The paradox of the real in art


Benedikt Ledebur : The paradox of the real in art *

* Hyper Real: Die Passion des Realen in Malerei und Fotografie – Katalog Wien Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien ( MuMOK) – 22. Oktober 2010 bis 13. Februar 2011 ; Deutsch English , Texte von Monika Faber , Edelbert Köb , Benedikt Ledebur , Susanne Neuburger , Interview von Brigitte Franzen mit Jean-Christoph Ammann – Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln 2010 , ca. 350 Seiten, 274 Farb-Abb., € 38.-

There’s nothing behind it.
Andy Warhol

Nature is a product of art and discourse.
Nelson Goodman

Let the atrocious images haunt us.
Susan Sontag

A first attempt at a rational linguistic distinction of the real that separates the determination of characteristics from the absence of this determination—this being an attempt to assign the real to another space other than the reality in which it currently exists, which one might suspect is only a construct—is the same as the distinction between the representational and the nonrepresentational. This ex negativo concept of the real would fall into the latter category, as it is the coded denotation, the characteristic-filtering gaze, and the eyes schooled by the conventions of seeing and the desire for categories that give any form of realism the ability to deceive us with its temporal and stylistic artificiality. Either from a Kantian concept of a fundamentally unapproachable reality or from the constructivist view of artificiality that is void any reality whatsoever, if when looking at something the viewer takes into consideration the means of viewing, the methods, or the experimentation, then the real is often seen as precisely the area that is able to elude the symbols created by both the sciences as well as art, even though the real provides the very inspirations for all of the insights, discoveries, and inventions that they create.

Zeuxis and Parrhasius

The degree to which discussions and theories about art are anthropocentric is illustrated by the number of references to the classical stories of Zeuxis and Parrhasius in their competition to create the most convincing mimesis. To this day, Zeuxis, who was able to fool his rival with a painted curtain that appeared to cover the painting behind it, is still considered the winner of the contest, even though Parrhasius’s two-dimensional painting of grapes was “real” enough to fool the birds. Even if we know that, from an analytical and scientific understanding of a bird’s cognitive abilities, its sense of vision is a much simpler mechanism than that of a human being, it is clear that when viewed from a synthetic artistic point of view, visual representations must offer much more before they could fool an animal. A further discussion of this anecdote, which focuses even more closely on the example of the bird, is offered by Jacques Lacan when he speaks of the “natural function of the lure and that of trompe-l’oeil.”

“If the birds rushed to the surface on which Zeuxis had deposited his dabs of color, taking the picture for edible grapes, let us observe that the success of such an undertaking does not imply in the least that the grapes were admirably reproduced, like those we can see in the basket held by Caravaggio’s Bacchus in the Uffizi. If the grapes had been painted in this way, it is not very likely that the birds would have been deceived, for why should the birds see grapes portrayed with such extraordinary verisimilitude? There would have to be something more reduced, something closer to the sign, in something representing grapes for the birds. But the opposite example of Parrhasios makes it clear that if one wishes to deceive a man, what one presents to him is the painting of a veil, that is to say, something that incites him to ask what is behind it.”


Brunelleschi’s Mirror Experiment and the Fixed Lens

The historical relativity of human perception is illustrated by a further, oft-cited experiment performed by the Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi in 1425, which—in addition to Erwin Panofsky or, more recently, Jean-Francois Lyotard —was introduced into the debate by Paul Feyerabend in Wissenschaft als Kunst.

Brunelleschi painted the exterior view of the San Giovani Baptistry in Florence on a polished mirror background. In the middle of the painting, he drilled a small hole through which the viewer could comfortably view what was located behind. To conduct the experiment, the viewer stood on the spot from where the painting was originally made—in this case, the entrance of the Florence cathedral—and held the painting up to a particular height. The viewer then looked through the hole in the back of the painting at a mirror held at a distance that represented the distance from the viewer to the baptistry on a smaller scale. The viewer not only saw the reflected image of the painted baptistry in the mirror, but also the twice-reflected image of the natural sky. Thanks to the double mirror-image, the clouds which the viewer saw reflected in the mirror—as long as there were any to be seen and there was sufficient wind to make them move—moved in the same direction as those that one would see were he or she to look directly at the baptistry when the mirror was taken away. Brunelleschi wanted to prove that the eye could be deceived to such a degree that the viewer was no longer capable of distinguishing between art and reality. In Della pittura, Leon Battista Alberti offers another version of the theory—a version that would soon be confronted with its first critics.

