Issue #16: Situation
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nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

Issue #16: SituationSummer 2015

Table of Contents

The Tank
By (National Gallery of Art), (The Ohio State University), (Emory University), (University of Illinois, Chicago), (Case Western Reserve University) and (Emory University)
see all titles and descriptions in the issue


Lisa Siraganian

At one point in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), the poetic speaker (I’ll call her “Rankine”) relates a conversation with a Pakistani taxicab driver in New York City, shortly after 9/11. He asks what she does for a living and she responds, “I write about the liver.”1 Curious, he presses on. Is she a doctor? Not exactly. “I write about the liver/ because I’m thinking as if trying to weep.” She wants to work through abstract ideas as if trying to prompt and work through real feelings. Baffled, he’s game to comprehend. He wants to understand “these people,” Americans who “don’t know anything” but suspect he’s al Qaeda. Rankine, more skeptical about American citizens (“Be happy you can’t read their thoughts, I want to say to him”), also attempts to make quotidian interactions like this one breach “the space of loneliness,” but in a different way. The lonely space must be physically crossed. It is a conceptualized thinking space transformed into a real, felt space. That is, thinking as if trying to weep.

Recently elected a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Rankine is a standard-bearer of postwar American poetry’s attempt to depict communitarian or other forms of social connection via the particularity of bodies—organs, chemicals, bile, and breath—in order to avoid universalism’s abstract terms. In the process, poetic accounts such as Rankine’s imagine not so much an alternative to liberal politics as a complete end to politics of any kind. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, this work frequently invokes its political aims. Contemporary poetry constructs these moves by misunderstanding, misreading, or simply ignoring some of the most important and interesting modernist discourses about how readers relate to art objects such as paintings and poems.

Discussing the manuscript with her editor, Rankine clarifies that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about “hepatotoxicity, also known as liver failure” (53). She explains that much liver damage is drug-induced because the liver functions as a chemical purifier, stripping the blood of toxins by splitting poisons into less destructive chemical building blocks. The resulting toxins are excreted while the cleansed blood recirculates. When an overwhelmed liver fails to break down the blood’s contaminants (even beneficial ones, such as painkillers), the pollutants poison the liver cells instead. These anatomical details are important because Rankine focuses on Americans’ many remedies to ease the distress of living in twenty-first-century America, palliatives that inadvertently damage our actual or metaphorical livers.

Whether we ingest pharmaceuticals such as Tylenol, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and Lithium, or self-prescribe “therapeutic” television and DVD viewing to ameliorate feelings of isolation and despair, our medicated lives paradoxically trigger an American cultural condition of hepatotoxicity that will destroy us. Rankine’s suggestion that commodity culture is killing us is nothing new—modernism, as always, got their first. William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie” (1923) laments the “young slatterns, bathed/ in filth/ from Monday to Saturday// to be tricked out that night/ with gauds/ from imaginations which have no// peasant traditions to give them/ character.”2 By the 1930s, Clement Greenberg denigrated kitschy pleasures, an argument reiterated a few years later in Dwight Macdonald’s invective against the “spreading ooze” of middlebrow culture.3 For Williams, Greenberg, and Macdonald, the remedy is the high modernist avant-garde.4

But Rankine’s medicine is a distinct variation on this theme, albeit common in postwar poetics. Her cure is not exactly high art (even if poetry is hard to envision otherwise at this cultural moment). Instead, she posits a form of poetry that aims to clean out America’s blood more thoroughly than any elite verse. Several times she inserts a diagram of this process, depicting the liver curiously detached from other organs (fig. 1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Resting next to the stomach, the liver empties into the intestines, refigured as a silhouetted map of the United States. With the large intestines refigured as American territory, Rankine’s liver-writing aims to clean out the country of toxins by analyzing them and transforming them into benign substances. Her book about the liver is also a book that operates as a liver. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely reimagines the American lyric as an essential organ of the body politic, with her book of poetry serving as a node of attachment.

Liver-writing targets a particular kind of toxin: heinous events inflected by political or racial hatred. The civilian deaths on 9/11, the vicious murder of James Byrd, Jr., and the police brutalization of Abner Louima are documented with extensive, explanatory footnotes. Yet to capture the liver-poem’s purification process in action, Rankine’s lyrical essay does not merely refer to pop culture or describe the deleterious effects of American social dysfunction. Instead, she scrapbooks the images and records testimony of the events—collaging and transforming them. The book is filled with images copied and pasted from everywhere: a friend’s misdiagnosed mammogram, photographs of ash-coated surfaces from the World Trade Center, political cartoons circulating on the internet, and warning labels from medicine bottles, among other things. Each section of the book begins with an image of a television screening blotted fuzz, roughed up to resemble the texture of stone (fig. 2).


Figure 2

While relying on the historically opposed structure of the mass culture/high art dynamic—televised fuzz collaged into a book of artful poetry—Rankine and likeminded poets attempt to defuse the negative associations of high art’s elitism and detachment from the world by literalizing poetic meaning. The physical and bodily equate with the personal and political. “Think of breath on a mirror,” writes contemporary poet Peter Gizzi, from a collection Rankine co-edited: “Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can record this ‘other’ poem and make it my own.”5 For Gizzi, a poem succeeds when it records an uncanny poetic experience as a palpable, personal, bodily one. Poetry fails—even at being poetry—when it is abstract or merely thoughtful. So D.A. Powell insists (from the same edited collection): “Intellects don’t write poems. While they’re wonderful to have, they are no substitute for the body’s sense of the world.”6

The disdain for poems authored by the “intellect,” and the concurrent predilection for the collage-lyric the body writes, developed out of a rich set of transdisciplinary aesthetic debates occurring throughout the long modernist period (1914-1975). For poets such as Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and Williams, a poem’s literal incorporation of the world—or a work’s refusal to blend itself with the world—signaled a refashioning of what aesthetic autonomy and poetic use could mean. Observing the collages of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, modernist writers pondered what it meant to include a piece of the world as such into an aesthetic object. Incorporating a “breath” into a poem seemed comparable to gluing a piece of wallpaper onto a painting. In either case, including a literal substance of the world, however ephemeral it might be, alters the work as a whole.

But from the start, artists, critics, and other writers advanced different interpretations of the aesthetic transformation collage produced. Literal elements in a painting or poem might be understood as scraps of the real, or satirical symbols of degraded mass culture, or parodies of illusionism, or strategies aimed to solve a formal puzzle about the picture plane’s flatness. Collage instigated radically divergent versions of an art object’s ontology—whatever type of art object it might be. These different accounts tended to gravitate to one or another of two opposing positions. On the one hand, collage could support a hopeful promise of a unifying, conceptual frame transcending its various challenges. On the other, collage could signify the work’s total dependence on the world, rendering aesthetic autonomy impossible.

From these opposed interpretive possibilities emerged two distinct understandings of the reader’s relation to a literary text. One posits the irrelevance of the reader to the meaning of the poem, with the aesthetic frame tested but intact; the other posits the collapse of the frame distinguishing the work from the world, declaring the inevitable involvement of the reader in the production of poetry’s meaning. Writers such as Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis depict the former belief by suggesting that a text’s meaning can be separated from the reader’s job, a theory I have termed “meaning’s autonomy.”7 Another, more varied group poets, ranging from Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka, to Brenda Hillman, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Juliana Spahr, follow the latter, diametrically opposed notion of “meaning’s incorporation.” This view supports the idea that the reader’s body inextricably relates to an art object’s meaning.

Much postwar poetry, and especially twenty-first-century poetry, adheres to this latter view, derived from Olson’s and Baraka’s positions. As Olson writes, “there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we’d better use because that’s about all we’ve got . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts.”8 For Olson, particularity counts far more than political, cultural, ideological, or other conceptual distinctions, even if his paradoxical conception doesn’t permit counting abstractly, or any other abstract dividing up of the world. What is novel here is not the social role imagined for poetry, but the extreme literalism (a mutated Whitman) that locates in language’s materiality a political solution to eliminate “divisions of all sorts.” Even when Olson’s insights on incorporation are not explicitly cited, they linger unmistakably.

Thus Myung Mi Kim observes in Commons (2002) that “the lyric undertakes the task of deciphering and embodying a ‘particularizable’ prosody of one’s living.”9 Once that particular “prosody” is translated and embodied in poetry, a political or ethical process can be initiated “to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space” (Commons, 111). Political and ethical action works through an embodied, poetic conduit, just as Rankine must think through her liver as if to weep. In Kim’s view, connections to others cannot emerge by thinking about others, or talking to them, or analyzing them, precisely because the words used to signify in these abstract ways leave out a part of language: “sound’s physicality” (Commons, 109). For Kim and Rankine both, only embodied poetry manifests political or ethical relations. Sound’s particularity challenges concepts articulated in language: “Counter the potential totalizing power of language that serves the prevailing systems and demands of coherence” (Commons, 110). Every word in Commons opposes abstract political terms associated with those systems of coherence (citizen, nation, liberalism, etc.), such that words like “America” appear rarely, and in particularizing scare quotes when they do.

Or consider Juliana Spahr’s “Poem Written After September 11, 2001” from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), which makes explicit the political aims—and the lack of political stakes—of incorporatist poetics. Taking the personal-is-political argument literally, the poem invokes breath to realize our commonality with all human beings, depicting a particularist alternative to human relations based on universalism. Ruminating on our thingness as living beings, Spahr focuses on small component parts of the body, our constantly dividing cells fueled by blood-borne oxygen. Gradually, the poem’s concerns expand beyond our “shape” to the “space” outside our bodies: between our hands, around our feet, between us and other people.10 We are not separate from this space but contiguous with it: “The space goes in and out of everyone’s bodies./ Everyone with lungs breathes the space in and out as everyone/ with lungs breathes the space between the hands in and out.” Invariably, we breathe in some of this same air from both near and far, “all of it entering in and out” of our bodies (“Poem Written,” 9-10).

If Spahr’s trope of air as universal connection were simply a metaphorical commonality, then there would be no need to point out, as she does, that breathing physically connects us all to one another, that because you and I both breathe from the same capacious, but ultimately limited supply of the planet’s air, we therefore physically connect to one another. The same ashy, WTC air we reluctantly breathe in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or (eventually) everywhere else is also, literally, the 9/11 victim’s last breath: “the space of everyone that has just been inside of everyone mixing inside of everyone…” (“Poem Written,” 9). We all are New Yorkers on September 12, 2001 not because we empathize or identify with the city’s residents, but because our bodies connect to all other bodies through the air we breathe. According to the logic of Spahr’s poem, we are connected to everyone and anything that ever did or ever will breathe for as long as basic chemical elements and molecules exist. And while Spahr does not carry her vision further, according to her poetics our unavoidable oneness with other inhalers and exhalers is precisely what makes it impossible to envision political or any other kind of subjectivity.

In making these claims, Kim, Spahr, Rankine, and other postwar poets rely on a particular revision—more accurately, a misreading—of modernism, often hinging on Gertrude Stein’s inventive poetics. Their literary critical work interprets Stein according to an incorporative poetics even though Stein’s work consistently rejected precisely this view.12 Rankine’s inclusion of Stein typifies these moves, as when Rankine ends her book’s first section (on death, dying, and terminal illness) with a passage from Stein’s Wars I Have Seen: “If everybody did not die the earth would be all covered over and I, I as I, could not have come to be . . .”13 For Rankine, Stein is noticing that our bodies’ uncontrollable thingness surprises us (the way cancer does its victims), yet such objecthood must be faced.

But that reading can’t be right. Stein is exploring how we are not things, and she does so through a thought experiment. Trying not to be herself, or to care about her identity and her existence, she notices that she cannot: “as much as I can try not to be I, nevertheless, I would mind that so much . . .” (Wars, 14). Since she must admit that her existence requires that she (and everyone else) come to an eventual end, she reasons, “then why not die[?]” Yet accepting death so easily looks too much like equating ourselves with things that cannot consciously know of or care about their existence: “and yet and again not a thing, not a thing to be liking, not a thing” (Wars, 14). Stein’s paradox works as follows: while only things are in a position to accept the cavalier possibility of “so why not die[?],” things can’t think this. People can, even though they reject the idea of their annihilation as “not a thing to be liking.” Thus, in Stein’s view, a person is distinguishable from a thing (“not a thing”) precisely because a person can imagine thinking as if she were a thing (or she can reject that thought), while a thing cannot imagine thinking (or refusing to think) like a person.

So much for Stein. Better for Rankine to invoke Williams. Acknowledged or not, he was her theoretical and intellectual ancestor, writing poetry that served as a crucial intermediary stage in American poetics’ transition from meaning’s autonomy to Olson’s and Baraka’s notion of meaning’s incorporation. His notorious motto, “No ideas but in things,” supported an intricate model of the poem as a written “thing” that only functions by acting on the reader’s body, creating a change in them and their cultural outlook.14 But the close affinity between Williams’s avant-garde poetics and Rankine’s also underscores the extent to which conventional accounts of twentieth-century poetry’s periodization requires revising. Not prewar versus postwar, or modernism versus postmodernism. Instead, postmodern debates pitting textual experience against textual representation can and should be refigured as only the latest, less nuanced iteration of a set of conversations about aesthetic autonomy, the role of different media and translations between them, the relevance (or not) of readers to meaning, and the political stakes of poetry.

In the process of misconstruing modernism, this contemporary poetry also fails to realize its own expressed political aims. At its most ambitious, Don’t Let Me be Lonely envisions a form of plurality in which the “me” of the title locates a collectivity of “me’s” without, on the one hand, creating a mirror world of narcissists or, on the other, creating a new category of the universal human. That is why Rankine’s discussion with the Pakistani taxi driver emphasizes the hypocrisy of terms like equality. Living in the U.S. for decades, both she and the driver have noticed that white, American citizens “think they are better than everyone else” (89). Egalitarianism and fraternalism are deemed a farce, so a different kind of collective relation must be envisioned, one focused on the “me” instead of the “I.” Rankine works hard to avoid the perceived falsity of grammatical abstraction in the singular nominative “subject position”: “Is ‘I’ even me or am ‘I’ a gearshift to get from one sentence to the next? Should I say we?” (54). How does one “say we” without meaning “I, I, I, . . .” abstracted, mechanized, and pluralized? The aim is to reach other liver-writers through the particulars of our bodies instead of through language’s “gearshift[s].”

To see both the hope and the impossibility of this endeavor, consider one instance of a moment that counts, for Rankine, as a (relative) success: “Or say a friend develops Alzheimer’s” (17). She proceeds to describe finding his slate chalkboard (after his death), permanently etched with the phrase, “this [thus?] is the most miserable in my life.” The statement is comprehensible but strange, missing a modifying phrase such as, ‘that I’ve been/felt.’ Apparently, he can’t say that he is experiencing a feeling or depicting a state of being, and that is part of his misery. As language becomes inaccessible, he feels he is becoming more like what Stein would call a “thing.” But for Rankine, taking the slate home with her serves as an ideal instance of interactive connection. She hangs it up in her study, so that “Whenever I look up from my desk it is there—” (17), and reinserts the image of that chalkboard, and its etched words, on the page of her poem (Fig. 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

By incorporating—scratching, let’s say—an image into her own book of poetry, she connects to someone else’s body through their handwriting. Giving that image to her readers, she (as, presumably, do I, by giving it to you) provides us with a literal means of connecting with someone not as a neighbor or friend or citizen, but as a liver to the intestines. Repeating the above image of her friend’s handwriting four times, she even places two copies on the recto and verso of the same leaf, so that the images partially overlap if you hold them up to light. Page and etching are made palpable, with the page imaginatively transformed back into its engraved ur-form, a thing scratched “with some sort of sharp edge” (18).

Finally, this episode is introduced as a hypothetical possibility (“Or say…”), because it is meant to count as exemplary, but not as a universal truth. Rankine’s connection to an Alzheimer’s sufferer is not generalizable. It’s also not fully linguistic. When her friend begins exhibiting symptoms she can’t fathom what he means: he points to the television and says he wants “to see the lady who deals in death” (18). Eventually, she surmises he’s referring to Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. With language failing him, it’s not enough to quote him: his hand mark actualizes a tormented presence. As she explains in a different section, poetry has “to hold the pain, and then to translate it here” (57). Her hybrid version of writing as pain translation also appears when she glosses the word “here” at the end of the book as signifying both presence and a transaction. But it is also clear that this “writing” does not produce a viable political connection or even a social one. It produces a physical, felt relation.

The true politics associated with this position is a no politics: a “politics” of breathing or being a liver, of being “politically” connected to someone because the molecules in your lungs might eventually end up in theirs. In the epigraph of the book, Rankine quotes Aimé Césaire: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator…” Refusing the supposed “sterility” of spectatorship, poets following the path of Rankine (and Spahr, Kim, and Olson), refuse to allow that readers might be able to make sense of a poem while not literally or theoretically contributing to its meaning. In the process, these contemporary poets also withhold from their poetry everything but a declaration of presence: the presumably photoshopped “HERE.” on a billboard included at her book’s conclusion (fig. 4). “HERE” is the present particularity that cleans the world one slender book of poems, or one liver, at a time. A small, feeble liver it is. Postwar poetry that reads the moderns more carefully is—or will be—a more ambitious and interesting poetry, aiming for something other than the life of an organ.


Figure 4



1.  Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), 89-90. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.
2.  William Carlos Williams, “To Elsie,” in The Collected Poems, vol. 1, ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1986), 217.
3.  Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 3-21.
4.  Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” Diogenes 3 (Summer 1953): 1–17. Reprinted in Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning, Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), 17.
5.  Peter Gizzi, “Poetics Statement: Extract from a Letter to Steve Farmer,” in American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, ed. Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 107.
6.  D. A. Powell, “The Flesh Failures,” in American Poets, ed. Rankine and Sewell, 82.
7.  Lisa Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 6.
8.  Charles Olson, Muthologos: The Collected Lectures and Interviews, vol. 1, ed. George F. Butterick (Bolinas, Calif.: Four Seasons Foundation, 1978), 94.
9.  Myung Mi Kim, Commons (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 111.
10.  Juliana Spahr, This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 4.
11.  Judith Butler takes this position a step further to argue that each and every one of us is connected to victims and survivors not by our universal humanity but by our “common human vulnerability” in Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 30-31. Other political theory arguments that map onto this poetics of preserved particularisms include Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996); Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
12.  See, for example, Juliana Spahr, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (Birmingham: University of Alabama Press, 2001). For critiques of this account of Stein, see Jennifer Ashton, From Modernism to Postmodernism: American Poetry and Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) and Siraganian, Modernism’s Other Work.
13.  Gertrude Stein, Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945), 14.
14.  Williams, “Paterson” (1927 version), The Collected Poems, vol. 1, 263.
About the Author

Lisa Siraganian is Associate Professor of English at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX) and the author of Modernism’s Other Work: The Art Object’s Political Life (New York: Oxford UP, 2012), shortlisted for the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize (2013) and now out in paperback.

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

John Lysaker

Nowadays people believe that scientists exist to instruct them, poets and musicians to delight them. That these have something to teach them does not occur to them.
– Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen

We have come some way from the days when a stone torso fixed a poet and lead him to speak of its gaze, one that saw, even read him head to toe. For many if not most, it is now the reader or viewer or listener that sets the terms of such encounters, attenuated as they are. That is, it is no longer simply beauty that is in the eye of the beholder, but everything there is to say about a work and whatever might be found there. Not that “reader response criticism,” whether based in affect, cultural identity, and/or the neuro-Kantian turn, is the principal variable in this turn away from the sensibility that enabled Rainer Maria Rilke to write “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But even without exploring the art market and museum culture, one has a firm sense that the basics of aesthetic engagement have changed in our age of digital reproduction.

Permit me an anecdote. I asked my “What is Art?” class: “How often do you listen to music?” “All the time,” I was told, each reporting that he or she listened for at least an hour a day. “But what do you mean by listen,” I asked. “Do you play the music just to listen to it, to follow it, to see where it goes and where it takes you? And then again, maybe a day or two later, listen again, armed with a few anticipations that, if you’re lucky, will cede to more intriguing discoveries? And might all that then ask of you something, something dear?” No. Music accompanied some other activity: studying, working-out, walking to class. For these students, and I do not believe they are unique, though they certainly were talented and a pleasure to engage, music had become ambient, what Brian Eno glosses as “an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint.”1

You might be thinking: “you want them (and us), to study artworks, and no doubt beaux arts, fine or high arts, perhaps even that slippery, unstable class of works that Heidegger calls great art.” Not really, particularly with regard to the latter presumption. All kinds of work can sound us out and any historical research into purportedly great works finds traces in technique and content of not-so-great art and the contributions of other cultural domains. To invert Newton’s revision of Salisbury’s image, great works illuminate so much because they stand on the shoulders of many works that were and remain good enough.2

With regard to “study,” much depends upon what that entails. Current trends in academic research are so prone to historicize or psychologize the work of art that even in the hands of scholars it seems that the work of art has gone missing. As I argued in Emerson and Self-Culture, historicism often dissolves works into a sea of causal forces, thus obscuring if not eliding their performative address and what is asked therein.3 Effects to be explained are not addresses requiring a response. A similar elision results from psychological approaches, and irrespective if the psyche is cast in terms of cognitive learning rules, evolved neural ensembles, or general psychic principles—the matter at hand becomes a series of processes that explain why artist X made the art that she or he made, or why interpreter Y responded like he or she did to what only amounts to a field of stimuli. Psychological approaches to works and their impact are thus effects to be explained, and nowhere among their operational definitions and founding tropes will the work of art, vibrantly interpersonal, have any claim upon us.

In what follows, I will sketch a counter discourse, one that assembles, in dialogue with various thinkers, an approach to artworks that does more justice to what can be found when the work of art is given room to gaze back at us, or as I would have it, address us in possibly transformative ways.

I. Solicitous Art

Let us begin by considering a kind of music that we might term peripheral because it is written and performed (or recorded and played back) for our peripheral rather than our focal attention. Ambient music belongs to this loosely affiliated class, but like each of its members (including Tafelmusik and Satie’s musique d’ameublement), it is something of a paradox. As it provides a background for other activities peripheral music simultaneously calls attention to itself, to its purported complementarity, even unobtrusiveness; its telos is a kind of conspicuous innocuousness irrespective of its allure. It is thus not unsurprising that an ensemble like Bang on a Can might score and perform (as well as record) Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. The work, in virtue of being a work (to be played, if only on a turntable or streamed), cannot help but call attention to itself, to how it complements its site. And once that call is audible, the music starts to slide from the ambient into more traditional patterns of musical engagements, that is, we listen to it rather than just hear, to invert Darius Milhaud’s recounting of Satie’s musical furniture. A kind of structural ambiguity haunts ambient music, therefore. It seeks to be unobtrusive but draws us toward how well it does so, thus leading us to listen to it in non-ambient ways.4

Similarly, minimalist sculpture cannot help but present itself even as it moves toward a thing-like presence alongside other things. Tony Smith’s “Die” may try to avoid referring us to anything, preferring to be one thing among many. And its minimal qualities (its cube shape, the presence of steel, rust) may drive the viewer’s gaze back into itself, especially if one expects technical virtuosity lush with the kind of aesthetic properties that action painting hurls our way. (“Just what am I supposed to be seeing,” one might ask.) But in trying to be just a thing, “Die” has a character that distinguishes it from mere things, and its provocative resistance to our expectations draws us back toward it, leading us to wonder what precisely is being resisted and why—the work returns from the realm of thinghood into what is at least a gesture, though probably a good deal more if we read the gesture within its art historical context.

I am beginning with ambient music and minimalist sculpture in order to mark a path to an opening generalization: artworks are solicitous in the sense of earnest and enticing petitions for our attention. This is not to say one couldn’t find some kind of art, perhaps light fixtures, whose bearing does not genuinely merit a descriptor like “solicitous,” though one might appreciate their shape and ornamental details. But such exceptions, should they arise, do not really trouble the view on offer. My goal is not a universal definition of art. Rather, my hope is to provide a workable, even rich key to a wide range of art forms and works, one that will empower and enrich our responses to them. Moreover, regarding works that do not solicit our attention, is seems only polite to leave them be.

While “entice” indicates the ways in which artworks tug at our attention, it equally reminds us that a good number captivate. We see a film and are absorbed. Immersed in scenes, dialogue, and music, attending perhaps to edits and camera angles, we forget most of where we are and what we had done that day, which is why, upon exiting, we are sometimes surprised to find it still light out and the parking lot buzzing. Now, you may object to the passivity connoted by “absorption,” but many commonly describe stories as absorbing—“I just couldn’t put it down”—or report that a play drew them in or that a piece of music carried them along—“that rhythm is infectious,” the pathogenic metaphor underscoring our relative passivity in the onset of tapping and snapping.

Many works do more than absorb us, however; they also engage us, which is one way to hear the sense of “solicit” that involves “disturbance,” though this requires us to hear the Latin sollicitare meaning “to disturb,” built from a term for “whole” (sollus) which is “moved” (ciere). In the grip of artworks, capacities interlock (like gears) and are set into motion. Works of art often stimulate affects, historical knowledge, personal experience, and institutional know-how—in almost literal ways, they move us.

Consider Anselm Kiefer’s Nigredo (1984; fig. 1), which hangs in The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The work is vast, 10.8 feet high, 18.2 feet long, and visually stunning. It depicts a ploughed field dotted by bits of post-harvest grain and presumably snow. There also seem to be a few fires, e.g. the red in the lower right corner, and possible wisps of smoke two-thirds of the way up, more or less in the center and descending slightly to the right. Slight traces, but the foreground is so charred that each takes on greater significance.

Fig. 1.  Anselm Kiefer, Nigredo (1984; Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Fig. 1. Anselm Kiefer, Nigredo (1984; Philadelphia Museum of Art)

The title is also arresting—“Nigredo” is a stage of decomposition in alchemical transformation and a stage of despair in Jung’s conception of psychological growth. Standing before it, one cannot help but wonder if this field will renew come spring, particularly since the char seems to be spreading. One spot has broken through just left of center, a bit above the horizontal midpoint. It is as if some fire were continuing to burn beneath the canvas, not only disrupting its illusory dimensionality but threatening to overtake it entirely.

But Nigredo depicts more than tilled earth. At the top left center of the work, one spies a small disc that turns much of the field into a painter’s pallet, particularly since the field’s many rows gather there.  What hangs before us is thus not only a ravaged field with an uncertain future. Painting, at a point of inception, also is burning, both as object (this work on canvas) and activity (figured in the palette). Some blackening heat is threatening to consume it from within.

In the context of Kiefer’s other work, the movement between field and palette becomes legible. Several of Kiefer’s works situate painting within the contestations and disasters of history. A series of works painted in 1974, including “Painting,” “Nero Paints,” and “Painting = Burning,” situate an artist’s palette on or above ravaged fields, as if to say that painting both aims to depict such events even as it participates in them.5 This is clearest in “Nero Paints,” where the palette is connected to matches igniting houses in the background and seemingly dripping fire. A similar thought is told by the title “Painting = Burning,” although this time, the field looks as if it had already been burnt. Something along these lines also arises, sans images of fire, in a work on paper from 1974, “Sick Art.”6 This mix of water color, gouache, and ballpoint pen depicts a mountain-lined river or fjord covered in perspective-denying red sores or pustules, suggesting not only that art is sick but also that it can contaminate what it presents, a point lost, I think, if we only think about the title’s echo of “Entartete Kunst,” the Nazi show of 1937, which displayed instances of what those in power took to be “degenerate art.”

Nigredo is not only a painting of catastrophe, however. As an alchemical term, the title raises the question of transformation, as do the traces of gold in the top quarter of the painting, particularly at the top left horizon point. Nigredo thus stages post-War Germanness as an unsettled figure of transition from historical catastrophe toward possible renewal. I would stress “unsettled,” however. Char dominates the painting and it seems to be creeping upwards. Moreover, we have little sense for what the gold actually indicates whereas we can see that the char, should it continue to spread, will end the venture.

If we take Nigredo to mark a site of possible transformation, it becomes more than paint on canvas. What hangs in Philadelphia is history, an event still on its way, an event to which the work contributes as a tenuous reply. Said otherwise, the painting itself is a site of historical contestation, a work asking whether it has resources for anything other than memorials, and venturing what it hopes is an affirmative reply.

I have engaged Nigredo because it offers the kind of experience that artworks excel at facilitating. It integrates an amazing range of materials (e.g. oil, acrylic, shellac, and straw), formal elements (e.g. perspective, landscape painting, and flattening), and thematic offerings (e.g. the word “Nigredo,” figurative gold, straw, fires, and hair, as well the image of a painter’s palette). And in doing so, it activates my knowledge, emotions, ethical sensibility, perceptual powers, and imagination; they are engaged and integrated along the arc of an experience in which I encounter myself called to task. Presuming that the event, which Nigredo confronts, is still on its way, the work’s depictions and exemplification point past themselves toward a matter demanding immediate attention. It thus offers us something other than an art-historical puzzle to be decoded or an exquisite performance to be contemplated. In fact, the painting seems to demand that we locate ourselves in the contestation and respond. Even in the museum, one has the sense that we are party to the fate that Nigredo stages and wages, one that includes but is not limited to the fate of art.

The challenge and force of Kiefer’s work, fierce as it is, is not unique. Josef Brodsky, introducing Aleksander Kushner writes: “Yet I do consider it my duty to warn you that an encounter with poetry in its pure form is pregnant with far reaching consequences, that this volume is not where it will all end for you.”7 Brodsky warns the reader because certain works not only entice and engage but also transform.

One may find Brodsky’s conceit little more than the bravado of poets. But a similar sensibility orients certain philosophers, e.g. Heidegger, who says of Hölderlin: “This poetry demands a metamorphosis in our manner of thinking and experiencing, one regarding the whole of being.”8 Then again, given his lifelong engagement with art, Heidegger’s esteem for poetry may not persuade anyone not already persuaded. But do not forget that Plato also took poetry, at least mimetic poetry, to wield powers of transformation. And that is why he tells Glaucon that “poetry which aims at pleasure and imitation” has no place in a “well-governed city” (Republic, 607c).9 While Socrates’ arguments are manifold, the point I wish to draw from them is only that “the ancient quarrel” arises in Plato’s corpus because artworks do more than provide aisthesis. In fact many artworks meet philosophy en route to the good life. This is why Socrates asks Glaucon to repeat their discussion should the latter meet “those who praise Homer and say that he is the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s life in accordance with his teachings” (Republic, 606e).10 In short, Socrates interrogates poetry because he is convinced of its transformative power, and with regard to the good life.

I recall the ancient quarrel not only because it supports (by way of authority) my claim that art can be transformative. It also focuses our sense of where those transformations might lead: toward changed lives. And note that Brodsky is in full agreement, albeit with greater esteem for the benefits of poetry.  He writes: “A poem, as it were, tells its reader, ‘Be like me.’”11 And in a sweet recollection of Auden, he remarks: “To say the least, every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.”12 At the paper’s close, I will return to Brodsky’s inclusive disjunction (guide for life or yardstick for language), as well as to how one might be like a poem; but for now, my point, shared by Plato and Brodsky, is that when artworks change us, something like a possible path through the world is on offer.

II. Art as Address

In terming artworks “solicitous,” I am claiming that they have a kind of conspicuous, self-indicating presence that merely material things lack. And I have attributed to that presence the power to engage and transform those who respond to their petitions. I am thus committed to distinguishing artworks from what we commonly regard as natural forces; music is not mere wind, painting is more than simple plays of light, and sculpture and dance are something other than outcroppings of earth. Not that material or even elemental occurrences fail to underwrite artworks, but artworks have a character that so-called natural phenomena lack and we need to grasp at least some of that character if we are to understand the phenomenon I’m elaborating.

In accounting for the conspicuous presence of artworks, Heidegger refers us to their “createdness,” and for positive and negative reasons. On the one hand, and not unlike Collingwood, Heidegger desires a conception of artistic creation that directs our attention away from craft-like conceptions of art, which hold that artistic creation synthesizes matter and form by imposing the latter upon the former, like “coffee mug” might be said to organize the working of clay.13 On the positive side, Heidegger presents createdness as a quality of conspicuousness. On this view, and more so than tools and other artifacts (which he believes recede behind the projects they enable), artworks accentuate “that unconcealment of a being has happened here, and that as this happening it happens here for the first time; or, that such a work is at all rather than not” (“The Origin of the Work of Art,” 190).

There is a good deal to discuss but I only want to focus on the positive account. At stake is what one finds indicated by the createdness of artworks, and how those indications should orient us toward works. Heidegger suggests that the createdness of artworks conveys their peculiarly conspicuous presence, as if “createdness” were limited to a sort of “here I am” aspect. But that seems too thin an account. Looking at Nigredo, one wonders how Kiefer was able to burn the canvas in such a measured way, and where he got the idea for such a move within the context of painting. And one also wonders why Kiefer elected to return German painting to representative figures (and particular figures, e.g. the sieg heil salute), when for much of the post-War period up into the late 1960s and early 1970s, abstraction had been the rule. In short, with created phenomena, one begins to look for how and why various choices were made, which one wouldn’t if Nigredo were an outcropping of rock covered in moss and guano, no matter how stunning its shape and hue. “Createdness” is thus the mark of work, of a labor that has brought about what is at all rather than not, and it thereby indicates something more than a kind of conspicuous presence—in the least, anticipated and considered results (conscious and/or unconscious), commitments to some of those possibilities, and an effort to realize them.

