In excavating the optische Schichten in which artworks—that is, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and so on—are constituted…post-formalist art history calls for histories of the aesthetic orders and structures (as it were the “art”) of human vision, of imaging and envisioning, that is, of its active imaginative force whether or not any actual historical artwork was (or is) in vision or in view. The optical appearance of visual artworks—the supposed object of Wöfflinian formalism—is becoming less important analytically than the configuring force of imaging, regardless of what is imaged.
The combination of flatness, enframing, and the implied interchangeability of consumer goods that we see in Warhol’s Soup Cans is both characteristic and telling. In front of such works, I can only think of what the philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as the “standing reserve.” Insofar as our present sense of reality is shaped by the technological age in which we live, we increasingly treat all entities, Heidegger claimed, as intrinsically meaningless “resources,” a “reserve” standing by merely to be optimized and ordered for maximally flexible use.
In the case of Ballet mécanique, however, it is no longer a question of competing with or dominating spectacular vision from within painting. Opting for a different strategy, Léger works against cinematic absorption and the pseudo-intensity of cinema from within cinema itself.
There is a deep schism within Pollock criticism. Taking Pollock’s marks to index the artist’s activity elevates the causes of his paintings over their meanings, with the consequence that his works of art are reduced to intentionless surfaces that just register his “traces.” That position implicitly requires us to reject the status of a painting as a medium of expression, and treat it instead as an occasion for a viewer’s experience. But Pollock’s project–one that finds its most rigorous articulation in formalist accounts of his art–is based on demarcating the actual from the representational, the literal surface from pictorial meaning.
It is, typically, an aesthetic intuition. Aesthetic intuitions are first of all intuitions, in the everyday sense of hunch, in the psychological sense of an act of perception, and in the philosophical sense of an act of the imagination. What characterizes them not just as intuitions but as aesthetic is that they share with aesthetic experience their subjective, affective, non-conceptual nature, and with aesthetic judgments their reflexivity and their claim to universal validity, most often expressed as a claim to reflect factual truth.
All fluorescent bulbs will eventually go out; only Flavin’s intentions can make some of them also be about the fact that they will eventually go out. All of us may think of the ephemeral when we look at a fluorescent bulb flickering; only the belief that this (or something else) is what Flavin meant us to think turns our responses into interpretations.
Meaning, no less than intention, matters. But to the extent it isn’t all or above all what interpretation, indeed appreciation, of an artwork aims at, or is in any event of a different, less linguistic order than those in search of it tend to suppose, then, their intentions notwithstanding, in a relevant sense both intentionalism and the do-or-die debate about it might not be all that any more than where it’s at.
In these terms, the account of the making of this photograph is a description of the more or less necessary historical conditions from which it (and many others) arose. These conditions did not determine the image, rather they made the image possible, and they made it possible in terms very different from those that made other artifacts possible. Every artifact has arisen and arises from such a concrete set of possibilities, and all of these sets of possibilities have their own histories.
In other words, following some difficult sentences on contingency, the play drive will “introduce form into matter and reality into form. To the extent that it deprives feelings and passions of their dynamic power, it will bring them into harmony with the ideas of reason; and to the extent that it deprives the laws of reason of their moral compulsion, it will reconcile them with the interests of the senses.”