“Alberti had adopted one of Euclid’s principles: ‘If the angle which the eye views is smaller, then the thing that is seen appears smaller.’ According to Kepler and Descartes, this principle played an important role in Western optics. In modern terms, this represents the equation of the field of vision and the optical/physical world. [...] The painter, however, does not paint for one-eyed individuals with their heads fixed in place, but instead paints for people who are able to move about in front of the painting. If this painting is also capable of appearing natural and free of distortion, then there must be other laws that govern the phenomenon.”

An even greater paradigmatic model than Brunelleschi’s double-mirrored, illusory reflection is represented by the camera obscura, which not only offers a model for the human eye – and an objective form of seeing – but also for the photographic lens. Again we are dealing with a small hole, but in this instance the waves of light reflected in the mirror do not shine though the hole into the eye of the viewer. In the camera obscura the light shines through the hole and is projected into a dark room, causing a reversed image ti appear on the opposite wall. In his essay “Modernizing Vision” (1988) , Jonathan Crary criticizes notions of a continuous development that begins with the camera obscura as a “central epistimological figure” and ends with the photgraphic camera. Like Paul Feyerabend, Crary focuses on the monocularity of the underlying model:

“The aperture of the camera corresponds to a single mathematically definable point from which the world could be logically deduced and represented. [...] Sensory evidence that depended in any way on the body was rejected in favor of the representations of this mechanical and monocular apparatus, whose authenticity was placed beyond doubt. [...] A monocular model, on the other hand, precluded the difficult problem of having to reconcile the dissimilar and therefore provisional and tentative images presented to each eye.”


Conventions from the philosophy of language under the sign of the symbol

In America in the 1970s, a critical form of art theory arose out of the philosophy of language. This theory is based on the premise that it is fundamentally impossible for art to give rise to the real. In After the End of Art, Arthur C. Danto wrote:

“Modernism came to an end when the dilemma recognized by Green berg between works of art and mere real objects could no longer be articulated in visual terms, and when it became imperative to quit a materialist aesthetics in favor of an aesthetics of meaning. This, again in my view, came with the advent of pop.”

Danto may attribute modernism with a materialist aesthetic that in some ways established the monochrome image as an “image object” that represents nothing more than that which it is—a development which reached its peak in the ready-made. Yet without addressing the need to examine the art industry’s and the institutions’ inherent power to define, Danto believes the boundary between art and reality has been crossed or even broken down entirely. However, Danto does not describe how reality is able to draw these boundaries, but this is precisely what the works that he describes as having a materialistic aesthetic attempt to render visible.

In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman takes a different track in addressing this similarity. When Goodman denies the existence of the function which symbols use to refer to their originals, he denies the existence of one of Peirce’s entire class of symbols.

“The plain fact is that a picture, to represent an object, must be a symbol for it, stand for it, refer to it; and that no degree of resemblance is sufficient to establish the requisite relationship of reference. [...] ‘To make a faithful picture, come as close as possible to copying the object just as it is.’ This simple-minded injunction baffles me; for the object before me is a man, a swarm of atoms, a complex of cells, a fiddler, a friend, a fool, and much more. [...] If none of these constitute the object as it is, what else might? If all are ways the object is, then none is the way the object is. I cannot copy all these at once; and the more nearly I succeeded, the less would the result be a realistic picture.”

Reflections over the means by which the signifier can refer to the triad of the imaginary, the real, and the symbolic must take place within the historically and culturally predetermined sphere of the symbolic. Yet as a philosopher of language, Goodman supposes a further limitation: of Peirce’s classes of signs—icon, index, and symbol—Goodman grants validity only to the latter, although he does believe convention could lead all of them be made to mean something else. That is to say, when they are not specifically used to refer to works of art, but instead their meaning comes by means of definition (norms) or habit. It is interesting to note that this fixation on linguistic meaning entails a form of categorical essentialism—Goodman’s argumentation presupposes knowledge of the perceived being (swarm of atoms, complex of cells, etc.). In this respect, the discussion concerning representation and the original take on a whole new direction—one that goes beyond phenomenological notions concerning the continuity of the surface, for example.

Erwin Panofsky had already described the linear perspective as a symbolic system.

“For the structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogeneous space—in short, a purely mathematical space—is quite unlike the structure of psychophysiological space.”

Goodman pokes fun at the notion that perspective representations are the same as the perception of perspective and attempts to base the exactness of the representation on bound rays of light. For Goodman the linguistic connotation of the perceived leads to the denotation of the represented, which for him is also linguistically—meaning symbolically/conventionally and/or in terms of definition—fixed. Goodman does not see a scale of realism in representation based either on the level of illusion or the chance that one might confuse the representation with the represented. This view could be considered advantageous as it also allows for the representation of fictive elements (such as unicorns), but this would in the end only test the trickiness and the pervasiveness of the relevant language of symbols.