Not that createdness only indicates individual decisions and executions. Among created works, one also finds genres and styles, phenomena that carry long and complex histories (as do various techniques and subject matters). And within those histories, and because of them, we also find novel deployments or inventions, that is, precisely the kind of variations that lead us to regard a work (or aspects of a work) as creative. Cubism transforms the still life, Wallace Stevens eschews formal rhyme schemes but still organizes its rhythms around the iambic foot. “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” opens: “The eye’s plain version is a thing apart/ The vulgate of experience. Of this/ A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet–.”14 More than underscoring a kind of conspicuousness (if it even accomplishes that), the createdness of things marks of a scene of inheritance and transformation, and we read it, in part, with a sense that one work is derivative, another clever, and a few startling, even breathtaking, say Bach’s conversion of dance forms on the cello.15

I have argued with Heidegger about createdness for two reasons. First, in carrying with it the choices and histories of technique, genre, etc., createdness evidences what we might term a “world-world” struggle underwriting the work of art (to contrast it with the strife between earth and world that Heidegger highlights in “On the Origin of the Work of Art,” and to underscore a feature of the work of art that his view generally elides). For example, the sheer size of many of Kiefer’s paintings clearly contests the museum spaces in which they are set; each thereby contests a if not the prominent site for contemporary visual art.16 But second, and more to my present point, the createdness of artworks draws them away from the realm of thinghood, as if the were simply material objects with particular qualities that might fascinate us, whether with pleasure or the gut punch of a lyric insight. Instead, it marks them as actions, species of human labor transforming an inherited world, thus inviting us to explore how and why, and in ways that stormy skies or majestic mountains do not.17

If we are to take artworks as kinds of action, what kind are they? After all, any artifact is a human action in a certain sense. I share Heidegger and Collingwood’s sense that we miss the boat if we regard artworks primarily as technical transformations of pre-existing states of affair, if only because muses are fickle and often inspire on their own time and in their own way. But what is this boat, this more? On the one hand, it concerns art’s disclosive power, a work’s ability to expose us to the world and our place therein. (In this, Heidegger and I agree, although I won’t elaborate my sense of this agreement until later.) But that power takes place in a certain kind of action that requires more analysis.

In 1913, Osip Mandelstam claimed: “Without dialogue, lyric poetry cannot exist.”18 He believed this because he took lyric poems to be missives, writing: “although individual poems, such as epistles or dedications, may be addressed to concrete persons, poetry as a whole is always directed towards a more or less distant, unknown [elsewhere he terms it “secret”—JTL] addressee” (73). With Mandelstam on his mind, Paul Celan wrote: “A poem, because it is a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogical, can be a message in a bottle, posted with the—not always strongly hopeful—belief that it can somewhere and sometime wash ashore, on heartland perhaps.”19 Their point, whose scope I am expanding, is that poems have an ineliminable second-person dimension. If so, I would say that artworks—absorbing, engaging, occasionally transformative artworks—are acts of the sort that address another.

In insisting upon the address-like nature of artworks, I am redirecting, to some extent, our attention from the purported self-sufficiency or autonomy of the artwork. I say “redirecting” because I am not denying that the meaning of artworks is dependent, in part, upon interactions among a work’s elements, interactions that are integral to the work of art. In Adorno’s words: “They [artworks] speak by virtue of the communication of everything particular in them.”20 (One won’t genuinely understand a poem, for example, if one looks up each word in the dictionary. Instead, one must consider how the words interact with one another, and appreciate the play of various literary operations within or against a given genre and/or tradition.) But such interactions are initiated and massaged by one and delivered to another, and that is the wider current within which the artwork’s metabolism pulses.

The larger current of communication within which I am setting artworks is quite evident when artworks are explicitly presented, e.g. published, hung, cast and set, etc. But those acts only concretize what is a more intrinsic feature of artworks. Suppose one finds poems stashed in a drawer and reads them; doing say may be invasive, but the lines also enable one’s reading; formally, they are for-another, and even private works have an addressee—the creator at some future date. Let me make my point in another way. Frank Martin wrote his “Mass for Double Choir” between 1922 and 1926 and regarded it as a matter between himself and his god. Was anything structurally added when the piece was performed some forty years later? No. An open-ended, public audience simply assumed the role previously limited to Martin, his god, and anyone to whom he had shown the manuscript. I thus think Mandelstam and Celan’s observations tell us something important about artworks in general—their createdness not only marks a kind of purposiveness, but one that involves a second-person dimension in which a work’s technical executions are situated. Yes, one may wonder whether a work will be well received, even noticed, but such worries are simply further evidence that artworks are addresses.

In stressing the communicative orientation of artworks, my view runs counter to Adorno’s. That Adorno is mistaken when he terms Celan’s work hermetic is evident from Celan’s extension of Mandelstam’s position (Aesthetic Theory, 321). But Adorno is also wrong to claim that artworks fall altogether outside the category of communication (Aesthetic Theory, 109). In his astounding focus upon the integrative labors (and failures) of artworks, Adorno loses sight of how those labors remain structurally oriented toward future interpretants, and irrespective of whether the artist plans to publish the work. Now, one might object that Adorno’s sense of Ausdruck or “expression” does justice to art’s openness to interpretation. On Adorno’s view, each work’s inevitable pursuit of autonomy falls short. Works are not completely windowless monads, therefore, but phenomena that express the fate that each, in its own way, cannot escape, what Adorno glosses as the “suffering countenance of artworks” (Aesthetic Theory, 111). But expression in this sense is that of a symptom from which an observer infers a state of affairs, and a symptom is not addressed to another—it just appears. Artworks, however, do not just appear—they are created and, at least in part, created in order to be engaged by another. Adorno, like Heidegger, is at pains to free the work of art from the idiosyncratic stamp of artists.21 But works can be communicative without reducing their meaning and significance to pre-formed conceptions that just as well could have been presented otherwise. As I aim to show, artworks can remain novel sites of disclosure (even for those who create them), and nevertheless be akin to letters in a bottle.

If my commitment to a term like “communication” leads me to part company with Adorno—at least on this point—it establishes what is possibly a more ambiguous relationship with the work of Michael Fried, for whom the addressee is also a structural facet of artworks. What interests Fried, however, is the kind of relationship that works establish with their addressees, as well as how they do so. Fried distinguishes between two distinct stances (or what I will later term bearings) toward an addressee. One is theatrical, the other, or so it seems to me, is self-possessed (albeit as an existential posture as opposed to an ontological condition of substance-like autonomy). The former proves “incomplete without the experiencing subject, which is what I meant by characterizing such work as theatrical in the pejorative sense of the term.”22 Stances of the latter sort, which Fried aligns with modernism, is “fundamentally antitheatrical in that (to speak only somewhat metaphorically) they took no notice of the beholder, who was left to come to terms with them—to make sense of the relationships they comprised—as best he could” (572). Given the enduring provocativeness of Fried’s distinction, I would like to locate some of its concerns relative to the view I am developing. In order to do so, however, I need to further develop my sense of what taking a stance toward an addressee involves.

III. Art’s Bearings

If artworks are in fact communicative, it seems all the more proper to term them solicitations. They not only entice us to varying degrees (as well as engage and occasionally transform us), but they also address us on behalf of something, that is, they are petitions of a sort (to recall another meaning of “solicit”—to approach with a request or plea). This is not to say, however, that artworks are empty ciphers such that they disappear in their indicating (if any sign in fact does this). Obviously, and as I stressed at the outset, artworks draw attention to themselves. But what transpires in this term “themselves”?

Like Heidegger (and because of Heidegger), I think that various kinds of disclosures take place in the work of art, and that artworks call our attention to them in a solicitous address. Something is at stake in the work of art, something transpires there, and the work draws us toward it. In a way, each work announces, in a gestural way, not unlike a wave, “consider this.” But what is there to consider?

Nigredo, for example, through the interaction of its various elements, evidences painterly possibilities, particularly as it emerged from a context of near-compulsory abstraction. (The charring of the canvas seems a particularly powerful way to flatten the work—thus indicating its thinglyness—but in a way that nevertheless complements the figural drama portrayed and enacted.) But the painting also, in its sheer size and the intensity of its subject matter, discloses the framing presence of museums and, to some degree, the limits of those frames. Nigredo also discloses some of the plights of post-War Germany and the place of art in that history. And it just might disclose a transformative path into and through that history. In calling attention to itself, the painting thus calls attention to what is disclosed therein and thereby, that is, its solicitousness is something of a self-framing gesture, one that demarcates a site where disclosures occur.

Of course, artworks can disclose many things. On the one hand, they disclose art-historical possibilities, i.e. moves, perhaps exquisite moves, that can be made in art forms like painting, or in genres like the romantic comedy, or in harmonics, or in very particular forms like the sonnet or sestina. Artworks also disclose worldly possibilities—the physical and political space of the museum, the wonder of light, the terror of one battle (say, Guernica), or the general horror of war. In Heideggerian terms, such matters mark the “truth of beings,” with the genitive tilted toward beings rather than the event of their truth, though still other disclosures are also possible, ones that try to disclose the event of disclosure itself (or so I have argued elsewhere).23 However, no matter what they disclose, artworks also disclose their how, the manner in which they gather and focus various elements such that art historical or worldly possibilities are disclosed as well. Let me explain by way of Adorno’s conception of form.

According to Adorno, form is the “artifact’s coherence, however self-antagonistic and refracted,” the “objective organization within each artwork of what appears as bindingly eloquent” (Aesthetic Theory, 142-43). It would be a mistake to take form statically, however, as if it were superimposed over matter or filled with content. As if reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, where “form” names the objectified appearance of the bondsman’s “formative activity” (formirende Thun) in the fruit of his or her labor (a sown field, a wooden chair, or a well-swept room), Adorno presents form as the “law of the transfiguration of the existing” which gives to artworks “their objective reflectedness into themselves.”24 In other words, form names a) the operations by which artworks integrate their elements, including genre (should one be in play), and b) the manner through which they confront the world to which they belong and to which they are a response. According to Adorno, one thus finds form at work in every operation that gives the work its determinate character, both by binding elements to one another (via perspective, rhythmic stresses, or symbols, for example), or by transforming the world in which they arise (say by mixing linseed oil and pigments, filling a subway tunnel with guitar chords, or leading a reader to rethink the task of mourning).

While I am compelled by Adorno’s sense and use of “form,” I find the term too ambiguous given its association with particular organizations like the sonata or the sestina. Moreover, I do not wish to forget the eloquence, that is, the disclosures, that form makes possible (and in this I keep a foot in the content-aesthetics that Adorno rejects). I would thus rethink Adorno’s sense of form within a broader term that indicates, solicitously, the labors that organize an artwork’s elements and enable a range of disclosures. To that end, I propose bearing as a marker of an artwork’s purposive comportment in and toward the world whose various relations and dimensions the work engages and discloses. I have chosen this term because at least five of its senses apply to artworks as I understand them. [1] Artworks have a manner of comportment, a bearing, e.g. bold, reflective, ironic, etc. [2] They are generative (in the sense of ‘bear fruit’) in that they provide disclosures. [3] They are purposively oriented and thus have bearings, principally toward an addressee, but also toward some determinate end, e.g. to be beautiful, to please, to rework culture, to witness suffering, etc. [4] Works of art also make use of the very world that they disclose, which leads me to say that artworks bear, in the sense of carry, extant possibilities, transforming them until they coalesce into a phenomenon that is bindingly eloquent. [5] Finally, artworks also bear (or fail to bear), in the sense of endure, the world they absorb in order to disclose whatever possibilities they are able to bear. (I think here of works that seems to be undone by the commodity form that pays their way, or the expressive strain a poem acquires when the language of an oppressor is employed to bear witness to crimes perpetrated by that oppressor.)

Recall Nigredo, whose manifold bearing is evident. At its most general level, the work presents us with a painterly alchemy that figures and confronts German history, thereby initiating what it hopes will be a process of melioration. In brief, this alchemy involves: enormous scale, the use and abuse of perspective, clear and powerful thematic elements of European history, the deployment of writing and organic matter, and a kind of symbolic self-scrutiny that gives the work an experimental tone, as if the final fate of what had begun has yet to be determined. But it would be a mistake to only consider the painting’s internal operations, to the degree spatial metaphors succeed in illuminating such interactive phenomena. The painting also includes a variety of postures adopted toward the world in which the artwork unfolds—toward its addresses (Nigredo is sincere, heroic, and demanding), the sites and modes of its presentation (its scale and content render it a gripping presence in a museum), as well as the situations to which it responds (WWII, the Holocaust, the drift of post-War German art into abstraction, and what I have called, in a revision of Heidegger, the empty dimension of presencing). Read as a whole, I would claim, therefore, that Nigredo petitions us to consider how (and to what ends) it engages (as it strives to transform) its art-historical elements, its materials, its thematic motifs, the museum in which it hangs, its addressees, and the history it depicts and embodies. In other words, Nigredo asks us to consider how it inhabits the histories it confronts, perpetuates, and possibly meliorates, a manifold phenomenon I wish to term its “bearing.”

If we return to Fried, I find his distinction between theatricality and what I termed self-possession to name two modalities of a work’s bearing, principally toward its addressees, although the pejorative sense of “theatrical” that Fried exploits suggests that it also names a work’s more general comportment, which is why, in part, I cast its contrast in terms of “self-possession.” What Fried resents about theatricality is how little it offers besides its initial solicitation. Works like Tony Smith’s “Die” demand (or is it command?) one’s attention but the “fulfillment of that demand consists simply in being aware of it,” taking “it” to name the work, given that, when faced by theatrical works, the “beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor.”25 The work is incomplete without the subject, therefore, because its occurrence, as art, is simply designed to catch the notice of an addressee, and to offer nothing else. Think of Cage’s 4’33”. Its meaning lives and dies with the attention it convenes but does not then engage or absorb.

Now, I do not believe that any work can evaporate in its own solicitous address, leaving behind nothing but its objectivity. As Fried himself observes, the closer one approximates that goal, the closer one approaches non-art, moving from music to an insistent hum, for example, or from painting to a pulsing light (the examples are mine). But as I noted at the outset, the very effort to achieve objecthood—or anything for that matter, say a “situation”—dooms the project at the outset. Moreover, as Danto’s work shows, when works approach objecthood they don’t prove mute but become conceptual, and they cannot help but do so, I would add, given the horizon against which they aim to prove legible, even in their evanescence. (The history they bear forces them, as it were, into a point—“here too is art.”) But I take it that what really draws Fried’s ire is the thought that theatrical objecthood should stand as the end toward which artworks bear. And not just because such programs leave us with wind in dry grass. Rather, something is lost, namely, the meaning made by works that take “no notice of the beholder.”

In “Art and Objecthood,” Fried says of Anthony Caro’s sculpture, repeating the remark almost forty years later: “It is as though Caro’s sculptures essentialize meaningfulness as such—as though the possibility of meaning what we say and do alone makes his sculpture possible” (“Art and Objecthood,” 162). This is a remarkable claim, and I think we need to hear the italicized “alone” two times. [1] The possibility of meaning what we say and do is the sole condition for the possibility of Caro’s sculptures qua art (otherwise they would be lost to objecthood, which is nonmeaning). [2] The possibility of meaning what we say and do is something done alone. It seems, therefore, that theatricality and self-possession exist on a continuum according to Fried: to reject objecthood (or what he also calls “literality”), is to move toward self-possession while the pursuit of self-possession tries to negate (Fried says “defeat, or allay”) objecthood (162). Caro’s work accomplishes the latter according to Fried through the dynamic interaction of its elements, which presumably have no need of the beholder in order to mean what they mean, although the beholder is, I presume, invited to contemplate how the work’s “individual elements bestow significance on one another precisely by virtue of their juxtaposition” (161).

I too am impatient when addressed by works that bear toward objecthood as their end. (I might say: I find them unbearable.) On the one hand, they solicit our attention but often disclose very little of interest, say pleasure, insight, or a mode of comportment that we might make our own. To the degree they become conceptual, however (which is not the same as becoming an object), I think they offer us conundrums worth the time it takes to think through how a Brillo Box might come to stand as a work of art, or how, as with Brian Eno’s generative music, patterns of order emerge out of a mixture of intentional arrangements, accidental collisions, and the attentive efforts of the listener.

I presume I’m more interested in these conceptual disclosures because I’m not all that exercised by works that seem “incomplete without the experiencing subject.” I suppose it all depends on what is being asked of me and how much the work brings to the venture. Works that seem empty apart from the flick of their solicitation do vex me. But if I am invited into a work that includes my own activity in the event it depicts and exemplifies—as I am with Nigredo—I am happy to receive and accept it, and without any sense that the work thereby retracts into objecthood. I say this because works like Nigredo, as no object could, ask me to think through whether the forces that animated Nazism still burn in paintings, and, if so, what that requires of me. Not that they trigger this process in me, as if my doing so were a perlocutionary effect of the request. Rather, in order to fully understand Nigredo, I need to realize that a request for that kind of work is part of its solicitous address. Now, I might refuse such a request, that is walk away from the painting and into another gallery, or think instead of Kiefer’s childhood, but in those instances, I would fail to fully grasp what transpires in a painting like Nigredo. It would be as if I admired the font of a letter but never thought to answer it.

Returning to Eno’s generative music, one encounters programmed parameters for the production of sounds (wisps of melody, rhythmic miniatures) that nevertheless allow the results to develop in shifting and unintended ways. Listening to such works (“Discrete Music” and “Music for Airports”), I find myself solicited by a work that bears, in the sense of discloses, the complexity of its own occurrence, one involving a dynamic matrix of objectivity, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity (and the site wherever they compear, as Jean-Luc Nacy would have it). And at that point, I find myself at the limits of self-consciousness, folds of sense where self-consciousness both ends and begins. And that, I would argue, bears meaning in its most originary registers.26 But such works cannot accomplish this unless I play along, that is, track my own tracking of the shifting patterns. And requiring that of me does not render them objects because, again, no object can make such a request of me.

With regard to works whose chief end seems to lie with allaying objecthood, I recognize in them a possible and intriguing bearing, even a profound one insofar as it dramatizes how agents try to inherit the world through terms of their own making. To recall a line of thought from Thoreau, which marks the cornerstone of Cavell’s reading of Walden (and of his general approach to Emerson), if theatrical works bear the language of their mother tongue immaturely, unconsciously (and thereby prove “literal”), self-possessed works have taken that mother tongue and deliberately authored a father tongue, word by word, beam by beam.27 And in doing so, they do prove to be something like images of semiotic individualism or what I have been calling self-possession.28 But I do not believe that such works “essentialize meaningfulness as such,” at least insofar as I understand that claim. Self-possession is something toward which an artwork might bear, and in so doing, that is, in dramatizing that pursuit, the work might become an image of the dream of human self-constitution, or even of divine creation given how Fried seems to set Caro’s work in a nunc stans. But as Adorno rightly insists, such images are only semblances of such a state, that is, they gesture toward it without actualizing it, burdened (and enabled) as they are by all they bear, allay as they might that entanglement. More strictly, then, such works disclose that dream’s impossibility. And while that is another matter worth thinking through, one a work might give us to consider, it is not the only matter on which artworks bear, as I now aim to show. 29

IV. Art and Purpose

I regard artworks as solicitous in order to do justice to the ways in which they entice and petition us with a possibly transformative, communicative address, one that calls attention to their manifold bearings. A work’s petition is not without a certain quasi-normative confidence, however, both in terms of what it presents and how. In a passage that did not find a place in the penultimate draft of Aesthetic Theory (which is the only draft we have), Adorno writes: “Every work says, like a mime, ‘I’m good, no?’” (Aesthetic Theory, 392). A comedy that isn’t funny or a poem lost in clichés intrinsically disappoints, much like an invitation to a dinner that is never served—something has been promised but not delivered. Said more carefully, solicitous artworks create the legitimate expectation that they will provide something of value, something “good” within their field of operations. But how are such fields demarcated?

One might suppose the matter rests with successfully instancing a type—landscape portrait, novel, romantic comedy, pure punk, etc. I find this on point but narrow, and in two ways. Numerous artworks, and those we often most esteem, are presented as contributions to the wider work of humanist culture, namely, navigating mortal life with maps that do not defer to the letter of revealed truth. Works like Melville’s Moby Dick, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Emily Dickinson’s poems all instance art-historical types, but they do so in order to respond to broader issues, namely, the chaos of nature and unbounded capital accumulation, the fierce, sometimes solitary work of enlightenment freedom, and the abysses that mortality repeatedly opens.30 In other words, artworks bear (as in carry) art historical types because those works are bearing toward ends that such types help them realize. If we take artworks to say “I’m good, no?,” we should hold our reply until we have a fuller sense of their bearings.

Of course, with regard to ends, artworks move in various ways. At least three come rather quickly to mind. In conclusion, I would like to mark them, if only to concretize my admittedly general invocation of the normative. To that end, and recalling that a work is solicitous, I have come to think of artworks as offering invitations that highlight the general end that gives them their bearings, for example, “appreciate this,” “acknowledge this,” and “be like me.” (N.B. I do not consider these ends to be exclusive nor do I take the list to be exhaustive.)

In calling attention to themselves, to their bearings, some works expect us to appreciate, to take pleasure in, some range of what they disclose. The mime expects us to applaud the precision of his or her mute but nevertheless legible gestures. The math rock quartet expects us to be awed by their ability to play in complex and unusual time signatures, at times furiously, at times approaching silence. And as heady as Wallace Stevens’ poems can be, their plain music is a delight and it is offered as such.


We must endure our thoughts all night, until

The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.31


Not all works wish simply to be enjoyed, however, though I presume most do to some degree. But other artworks purport to bear insights that seek understanding and acknowledgement. Poetries of witness, for example, track and mark historical violence and injustices, and they present them as such, that is, not simply as events but as evils. What they solicit from us is thus not merely our attention, but our acknowledgement that the events portrayed should not go unmarked and unresisted. When Carolyn Forché recounts her dinner with the Salvadorian Colonel, our rapt attention should not give way to delight but acknowledge the horror, the moral horror unfolding.


What you have heard is true. I was in his house. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid.33


Beautiful lines can be found here. “The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.” But the various juxtapositions (the rack of lamb, broken bottles embedded in the walls) also present an awful scene, one I am led to elaborate as follows. This regime does not need to keep its violence at arms length, say in a prison, some torture bunker, or a rural camp—rather, hearse and home are one. And that union is evil, and we are told as much and expected to concur. Nor is this another world—that of a monster unconnected to its northern neighbors. A presumably American cop show is part of the evening’s entertainment, indicating both a spatial and cultural proximity to U.S. readers who are thereby asked to acknowledge what lies to their reachable, confrontable south. And when the poem goes on to recall the bag of dried, human ears that the colonel spilled upon the table, setting one into a glass of water (“It came alive there”), we also are asked to attend to the silent suffering of those who no doubt lost far more than their ears.


He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.33


My final class of solicitations takes us back to Josef Brodsky and two lines already quoted. “A poem, as it were, tells its reader, ‘Be like me.’” And: “To say the least, every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.” Some artworks—I think Nigredo is one, Caro’s sculptures may be others—call our attention to the full range of their bearings, presenting them as valid, even good paths, praiseworthy paths, through the world they engage, disclose, and work to transform. In a modest way, and following after the latter half of Brodsky’s disjunct, some poems offer themselves as “yardsticks for the language.” More concretely, they call our attention to how they inhabit language, resisting, for example, the clichés of the market, tradition, and the state, and replacing that numbing chorus with acute, singular articulations that not only resist assimilation but also require us to actively work our way into what is therein indicated. In short, we find in a poem (or corpus) a “way to be” that it exemplifies (and which it solicits from its readers), perhaps one inimical to totalitarianism.34

If I think of Nigredo, I also hear “be like me,” and again, through exemplification. I hear: live in a manner that is bindingly eloquent as you confront your history in all its violence, marking with particular care your entanglements therein. I hear: do not accept the scene of your appearance on habitual terms—museum, classroom, or conference. I also hear: don’t fuck around, that is, put positively, pursue your tasks with an intensity, perhaps even a fire capable of transforming whatever (and whoever) you encounter. But do so experimentally, which is to say, unsure of and alert to unpalatable consequences and emergent possibilities. Not that Nigredo says such things in any direct way. But its bearings radiate an ethos such that should we meet Glaucon somewhere along the road we might continue the ancient quarrel on behalf of poetry (and art more generally), if on altered terms.

Not that everything Nigredo offers is “good.” But then, I do not have to accept that it is. In being solicited to attend to all that the painting bears, and in the context of a normative horizon that the claim “be like me” (or, “I’m good, no?”) opens, I also am invited to critically assess that bearing. And when I do, I find that Kiefer’s attraction to alchemical melioration ideologically valorizes the work of art at the expense of social and political reform, and its palpable sense of the artist as hero remains bound to the figure of the charismatic leader whose will and vision might redeem a fallen past.35 But what it offers on the whole is profound, and I would be equal to the occasion, even in my refusals.

There is more to say, of course, e.g. concerning how and on what basis I take up invitations like “dig this,” “acknowledge this,” and “be like me.”36 But there always is and always will be more to say. But whatever is said is always said in a certain direction, and so I hope, at least with regard to artworks, that I have helped us find our bearings by uncovering, in part, art’s own.



This paper has been kindly received and interrogated by many, and I would be remiss if I didn’t thank several of them by name. I first brought these thoughts together at a conference convened by Curtis Carter at Marquette University, where Noël Carroll, Steven Davies, Ivan Gaskill, Gary Hagberg, Jason Wirth, and Melissa Shew asked me questions that helped me develop my thinking. Audiences at Miami University of Ohio and The Pennsylvania State University were also responsive and helpful, and the generosity of their invitations also prompted deeper thinking. At Emory University, each member of Argus, an interdisciplinary group, is now a permanent member of my internal audience whenever I venture to write or even think about art. Andrew Mitchell and Kevin Karnes in particular read early versions, and it is a better paper for their prodding. More generally, but no less essentially, Todd Cronan and Karla Oeler also gave me real food for thought through their acute feel for texts, issues, and works. Finally, an anonymous reviewer requested that I directly engage Michael Fried’s work and it has been very beneficial to have done so, though not for the first or last time.
1.  Anahid Kassabian has taken on the task of exploring this range of musical experiences in Ubiquitous Music: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).
2.  Kevin Brennan, in an essay not yet published, has been developing this path into Heidegger’s essay. The thought that a range of good-enough art often serves as the historical condition of possibility for great art is his, although I have put the matter in my own way.
3.  John Lysaker, Emerson and Self-Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008).
4.  It should be noted that Music for Airports equally displaces our attention once we are drawn into its proceedings. For example, the opening cut, “1:1,” is paced in such a drawn-out fashion that it barely proves melodic, although one hears hints of the “Ding, daing, dong line from Frère Jacques. And yet, as soon as one begins to find a motif it seems to fade away. At a phenomenological level, therefore, Music for Airports again proves ambiguous, albeit in the reverse direction: it draws us into a kind of active listening and then slips away until it continues as a backdrop to whatever thoughts, in the meantime, have dawned upon us.
5.  Anselm Kiefer et al., Anselm Kiefer (Venezia Contemporano) (Milan: Edizioni Charta, 1997), 140-142.
6.  Nan Rosenthal, Anselm Kiefer: Works on Paper in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 39.
7.  Alexander Kushner, Apollo in the Snow: Selected Poems, trans. Paul Graves and Carol Ueland (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1991), ix.
8.  Martin Heidegger, Hölderlins Hymne “Der Ister” (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann), 205.
9.  The Republic of Plato, second ed., trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1968), 291.
10.  Bloom, Republic, 290.
11.  Joseph Brodsky, On Grief and Reason: Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1995), 206.
12.  Joseph Brodsky, Less than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1986), 381.
13.  Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” in Basic Writings, revised and expanded, ed. David Krell (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993), 152-157. Collingwood rejects what he terms “the technical theory of art,” which looks at the artwork as a preconceived end brought about by the application of certain techniques. He writes: “In describing the power by which an artist constructs patterns in words or notes or brush-marks by the name technique…this theory is misdescribing it by assimilating it to the skill by which a craftsman constructs appropriate means to a preconceived end” (R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938], 29). Or, as he says somewhat later: “Art has something to do with making things, but these things are not material things, made by imposing form on matter, and they are not made by skill” (108).
14.  Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Random House, 1954), 465.
15.  With regard to the conspicuousness of the work of art, “createdness” in itself seems too broad a category to account for how art solicits our attention. We not only are drawn to artworks by the exiquisiteness of their construction, but also by phenomena like frames, bindings, record players, the fact that a painting is hung, that there are galleries, symphony stages and halls, that is, rituals of presentation complement whatever solicitousness artworks might acquire through the interaction of their elements like perspective, rhythm, imagery, etc. The complement is not only phenomenological, however. Such rituals and their variations are continuous with createdness in that they too are acts and thus indicative of decisions and purposes, and that context of human action, in its specificity, is part of why we regard artworks differently than we do raindrops and clouds on the one hand, shovels and bath towels on the other.
16.  Take, for example, Drache (or “Dragon”), a painting hanging in Atlanta’s High Museum. It looms a colossal 185 x 220 ½ inches, or roughly fifteen and a half feet high and eighteen feet wide, and thus requires an unusually sized gallery to accommodate its mass. This contestation is perhaps most conspicuous at La Ribaute, Kiefer’s 86-acre studio estate that he began in the 1990s and developed over seventeen years (Matthew Biro, Anselm Kiefer, Phaidon Focus [London: Phaidon, 2013, 81). The aim of La Ribaute is to create and present Kiefer’s work in a context that allows its true and full drama to manifest itself. More specifically, La Ribaute gave Kiefer the space and freedom to build presentation sites for specific works, and it secured the sheer space and legal right in which to develop complex earth works that less figured engagements with the earth and sky than embodied them in the form of a series of concrete towers as well as an actual, multi-level bunker that recalls the pyramids he represents in Osiris and Isis (1985-87) or Your and My Age and the Age of the World (1997).
17.  Hegel also regards artworks as instances of practical activity, which he characterizes as the purposive transformation of external things en route to a kind of self-discovery. And his lectures on beautiful art construe this process in terms of recurring triads that presumably mirror his metaphysics of Geist. The view I am developing has much in common with Hegel’s, particularly with his remark, almost in passing, that artworks are “…essentially a question, an address to the responsive breast, a call to the mind and the spirit” (G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975], 71). That said, I would also argue that: a) Geist, as an infinite movement of free self-consciousness, must be displaced in terms of an ontology that takes more seriously the genesis of self-consciousness (principally its thrownness), b) the nature of relationality (principally its anteriority to all acts, self- or unconscious) must not be subsumed within a theory of action, and c) one need not regard religion as the principal disclosive power in human history, as Hegel seems to do in the Zusatz appended to § 562 of the Encyclopedia (G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Mind, trans. W. Wallace and A.V. Miller, rev. Michael Inwood [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007], 295-96). Such a discussion must wait for another occasion, however.
18.  Osip Mandelstam, The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, ed. Jane Gary Harris (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1979), 72.
19.  Paul Celan, Werke: Historisch-Kritische Ausgabe. I. Abteilung, 15. Band (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2014), 24.
20.  Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 5.
21.  Theodor Adorno, Notes to Literature: Volume One, ed. Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholson. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 106.
22.  Michael Fried, “Barthes’s Punctum,Critical Inquiry 31.3 (Spring 2005), 572.
23.  I am intentionally gathering under the heading “world disclosures” phenomena that disclose the world of beings as well as the being of worlds. This is not to ignore the distinction between being and beings. Rather, it is to recall and assume an argument from 2002, where I claim that the truth of being can and must be traced in the truth of beings such that any insistence upon their categorical distinction is unnecessary and even potentially misleading. John Lysaker, You Must Change Your Life: Philosophy, Poetry, and the Birth of Sense (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).
24.  Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 143-144. Form is the term Hegel employs in his discussion of lordship and bondage (Phenomenology of Spirit, ¶¶ 190-96). A similar discussion can be found in his Philosophy of Right (§§ 54-58). Then again, Adorno might only be reading Walter Benjamin reading German Romanticism, where the latter attributes to Friedrich Schlegel the view that “[f]orm is the possibility of reflection in the work. It grounds the work a priori, therefore, as a principle of existence (Daseinsprizip); it is through its form that work of art is a living center of reflection” (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings: Volume 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings [Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1996], 156). What I will soon term “bearing” could be regarded as a Daseinsprinzip.
25.  Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 155.
26.  I have tried to develop this thought at length in You Must Change Your Life. For a reading of Nancy that is applicable to this context, see: John Lysaker, “Lenin, Nancy, and the Politics of Total War,” Philosophy Today 43.4 (1999): 186-195.
27.  I am grateful to Todd Cronan for stressing the proximity of Fried and Cavell’s work, which left me unsurprised to discover the following while reading Absorption and Theatricality. “Between Cavell’s work and my own there exists a community of concept and purpose which will be apparent to anyone reading us both” (Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot [Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980], 183). It may be that I have allowed the proximity to obscure important differences, but I take the project of authoring a father tongue to be akin to operating under an imperative to “…defeat or suspend its own objecthood,” which Fried associates with nontheatrical works (“Art and Objecthood,” 151). For those interested, Thoreau’s distinction between the mother and the father tongue occurs in the third paragraph of Walden, Chapter Three.
28.  I equate allaying objecthood with self-possession given this other account of Caro’s work. “It is this continuous and entire presentness, amounting, as it were, to the perpetual creation of itself, that one experiences as a kind of instantaneousness: as though if only one were infinitely more acute, a single infinitely brief instant would be long enough to see everything, to experience the work in all its depth and fullness, to be forever convinced by it” (“Art and Objecthood,” 167).
29.  With more time and room, I would distinguish objecthood and literality. Objects are neither literal nor figural; one cannot be the former if the latter is impossible. A rock is not literally a rock because it cannot, on its own, function figuratively. It’s just a rock. Second, “literality” is a term designed to clarify semiotic contexts (say those involving words, images, rituals, symbols, and genres as opposed to hill sides and cloud formations), and as such, it only occurs within an intersubjectively shared if contested field of signs upon which all addresses and receptions rely. This suggests that the iterability of the father tongue is only possible given the mother tongue; say, by giving us the distinction between father and mother that Thoreau deploys. Yes, he does so metaphorically, but metaphors only work if they maintain a relation between the target and source domain. In thinking about a work’s relation to its addressees, therefore, one should distinguish the general from the concrete addressee, for turning one’s back on the later (or seeking self-possession) is possible only out of the shared intersubjective field that underwrites the former, and both at the point of reception and creation.
30.  One may prefer to read Beethoven’s Fifth as if it had no bearing on nonmusical meanings. Perhaps recalling Hoffman’s 1810 review of the Fifth, one might insist that instrumental music “…scorns all aid, all admixture of other arts, and gives pure expression to its own peculiar nature,” even if one doesn’t go so far as to claim that instrumental music “…reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which leaves behind all feelings circumscribed by intellect in order to embrace the inexpressible” (E.T.A. Hoffmann, “[Review: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor]” (1810) in Musical Analysis in the Nineteenth Century: Volume 2, Hermeneutic Approaches, ed. Ian Bent [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 145). But why suppose that musical relations and innovations do not also allegorically depict larger themes, e.g. those of freedom and fate, a theme quite dear to Beethoven, from his disappointment in Napoleon to the word Eroica (“heroic”), to Fidelio as well as his manuscript notes for Opus 135? Returning to the Fifth, I find it difficult not to hear at measure 268 in movement one, specifically in the brief oboe solo, a kind of individual perseverance amid what had been crashing waves of occasionally fraying orders. And it is the plight of that kind of bearing which the work as a whole—to the degree I understand it—unfolds. Regardless, my more general claim is that Beethoven is seeking to contribute something to a cultural discussion that extends beyond the world of music and thus hearing his work simply in terms of genre transformations, whether of the symphony or the string quartet, is inappropriately narrow. Thanks to Kevin Karnes for discussion pertaining to Beethoven’s Fifth and its complex reception.
31.  These lines close “Man Carrying Thing” (Stevens, Collected Poems, 351).
32.  As of June 15, 2015, “The Colonel” could be found on the web site of the Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180106.
33.  Forché, “The Colonel,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/180106.
34.  This is Brodsky’s view. In fact, he attributes to poetry the very power that Plato fears poetry lacks—an ability to interrogate language or speech. “For a man with taste,” he writes, (from exile no less), “particularly [one] with literary taste, is less susceptible to the refrains and the rhythmical incantations peculiar to any version of political demagogy” (On Grief and Reason, 49).
35.  One might say, Nigredo does not sufficiently address its viewers with something like “bear with me,” and in two senses: stay with this complexity and thereby bring about what gestates on this canvas. Something like that is at work in how it bears toward its addresses, but its heroic bearing seems to minimize the kind of work it can only hope to initiate. My thanks to Vincent Colapietro for hearing and sharing these resonances of “bearing.”
36.  On my view, evaluating an artwork’s bearing requires us to thematize and evaluate, holistically, the various stances it takes toward the world: a) its synthesis of material and thematic elements, which requires a kind of technical criticism b) its engagements with art-historical types and movements, which requires a kind of genre criticism, and c) its engagements with its own scenes of generation and presentation, which requires a kind of onto-social criticism. I insist upon a “holistic” evaluation because no domain should be evaluated in isolation. It would be odd, for example, to evaluate technique without an eye on genre as well as the scenes of generation and presentation. I could imagine, for example, finding photorealist techniques ill placed in a landscape painting, just as complex time signatures, effortlessly executed, rarely if ever fit a love song. I also think that a seamlessly crafted, three-minute pop song about the kind of subject matter Kiefer addresses would have a hard time vindicating itself, even if its chord changes and time signature reminded one of no other song. Pop songs are such thorough commodities that it would be hard to reject the charge that such a song commodifies the holocaust. Similarly, I don’t think one can evaluate the scale of a painting like Nigredo except in relation to the history it engages and the spaces in which it is likely to hang. Like so many Kiefer paintings, the conceit is clear: this event may overwhelm us, and no museum can contain all that is underway in the site where canvas and viewer engage one another.
About the Author

