referent that it eventually collapses into aporia: profound un-knowing. The judge tries to take account of all the hidden relations involved in presencing, e.g., she tries to take account of being, the coming into unconcealment and the unconscious intentions of the artist, or the anonymous intentions of the work—everything unsaid, but thereby said all the more—the entire goings-on “behind stage”. For example, Derrida scrutinizes the cameraman’s choices; notices things that seem at first hand to be non-essential to the main system of ciphers called the artwork. But then the unsaid of the artwork emerges, the conditions making the first reading possible; they spiral into regress, for in order to witness the cameraman recording what we see through his aperture, we would need another camera trained on him, and so on and so forth. Un-knowability consequently appears in all the relations, be they directly present to view or not. Derrida’s double reading is firstly an interrogation of what makes meaning possible, secondly, of what makes meaning undeterminable and without correspondence between the artwork and logos. In Derrida’s view, this is a “salvation” of the authentic intention of the artwork, an intention the artist is not aware of.[273] From the double reading method, he radicalizes the conflicts inherent in Kant’s sublime aesthetic judgments: Deconstruction is the production of a sublime moment of “non-judgment” vis a vis an artwork, and, as was the case with Kant’s sublime judgment, the sublime is in us. Without further ado, let us turn to the three moments of ‘the autonomous artwork’ found in the chosen chapters of “The Truth in Painting”.

The ‘autonomous artwork’ understood as having undecidable form

Undecidability basically means that whatever judgment one makes, it could always have been otherwise and it is never settled once and for all. Every judgment, in order to be a judgment, has to be unprogrammable, and has to pass through the “experience and experiment of the undecideable”,[274] a struggle where more than one possibility remains open. If the decision were a foregone conclusion, there would be no judgment.

No finality of form is one way of phrasing Derrida’s argument for the undecidability of form, which he discusses in his essay “Parergon”.[275] It is the antithesis of Kant’s formal finality. Recall that ‘parergon’ was a term used by Kant to refer to the supplement, décor, or the frame that limits and protects the artwork, whatever comes in addition to the ergon, the pure artwork itself.[276] Derrida’s deconstructive method successfully fails to establish the formal limits of an artwork, the point where the ergon ends and the parergon begins. But how is this failure achieved?

Derrida entertains the assumption that there is a distinction between what is internal and external to the work of art[277] and then befuddles it. In his process of deconstructive interrogation, of paying scrupulous attention to the artwork, it becomes so problematic, so contradictory, so equivocal, that whatever rightfully belongs to the work itself cannot be differentiated from what is external to it. In that case, the work cannot be independent and distinct in the sense championed by Formalists. The inquiry turns back upon the receiver and becomes the receiver’s self-inquiry.

For example, Derrida examines Lucretia by Lucas Cranach.[278] [Illustration 17] Through his careful observation he is struck: From one vantage point the flimsy see-through veil is not essential because it provides no coverage, nor is the necklace or the frame/decor around the central motif essential. These come in addition to the centre of interest. But if these things are unessential, then why are they there at all? The parergon (frame, décor) are useful for something. And if useful—perhaps the veil accentuates Lucretia’s nudity, or the passé-partout or frame adds depth to the picture, or it has a colour that accentuates the main focus—then another vantage point emerges; the parergon would not really be optional anymore, but would become internal to the artwork. Hence the borders of the ergon unravel. The judge is unable to settle on a perimeter of “the work itself”, but follows some constantly mutable edge like the movement of a wave. As a shape that dissolves itself, the parergon is sublime; it is the thing that frames, finishes, completes and perfects an artwork. Yet in perfecting, it melts with the work and then melts with the external context, the hermeneutic circle around the work. The distinction between the object and of the field of aesthetic judgment is blurred.

But this frame is problematical. I do not know what is essential and what is accessory in a work. And above all I do not know what this thing is, that is neither essential nor accessory, neither proper nor improper, and that Kant calls parergon, for example the frame. Where does the frame take place. Does it take place. Where does it begin. Where does it end […][279]

Problematization dissolves finality of form and the judgment of beauty is impossible to make; only the sublime judgment remains.[280] However, for Derrida, this is not a Kantian sublime judgment. In order to understand this, a reminder of Kant’s sublime judgment is in order: Kant started from the position that the only fundamental natural unit of measure is nature as an absolute whole, “infinitely comprehended”. This measurement is sublime because it is absolutely great; in comparison, all else is small.[281] Absolute greatness cannot be found in any object of the senses; for any object perceived, a larger one can be given. Consequently, the mere ability to think shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of sense, revealing in us an unfathomable depth of super-sensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we foresee.[282] Striving for absolute comprehension, beyond what imagination is capable of representing in a simple perception or image, happens when we are confronted with scenes like the Pyramids—their magnitude alludes to the idea of absolute greatness. [283] Imagination's failure to contain this idea results in pain/displeasure, because “the imagination reaches its maximum. As it strives to expand that maximum, it sinks back into itself”.[284] But pain is not the end, for characteristic of sublime feeling is a movement to pleasure: Our vital powers are momentarily checked but then flow more strongly. We are awestruck: Nature appears “vanishing small in contrast to the Ideas of Reason”.[285] Hence we realize our superiority to nature "within and without us". “True sublimity is in the judge’s mind, not in the object, the judging of which prompts this mental attunement.[286]

Derrida’s sublime judgment also focuses back on the judge, but not in Kant’s way; rather than being awestruck by how greatly superior the judging subject’s ideas of reason are, the unified subject begins to dissolve. Derrida finds himself barred from making the judgment of beauty:

One can hardly speak of an opposition between the beautiful and the sublime. An opposition could only arise between two determinate objects having their contours, their edges, their finitude.[287]

Clearly this is quite a different understanding of the artwork’s autonomy from that of the Formalists, Pater, Essentialists, Minimalists and New Critics, who follow Kant’s finality of form. It is also a blow to the claim of ontological priority, because it is now impossible to say what is ontologically prior. Derrida’s problematization of parergonality is a tool for dismantling the container metaphor often used for artworks: the notion that there is something properly internal and external to them, to the field of art, or the legitimate discourse concerning them. ‘Container’ hedges the aesthetic field in from truth. Displacing the container metaphor with the frame metaphor, Derrida chops down the hedge around “pure taste” (unsullied by interest and purpose). The aesthetic field is autonomous, not because it is walled in, but because we cannot precisely put our finger on it. The artwork is an ambiguous threshold perched on the brink of a void (other terms he uses for this void are centre, essence, definition, logos, origin, abyss). It is like an elaborate cartouche with a void centre. [Illustration 18] The beholder is caught in a circularity.

‘The autonomous artwork’ understood as non-restitution to a corresponding truth

Derrida understands ‘the autonomous artwork’ in terms of its being separate from truth. But what does ‘truth’ mean for Derrida? To explain this, a brief reminder of Kant’s and Heidegger’s ‘truth’ is in order, because Derrida’s notion is a response to theirs.

It is as if Kant’s harmonious free play between the imagination and understanding is erased, and in its place Derrida writes non-restitution to a corresponding truth or origin.[288] Recall that for Kant, ‘truth’ meant that some phenomenal bit is subsumed under a general category, which resulted in knowledge being created. Insofar as the phenomenal bit is subsumable, it is true; if not, it is false. ‘Fine Art’ had nothing to do with this sort of truth because reason is not engaged; the imagination and understanding play with the aesthetic idea but cannot, no matter how hard they try, subsume the phenomena under a determinate concept. Kant therefore cordons off artworks into a distinct field removed from truth-as-correspondence. Heidegger, however, objected to Kant’s way of understanding of what truth is: Art is a form of knowledge, it is truth because truth is Aletheia, what comes into unconcealment, is made present to view, even in its self-re-occlusion.[289] Recall that Heidegger felt the need to identify the origin of art: Since Being was occluded, withdrawn and forgotten, the representation theory was destined to hold sway and truth construed as correspondence. This was the origin of metaphysics and the history of being, its destiny as a thing forgotten which now needed to be retrieved. But, we may ask, is it necessary that the being of artworks be phrased in terms of loss and retrieval? Clearly, it may be the case that the logic of representation entails that a subject/logos/being withdraws in order for metaphysics to supervene on the back of the representation theory, because this theory of art could not have existed without subject/object dualism. It seems there has to be a subject that can be represented by an object, and the object, to be true, has to be returnable to the subject. When Plato demanded that artists represent true ideas, a demand for correspondence to some metaphysical other was established, hence the destiny of art has been that art was understood as representation and was judged according to the standard of truth-as-correspondence.

