Chromatic Wars On Gabriëlla Cleuren’s Desastres de la Guerra , Gabriella Cleuren, 2006

Chromatic Wars On Gabriëlla Cleuren’s Desastres de la Guerra

Gabriella Cleuren


Chromatic Wars On Gabriëlla Cleuren’s Desastres de la Guerra

Bart Vandenabeele (Ghent University)

‘Save the phenomena’, Plato

A painting may heighten your awareness of the world or engender imaginative reflection on the nature of the world and your own place in it. It may provoke pleasure, enthusiasm, rage, indignation, or even bliss. Many – if not most – people will associate these effects with artistic examples from the past: the experience of the mysterious sunlight on the columns in the Pantheon in Rome, the subtle tenderness of the Holy Mother in Rogier van der Weyden’s Virgin and Child, the poise of Bellini’s infant Jesus lifting his little hands to bless the worshippers before the altar in the Madonna and Saints painting in the church of San Zacarria in Venice, the exquisite harmony of colours in Vermeer’s View on Delft, the radiance of the glances in a Conrad von Soest painting. For many people it is hard to see how similar qualities can be found in the art of our days. As Sir Nicolas Serota, director of the Tate Modern in London acutely observed in his Richard Dimbleby lecture (2000): one common (but all too easy) line of defence of the art of our time may be paraphrased as ‘it may look strange, but you will soon get used to it’.

Aesthetic Vision and the Foundations of the Visible

In the light of reactions and problems like these we cannot vindicate contemporary aesthetic theories that seek for an answer to the question ‘Is there a foundation of the visible?’ but do not provide a satisfactory explanation of the disbelief and even disgust so many contemporary works of art – think of Jackson Pollock, or more recently, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin – seem to provoke. We need an account that breaks the habit of both considering the visible as empty or as ‘filled with signification’. We need to develop an account that does not declare the visible to be void, but which considers privation and lack at the core of the visible, and the image inhabited by a lack, an incompleteness that is somehow symptomatically and materially present: not really invisible but not really to be seen as such (i.e. without some dialectic relationship with form and figure) either.
For many people, abstraction is often the main problem. When an artist really abandons naturalistic time-space and visible appearance altogether, as in Lucio Fontana’s delightful Concetti Spaziali or in Pollock’s or Rothko’s abstract expressionist paintings, many people feel left behind. Nicholas Serato tells us of a four year old child who said of the Rothko room in the Tate the paintings made her think of God. I’m afraid the little child is wrong. Abstraction does not turn away from the visible, but turns its back precisely on ‘the religion of signification’. Abstract art accomplishes a detachment of image and signification. People that deplore what they believe to be an atrophy of the senses in our contemporary world and in modern art really deplore something far more fundamental: under the heading of an atrophy of the senses, the loss of Sense (with capital S), of direction and meaning is mourned. In modern art, it is the work of art itself in its palpable materiality that is central and not its signification or its reference to something outside itself, let alone to an author, creator or God. To consider that what one sees always signifies something else that cannot be seen is the essence of Christian neo-Platonic aesthetics. It is not immaterial that, as Eco writes, ‘a constantly recurring theme in medieval times was the beauty of being in general.’ (Eco 2002: 17) The reason for this is obviously that God had created the world, and God’s creation was made according to number, weight, and measure. Concepts that are not merely aesthetic, but also cosmological and considered as expressions of the metaphysical Bonum, the Good. This is already clear from the Book of Genesis, where we read: ‘God saw all that he had made, and found it very good.’ The medieval view of Beauty as a transcendental is Platonic in origin: the world is an image and reflection of Ideal Beauty which cannot be grasped by human eyes. Mixed with Classical Greek and Roman pancalism, it lead to the confident description of the universe as ‘an inexhaustible irradiation of beauty … a dazzling cascade of splendours’ (Eco 2002, 18). So what is beautiful originates from or is a splendorous emanation of the Supersensible and Superessential Beauty. It is interesting to see how this neo-Platonic view on Beauty was merged with a renewed interest in the nature of aesthetic perception: ordinary perception was degraded and Thomas Aquinas and other medieval philosophers argued for an aesthetic visio, not so much of way of seeing objects but rather a kind of knowledge. It had nothing to do with sensuous responses to stimuli, nor with the ecstasies of mystical rapture, but refers to an intellectual and disinterested type of cognition. As Thomas writes in his Summa Theologica, the desire to consume or appropriate an object is quietened. Aesthetic knowledge or visio does not mean possessing its object but observing its integrity, its proportions, and its clarity. Beauty was intimately entwined with light: the radiance of Being refers to the
supersensible Beauty of God, and ‘the image of God as light had an ancient pedigree: from the Baal of Semitic Paganism, from the Egyptian Ra, from the Persian Mazda (…) to the Platonic “Sun” of the Ideal, the Good. This image passed on to neo-Platonism, Proclus in particular, and entered the Christian tradition through Augustine, and then through the Pseudo-Dionysius who constantly praised God as lumen, fire, or the fount of light.’ (Eco 2002: 47) Echoes of this medieval cognitive view on aesthetic experience will be found much later in many 19th and 20th century philosophers, not least in Schopenhauer’s account of aesthetic contemplation as ‘pure, will-less, painless knowledge of Platonic Ideas’. In Schopenhauer’s account, aesthetic intuition is cut off from desire: it is connected with an affective awareness of one’s own release from willing, i.e., from desiring. We become the ‘clear mirror of the object’ and our ordinary interested categories of perception are suspended: we gain insight into the essence of the object and of our own state of pure will-less subjectivity – which is, significantly enough, in Schopenhauer’s view, the most ‘objective’ state one can attain. Objective, since the knowledge gained from aesthetic contemplation is no longer influenced by subjective interests and preferences or disturbed by abstract concepts; we lose ourselves in the object, in the universal Idea that the object represents; we free ourselves from the hold that will has upon us in all other modes of perception and obtain the ‘blessedness of will-less intuition’. Even the aesthetics of light pervades the work of this dark and gloomy philosopher: although God is of course completely absent from his account, he calls light the most beautiful element on earth and rightly argues that sunlight can add to the beauty of architecture. The idea of beauty being connected with light, colour and especially Schopenhauer’s idea that beauty is a peculiar way of cognizing things and really offers objective knowledge of the world definitely relies on this Christian tradition, especially on the Thomistic view that aesthetic perception is some kind of disinterested knowledge. Yet there is an important difference too: whereas Thomas Aquinas argues that aesthetic visio is some kind of abstraction that prepares for conceptual determination of an object, and hence leads to knowledge of the object’s species and properties, Schopenhauer will defend some sort of peculiar use of our cognitive capacities, a kind of aesthetic intuition in and through the sensible which is prior to abstraction.