John Lysaker is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. Drawing from the traditions of phenomenology, American romanticism, and critical social theory, he works in the philosophy of art, philosophical psychology, and political philosophy. His published work ranges from studies of Emerson to poetics to the nature of schizophrenia, all of which remain ongoing concerns. His current projects in the philosophy of art include a short volume on Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" and a treatise on the nature of art entitled "Dear Glaucon: Finding Our Bearings with the Work of Art."

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

Clive Barnett

1. What is a “Foucault”?

For at least four decades now, the ideas of Michel Foucault have resonated across a wide range of academic fields in the English-speaking academy. While this influence is perhaps most clearly felt in the humanities, Foucault has also provided a frame of reference in social science disciplines, including sociology, cultural studies, human geography and anthropology, amongst others.1 Foucault’s work is often used to bring a darker image of power relations to social theory, and to recommend that social scientists should develop an historical imagination towards their objects of analysis.2 In these and other uses, the authority of “Foucault” is most often deployed to support models of critical social science, understood as a set of procedures for revealing the operations of power in the routines of everyday and organisational life.

Across these fields, there are different versions of “Foucault” at work, ranging from a theorist of power, to a model of intellectual commitment, or an inspiration for new models of ethico-political practice.3 And across these fields, there is also a hardening division of labour between an increasingly sophisticated field of exegesis and a longer standing tradition of application of Foucault’s ideas.4 Cutting across this division is another, between readings of Foucault by “ontologizers” and by “empiricists.”5 This division might also be characterised in terms of readings of Foucault’s work in search of grand concepts (of power, of biopolitics, of discipline), and readings that find there a model of analysis, if not quite a methodology (some version of archaeology, genealogy, or perhaps discourse analysis).6

In light of these varied uses of “Foucault” in social theory, I want here to reflect on the relevance for social science inquiry of the notion of “problematization” that Foucault discussed on various occasions towards the end of his life. According to Foucault, analysing practices through the “study of problematizations” involves asking, “how and why certain things (behavior, phenomena, processes) became a problem.”7 Foucault characterised the genealogy of problems as involving a double movement “in which one tries to see how the different solutions to a problem have been constructed; but also how these solutions result from a specific form of problematization.”8

A large part of the interest in the notion of problematization arises from Foucault’s own use of this term to characterise the sweep of his own work. Problematization is an idea that appears in interviews, lectures, and publications from the last few years before his death. Foucault claimed that his own work found its “theoretical coherence” “in the definition of the historically unique forms in which the generalities of our relations to things, to others, to ourselves, have been problematized.”9 Foucault once referred to problematization as “a barbarous word.”10 He used it nonetheless to clarify the emergent shape of his work on issues of government, biopolitics, and the care of the self. In particular, it is a notion through which he rethinks his previous work in light of the development of the project to undertake a history of modern sexuality.11 Interviewed by Francois Ewald shortly before his death in 1984, Foucault identified the notion of problematization as the common element of all of his work from History of Madness onwards, “though I had not yet sufficiently isolated this notion. But one always moves backwards toward the essential; the most general things appear last.”12 By his own account, Foucault had moved from investigating the problematization of madness and mental illness, to the problematization of relations between delinquency and punishment, and on to the ways in which sexual activity was problematized. It is in light of these kinds of remarks by Foucault that Arpad Szakolczai has argued that problematization is “the guiding thread of his work,” and Colin Koopman has suggested that it is the idea that provides “a kind of master concept for Foucault’s methodology.”13

Problematization easily appears to be Foucault’s last word on how best to interpret not just his last works, but also the whole trajectory of his work. Colin Gordon has, however, warned against the tendency to read Foucault’s last works as offering “final answers and testamentary messages,” when in fact Foucault might have been “setting up a battery of new tools and frameworks for analysis” for anticipated future work. Gordon suggests that the future work would have developed Foucault’s stated concerns with modes of truth telling as both a political practice and personal activity.14 The significance of the notion of problematization should be located within this incomplete project. Interest in the theme of problematization in Foucault’s late work has been given impetus recently by the publication of Colin Koopman’s book-length study, which uses this idea as the basis for outlining a pragmatist interpretation of Foucault’s work, as well as by recent essays by Paul Rabinow drawing attention to the influence on his own work of both Foucault’s ideas and John Dewey’s account of the relationship between inquiry and problematic situations.15 Koopman and Rabinow both locate the significance of the idea of problematization in the wider context of Foucault’s diagnosis of modernity as founded on the splitting of concerns with truth from concerns with conduct. I want to develop this line of thought, in order to explore the ways in which the notion of problematization interrupts some of the conventional interpretations of what “Foucault” offers to social theory. Interpretations of the idea of problematization cut to the heart of different ways of engaging with Foucault’s ideas. It seems at first sight to provide a refined model of critical practice. On closer inspection, it turns out to be better interpreted as a contribution to a more descriptive understanding of the tasks of social inquiry.


2. Thinking problematically

Foucault discussed problematization primarily in the context of his work on Greek and early Christian practices of the cultivation of the self. The Uses of Pleasure, published in 1984, opens with a justification for the departure from the original outline of the project for a history of sexuality since the publication of the first volume in 1976.16 Foucault states that he has come to see his work from a new vantage point:

I seem to have gained a better perspective on the way I worked – gropingly, and by means of different or successive fragments – on this project, whose goal is a history of truth. It was a matter of analysing, not behaviours or ideas, nor societies and their “ideologies,” but the problematizations through which being offers itself to be, necessarily, thought – and the practices on the basis of which these problematizations are formed.17

Foucault here locates the idea of problematizations within a broader theme of pursuing a “history of truth.” In this light, we might ask what relevance should be ascribed to the ethical backdrop to Foucault’s discussion of problematization. The relations between the concern with problematization, truth telling, and care of the self are key to grasping why this “barbarous word” should not be too readily assimilated to the routines of academic critique.

It is worth noting that Foucault’s commentary on his own work as oriented around the analysis of problematizations is frequently elicited under a certain sort of interrogation. It is an idea that appears often in interviews and question-and-answer sessions, in which the political imperative for him to state the significance of his work was often paramount. For example, speaking in 1978, Foucault invoked the analysis of problems to support his careful avoidance of prescribing political positions or visions: “I concern myself with determining problems, unleashing them, revealing them within the framework of such complexity as to shut the mouths of prophets and legislators: all those who speak for others and above others.”18 The commitment to analysing problems is related to a specific sense of the political vocation of the intellectual, one in which the elaboration of problems that “cannot be easily resolved” is given precedence to the recommendation of strategies or solutions (Remarks on Marx, 158).

Michael Warner has pinpointed the significance of Foucault’s own presentation of problematization as an alternative to the demand that he speak authoritatively as a subject of critical truth on topics deemed to be politically urgent.19 Warner identifies two routes to interpreting Foucault’s comments on problematization:

The term “problematization,” awkward enough under the best of circumstances, has become rather confused by its use among post-Foucauldian academics, for whom it often means nothing more than taking something to be problematic. To problematize, in this usage, means to complicate. (Publics and Counterpublics, 154)

In contrast to this usage of “problematization,” Warner suggests there is a more innovative idea to be found in Foucault’s approach to the analysis of problems:

For Foucault it has a much richer meaning, connected with the argument in volumes 2 and 3 of History of Sexuality. There, he treats a problematic not just as an intellectual tangle, but also as the practical horizon of intelligibility within which problems come to matter for people. It stands for both the conditions that make thinking possible and for the way thinking, under certain circumstances, can reflect back on its own conditions. Problematization is more than arguing; it is a practical context for thinking. As such, it lies largely beyond conscious strategy. (Publics and Counterpublics, 154-155)

Warner succinctly summarizes what is most distinctive about Foucault’s account of problematization, which is the concern with how problems relate to the practical conduct of people’s lives. Warner also acknowledges that Foucault’s own presentation of this theme was made in an ethical register, a strand of his work that has proved decidedly difficult to integrate into standard interpretations of Foucault as a critical theorist of power. It is common enough to accuse Foucault of veering away from politics in favour of ethics in his last works. The force of the accusation keeps the conventional understandings of both categories intact. I will argue below that the ethical framing of the theme of problematization would be better interpreted as providing an account of the plural rationalities of action.

The most common interpretation of Foucault’s remarks on the theme of problematization takes them as an endorsement of a broadly critical constructionist approach to social analysis.20 In this kind of interpretation, the notion is invoked to support a focus on the practices through which problems and potential solutions are defined and institutionalised. But key features of Foucault’s own comments on the theme of problematization are consistently elided in the authoritative use of this idea to bolster standard critical methodologies. I advance this argument below not so much in order to lay claim to the authentic understanding of what Foucault really meant by the idea of problematization. Nor am I primarily concerned with establishing just how this notion connects with some of its more or less obvious intellectual precursors, a list of relations which would include Gilles Deleuze, Georges Canguilhem and Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Max Weber, amongst others. Koopman, for example, argues that Foucault is heavily indebted to Deleuze’s account of philosophical problematization (Genealogy as Critique, 292-293). Thomas Osborne, by contrast, suggests that there is a significant division between Deleuze, as well as Bergson, for whom the concern with problems remains a resolutely philosophical exercise, and the more analytic orientation to problems developed by Canguilhem as well as Foucault.21 I prefer this latter view, and I want to develop it further in exploring how Foucault’s notion of problematization might be used to inform a mode of analysis that is broadly empirical in its orientation.


3. Doing things with “problematization”

Uses of the notion of problematization in recent social science oscillate between two aspects of this term. First, there is the idea that a problematization is an object of analysis. For example, the process by which modes of living or modes of self-care become problems is what is meant by problematization. This is the prevalent sense in which Foucault used the term.22 And it is in this sense that Foucault once claimed that his work was concerned with developing a genealogy of problems, one which investigated “Why a problem and why such a kind of problem, why a certain way of problematizing appears at a given point in time.”23 One can find this first aspect of the notion at work in various strands of social theory more or less closely associated with Foucault, including governmentality studies and actor-network theory.24 There is a strong tendency in these traditions of social theory to present problematization as a purposive act of strategic rupture, akin to a process of framing in which problems are defined in ways that enroll various partners and shape subsequent pathways of action, decision, inquiry and intervention.

There is a second aspect to the notion of problematization in contemporary social science. Here, the assumption is that problematization refers to a method of analysis, a procedure to be followed by researchers. David Howarth refers, for example, to “Foucault’s method of problematization.”25 The attraction of this interpretation is that it aligns quite easily with the idea that the task of analysis is primarily to call into question taken-for-granted assumptions and identities and settlements. This usage is increasingly common in critical social science.26 The view that problematization refers to a style of critique has a longer pedigree than Foucault, certainly. As Raymond Geuss observes, it aligns with a view of critique understood “as putting into question, or as a way of problematizing something.”27 And as he continues, this view is associated with a distinctive set of assumptions about how the world ordinarily hangs together: “The principal targets of this problematizing approach are the apparently self-evident assumptions of a given form of life and the (supposedly) natural or inevitable and unchangeable character of given identities” (“Genealogy as Critique,” 211).

While the two aspects of the idea of problematization sometimes define distinct fields of analysis, for some commentators the two aspects of problematization are presented as two sides of a single approach.28 In particular, the doubling of problematization as verb and noun has been made central to accounts of how Foucault transforms the idea of critique. Thomas Lemke, for example, suggests that these two senses of problematization are key to appreciating Foucault’s distinctive style of critique, in which attending to problematizations as objects of analysis is a first step in the task of then problematizing one’s own frames of experiential reference, and those of other people too.29 Likewise, Koopman refers to the “dual-dimensionality” of the notion of problematization as both “an act of critical inquiry” and “a nominal object of inquiry” (Genealogy as Critique, 98). The two senses of problematization easily support a model in which the critical task is presumed to be one of exposing the contingencies of supposedly naturalized formations. In this usage problematization is used to refer, firstly, to the idea that certain problems that appear to be naturally given or objective are actually the effect of historical processes, social practices, and political strategies. Problematizations, in this first sense, are an object of analysis. In turn, secondly, the assumption is that the task of critical analysis is to expose the contingency of apparently stable and taken-for-granted definitions of problems. Problematization, in this second sense, is a prerogative of the critic as the active subject of revelatory truth.

I want to question the degree to which the two dimensions of the notion of problematization, as both verb and noun, are best cashed out in terms of a clear distinction between an object of analysis and a style of critical analysis. It is worth remembering, at this point, that the problematizations that Foucault investigated have a long duration and are dispersed across a number of fields: three or four centuries of ancient discourse about love and truth, or two or three centuries of modern medicine, for example. As with other uses of Foucault’s ideas, the temptation to think of problematization as a method of critical analysis derives from concertinaing the long durée of Foucault’s genealogical perspective into a succession of contemporaneous episodes of governing, subjectification, and critique.

In the eagerness to make problematization a new name for a fairly standard model of critical exposure, two things fall from view. First, the sense in which the notion of problematization seems to suggest that life is lived in a perpetual state of problem-responsiveness is elided by the default assumption that Power works by putting things beyond question or by establishing settlements. Second, and related to this, the sense one finds in Foucault that problematizations emerge in some relation to troubled or uncertain situations is often overlooked. In these two related moves, the difference introduced by the idea of problematization is erased by returning us to a view that prioritizes the demonstration of the constructedness of social orders. The question of why problematizations should be thought as problematic in the first place slides from view. In part, the issue here turns on the tendency to presume that the demonstration of the contingency of a state of affairs must derive its value from puncturing the appearance of naturalness or inevitability. Attempts to develop more formal accounts of problematization as a critical method assume in advance that social relations are reproduced through naturalization, stabilization, and normalization. The assumption that social life is ordered through processes of naturalization or universalization is a projection of favoured theoretical paradigms, ones that place a premium on debunking the appearance of ontological fixity upon which the reproduction of social relations is assumed to depend. Thinking problematically, by contrast, requires us to think of contingency as a relational quality rather than a fact to be demonstrated, so that the task of analysis becomes one of clarifying the conditions and situations to which problems are a response.30

My point here is that in order to properly cash out the value of Foucault’s notion of problematization we should depart from the conventions of critical theories that seek to expose the power-ridden quality of processes of subject-formation. The notion is better understood in relation to the more or less implicit theory of action that emerges from Foucault’s late works. In this respect, it is worth acknowledging that Foucault discussed this idea in the course of outlining the possibility of undertaking “history of thought.” Foucault insisted that “thought” is the “essential element in human life and human relations” and that it should not be treated “as so much wind.”31 The very possibility of criticism, he suggests, depends on the recognition that there is “always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits” (“So Is It Important to Think?,” 456). In presenting the swerve taken by his own programme of research on the history of sexuality, Foucault claimed that his concern was with understanding “the very historicity of forms of experience.”32 On this account, sexuality is understood as a singular form of experience that can be analysed according to a familiar three-fold division that Foucault reiterates in one form or another across different commentaries: as a domain of knowledge, a type of normativity, and a mode of relation to the self. And Foucault identified the history of thought as the domain where the “development and transformation of forms of experience can situate themselves”:

By thought, I mean what establishes, in a variety of possible forms, the play of true and false, and which as a consequence constitutes the human being as a subject of learning (connaissance); in other words, it is the basis for accepting or refusing rules, and constitutes human beings as social and juridical subjects; it is what establishes the relation with oneself and with others, and constitutes the human being as ethical subject. (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 334)

Here, “thought” is a medium for setting in play a movement of learning in relation to a specific distribution of truth and falsity, norms and expectations. Understood in this way, thought is not only a feature of philosophy or science or other formal fields of knowledge, but is an aspect of “every manner of speaking, doing, or behaving.” Thought, in short, is “the very form of action,” in so far as action implies “the play of true and false, the acceptance or refusal of rules, the relation to oneself and others” (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 335). For Foucault, then, the focus on action is meant to define any investigation of the practices through which forms of experience are configured: studying the historicity of forms of experience is undertaken via the investigation of practices, as long as that term is taken “to mean the different systems of action insofar as they are inhabited by thought” (“Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” 335). Foucault’s interest in problems derives from an understanding in which thought is a reflective practice provoked by focussed engagement with particular fields of action. By concentrating a little further on this notion of “thought,” we will see how the theme of problematization points to a type of inquiry that departs from the conventions of critical social analysis.


4. The work of thought

Foucault’s most extensive elaboration of the notion of problematization is found in a series of lectures, essays, and interviews dating from the last two or three years of his life. In the published transcriptions of lectures presented at Berkeley in 1983 on the topic of Parrhesia, Foucault describes changing interpretations of the problem of truth-telling, freedom, democracy and education in ancient thought.33 In these Berkeley lectures, Foucault expounds on what distinguishes the project of a “history of thought”:

I would like to distinguish between the “history of ideas” and the “history of thought.” Most of the time a historian of ideas tries to determine when a specific concept appears, and this moment is often identified by the appearance of a new word. But what I am attempting to do as a historian of thought is something different. I am trying to analyse the way institutions, practices, habits, and behaviour become a problem for people who behave in specific sorts of ways, who have certain types of habits, who engage in certain kinds of practices, and who put to work specific kinds of institutions. The history of ideas involves the analysis of a notion from its birth, through its development, and in the setting of other ideas which constitute its setting. The history of thought is the analysis of the way an unproblematic field of experience, or a set of practices, which were accepted without question, which were familiar and “silent,” out of discussion, becomes a problem, raises discussion and debate, incites new reactions, and induces a crisis in the previously silent behaviour, habits, practices, and institutions. The history of thought, understood in this way, is the history of the way in which people begin to take care of something, of the way they become anxious about this or that—for example, about madness, about crime, about sex, about themselves, or about truth. (Fearless Speech, 74)

We see here a sense in which the becoming problematic of a field of practice is presented as an occasion through which things come to matter for people, come to be considered matters of care and concern to them. However, it is also important to acknowledge that here and elsewhere, Foucault has recourse to a vocabulary in which routine experiences are presented as “familiar” or “silent” prior to being taken up by thought and problematized. In developing my argument below, I will question this simple sense that problematization is best thought of in terms of the exposure to questioning of what are ordinarily unproblematic modes of action.

In his interview with Paul Rabinow shortly before his death in 1984, Foucault draws out the degree to which the notion of problematization is one aspect of a concern to think through the possibility of freedom. For Foucault, “the study of thought is the analysis of a freedom”:

It seemed to me that there was one element that was capable of describing the history of thought: this was what one could call the element of problems, or, more exactly, problematizations. What distinguishes thought is that it is something quite different from the set of representations that underlies as certain behaviour; it is also something quite different from the domain of attitudes that can determine this behaviour. Thought is not what inhabits a certain conduct and gives it its meaning; rather, it is what allows one to step back from this way of acting or reacting, to present it to oneself as an object of thought and question it as to its meaning, its conditions, and its goals. Thought is freedom in relation to what one does, the motion by which one detaches oneself from it, establishes it as an object, and reflects it as a problem. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 388)

What emerges from this account is that “thought” is the name that Foucault gives to practices of situated reflexivity: to those modes of being a subject of one’s own life that are the focus of his late works on “ethical” topics such as pleasure, truth-telling, and sexuality. In Foucault’s lectures on parrhesia, the history of thought is presented in terms of “a history of ontologies which refer to a principle of freedom in which freedom is not defined as a right to be free, but as a capacity for free action” (The Government of Self and Others, 310). It is “thought” in this sense that Foucault defined as the primary object of his genealogical investigations in these late reflections. And problematizations are presented as the “element” through which the trace of “thought” is made available for analysis.

If problematizations have a special relationship with the project of a history of thought oriented to tracing situated practices of freedom, then it is important to stress the ways in which Foucault proposed that situations of uncertainty and difficulty play a key role in inciting thought:

[F]or a domain of action, a behaviour, to enter the field of thought, it is necessary for a certain number of factors to have made it uncertain, to have made it lose its familiarity, or to have provoked a certain number of difficulties around it. These elements result from social, economic, or political processes. But here their only role is that of instigation. They can exist and perform their action for a very long time, before there is effective problematization by thought. And when thought intervenes, it doesn’t assume a unique form that is the direct result or the necessary expression of these difficulties; it is an original or specific response—often taking many forms, sometimes even contradictory in its different aspects—to these difficulties, which are defined for it by a situation or a context and which hold true as a possible question. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 388-389)

The idea given in this statement is that problematizations are provoked by a concatenation of events through which “domains of action” enter “thought,” that is, become objects of reflection and by extension occasions for “free action.” Foucault identifies two steps in this process: first, the becoming uncertain and loss of familiarity of a domain of action; and second, this situation then being taken up by thought. “Thought,” then, is the modality through which various disruptive forces are made into explicit objects of attention or concern by being problematized.

The two steps described by Foucault suggest that the specific situations to which problematizations are a response should not be immediately read-off from the content of historically intelligible solutions. These solutions, in Foucault’s retrospective account of his own work, include particular practices of health care, orders of penal practice, discourses of sexuality. But the problems to which these might be responses are not best thought as objective problems of mental illness or crime, for example:

[T]he work of a history of thought would be to rediscover at the root of these diverse solutions the general form of problematization that has been made them possible—even in their very opposition; or what has made possible the transformations of the difficulties and obstacles of a practice into a general problem for which one proposes diverse practical solutions. It is problematization that responds to these difficulties, but by doing something quite other than expressing them or manifesting them: in connection with them it develops the conditions in which possible response will be given; it defines the elements that will constitute what the different solutions attempt to respond to. This development of a given into a question, this transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems to which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response, this is what constitutes the point of problematization and the specific work of thought. (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 389)

On the face of it, the idea of a “general form of problematization” that makes a variety of solutions possible might well bring to mind the image of a structuring “problematique or “episteme waiting to be revealed. However, what is most distinctive about problematization as it emerges in Foucault’s comments and writing in the early 1980s is the strong sense of the situational provocation of problematizations that the structuralist tinge of these notions does not allow. The most interesting thing about Foucault’s thinking about problems is his particular understanding of the situational emergence of problems and of their manifestation in “thought.” One of the recurrent themes of Foucault’s discussion of the genealogy of problems and the “history of thought” is the insistence that problematizations are not “an arrangement of representations” (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” 390). This admonition is made to affirm that problematization is a “work of thought,” that is, a practice of creativity. In turn, the content of problematizations in Foucault’s discussion is not simply a set of objective background conditions. To be precise, problematizations are concerned with problems of action—with difficulties, obstacles, and uncertainties. And the reason to continue to use the “barbarous word” problematization is to keep in view this sense of the emergence of problems as a creative response to situated disruptions of specific fields of action.


5. Acting problematically

We have seen that in Foucault’s discussions, problematization is one term in a broader conceptualization of how experience and thought, understood as functions of practices of reflection, are historically variable, and in turn how thought in this sense is occasioned by uncertain situations. The emphasis on the historicity of thought gains its distinctive Foucauldian sense from this reference to the situational emergence of problems. However, it should be acknowledged that Foucault himself continued to invoke a vocabulary in which what was rendered problematic in this movement were things normally taken as “familiar,” “given,” or “silent.” This vocabulary threatens to return us to the terrain of standard forms of critical constructionism, and it is here that we should have the courage to interrupt Foucault’s own train of thought on this topic.

To fully realize the potential of Foucault’s remarks on problematization requires us to reconfigure the presumed relations between ordering and contingency that underwrite standard critical perspectives. Rather than thinking of the notion of problematization according to a simple division between settlements and disruption, or between naturalization and exposure, we might think of problematizations in terms of the intensification of always already difficult situations. I am here following the direction taken by the pragmatist social theory developed by Luc Boltanski, Lauren Thévenot and others. In this tradition, the focus of attention is on tests and justificatory practices that serve as the routinized means of coordinating uncertain situations.34 Boltanski and Thévenot present patterns of questioning and testing as ways of stabilizing relationships in contexts of contingency; by contrast, the economic sociologist David Stark suggests that contingency and its dissonances are the very medium through which social life is given dynamic forward momentum.35 Across this difference of interpretation, one finds a shared understanding in which the discordances and contingencies of social life are not something that need to be naturalized at all, but are the very mediums through which social life is routinely coordinated and ordinarily transformed.

The lesson to be taken from this strain of social theory is that it is best not to suppose that domains of action are fields of mechanically repetitive behavior, waiting to be disrupted and unsettled so that they might be made into objects of reflection. We might instead think of these domains as the sites of habitual modes of action. But habit, here, should be thought of along Deweyian-inspired lines as an embodied, acquired, thought-imbued sensitivity to the negotiation of practical situations.36 This would lead us away from a view in which the problematic qualities of life do not befall it in the mode of crisis or catastrophe, or one in which they arise from a purposeful strategic intervention. They are, rather, a feature of the everyday world as it is lived and experienced and are for that very reason open to further analytical explication.37 If we follow this line of thinking, we will be led to conceptualize problematizations as occasions when the difficulties inherent in any field of action are intensified or given further amplification, rather than exposed or revealed for the first time. The idea of thought in Foucault might, in short, be best modelled on the idea of inquiry in John Dewey’s work, that is, understood as a practice through which an uncertain situation is clarified, what is at stake for those affected is determined, and its significance is assessed.38

We are now in a better position to appreciate the relevance of the “ethical” framing of the theme of problematization in Foucault’s work. It is a theme that indicates that Foucault’s work contains the kernel of an account of the plural rationalities of action.39 As already noted, Foucault’s most extensive elaborations of the notion of problematization in his own published work are found in the final two published volumes of the History of Sexuality project, The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self.40 In social theory, these works retain a certain eccentric status in the canonical interpretation of Foucault’s work as first and foremost a style of critical theory of modern power. They involve the rather detailed exegesis of ancient commentaries on topics relating only somewhat tangentially to issues of sexuality as this had been trailed in the first published volume of the project. There is certainly a line of critical social theory that seeks to synthesize the discussions of the care of the self in these works with the analytics of governmentality and biopolitics. It does so by recuperating the sense of “subjectivation in Foucault’s discussions of the care of the self into a standard psychoanalytically infused, post-structuralist model of subjection. In so doing, it elides the qualitative differences between modalities of action analyzed by Foucault, reducing notions such as governmentality or the biopolitics of security to just a scaled-up version of disciplinary modes of subjection.41

In contrast to this sort of interpretation of Foucault as primarily a theorist of subjectivity-as-subjection, it is worth giving more credence to the sense of ethical action that Foucault elaborates in his last published works. Taken together, they mark a break from the paradigm of resistance, and an opening up to a more pluralistic account of action.42 Foucault formally articulated the notion of problematization as the object of a program of research on practices through which people willfully take aspects of their own selves to be the material of ethical concern. In The Use of Pleasure, Foucault outlined a framework for analyzing the “history of ethical problematizations based on practices of the self” (The Use of Pleasure, 13). He identified four dimensions along which action was differentiated: in terms of its ethical substance, the precise aspect of behavior problematized, whether desire, or feeling, or intentions; the mode of subjectivation, the precise imperative through which action is motivated, perhaps in accordance with divine law, or rational universalization, or simply personal conviction; in terms of ethical work, the means used to enact change on one’s own self; and finally, the telos of action, the kind of self that the ethical subject aspires to become through this combination of dimensions of self-formation (The Use of Pleasure, 26-28). The fourfold frame is meant to enable a differentiation of ways of acting as an ethical subject of one’s own behavior. It is, in short, an account of the plural rationalities that might be combined to shape any particular pattern of action.

The thematic of “ethical problematization” spelled out at the start of The Uses of Pleasure supports a reading of Foucault’s later work as outlining a pragmatic account of the actions through which self-formation is facilitated through variable practices.43 Ancient practices of truth-telling stand as an example of the freedom to act differently towards oneself and others in relation to the availability of a repertoire of practical resources. It is this same emphasis on acknowledging different ways of acting that Foucault articulates in his discussions of the analysis of “modes of veridiction” and forms of what he called “alethurgy,” where the concern is with elaborating on the specific forms of relation to the self that anchors acts of truth-telling.44 Foucault is concerned in these writings with the various ways in which people are able to articulate their behavior as their own action. In particular, he is concerned with elaborating the forms of transformation that are required to become a subject of certain forms of truth-telling. In Foucault’s lecture course of 1981-1982, he identifies two styles of conceptualizing the relation between truth and subjectivity, one “philosophical” and one “spiritual.” In the former, truth is something that is given to the knowing subject, and the focus is on asking under what conditions such a subject can make true statements. In the latter, truth is something that requires a work of transformation by the self. The contrast is between a mode of questioning about how it is possible for a knowing subject to have access to the truth “such as he is,”45 and a mode of questioning about “the price to be paid for access to truth” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 15). In Foucault’s narrative, modernity is shaped by the renunciation of the “spiritual” dimension of truth, that is, of the idea that truth has a relation to the practical conduct of the self (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 190-192).