When Derrida looks at this situation, he deems Heidegger’s attempt to return the artwork to an origin is just part of the same old metaphysical philosophy both of them are trying to dismantle: He debunks Heidegger’s claim that what is present to view lacks or has forgotten it’s becoming, because what is Other, which the positively given dominates, is not, as Heidegger thinks, being or presencing; it is not that there is something lost that needs to be regained. What is Other is neither essential nor the origin of what is present to view, because what is present has no essential origin; it is circular. Furthermore, according to Derrida, it is a misunderstanding to think that one could get to artworks by adding self-sufficiency or in-it-self-ness to them. It a mistake to think that one can strip all purposivity and pare down to some pure artwork, a pure kernel of essence or origin: “The trait” (the artwork) is situated “between the visible edging” [the passe-partout and frame] and the phantom in the centre”[290] (the essence or logos of the artwork) that has fascinated or bewitched us. Derrida thinks Heidegger never managed to unconceal the origin of art because the notion of it is premised upon the old metaphysical tradition of thinking that logos comes before flesh. Because there is no essence to art, there is no origin to be unconcealed. Whatever is the hypokaimenon—the supposed centre around which traits gather:

[…] hides another underneath but this latter still hides or veils…a “more” originary thingliness. But as the “more” carries itself away, the thing no longer has the figure or value of an “underneath”. Situated (or not) “under” the underneath, it would not only open an abyss, but would brusquely and discontinuously prescribe a change or direction, or rather a completely different topic.[291]

This theme pervades “The Truth in Painting”. Derrida reflects over Cézanne’s words to Emile Bernard: “I owe you the truth on painting and I will tell it to you”.[292] He asks: What must truth be in order to be owed or rendered in painting? If it consisted of rendering, what would one mean when one promised to render it as something due?[293] “[…] perhaps what is at stake in painting is truth, and in truth what is at stake [that idiom “the truth in painting”] is the abyss.”[294] Proceeding to describe the abysmal hunt for truth, Derrida observes,

It circulates very quickly among possibilities, with disconcerting agility it displaces its accents or its hidden puncturation, it potentializes and formalizes and exonomizes on enormous discourses, it multiplies the dealings and transactions, the contraband and graft and parasitizing among then.[295]

Hence ‘the truth in painting’ is a circular abyss. Derrida conjectures that the artist may very well intend truth (as correspondence), and surely he commits a painting act, but “the allegory of truth in painting is far from offering itself completely naked on a canvas”. Thus Derrida dreams “[…] of a painting without truth, which without debt and running the risk of no longer saying anything to anyone, would still not give up painting.”[296] Derrida does not think Cézanne owes the truth to Bernard because the artwork appears purely passive, deprived of both origin and end. It is an enigmatic, emphatic undecideable without epistemological dimension. [297]

To come to grips with how ‘not owing the truth’ in some ways, is an agreement with, yet a radicalization of Kant, it is worthwhile to recall that Kant made a distinction between free and adherent beauty (pulchritude vaga and pulchritude adhaerens).[298] The notion of what it is to adhere is important for Derrida, and he, like Kant, wants the judgment of an artwork to be non-adherent. But in contrast to Kant, Derrida wants it to be an interested judgment, because he bows to Heidegger’s view that Da-sein is always intentionally directed towards goals.[299] Intentional directedness implies interest is already present and, if there is a goal to which Da-sein strives, the goal is instrumental. But if art is instrumental then it is “adherent” in the Kantian sense, and thus tied to truth-as-correspondence. This looks like a catch-22. How can the artwork be made to not adhere (be separate from truth-as-correspondence) and yet the receiver be intentionally directed? Derrida must demonstrate that it is simply un-returnable.

With no retrieval possible, there would be no concept to which the artwork’s representation could adhere, and the thing that is iterated would have no referent. Still, it could be reiterated and would allow structures of meaning (logos) to be instituted. For example, if there had been a referent for a squiggle on a paper, then it would be subject to the correspondence theory of truth and the representation theory of art. But since no referent can be found, we are unable to essentially define the squiggle and thus it refers only to itself. Still, this does not mean that the squiggle refers to its formal qualities—Derrida is not trying to return to formalism or essentialism! Its referential power has to do with its essential lack of referent, which can then be reiterated and receivers can go on from there, instituting structures of meaning they themselves supply.

For the sake of his argument for non-restitution, in his deconstructive reading of the Van Gogh shoe painting, Derrida follows Heidegger’s tack of searching for an origin. He writes a story of successful failure to retrieve. [300] If we think of it in terms of the Cinderella story, Derrida is the prince who tries to return the shoe to a number of ugly sisters: He looks for a subject the art-object can be returned to but it is utterly impossible for him to put the artwork onto an artist’s intention, any interpretation to the painting, or a historically specific pair of shoes. Derrida cannot establish any of the claims Heidegger’s detractor, the positivistic art historian Meyer Schapiro, makes:

They are clearly pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant […] the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ‘87’ […] They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.[301]

To ‘be in someone’s shoes’ is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For a painter to represent his worn shoes as the main subject of a picture is for him to express a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as ‘a portion of the self’ (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.[302]

In his essay, Schapiro claims Heidegger has blatantly appropriated Van Gogh’s artwork and “put the shoes on his own feet”,[303] but Derrida senses that, for Shapiro, it really is a political issue who the painted shoe’s recipient is: The Nazi-enemy Heidegger is stealing the artwork from its rightful owners, the disinherited Van Gogh and Professor Goldstein.[304] Thus Schapiro’s purpose is to expiate dispossessed Jews as well as to tell a part of Van Gogh’s life history: The shoes are Van Gogh’s self portrait because a ghost resides in them. Shapiro supports this claim with positive evidence, a letter from Gaugin, who relates what Van Gogh said about a shoe painting. And it sounds like Schapiro has a watertight case. Meanwhile, Derrida deems the positivistic approach an unsuccessful return because, he argues, when a remark is made, one presupposes that there was a mark there first. Schapiro’s is an undecideable remark about shoes because it tries to ground/justify the claim that there ever were such shoes as we see in the picture. But this claim is groundless; van Gogh could have painted any old shoes, made them up, conflated fuzzy memories from several pairs. Schapiro supposes that the relation between language and the world is well founded and reliable; that the artwork describes something historically accurate. However, according to Derrida, for all the emphasis on positivist facts, Schapiro’s correspondence is just another form of fiction competing with other narratives and holds no favoured hierarchical position. Hence Derrida’s point seems to be both epistemological and hermeneutical: It is paint on a surface; that is all we know for sure; we can never trace an artwork back to a unified referent other than to painting in general: “There is Painting”:

The shoes are there in painting, they are there for figuring, representing, remarking, de-picting?) painting at work. Not in order to be reattached to the feet of somebody or other, in the painting or outside it, but there for-painting.”[305]

With no restitution to origin or telos, the work “goes to court”, but the judge can never reach the “supreme court” level where finality of form, origin, telos, content, significance or meaning is established once and for all. Derrida responds with incredulity over any claim anyone makes about the artwork. He sees the judge and artwork caught within incommensurable conceptual systems: Whatever is said about the artwork does not relate to what is out there in the way it is intended to, because every term within the system also alludes to or depends upon the ‘trace’ of other terms within the system that are absent. To make this more clear: Schapiro can utilize the discourse of portraiture, or Heidegger the discourse of truth as Aletheia, but neither can encode the truth about the artwork in the world.