“Just here, I think, lies the touchstone of realism: not in quantity of information but in how easily it issues. And this depends upon how stereotyped the mode of representation is, upon how commonplace the labels and their uses have become. Realism is relative, determined by the system of representation standard for a given culture or person at a given time.”

Here we can see the fundamental difference between Goodman’s approach and that of Foucault: Goodman does not accept a fundamental break in modernity when it comes to categorical systems of representation, but instead only sees a continuous and culturally-based change in styles, meaning the categories of interests and labels that the original allows to step forward. The concept of fixation, be it by means of non-representational abstraction or a presentation of the object itself (as in the case of ready-mades), is absurd according to this notion. Perhaps what comes closest to fixation in Goodman’s argument is his term “exemplification,” for which the word “red” written in red letters or a tailor’s pattern could serve as an example. References are made to some (but not all) characteristics, and these are simultaneously shown in the form of a symbol. Exemplification is Goodman’s term for ownership and reference. What is important, however, is that it is not a complete symbol, but a display of certain defining characteristics that are denoted using symbols and whose logical interrelations can also be shown, be it by means of notational systems, such as musical scores or diagrams, or maps, such as the “work of art” made by inhabitants of the Marshall Islands displayed here. Goodman uses this map, in which shells represent islands and bamboo rods stand for winds and currents, to illustrate the fact that—according to his concept of conventions—anything can be used to represent something else.

According to this view, paintings and sculptures are also notational or symbolic systems—the only difference being the degree to which something is not represented or denoted—and can even display characteristics such as expressivity. Thus, critics such as W.J.T. Mitchell come to the conclusion

“that semiotics, the very field which claims to be a ‘general science of signs,’ encounters special difficulties when it tries to describe the nature of images and the difference between texts and images.”

In defining vocabulary—meaning the admissible rows of symbols and rules of conversion that lead to formal languages and mathematical calculations—conventionalism not only finds its fiercest and most binding formulation, but it also establishes a more mathematically exact, more logically concise idea of reference that includes classification (functions). In this relationship between symbol and similarity, it is interesting to note that relationships or forms do not have to limit themselves to their appearance. In their introduction to Gödel’s Proof, Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman introduce the Theorem of Pappus and its dual analogy to underscore the notion of mathematical representation. For our purposes, this discussion beautifully illustrates how the logical relationships (with set symbolic meanings) can appear rather different.

“(a) illustrates the Theorem of Pappus: If A, B, C are any three distinct points in a line I, and A’, B’, C’ any three distinct points on another line II, the three points R, S, T determined by the pairs of lines AB’ and A’B, BC’ and B’C, CA’ and C’A, respectively, are collinear (i.e., lie on line III).
(b) illustrates the ‘dual’ of the above theorem: If A, B, C are any three distinct lines on a point I, and A’, B’, C’ any three distinct lines on point I, and A’, B’, C’ any three distinct lines on another point II, the three lines R, S, T determined by the pair of points AB’ and A’B, BC’ and B’C, CA’ and C’A, respectively, are copunctual (i.e., lie on point III).
The two figures have the same abstract structure, though in appearance they are markedly different.”

For the untrained eye, these two abstract structures are not so easy to differentiate, but my simple thesis is easy to understand: When, according to Goodman’s conventionalist theory, everything can represent everything else (here points for lines and lines for points), then this means only logical relationships are taken into consideration, and this clearly has visible effects in terms of appearance and similarity. Likewise, it is not only because of onomatopoeias that language itself has been introduced to new references by the utopias of poetry and the dialectics of rhetoric that are closer to the mirror image in terms of structural similarity—a concrete realization—of that which is at issue than conventionalists would like to believe. In his Negative Dialectics, Theodor W. Adorno formulated this notion quite impressively in his criticism of nominalism:

“Yet we cannot ignore the perpetual denunciation of rhetoric by nominalists to whom a name bears no resemblance to what it says, nor can an unbroken rhetoric be summoned against them. Dialectics—literally: language as the organon of thought—would mean to attempt a critical rescue of the rhetorical element, a mutual approximation of thing and expression, to the point where the difference fades. [...] It was this link that inspired phenomenology to try—naively, as always—to make sure of truth by analyzing words. It is in the rhetorical quality that culture, society, and tradition animate the thought; a stern hostility to it is leagued with barbarism, in which bourgeois thinking ends.”

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