The idea of “spirituality” that Foucault invokes in these remarks resonates with the fourfold formula about the parameters of ethical problematization, understood as the series of actions taken by people in order to be the active subjects of their own behavior, as well as in his discussions of modes of veridiction and forms of alethurgy. The recurrent theme across these discussions is an idea of the subject’s relationship to truth being a practical one, in the sense of being an ongoing accomplishment. According to Foucault, from Descartes onwards, these questions of what sort of modifications a subject must carry out on themself to have access to the truth fall away (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 189). Foucault’s claim is that the “Cartesian moment” consists in the emphatic disassociation of truth from any practice of transformation of the self: “the modern age of the history of truth begins when knowledge itself and knowledge alone gives access to the truth” (The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 17).

Foucault’s remarks on “philosophical” and “spiritual” approaches to truth present the culture of modern scepticism as a forgetting of the forms of transformation that are required to entertain doubt about matters of truth. This is the implication of Foucault’s admonition of Jacques Derrida for narrowly reading Descartes’ Meditations as simply a text full of propositions, rather than as a narrative presentation of a series of modifications to be performed by a subject as an exercise on their own self.46 Foucault’s argument about the moderns’ separation of truth from care, and the discrediting of the latter in formulations of the former, is not meant as a nostalgic exercise. The point is not to assert that ancient practices of the care of the self can be recovered. It is to draw into focus the ways in which practices of the self do in fact underwrite modern forms of truth without their being fully acknowledged. It is an encouragement to investigate how practices of knowledge are always also practices of work on the self and self-other relations.47

I have dwelt on Foucault’s discussions of ethical problematization, modes of veridiction, and care of the self because these themes all illustrate that the operationalization of the notion of problematization in his work was oriented to providing an understanding of how practices of subject-formation, if we must retain that vocabulary, are best understood not in terms of a logic of reproduction through subjection, but in terms of the reflexive, focussed, situated transformation of selves. This spirit of Foucault’s concerns about problematization has begun to be developed into a nascent field of the anthropology of ethics.48 One finds here work that traces transformations of modes of selfhood that cannot be reduced to simple processes of subjection, nor to affective tunings that escape reflexivity, or merely a generalized process of reflexive individualization. Rather, there is an attention to the specific modes of engagement that enable situated transformations of relationships between subjects and their own selves, and between selves and others.49

If we think of problems as creative responses to situations of uncertainty, then we are moved away from the circularities of subjection and resistance towards an account in which subjectivity is formed in relation to horizons of difficulty, questioning, and interrogation. We are now in a better position to elaborate on the relevance of Foucault’s own remarks about the relationship between problems and the situations around which they form.  The notion of “situation” is admittedly a rather elusive one, despite its heritage in social science in the work of W.I. Thomas, Erving Goffman, J. Clyde Mitchell and others, as well as in French thought since Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, and Maurice Merleu-Ponty. Across this field of usage, situation is the name for a problem of its own: how to theorize the relationship between conditions of action and action itself. Situation can be thought of as a term that has “motivational bearing,” as Kenneth Burke once put it: usage of this term indicates a particular configuration of relations between scenes, contexts, and conditions, on the one hand, and action, agency, and purposes on the other.50 In this light, the use of the idea of situation in Foucault’s remarks on the theme of problematization is an index of a concern to avoid the reduction of action to scenes, or action to motion, while not severing the connection between action and its conditions completely.


6. Situations of thought

Foucault’s elaboration of the notion of problematization is of value in so far as it can inform a situational analysis of the formation of problems, in contrast to a debunking style of critical exposure and revelation. By “situational,” I mean simply the sense in which relationships are oriented by certain sorts of selective attention, to paraphrase Goffman.51 In 1983, in affirming that he now saw the whole sweep of his own career as a succession of attempts to “analyse the process of problematization,” Foucault explicitly distances his understanding of this procedure from any appearance of “historical idealism”:

For when I say that I am studying the “problematization” of madness, crime, or sexuality, it is not a way of denying the reality of such phenomena. On the contrary, I have tried to show that it was precisely some real existent in the world which was the target of social regulation at a given moment. (Fearless Speech, 171)

Foucault goes on to affirm “I think there is a relation between the thing that is problematized and the process of problematization. The problematization is an ‘answer’ to a concrete situation which is real” (Fearless Speech, 172). In making reference to the idea of a “concrete situation,” Foucault emphasises that problems are in part the products of strategic interventions, rather than just naturally occurring events to which a response must be provided. The crucial emphasis, however, is on problematizations being not so much strategic, but creative:

A certain problematization is always a kind of creation; but a creation in the sense that, given a certain situation, you cannot infer that this kind of problematization will follow. (Fearless Speech, 172-73)

The emphasis on the creative dimension of problematization underscores that the relationship under examination is not one merely of a representation or even a refraction of a situation in thought:

Given a certain problematization, you can only understand why this kind of answer appears as a reply to some concrete and specific aspect of the world. There is the relation of thought and reality in the process of problematization. And that is the reason why I think that it is possible to give an analysis of a specific problematization as the history of an answer—the original, specific, and singular answer of thought—to a certain situation. (Fearless Speech, 172)

The claim that the relation between problems and situations “cannot be inferred” confirms that, for Foucault, the primary concern is neither with situations per se, nor indeed with problems. It is the creative movement of thought itself.

The reason to emphasise the situational emergence of problems is to provide stronger grounds for thinking through the problematic qualities of problematizations. The term situation foregrounds the sense of uncertainty, loss of familiarity, and difficulty introduced into existing domains of action as the conditions to which problematizations are a response. The importance of the difficult or troubled relationship between situations, problematizations and action delineated by Foucault is given its fullest elaboration in the recent work of Paul Rabinow. Rabinow reminds us of the degree to which the idea of problematization is not sourced from Foucault alone. Rabinow’s synthesis of John Dewey’s pragmatist account of problematic situations and Foucault’s ideas reinforces the view of problematization as a potential object of inquiry, rather than as the name for a methodology that is applied to disrupt or expose settled formations (“How to Submit to Inquiry”). For both Dewey and Foucault, Rabinow suggests, reflection is provoked when action is faced with obstacles of some sort; for Dewey, as for Foucault, thinking “begins when things break down” (Anthropology Today, 48). Rabinow stresses that obstacles and tensions provoke occasions for thought, which are manifested in the form of problematizations. He makes clear that problematizations are formations that arise in relation to some issue or state of affairs that has become uncertain or difficult in some way. Dewey and Foucault share this sense that indefinite or uncertain situations generate problems, and also that “inquiry” (Dewey) or “thought” (Foucault) is a creative response to situations.

As already noted, what Dewey brings to the fore is a strong sense that habitual actions are never merely matters of unthinking execution, but are better thought of as modes of engaging with situated fields of open possibility. After Dewey, problematic situations are not understood as sudden intrusions into a settled environment, but rather as something becoming off kilter in the course of ongoing activity.52 The importance of the notion of situation in clarifying what is at stake in Foucault’s discussion of problematization therefore lies in foregrounding the problematic qualities of action. The lineage of the notion of situation in social theory draws into view the inherent “problematicity” of routine action. It reorients the concept of habit away from the idea of things being taken for granted or even actions being done almost automatically, towards a view of an embodied sensitivity to contexts. Habit is, then, a mode of preparedness or orientation to a field of action that is also a condition for those environments being significant, of them mattering to participants.53

An objection to this pragmatist supplementation of Foucault’s account of problematization might reiterate a recurring criticism of Dewey’s account of indeterminate and problematic situations, namely that it leaves no scope for actors to define either problems or the range of solutions available. In its very emphasis on the practical contexts in which action is immersed, does pragmatism leave any room for genuine creativity or freedom? And if not, is it not then an uncomfortable partner for Foucault’s incomplete history of thought? The charge carries weight only in so far as pragmatism is thought to hold to an objectivist or ontological conception of the source of problems. Hans Joas provides a counter to this accusation, arguing that for Dewey the relation between habitual actions and existential conditions is not “a simple collision between habitual actions and reality, but rather the diffusely problematic quality of an action situation as a whole.”54 For Dewey, it is the always already engaged quality of action that means that the emergence of problems is an active process, not the sudden intrusion of brute reality on a dumbly habitual realm. Furthermore, this movement should be understood as a thoroughly social one, in the sense that the force of situations is not best thought of as imposing itself through a subjective act of individual apprehension, but is felt more in relation to broadly shared purposes and habits.55

The same sense of reflexive action oriented to situations can be gleaned from Foucault’s discussions of problematization. Foucault presents reflexivity as an emergent quality that arises in conditions of difficulty or discordance, and thereby indicates that conditions and creativity run alongside each other, folded together around a problematic situation. Taking problematizations as objects of social science analysis therefore involves adopting a particular stance towards domains of action. Reading Foucault alongside Dewey helps us to avoid the temptation of thinking in terms of settled, naturalized behaviors that are suddenly disrupted. This is a view which lends itself easily to the idea that problematization is also available as a strategy of academic critique. This view rests on the idea of truth as something awaiting exposure by a privileged subject of critical insight. Problematizing, on such a view, interrupts the normal, naturalized, settled flow of events. In contrast to this view, I have suggested that the notion of problematization as it has been elaborated in Foucault’s work, and especially in supplementary commentaries, requires an acknowledgement of the inherent problematicity of action. Domains of action are never merely habitual or routine, if by this it is presumed that they are reproduced automatically or without thought. Foucault’s remarks on the relations between situation, thought and problematizations, and his emphasis on thought as a medium of freedom, points towards a view in which problematic situations emerge in relation not to settled or naturalized states of affairs, but in relation to patterns of action that are always already focused, partial, and oriented to particular concerns. And perhaps what following this path requires is a shift in the dominant spatial register in which action is conceptualized: away from a view in which fixed conditions become unmoored by the force of crisis or criticism, towards a view in which routine ways of moving along become uncertain.56


7. Putting thought to work

I have sought to clarify just what is at stake in the idea of social science inquiry that takes problematizations as its object of analysis. I have argued that problematizations are best conceptualized as intensifying or interrupting existing patterns of problem formation and problem solving, calling for further rounds of clarification and determination. Dewey was insistent that the task of inquiry was not to clear up confusions of the mind, but to elaborate on what was at stake in problematic situations, to develop a level of determinate understanding of what is significant in such situations, and point towards how best to proceed in relation to those difficulties (Logic, 108-16). Attending to problematizations in this spirit requires us to suspend our credulity in the face of apparently urgent problems, as Foucault himself recommended (“Polemics, Politics and Problematizations”). The key difference between Dewey and Foucault lies in their respective orientations to the problems they focus on. Dewey favours a vocabulary of repairing troubled situations. Foucault is oriented more towards freeing up and exploring the possibilities opened up by new problematizations.57 Both share the sense that problematizations are occasions when people seek to clarify and determine the significance of their troubles.

Following Foucault, we should not think of problematizations as being mere representations of pre-existent conditions, nor, however, are they mere constructions of discourse developed with no external reference. Any application of the notion of problematization in social science inquiry needs to negotiate certain protocols of reading that shape how ideas associated with Foucault are interpreted. Primary amongst these is the insistence on reading Foucault for signs of a refined method of critique. I have argued against the easy idea of problematization as a name for a critical method, one to be more or less instrumentally deployed for the purposes of revealing settled conditions of possibility or exposing naturalized relations of power. I have instead suggested that the idea of problematization might actually invite us to question the idea that social life is governed by settlements, orderings, naturalizations, and stable patterns in the first place. If we see problematizations as amplifications or intensifications of domains of engaged action, then the pressing analytical task is no longer viewed as one of critical disruption, but rather one of rearranging what is already known, of seeking to “make visible what is visible.”58 The notion of problematization might, in short, point towards a mode of descriptive analysis that helps to draw into view the significance of the difficulties and concerns that already animate people’s actions. Rather than underwriting a model of critique in which it is presumed that people’s subjectivities are readily available for re-making under the force of the revelatory exposure of contingency, elaborations of Foucault’s notion of problematization invite us to give more credence to how aspects of people’s subjectivity come to matter so strongly to them, and in turn to ask what price would have to be paid in the pursuit of transformation.



Thanks to Gary Bridge for ongoing conversations about the issues discussed in this paper.

1.  See, for example, Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Tony Bennett, Culture: A Reformer’s Science (London: Sage, 1998); and Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography, eds. Jeremy W. Crampton and Stuart Elden (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007); James Faubion, An Anthropology of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
2.  See, for example, Lois McNay, Foucault: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994); and Patrick Baert, Social Theory in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998).
3.  See Barry Hindess, Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996); Paul Veyne, Foucault: His Thought, His Character (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010); and Tom Roach, Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2012).
4.  Matthew Hannah, “Formations of ‘Foucault’ in Anglo-American Geography: An Archaeological Sketch,” in Space, Knowledge and Power, 83-105.
5.  Nicolae Morar and Colin Koopman, “The Birth of the Concept of Biopolitics: A Critical Note of Lemke’s Biopolitics.” Theory and Event 15.4 (2012).
6.  Colin Koopman and Tomas Matza, “Putting Foucault to Work: Analytic and Concept in Foucaultian Inquiry,” Critical Inquiry 39.4 (Summer 2013): 817-840; see also Carl Death, “Governmentality at the Limits of the International: African Politics and Foucauldian Theory,” Review of International Studies 39.3 (July 2013): 763-787.
7.  Michel Foucault, Fearless Speech (New York: Semiotext(e), 2001), 171.
8.  Michel Foucault, “Polemics, Politics and Problematizations,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 389.
9.  Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume One: Ethics, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 319.
10.  Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), 141.
11.  See John Rajchman, “Foucault: The Ethic and the Work,” in Michel Foucault: Philosopher, ed. Timothy J. Armstrong (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 215-223.
12.  Michel Foucault, “The Concern for Truth,” in Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), 295.
13.  See Arpad Szakolczai, Max Weber and Michel Foucault: Parallel Life-Works (London: Routledge, 2013), 58; Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 20.
14.  Colin Gordon, “Plato in Weimar. Weber Revisited via Foucault: Two Lectures on Legitimation and Vocation,” Economy and Society, 43.3 (August 2014), 505.
15.  Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); Paul Rabinow, “Dewey and Foucault: What’s the Problem?” Foucault Studies 11 (February 2011): 11-19; Paul Rabinow, “How to Submit to Inquiry: Dewey and Foucault,” The Pluralist 7.3 (Fall 2012): 25-37.
16.  Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction (London: Allen Lane, 1979).
17.  Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality: Volume Two (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 11.
18.  Michel Foucault, Remarks on Marx: Conversations with Duccio Trombardi (New York: Semiotext(e), 1991), 159.
19.  See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 125-158; see also Daniele Lorenzini, “Foucault and the Analytic Philosophy of Politics,” Carceral Notebooks 9 (2013): 97-102.
20.  See Roger Deacon, “Theory as Practice: Foucault’s Concept of Problematization,” Telos 118 (Winter 2000): 127-142; Michael Schwartz, “Critical Reproblematization: Foucault and the Task of Modern Philosophy,” Radical Philosophy 91 (September/October 1998): 19-29.
21.  Thomas Osborne, “What Is a Problem?” History of the Human Sciences 16.4 (November 2003): 1-17.
22.  See Paul Rabinow, Anthropology Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 44-48.
23.  Foucault, The Politics of Truth, 141.
24.  See Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society (London: Sage, 1999); Michel Callon, “Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen of St Brieuc Bay,” in Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge?, ed. John Law (London: Routledge, 1986), 196-223.
25.  David Howarth, Poststructuralism and After (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4; see also Roger Castel, “Problematization as a Mode of Reading History,” in Foucault and the Writing of History, ed. Jan Goldstein (London: Blackwell, 1994), 237-52.
26.  Real Social Science: Applied Phronesis, ed. Bent Flyvbjerg, Todd Landman, and Sanford Schram (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 101-105; Jörgen Sandberg and Mats Alvesson, “Ways of Constructing Research Questions: Gap-Spotting or Problematization?,” Organization 18.1 (January 2011): 23-44; P. Taylor Webb, “Policy Problematization,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 27.3 (2014): 364-376.
27.  Raymond Geuss, “Genealogy as Critique.” European Journal of Philosophy 10.2 (August 2002), 211.
28.  Carol Bacchi, “Why Study Problematizations? Making Politics Visible,” Open Journal of Political Science 2.1 (April 2012): 1-8.
29.  Thomas Lemke, “Critique and Experience in Foucault” Theory, Culture and Society 28.4 (July 2012): 26-48.
30.  See Nick Turnbull, “Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 61.242 (December 2007): 451-472; and Colin Koopman, “Foucault across the Disciplines: Introductory Notes on Contingency in Critical Inquiry,” History of the Human Sciences, 24.4 (October 2011): 1-12.
31.  Michel Foucault, “So Is It Important to Think?” in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume Three: Power, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin Books, 2000), 456.
32.  Foucault, M. “Preface to The History of Sexuality, Volume II,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 334.
33.  Foucault, Fearless Speech; See also Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth: Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011); and Michel Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
34.  Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot, On Justification: Economies of Worth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
35.  David Stark, The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2009).
36.  John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (The Middle Works, 1922). (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008); see also James Ostrow, Social Sensitivity: A Study of Habit and Experience (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1990).
37.  See Dorothy M. Smith, The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), 88-100.
38.  John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (The Later Works, 1938). (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986), 108-116.
39.  See Paul Patton, “Foucault and the Strategic Model of Power,” Critical Horizons 15.1 (January 2014): 14-27.
40.  Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality: Volume Two (London: Penguin Books, 1986); Michel Foucault, The Care of the Self: The History of Sexuality: Volume Three (London: Penguin Books, 1986).
41.  See Clive Barnett, “Culture, Government, and Spatiality: Re-assessing the ‘Foucault Effect’ in Cultural-Policy Studies,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 2.3 (December 1999): 369–397; Clive Barnett, “On the Milieu of Security: Situating the Emergence of New Spaces of Public Action,” Dialogues in Human Geography (2015), in press.
42.  See Paul Patton, “From Resistance to Government: Foucault’s Lectures 1976–1979,” in A Companion to Foucault, eds. Christopher Falzon, Timothy O’Leary, and Jane Sawicki (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 172-188.
43.  See Ian Hodges, “Moving beyond Words: Therapeutic Discourse and Ethical Problematization” Discourse Studies 4.4 (August 2002): 455-479; Clive Barnett, Paul Cloke, Nick Clarke, and Alice Malpass, Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).
44.  Michel Foucault, Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling, 20; See also Foucault, The Government of Self and Others and On the Government of the Living: Lectures at the Collège de France 1979-1980 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). The notion of modes of “veridiction” has been recast somewhat by Bruno Latour’s project to develop a typology of different “modes of existence,” from science through to religion. Latour seeks to differentiate the principles of judgment that define what is true and false in various fields of practice, a project oriented by a normative commitment to encourage an ethic of “speaking well” across apparently incommensurable fields. Latour, however, shows no concern with elaborating on the personal qualities required in speaking the truth or speaking well to others, as first-person practices of truth-telling, which Foucault’s notion of veridiction foregrounds. For this reason, perhaps, Latour’s committed theoretical post-humanism is rather less helpful than Foucault’s work for thinking through the limits of the human. See Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013).
45.  Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981-1982 (New York: Picador, 2005), 73.
46.  Michel Foucault, “My Body, This Paper, This Fire,” Oxford Literary Review 4.1 (January 1979): 9-28.
47.  See Paul Rabinow, “Foucault’s Untimely Struggle: Toward a Form of Spirituality,” Theory, Culture and Society 26.6 (November 2009): 25-44.
48.  See James Faubion, An Anthropology of Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
49.  See also Henrietta Moore, Still Life: Hopes, Desires and Satisfactions (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).
50.  Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1945), 13.
51.  Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 8-9.
52.  Paul Rabinow and Anthony Stavrianakis, Designs on the Contemporary: Anthropological Tests (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 29-30.
53.  See Ostrow, Social Sensitivity.
54.  Hans Joas, The Creativity of Action (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), 131.
55.  See Richard Shusterman, Practicing Philosophy: Pragmatism and the Philosophical Life (London: Routledge, 1997), 163-165.
56.  See Robert Goodin, On Settling (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).
57.  Paul Rabinow, “Midst anthropology’s problems,” Cultural Anthropology 17.2 (May 2002): 135-149.
58.  Anne Orford, “In Praise of Description,” Leiden Journal of International Law 25.3 (September 2012), 618.



About the Author

Clive Barnett is Professor of Geography and Social Theory at the University of Exeter, UK. He is author of Culture and Democracy (Edinburgh University Press, 2003), co-author of Globalizing Responsibility (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), and co-editor of Spaces of Democracy (Sage, 2004), Geographies of Globalisation (Sage, 2008), and Rethinking the Public (Polity Press, 2010). He currently holds a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (2014-2016) examining the “urbanization of responsibility” and is completing a book entitled Democracy and the Geographies of Injustice, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

Patricia L Lewy

It was Marilyn Morgan who suggested that her husband, the abstract painter Friedel Dzubas, appear in person at the offices of Partisan Review to answer the following classified ad: “PR CONTRIBUTOR and 13 year old son wish rooms for five weeks, beginning July, in country near swimming, other children. Clement Greenberg. Partisan Review, 1545 Broadway, NYC 19.”1 This was June 1948. Other contributors had placed ads—there is one from Mary McCarthy soliciting a “comfortable, small house”—but Dzubas and his second wife understood what meeting the major art critic of his time might hold for a younger artist. Despite Dzubas’s frequent claim that he had no idea he would be meeting Greenberg, the ad clearly posted the contributor’s name and the artist knew full well what he was about. And from the first, Dzubas and Greenberg liked each other. The artist’s opening gambit, delivered with charm and bravado, assured a mutual understanding: “‘Here I’ve been reading your stuff for the last… four or five years and I never could make head or tail out of it, but the main reason that I buy the stuff is because I can’t make head or tail of what you’re writing there,’ and we started to joke around.” So with his son, Danny, Greenberg moved into the guest quarters of Dzubas’s sixteen-acre, seventy-eight-dollar-a-month sublet in Redding, Connecticut for the summer. “Ya, he loved, he liked the, liked the house, liked the whole situation. Liked me. I liked him, too.”2

Thirty years on, in 1977, Greenberg agreed to write an essay—until now seemingly overlooked in the literature on Dzubas3—for a small retrospective, “Friedel Dzubas: Gemälde,” at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld.4 At less than a thousand words, the essay is important, not least because it addresses the career of a significant painter, one whom Greenberg included first in “Talent 1950,” an exhibition of younger artists at the Kootz Gallery (co-curated with Meyer Schapiro), and again almost fifteen years later in his 1964 exhibition, “Post Painterly Abstraction.”5 The decade-by-decade review at once summarizes Dzubas’s artistic practice up to the 1970s and casts retrospective light upon Greenberg’s 1964 accounting of the new art.6 By turns sympathetic and severe, Greenberg portrays an artist who in his estimation had yet to realize his full potential. For Dzubas, Greenberg’s opinion was unsurprising: in a letter to Dzubas accompanying the essay, Greenberg wrote with characteristic candor, “[The essay] wasn’t at all hard to write, I think because I permitted myself complete frankness & repeated things I’d already told you.”7 Greenberg’s overall tone in the essay is encouraging, if cautious: even as he reflects on his own preference for Dzubas’s early “painterly abstractions” in watercolor, he finds a Dzubas 1960s “linear” canvas at the Guggenheim “one of the best postwar items that the museum owns” (fig. 1). The key statement comes in the third paragraph and is directed to the artist, who, Greenberg insists, has yet “[to] enter […] the Promised Land with great, not just good, paintings.” Here he acknowledges Dzubas’s early originality while cleaving to the possibility that the day of major achievement will come. As he vouchsafes in the letter, “(It was written from the heart).”8 The point here is that for Greenberg to write this sort of essay was altogether unusual, an act of friendship on those grounds alone.9

Figure 1 One Times One, 1961 oil on canvas 84 1/8 x 69 ½ in (213.7 x 176.5 cm) Private Collection since 2015 Formerly, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 61.1592

Figure 1
One Times One, 1961
oil on canvas
84 1/8 x 69 ½ in (213.7 x 176.5 cm)
Private Collection since 2015
Formerly, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Dzubas’s history is complex. He was born in Berlin in 1915, the child of a Jewish father and Catholic mother. As an adolescent during the rise of National Socialism in Germany, Dzubas (originally Dzubasz) suffered under the restrictions of Mischling status defined by Nazi race laws, which categorized such children as “mixed race.”10 A Mischling of the first degree or half Jew (Dzubas’s paternal grandparents were full Jews), Dzubas was forced to cope with the vagaries of emotional, professional, and political marginalization in pre-war Germany. Like many middle-class Jewish families at this time, the Dzubaszes—among them artists, book artisans, and graphic designers, textile managers, and translators—were politically left leaning. They identified primarily with the communists, although they were members of the official Jewish Community.11 Their anti-fascist/pro-Stalinist activities, such as attending meetings and printing and distributing pamphlets for communist-affiliated organizations, added tension to the already fraught social vagaries affecting their citizenship-status in the German Reich.12 Dzubas’s artistic training came fitfully, as anti-Semitic actions became more and more overt during the years 1931 to 1933, insinuating resistance to school and job opportunities for young people with Jewish blood that culminated in the Nuremberg Laws of September 12, 1935. When recognized as having Jewish blood, certain teachers and peers at various primary, secondary, and post-secondary educational institutions ostracized Mischlinge, although their legal status was not yet threatened. Opportunities for professional training were also circumscribed in the run-up to the National Socialist Machtergreifung on January 30, 1933.13 This fact alone precluded extended study with Paul Klee who would be dismissed from the Bauhaus at its dissolution in 1933. Whether Dzubas actually attended the Akademie der Künste in Berlin—a claim Dzubas made—cannot be confirmed by existing documentation.14

Like many young people who graduated from an Oberrealschule (high school)—as opposed to a Gymnasium from which students could expect to move on to university—Dzubas was apprenticed, in his case to a decorative painting firm, the M. J. Bodenstein Wohnungs-und Dekorationsmaler.15 There he was schooled in the art of fresco and other techniques related to wall decoration. Dzubas may have learned graphic arts and book design, skills he would depend on in his early years in America, from his uncle Wilhelm Dzubas, a respected graphic designer and decorative painter in Berlin16 and from another uncle, Hermann Dzubas, who owned a Buchdruckerei in Berlin that had published Die Rote Fahne, a communist newspaper.17

The systematic persecution of Volljuden and Mischlinge put in place by the Nuremberg Racial Laws in 1935 catalyzed the hurried formation of Jewish Youth Agricultural Training Camps, the expressed aim of which was to obtain visas to the United States, Palestine, or South America.18 Between 1936 and 1938, Dzubas trained at one of the few non-Zionist youth training camps, in Gross-Breesen, Silesia.19 It was through this program that Dzubas finally emigrated—as a farmer—to the United States in 1939 at the age of twenty-four, using in addition to his given name the Americanized “Frank Durban.” He was among the first trainee émigrés to enter Hyde Park Farmlands in Burkeville, Virginia, a settlement formed in the United States explicitly for the purpose of receiving trainees from Gross-Breesen. Here he remained with his German wife, Dorothea Brasch, for his first seven months in the United States; he left the settlement for New York City in May 1940.20

In less than a year, after several freelance jobs in graphic design—while bussing tables or making food deliveries—a chance meeting with William B. Ziff, Chairman of Ziff Publishing Company, resulted in a full-time position at the Ziff publishing house in Chicago, where for the next four years he worked as a commercial artist leading a book design team. Dzubas fell in with “a very aware, very sharp intellectual group of writers in Chicago, and I got very close to them and they were very well informed [in] thought, politics, literature, etc. Also art.” It was through this group that Dzubas began reading the Trotskyist New York intellectuals who wrote for the Partisan Review. At the same time, Dzubas was working in watercolor and had been accepted into several “Annuals” under the aegis of the Art Institute of Chicago.21 Returning to New York late in 1945, he engaged marginally with artists painting in the Abstract Expressionist style. By 1948, Dzubas had entered into a productive personal and professional relationship with Katherine S. Dreier, contributing his graphic services and art to her organization, Société Anonyme, and had in effect launched his artistic career in New York by befriending Clement Greenberg that same year at the offices of Partisan Review.22

So what did Greenberg actually say about the work? It’s important to understand that for the greater part of thirty years, Greenberg believed in this artist. But by 1977, his claim was that Dzubas had yet to construct a solid foundation for his future artistic development; that he had failed to “follow up on his achievements and achievedness”; that, instead, he had “let it all lie scattered.”23 Greenberg felt Dzubas had not yet done what would have been necessary—had in a sense refused to bear down on, to dig deeper into a clear artistic identity. This is what perplexed the critics and what earlier in his career had provoked the English art dealer John Kasmin’s exasperation: “You’re here, you’re there…. And it’s difficult for us to cultivate a certain taste if it seems that jumpy.”24 Dzubas’s seeming inconsistencies in approach—his shifts from expressionistic cursive gestures in the 1950s, to clean-edged, lucid color shapes against large areas of active white space in the 1960s, and on to loose, dynamically-arrayed color blocks in the 1970s—ultimately prompted Greenberg to aver that Dzubas’s art was indeed original, but this originality was somehow “surreptitious.” Dzubas had “fooled everybody, including myself as well as such a good critic as Michael Fried.” What he meant, of course, was that over the years, Dzubas had allowed himself to be seen as a less impressive painter than was in fact the case.25

Figure 2 Yesterday, 1957  oil and enamel on canvas  44 11/16 x 109 1/8 in (113.05 x 276.86 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art  59.24

Figure 2
Yesterday, 1957
oil and enamel on canvas
44 11/16 x 109 1/8 in (113.05 x 276.86 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art

In eight paragraphs, the narration goes like this. As an Abstract Expressionist painter in the 1950s, Dzubas was poised to “become one of its masters, a junior one, but a master nonetheless.” Greenberg points to Dzubas’s 1955 [sic] painting in the Whitney Museum collection, Yesterday, (1957; fig. 2), a large (44 ½ by 108 ¾ in.) horizontal abstract, as evidence, comparing it favorably to the museum’s Pollock and their “de Koonings and Kline.”26 Immediately, however, he gets to the crux of the problem as he sees it—Dzubas’s tendency to compose his canvases, to “fasten […] down all four corners,”27 to fill up spaces rather than leave them open, to, in effect, preclude the “indeterminate spaciousness” that the critic valued at that time.28 Yet Dzubas finally stepped beyond these self-limiting mannerisms when, in the 1970s, he combined his 1960s linear style with what Greenberg called a malerisch or painterly tendency.29 (See fig. 3.)

Figure 3 Grand Mesa, 1977 Magna  117 x 275.5 in (297 x 700 cm) David and Audrey Mirvish Collection

Figure 3
Grand Mesa, 1977
117 x 275.5 in (297 x 700 cm)
David and Audrey Mirvish Collection

Greenberg had suggested that such a synthesis originated within the practices of painterly abstraction, the idea being such a revision was effected through a fusion of “clarity and openness.”30 Exemplary in this regard were works by artists “like Still, Newman, Rothko…” et al.31 Dzubas extended these artists’ revisions by using contrasting “instrumental qualities”—thinned paint surfaces and bare areas of canvas as against “the density and compactness” of Abstract Expressionism—thereby achieving the “freshness” characteristic of the new art.32

Greenberg looked beyond the context of Cubism to Venetian art for the soil in which “painterliness” had taken root: “The painterliness itself derived from a tradition of form going back to the Venetians. Abstract Expressionism—or Painterly Abstraction, as I prefer to call it—was very much art, and rooted in the past of art.”33 In describing Dzubas’s melding of old and new, then, Greenberg might have drawn on this very notion, for Dzubas was in thrall to fresco mural painting, not only by Giotto, but also by Titian and Giambattista Tiepolo, in particular the latter’s frescos created for the Residenz at Würzberg. Frank Stella took up the notion that Dzubas folded his early training as a Dekorationsmaler into his painterly vision when he wrote, “Early watercolors, decorative house painting, and commercial illustration all came together for him.”34 Like Greenberg, Stella understood that the foundation of Dzubas’s style lay in the artist’s early training and apprenticeship in wall painting and graphic design, which he expressed in his pictorial responses to the rhythmic disposition of massed color groupings so characteristic of Venetian fresco painting.