‘The autonomous artwork’ understood as non-restitution to a purpose

Derrida’s third way of construing the artwork’s autonomy is in terms of uselessness. He does this by continuing the onslaught against Heidegger’s restitution of the artwork to an origin. Recall that for Heidegger, the telos to which the artwork should return is to its ontological origin; this is the source of the nature in which the being of an entity is present. Art is the origin of the artwork and of the artist. What the work really is, is defined by what is at work in the work, by the happening of truth, the strife between world and earth. For Heidegger, the happening of truth is the telos of the work of art: It discloses, opens up a world of speech and introduces time and history. This opens up for knowledge (epistemology). The silent earth is the condition for speech and cognition. Heidegger’s earth is the “absolute horizon”, marking the limit of the world (what is intelligible). But if the work of art opens up a world (an episteme), its earthy/material character means it will itself always remain on the far side of the truth-as-correspondence discourse and epistemic worlds. Shoes are for the soles of feet, the threshold between the earth and the world, so the leather soles of the shoes are returned to the self-occluding soil. The painting is returned to an originary peasant-like Eve—a true cosmic origin, more originary and thus more true than a van Gogh self-portrait. This is quite a profound return but Derrida belittles it; he cannot see why the point Heidegger was trying to make in his essay should be illustrated with the shoe painting.[306] If Heidegger explicates ‘Great Art’ with the example of a Greek Temple—which opens up the earth and reveals a whole paradigm of thought, gives to the world its look and men their outlook, telling the truth about truth—why did he fall into this “ridiculous and lamentable”[307] illustration; a passage over-laden with pathos, where he ignores the painting and starts talking about a peasant woman wandering the earth? The “abuse” does not stop here though, for Derrida also turns on the artist van Gogh, just as he did on Cézanne in the introduction (“Must we take the painter literally, once he starts to speak?”[308]) Through problematizing the lucidity of what is visible, Derrida deconstructs the artist’s stated intentions; he notices that the painted shoes are unreal, unworn, untied and unlaced. The painting does not even look like a pair, but like two left shoes.[309] Since uselessness is now so rampant, Derrida determines that it does not matter who owns the shoes or who has appropriated them; such is not the point of the artwork:

The “same truth” could be “presented” by any shoe painting, or even by any experience of shoes and even any “product” in general: the truth being that of a being-product coming back from “further away” than the matter-form couple, further away even than a “distinction between the two”. This truth is due to a “more distant origin”. It is not the truth of a relationship (of adequation or attribution) between such and such a product and such and such an owner, user, holder, bearer/wearer-borne. The belonging of the product “shoes” does not relate to a given subjectum, or even to a given world. What is said of belonging to the world and the earth is valid for the town and for the fields. Not indifferently, but equally.[310]

The shoes could have been replaced with any “product in general” because there is no need of an adequation between them and an origin. The painting of them remains independent from a moral obligation to be returnable to a referent.[311] The only thing Derrida can conclusively return the shoe painting to is, “The shoes are there in painting, they are there for figuring, representing, remarking, de-picting?) painting at work.”[312] On the scale of rightness, however, if the painting was to return to something more than this, Heidegger’s returning the painting to a mystical truth is more true, more valuable than any positivist notion of correspondence. The positivist’s truth-as-correspondence is a (false) logocentric confidence in language as “the mirror of nature”. This is the illusion that the meaning of a word has its origin in the structure of reality itself and hence makes the truth about that structure directly present to the mind. All this amounts to a false metaphysics of presence.[313]



It is difficult to come to a decision about Derrida’s conception of ‘the autonomous artwork’ because the relevant bits of The Truth in Painting—“ Passe partout”, “Parergon” and “Restitutions”—are written in an obscure, sometimes disjointed and rambling style.[315] “Restitutions” is like a discussion, but it is never clear how many are involved, or which voice is saying what. It is an experience of sublime judgment to determine if Derrida intends to say anything unambiguous. “The Truth in Painting” is like unto an aesthetic object; while this allows Derrida to appropriate for himself some of the power and force of autonomous (undecidable) artworks, it equally entails the text’s diremption from truth-as-correspondence. If Derrida himself were to read my discussion of his text, it is a foregone conclusion that he would say I have misunderstood him.[316] This notwithstanding, in the following discussion, focus will be on how I deem Derrida’s undecidable artwork compares with Kant’s artwork, and how undecidability affects 1) the artwork, the artist and the receiver, 2) the separation of artworks from truth-as-correspondence (non-restitution to truth), and 3) purpose without a purpose (non-restitution to a telos). Heidegger and Blanchot will be brought into the discussion when relevant.

1. The work, the artist and the receiver in light of undecidability

Undecidability makes the subject fall apart

With regard to the artwork from the Kantian perspectives, it was a unified, independent, self-reflexive subject, an honorary person. By contrast, Derrida’s artwork-subject is fragmented and it’s self-questioning is never resolved.[317] Whereas Kant’s formal finality expressed a ‘law-likeness without following a law’, now, because of the work’s ambiguous character, it really is impossible to say that logos comes before its flesh since the work only returns to its lack of origin. Insofar as the artwork is ‘intertextual’ and fragmentary (a fragment made up of borrowed fragments), convention is all it is; it could be following innumerable laws. The bits meshed together from here and there with no clear form pose a strong contrast to Kant’s artwork judged according to formal finality. Derrida’s artwork rules out a New Critical inquiry, since there is no self-sufficient finality of form that can function as an authoritative context for interpretation.

Moving attention to the artist and the receiver: For Kant, the artist was a genius endowed by nature to create with aesthetic ideas, and the receiver was a disinterested judge. Now, with undecidability, the distinction between the two becomes fuzzy. The artist is understood mostly as another receiver. There may be intentions she unknowingly expresses in the work, or the work may have its own intentions that are beyond her purview. The Kantian genius rejected, Derrida treats the artist as a deliberate intender, but one whose intentions fail. Hence it is likely he would agree with Blanchot that the artist “dies” at the “hand” of the work and therefore is not accountable for the effects of her work. (This is not to say that the artist is not responsible; this will be addressed in chapter 6). But neither is the receiver in control of her reception. Recall that for Kant, the mere ability to think showed that the mind surpassed every standard of sense, and he was awestruck by just how great Reason’s transcendental Ideas were—nature was nothing in comparison to them. The artwork provided the judge with self-reflection concerning her superior power of reason: For the judgment of beauty, reflection concerned the harmonious workings of cognitive abilities. Alternately, when confronted with the mathematical sublime, pain was not the telos of judgment, but it metamorphosed into a feeling of pleasure: “the feeling of a momentary checking of the vital powers and a consequent stronger outflow of them.”[318] Yet the sublime judgment—what Kant intended as an appendix to the judgment of taste—now comes to occupy Derrida’s centre stage. Importantly, when he experiences that judgments fold back on the judge, he retains Kant’s assertion that “true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging person, not in the natural object.”[319] He also retains Kant’s account of the receiver seeking to make sense of a meaningful and expressive whole, but falling short of determining the form or theme in a unified way. Another compatibility with Kant is that the undecidable coincides rather well with the notion of ‘aesthetic ideas’, which contain more scope for reflection than the receiver’s determinate concepts can wholly make sense of. Heidegger and Blanchot would also be able to find themselves in this failure: Sublime understanding is always a partial and indeterminate grasping of contextual wholes, which necessarily are conditioned upon an absolute whole beyond what finite humanity can fathom.

What Derrida rejects is Kant’s and the modern humanist’s belief in the unified subject, the transcendental foundation for experience as such. Simultaneously he rejects Kant’s quality of displeasure since, for him, it never is transposed into pleasure. This is because, for Derrida, encountering aesthetic phenomena—what is other than conceptual understanding—has a disruptive, debilitating effect on conventionalized understandings, and succeeds to make strange or de-habituate what the Kantian receiver thought was unambiguously clear.[320] Derrida’s sublime experience shows reason to be in shambles, stymied by the tremendous magnitude and mutability of whatever bit of phenomenon it encounters. Therefore there is an inability to make a distinction between the judgment of beauty and the sublime judgment; now every judgment is sublime. The artwork allows reflection over one’s ability to think—it is the precondition for truth-discourse as such—but it is more likely that the receiver thinks about how feeble is her thinking, how conflicted are the perceptions received through the senses. Seemingly paradoxical however, is that the work may be made and unmade by each receiver, and this reveals something of the power of the receiver’s will, and her responsibility for judgment in relation to sublime undecidables. The receiver takes on the semblance of artist: In the very act of interpreting a work, she inadvertently sets up a new work.

