Unreal Nature

November 6, 2017

Prime Word

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… what mattered was that the proper name of painting be maintained in its ambition and dignity …

Continuing through Kant after Duchamp by Thierry de Duve (1996):

… Specificity or purity was painting’s major regulative idea when it switched to abstraction. Regulative ideas should not be confused with rules or criteria. Just as imitation, for example, was a regulative idea for classical painting and not simply a rule to abide by or to transgress, so abstraction, pure visibility, integrity of the picture plane, faithfulness to materials, “less is more,” and so on, have been major regulative ideas for modern painting.

… What emerged with modernity is that the practice of painting gradually became more and more regulated by the idea of its own specificity, or purity, or autonomy, in a reflexive application of the idea of painting upon its name. This tendency peaked with the foundation of abstract painting, when a whole generation of painters all of a sudden had the strongest feeling that they were dropping all their conventions at once, to leap into unknown territory where comparison with the past was no longer possible.

[line break added] At that moment, calling their work by the name of painting, and even of “pure painting,” explicitly became the key issue of the artist’s (and the viewer’s) aesthetic judgments — explicitly, yet to some extent unconsciously. What occupied the consciousness of the various founders of abstract painting was the ideas regulating their judgments and the feelings through which these ideas were themselves evaluated.

[line break added] Fondness for design and color, a sense of respect for the flat surface,the joy of discovery and exploration were certainly among those feelings, but a much stronger incentive was fear and hope: fear that a craft reduced to the mere coating of a surface bearing no resemblance to the outer world would no longer deserve its name, and hope that it could be redeemed if it could only prove meaningful. Thus, what occupied the mind of the first abstractionists was their anxiety to prove that a surface, covered with colors, that had abandoned every readable link with nature was nevertheless “readable,” that it was a language of sorts.

[ … ]

… Nowhere is the ideology of Kandinsky and Duchamp more visible than in the opposition of these two descriptions of pure color: Kandinsky’s “strange beings … which one calls colors” are Duchamp’s “manufactured object that is called paints.” Pure color was a regulative idea in Kandinsky’s practice, and he felt obliged to justify it by giving it the ontological status of a living being; but for Duchamp, it was flatly a thing, already made, a dead commodity. And what the one called “colors,” the other called “paints.”

[line break added] When Duchamp abandoned painting, he did a lot more than renounce the craft and the skill for which he realized he was, after all, not too gifted. He switched from one regulative idea to another by giving that of his colleagues, the early abstractionists, an additional reflexive twist which turned it into a referent for his own idea. Their regulative idea was the specifically pictorial: his was about the specifically pictorial. Theirs was geared to establish their craft’s name, Malerei; his was a philosophy about that name, a kind of pictorial Nominalism.

[line break added] In pure color liberated from imitation, in elementary forms, they sought the conditions for “an international language which will endure forever.” Instead, he referred to those conditions and provided an ironic commentary on their utopian quest for a language that would have, as Lévi-Strauss put it in Le cru et le cuit, only one level of articulation: “Conditions of a langauge: the search for ‘prime words’ (‘divisible’ only by themselves and by unity).”

[line break added] Proper names satisfy those conditions, but whereas for the founders of abstraction what mattered was that the proper name of painting be maintained in its ambition and dignity, even though it had ceased to refer to anything but a mere surface covered with pure colors and basic forms, what was at stake for Duchamp was to assert that the proper name of art — or of arrhe — be given to a practice that no longer was painting, but that was apropos of painting.

My most recent previous post from de Duve’s book is here.




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