Figure 4 In Case I Die, 1951f house paint on bedsheet 71 x 36 in (180.3 x 91.4 cm) Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 4
In Case I Die, 1949
house paint on bedsheet
71 x 36 in (180.3 x 91.4 cm)
Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 5 Dunkle Strömung, 1957 house paint on bed sheet 94.5 x 51 in (240 x 130 cm) Collection: Private collection

Figure 5
Dunkle Strommung, 1957
house paint on bed sheet
94.5 x 51 in (240 x 130 cm)
Collection: Lewis P. Cabot

A close look at Dzubas’s surfaces is key. Dzubas did not stain his canvases. Rather, he primed them with two, sometimes three layers of gesso.35 As he clearly stated to Charles Millard in 1982, “I never stained. The only time I stained was when I was still working with oil on, on, not on canvas but on old bed sheets, you know, when I soaked the bed sheet, practically, in turpentine and then stained with cheap house paint that I had into the soaked surface.”36 (See figs. 4 and 5.) Which isn’t to say he was opposed to the method of soaking and staining. He clearly rubbed and pushed his pigments into his ground. This is obvious from the finish of his work, where the weave of the cotton duck remains exposed. But Dzubas relied for this effect on the double characteristic of liquescence and resistance in his mediums, whether watercolor, oil, or later with Magna acrylic, which he began to use in 1965. Characteristic of the opaqueness he sought in his early gouache-like watercolors from the 1940s that feature wet into wet, frankly figurative or allusive images in a loose expressionistic style (fig. 6), his later surfaces, no matter how thinly painted appear opaque even as he scrubbed his medium into the warp and weft of the fabric.37 Dzubas’s primed and gessoed canvases in the 1960s held his color shapes on the surface, pooled, controlled, and contained by their serrated or smoothed edges (fig. 7). In the 1970s, Dzubas feathered out the opaqueness, in a gesture he referred to as “fading off” or “fading out.”38 That is to say, Dzubas molds, pushes, and eases his pigments into forms that meld with, even as they resist, their material surrounds (fig. 8). This would change in the early 1980s when he directed his assistant to prime the canvas in a new way. As he told the curator Charles Millard in 1982, “Instead of priming it so it would, it will hold the turpentine on the surface and kept it on the surface for a while where I can work it. It’s primed now so meagerly that the medium immediately sucks in and you can’t, really, you can’t dance around… you have to put it down and leave it, so to speak. Whatever you put down, it it’s not open to manipulation and you’re stuck with it.”39

Figure 6 Death of the General, 1949 ink and watercolor 18 7/8 x 14 1/8 in (47.9 x 35.8 cm)  Gift of Katherine S. Dreier to the Collection Société Anonyme 1949.8 Yale Art Gallery

Figure 6
Death of the General, 1949
ink and watercolor
18 7/8 x 14 1/8 in (47.9 x 35.8 cm)
Gift of Katherine S. Dreier to the Collection Société Anonyme
Yale Art Gallery

Sartoris, 1963 Oil on canvas 90 x 61 in (228.6 x 158 cm) Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 7
Sartoris, 1963
Oil on canvas
90 x 61 in (228.6 x 158 cm)
Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 8 Procession, 1975 Magna acrylic on canvas 116 x 294 in (295 x 746 cm) Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 8
Procession, 1975
Magna acrylic on canvas
116 x 294 in (295 x 746 cm)
Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Dzubas generally divides his production into decades.40 When the artist took up oils in earnest in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he created an overall calligraphic, painterly surface with multiple foci in the spirit of Pollock’s early surrealist automatism. From gestural abstraction in the 1950s, Dzubas moved into a short-lived stylistic phase in the early 1960s, in which he filled his canvases with tightly woven, black linear markings coursing through white or off-white grounds (fig. 9).41 Paintings from the later 1960s feature close-valued hues laid out in two or more shallow fields of color, each bounded by either serrated or clean edges on an otherwise bare primed canvas, so that while color shapes nest, overlay, or touch, they are held in check by what Barbara Rose characterized as “arrested motion” or “dynamic stability.”42 “Emptying-out” the canvas, leaving a few large color areas gently abutting or in kinetic tension seemed to the artist necessary “after the indulgences and the semi-organic chaos of Abstract Expressionism.”43 Simultaneous “centers” exist within a large white space, which for Dzubas became an “essential first…. where the immaculate white, the virginity of the white, plus the strength of the white provides the strength of the whole. The untouched surface, the unedited surface was a very important active element, the way I felt things, the way I saw things.” Each color area is activated by proximity to its neighbor, the entire surface fixed within a square field. Color per se gains prominence, which Dzubas situated in dialogue with the revealed areas of white, the white acting as “the emotional element to deliver my message.”44

Figure 9 Monk, c.1960-1961  Oil on Canvas 93 ½ x 72 ½ in (237 x184 cm) Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 9
Monk, c.1960-1961
Oil on Canvas
93 ½ x 72 ½ in (237 x184 cm)
Courtesy Loretta Howard Gallery

Dzubas’s paint medium from 1965 to the end of his life in 1994 was an early version of the first acrylic paint, Magna, developed by Sam Golden and Leonard Bocour between 1946 and 1949. Morris Louis was among the artists, who include Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Kenneth Noland, to use this experimental medium.45 What Dzubas liked about it was that it displayed the fullest saturation available at the time while holding its color when thinly applied.46 Nearly as fluid as oil paint, the resin compound added resistance. “It doesn’t let itself be pushed around that easily…it will not let itself be violated, and an additional inducement was, you never quite know what you will get…. [And it is] never quite know[ing] what you get that prevents you also from being too facile.”47 Working with hues that held and yet could be laid down in thin applications allowed Dzubas to achieve the shallow space he sought, even as he insisted on retaining evidence of the brush not only in his color shapes, but also in the dappled surrounds he would develop in the next decade.

By the 1970s, Dzubas was creating overlapping or contiguous, attenuated tesserae and large, elongated rectangular shapes with rounded or modified corners using brushstrokes that left a clean edge, but for feathering generally at one end. Poised in tight relational groupings, these “phalanxes,” as curator Ken Moffett described them,48 are placed vertically, diagonally. Contrasting color groups in close values seem to thrust forward and recede in a contre-jour effect brushed in with pigment.49 Crossing (Apocolypsis cum Figuras, A. D. 1975) (1975), for example, is essentially a picture of shallow spaces that through motivic repetitions, group divisions, and directional thrusts achieves a gait simulating all-over spatial agitation, as if figures were not so much traveling across the surface as assembling for immanent action.

Figure 10 Color test for Procession, 1975 Magna acrylic on canvas 18 ½ x 33 in (46.99 x 83.82 cm) Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery

Figure 10
Color test for Procession, 1975
Magna acrylic on canvas
18 ½ x 33 in (46.99 x 83.82 cm)
Courtesy of Loretta Howard Gallery


Figure 11 Procession (sketch), 1975 Magna acrylic on canvas 13 ½ x 31 in (34 x 79 cm) Goldman Family Estate Collection

Figure 11
Procession (sketch), 1975
Magna acrylic on canvas
13 ½ x 31 in (34 x 79 cm)
Goldman Family Estate Collection

Figure 12 Friedel Dzubas at work on Procession, 1975, with oil sketch

Figure 12
Friedel Dzubas at work on Procession, 1975, with oil sketch

Turning to a tradition centuries old, Dzubas often worked from small sketches (or modelli)50 that he would scale up to gargantuan size. From color tests (fig. 10) to painted sketch (fig. 11), he then moved to tacking a canvas to the floor (fig. 12), applying gesso layers, and measuring and at times outlining his shapes in gesso.51 He would then prop the modello on a low easel and with paint brush in hand loosely scale up the color scheme he had previously worked out—as can be seen in a photo of the artist transferring his acrylic sketch (fig. 13). This working sequence was followed in the creation of Crossing, a painting thirteen and half feet high by fifty-seven feet across, commissioned by philanthropist Lewis P. Cabot and contracted by Joseph Henderson, president of the Artcounsel, Inc. for the Shawmut Bank in Boston.52 The process proceeds in several stages: a sheet of color tests and an acrylic sketch (fig. 14), a scale study in red crayon, charcoal, and graphite, conveying measurements used for transferring the shapes to canvas (fig. 15).53 Then a “cartoon” mock-up on which the outlined tesserae enclose numbers that correlate with the colors that would fill them, following an age-old stained-glass technique. Photographs of Dzubas at work on the painting show paint cans, brushes, oil sketch, and painted contours.54 Wes Frantz, Dzubas’s studio assistant from 1980 to 1987, viewed Dzubas at close range: “Friedel…liked the freedom to interpret both what he did and what he saw with the moment in mind. But it didn’t mean he was totally spontaneous. When I first saw his sketches that he turned into larger paintings I thought he was abandoning his motion of spontaneity, but quite the contrary. With Friedel’s painting the devil was in the details. If you compare closely a small sketch to a large painting, the large painting will have all the details that the small ones don’t. And it’s in those details that Friedel sought his identity.”55

Figure 13 Friedel Dzubas, scaling-up and transferring Apocalypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975, from modello to canvas Courtesy of Phyllis Boudreaux Kellner

Figure 13
Friedel Dzubas, scaling-up and transferring Apocalypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975, from modello to canvas
Courtesy of Phyllis Boudreaux Kellner

Figure 14 Apocalypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975 magna acrylic on primed (gesso) cotton duck canvas 148 x 675 in (375.9 x 1, 714.5 cm) Collection: Bank of America De-installation shot, 1991

Figure 14
Apocalypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975
magna acrylic on primed (gesso) cotton duck canvas
148 x 675 in (375.9 x 1, 714.5 cm)
Collection: Bank of America
De-installation shot, 1991

Figure 15 Study for Apocolypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975 crayon, charcoal, and graphite on two joined sheets of wove paper 18 3/16 x 47 ¼ in (46 x 120 cm) Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives

Figure 15
Study for Apocolypsis cum figuras (Crossing), 1975
crayon, charcoal, and graphite on two joined sheets of wove paper
18 3/16 x 47 ¼ in (46 x 120 cm)
Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives

It’s interesting that Dzubas had considered creating a fresco when the monumental Apocalypsis Cum figures/Crossing was first proposed for Shawmut Bank in 1973. He felt an affinity with master fresco painters such as Giotto and Tiepolo, with the whole of “Western tradition, rather than the visual phenomena of the last ten years in Europe and America.”56 He admitted having in mind Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, which he had visited in the 1960s and early 1970s, claiming he wanted “to outdo Giotto… to put in everything I knew and felt, for better or for worse…. It felt right and good. A gut reaction, not intellectualization.”57 Not only with Crossing, but also with most of his ambitious compositions from this period, Dzubas complemented his relationship to historic mural painting and fresco by drawing on their pictorial compression, the structural symmetries and asymmetries of their figural arrangement and cross-surface dialogues, and the sheer complexity of surface incident. Historic murals and large-scale paintings are significant visual resources for Dzubas, which he brought forward into contemporary painting to mobilize their formal content. When Charles Millard asked him about influences, Dzubas remarked, “But there are very few really that, I mean, I have, I always fall back on, on, on other centuries; now, if I say, ‘Whom do you like?’ Well, whom do I like, I mean, I like Tiepolo.”58 So, for example, one senses that Tiepolo’s frescos may well have been models, models that reinforced the wall-decoration techniques Dzubas learned early in life. For just as the intaco layer of lime plaster in buon fresco holds pigment, so the gesso layer in Dzubas’s paintings traps it. It is in this sense that Dzubas’s surfaces differ from Louis’s: they do not, in the Greenbergian sense, seem like “fabric… [that] becomes paint in itself…like dyed cloth…” as Greenberg described Louis’s facture, but rather, like matte layers that lock pigment in. Dzubas’s colors both meld with, yet do not entirely soak into, their cotton duck support.59

Figure 16 Clement Greenberg and Friedel Dzubas Ithaca, New York, 1970 Courtesy, Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives

Figure 16
Clement Greenberg and Friedel Dzubas
Ithaca, New York, 1970
Courtesy, Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives

Contemporary responses to Dzubas’s work often posit a link to historical painting and, if not specifically to the Venetian tradition, to “European” painting on a grand scale.60 In what way Dzubas would develop the illusionistic, imagistic, compositional, and malerisch elements was anyone’s guess in 1977. Which brings us back to Greenberg’s thoughts on the artist. From the vantage point of 1977, Greenberg wrote that Dzubas had allowed the “Malerisch deep in him” to surface and fuse with the linearity apparent in work from the previous decade. From this merging “issued the ripest and most consistently successful, and certainly the most original art he has produced.”61 This is not only to praise the current over the earlier work, but also to urge the artist on. In fact, Greenberg’s entire essay reads like a personal plea to an artist he cared deeply about and whose earliest watercolors had genuinely touched him. If only Dzubas would return to “gray” and “black” or the “grayed blues and greens” that “ravished” Greenberg thirty years earlier. It’s as if Greenberg’s heightened, all but sentimental sensitivity to the hue, value, and saturation of Dzubas’s “dark” palette could return the artist to himself, so that he would become “possessed, possessed by himself even more than he is now.”62


1.  “Personals,” Partisan Review 15.6 (June 1948): 736.

2.  In 1982, Charles Millard, at the time curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, interviewed Friedel Dzubas for the artist’s 1983 retrospective at the museum. Highly edited, the interview appeared as “Interview with Friedel Dzubas,” in Friedel Dzubas (exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, June 16-August 14, 1983), 20-32. The Estate of Friedel Dzubas kindly made the unedited transcript and audiotapes of the interview available to this writer. Subsequent quotations from Friedel Dzubas come from this unedited typescript, unless otherwise noted. In the published version of the interview, Millard names Commentary as the publication in which the personal advertisement appears, while in the unedited transcript, Dzubas names Partisan Review. Commentary did not publish a classified section. I am grateful to Stephanie Roberts, Business Manager at Commentary, for confirming this detail in an email communication dated May 29, 2014. Dzubas cites the text in the interview with Millard: “Partisan Review editor looking for summer home with his twelve year old son, for a period of six weeks, preferably relatively close to New York.” The Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives hold Dzubas’ original 1948 copy. Hannele and Morgan Dzubas generously granted full access to the estate archives and provided financial support for this project, for which I warmly thank them. Andrea Kutsenkow functioned as assistant archivist during the years 2014-2015, collating the vast materials, as well as producing a thorough finding aid. Josef Eisinger, physicist and historian, kindly provided translations of the cache of letters in the Dzubas correspondence, in particular the letters written in Sütterlinschrift. Eisinger’s translations appear in Styra Avins: Johannes Brahms: Life and Letters (1997) and Eisinger is the author of Einstein on the Road (2011), for which he excerpted English translations of Einstein’s extensive travel diaries.
3.  The exception is a short, selective quotation used by Timothy McElreavy in his essay “Language Barriers” in Eric Rosenberg, Friedel Dzubas, Lisa Saltzman, and Timothy McElreavy, Friedel Dzubas: Critical Painting (exh. cat., Tufts University Art Gallery, Medford, Mass., 1998), 25-55. Having written in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title held at the Tufts University Gallery, McElreavy also curated the exhibition and organized a symposium on February 24, 1998. The participants were John O’Brian, Donald Kuspit, Larry Poons, and Frank Stella.
4.  Clement Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” in Friedel Dzubas: Gemälde, (exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielefeld, December 18, 1977-January 15, 1978), 7-9. Published in a side-by-side German-English translation (by Eleanor Winter), Greenberg originally wrote the text in English. A conversation with Dzubas (in German) follows. This conversation, conducted by curator Michael Pauseback with assistance from Erich Franz, took place on November 3, 1977 at the Kunsthalle, Bielefeld.
5.  See “The Meyer Schapiro Collection,” Columbia University Archival Collection, Subseries I.4: Exhibitions, 1960-1989. In April 1950, Samuel Kootz invited Schapiro and Greenberg to co-curate an exhibition, which they titled “Talent 1950: 23 artists receive a showing under the sponsorship of Meyer Schapiro and Clement Greenberg.” The artists in the exhibition “Post Painterly Abstraction,” held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in 1964, were selected by Greenberg, except for the group of artists resident in California, who were chosen by the LACMA curator at the time, James Elliot. See Karen Wilkin, “Notes on Color Field Painting,” in Color as Field: American Painting 1950-1975 (New York and New Haven: American Federation of Arts and Yale University Press, 2007), 11, n. 4. Greenberg essentially shepherded Dzubas’s career from the start: for example, certain younger artists whose names had been given by Greenberg and Schapiro to the art dealer John B. Myers for the exhibition “Talent 1950” were subsequently invited to join the Tibor de Nagy Gallery when Meyers and de Nagy opened the gallery in 1951. Meyers was a partner in the gallery from 1951 to 1970. The gallery gave Dzubas his first one-person exhibition in 1952, shortly after Helen Frankenthaler’s in 1951. French & Co. held a one-person exhibition of Dzubas’s works in 1959, just before Greenberg left his position in 1960 as advisor to that gallery.
6.  Clement Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays, Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1959, vol. 4 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 192-196.
7.  Clement Greenberg, Letter to Friedel Dzubas, November 8, 1977. Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives.
8.  Greenberg Letter, November 8, 1977. The parentheses are Greenberg’s.
9.  I am indebted to Michael Fried, who introduced this writer to Friedel Dzubas’s paintings and who commented on early drafts of the present essay. Fried pointed out that it is worth noting that Greenberg’s collected late writings (1971-1986) contain nothing like the personal tone found in his 1977 remarks on Dzubas, an unusual and generous act at this time in Greenberg’s life. Email communication, June 4, 2014. Also, see Clement Greenberg: Late Writings, ed. Robert C. Morgan (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
10.  Beate Meyer, “Einleitung,” Jüdische Mischlinge: Rassenpolitik und Verfolgungserfahrung, 1933-1945 (Hamburg: Dölling und Galitz Verlag GmbH, 1999), 9.
11.  Dzubas’ curriculum vitae, handwritten in 1960 as part of a restitution inquiry, states: “I, Friedebald Dzubas, was born on the 20th of April 1915 in Berlin, Prenzlauer Allee 188.  My father was of the Jewish religion, my mother is Aryan. I was brought up as a Jew.” Documentation kindly provided by Antje Kalcher, Librarian at the Landesamt für Bürger- und Ordnungsangelegenheiten, Berlin. Email communication with this writer, January 27, 2013. Because Dzubas was seeking funds for restitution from the German government, he would have understood that being raised in the Jewish religion would be a requirement for monetary compensation. Corroboration that his elder brother became a Bar Mitzvah at the Neue Synagoge, Oranienburgerstrasse, Berlin, comes from the artist Silvia Dzubas, Friedel Dzubas’s niece and the daughter of his eldest brother, Kurt Dzubas. Silvia Dzubas provided essential information about the Dzubas family over the course of several conversations during the summer of 2013 in Berlin. Subsequent email communications confirmed many facts about the family’s religious practices and political convictions. For Silvia Dzubas’ own escape from East Germany see Silvia Dzubas, Von innen nach aussen: eingraben, ausgraben, umgraben, (Gedenkstätte der Opfer der Heydrichiade, Prague, June 18-August 23, 1998). In an email communication, Beate Meyer, among the foremost scholars on the status and treatment of Mischlinge in the German Reich, wrote that it was commonplace for disaffected young people to turn to leftwing groups such as the German Communist Party (KPD). “It was a time of radicalization for Jews and Gentiles…. Concerning Jews there was something additional in the beginning of the 1930th [sic]: Young people wanted to study and to work for a good future, they often were angry about the attitude of their parents they accused to be too well-behaved and acquiescent. So when the young people joined a Zionist group or a Communist group they at the same time protested against the bourgeois parents and the attitude of adaption of the parents in a new depressing situation facing the upcoming National Socialism. This [attitude was] shared by the sons of mixed marriages and Jewish families.” Email communication December 12, 2014.
12.  Dzubas’s father, mother, brothers and their families remained in Berlin throughout the Second World War. His two brothers, Kurt and Harry, were consigned to labor camps and their father was compelled to wear the notorious Yellow Star. Martin (a French translator in Belgium during World War I) and one uncle, Simon (killed in action, April 1916), were “full Jews” by definition. It was on this account that the family was exempted from deportation. However, two other uncles and several cousins were exterminated in concentration camps, including the photographer, Martin Dzubas, who died in the Gross Rosen concentration camp in 1941. He can be seen in a photograph of Hitler and Paul von Hindenberg (Aubrey Pomerance, “1933: The Beginning of the End of German Jewry,” Jewish Museum Berlin, 2013, online). The literature in both German and English on Mischlinge and their status as provisional citizens is limited. See, in English, Jeremy Noakes, “The Development of Nazi Policy toward German-Jewish ‘Mischlinge’ 1933-1945,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1989) 34: 291-354, who tracks the issues affecting the administration’s efforts to define citizenship in the German Reich as well as the competing economic factors influencing National Socialist policy toward Mischlinge. Ursula Büttner, “The Persecution of Christian-Jewish Families in the Third Reich,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (1989) 34: 267-289, traces the efforts by the National Socialist Party to reverse the integration of Jews with Aryans as they became defined during this period. Carl J. Rheins, “The Schwarzes Fähnlein, Jungenschaft 1932-1934” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book 23 (1978): 173-198, distinguishes several responses by Jews to rising anti-Semitism within the non-Zionist Jewish Community. The major work on the subject is Beate Meyer, the chapter titled “‘Jüdische Mischlinge,’ Rassenpolitik und Verfolgungserfahrung 1933-1945,” in Jüdische Mischlinge. Meyer also kindly shared with this writer her unpublished paper, “The Persecution of Mixed Marriages and ‘Mischlinge of the First Degree’ in Nazi Germany, ” n.d. Sent to the author, March 20, 2014.
13.  Dzubas was sixteen when he earned his Mittlere Reife in 1931 (equivalent to a high school diploma), and while he may have received informal or limited training in book design and graphic arts at the Prussian Academy of Fine Arts, which at the time was joined with the Berlin Kunstgewerbeschule, he was certainly almost immediately apprenticed. Further informal trainings might well have been obtained through his uncle, Hermann Dzubas’s Berlin publishing firm, Dzubas and Kante. Information about Hermann Dzubas provided by Silvia Dzubas, December 19, 2014, and kindly confirmed by Hermann Dzubas’s grandson Thomas M. Dubas. Historical records, such as Berlin address books and early photographs, have provided further confirmation: for example, the Berliner Adressbücher… Einwohner und Firmen der Stadt Berlin geordnet nach Namen are available online for the 1930s.
14.  For such a claim, see Dzubas’s application for the Chicago Art Institute Annual Exhibitions, 1943 and 1944, and the transcript of Dzubas’s interview with Millard, n.p., in which he downplays the association. Many gallery biographies and one-person exhibition catalogues reprint in one form or another a version of Dzubas’s biography that includes his putative study with Paul Klee at the Bauhaus or his attendance at the Prussian Academy. From 1924 to 1933, the Preußische Akademie der Künste and the Kunstgewerbeschule (college for applied arts) were united under one title, the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für frei und angewandte Kunst. In addition to the Bauhaus in Dessau (1927-1930), Klee taught during the academic year and summer at the Düsseldorf Academy (1931-1933). There are no records of Dzubas’s registration or attendance at either. My thanks to Wencke Clausnitzer-Paschold, archivist at the Bauhaus Archive, The Museum of Design, Berlin, for her email communications and for her personal attention at the Bauhaus Archives in Berlin. In a 1975 letter to Cynthia J. McCabe, curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Dzubas modifies his biography in the following way: “I had very slight contact with Klee and that after Klee had left the Bauhaus already. My contact with the Bauhaus itself was also of a very minute nature and occurred only at the very last of its existence and that was after it already had moved to Berlin shortly before its extinction by the Nazis.” Friedel Dzubas, Letter to Mrs. Lawrence McCabe, October 9, 1975. Friedel Dzubas Archives. My thanks to Tim Eaton, a close friend of the Dzubas family, who kindly sent to this writer the McCabe correspondence and other important materials added to the existing Dzubas archives. Several exhibitions were mounted at Eaton Fine Art, Inc., in West Palm Beach, Florida, among them, a significant reappraisal of Dzubas’s career, curated by Eaton and Barbara Rose, “Friedel Dzubas: A Reconsideration,” December 4, 2009-January 16, 2010. Dr. Ulrike Möhlenbeck, Head of Historical Archives at the Akademie der Künste, confirms that no papers documenting Dzubas’s attendance there could be discovered. As to the question of whether race may have played a role, she answered in February, 2014, “In our archive there is no source that states that there could be masters student of the Academy not of Jewish origin. The master students were selected by the professor and head of the master atelier. One can assume that from 1933 no Jewish students were taken, because the ‘Gesetz gegen die Überfüllung der deutschen Schulen und Hochschulen of 20. April 1933.’” Dzubas stated in 1979 that he had only “remote” contact with Klee “…when I had a very short and brief encounter at the summer session of the Düsseldorf Academy…. I minimize this because I don’t want to be stamped with being a pupil of Paul Klee, which I am not. Never was.” Friedel Dzubas excerpts from a lecture on his art at The Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, Saskatchewan, Canada, in 1979. My thanks to Tim Hutchinson, Head, University Archives & Special Collections, University of Saskatchewan, who kindly provided this writer with the DVD of Dzubas’s lecture, housed in the Visual Resources Center of the Art and Art History department of the University of Saskatchewan.
15.   “An old-fashioned decorations painter, with a firm in Berlin that was one of the two, sort of, that had established, over the past 150 years, a kind of reputation of having the finest decoration painters. And that was very, I mean that was something that my parents could accept because it had some practical, respectable footing so to speak.” From the Millard-Dzubas interview, unedited transcript, n.p.
16.  Willy Dzubas (with Theo Berhens), “Dekorations Maler,” in Berliner Addressbücher der Jahre 1799 bis 1943, online at (http://digital.zlb.de/viewer/image/10089470_1911/558/LOG_0044/), 535. Willy Dzubas emigrated from Germany to London in 1938. By that time, several overt actions beyond the 1935 Nuremberg Racial Laws had been carried out. Among them were Hitler’s devastating traveling exhibition, Entartete Kunst (“Degenerate Art”), held between 1937 and 1939 (featuring Jewish and non-Jewish modern artists); the euphemistically titled Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom, November 9-10, 1938; and on November 12, 1938 the Decree on the Elimination of the Jews from Economic Life (Verordnung zur Ausschaltung der Juden aus dem deutschen Wirtschaftsleben), which effectively shut down trade and the selling of goods and services by Jews.
17.  Hermann Dzubas and his son Heinz printed issue number 23 of the newspaper Die Rote Fahne in 1934 and a flyer proclaiming, “Der ADGB ist vernichtet”—that publicized the Nazi storming of the offices of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, the organization of German trade unions, and the arrest of their leaders. Hermann was incarcerated for two years, Heinz for twenty-one months by the Nazi regime. Hermann emigrated from Berlin to New York on March 4, 1940, Heinz on October 28, 1946.
18.  See Guide to the Jüdisches Auswanderungslehrgut (Gross-Breesen, Silesia) Collection, undated, 1935-2005, AR 3686, Leo Baeck Institute Center for Jewish History, New York. Also, Werner Rosenstock, “The Jewish Youth Movement,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 19 (1974), 97. These camps were formed under the auspices of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
19.  The Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland (formerly, between 1933-1935, the Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden) leased the land on which the camp was established. Due to his age (most trainees were between 18 and 23 years old), Dzubas at twenty-one, held the title of Lehrer (referred to as such in Letter, 14 August 1936, from Bettina Sanders to Dzubas) or Praktikant (training assistant), a trainee in charge of a group of younger boys, whose role included undertaking some of the group’s Jewish and moral education. The Reichsvertretung represented all political and religious Jewish groups in Germany and bore the financial burden for training camps such as Gross-Breesen. Most agricultural training camp programs for youth had as their goal emigration to Palestine. See Salomon Adler-Rudel, Jüdische Selbsthilfe unter dem Naziregime 1933-1939 im Spiegel der Berichte der Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr and Paul Siebeck, 1974), cited in Werner T. Angress, Between Fear and Hope: Jewish Youth in the Third Reich, trans. Werner T. Angress and Christine Granger (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 28 and n. 60. Also, see Angress, “Gross-Breesen Training Farm,” 43-76, particularly 59-60, n. 29, and Chapter 3, “The Gross-Breesen Documents,” 77-83 and nn. 5 and 41. The U.S. Department of State instructed the U.S. consulate in Berlin to grant “exceptional permission” by issuing “agricultural preference visas” for those Gross-Breesen trainees immigrating to Virginia, which in effect, countermanded the German quota for immigration to the U.S.
20.  Robert A. Gillette, The Virginia Plan: William B. Thalhimer and a Rescue from Nazi Germany (Charleston, S.C., and London: The History Press, 2011), 103 and 144-45. Dzubas, along with thirteen other students from Gross-Breesen, was a shareholder in the ownership of Hyde Farmlands Operating Corporation. See Gillette, The Virgina Plan, 102. Dzubas’s early departure met with suspicion from the chief of the Visa Division, A. M. Warren, who wrote of his concern: “In the case of a person who immigrates into the United States for the avowed purpose of proceeding to Hyde Farmlands and who fails to carry out such an intention in good faith, a serious question arises as to whether the immigration visa with which the alien entered the United States may not have been obtained by fraud and misrepresentation” (The Virginia Plan, 145, n. 124). Dzubas’s only extended published reference to Gross-Breesen and Hyde Farmlands comes from the Dzubas-Millard interview. The following comments were deleted, however, in the Hirshhorn Museum exhibition catalogue. Dzubas talks with Millard about his experiences at Hyde Farmlands without mentioning its founding mandate: to facilitate Jewish youth emigration from Nazi Germany. “The Virginia people found me through… well, I knew them from Germany…. There were a few of these groups, you know that came about because…they belong to the German upper middle classes, really. A very liberal bunch. And also essentially anti-Communist. You know. And certainly deadly anti-Nazi—that managed to, sort of, organize around an idea of survival and renewal.” Millard-Dzubas Interview, unedited transcript. In November 1938 Dzubas’ agricultural training camp at Gross-Breesen was stormed and several students taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp. They were subsequently released. Dzubas had already left the camp and was in Berlin at the time, but several friends with whom he kept in touch throughout his life suffered.
21.  Dzubas showed at “The Forty-seventh Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity,” March 11-April 24, 1943, under the name Frank Durban. His watercolor, The Youth, was priced at 250 dollars. He participated in the American Annual at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1944 and was again accepted in the 59th Annual American Exhibition: Watercolors and Drawings, Art Institute of Chicago, IL, November 4-January 2, 1949, after he had moved back to New York in 1946.
22.  Dzubas attended gatherings at the Cedar Street Tavern and The Club and was on one of several panels organized by Irving Sandler and others, some transcripts of which are reprinted in the short-lived magazine It Is.: A Magazine for Abstract Art. Dzubas’s statement on allover painting appears under the title “A Series of Statements Compiled by Irving Sandler,” It Is.: A Magazine for Abstract Art 2 (Autumn 1958): 78. He also participated in the Ninth Street Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture, May 21-June 10, 1951. Dzubas met Katherine S. Dreier, a neighbor in Connecticut. She and Marcel Duchamp accepted two of Dzubas’s watercolors into the Société Anonyme collection. Dzubas designed the layout and negotiated the contract for the publication of Dreier’s Yale Trowbridge Lectures, Three Lectures on Modern Art (1949), published by the Philosophical Library, for which Dzubas worked as a graphic designer after he returned to New York from Chicago. Dzubas also designed the cover and layout for the text and illustrations for the thirtieth anniversary reprint of the Société Anonyme catalogue in 1950. The title page lists Friedebald Dzubas as the “designer.” “In her acknowledgment Dreier names Dzubas “…[among] the following artists who, from time to time, have enriched our Collection by giving us of their work.” The Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art 1920 (Hartford, Conn.: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1950), XVI. Dzubas’s Abstraction (1949; ink, watercolor, and gouache on cloth, laid down on board) was listed in the catalogue raisonné of Dreier’s bequest to Yale University as one of eleven works from her private collection she “especially prized,” and which Duchamp included in the bequest upon her death in 1952 (“Introduction,” The Société Anonyme and the Dreier Bequest at Yale University: A Catalogue Raisonné, eds. Robert L. Herbert, Eleanor S. Apter, and Elise K. Kenny [New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1984], 31). Earlier, Dreier had accepted two watercolors into the collection, Armada (1949), inscribed “For Katherine S. Dreier in gratitude Friedebald Dzubas,” cat. no. 250, 256 and Death of the General (1949). Dreier helped Dzubas obtain teaching positions at the University of Florida, Gainesville and at Indiana University, both of which were short-lived. See the correspondence between Katherine S. Dreier and Friedel Dzubas in “Correspondence, 1948-49,” in Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Société Anonyme Archive, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
23.  Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” 8.
24.  Millard-Dzubas Interview, n.p.
25.  Greenberg, Friedel Dzubas,” p. 7. Michael Fried had reviewed an exhibition of Dzubas’s work at the Elkon Gallery in his 1964 “New York Letter” for Art International. This review must have been what Greenberg had in mind. Michael Fried, “New York Letter,” Art International 10.7 (January 16, 1964): 54-56. Barbara Rose had written that Dzubas was “one of the standard bearers of the so-called ‘new abstraction’” (Barbara Rose, “In Absence of Anguish: New Works by Friedel Dzubas,” Art International 7.8 [September 23, 1963]: 97-100). In 1993, Rose revised her view, claiming that what she had written thirty years earlier, in 1963, was “a misinterpretation fostered by the artist.” Rather than representing a move away from the “anguish” or the “expressionism” in the title of her essay—through which Dzubas, in effect, represented “a new kind of abstraction”—she came to consider him instead, “the last of the German Romantics.” See Barbara Rose, “Friedel Dzubas” in Friedel Dzubas: The Early Years (exh. cat., The Elkon Gallery, New York, October 18-December 3, 1993), 1-3.
26.  Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” 7. In the collection of the Whitney Museum, first seen as part of a Loan Exhibition,  “The Museum and its Friends: Twentieth-century American Art from the Collections of the Friends of the Whitney Museum,” April 30-June 15, 1958. David Solinger, who loaned the work, then gave it to the Museum. He was president of the Friends at the time of the Exhibiton. See https://archive.org/stream/museumits00whit#page/n3/mode/2up, accessed June 7, 2014, “Internet Archive,” online.
27.  Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” 7.
28.  Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 195.
29.  Greenberg considered malerisch and “painterly” as nearly interchangeable terms: “‘Painterly’ was not the word used, but it was what was really meant, as I see it, when Robert Coates called the new open abstract art in New York, ‘Abstract Expressionism’… If the label ‘Abstract Expressionism’ means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct: large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color; uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife, or finger marks—in short, a constellation of qualities like those defined by Wöfflin when he extracted his notion of  the Malerische from Baroque art.” Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism,” in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 123.
30.  Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 195.
31.  Greenberg first treated these artists as a group in 1962. See “After Abstract Expressionism,” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 121-134, specifically, 129.
32.  Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 195 and 196 (italics are Greenberg’s).
33.  Greenberg, “Post Painterly Abstraction,” in Greenberg, The Collected Essays, vol. 4, 193.
34.  Frank Stella, from hand-written responses to questions this writer posed to Stella, May 21, 2013. I am grateful to Stella’s assistants, Paula Pelosi and Allison Martone, for facilitating this communication.
35.  Wes Frantz, Dzubas’s studio assistant from 1980 to 1987, writes that he would lay three coats of gesso on Dzubas’s canvases. “We worked on the floor. When he would need prepared canvas I would roll it out nail it down and gesso it three times. Then we would cut it up into sizes.” Email communication, April 16, 2014.
36.  Millard-Dzubas Interview, n.p.
37.  Figure 6 is one of the watercolors chosen by Kathryn S. Dreier and Marcel Duchamp for their Société Anonyme collection in 1948. In a letter from Kathryn S. Dreier to Friedebald Dzubas, September 23, 1948, she writes, “Tremendously impressed, both by your color and by the rare quality of technique which you have developed in your water colors.” Subsequently, Dreier invited Dzubas to show his work to Marcel Duchamp, Friday, October 15, 1948. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, YCAL MSS 101, Box 13, Folder 333. The Société Anonyme collection held by the Yale Art Gallery contains three watercolors titled, Abstraction (1949), Abstraction (1949), and Death of the General (1949).
38.  Friedel Dzubas, excerpts from a lecture on his art at The Emma Lake Artists’ Workshops, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1979, video.
39.  Millard-Dzubas interview, n.p.
40.  When Dzubas gave his artist-lecture to students at the Emma Lake Workshop in Canada, he divided his oeuvre up to 1979 into a decade-by-decade presentation. Art historians and critics have generally followed suit, for example, see Karen Wilkin’s summatory catalogue of Dzubas’s career, Karen Wilkin, Friedel Dzubas: Four Decades 1950-1990 (exh. cat., André Emmerich Gallery, New York, October 1990).
41.  These black and white paintings—dense, linear ribbons against white or near-white grounds—were made during and after an extended stay in Europe in 1959 that marked the first time he had returned to Berlin since emigrating twenty years before. Tondos and vertical rectangles are variously titled Monk, Calvary, and Betrayal.
42.  Rose, “In the Absence of Anguish: New Works by Friedel Dzubas,” 97.
43.  Dzubas, Lecture, Emma Lake, n.p.
44.  Dzubas, Lecture, Emma Lake, n.p.
45.  Magna is an oil-miscible acrylic resin that could be thinned with turpentine. For the literature on Magna acrylic paint see the following sources: Angelica Rudenstine, “Morris Louis’ Medium,” appendix to Michael Fried, Morris Louis (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1967), 25; Kenworth Moffett in Kenneth Noland (New York: Abrams, 1977), 71, n. 41 and 73, n. 4; Diane Upright, “The Technique of Morris Louis,” in Diane Upright, Morris Louis, The Complete Paintings: A Catalogue Raisonné (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), 49-58; selected sections in John Elderfield, Morris Louis (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986), 25-41 and 182-183; and Janet Lee Ann Marontate, “Synthetic Media and Modern Painting: a Case Study in the Sociology of Innovation,” unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Montreal, 1997, particularly Chapter 4, “Paint-making and the New York Art Scene: The Case of Len Bocour and Sam Golden,” 109-155.  See also Morris Louis’s letter to Leonard Bocour, in which he demands that his Magna be made anew for him. “I hate to reopen the complaint department because I know this whole deal is not likely to buy you any real estate, but will you please see to it that the colors are made fresh each time?…. Another important matter which I’ve hollered about before is that the machine is hardly cleaned between the different colors.” Morris Louis to Leonard Bocour, May 22, 1962, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/viewer/morris-louis-letter-to-leonard-bocour-9818, accessed December 2013. Jack Flam, President and CEO, Dedalus Foundation, and co-author of Robert Motherwell Paintings and Collages: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991 (2012), confirmed Motherwell’s use of Magna. In conversation, May 5, 2015.
46.  Millard-Dzubas interview, n.p. The artists Jim and Ann Walsh, who describe Magna as “mineral spirit acrylic” added important information about Magna paint and its properties. Jim Walsh has written on Magna in James Walsh, “Friedel Dzubas Monumental Paintings,” Just Paint, newsletter of Golden Artist Colors, forthcoming. Artists Susan Roth and Darryl Hughto confirmed many of Magna’s properties in several conversations in their shared studio and at the exhibition of Dzubas’s monumental paintings at the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery, New Berlin, New York, fall 2014. Mark Golden, whose father, Sam Golden, and Leonard Bocour, developed this acrylic paint type and worked closely with the artists mentioned, generously provided guidance as well as valuable information. He also graciously offered to store what remains of Dzubas’s original Magna paint at Golden Artist Colors in New Berlin, New York. Darryl Hughto kindly read a draft version of the section on Dzubas’s technique, offering comments that significantly moved my argument forward.
47.  Millard-Dzubas interview, n.p.
48.  Kenworth Moffett, Friedel Dzubas (exh. cat. Museum of Fine, Boston, March 13-May 18, 1975), n. p.
49.  The effect is as if the forms were backlit, so that the space of Dzubas’s pictures is shallow, but not flat. The analogy with lozenges or tesserae derives from these nearly three-dimensional forms. A relationship to what Frank Stella calls “a spherical sense of spatial containment and engagement…[that] includes both viewer and maker each with his own space intact” can be perceived. Stella goes on to say in this way the artist creates a sense of “totality of pictorial space” (Frank Stella, “Caravaggio,” Working Space: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1983-84 [Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1986], 9).
50.  Dzubas followed the traditional practice of creating modelli until the early 1980s, at which point he abandoned the practice. “I used to do these informative sketches, which were for each painting, so I didn’t adhere to the, faithfully, to the things that the sketch was telling me often. I would give myself a certain amount of leeway physically to make changes. It still was very much guided by the feeling that the sketch gave me when I did the painting. Now, when I work large—when I work anything—I have been trying recently, that’s really the, the newest, to start painting without knowing what I want to paint. And then, sort of, go with the storm, so to speak, and, instead of leading the storm I go with it. I conquer it by going with it. See? And that works sometimes—it works or it does not work—but, when you work large it’s sort of easier to get lost, and I want to get lost. See?” Millard-Dzubas interview, unedited manuscript, n. p. At the same time, Dzubas made many small-scale rough renderings on scraps of canvas, often only five by six inches in area and marked with the title and dimensions in graphite. These were often framed and sold as independent works or repainted and sold. Loretta Howard of the Loretta Howard Gallery and Leslie Feely of the Leslie Feely Gallery confirm this fact. Loretta Howard remembers, in addition, a three-ring notebook Dzubas had filled with these small sketches and from which the Andre Emmerich Gallery created many small, framed works, which were subsequently sold. Dzubas’s fourth wife, the artist Mary Kelsey wrote, “I don’t remember that he made sketches after. Seems to me he developed the ideas using the sketches on scraps of canvas. But he might have then later re-done them, possibly for sale.” Email communication, August 24, 2014. Indeed, small scraps of canvas inscribed in Dzubas’s handwriting with title and measurements transmit a quickly blocked-out rendering in miniature. Nilsa Garcia-Rey remembers learning from Dzubas his method of making “small color studies, then enlarging them into wall-sized canvases,” in SouthCoastToday, posted May 9, 2008, internet.
51.  Frankenthaler and Noland also outlined the general form and color scheme to be followed either in graphite or paint. Barbara Rose, in her monograph on Helen Frankenthaler remarks on the graphite contours visible in Frankenthaler’s Mountains and Sea (1952). This practice arose, in part, from Frankenthaler’s experience with watercolor (like Dzubas’s) and her understanding of Cézanne’s late works in the medium (Barbara Rose, Frankenthaler [New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1972], 54-57). For Noland’s practice, see Jeanne Siegel, text for the brochure Kenneth Noland: Early Circle Paintings (exh. cat., Visual Arts Gallery, School of Visual Arts, New York, January 6-31, 1975), n.p., where she writes, “After marking the center of the paintings, he used circular shapes such as dinner plates or hoops to draw the rings in pencil. The rings were painted freehand with brushes. The center one as always painted first.” Rose addresses Dzubas’s painting technique: “Perhaps because he did work from sketches for so many years, he had a highly developed sense of scale as well as of detail, which is missing in the art of many of his contemporaries” (“Friedel Dzubas: Romantic Abstractionist” in Reconsidering Friedel Dzubas [Eaton Fine Art, West Palm Beach, Fla., December 4, 2009-January 16, 2010], 14).
52.  Fleet Financial acquired Shawmut National Bank in 1994. Fleet then merged with BankBoston in 1999 after which Bank of America acquired it and Shawmut’s art collection in 2004. Crossing is now part of the Bank of America Art Collection. My thanks for this history to Allen Blevins, Director of Global Art and Heritage Programs, Bank of America. Lillian Lambrechts, Senior Vice president, Corporate Art Program confirmed that Crossing is currently in the holdings of Bank of America. Lewis P. Cabot commissioned this work through Artcounsel, Inc., an art-leasing business in Boston. The commission reads as follows: “The proposed commission beside the information desk tends toward a canvas painting by Friedl Dzubas of Ithaca. This will be 57’ x 10’. A fresco had been considered, but this process, which requires water-base paint applied to wet plaster, is a very long and expensive one…. Paint on canvas seems the most practical approach and Henderson reports that Dzubas has become highly interested, made preliminary drawings, and will come up with a ‘bloody masterpiece.’” Warren S. Berg, Senior Vice President, Shawmut Bank, May 31, 1975, “Memorandum to Members of the Art Screening Committee,” Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives. My warm thanks to Lewis P. Cabot, who kindly discussed the Artcounsel’s search for an artist who not only had vision and stature, but who would “see this as reasonable challenge.” Joe Henderson was Cabot’s partner and president of Artcounsel Inc. Conversation, winter 2014. For Dzubas’s remarks on Giotto and the technique of fresco, see Richard Pacheco, “Friedel Dzubas: In Dialogue with Giotto,” New Bedford Standard-Times, publication date unknown; original ms., 3. My thanks to artist Malinda Hatch, Dzubas’s companion during his final years, who graciously made the typescript of this interview available to this writer. Richard Pacheco kindly communicated by email with this writer in January 2015.
53.  Lindsey Tyne, conservator at the Morgan Library and Museum, New York, undertook the conservation of this maquette. Hannele and Morgan Dzubas provided financial support for Tyne’s significant work on this drawing.
54.  Photos by Phyllis Boudreaux Kellner exist of the entire process, including shots of Dzubas’s assistant at the time, at work on the transfer cartoon. Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives.
55.  Wes Frantz, email communication, April 16, 2014.
56.  Friedel Dzubas quoted in Richard Pacheo, “Friedel Dzubas: In Dialogue with Giotto,” unpublished article based on a talk Dzubas gave at the Boston Visual Arts Union (BVAU), 1976, 2.
57.  Pacheo, “Giotto,” 1.
58.  Millard-Dzubas interview, n.p. Not a surprising remark given the number of times Dzubas visited the Residenz Würzburg, the site of the magnificent ceiling frescoes executed by Tiepolo in 1753, trips both his fourth wife, the artist Mary Kelsey, as well as his companion of ten years, the artist Marianne Hicks, spoke of as “pilgrimages.” In conversations with the writer, summer 2013. Dzubas, too, described these viewings as pilgrimages: “I discovered for myself the affinity and the potency of baroque architecture and painting, which I hadn’t known before. I mean my fascination and my, my, my responding to it. I had no idea, and I tell you, I made one pilgrimage after another in southern Germany and in Austria to look at things. It was endless. I couldn’t get enough of it. And also I got a huge, peculiarly huge mountain of visual imagery as I was looking at things.” Millard-Dzubas interview, n.p.  Rose wrote a summatory statement on Dzubas’s late work: “At the end of his life, Friedel Dzubas realized his dream of creating paintings in the Grand Manner, with their metaphoric poetic allusions to the skies of Venetian paintings. He often spoke of his affection for Tiepolo and the expansiveness of the Baroque which inspired his mural size romantic paintings in which he found his own true freedom and authenticity.” In Rose, “Friedel Dzubas: Romantic Abstractionist,” 21.
59.  Greenberg’s well-known comparison comes from 1960, in which he likened Morris Louis’s facture to traditional watercolor technique. “The fabric, being soaked in paint rather than merely covered by it, becomes paint in itself, color in itself, like dyed cloth: the threadedness and wovenness are in the color” (Clement Greenberg, “Louis and Noland,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, 97, originally published in Art International, 4.5 (May 25, 1960): 28. I benefited enormously from the artist Darryl Hughto’s knowledge, which he generously shared with me both while looking together at Dzubas’s work and in written communications. Dzubas remarked that in preparing for the gargantuan-sized commission, Crossing, he travelled to Europe to study seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Austrian frescoes, principally by Franz Anton Maulbertsch: “Fantastic clouds that looked straight into heaven, God, the angels, sweetness: the grandeur and depth, the technical accomplishment and strength….” Pacheo, “Giotto,” 4.
60.  Barbara Rose (above-cited articles), E. A. Carmean (in Friedel Dzubas: A Retrospective Exhibition [exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, October 16-November 24, 1974]), Kenworth Moffett, Charles Millard, and Karen Wilken (several catalogues, including her important Friedel Dzubas: Four Decades 1950-1990 and her most recent essay on the artist, for the exhibition “Friedel Dzubas: Monumental Works,” [Sam and Adele Golden Gallery, New Berlin, New York, September 13, 2014-March 28, 2015])—all point out Dzubas’s ties to the European tradition. Yet even earlier, critics identified something “European” in his approach. In 1959, Thomas B. Hess in Art News identified Dzubas’s “historicizing ambition.” Comparing him to the Romantics, Hess described the expressionistic gestures as landscapes in all but name, European in origin. “His is a real Romantic talent—a Runge or Caspar David Friedrich—who is happier in this century than they were in theirs. The big abstract paintings, with smears and scrubbed feathered layers and pools of past, resolve themselves into mountain landscapes of a watercolor delicacy. There is usually a foreground, even though the artist sometimes puts it at the top or on the side of the painting. Often flowers grow from the foreground edge—one thinks of what the Engadine must look like in the early summer. Mountains are blanketed in mist, the sky turns achingly overhead. Certainly the liberation of Action Painting has given Dzubas’s talent a scope and scale he would never have found in any other time or place than New York 1950s. But the pressure behind the image seems European, civilized, nostalgic, even tender. And his lyricism adds to the richness of the New York scene” (Thomas B. Hess, “Friedel Dzubas (French & Co.),” Art News 58 (1959): 17-18.
61.  Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” 9. After 1977, Greenberg continued to urge Dzubas to push harder and go further. Just a decade before both their deaths in 1994, Greenberg asks Dzubas to consider taking a break from Magna acrylics and justifies the suggestion using Picasso as an example. “To talk about art. It came to me only just lately to suggest that you go off Magna for a while & try water-miscible acrylic or even oil. Just in order to shake yourself up some. The Old Masters didn’t have to or cdn’t [sic] change mediums radically, but Picasso could have & didn’t, &—as I wrote in Art in America—that’s partly why his ptg [sic] turned so tired & stale after 1939. It wasn’t just that he didn’t change medium, but that he didn’t change fundamentally the way he used oil itself. Anyhow medium can’t be taken for granted any more, especially not by abstract ptrs [sic], & not since 1950. That’s part of the fun.” Clement Greenberg, September 3, 1983, Friedel Dzubas Estate Archives.
62.  Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” 9.