But could not the artist retain some intentional control, even if the work is not fully the child of her intention?[321] After all, even though the artist’s intentions are negated by the “accidents of the method” of their creation,[322] and by the intentions of receivers, the work may very well be linked with the artist during the process of creation, because the artist can use her mistakes in a fruitful way.[323] Surely sometimes some of the artist’s intentions obtain all the way to the gallery? We can construct a common position for Derrida, Heidegger and Blanchot as follows: After the artwork is presented to the public, it is cut loose from the artist’s intentions, be they in the form of interpretation, evaluation or claimed significance. As for the repeatable marks of symbolic forms, the mastery the receiver and artist think they have over them, which enables intersubjective communication, is undone, and the symbolic forms assume mastery over artist and receiver. Indeed, it seems likely that the artist’s intentions of the finished product are not identical to her intentions at the outset.[324] Yet it is doubtful that once the work leaves the studio, the artist’s belated intentions die off completely and the receiver’s intentions take over. In the art-institutional setting, artists and receivers can make pacts of agreement about the authority of the artist’s stated intentions. Take Jeff Koons: One could argue that the greater part of Koons’ art may actually be his reception-manipulation through video-performances, where he poses as the art-historian/critic of the artworks attributed to his name.[325] But there are also countless other counter-examples: Artists usually make public statements to effect the reception of their works, and it seems clear from the hordes of catalogue texts and art-historical treatises that the artist’s stated intentions are usually taken into account as an angle worth considering, regardless of whether the receiver accepts them.[326] The artist may not be the final instance for interpretation and evaluation, but this does not mean they “die”. On the one hand one might object, as did Beardsley: It is irrelevant whether the artist wants to or tries to influence reception, for if an artist says one thing about their work and yet the receiver experiences something else, then the independent-minded receiver will follow what their own experience tells them anyway. Regarding anyone’s or anything’s intentions as a final court of appeals causes the receiver to forfeit her imaginative powers and deprives her of responsibility. On the other hand, has Beardsley taken into account that the receiver is impressionable and only with difficulty ignores what she has heard? The receiver is neither fully bound nor fully free to judge independently of what has been told her. Reception functions by the power of suggestion, just as does advertising. Meanwhile, to resolve this impasse, one could try to force through the following distinction: We should distinguish between the artist proper and the artist-critic/historian/interpreter. By making this distinction, the problem could be skirted. But then a new problem arises of explaining why we should favour the artist-critic/historian over someone else who has critically studied the work? Surely it is by virtue of their proximity to the work’s intentions in the process of creation.

If the artist’s stated intentions are taken into consideration at all by receivers—and they usually are unless the work is a bona fide fragment such as, say an antique like the Belvedere Torso [Illustration 20]—the artist’s intentions, albeit belated, take part in the power-struggle for establishing meaning. One can even argue that in the Torso, some of the intentions of the artist obtain in the fragment: unity of form can be reconstructed in the hips, the direction the head would have had, the angle of missing limbs can also be pretty well gauged. Surely an expression of super-human strength was intended. So even though we do not have access to who the artist is, or to a formally unified artwork, many of the artist’s intentions still obtain. The fragment would probably have to appear even more fragmented, like rubble in a cultural landscape, in order to fall in line with the claim of the artist’s “death” at the “hand” of the work. With education and experience, even the intentions of minute fragments can be reconstructed [Illustration 21a and 21b]. From this it seems like the claim of the work’s independence from the artist’s intentions is highly disputable. At most, it is only partly independent. But is this saying very much? Maybe Derrida is just saying that positivistic certainty is unwarranted.

2. The undecidable artwork’s separation from truth-as-correspondence

Derrida’s scepticism

How does Derrida’s scepticism compare with Kant’s? Kant, as we recall, thought the artwork could be separate from truth because the aesthetic judgment was made outside the scope of determinate concepts, which were necessary for making truth judgments. For this reason, artworks stood in a sceptical relation with truth. Derrida’s scepticism stretches the separation between artworks and truth differently: Derrida seems to demand that we either have an exhaustive comprehension of the artwork—which would entail comprehending the absolute sublime whole of text/context—or else we must be strong sceptics. However, this does not coincide with our every-day experience of referring to things via language—we regularly experience satisfying explanations and interpretations of artworks, but then are “told” by Derrida that our experience and reflections are merely as right or as wrong as any other judgment we could have made because they are not absolute. A Derrida-defender could retort that Derrida is not a total sceptic, that artworks certainly do have justifiable meaning; it is just that it is impossible to reduce artworks to a final assertion of what they mean; they risk corresponding to a referent, but the final correspondence is always deferred. This accounts for the artwork’s power to be excessively meaningful without being true, and this is why artworks are the condition for subsequent ongoing truth-as-correspondence discourses. Problematically however, this sort of defence of Derrida weakens the thrust of what he himself says about non-restitution, and his stated goal for “The Truth in Painting”: “Thus one dreams of a painting without truth, which without debt and running the risk of no longer saying anything to anyone […] would still not give up painting.”[327] Derrida does not even want to run the risk of corresponding.[328] Through the sublime undecidable judgment, he sets up a regime of three successful failures. First, the failure to clearly identify what is rightfully internal or what is external to the work; secondly, the failure to return the artwork to a referent; thirdly, there is the failure to use the work for any conclusive final purpose. Because of these, the artwork can conclusively return only to itself, which Derrida interprets as “The shoes are there in painting, they are there for (figuring, representing, remarking, de-picting?) painting at work.”[329] The following objection arises: Has not Derrida, through this regime of failure, treated non-restitution and no formal finality as though they were foregone conclusions? If he has chosen beforehand that all judgments will be inconclusive, is he just a sceptic who cannot make a moral or political commitment? (This was the complaint against Posner and Kincaid in chapter 4.) There are arguments for both a yes and a no answer on this; here is an undecidability about undecidability. Using the law-court analogy, in the first instance, the artwork is judged, but so insufficiently that the work still remains innocent because never proven guilty. The focus of the judgment falls back on the judge, on her own prejudices and the undecidable artwork floats free. In the second instance, the work remains un-judged. Let’s examine this more closely:

No: Derrida does judge the work. Undecidability can entail that the artwork has a perfectly balanced sort of “ying/yang” double character; it is always in ebb and flow, never at rest, never favours one side. This view seems to be supported by the deconstructive “double reading” method, where the first reading is metaphysical, creating meaning through absence of presence, and the second reading returns aesthetic presence through undecidability. Schapiro’s accomplishment could be acknowledged as one slope of this double character, and undecidability (whatever judgment we make about it, it will be as good/bad/right/wrong/true/false as any other judgment we could have made) the other slope. This could validate Schapiro’s rigorous research into the historical, empirical data pertaining to the shoe picture. Meanwhile, we can grant that Schapiro goes too far in supposing that the relation between language and the world is well founded and reliable—that the artwork describes some historical thing accurately, and that this is objectionable because there is nothing to prevent van Gogh from having conflated fuzzy recollections of any number of shoes—nevertheless, as Derrida himself keenly observed, it could be two left shoes. It is intriguing to combine this observation with Schapiro’s self-portrait claim, because van Gogh may have been thinking of himself as “two left feet”. There is an idiom in French, just as there is in English: When feeling that one has botched things up, one likens oneself to having “two left feet”: "avoir deux pieds gauche". There is also "se lever du pied gauche" and "avoir deux mains gauche". Alternately, "ne pas faire qq chose avec deux pieds dans le même soulier" means to do something well. As we learn from Gaugin’s letter, Van Gogh was not pleased with his endeavors while painting the shoe pictures. Therefore, given that it looks like two left shoes, this would only strengthen the judgment that the shoe painting is a self-portrait.

Yes: Derrida is a sceptic who refrains from judging the work. If Derrida’s sublime undecidability overrides the double character entirely, it would be like the “tau” that lies beyond the “ying/yang”, and this would silence our effort to speak about the work at all.[330] By rendering the judgment of all artworks sublime, it is as if we are in a paralysis—we simply cannot judge the work—it is an aesthetic figuration the figure of which we cannot decide. And our indecision results in silence. If we choose to interpret undecidability as extending beyond the perfectly balanced double character, it invalidates Schapiro’s contribution, and the above interpretation about the self-portrait as two left shoes. This position can be supported with the thought that if the artwork exists, not inside reality, but inside one’s representation of it, this is a continuation of scepticism over the thing in itself. In that case, Derrida’s project entails maintaining metaphysics, but in such a way that it avoids the need to return the work to a missing (metaphysical) referent. Hence undecidability deconstructs the representation theory of art that relied on the absence of presence, and it tries to guarantee both presence and absence. Derrida’s ‘there is nothing outside the text’ claims to accommodate both the present and un-present aspects of the whole sublime work (which we cannot delimit, all the relations and anterior spaces of the relations), but does it? This seems undecidable too. But we can rightly wonder: If it is the case that there is nothing outside the text/context, if text and context are inextricable, if the sublime whole must be the amount against which a judgment is made, then how can Derrida maintain that just changing the time of the text sets up a new text? If there were nothing outside the text, then surely the change of time would still be within the text/context?

