Reviewed by Chris Danta
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Sometimes after looking at a pebble, an animal, a painting, I feel I have entered it.
Gustave Flaubert, in a letter to Louise Colet
Disclosing Spaces: On Painting is a work as much concerned with the nature of criticism as with the nature of painting. The ambiguity of the title, by which “disclosing” acts as both adjective and verb, allows the activities of criticism and painting to intermingle at the deepest level and immediately doubles the focal point. On the one hand, paintings are (in a somewhat Heideggerian formulation) “disclosing spaces”. On the other hand, (and now with a nod to Walter Benjamin): “Art work realises itself within criticism; within, that is, writing on painting” (p. 11). From the outset, Disclosing Spaces prohibits its reader from privileging painting over criticism or vice versa. Rather than settling the matter in favour of one or other activity, the academic colon dividing up the title acts more like the threshold of a painting. It invites the viewer to pass through to the hither side in order to grasp what the (art) work offers, only then to betray the painterly illusion and prohibit passage to a single vanishing point.
The difficulty of Disclosing Spaces does not derive principally from its dense and unremitting style of presentation but rather from the difficulty of its central proposition: the equi-primordiality of criticism and painting. Thinking of criticism as no longer secondary or exterior to the work of art constitutes a central topos of 20th Century thought (not only critical but also creative). French author and literary critic Maurice Blanchot expresses the problem with great economy in his 1963 essay, “What is the Purpose of Criticism?”: “Criticism is no longer an external judgement placing the literary work in a position of value and bestowing its opinion, after the fact, on this value. It has come to be inseparable from the internal working of the text, belonging to the movement when it becomes what it is. Criticism is the search for and experience of this possibility”.1 Andrew Benjamin prefers to cite German critic Walter Benjamin from an essay on the concept of criticism in German Romanticism:”… criticisibility [ Kritisierbarkeit ] is an essential moment in the work of art” (p. 84)? If, as Goethe once wrote,” Beauty can never become lucid about itself”, then the purpose of criticism is to disclose – in the active sense of “search for” and “experience”– the conditions of the work’s criticisibility.
To assert that criticism “belongs to the movement when art becomes what it is” or that “criticisibility is an essential moment in the work of art” is surely to set it an anachronistic task. Such thinking – like Jean-François Lyotard’s well-known assertion in The Postmodern Condition that “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern”2 – violates the everyday assumption that the work precedes and remains autonomous in relation to the act of criticism. However, to the extent that art is addressed not to a definite state of affairs but to what might happen (to the future, to possibility, to what Benjamin calls “the aleatory”), then the role of criticism is not merely to describe art in terms of a definite state of affairs but rather to account for the sense of possibility it harbours at a formal level. Moreover, if the work of art does not belong to a single time or to time understood as a singular (i.e., linear) passage, then, as Benjamin rightly notes, its presence as art allows for radical decontextualisation, for interruption. Paintings are never reducible to what they depict; and, as Benjamin illustrates in Chapter 2 in an elegant discussion of two of the late history paintings of Jacques-Louis David, to view them merely as historical documents is to privilege what remains extrinsic to their being as art.
For Benjamin, then, the being of art comes to depend upon its capacity to exceed the temporal context in which it first appears. The modern, he argues, is characterised by the severance of style and appearance. Art emerges in its differentiation from the immediate, that is, as it distances itself from all instantaneous forms of comprehension. Art is not art, then, without the possibility of an after-life – and the role of criticism is to preserve this after-life in its continual and aleatory unfolding. In this sense, the project of Disclosing Spaces is to rethink the artwork as it “implies a fundamentally different conception of time” (p. 120). As Benjamin notes, “both a linear conception of time and the temporality of eternal values are positioned against a temporal structure that allows for interruptions and therefore can occasion the productive reworking of the contents of history” (p. 120). These historicist and classical conceptions of time are positioned, that is, against the temporal structure of the work of art.
Despite Benjamin referring heavily to Kant (The Critique of Judgement ) and to Hegel (the Aesthetics ), it is perhaps ultimately an Aristotelian position that is being reworked here. In Chapter 9 of the Poetics, Aristotle distinguishes the poet from the historian: “The difference is that the one tells of what has happened, the other of the kinds of things that might happen”[ 1451b ].3 InDisclosing Spaces, Benjamin wants to think art history in Aristotle’s sense of the poetic. That is, he wants to rework the contents of history – in this case, particular works of art – on the basis of the sense of conceptual possibility they harbour. To encapsulate this rethinking of history, he introduces the notion of the “after-effect”. According to the logic of the “after-effect”, what comes after releases the potential – the “might happen”– in what comes before. Thus, as Benjamin illustrates in Chapter 4, photography is the ‘negative’ of painting not in the sense that it negates or supersedes painting but in the sense that it allows painting to ‘develop’ a better idea of itself. This is in part because photography remains determined by its own being as art – and is no more the immediate depiction of some exterior than painting is. More generally, it is because history sustains complex relations whose determining temporalities are otherwise than teleological or monolithic. The fact that works of art are not immediately comprehensible – far from indicating a sense of lack or failure on the part of the works – is a productive feature. New technical practices such as photography – so long as they are not taken as ends in themselves – form the basis for conceptual renovation, become techniques of thought. What in turn enables this renovation to take place is the imperative to de-literalise or poeticise history. And what sustains this imperative, by disclosing the “might happen” in works of art, is criticism.
Benjamin seeks to develop a philosophy of art by allowing paintings themselves to make demands – and propelling his short study are some highly original analyses of paintings by painters as different as Jacques-Louis David, Paul Cézanne, Edward Hopper and Gerhard Richter. Yet, the real beauty of Benjamin’s work lies not in the vibrancy of its analyses but rather in its philosophy of affirmativeness and inclusiveness. Like its immediate predecessor, Philosophy’s Literature (2001), Disclosing Spaces accords criticism the highest value and the most arduous task – that of thinking the “after-effect”, of converting the contents of art history into the possibility of conceptual renovation. To return once more to the words of Maurice Blanchot, this is “the task of preserving and liberating thought from the notion of value, consequently also of opening history up to what all these forms of value have already released into it and to what is taking shape as an entirely different – still unforeseeable – affirmation”. 4
Disclosing Spaces: On Painting by Andrew Benjamin (ISBN: 1-903083-28-1) was published by Clinamen Press in 2004.
Chris Danta completed his PhD, The Trial of Time: Figuring Abraham in Kierkegaard, Kafka and Blanchot, at the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, Monash University in 2004. He has published on the work of Maurice Blanchot and currently teaches in the English Department at the University of New South Wales.