About the Author

Patricia L Lewy is an art and music historian. She holds a PhD in historical musicology from the University of California, Berkeley and has published articles and entries in Early Music, Cambridge Opera Journal, and New Grove Dictionary of Opera. She is currently completing her PhD in art history at the University of Essex (under Dawn Ades) and is Senior Contributing Writer for Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s. A monograph, Friedel Dzubas: The Size of Life, is forthcoming from Artist Book Foundation in 2017.

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.


Clement Greenberg

Friedel (Friedebald) Dzubas has been a superior painter for a long time. There are watercolor landscapes, done almost 40 years ago, whose limpid grays, grayed blues and greens ravish my eyes. Reminiscences of German Romantic art don’t take away from their originality, modest though that may be. Dzubas has always been original, in a surreptitious way that’s fooled everybody, including myself as well as such a good critic as Michael Fried. In his most discouraged moments Dzubas has remained—as we say in America—his own man. But it’s as though he’s tried to hide that, as though he’s tried to confuse the viewer—and himself too—on that scene [sic].1

At the end of the 1940’s he’d become part of the Abstract Expressionist “movement.” By the mid-1950’s he was ready to become one of its masters, a junior one, but a master nonetheless. That readiness is visible in the Dzubas of 1955 that the Whitney Museum in New York owns; it stands up to the Whitney’s Pollock and does more than stand up to its de Koonings and Kline. But it should have done still more than that. As Friedel himself recognized, he couldn’t keep himself from filling the picture out, fastening down all four corners of it with paint marks, when the whole urge of it was towards a certain emptiness on one side or the others, [sic]2 toward an indeterminate spaciousness. This boxing-in belonged to the notion of a well-made picture, from Cimabue and Giotto to Picasso and Pollock. (Even Hans Hofmann, in all the mastery he had won after 1950, still undermined many of his pictures with an excessive concern for the spelling out of their four corners.)

I pay special attention to this moment in the course of Dzubas’s art because it marked a “gran rifiuto.” Then and there, in the mid-50’s, he might have risen still more visibly than he did above the ruck of Abstract Expressionism in its dying throes. Not that he didn’t do good painting then and all through the later 50’s, but he didn’t drive it home, and didn’t make the fact that he was going against the tide—as he was—more evident. Then and there he could have entered the Promised Land with great, not just good, paintings.

He went along, eventually, with the linear, “hard-edged” art of the 1960’s, again producing good works, some of them may be [sic]3 better than before. At several group shows pictures of this [sic]4 startled me in the way they stood out, but each time I failed to recognize the picture as a Dzubas, for all my familiarity with his art. (Thus his canvas in the Guggenheim Museum’s collection in New York, which is one of the very best postwar items that the museums owns.) The value of a work of art doesn’t depend on the recognizability of its source, of course. But in Friedel’s case this lack of recognizability spoke for a failing on his part that lay in the failure to follow up his achievements and achievedness, the failure to put them together. He let it all lie scattered as it were. It was as though he was reluctant to take himself seriously, to settle into the way of success (I mean real artistic success, not the worldly kind). It was a though he wanted to stay in a state of promise, as though fulfillment, success, and all that would close out his options, take away the disponibilité of promise. And as it happened, and happens, people who did see how good Dzubas’s art could be did somehow sense his attitude towards himself and did therefore hesitate to take his art more seriously than he took himself. That is, they hesitated to conclude anything about the value of his art or his stature as an artist. I presume to say that it’s his own fault, almost entirely, that he hasn’t been a world-famous artist these twenty years back.

Well, all this changed with the beginning of the 1970’s, or has been on the way to changing since then. I wouldn’t want to say whether Dzubas is linear or painterly (malerisch) by native inclination. But I do say that there’s a vein of the malerisch deep inside him and that vein, after being more or less suppressed during most of the 60’s, finally and forcefully welled up in 1971. That was sudden. But it didn’t overcome his linearity; instead, a synthesis formed (to use Kenworth Moffett’s term). Dzubas had no conscious say in the matter: the synthesis just came. From that synthesis has issued the ripest and most consistently successful, and certainly the most original art he has produced. That’s saying a lot. Friedel has settled into his enduring self.

He used to wonder whether these new paintings of the 70’s didn’t look a little “old-fashioned,” too 1950-ish, out of phase with the times. Who cares? Artists will bother themselves about things like that. So Monet’s “Lilly Pads” were out of phase with the 1920s. (Curious: some of Dzubas’s newest paintings run into Monet. I say “run into” advisedly; it’s a case more of convergence than of influence; the malerish in Duzbas insists on itself more and more, to break up shapes, and to break up background too.)

But I don’t want to put too much emphasis on these pictures of the 70’s. Pictures from all stages of Dzubas’s art since the 40’s will in time to come thrust themselves increasingly into attention: enough of them to establish him once and for all where he belongs, which is on the heights. The art press, Kunstkompass, and other such awful manifestations of art-world opinion don’t indiate that yet. So what? Had Kunstcompass been present around 1900 it would have shown ever so many artists as ranking above Cézanne in point of popularity and exposure, not to say journalistic attention….

In the meantime I’m waiting for some more of Friedel’s dark pictures. His command of gray, black, and of hues that approach these is unique in my opinion. But he hasn’t yet let himself go full-blast in that direction. It’s as though he were waiting, again, to be possessed—possessed by himself even more than he is now.

November 19775


 Clement Greenberg, “Friedel Dzubas,” Friedel Dzubas Gemälde (exh. cat., Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Bielefeld, December 18, 1977-January 15, 1978), 7-9.  This is the first publication of the uncollected piece since 1977.

Permission to publish Clement Greenberg’s 1977 essay “Friedel Dzubas” in its entirety was granted by Janice Van Horne, who graciously shared with me her fierce intelligence in a frank discussion of the relationship between her late husband, Clement Greenberg, and the artist. I extend to her my heartfelt thanks for her generosity on all counts. [—P.L.G.]

1.  In the typescript of essay, Greenberg originally ended the sentence after the word “too” with a period, but then added two dashes and “on that score.” The published version, which appeared in the catalogue, was paired with a side-by-side German translation by Eleonore Winter, with German on the left and the original American on the right.
2.  Greenberg blackened out what he had originally typed and handwrote “one side or the other,” to be inserted in the sentence.
3.  Greenberg has typed “maybe.”
4.  Greenberg has typed “his.”
5.  There is no date in the typescript, but the letter to Dzubas accompanying the typescript carries the date November 9, 1977.
About the Author

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

The Tank

Harry Cooper, Lisa Florman, Karla Oeler, Blake Stimson, Michael W. Clune and Todd Cronan

I am enormously grateful to the respondents for their sensitive reflections and criticisms of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). The respondents touch on many aspects of the book, Cooper and Florman focus on the introduction, Oeler, Stimson and Clune consider the book as a whole. In my discussion at the end I address what I take to be the salient features of the responses as well as reiterating some of the major points of my argument against certain contemporary claims in the humanities largely around issues of anti-hierarchy, the establishment of so-called “surefire” effects, formalism, neoliberalism, critique of the subject, and the relation of art and nature. I also put forward alternatives to the current orthodoxies of the humanities.


Harry Cooper:

Mother to 10-year-old son: “I applaud you.” Answer: “Then why aren’t you clapping?” (True story.)

I applaud Todd Cronan for stepping back to take a broad look at what he calls October aesthetics, which he regards as deeply conflicted at best and self-contradictory at worst. “At the center of October aesthetics … is the lapsed enlightenment claim to see, to experience, to consciously grasp reality as it really is: representation. Which is another way of saying it wants to deny the reality of representation at the moment it declares representation’s ubiquity.” (19) In other words (I think), October holds that what we think is reality is really just representation, and thus not as full-blooded or full-bodied, not as real, as we had imagined. And with this implicit just or merely, Cronan detects a hidden nostalgia in October for things as they really are, a wish to “let be be the finale of seem” as Wallace Stevens put it. This in turn connects back to his admirably clear opening paragraph, where he traces “modernism’s dissatisfactions with representation” to Descartes’ view that “the self is terminally separated from the world by a screen of images.” (1) October, Cronan argues, like several of its artist-heroes, is at a deep level unhappy with this particular Cartesian heritage (which is one aspect of his dualism). And so, despite October’s celebration of the idea that everything is a play of representations, and despite all the talk of semiotics in the work of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois (who seem to signify October for Cronan), “neither one of them is much interested in the operation of the sign …. [except] insofar as … signs are disrupted by what Krauss calls their bodily ‘preconditions.’” (19)

The burden of Cronan’s book, judging from his introduction, is to show how Matisse and Bergson navigate this very dissatisfaction (which October also has, but less consciously). Their work can help us see, Cronan promises, “how representation, far from interposing a wedge between us and the world, can bring us closer to it.” (22) Not having read the rest of the book, I cannot judge the delivery of this promise, but I can judge his arguments about Bois and Krauss, who get detailed treatment in the introduction.

To start with, let’s correct Cronan’s jaw-dropping assertion that neither one of them is very interested in the functioning of signs. All one has to do is consult their brilliant writings on collage and synthetic cubism (which Cronan does not mention) to see otherwise. This correction immediately throws his allegation about October’s crypto-nostalgia for unmediated experience into some question. But to be fair, Cronan’s book is about Matisse not Picasso, and it is true that Bois has little interest in Matisse as a maker or manipulator of signs. (I will not discuss Krauss here for the sake of space, but also because I think she is a more complicated case, and indeed I have often found myself, like Cronan, puzzling over slippages and tensions in her work.)

Here we run into to a problem with Cronan’s whole approach: perhaps because he has deep philosophical interests himself, Cronan treats Bois as a philosopher with a coherent approach to art, just as he sees October itself as a kind of philosophical school, which is even more far-fetched. In fact, as Bois makes clear in “Resisting Blackmail,” the introduction to his Painting as Model, his approach is to use whatever theoretical approach or tools seem best suited to the artwork or artist at hand. When it comes to Picasso, the tools are semiological. When it comes to Matisse (or Newman), the tools are indeed, at least in part, the phenomenological ones that Cronan associates with the modernist flight from representation into bodily experience and affective states. And so, with the caveat that Cronan is dealing with Bois on Matisse, not Bois tout court, we can continue.

Of course, there is more than one Matisse, and more than one Bois on Matisse. Of the two major essays, Cronan omits the first one (“Matisse and Arche-Drawing”), with its Derridean-deconstructionist argument, and jumps ahead to “On Matisse: The Blinding.” (I have no problem with a tight focus, as long as the tightness is acknowledged). Cronan’s beef here is not with Bois’s specific claims themselves, but with the nature of the claims, which for Cronan simply do not amount to “an interpretation of what a work might mean.” (3) Why not? Because at the heart of Bois’s argument are assertions about how specific works by Matisse affect vision, destabilizing our accustomed ways of organizing the visual field and so showing us that these ways are not natural but constructed, that there are other ways of seeing.

Cronan’s problem with this is that he cannot imagine any way of arguing with Bois’s account other than disputing that Matisse’s works do indeed have those effects on one’s eyes. In other words, he cannot see the argument escaping from an “is so/is not” spat at the level of sensation to get to the level of meaning or intention. He concludes, “Without an appeal to…what the artist might have meant by the marks he or she made…one cannot differentiate between relevant and irrelevant sensations before a work of art.”

It is here that I would like to raise my hand. In fact, Bois’s work on Matisse is suffused with the idea that the artist had a coherent, unitary project (however much he might have been conscious of it, and however much he might have abandoned it at some moments). And why shouldn’t Bois be able to go there? I simply do not see how making assertions about how Matisse’s works affect him disqualifies Bois, or anyone who reports his or her sensory experiences in front of artworks, from having at the same time (or before, or after) interpretations of their meaning and/or intention. Indeed, without having and thinking about such experiences, I have a hard time seeing how I, at least, could evolve interpretations at all. (Full disclosure: I am a Bois student, dare I say disciple.)

That is really all I wanted to say. Maybe it just amounts to a radical difference between me and Cronan in how we approach art and what we ask from it. Among other things, Cronan seems to be looking for a kind of guide to right action. He complains that the October approach “cannot help us to make better decisions” (18), “could [not] matter to what we do” (19), and gives no hint about “what consequences could follow” (21). Whereas I am look for an experience that is, at least at times, ravishing. And so when Cronan gives us a glimpse of what kinds of things he will be attending to in Matisse—strategies of framing, depictions of the artist at work, and structural arrangements that thematize representational limits (2)—it all sounds quite plausible to me, and I can even imagine which works will figure prominently in his argument, but it also sounds rather cold. It may bring us closer to the world, as Cronan promises, but I don’t think it will bring me closer to Matisse, not my Matisse anyway.


Lisa Florman:

This characterization of Against Affective Formalism, from Michael Fried’s blurb for the back cover, seems just about right to me:

Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. First, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary aesthetics: whether or not a beholder’s experience of a work can properly be understood as affective rather than cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of writings by Henri Bergson, whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse, showing that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position he never succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitive viewpoints in the theory and practice of Matisse.

I want to begin my own comments about Against Affective Formalism by saying how much I admire two of those three books (the second and third in Fried’s accounting). They are original and persuasive, and I learned a great deal in reading them. Chapters three and four especially, “The Influence of Others” and “Matisse and Mimesis,” which are the ones that together track “the interplay between the affective and cognitive viewpoints in the theory and practice of Matisse,” are to my mind tours de force: significant contributions to our understanding of the artist that ought, by all rights, to have a real impact on the field. I am, however, rather less enthusiastic about the first of the books-within-the-book. I found myself disagreeing with it repeatedly, at times with no small measure of exasperation. And because it is the one that dominates Cronan’s Introduction, it will necessarily negatively shape much of what I have to say below. (They don’t call this “The Tank” for nothing.)

Cronan spends much of the Introduction diagnosing and then tracing a genealogy of contemporary interest in affective formalism. The project is sound; the problem is that, having ostensibly uncovered the logic undergirding the phenomenon, he repeatedly projects it onto accounts where it isn’t actually in play. For example, on p. 3, he takes to task Yve-Alain Bois’s essay, “On Matisse: The Blinding,” for overemphasizing the affective dimension of Matisse’s work (“Bois’s mistake is to orient his accounts around these affective moments—perceptual contradictions tied to bodily effects”) because, Cronan believes, “an assertion about the viewer’s perceptual response is something wholly different from an interpretation of what a work might mean.” In the next breath he adds that the “presumed value of adhering to perceptual responses is that it avoids any unverifiable assertion about the artist’s intentions to produce these responses.” The flow of the paragraph insinuates that Bois had been wholly unconcerned with either interpretation or artistic intention—when in fact he had martialed a great deal of evidence (much of it culled from Matisse’s writings) in order to show that the artist was deliberately aiming at the particular perceptual and psychic effects in question. The specific phrases that Cronan cites as most “mistaken” are ones that come, moreover, from Bois’s discussion of key paintings within the artist’s oeuvre (Le Bonheur de vivre and Music), which Bois presents as bound up with castration anxiety and related to Matisse’s competition with other artists, Picasso chief among them. Cronan may not like Bois’s interpretation—though I myself am struck by how close it seems to some of his own observations in chapter three concerning Matisse and personnalité—yet, I would argue, it is still undeniably an interpretation of the work. Cronan’s willful misreading of Bois is all the more irritating in that it comes in the midst of his impassioned defense of authorial intention. Evidently art historians don’t count for him among the ranks of authors whose intended meaning he regards as sacrosanct.

I take it that one of Cronan’s aims in Against Affective Formalism is to undo or replace the overly simplistic, nondialectical oppositions around which contemporary arguments about “affect” have frequently been constructed. Certainly the dialectic of specularity and mimesis that he sees operating within Matisse’s oeuvre, and which he outlines in chapter four, answers well to such an ambition. Yet in the Introduction Cronan repeatedly falls into the very dichotomies that he’s purportedly denouncing. Consider his critique of Roland Barthes’s influential essay, “The Death of the Author.” Cronan merely reverses Barthes’s priorities—this time sacrificing the reader in the name of the Author-God—without ever attempting to think outside the either/or opposition on which Barthes’s essay had been based. Consequently we are warned that, “if the work is seen as requiring the beholder’s response to give it meaning, then none of those responses can have any more purchase than another” (17). This is typical of the slippery-slope argumentation from which the Introduction gains its momentum. The viewer has to be denied any role whatsoever, on the assumption that her “response” is wholly extraneous to the work and therefore an imposition on its “inherent” meaning.1 Cronan never seriously entertains a scenario in which an artist might seek to engage his audience through open-ended participation or where the viewer is actually attentive to the work, approaching it with that state of mind that Aloïs Riegl referred to as Aufmerksamkeit—a state that confounds any simple distinction between active and passive (or, for that matter, subjectivity and objectivity) in that it involves a conscious relinquishing of one’s idiosyncratic or merely personal concerns.