In sum, if Derrida fails to judge the work, if he only returns the painting to ‘for painting’, is this is a non-informative tautology? I think not; tautologies can also be hermeneutic circles. Self-inquiry widening ever outward, providing opportunity for self-reflection. Since the artwork is not true (correspondence) to anything other than itself, it becomes excessively meaningful, useful, the judge is morally enmeshed in a fruitful feast for thought.

Demonstrating non-restitution: A secret and contradictory trust in truth-as-correspondence?

If Derrida is interpreted as maintaining a strong sceptical position, it means that anything he understands about the artwork is a misunderstanding because understanding is never direct but is always a form of partial interpretation, and it uses metaphor when it thinks it is being literal.[331] This subverts confidence in logical, ethical or political commonplaces and interpretations about the artwork, (e.g., that van Gogh’s shoe picture is a depiction of a pair of shoes, or it was meant as a metaphorical self-portrait, or that Gonzales-Torres’ Placebo adopts a Minimalist pictorial syntax and is critical of AIDS research-funding). The ontological being of the artwork is not given, Derrida would claim, because the language we use in our dealings with it cannot correspond to ‘a reality out there’; rather, the artwork is constituted by us, in language, in ways that can never be justified by the claim that this is the way that the artwork ‘really is’. The artwork exists, not inside reality, but inside one’s representation of it—‘There is nothing outside the text’.[332] Therefore Schapiro’s description of van Gogh’s shoe painting as either a portrait of the artist’s shoes or as a self-portrait, is not a mastering of what in historical reality is an empirical fact about the picture, but it is relative to the discourse of those who appreciate metaphor, and, within that discourse these interpretations are valid. And Derrida would surely agree, since he holds that language is metaphor. Put differently, Derrida trusts language as metaphor; he thinks all our knowledge of the artwork is metaphor-ridden and entirely relative to the scope of that conceptual system. But how can Derrida launch this attack on truth-as-correspondence without having a contradictory trust in such language actually corresponding to an external referent? For without a pretty confident notion of what is true (corresponding truth), how can he show that the artwork has fallen into contradiction? Thus it seems that Derrida’s hope for “an artwork without truth”[333] still remains to be demonstrated. Derrida even admits as much: “each time that a rhetoric defines metaphor, not only is a philosophy implied, but also a conceptual network in which philosophy itself has been constituted.”[334] This is confirmed by Christopher Norris, one of Derrida’s allies, who states that there is no possibility of discussing metaphor, defining its attributes, its difference from ‘literal’ usage, or its problematic role, without relying on a concept of metaphor that will always have been prepared in advance by the discourse of philosophic reason.[335]

3. The undecidable purpose

“Non-restitution to a purpose” can be interpreted in a number of ways 1) The work does not at all have final purpose. Derrida espouses this when he can only return the painting to “for painting”, when the artwork “owes” no truth, and when he finds the work useless. 2) The work has an excess of non-conclusive purposes.[336] Here whatever purpose we return the artwork to, it is in relation to our own prejudices and our own situation. Derrida espouses this meaning when he tries to uncover the “true” intention behind Schapiro’s return. 3) Restitution to a final purpose eschews us. This does not exclude the possibility of there being a final purpose; it just always shoves it “around the bend”. These three interpretations graduate from a radical scepticism to a position of hope or religious-like faith. If Derrida limited himself to the first interpretation, it would provide serious grounds for doubting whether he actually judges the artwork, choosing instead to treat non-restitution as a foregone conclusion, he is a radical sceptic. Inasmuch as he espouses the third, then he, in a Socratic sort of way, really believes there is a final purpose, but it is always beyond his grasp. If he remains hopeful that the work has final purpose, then it could be argued that Derrida holds to an art-religion.

Judgment of purpose: An art-religion?

In “Restitutions”, Derrida’s view of the work’s purposivity initially shares a similarity with Kant’s purposiveness without determinate purpose: The artwork is purposive, not for any particular cognition, but for cognition as such—to reflect over the means of reflection, the very possibility of signifying. But from then on, Derrida and Kant diverge: The work holds an excess of interested purposes. So Derrida’s undecidability turns Kant’s purposiveness without a determinate purpose on its head and makes it mean, not formal purposiveness, but a wealth of cognitive purposes, none of which are conclusive. But could it be that the sublime undecidable judgment of purpose lapses into an art-religion? Is it in danger of turning the artwork’s purpose once again into a transcendent, metaphysical entity (it is outside the text/context)? One cannot know what its purpose is, but one merely believes, with a religious-like faith, and finds through that faith, that it is exceedingly purposeful. To this the Derridian advocate must agree; she experiences the final purpose/telos of the work as absent, but it remains exceedingly purposeful. To conclude The Truth in Painting, Derrida poignantly says, “You don’t have to render anything. Just bet on the trap [the useless hermetic cipher an artwork is] as others swear on a Bible.”[337] Swearing on the Bible presupposes that the person swearing has faith: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”[338] So it seems like Derrida (who, after all, has written “Restitutions”, albeit in several voices), is either a radical sceptic or he is equating the judgment of an artwork with religious-like faith. One has to exercise faith because the work is autonomous in the sense of ‘hermetic and useless’. And what else can one resort to if there is no possibility for identifying a conclusive referent and thus no positivistic stringency? Restitution as religion. This seems to point directly to the metaphysical slope of the artwork; that meaning is conditioned upon absence. As such, Derrida’s artwork is clearly metaphysical.

The autonomist advocate could now try to argue that it is not religion but modern aesthetic philosophy: the history of reception shows that since receivers have consistently interpreted artworks differently through the ages, this is exactly what we should expect for an autonomous work (one that resists appropriation); if the receiver had true access to it, there would not be this constantly mutable purpose. The instrumentalist-detractor could then retort that constantly mutable multi-purposefulness proves merely that the work is historical, and that the needs of receivers change in relation to changes in their life-world—political, cultural, social, economic and religious changes. Receivers have true, albeit unfixed access to artworks, because receivers and artists share (at least in part) a language/means of communication that is historical. Stalemate.

The undecidable artwork and moral concerns: Is the artwork morally obligated?

Kant tried to place the artwork in a field distinct from moral judgment by arguing that it had no final purpose. As we have already discussed, Kant’s attempt failed.[339] But if Derrida successfully fails to return the work to a final purpose, and the judgment turns back upon the judge (as a self-reflection that never renders any knowledge about the artwork), maybe then the work remains beyond moral obligation? Well, no. Derrida cannot accept the position of Blanchot—that the autonomous artwork remains on the side of the earth—because ‘there is nothing outside the text’. The whole notion of the artwork itself consequently fails: The artwork is constituted by us, in language, in ways that can never be justified by the claim that this is the way that the artwork ‘really is’. Undecidability is the grounds for NOT drawing a distinction between the artwork and the domain of moral responsibility. It is the necessary condition for the judge’s moral responsibility. But in the same breath, no one person or thing can hold sole responsibility: not the artwork itself, since there is no such thing; not the artist, because she is not in control of her intentions and she is on par with the receiver; not any particular receiver, because language is a symbolic system shared by everyone in the society. Responsibility is spread out over everything; the language or semiotic system the artwork uses is a power that flows through it without congealing at any one point. Hence it would be a mistake to hold any one instance as solely responsible for the content or effects the artwork produces.

Derrida shows that undecidability entails that there are no foregone conclusions. We cannot make a blanket statement beforehand about the work’s independence from epistemological and moral concerns. Judges are obligated to scrutinize each particular artwork and hold in mind that whatever they decide, they could have made a different judgment. But could the undecidability of the artwork mean that anything the artist offers is O. K.? No. Undecidability is not an excuse for relativism or nihilism, although some of Derrida’s detractors have claimed that it is.[340] But it can mean that the range of choices for which the artist and receiver can be ethically responsible or irresponsible for, is wider than has been understood under High Modernism, that judges make decisions based on the “firm” ground of prejudice. It may mean that responsibility with decidability is responsibility with undecidability. Undecidability increases responsibility because it obliges the receiver to make distinctions between choices, and to reflect over them; to recognize the order of priorities one favours, one’s cultural conventions. From this perspective, the receiver appears to need more vigilance. In fact, vigilance displaces uncritically accepting the cut and dry foregone distinctions Modernism put in place—that it always is irrelevant to judge the artwork with regard to political concerns, morality, religion, etc.

4. How successful is Derrida’s failure?

Just how undecidable are artworks really? How successful is the regime of failure? Surely some artworks are more un-returnable than others? With much effort, Derrida achieves a supposedly successful failure of restitution for a simple still life, but the regime of failure is highly disputable. The thesis of undecidability is itself undecidable, or can only partly obtain. Successful communication does occur—because people in a community master shared symbolic forms. An artist can intend to express something and the receiver can understand what is meant, and the artist’s doings and the receiver’s understandings are possible by the grace of repeatable aesthetic marks in a historical, cultural setting, because of good will, and because of institutionalized pacts of agreement.[341] Through the van Gogh painting, Derrida claims to have demonstrated that this mastering is undone through the mastery the symbolic forms have over us. But we can rightly exercise a healthy scepticism on this point: Derrida himself “masters” the artwork by appropriating it as an illustration for his theories of non-restitution and undecidability. It may be argued that Derrida ends in contradiction: He has already decided, out from his theoretical commitments, what he wants the painting to mean and he is only interested in that one meaning. He treats the painting as a foregone conclusion that it is undecidable and thus finally un-returnable. In sum, the artwork appears as not entirely undecidable, not entirely unreturnable to more than itself.

As a final critical remark, it is worth reflecting that from ‘the undecidable artwork’ absurdity is forthcoming: Since anything can be art these days every bit of phenomena would be a particular undecidable. But should a system that has useful explaining power be rejected just because it leads to this unintended absurdity? I think not. Human-created systems are not completely consistent, and they tend to become more than was intended.

The usefulness of the undecidable artwork

We have seen that ‘the undecidable artwork’ can be useful for avoiding some of the problems with the double character; it can also aid in interpreting the being of some contemporary artworks. Take Yoko Ono’s instruction pieces:[342] Where is the Kantian form of finality that results in self-reflection over the harmony of mental faculties, or a formal finality that can be grounds for critical analysis and justifiable interpretation? Radically ambiguous being, located neither on the side of the earth nor the world, now is useful for understanding the mode of existence of artworks that lack traditional formal constraints. Ono’s instruction works instantiate the artwork’s ontological instability resulting in open-ended self-reflection. The instruction may be nothing more than to produce a series of thoughts, or to discuss something with someone. The artwork may include conventional aspects (there is something framed and hanging in the museum), or there may be a “limited series of prints” of the instructions, or the printed instructions may be made in such a way that each of the 10,000 examples are slightly unique, but the artwork also includes convention-governed structures from the commercial world: the bus stop, the vending machine, the thousands of repetitions, SMS, internet. Yet if it is the case, as Ono maintains, that the artwork is not found in any of the artworld or commercial-world places, and it cannot be a commodity since it cannot be bought or sold—it is nothing material but exists only in the meeting between people—then the stable existence of the artwork collapses; what is the status of its being? There is no formal unity self-sufficient for its own interpretation. It is an inherently unstable, undecidable and partly metaphysical existence.


‘The HBD autonomous artwork’

As a summary of this long-winded chapter, here is a synthesis/review of the points about which it seems Heidegger, Blanchot and Derrida can agree concerning the autonomous artwork. Where there is disagreement, I give deference to what I deem Derrida’s position to be. Let’s say that the three meet for coffee, and together agree on a common conception of ‘the autonomous artwork’ called ‘the HBD autonomous artwork’. What moments would it have?

(1) First of all, a claim about the work in relation to the artist: that the work is independent from the artist’s intentions for it. Particularly after the artwork is presented to the public, it is cut loose from the artist’s intentions, be they in the form of interpretation, or claimed significance. As for the repeatable marks of symbolic forms, the mastery the receiver and artist think they have over them, which enables inter-subjective communication, is undone, and the symbolic forms assume mastery over artist and receiver. Heidegger would say the work self-subsists; that it remains unknown where the artist and the process and the circumstances of the genesis of the work lie.[343] For Blanchot, the artist “dies” at the “hand” of the work,[344] and Derrida would argue from the point of view of successful failure to return the work to the artist’s intentions for it. The artist does not owe the truth.[345]

(2) Secondly, all three would agree that the work is independent from the receiver’s intentions for it. Heidegger would point to the work’s earthy character, its self-occlusion. Blanchot would point to the death of the receiver at the hand of the work, and Derrida would point to the judgment being sublime, its turning back on the judge and becoming a self-inquiry.

(3) All three would readily agree that the autonomous artwork is an unknowable particular fragment, anterior to the truth-as-correspondence discourse, yet the condition for that discourse.

(4) There would be general agreement over the work’s relation to purposiveness: It resists determinate appropriation, yet in the very act of doing so, it opens up for all manner of appropriations. From here, all three would phrase the artwork’s indeterminate purposiveness differently: Heidegger: To open up the earth and set forth a world, to allow truth to come into unconcealment. Blanchot: When the artwork negates the meaning and signification that was derived through concepts, what asserts itself is the very possibility of signifying. Derrida: To return the work to ‘painting’, which means to broach what it is to bring into being: “perhaps what is at stake in painting is truth, and in truth what is at stake (that idiom) is the abyss.”[346]

(5) A ‘double character’ would garner agreement from Heidegger and Blanchot, although the precise nature of the earth—whether it is partly metaphysical or only material would remain a point of dispute. The two would also readily agree that there is a dialectical movement between the two characters. Meanwhile, Derrida would object to this by saying that the artwork is undecideable; it is impossible to distinguish between what belongs to which character, or that either side has priority because the origin is absent, a void logos. Thus the three thinkers would have to compromise with Derrida and settle for something like this: The autonomous artwork has a radically ambiguous character that cannot be conclusively distinguished, either with regard to two distinct characters, form, reference, meaning or value.

(6) What about the work’s relation to moral concerns? Blanchot would think it is a foregone conclusion that the artwork is anterior to such, since it is presence apprehended by a zombified conscience. Heidegger and Derrida disagree. They would argue that earth and world are simultaneously the case. With Derrida’s ‘there is nothing outside the text’, the artwork cannot remain beyond the domain of moral responsibility. Still, whatever decision one makes about the work turns back upon the judge and becomes a self-inquiry, so the work is not addressed in a final sense. The three will provisionally have to write that the work has an ambiguous undecideable character, which renders its relation to moral concerns undecided, but judging the work is nevertheless a moral responsibility. What is meant here by judging the work, is all the various decisions one can make vis a vis the artwork, be they a judgment of taste, or about the work’s purpose, it’s formal qualities, value, everything. There are no grounds for bad faith.

This chapter presented alternative accounts of a double character for the artwork along the lines of Heidegger and Blanchot, showing the ways in which they deem the work both autonomous and to discuss these ways. Secondly, it showed how Derrida absorbs some insights from each of these thinkers as well as from Kant, in his conception of the undecidable, non-returnable artwork. The reader may wonder—is not the HBD basically just an interpretation of the Derridian position? Should it not just be called “D”? I think not, because with undecidability, it is still unclear whether or not a double character remains. ‘Double character’ may apply not to the work, but to the way the judge “reads” the work. From here, the next thing to do is to gather together the moments discussed in chapters 4 and 5, compare and discuss them, and see if yet a third hybrid can be constructed, that will be useful for understanding the autonomy of contemporary artworks.



[178] Heidegger, 1964.

[179] Op cit., p. 652.

[180] Op cit., p. 661.

[181] Op cit., p. 701. He says this in the epilogue.

[182] Op cit., p. 665.

[183] Heidegger, 1996, p. 64. I have strategically chosen to rely upon Sein und Zeit in order to clarify a concept that is rather obscure in Origin. Meanwhile, I grant that this is problematic in light of Heidegger’s thought having changed focus after he wrote Sein und Zeit. Origin was written after Sein und Zeit, during a phase where he was on the way towards what has been called his ‘late thinking’. This change of focus entails, briefly, that he became more concerned with being rather than beings or Da-sein. The change is also perhaps implied in Origin, inasmuch as Heidegger is most concerned with the artwork and not, to the same degree, the artist or the receiver. (Meanwhile, this is highly disputable, sence the work his artwork is—the event of Aletheia—could hardly self-subsist unless the receiver-preserver was not already deeply involved.) Relying on Sein und Zeit to clarify concepts in Origin is also problematic in that there is no guarantee of a direct gradual progression of change between the early and the late Heidegger.

[184] Wallenstein, 2001, p. 115.

[185] Heidegger, 1964, 677.

[186] Heidegger, 1964, p. 674; 676.

[187] Heidegger, 1996, §14-18. For a Catholic, it is easy to think of one’s local parish church, all the pilgrim churches and St. Peters Basilica and square, in the way Heidegger describes the world set up through the Greek temple.