I want to be clear: like Cronan, I am suspicious of claims about purely affective responses to works of art, and I fail to understand what the art historical or aesthetic significance of those responses might be, even were they to exist. But I cannot believe that many art historians are actually interested in the merely affective or physiological—neither Rosalind Krauss nor Yve-Alain Bois are, despite Cronan’s claims to the contrary—and I vehemently object to his suggestion that the answer to this rumored interest is to insist on the work’s total independence from the viewer’s experience of it. A far more nuanced (and, in my opinion, congenial) treatment of these issues is to be found in Michael Baxandall’s Patterns of Intention, a book that deserves a much wider and deeper reading than it has so far occasioned.2 As Baxandall makes clear in his own Introduction, the viewer is not so easily removed from the equation. Where Cronan regards the artist’s intention as primary—indeed, as being both efficient and final cause of any painting or sculpture—Baxandall points out that, from a practical perspective, our experience of the work necessarily has priority. Whatever else we art historians may imagine it is we’re doing, in reality “we explain, first, thoughts we have had about the picture, and only secondarily the picture.”3 Artistic intention plays a role too, of course, but it is in some sense tertiary: “Awareness that the picture’s having an effect on us is the product of human action seems to lie deep in our thinking and talking about pictures and what we are doing when we attempt a historical explanation of a picture is to try developing this kind of thought.”4 Because “authorial intention” is almost always Nachträglich, hypothetically reconstructed after the fact by art-historically minded viewers, the work’s meaning is arguably dependent on their efforts. To claim that our experience of a work is completely irrelevant to its meaning is as wrong-headed, in my opinion, as is claiming the utter autonomy of its affective dimension from cognitive thought. Were there really paintings answering to either of those descriptions, I’m doubtful we would be able to recognize them as paintings—and even less certain why we would take any interest in them at all.


Karla Oeler: From Against Affective Formalism to The Forms of the Affects

The first part of Todd Cronan’s title, Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism forms a loose chiasmus with The Forms of the Affects by Eugenie Brinkema, published eleven months later.1 These polemical titles announce dissatisfaction with affect theory, at least in some of its manifestations. The books reexamine intellectual histories of affect and recuperate close analysis as a corrective to a “turn” that, they argue, has failed to say anything substantive about paintings or texts. Cronan, focusing on Matisse and his critics, defines “affective formalism” as “the belief that color and line produce bodily responses that function and mean independent of the artist’s agency” (27). He objects to this “belief” because if the meaning of a work hinges solely on its bodily effects on a particular beholder, “then the question of disagreement becomes impossible, for no experience, no affect can ever be right or wrong.  To imagine a world where what matters is ‘what happens’ to us is also to imagine a world where bodies differ but never disagree because there is nothing to disagree about” (64). Brinkema writes that “the approach to writing theory that emphasizes the personal experience of the theorist” is “complicit with the explicit marketing of feeling from the commercial side of film production. One suspects, from these furiously recorded diaries, that the theoretical qualification for such work is to be a better consumer of feelings; if affect does not need to be interpreted, just recorded, then the most affected theorist wins” (32). These diagnoses converge around the desire to recuperate interpretation. For Cronan, describing what happens to oneself, affectively, before a work of art, “is not an interpretation so the reader is forced to accept the terms of the argument as facts of the matter” (97). Brinkema describes her approach as “an attempt to seize the passions of affect studies for textual interpretation and close reading” (xvi).

Galvanizing in their parallel criticisms and calls for a return to interpretive analysis, in their divergence these books generate potent questions. Their titles declare their difference:  Cronan pushes “against affective formalism;” Brinkema pushes through it, claiming critics have not gone far enough in “formalizing affect” and “affectivizing form.” Pushing through, Brinkema pushes beyond Deleuze:  “my argument goes a step further and also loses for affects the body and bodies” (25).  Pushing against, Cronan backtracks through Henri Bergson and Paul Valéry, arriving at Deleuze from another side.  The final sentence of his book:  “It is ‘viscera’ all the way down.”

Cronan and Brinkema’s choices of key terms drive these differences:  for Cronan, it’s “intention” that demands attentive analysis; for Brinkema, it is “textual form…that commands a reading” (4). For Cronan, solving the solipsistic impasse of affective formalism requires treating the beholder’s affective response to a work of art as “irrelevant except insofar as those affects are taken to be intended by the artist.” Brinkema, however, identifies intentionality as the problem—just not authorial intentionality, the “fallacy” of which William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley made famous. Instead, she focuses on Husserlian intentionality, which “assumes that spectator or theorist (it matters little which) is noetic (the experiencing) and that affect is noematic (that which is experienced)” (33). For Brinkema, this means assuming “that emotional jolts are definitionally, necessarily, and essentially intentional in aim, direction, and effect.  They always land, without fail…in the lap of the awaiting critic” (34). Brinkema understands this “expanded” sense of the “intentional fallacy” as grounding film theory’s surrender to the “affective fallacy”: “When all is said and done:  this affective stuff, it tolls for me” (32); in her analysis, the two fallacies work together. For Cronan, it’s one or the other: “If the work does not mean what the author intends it to mean, there is no alternative available but that the reader is the one who creates meaning” (247).

The chiastic structure suggested by the titles thus extends to the arguments: the books, which share reservations about affect theory and arrive at similar solutions (more attention to form and text, less to one’s own feelings), do so via seemingly opposite claims. To understand how, or why, this is possible requires consideration of their key terms—“intention” for Cronan, “text” and “form” for Brinkema—and their selection of, and approach to, their primary examples.

Cronan first defines his “appeal to artistic intention” negatively: it “is not an appeal to artistic psychology” (12) and not evaluative (it does not concern whether the artist succeeds in communicating intended meaning). He writes, “intentional analysis is not a matter of finally or ultimately knowing, recovering, or extracting what an artist meant when he or she made a work of art—an impossible task—but it is to say that an artist meant something by his or her work, and that is what the art historian aims to understand by whatever means available” (14). Is the “expanded” intentionality that Brinkema rejects capacious enough to include Cronan’s definition of the term so that, if we follow Brinkema’s argument, we dismiss the foundation of Cronan’s? I.e. is Cronan’s “intentionality” that which is experienced, noematic; while the intentional analyst alone is noetic? No. The terms are too static to capture an “artistic intentionality” that Cronan shrewdly takes care to establish not as an identifiable thing, but as driving a durational, dynamic act. In aiming to understand what the artist meant, the art historian aims at a moving, unhittable, target.  This target has to do with the making, consciously or unconsciously, of formal choices: “No matter how the self is described—humanist or posthumanist, singular or multiple, integral or institutional, centered or decentered, whole or fragmented—the problem of agency remains.  Even if the idea of the self is a fiction (which I largely assume here), we are still called upon to act and make choices” (16).

How, then, is intentionality different, or all that different, from textuality? Cronan’s insistence on intentionality as processual structures his selection and analysis of Matisse’s paintings and writings, and those of his contemporaries and friends. Cronan focuses on works produced in sequences around a similar problem or set of objects—the 1901 standing figure sequence, the 1903 costume sequence, and works made between 1895 and 1917, where Matisse “explored the tension between two modes of representation:  first, a declarative form of realism, where objects are situated close to the beholder…and yet maintain their separate identities” and, second, a “phenomenological” approach where “Matisse figures space as something that involves the beholder, as the picture surface suggestively runs up to and under the viewer’s feet” (175). Seeking to understand Matisse’s intentionality—that he meant something—calls forth this revealing kind of close analysis and historicism, but Cronan does not insist on a particular method: “Any method that aims to understand what the artist meant, and not what happened to a work in its…reception, or what happens to the viewer regardless of what the artist might have meant, is intentionalist” (14).

Brinkema’s textual approach is historical in a different way. Her discovery of the tear-that-is-not-a-tear in the corner of Marion Crane’s dead eye in Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) takes us through a short history of teardrops in Western thought. Similarly, she passes through the intellectual history of mourning and melancholia to arrive at the form of undialectical grief in the line, light, and duration of a Haneke tableau; and through the philosophical tradition that sees disgust as the negation of the aesthetic to explain why the missing stench of Laura Dern’s vomit in Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990) is “worse than the worst.” Her emphasis on textuality means she unapologetically uses the word “text” when talking about motion pictures. Liberated by textuality from bothering with what Hitchcock may have meant by a “plica” that could be mistaken for a tear, Brinkema, unlike D.A. Miller, never wonders whether she’s reading “too closely.”2 That would involve the gravitational pull of intentionality. But if intentionality, what the author meant, remains always, to some extent, irrecoverable (including by the author him or herself after, even during, the making, as Cronan allows), then how do we distinguish from intentional analysis Brinkema’s compelling reading for affective meanings (or abrogations of meaning) that are realized in and through form—apart from her claim that it’s not that kind of analysis?

Intensely authored (typographical teardrops, profusion of exotic words, multilingualism, etc.) and heartily meant (see, for instance, the Acknowledgments), The Forms of the Affects, as text, betrays its own intentionality (Brinkema meant something and it’s bound up in the rare style of her own text). It is such intentionality that Against Affective Formalism at once boldly—and qualifiedly, if it is possible to combine the two adverbs—acknowledges. Read together, these two books, framed by converging critiques and calls for the reconsideration of unfashionable concepts—intentionality, close reading—suggest there is no close reading without intention (including the critic’s intention), and that a powerful way of approaching intention is through close reading.

1. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
2. See D. A. Miller, “Hitchcock’s Hidden Pictures,” Critical Inquiry 37:1 (Autumn 2010): 106-30.


Blake Stimson: For enlightenment

All art produces an account of the subject and modernism’s version of that subject was always bourgeois in at least two strong senses: it dreamt of a fluid self, of “the pure and simple absence of frame” (1) that allowed it the freedom of self-negation, and it dreamt of fully defined and fully autonomous self-possession, of an absolutely framed or bounded self independent of attachments or responsibilities to others. The first of these was drawn downward and outward to the swampy horizontal release of the church-and-state-dissolving equivalence of the commodity form while the second primped and pulled itself inward and upward to the vertical, phallogocentric, church-and-state-supplanting narcissistic high of the self-made man. One worked what the market would bear during business hours to proliferate, level, and exchange meaning while the other operated after hours and behind closed doors to shore up, lay claim to, and capitalize on that leveled meaning as his or her own.

These are not mutually exclusive impulses, as attested to by Todd Cronan’s rich account of Bergson’s “dualistic picture of intuition and intellect, memory and matter” (69) and Matisse’s “dual personality” (214) or “dual fantasy” of “total affective merger,” on the one hand, and “an equally strong desire for separation or detachment, as though art were a way to seal himself off from others and the world,” on the other (165). Instead, these two sides have routinely joined forces to produce a subject that is “psychically fraught, inherently conflictual and ambivalent, suggestive at once of possessive mastery and traumatic openness.” (167) This split subject is Cronan’s counter-ideal and its manic equivocation is the locus of energy from which he launches the charge given by his book’s title “Against Affective Formalism.” The formalism in his sights suffers from a romantic overinvestment in the fluid, beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder self and a corresponding underinvestment in the realist and authorial bounded self causing the fraught, conflictual and ambivalent “structural unconscious” (13) of the modernist subject to collapse into a one-sided epistemic complacency and powerlessness. Once “the viewer replaces the artist as the origin of meaning” and any perspective is equally valid to any other, Cronan argues, “the possibility of meaning itself is put in doubt.” (15)

The great modern promise that arose from asserting the governing role of intention, and thus conflict between author and reader, self and world, is that each side is forced to flip roles and express itself to the other rather than simply accepting either the premodern premise that beauty and truth are given by God or the postmodern conceit that they are a function of the situated perspective of the beholder. The split itself gave rise to the tenuous and provisional event of representation in its modern sense, of trying to communicate what something means for oneself to another, an event that “both threatens isolation and makes every connection like an unrepeatable gift.” (220) The modernist subject caught in and enriched by this fraught nexus long served as the figure of alienation and genius, of artistic ideals like self-expression and épater le bourgeois, and of spaces of possibility like the garret and the café, even if its conflicted, expressive role has long been tragically and insidiously reduced to a cliché. Cronan’s efforts to recover this old ideal rings true for a significant spectrum of human experience that we no longer grant cultural recognition, and, without question, it is a powerful rejoinder to postmodernism’s unrelenting afterlife as neoliberal/neoconservative marginalization, destabilization and relativization of material, embodied life under the epigone of the sign.

Historically, we might trace the birth of this modern subject back at least as far as Thomas Hobbes and the early years of contract theory when what it got most right was the human sense of fear and isolation and corresponding desire to have that sense recognized socially, culturally, and politically rather than diffused into myth. However, its real moment of material emergence is best associated not with Hobbes’s account of a political subject that was to realize its needs globally by splitting itself into two bodies—that of the Leviathan and its subject—but instead with Adam Smith’s economic model of society and the rise of the proletarian subject that realized its needs locally by exchanging labor for a wage and thereby splitting itself into two value forms, that which is usable and that which is exchangeable. This was the fully formed and institutionalized subject of what has been called “possessive individualism.”1

A useful passage for understanding this development comes from Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, which lays out the basis of the new subject in existential terms:

I divide myself, as it were, into two persons; and that I, the examiner and judge, represent a different character from that other I, the person whose conduct is examined into and judged of. The first is the spectator, whose sentiments with regard to my own conduct I endeavor to enter into, by placing myself in his situation, and by considering how it would appear to me, when seen from that particular point of view. The second is the agent, the person whom I properly call myself, and of whose conduct, under the character of a spectator, I was endeavoring to form some opinion. The first is the judge; the second the person judged of.

This is the ground of moral sentiment or “fellow feeling” and ethical behavior is derived from one-to-one self/other (or self/self) relations rendering it situational (“like an unrepeatable gift”) rather than institutional regardless of whether it is a political contract or an economic sale thereby dissolving any appeal to a pre-given law such as that given by God’s will or Kant’s categorical imperative. As Smith puts his version of the ethico-intentionalist imperative, “This is the only looking glass by which we can…scrutinize the propriety of our own conduct.”3 We can only speak of self-possessed intention, Smith suggests, just as anti-intentionalism can only speak of self-negating otherness; in neither case can we speak of shared nature or mutually-derived law or principle.

Cronan’s subscription to Bergson’s axiom “to act freely is to recover possession of oneself” (10) and Matisse’s urge to present his intentions to “the world in exchange” (159) assumes an ethical mandate to possess and assert one’s authorial intention as a chip played in the marketplace of other such intentions. This presumes a world in which isolated beings enter into exchange relations with one another (regardless of whether they do so in a self-empowering way as intentionalist authors or self-disempowering manner as anti-intentionalist readers) rather than rising to the higher, abstract level of being long summoned in the names of God, enlightenment, and art and realized however tragically, inadequately, and transiently, in the contractual documents of democratic, anarchist, socialist, and communist political institutions and the discursive rules and mandates of science, journalism and the larger public sphere of reason. In such an exchange-based model of society, regardless of whether the actor is fluid and anti-intentional or bounded and intentional, all social relations are rendered ad hoc, anti-institutional, and threatened by isolation in such a way that any meaningful human connection is merely an unrepeatable gift that never amounts to a social or political advance. As a result, we are left with no means to experience ourselves in and through the lives of others and thus sacrifice the basic moral precept of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you for the basic market precept of doing unto others as they consent to.4

The problem with the turn to the lived, empirical reality of culture as exchange between author and reader, subject and object, regardless of whether it does so from the side of self-possession or that of self-negation is that its secularizing, individualizing impulse overreaches by hollowing out access to the ideals that Kant, Hegel, Marx and latter-day contract theory generally sought to reimagine in transformative humanist terms. This is what universalist concepts like “sensus communis,” “Geist,” and “species being” meant all along: the nexus of nature and abstract social imagining or the political notion of society as precondition for becoming human that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, their theorists and their heirs, have convinced us does not exist.5 Intention was the ground of the great Enlightenment maxim about having the courage “to make public use of one’s reason at every point,” of course, but it can also never escape its origins as the Ur-form of primitive accumulation, as the private claim “This is my property” rather than the public “This is my idea” or “This is my feeling.”

There is another version of the great modernist subject that might also be worth bearing in mind, one associated less with Matisse and Bergson and more with, say, Pissarro and Marx, one that is no less vexed, no less fraught with an internally conflicted “structural unconscious,” and no less fully bourgeois. The difference heralded by this other modernism comes down to its way with contradiction or duality. The subject conjured by modern intentionalists such as Matisse and Bergson and postmodern anti-intentionalists ranging from Valéry to Barthes to most contemporary theory and art holds firm to an all-or-nothing duality—either the “psychically fraught, inherently conflictual and ambivalent, suggestive at once of possessive mastery and traumatic openness” contradiction is preserved and exercised in the competitive act of exchange or it is leveled by the abstract equivalence of the same market process. The other subject of modernism, by contrast, seeks neither to preserve that contradiction in individual self-possession, nor to obviate it in individual self-negation, but instead to resolve it in the Aufhebung of collective social form.

All three of these subjects are freighted with a shared history of possibility and suffering, of course. This is not quite to say with an old adage that capitalism launches new models of subjectivity “the same way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars,” but it is close.6 Where one bears the encumbrance of liberalism’s primitive accumulation and another carries the cost of neoliberalism’s creative destruction, the third is marked by the debt of what one mainstream anarchist political philosopher has denounced as “seeing like a state.”7 The question for a critical history of art and philosophy, even one that hews to one or the other of the old manifesto forms “For…” or “Against…,” is best not framed narrowly in terms of right or wrong—certainly each of these three subjects gets something right about both freedom and subjugation, autonomy and heteronomy—but instead in terms of what is most needed for the world we find ourselves in today. Neoliberalism, it would seem, has succeeded in convincing us that we are self-negating subjects who are all affect or calculation and no reason, all interest or disinterest and no franchise, all will or dependency and no interrelation. In this context it may be that the “dual fantasy” we need is not that which oscillates endlessly between self-negating neoliberal merger and self-aggrandizing liberal autonomy but instead that which sublates the two sides of the old bourgeois subject—that of the personal I and the interpersonal we, that of individual intention presenting itself to another in an act of exchange, and that of collective intention reaching to recognize that exchange as itself a more fully realized form of subjecthood. The aim of such a process is an old one: the higher form of autonomy long promised but only rarely and fleetingly achieved in the public life once called enlightenment and its fledgling heirs, democracy, anarchism, socialism, and communism.8

1. For the original formulation see C.B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: From Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011). For a critical elaboration of Macpherson’s thesis that gets closer to the split, equivocal subject highlighted here, see Étienne Balibar, Identity and Difference: John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness (London: Verso, 2013).

2. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1984), 113.
3. Ibid., 112, emphasis added.
4. For one formulation of this thinking see Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 386: “The golden rule is a good standard which can perhaps even be improved by doing unto others, wherever possible, as they want to be done by.”
5. This and the prior paragraph are liberally adapted from my review of David Morgan, The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012) published in Critical Research on Religion 2:2 (2014): 215-18.
6. “The development of productive forces in industrialized societies (it is true both for capitalism and bureaucratic socialism) involves an increasing liberation of the energy of desire. The capitalist system does not function simply by putting a flux of slaves to work. It depends on modelling individuals according to its preferences and, for this purpose, to propose and impose models of desire: it puts models of childhood, fatherhood, motherhood, and love in circulation. It launches these models the same way the automobile industry launches a new line of cars. The important thing is that these models always remain compatible with the axiomatic of capital: the object of love should always be an exclusive object participating in the system of private ownership. The fundamental equation is: enjoyment = possession. Individuals are modelled to adapt, like a cog, to the capitalist machine. At the heart of their desire and in the exercise of their pleasure, they have to find private ownership….To conjure up the dangers of class struggle, capitalism has tried hard to introduce a bourgeois owner into the heart of each worker. It is the prerequisite of his integration. Traditional models that attached the worker to his job, to his quarter, to his moral values, indeed to his religion (even if it be socialism) have all collapsed.” Félix Guattari, Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 (Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2009), 237.
7. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).
8. This is just to invoke the common distinction between negative and positive liberty or freedom from constraints, on the one hand, and freedom born of enfranchisement, on the other, and cast it in individual and social terms. One is tied to the tradition of possessive individualism and is inextricable from competitive market relations:

What makes a man human is his freedom from other men. Man’s essence is freedom. Freedom is proprietorship of one’s own person and capacities. (Macpherson, Possessive Individualism, 142.)

The other is tied to the promise of a social contract and political and economic transparency that allows and enables effective rather than illusory participation in the mechanisms of power:

Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends. This holds good in relation both to the laws of external nature and to those which govern the bodily and mental existence of men themselves—two classes of laws which we can separate from each other at most only in thought but not in reality. (Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, Progress Publishers, 1947.)


Michael W. Clune: Intention and Effect

Todd Cronan’s masterful history of affective modernism demonstrates surprising continuities between modernism and postmodernism. He effectively challenges Bois and company’s auto-parodic interpretations of Matisse’s painting as a species of oil-based thug, “blinding,” “punching,” and otherwise molesting the unwary museum goer. Cronan replaces this kind of analysis with a brilliantly original reading of Matisse’s career in terms of an oscillation between absorptive and autonomous form, which he interprets in terms of a rigorous exploration of the nature of expression. In addition to mounting these, to my mind largely persuasive, historical and interpretative arguments, Cronan also advances a theoretical argument regarding the relation of intention, meaning, and experience in art reception. And here my questions arise.

Cronan argues that in appreciating an artwork, the viewer is oriented to the painter’s intention, rather than to his or her own experience. He proceeds by identifying some of the kinds of things we are apt to say about artworks, and showing how we could not say such things if we weren’t—consciously or unconsciously—committed to intentionalism.

For instance, if the audience’s experience is all that matters, then there will be no principled way of selecting experiences everyone will agree are relevant to the work—such as the experience of the color of paint– from experiences that are clearly irrelevant—such as the hunger I happen to feel. In addition, the fact that we believe that artworks can “fail to come off,” requires acknowledging a gap between our experience and the artist’s intention (37).

Cronan’s arguments derive from a more fundamental argument about the difference between our experience of artifacts, like artworks or poems, and our “experience in general” (37). Our experience in general lacks form. Our experience of artifacts is given form by our awareness of the intention of an artist to create form.

But is this belief justified? Is our experience of artworks fundamentally different from other kinds of experience with respect to form? Does our experience of the world lack form?

Consider John Dewey’s distinction, in Art as Experience, between experience, and “an experience.” A quick example will clarify the distinction. Imagine that I’m sitting by my window waiting for a phone call. I twiddle my thumbs, look at the grass, my dog walks up and wags her tail, I itch my nose. Here my experience is indeed a formless jumble. I have access to no principle that would make the itchiness of my nose less central than the color of the grass.

But imagine that I go for a walk in the forest on an overcast day. Suddenly I round a curve, the sky clears, and between two large oaks I see a field, shining in the sun. My breath catches at the beauty of the scene. My nose also itches a little.

My guess is that most of us would agree that the latter experience does indeed have an immanent form, (by which I simply mean a form independent of my imposition of narrative shape in the process of writing). I would also guess that most of us would have no trouble saying that the itchiness of my nose was less central to the experience than the color of the field. In other words, certain of our experiences just seem to us to have a natural beginning, middle, and end, a peak of intensity, a center and periphery, and a set of characteristic emotions. This is the kind of experience that Dewey refers to when he speaks of an experience that seems to precipitate from the formless flow of experience in general.

The possibility, indeed the ubiquity, of experiences of form in the world is also, of course, what Kant defends in the Critique of Judgment. Cronan is quite wrong to suggest that Kant requires reference to the artist’s intention in order to “differentiate between relevant and irrelevant sensations before a work” (4). In fact Kant, who indifferently uses natural and unnatural things as examples of aesthetic objects, claims that we make this distinction on the basis of “disinterest.”

Here’s how it works. Imagine that I am so impressed by the beauty of the view of the field between the oaks, that I tell my friend about it, and take her there. Now, pretend that I’m something of an oak freak. I’ve long loved the tree, with an obsessive and inexplicable love, perhaps darkly sourced in certain amorous events of my youth. In deciding that my friend might enjoy this sight, I bracket my own love of oaks.

This love was certainly activated by the sight of the field; it was part of my experience. But I have no trouble editing it out of my experience as irrelevant when reflecting on the beauty of the scene as it might be available for another. And as Kant writes, this scene can indeed fail to “come off” for my friend. She might well say, “I just don’t think it’s that beautiful.” In that case we would indeed find ourselves disagreeing in our judgment of the experience of a natural scene, just as Cronan thinks we can’t.

And yet if Kant’s work suggests that the experience of form does not distinguish our experience of paintings from our experience of landscapes, this is not because intention is absent in both occasions. In fact, intention grounds the experience of form for Kant, just as it does for Cronan. How can this be?

In perhaps the strangest and most-debated argumentative line of the Critique, Kant claims that we experience a beautiful landscape in terms of “purposiveness without purpose.” In order, Kant suggests, to perceive the form of the landscape, we gaze at it “as if” it were designed to produce a feeling of pleasure in us.

We see a landscape, and we feel it to be beautiful. Look! we cry. Look at the way that fringe of bushes in the distance gives the field a pleasingly oval shape! We know, even if we are creationists, that no artist has specifically designed this scene to create pleasure in we who gaze at it from this specific spot. And yet in order to perceive the relation of parts to whole, in order to grasp the form that stands in causal relation to our feeling of pleasure, we proceed as if we indeed thought there was such an animating intention behind the scene.

If Kant is right, orientation to intention does not distinguish our experience of artifacts from our experience of the world. There are good reasons to believe he is right about this. After all, humans—and many animals—have an instinctive tendency to perceive the world in terms of intention. When on a windy night my dog barks at a branch scraping the window, she does so because she interpreted the branch as disturbed by an intruder. Nothing is more natural than to approach the natural world as an intentionalist.

If Kant is right about the imbrication of intention and form, then this suggests a solution to a problem Cronan struggles with. Cronan declares he can make claims about Matisse’s intention simply by examining the works, without bothering too closely with the artist’s biography. In other words, he asserts he can describe the work in terms of intention while bracketing claims about the nature or origin of that intention. And while sometimes he does in fact refer to Matisse’s own description of his intentions as evidence, he also admits that Matisse produced contradictory descriptions. Cronan’s intentional readings rely primarily on the form of the works.

The capacity to see shape as organized by intention is a capacity that human make use of even in exploring aspects of the world which we believe were not designed. Cronan admits that no method will enable him to say “this painting was designed to produce this effect,” instead of “this painting seems designed to produce this effect.” Cronan’s book lists various reasons for the elusiveness of intention. It’s impossible to know for sure what goes on in anyone’s mind. Sometimes painters don’t understand what they’ve been trying to do until after it’s done. But in fact, the reason why Cronan can produce intentional descriptions of artworks without a robust account of intention has little to do with these factors. To describe form just is to describe intention, and this description operates independantly of reference to any actual intention.

Cronan, and criticism in general, is properly concerned with what seems designed. Lawyers and detectives are properly concerned with what actually has been designed. The methods, values, and assumptions of the former are different than those of the latter. They are different kinds of projects. I think the difference in values probably grounds this difference. In art, we are interested in form, and in the effects that form creates. The fact that the perception of form is predicated on a kind of intentional stance, doesn’t mean that we are really interested in intention. Conversely, the fact that detectives want to establish motive beyond a reasonable doubt may well lead them to scrutinize certain surfaces trying to discern form. But we shouldn’t imagine that they are really interested in form.

Now, there are certain types of reception that do serve to strongly distinguish our experience of artifacts from our experience of the world. As Walter Benn Michaels and Steven Knapp argue in “Against Theory,” I will approach a sentence I believe to be written by a person quite differently from a superficially similar series of letter-like markings left on the sand by the waves. If by “meaning” we mean symbolic meaning, then we will look for it in the former case and not in the latter.

Cronan could have simplified things for himself theoretically had he restricted his interpretation of paintings to semantic or symbolic meaning, though his criticism would have been significantly impoverished. In keeping with our general sense of what art is for, Cronan on several occasions refers to “effects,” by which I take him to mean certain experiences existing in causal relation to certain forms. He distinguishes between intentional effects and unintentional effects. He thinks that certain shapes and colors in a Matisse seem designed to produce a given experience.

Whether or not such a design actually existed in Matisse’s mind is irrelevant to the operation of the assumption of design. Nor, if Cronan convinces me  (as he does) that this combination of shape and color in Matisse seems designed to produce a given effect, will he be engaged in an essentially different project from the one in which I engage when trying to convince my friend of the beauty of the field seen through the oaks.

Yet if orientation to intention often characterizes our aesthetic experience of both natural and artificial objects, both Cronan and critics like Bois identify a mode of aesthetic experience not oriented to intention. For Artaud, Bois or Deleuze, in slightly different though analogous ways, this is the experience of being ejected from what phenomenologists call the ‘world,’ and confronted with raw, unformed sensation. For Cronan, the ghost of a different kind of intentionless experience appears when he discusses the role of absorption in Matisse. His use of this concept draws on Michael Fried’s epochal account, so I will conclude with a question about the relation between two ‘as if’s, Fried’s and Kant’s.

Kant argues that in experiencing the beauty of form we act as if the form were designed to give us the feeling of pleasure, even while we know that such an intention is either absent or inaccessible.

Fried argues that in experiencing absorption, we act as if the painting were not the result of an intention to affect us, even though we know that it was.

I suggest that these as-if’s don’t cancel each other out, but describe a spiral, through which we might descend to deepen our understanding of the paradoxical relation of intention, effect, and form in art.


October Aesthetics: Is there such a thing and what does it look like?

Several of the responses remark on what I call (in passing) in the introduction to Against Affective FormalismOctober aesthetics.” I want to directly address this now and state my problem with it. October aesthetics is a set of variations on an encounter between a putative normative subject (ocular, idealist, male, centered) and its material conditions of production. The mastery of the normative self is predicated on a denial of the facticity of the body. And when the normative self is forced to confront its bodily conditions the result is traumatic. Simply put, the critical aspect of the October project is dedicated to a critique of the subject. On its positive side, the critique is thought to generate a set of alternative qualities, the production of “new,” non-hieratic modes of experience that emerge in and through the traumatic encounter. The normative vision of the self is sustained by a belief in the naturalness and transparency of the signs of everyday communication. A central aspect of the October critique narrates the way in which artists come to recognize and thematize for viewers the arbitrariness of the signs once taken for natural. This is why I describe October as producing a series of enlightenment stories (the traumatic coming to know the arbitrariness of the sign).

In my introduction I show how a basic premise of the October position—the primacy of representation—fails to be taken seriously by the majority of the authors associated with the journal. The normative subject is defined by his failure to properly acknowledge the arbitrary nature of signification. By taking their signs for transparent, the classical subject naturalizes the hierarchical nature of the bourgeois mode of perception. But as I show, and as Harry Cooper observes, if “reality is really just representation” then the question becomes what possible force could the notion of natural or arbitrary signs carry? How can one even provisionally stand outside or next to, or suspend representation in order to point a finger at it? If representation and media shape our lives in some fundamental way then from where and to where does the various showing, staging, thematizing, foregrounding, doubling, representing (of representation) proceed? Most accounts produced by October pivot on the traumatic moment of representing representation to a (duped) subject who imagines their signs to be natural (this trauma can occur to the formerly duped artist as well). My sense is that despite all rejections of the “classical subject of representation,” that subject—the one who stages representation for the beguiled self—is smuggled in all the same (a bad faith commitment to enlightenment). That’s the self-contradictory set of commitments Cooper mentions (and I gather he’s largely ok with this part of my critique).1

But the more central problem with October and the authors related to it is the following: What if the subject and the hierarchy built into the bourgeois mode of perception (if something like that exists; I remain unpersuaded) are really not the problems that define modernity or postmodernity or anything much? What if the critique of the subject and critique of hierarchies are instances of the problem to be solved? How could this be? Because, as I have argued elsewhere, the real problem is the replacement of exploitive categories with questions about hierarchy and recognition, exclusion and domination, categories based on seeing and being seen. The problem, as I see it, is the continual and ongoing transformation of exploitive categories into dominative ones. This is the defining feature of neoliberalism in the humanities, and there is nothing about the October position that suggests that anti-hierarchy is anything but a progressive position (the fact that semiotics and Bataille have been replaced by the precariat and Deleuze changes nothing).2

Cooper thinks I make October seem like a system, which it’s not. And that I’m too selective, to which I say: maybe and, more importantly, it doesn’t matter. I say maybe because I discuss an array of texts by Krauss and Bois (including their accounts of cubism and abstract expressionism). And it doesn’t matter because my point is that there is an identity principle at play across a range of October works.

Let me be clear, the problems I raise do not stem from a dissatisfaction with the way October authors repeat a kind of party line. In fact, I envy the unity and consistency of the resolve and of course their massive impact on the discipline (what is there, politically speaking, besides anti-hierarchy in the humanities?). My point is that the basic set of claims shared by many of these authors is mistaken.

I should mention, at least in passing that Bois’s and Krauss’s account of cubism is in no way free of the argument sketched out above. Krauss’s notion of “carnality” at play in Picasso’s work matches up squarely with the bodily “preconditions” of representation I analyze in her discussion of Duchamp. Something very similar goes for Bois. For him Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning signals the “collapse…of the empirical and vertical space of vision, controlled by our own erect position on the ground, into the semiological and possibly horizontal space of reading [TC: those bodily preconditions].” Like Krauss, Bois is tracking the shift from iconic to symbolic signs in Picasso’s cubism, a shift Krauss describes as the inscription of “carnality” into “language.”