[188] Dasein is Heidegger’s term for human being. In German, Da (here, or also there) and Sein (being, to be), "there-being" it is deployed to indicate the kind of existence self-conscious human beings uniquely possess. Stated simply, Dasein is concerned, it cares about being in the world. Self and world need each other, for they function together, inter-dependently. Dasein’s being is actively engaged with its own unique world.

[189] Op cit., p. 677.

[190] Op cit., p. 693.

[191] This is a significant thought for Derrida, as we shall see shortly.

[192] Op cit., p. 674.

[193] “Preserver” is Heidegger’s term for the receiver or the judge.

[194] Thanks to Vibeke Tellmann for a discussion on this.

[195] In Heidegger’s description of the peasant shoes, he says the shoes belong to the earth, not the world, but the world of the peasant woman protects the shoes. This distinction plays a central role in Heidegger's discussion of art.

[196] ‘Preconditioned’ does not mean that the creator is the origin, for, as Heidegger says in his introductory paragraph, “art is the origin of both artist and work”. p. 650.

[197] Heidegger, 1964, p. 689. My italics.

[198] Ibid.

[199] Op cit., p. 675. My italics.

[200] Op cit., p. 690.

[201] Op cit., p. 669.

[202] Op cit., p. 685.

[203] Op cit., p. 689.

[204] Op cit., p. 650.

[205] It may very well be that this is too vulgarly put, since Heidegger says “What this word [earth] says is not to be associated with the idea of a mass of matter deposited somewhere…” But just before this sentence (in the English translation), he says “It clears and illuminates, also, that on which an in which man bases his dwelling.” Heidegger is, I feel, quite ambiguous on this point (Heidegger, 1964, p. 671). It is also worth noting that in Sein und Zeit§15, Heidegger speaks of “nature” in such a way that it seems to be synonymous with earth in Origin, for he says, “As the ‘surrounding world’ is discovered, ‘nature’ thus discovered is encountered along with it […] But in this kind of discovery of nature, nature as what ‘stirs and strives,’ what overcomes us, entrances us as landscape, remains hidden. The botanist’s plants are not the flowers of the hedgerow, the river’s ‘source’ ascertained by the geographer is not the ‘source in the ground’. (Heidegger, 1996, p. 66) From this, it seems that earth includes all of nature, both what can be empirically known and what can be ascertained indirectly. And it can include the metaphysical.

[206] Op cit., p. 676.

[207] Op cit., p. 687.

[208] Op cit., p. 674.

[209] Op cit., p. 680.

[210] Op cit., p. 671.

[211] Op cit., p. 671.

[212] Op cit., p. 674.

[213] Op cit., p. 669.

[214] Heidegger imagines a peasant woman has worn the shoes he sees in the van Gogh painting.

[215] Op cit., p. 673.

[216] Blanchot, 1995. Although Blanchot’s writings primarily deal with literary art, what he says about it can, in many cases, also apply for pictorial and other art forms. Ullrich Haase and William Large claim that since most of his writings deal with the same issue, it is difficult to speak of development in Blanchot’s texts. Therefore I feel that for the intents of this paper, I am justified to limiting the scope of my discussion to “Literature and the right to Death” as a primary source. (Haase, Ullrich and Large, William 2001, p. 7.)

[217] Blanchot, 1995, p. 300-344.

[218] Op cit., pp. 322-323.

[219] Op cit., p. 323.

[220] Op cit., p. 326.

[221] Op cit., p. 327.

[222] Op cit., p. 328.

[223] Even though such contexts for valuing and signification are available, they do not guarantee that the receiver will actually address the artwork, for there is the risk of addressing the theory and then the artwork is reduced to an illustration of it.

[224] has several Tàpiets’ works exemplifying this approach. Confronted with one of his monumental sand-encrusted works, one feels but a nose-length from a graffiti wall.

[225] Blanchot, 1995, p. 328.

[226] I interpret Blanchot’s ‘world’ along the lines of Heidegger’s.

[227] Heidegger, 1964, p. 671.

[228] Op cit., p. 304.

[229] Op cit., p. 317.

[230] Op cit., p. 307.

[231] Op cit., p. 305.

[232] Op cit., p. 305.

[233] Op cit., p. 306.

[234] Op cit., p. 307.

[235] Op cit., pp. 331-332.

[236] Op cit., p. 328.

[237] Op cit., p. 315.

[238] Op cit., p. 329.

[239] Op cit., p. 329.

[240] CJ §44: 306.

[241] CJ §57, Comment I, 344. My italics.

[242] Blanchot, 1995, p. 330.

[243] Ibid.

[244] Op cit., p. 335.

[245] Op cit., p. 344.

[246] Op cit., p. 342.

[247] Op cit., p. 341. Blanchot would deny that 9/11 is an artwork since it did not “play” at being effective.

[248] Op cit., p. 336-337.

[249] Op cit., p. 329.

[250] Blanchot, 1995, p. 336-337.

[251] Blanchot, 1995, pp. 327-329.

[252] In this connection, Heidegger is careful to avoid claiming that earth is non-metaphysical. I risk going off on a tangent, but I feel that the following is related to the claim that earth is prior to logos: There is no logical reason why God/Logos was not there first. It says in Genesis 1:2-3, “The spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light…” In the creation myth, water and darkness were there before God/logos spoke, but this does not entail that logos did not have its being simultaneously with water’s being. In John 1:1, “In the beginning was logos”, neither does this entail that earth/physys is secondary, rather, logos and earth co-existed. It is worth reflecting over the experience that, in nature, there are instances of irreducible complexity, even down to the molecular level, which support the assumption that earth is intentionally directed.

[253] At this point, an analysis of the German text would be in order.

[254] Blanchot, 1995, p. 331.

[255] See page 29 for discussion on agnosia.

[256] See page 41.

[257] Pater, 1998, p. 829.

[258] Bernstein, 1992, p. 14, talks about the too great distance between aesthetic experience and ‘artwork’.

[259] See pp. 5-6 for examples of this “about-face”

[260] Kraus, 1998.Chapter 2 discusses Ernst; chapter 3 Duchamp’s famously obtuse Large Glass (Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors). For Large Glass, see also de Duve, 1998, pp. 401-409, “The Encounter of an Object and Public”.

[261] Blanchot, 1995, p. 328.

[262] Derrida, 1987.

[263] Derrida repeatedly denied that deconstruction was a method or theory but that it is a process that takes place within texts. Nevertheless, researchers notice that his books follow a pattern that certainly bears the marks of a method and a theory.

[264] Derrida, 1977, p. 158. The phrase in French is “Il n'y a pas de hors-texte”.

[265] A specific example of someone who views existence according to the view Derrida rejects is Petter Dass, who wrote: “Gud er gud om alle land lå øde; Gud er Gud om alle mann var døde.” (God is God even if all nations are destroyed; God is God even if all mankind are dead.)

[266] Lucy, 2004, pp. 142-144.

[267] Derrida, Limited inc., quoted in Lucy, 2004, p. 143.

[268] Reference back to p. 31-32.

[269] Derrida, Limited inc., quoted in Lucy, 2004, p. 143.

[270] Reference back to p. 30.

[271] Bernstein, 1992, p. 138.

[272] Thanks to Vibeke Tellmann for this thought.

[273] Derrida has absorbed a lesson from Freud. I say this because, even though Plato discussed the unknowability of the soul, it was Freud’s understanding of the unconscious that raised the modern awareness of the possibility of not being aware of our intentions. A good example of how Derrida attributes the intention of an artwork to the unconscious is in his discussion of Meyer Schapiro’s essay. Derrida finds that when Schapiro tries to return the painting to being a self-portrait of the artist, he inadvertently returns the artwork to his friend and fellow-Jew, Professor Goldstein. Thus Derrida claims that Schapiro returns the van Gogh painting to his unconscious intentions.

[274] Derrida, Limited Inc., p. 116. (Quoted from Lucy, 2004, p. 149.)

[275] Derrida, 1987, pp. 17-147.

[276] CJ§14. An instantiation of the Kantian understanding of the frame, as not part of the work proper, is where some museum conservation departments shift out frames in accordance with the fashion of the era. Conversely, the frame understood as part of the work proper leads other museum conservation departments to recover original or period-frames, or to create reproductions of such. Nevertheless, both practices can also be viewed as fashions of an era.

[277] The container metaphor was first mentioned on p. 18.

[278], Derrida, 1987, p. 58-72.