The Surefire or The Intent to Not Have One

Part of the point of my introduction is to say that October’s postmodernism distorts the picture of modernism (something similar could be said of their account of contemporary art but I will leave that aside). Here’s where my critics come in: Cooper, exactly like Florman, sees Bois as an intentionalist. This is news to me, and it may be for Bois as well. On some level of course, he is, and on a far more important level, he’s not. The issue for me is that Bois’s account of intent, insofar as he has one, is centrally concerned with what he calls “surefire” effects. Above all, I consider Bois’s account of visual oscillation, which is said to occur when viewing certain works by Matisse (the exact same holds for his account of Newman after 1950, Mondrian’s late work, and a range of other artists). The surefire is designed to displace intentionality on two levels: to displace the artist’s intent onto the lines and colors that produce effects independently of the artist’s desire to do so, and the beholder’s intent insofar as the viewer is a passive receiver of the work (I consider the basic subject-object set-up of Bois’s accounts—alongside a range of authors indebted to him—at the conclusion to chapter 1). When an artist appeals to effects that function independently of their intent, they are seeking ways to avoid communicating to another; they are attempting to avoid the whole communicative situation, which is defined by the possibility of misunderstanding and failure. Surefire effects exempt the artist from the possibility of failure—a dream that runs deep in the human condition, but it is also the one that I think artists like Matisse and philosophers like Bergson refuse. Matisse is an artist who fully accepts the difficulties, which might feel insurmountable, of the communicative situation. As I see it, Matisse’s aim from beginning to end is to express himself to others in a situation that seems defined by the near impossibility of that communication being full, of being fully felt by viewers. Skepticism is the constant threat of Matisse’s expressive project; skepticism is the cure or the lure for the problem of making oneself known to another.

Readers familiar with my work will notice here my debt to Michael Fried on the surefire. This is from a discussion between Fried and Benjamin Buchloh in 1986: “What bothered me about [minimalist work] was not that it was keyed in some sense to the body but that its relation to the body was surefire. Those things were machines for producing surefire effect [TC: My first chapter is called “Painting as Affect Machine”]. And my aesthetic to this day is against an art of surefire effect. When a work seems surefire it is essentially uninteresting.” Fried does not go on explain why he finds it uninteresting—and I’m not invested here in the qualitative claim—but part of my aim in the book is to say exactly why the surefire, the collapse of the work’s meaning into its effect on you, is a widespread mistake in art history.

Another way to get at this problem is to look at the language Cooper provides to describe differences in effect: “I simply do not see how making assertions about how Matisse’s works affect him disqualifies Bois, or anyone who reports his or her sensory experiences in front of artworks, from having at the same time (or before, or after) interpretations of their meaning and/or intention.” Cooper’s wording is complex here. Bois’s affects could be part of the work’s meaning (“at the same time”) or separable from it (“before” or “after”). Everything is at stake in that spatial/temporal distinction. My point is this: A sensory experience is “disqualified” if it’s not made in light of what you think the work means (however provisional that might be). A sensory experience is qualified (but it still might be wrong) if you think it has something to do with what the work means. That’s the difference between an affect that belongs to you (disqualified) and an intended effect—yours, it is happening to you, but an experience the artist could have meant you to have (see here the section on “intended versus actual effects” in chapter 1).

Of course I agree that interpretations “evolve” out of experience, they evolve from a kind of initial scanning or first glance oriented toward feeling ourselves into what we think the artist was trying to say (I specifically bring phenomenology and psychology to bear on what I think he was trying to express; it has nothing to do with discursive or semantic content).3 As for ravishment, all I can say is I hope Cooper will read the chapters on Matisse and tell me if finds them or himself cold. Let your mind and gut decide whether I have the best terms to understand the work. Then again, I’m ravished by things all the time, but I don’t think all my ravishments belong in book about an artist—the book is about Matisse, not me.

I am of course highly flattered by Florman’s admiring comments on the book. But you will see why I can’t quite take those compliments to heart. (This is my problem, not Florman’s.) Like many authors, I don’t think one can extract parts from the whole. That is to say, the interpretive work that is the focus of the book only makes sense if one understands the framework within which Matisse’s art, Bergson’s philosophy, and Valéry’s writings have been understood. For all of them, their work is unrecognizable outside of a context in which affect matters. Part of the point is to show how Matisse and others worked through affect in such a way that the meaning of their works is fully bound up with the refusal of affect. Which is also to say that art historians like Bois provide an account of Matisse’s practice which is important precisely insofar as its clarifies the terms by which the artist came to know exactly what he was not doing. (Do I need to say, to underscore, how much I admire Bois’s work; the attention I lavish on it should be a clear indication of how serious I think it is.)

I’m of course immensely flattered and not at all surprised that Florman finds the genealogical project sound and I’m also not surprised (but less flattered) that she imagines Bois as free of my charges. Like Cooper, Florman thinks Bois is fully invested in the same problems I’m investigating: interpretation and intention. Again, this is hard to swallow. Even the most cursory glance at Bois’s writings indicates the depth of his aversion to intentional analysis. From Kelly’s affirmed “appetite for non-intentional marks,” marks that (so Bois recalls of Kelly) “force the viewer not to enter into the sensibility…into the pictorial intention,” to the standard vision of Duchamp’s rejection of the “virtual space that refers to the creative intention of the artist,” to the “canceled” “identity of the self” that Bois thematizes in numerous essays. When Bois cites Matisse or any artist, the point of those citations is frequently to support his claims about the limits of intentionality in art. Of course there is a way in which that project—the intent to not have one—could itself be an intentionalist project. There is another sense in which it is not at all. Bois shapes the record to fit his postmodern vision of things. That kind of editing is not really at issue for me; rather, it’s that the accounts of “perceptual and psychic effects” he’s interested in, whether he thinks they are intended or not, are claimed to be facts about perceptual response without appeal to intent. Or, if there is an appeal to intent, it is the intent to neutralize intent (through surefire effects, through the grid).

What follows from October’s affirmation of the surefire is the concerted effort to avoid disagreement. How can one evaluate the surefire? If one reports that one’s eyes are violently oscillating in front of Matisse’s “walls of paint,” how could I responsibly reject or accept the claim? I could just say “no,” but that’s not a disagreement. Or I could consult an ophthalmologist and consider the results.4 As I argue, for Bois, what happens to the viewer gets conflated with what the works means, and what the work thus “means”—the results of figure/ground patterns—is immune to failure. Here a set of putative facts about one’s response is granted the status of an interpretation. And what it means cannot be evaluated except insofar as it causes these literal effects.

Florman took up this point about “object intentionality,” and it bears consideration here. Here is Florman (from an email exchange):

It seems to me that Krauss and Bois are more or less ventriloquizing a position roughly analogous to the artist’s (or the work’s). I take that to be the case with Yve-Alain’s discussion of the oscillation between focus and movement in Matisse’s work. And I don’t personally see why I couldn’t argue with his claim. I think we have arguments of that sort all the time—me saying that, no, in fact my eye “naturally” comes to rest on this or that figure rather than being pulled off in multiple other directions. It’s clearly difficult to adjudicate such matters, but I think we do that too (each of us comparing our experience of the work with what someone else has articulated, and deciding whether or not it gibes with our own). Presumably part of what “evidence” we evince in these moments is how the compositional elements are arranged, which moves us back in the direction of what we might call “intent.”

What Florman describes here is basic to any (good) account of what an artwork means. And one could certainly attempt to adjudicate these kinds of experiences in light of how the work is put together. But how does this relate to Bois’s account? Think about the difference between saying the “pendulum at the core of our vision…is caused…to oscillate” and saying my eye comes to rest here and then there. (Recall that Alastair Wright wrote a book about Matisse largely centered on this issue of “retinal trouble.”) What’s the difference? Florman (and I) might try to get someone to see how a work is organized around sets of pictorial oppositions or formal configurations, this recognition just is what an intentional analysis looks like (or could look like); we are implicitly or explicitly saying these are the features the artist wanted us to recognize for their significance. Of course we could be wrong about those features as they may be insignificant or meaningless. Nothing about Florman’s description (or mine) suggests an account of bodily happenings or causal events. Coming to know what a work looks like is an ongoing process, one that could never be satisfied with a description of its actual, as opposed to intended, effects.

A more commonplace misunderstanding occurs when Florman accuses me of false dichotomies. Florman quotes me saying “if the work is seen as requiring the beholder’s response to give it meaning, then none of those responses can have any more purchase than another.” To which she says “This is typical of the slippery-slope argumentation from which the Introduction gains its momentum. The viewer has to be denied any role whatsoever, on the assumption that her ‘response’ is wholly extraneous to the work and therefore an imposition on its ‘inherent’ meaning.” Florman vehemently rejects any account that “insists on the work’s total independence from the viewer’s experience of it.” As do I. Florman is entirely correct to say that understanding a work of art involves a complicated dance of active and passive responsiveness, a dance that ideally takes place over long periods of time. But I also argue that the only responses that could matter are the ones that could have been intended by the artist (otherwise they are logically “mine”). I assent to Greenberg’s notion (following Goethe) that “Feeling is All,” or Michael Fried’s notion in “Art and Objecthood” that “the rightness or relevance of one’s conviction [about a work]…begins and ends in one’s experience of the work itself” (158-59) because they both assume that the experiences they are having are the ones they are supposed to have, not just theirs.

I address Florman’s point about response head on later in the book. Here it is:

The question at stake is not whether the beholder’s experience before the work counts, but rather how it counts. On one account, the beholder’s experience is taken as the source of meaning irrespective of the artist’s intention. On the other account, an experience is relevant only insofar as it is directed at, and by, the effort to understand or to feel what the artist wanted the beholder to feel (even if the artist had no way to articulate or know that intention in advance of creating the work or even after). As I have been arguing, if one chooses the latter option, one can disagree about the meaning of a work; if one chooses the former, difference is logically dissociated from disagreement. Of course most writing in the humanities tends to skirt the distinction.

I confess to being lost when Florman sees me trying to evade works or accounts that “seek to engage his audience through open-ended participation or where the viewer is actually attentive to the work.” It wholly depends on what one means by “open-ended” and “attentive.” I have made this point a few times recently in my discussion of Mallarmé’s vision of suggestion and participation.5

One of the names that frequently come up in discussions of my book is Michael Baxandall and his Patterns of Intention.6 A full address of the differences between Baxandall and myself on intention is impossible here. But consider how Florman laments my putatively artificial dichotomies and then proceeds to offer the following staging of the artistic encounter from response, to work, to artist. According to Florman we discover that “‘authorial intention’ is almost always Nachträglich.” From my perspective, no such parsing of experience occurs except in a lab. Bringing up Baxandall in this light begins to make more sense if we take him at his word that “your feeling about [a work of art] has quite the same status as mine.” He’s required to say that by the terms generated by his skepticism, just as he is required to say at the end of Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy that “The point… here… is not to interpret individual works, but to remind us of the eventual impalpability of the Quattrocento cognitive style….It is proper to end this chapter on a faltering note.” It is the consistency of Baxandall’s skepticism—the ultimate “impalpability” of Quattrocentro art for our eyes (the point about inaccessibility to our sensoria will be made about most of the art he considers)—that makes him something like required reading today but maybe not for the reasons Florman raises. But if Florman’s basic concern is that I’m committed to the idea that “our experience of a work is completely irrelevant to its meaning,” I can allay that fear and insist again that our experience matters if it is meant to matter.

Against Formalism

Florman raises in passing the problem of formalism, what she describes as “attention to the work,” and this account of attention, or surface analysis, that emerges with Oeler’s remarks. Unlike Florman, I can see at once where Brinkema and I diverge, and it’s at the moment Oeler observes the difference between my emphasis on intention and Brinkema’s on form. How could one “read,” much less “closely,” “textual form” without an appeal to intent? Here is where Brinkema and Florman cross paths. What is a text? Where is the form? What is a work? These seem obvious, or self-evident, but they’re not. As Derrida famously put it, there is nothing outside the text, because there’s nothing inside the text. Without a sense as to what might be relevant or irrelevant anything is up for inclusion in textual analysis (the paper’s weight, the font, a library stamp, the hollow of a sculpture, the back of a painting, a faded or damaged painting, the wall next to the work). Unless one has a principle of exclusion—what I would call, a sense of intent (which of course might be misguided or mistaken)—then there’s no principle of inclusion either. So I would not, or not fully, characterize what I am doing as providing “more attention to form and text, less to one’s own feelings.” No form, no work, without intent. Without presumption of intent we would have no working sense of what is in and out of the work, what matters what doesn’t. The object of regard is always the work and its form—the latter defined by the features intended by the artist (whatever they may be).

Oeler cites a fascinating example in her description of Brinkema’s account of the “tear-that-is-not-a-tear” in Psycho. What this moment in the film inaugurates for Brinkema is a “short history of teardrops in Western thought.” We might also see this as a formalist moment. Anything can trigger a regress into the history of anything because there’s no reason not to—unless of course the artist may not have meant it to be relevant (even if unconsciously). Everything in the world has a causal, historical, social history to it, but in a work of art, not all of it counts, that’s what’s at stake in calling something an artwork rather than an object. So I can’t quite see what “close” or “distant” reading might look like, other than self-defined terms of praise and distain. Close to what? The filmic details? Which ones? And why go close or far?

In other words, Brinkema’s formalism provides the conditions for her affect theory (even or especially if she rejects the latter). The only details that could matter—outside of an intentional context—are the ones that are hers. Brinkema would of course refuse this claim, but the challenge is to see how or why she could or would. What’s not part of the form, what’s unavailable for textual analysis? Is the chair one might be sitting in part of the work’s form? Why not? What about the popcorn on the floor of the theater?

Oeler comes to the crucial question when she asks “if intentionality, what the author meant, remains always…irrecoverable” then “how do we distinguish Brinkema’s compelling reading for affective meanings, or abrogations of meaning, realized in and through form, from intentional analysis.” A lot, maybe everything, hinges on the word “compelling” here. What makes it compelling as a reading of the work and not just Brinkema’s affects. This is the kind of question Florman raises about Bois. Florman wants to say “forget what Bois says against intent and focus on the result” (I’m paraphrasing), while Oeler wants to say the same for Brinkema’s results. The problem is that the results in both instances are logically incoherent, which necessarily modifies the nature of the result. They are incoherent because they are random (if you don’t think the tears, vomit, or Hanekean tableaux are intended, then why focus on them rather than anything else). Of course neither Bois nor Brinkema think they are random. Why? Because they are intentionalist, but in bad faith (which is precisely what Oeler suggests, but she not press the matter). The bad faith is the effort to avoid evaluation but still sound serious or disciplined or focused, to insist that we’re not simply reading affective expressions. What else is the appeal to catch-alls like text, object, sound, matter, materiality and form? The latter terms are the canonical ones of the humanities today and they are the ones designed to inoculate their users against criticism, evaluation, judgment, assent or dissent. They are the terms of the neoliberal academy.

Representational Politics

Although politics is not an explicit concern of Against Affective Formalism, I am grateful to Blake Stimson for drawing me out on the implicit politics of my argument, where there is a great deal of common ground between us. Stimson puts the matter clearly when he says that what really matters, even in art history, is an account most suited to understanding “the world we find ourselves in today.” I follow Brecht that serious art (or art history) “sets itself the goal of an exact picture of the world” and that the “purpose [of art or art history] is to create images informative of the world.” My minor dispute with Stimson lies with his description of the world we are in, and since our descriptions of reality modestly differ, so do our politics.

Stimson presents three modes or models of bourgeois artistic practice and finds flaws and possibilities in each. The first half of Stimson’s analysis rests on an analogy between Adam Smith’s vision of the conflicted subject and my account of Matisse and Bergson’s conflicted artistic and philosophical projects. According to Stimson, my history rests on what he construes as the fundamentally individuated—property driven—grounds of contractual exchange. By contrast, we’re told, effective politics requires a sense of something beyond this contract-based model, it requires assent to a “pre-given law” upon or around which exchange can and should occur and which points beyond the exchange economy itself. Despite all my disagreements with anti-intentionalists, Stimson sees my intentionalism and the anti-intentionalism to which I am opposed as beholden to a shared vision of the self, one predicated on self-possession or self-negation and on a denial of a “shared nature or mutually-derived law or principle.” As the last phrases make clear, Stimson is a foundationalist (this, strangely enough, is what he means by being “for the Enlightenment”).

Given that Stimson stakes much of his critique on the oscillation I describe at the core of Matisse’s and Bergson’s projects—which he describes as a vision that “oscillates endlessly between self-negating neoliberal merger and self-aggrandizing liberal autonomy”—it’s important to see how this misconstrues my aims. As I say (page 8 of the introduction), the “challenge of this book…is twofold: first, to show the contradictions and oscillations between two modes of presentation…and second, to show how these representational concerns also constituted a refusal of the terms of literalism and affect.” Stimson repeatedly describes my aim as an account of the oscillation between representation and affect, which misses the point about the internal dynamics of representation (between what I call, following Borch-Jacobsen, specularity and mimesis). It is Bergson’s and Matisse’s commitment to representation and problems internal to it that constitutes a critique of what Stimson describes as neoliberal dreams of merger (I call it a libertarian fantasy). And while I do argue that Bergson and Matisse were attracted by affective modes of thought and practice, it is far more helpful to see their efforts as directed against some of their own (weakest) impulses. This mistake leads Stimson to read one half of the representational dialectic, specularity, as definitive of Bergson’s and Matisse’s vision of “liberal autonomy.” To simplify matters, I would say that Stimson’s reduction of the representational problem to the specular pole—which has more than a little in common with an economics of speculation—renders Stimson’s critical analogy between Bergson and Matisse, on one hand, and Hobbes and Adam Smith, on the other, beside the point. The central term of my account of Matisse (chapter four) rests on the mimetic side of the polarity, it is the missing term for most accounts of modernism, but it is also the crucial one (for reasons I can’t fully elaborate here except to say that mimesis in Lacoue-Labarthe’s sense resists the terms of idealism on one side and literalism on the other).

Stimson asserts that I presume “a world in which isolated beings enter into exchange relations with one another” without recourse to any “higher, abstract level of being” and that it is only in light of this higher level of being that radical politics can emerge. Moreover, my putatively contractual picture of social relations lends itself to the ongoing and disastrous “hollowing out access to the [Enlightenment’s] ideals” that truly drove modern thought. It is certainly true that I do not make any appeal to higher authority than human agents (I explicitly take aim at doctrines of naturalists of every variety, including the current variant called affect theory), but it should also be clear that the agency described is never fully self-possessed. (What would that even look like?) My account of intentionality emerges within a situation where agents must continually make themselves known in a world where all the available modes of expression appear empty, routinized, habituated, merely conventional. I offer Emerson, Thoreau and Nietzsche (following Cavell here) as providing an account of modernism as fully “citational” and argue that citation is the necessary grounds upon which any “original” utterance can emerge. And in this sense I am fully committed the Enlightenment project of self-legislation initiated by Kant and elaborated (and problematized) by Hegel and Nietzsche and, much later, by Clement Greenberg with his account of modernism as self-critical (like Michael Fried I dispense with Greenberg’s medium-based essentialism).

What is being contested between Stimson and me, then are perhaps two competing Enlightenments. We would disagree, for instance, about what the great “universalist concepts like ‘sensus communis,’ ‘Geist,’ and ‘species being’” actually mean for Kant, Hegel and Marx. (They have little to do with the nexus of “nature and abstract social imagining” and a lot to do with active assent to the norms we produce.) Rather than tackling these giant terms I would reflect on what Kant calls the “touchstone of everything,” namely the Enlightenment: “the question whether a people could have imposed…a law on itself.” Kant describes this self-legislative act at length in the third critique, where he defines the quality of aesthetic judgment as an instance of a “subjective universal.” Subjective in the sense that it is grounded in one’s experience—one doesn’t appeal to anyone else’s taste in one’s judgment of the beautiful, there are no rules or laws to follow—and universal in the sense that it’s not an affective relation (“I like this”) but true (If this work of art is beautiful, it is for all of us). This is of course a highly complicated field which I won’t enter into further here except to say that what seems required by the Enlightenment position of giving the law to oneself requires 1) the rejection of “direction from another” rather than from oneself and that 2) this giving of the law to oneself requires constant assent and is open to revision, maybe even continual revision as assent wanes or proves unpersuasive. It is important to see that the “subjective universal” as it appears in the Third Critique is the model upon which shared social practices emerge, those shared practices we call norms. So is this giving the law to oneself, Bergson’s “self-possession,” equivalent to rendering agency and politics “ad hoc, anti-institutional, and threatened by isolation”? I don’t think so. Norms are binding, universal and true, even if their grounds are secured by ongoing subjective assent. A norm is not the same as a convention, or a contract, it is closer to what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “deep convention” (when speaking of the structure of mathematics) and Michael Fried describes as “primordial convention” (when writing of the conventions of beholding pictures). One does not choose to consent to a law that one gave oneself; rather one has to feel bound by it, as though it speaks most fully to who one is. If the law you gave yourself does not speak for you, then normative change might emerge. (These matters—both social and aesthetic—are discussed at length in Robert Pippin’s recent book After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism.) Finally, I would add that the contractual picture Stimson is rightly unsatisfied with is utterly identified for me with the Vorstellung side of the representational dialectic I consider. Why? Because this high-order representational awareness implies that the subject stands apart from the decisions that they make and evaluates them from a distance (this the weakness of externalism built into the contractual paradigm).

Art v. Nature, Interpretation v. Aesthetics, Again

I’m immensely grateful to Clune for his sensitive and thorough reading of my book and for pressing me to clarify some key issues. It should be clear that I don’t see the viewer as someone oriented toward the artist’s intention “rather than” their own experience. It’s difficult to parse the kinds of experience one has in front of a work, but I take experience as primary, but not sufficient onto itself. A simple example, but an utterly common one, is the physical condition of a painting. It may have deteriorated, or altered, be hung poorly, lit poorly, or have a frame that seems unsuited to it. These are primary aspects of one’s experience, several of them are “in” in the work, but with proper knowledge could and should be edited out—or zoned out—of one’s experience to the best of one’s ability (I gather this is all done quite naturally, as is the case with intentional analysis more generally).

Of course Clune’s basic contention lies elsewhere. It is here: What’s the ultimate difference between the experience of an artwork and an “experience” in the world. Doesn’t the world offer itself to intentional analysis in the way a Matisse painting does? He puts it this way: “Does our experience of the world lack form?” My simple answer would be yes. Clune compares two (far from counterfactual) “experiences,” one sitting in a room waiting for a call, one a walk outside where the sun bursts through an overcast sky. For Clune, it seems clear that “certain of our experiences just seem to us to have” “immanent form” (not imposed or projected onto them). In that form there is “no trouble saying” that some aspects of our experience are more central than others. I can’t quite see what’s at stake or could be at stake in saying that certain qualities are more or less central to the experience or how that experience differs from an affect. How could we even begin to discuss whether the landscape experience is imposed by the experiencing subject or immanent in the land and sky? On what grounds? How could that experience fail for anyone beyond oneself? Could I persuasively tell you that your experience was incorrect? If I identify some marks on a canvas as more central than others I’m just saying that the artist meant for these to count in more salient ways than others. That assertion could be wrong. Unless I’m a pantheist—a serious position no doubt, but not quite the one Clune seems to be arguing—I couldn’t persuasively say that you should be noticing your itching nose or not, or noticing anything in particular. Unless the Creator is the agent, I can’t sensibly agree or disagree with your sense of relevant form.

Clune is probably right (to a degree) about Immanuel Kant. Michael Fried and Walter Benn Michaels have cogently considered these problems in their most recent work. See, for instance, the fascinating discussion in Fried’s Another Light where he responds to Michaels’s account of Fried and to what Michaels calls “Neoliberal Aesthetics” (pages 272 to 274 of Another Light: Jacques-Louis David to Thomas Demand). Fried and Michaels have shown how there are ways in which Kant and John Cage can join hands in their vision of the perceiver’s share in the production of a work of art, but also how this doesn’t quite or fully matter to the larger question of antitheatricality (the latter is Fried’s point). Kant describes what used to be called the “aesthetic attitude” and it could hold for the viewer as well as the (postmodern) artist. I would say Kant goes awry when it comes to the Third Moment of the Analytic of Judgement of the Beautiful where he reflects on the question of purposiveness or Zweckmäßigkeit in aesthetic judgement. According to Kant, judgments about the beautiful involve a paradoxical mode of ascriptive quasi-intentionality toward the object (“as if”), an attitude he describes as a sense of “merely formal purposiveness” or the “form of purposiveness” without a specific end. This kind of claim works well for a landscape and not at all for a work of art. Why? Because works of art don’t just bear the “form” of purpose, they don’t come to us “as if” bearing purposes—they actually have them (even if it is not the one that Kant rightly rejected); that is, they are intended. We speculatively impute intentions to them, but the psychological activity of ascribing that goes on aims at a real historical thing—the author or authors’ intentions. It is not merely a feature of our experience like that ‘as if’ Zweckmäßigkeit of Kant.

Clune is brilliantly sensitive to these issues in Kant and he clearly grasps the difference and the significance of the difference between an affect and an intent (the difference, in Clune’s examples, between the love of an oak and the beauty of the field with the oak—they overlap but are distinguishable). But I can’t see how the friend’s failure to respond to the beauty of a place amounts to a “disagreement” about it. Take Clune’s naturalization of the pantheistic position, “Nothing is more natural than to approach the natural world as an intentionalist.” In a sense this is orthodox Kantianism and I don’t have any trouble with it except insofar as it has anything (important) to say about artworks. I can’t cogently disagree with a dog about their barking at the wind tapping a window. In fact, Clune’s description of it shows that he’s not taking the pantheist position that seriously (it’s the wind—not an intending agent—which the dog appears to not wholly take into account).

Clune observes the difference in attitude between viewers of art and viewers of a crime scene (the detective or the attorney), but seems to separate them too cleanly. As he notes about artworks “form is predicated on a kind of intentional stance [but that] doesn’t mean that we are really interested in intention.” He’s right to say I’m not interested in traditional notions of what one calls an intent (biography, artist statements, letters, documents, etc., that amount to avowals of intention) but I see no way, and even less desire, to distinguish between artistic form and intent in one’s experience. I’m deeply moved by Matisse’s sense of what it is to be a person (Matisse was fixated on the notion of personnalité, it is the core term of his aesthetic). In the briefest summary, Matisse feels and projects what it’s like to be a seeing being (oriented around surfaces presented to the eye) and an embodied being (oriented around senses of touch, weight, velocity, a sense of continuity between oneself and the world). Nothing about the duality—what I might call a phenomenological duality for short—traditionally falls under what Clune rightly worries is reductively “semantic or symbolic meaning.” (I nonetheless agree with Clune that this might feel like the weak spot of the Knapp/Michaels argument, but it’s more of a perceived problem than a real one.)

What is ultimately at stake in an intentional analysis? Does it matter that the meaning I see or feel in the work “actually existed in Matisse’s mind” or not, if my analysis is convincing (as Clune graciously offers) without making that kind of leap (or identification) of work with creating mind. And if the question of “actual existence” is bracketed, then we really are in a Kantian universe where “as if” is what truly matters. But that’s a little like forcing yourself to experience the world like the dog barking at the window. It takes no effort to convince myself that the field seen through oaks was ordered “as if” it were intended (the feeling might also pass quicker than the wind on the window); it takes enormous force of will to tell myself that the Matisse painting hanging in MoMA was anything but intended (the skeptical reserve about other minds seems to fail it on some crucial level).

1. I further consider these issues in my discussion with Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe in Bomb Magazine (Spring 2015).
2. This description is not meant to reflect on my respondents, it simply lays out the picture as I see it. This is not the place to go into the question of exploitation versus domination as the two counter models of capitalism. On the political stakes of this distinction, see “The Theater of Censored Poverty” and “The Political Ontology of Unemployment: How No One Need Apply,” both in nonsite.org.
3. I’m confused how Cooper sees what I’m saying as seeking a “guide to right action,” unless he thinks intentionality is a guide. In a certain sense it is—my toothache is not part of the picture’s meaning—but it’s not as if intent tells us anything about how to get at an intent. Remember that one of my most basic efforts is to dismantle humanistic methods which almost by definition refuse the terms of disagreement. (That’s the point about Bois’s “surefire.”)
4. Consider Pamela Lee’s ur-classic October account of Bridget Riley, one that explicitly follows Bois’s lead: “In what lies Current’s retinal appeal? To what extent do we not so much see it, but feel it, experience the picture less as an abstraction than as a woozy sense of gravity visited on the body? Stand a little longer, look a little harder, and then what happens? In time, the surface begins to flicker, like a stroboscope; or wave, like a lenticular screen. Look longer still, and surprising colors—psychedelic phantoms—emanate from between the lines. Spangles of gold, pink, and green burst and flash, lining the eyelids, rattling the skull. The eye is enervated while the body feels something else: nausea, perhaps, or even a blinding headache.” Pamela M. Lee, “Bridget Riley’s Eye/Body Problem,” October 98 (Autumn 2001): 26.
5. See, for instance, a short piece of mine on participatory art, “Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships in art.” Here I take up (in passing) a key work in the history of participatory aesthetics: Umberto Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work.” Eco looks back, along with Roland Barthes and Duchamp, to the moment of Mallarmé as the “first occasion when a conscious poetics of the open work appears.” The “search for suggestiveness,” Eco writes, “is a deliberate move to ‘open’ the work to the free response of the addressee.” So how free is it? As Eco makes clear, this is “not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.” Far from it. “The author,” he writes, “does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own.” For Eco, every response “always remains the world intended by the author.” Mallarmé’s “suggestions,” Eco concludes, “are intentional, [they are] provoked…always within the limits fixed by the author.” The “audience’s capacity for response” has been “directed and controlled by the author.”

Carol Armstrong responded to my notion of intentionality in this way. What Armstrong says here is important because it raises some basic and well-hewn objections to intentionality (I strongly argue in the book that these are pseudo-objections). Here is Armstrong (from an email exchange): “We have no access to what went on inside the mind of the maker of a work, even if s/he a left us a letter saying, ‘This is what I intended.’ All we can do is interpret the work and any other documents we have about it, just the way we have to interpret what others say to us. Of course we can be wrong; we can be wrong about lots of things. But whose interpretation is the ‘right’ one can only be judged by which one we find the most compelling on the evidence, visual and otherwise, and that’s always going to be open to disagreement.” All of the above is correct, even if “access” to a mind is never at issue (do we need access to someone’s mind to understand what they are saying? There is a difference between understanding and mind-meld). But Armstrong continues: “I guess the account of intentionalism that I’ve seen that I like the best is Michael Baxandall’s in Patterns of Intention. And so I think intentions unfold in process, in relation to other people, and in relation to a variety of contingencies. For me, works that have been all thought out in advance of being made seem the least likely to be interesting in their intentionalism.” This is fine too, except 1) an intent thought out in advance, like access to a mind, have nothing to do with intent as I see it (these are the “classical” objections); and 2) it’s not what Baxandall argues. The “process” Baxandall is talking about emerges in the object. Intention, Baxandall writes, is a “relation between the object and its circumstances” (42) and it constitutively escapes the artist’s intention and becomes a part of the visual culture. The result of Baxandall’s process-based account of intent is to free the work from the artist and, above all, the critic’s desire to enter fully into the artist’s world.

About the Authors

Harry Cooper is curator and head of modern art at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Since joining the Gallery in February 2008, he has organized The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works and initiated a series of focus exhibitions in the Tower Gallery of the East Building on such artists as Philip Guston, Mark Rothko, and Nam June Paik. Before joining the Gallery in February 2008, Cooper served for ten years as the curator of modern art at the Harvard University Art Museums. There he organized a dozen exhibitions, including Frank Stella 1958 (2006), Medardo Rosso: Second Impressions (2003), and Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings (2001). Cooper lectured in Harvard's art history department on a wide variety of topics, from Paul Cézanne to abstract expressionism. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and Columbia University, New York,

Lisa Florman is Professor of Twentieth-Century Art and Chair of the History of Art Department at Ohio State University. Her recent book, Concerning the Spiritual—and the Concrete—in Kandinsky’s Art (Stanford University Press, 2014), argues for the fundamentally Hegelian (and Kojèvian) context for Kandinsky’s art and writings. Other publications include Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classicizing Prints of the 1930s (MIT Press, 2000), as well as essays on Clement Greenberg’s “Collage” and Leo Stenberg’s “The Philosophical Brothel.” Florman is currently serving as the twentieth-century field editor for books and conferences for caa.reviews.

Karla Oeler is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and a Core Faculty member of the Department of Comparative Literature at Emory University. She is the author of A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form (University of Chicago Press, 2009). She is currently writing a book called The Surface of Things: Cinema and Interiority.

Blake Stimson has written for Art Journal, Art Bulletin, Artforum, October, Texte zur Kunst, Oxford Art Journal, Third Text, New Left Review, Tate Papers, Études photographiques, Philosophy and Photography, and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, among others and his work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Serbian, Chinese and Korean. He is the author The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation and Citizen Warhol and co-editor of five volumes that focus on various junctures of art and political subjectivity. He is currently working on two books: one to be titled Guilt as Form that argues for a counter-genealogy of contemporary art arising from the turmoil of 1968, and another, Photography and God that focuses on the lost political aesthetic of photographer Paul Strand.

Michael W. Clune's most recent critical book is Writing Against Time (Stanford U P, 2013); his most recent creative work is Gamelife (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). He is a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University.

Todd Cronan is Associate Professor of art history at Emory University. He is the author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2014) and articles on photographic "previsualization," Brecht, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty, Santayana, Simmel, Valéry and Richard Neutra. He is currently at work on a study (with Judith Sheine) of R. M. Schindler and Richard Neutra; a book on Rodchenko/Eisenstein/Brecht; and a study of the mid-century modernisms of Moholy-Nagy, Neutra, Charles & Ray Eames, Garrett Eckbo, and Julius Shulman.

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences. 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668.

nonsite.org is an online, open access, peer-reviewed quarterly journal of scholarship in the arts and humanities.
nonsite.org is affiliated with Emory College of Arts and Sciences.
© 2019 all rights reserved. ISSN 2164-1668