[279] Derrida, 1987, p. 59.

[280] CJ§25, 26.

[281] CJ§25.

[282] CJ§25, 250; §29, 271.

[283] CJ p. 252.

[284] CJ p. 252.

[285] C.J. p. 257.

[286] C.J. p. 257.

[287] Derrida, 1987, p. 127.

[288] Synonyms of non-restitution are the logic of non-arrival, the aesthetics of failure or referentiality at play.

[289] See for example Heidegger, 1964, p. 680.

[290] Derrida, 1987, p. 12.

[291] Derrida, 1987, p. 291.

[292] Derrida, 1987, p. 2.

[293] Op cit., p. 4.

[294] Op cit., p. 7.

[295] Op cit., pp. 8-9.

[296] Op cit., p. 9.

[297] Bernstein, 1992, p. 138.

[298] CJ§16: “Free beauty” is where the receiver does not presuppose a concept of what the object’s purpose is, and ‘concept’, for Kant, entails a telos. For example, the beauty of the flower is free; we do not think of its various parts as for plant reproduction when admiring it. By contrast, “adherent beauty” is where the judging of a thing beautiful depends upon it being connected to a concept of what the object is for. The beauty of a horse was such for Kant: It was beautiful only insofar as it fulfilled the concept of transportation.

[299] See p. 28.

[300] As well as in Restitutions, this theme can also be found in several other works: The Voice and Phenomena, Economimisis, Grammatology.

[301] Schapiro, 1998, pp. 428-429; Derrida, 1987, p. 364.

[302] Schapiro, 1998, p. 431.

[303] Derrida, 1987, p. 366.

[304] Schapiro’s text is dedicated to Goldstein, a fellow-Jew who fled Nazi Germany, just as did Schapiro’s family.

[305] Derrida, 1987, p. 372.

[306] Op cit., p. 292-293.

[307] Ibid.

[308] Op cit., p. 8.

[309] Op cit., 1987, p. 374-375.

[310] Op cit., 1987, p. 312.

[311] The problem of moral obligation is addressed more fully on page 98-99.

[312] Derrida, 1987, p. 372.

[313] This explanation can be understood as closely following Wittgenstein’s rejection of the picture theory of language, although, I do not know if Derrida read or acknowledged Wittgenstein’s work.

[314] My discussion is not demonstratively divided into the voice of an autonomist and a dissenter, however these voices are still present.

[315] It is very easy to understand why, in 1992, twenty philosophers including some very well known ones, signed a letter to the University of Cambridge to protest its controversial award of an honorary doctorate to Derrida, maintaining that his work "does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigor". They described his philosophy as being composed of "tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the Dadaists."

[316] He would still do a close reading of my text. Derrida thinks that just changing the time of the text’s reading turns it into a new text/artwork.

[317] This is also and particularly the case for the artwork entitled “Restitutions”.

[318] CJ§27.

[319] Ibid.

[320] A pertinent example of this is John Ruskin, in his autobiography Praeteria: “[…] the things in which I have been least deceived are those which I have learned as their Spectator”. (Quoted from Kraus, 1998, p. 6.)

[321] Take for example fine art prints pulled from copper plates. There are innumerable factors to that figure in: the temperature in the room; the room’s humidity; the strength of the ferric chloride; how long the chloride has been exposed to air; how much sludge is in the etching pan; the thickness of gelatine or asphalt covering the copper plate; whether or not the copper plate was absolutely free of fat to begin with; how much the gelatine has shrunk and if it has shrunk evenly; the length of time the plate is in the bath, whether or not the bath is giggled during the etch. And after the plate is etched, there are more contingencies the artist needs to control in the printing process: the viscosity of the inks; their tackiness; the roller’s weight, the felt’s thickness, the order in which inks are rolled, the weight of the hand when wiping the plate of excess ink, the stiffness of the tarlatan, the height of the roller on the press in relation to the felts, how much sizing the felts have already absorbed, whether or not the felts are damaged in some way, the amount of sizing in the printing paper, how moist the paper is, etc. Clearly, the professional artist can control many of these contingencies, but not completely; all results must be, in part, due to the accidents or contingencies of the method, ‘art’s own intentions’.

[322] My terminology. ‘Accidents of the method’ has paradigmatic examples. One that immediately comes to mind is the masterful graphic artist, Krishna Reddy [Illustration 19] The following website has many of his pictures. By making a printing mistake (spilling the linseed oil can in the printing ink), he ended up inventing a whole new kind of fine-art printing eventually called colour viscosity printing. This method enables the artist to print multiple colours in one pass through the press, thus avoiding the problems of trying to achieve perfect registration. See Hayter, 1982.

[323] Reddy went on to utilize this “mistake”, turning it into a calculable, repeatable effect that met the rigour of hard science, when he chose. However, in artworks, going to that extent is not always interesting.

It is also instructive to examine the works of Sigmar Polke in this respect. He has problematized the autonomy of materials: the triptych Apparizone, (1992), is a so-called “unpainted painting”, for it was created when he poured chemicals on a surface. The fluids reacted with each other and with the air. Eventually they settled down, dried, and became the painting. This suggests a unity between the artwork and nature, for nature returns to the picture, not as motif, but as a play of natural forces and processes. The picture mocks the artist for it has almost totally created itself. Ironically however, because the artist chose consciously to set up his materials in a certain way, he also knows from experience, how the chemicals tend to react with each other, so Polk is the artist-director. (Hanne Beate Ueland of Astrup Fearnley Museum, my English translation.)

[324] Blanchot’s explanation of the artist’s belated intentions rings true with my own experience as a graphic artist.

[325] Koons admits he has never touched a number of the works attributed to his name. He selects found photos from which other artists (up to 70 at a time in his workshop) work. It is instructive to review his exhibition catalogue “Jeff Koons: Retrospective”, to see just how much space is devoted to his own stated intentions. (“Jeff Koons: Retrospective” 04.09-12.12.2004, Astrup Fearnley Museum for Modern Art, Oslo.)

[326] For example, information for the public produced by Astrup Fearnely Museum between 2000 and 2005 highlight artist’s stated intentions.

[327] Derrida, 1987, p. 9

[328] Although I limit the scope of this paper to “The Truth in Painting” essays “Passe partout”, “Parergon” and “Restitutions”, I realize that others of Derrida’s texts can point to a different conclusion.

[329] Derrida, 1987, p. 372.

[330] “He who speaks about the tau does not know about the tau” said Lao Tzu. I am using Taoism as an analogy, although others have made a strong connection between Deconstruction and Eastern Philosophy. See for example

[331] This is not a theme Derrida addresses directly in “Truth in Painting”, but in the essay “White Mythology” in the book Margins of Philosophy, he states: “there is no properly philosophical category to qualify a certain number of tropes that have conditioned the so-called “fundamental”, “structuring”, “original” philosophical oppositions: they are so many “metaphors” that would constitute the rubrics of such a tropology, the words “turn”, “trope” or “metaphor” being no exception to this rule”. Derrida, 1982, p. 229:

[332] Derrida, 1977, p. 158.

[333] Derrida, 1987, p. 9.

[334] Derrida, 1982, p. 230.

[335] Norris, 2000, p. 142.

[336] For Derrida, it is less a question of what the picture is returned to and more a question of the theory behind the returning. It is thus the theories and not who the picture should be return to that Derrida is most concerned with. Meanwhile, inasmuch as Derrida ranks heirarhically the value of philosophical commitments of Schapiro and Heidegger, is this not an indication that he secretly trusts in some sort of truth-as-correspondence?

[337] Derrida, 1987, p. 382.

[338] Hebrews 11:1.

[339] Kant’s failure to achieve this separation was discussed on p. 54.

[340] "Derrida's influence has been disastrous," Roger Kimball, a conservative critic, said in a 1994 New York Times Magazine interview. "He has helped foster a sort of anemic nihilism, which has given imprimaturs to squads of imitators who no longer feel that what they are engaged in is a search for truth, who would find that notion risible.",150&values%5B0%5D=5&values%5B1%5D=1937

[341] Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty could be brought in here, but the scope of this paper does not allow it.

[342] A retrospective of the art of Yoko Ono, including several of her instruction works, is presently available: Horizontal Memories Exhibition, 22 January-8 May 2005, Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art, Oslo.

[343] Heidegger, 1964, p. 689.

[344] Blanchot, 1995, p. 307

[345] Derrida, 1987, p. 8; 375.

[346] Derrida, 1987, p. 7.