Matter ‘before’ Form

In any case, Gabriëlla Cleuren’s art has shown a completely opposite path, and also asks for a different account of the aesthetic experience. Modern art, at least since Marcel Duchamp, but perhaps also already since Goya (by whose etchings Cleuren’s work is clearly inspired), has
become the art of the letter and not of the spirit. It shows that there is nothing behind the surface – and this evidently lets the surface as surface disappear. Art does not turn us away from reality, it takes us to the heart of the real, and this is here clearly the realm of terror, which, of course, refers to Goya’s famous etchings on the disasters of the Napoleonic wars. A painting by Gabriëlla Cleuren does and does not take us to another world: it does not take us to a Platonic heaven where Beauty rules amongst the Truth and the Good, nor to some utopian human community or heaven, nor to God, Jehovah or Allah. Her art is not so much concerned with what happens to the subject as with lack and privation, with activity, praxis, event, terror, and also, as I will argue, with trying to save the surface from its superficiality. Revaluing art implies revaluing the surface. This is the sense in which Cleuren’s art still belongs to an aesthetics of the sublime. What may this mean? Cleuren’s art works (and perhaps this is true of all good art works) are wars of colour, chromatic wars. Think of Yves Klein’s, Giorgio Morandi’s or Robert Ryman’s compositions, for instance: they offer no narrative, only a pure sensation of material, colour, form, texture and time-space. Think of Anish Kapoor’s sculptures: works in which to lose contact with daily incident and to be pulled inwards into a deep void, to be submerged in colour or in matter. To be able to paint and to be able to experience an art work, to be able to be touched by its material presence, we have to stop watching as it were: the belief we have in our own eyes has to be suspended, we have to become ‘blind’. Cleuren too makes colour emerge from this night of blindness, and instantly transforms it into something fragile and perishable, as is so tangibly clear in her sublime Bedelkind in welvaartsstaat (1999) and Verminkt (1999) of the Desasters de la Guerra series. Here, colour testifies to this precariousness, while at the same time testifying to its escape from darkness or nothingness. Cézanne said that a painter must look beyond a landscape to its chaos: he spoke of the need to always paint at close range, to no longer see the wheat field, to be too close to it, to lose oneself in the landscape, without landmarks, to the point where one no longer sees forms … but only forces, densities, intensities. That is the world ‘before’ humanity, the virginity of the world. It is this world, this chromatic presence, which is revealed by Cleuren’s subtle work: reacting to the horror and misery of senseless wars (as e.g. in Tchechenia; cf. the intriguing, and politically motivated, Tsjetchenië: Waar blijven de protesten?) Then, afterwards, as it were, the world can emerge in the act of painting. Colour is transformed and embedded in computer print and our experience of it is transfigured: colour stops being a mere quality which belongs to an object and through which we can recognise and name it. Mass media techniques are here being folded in order to create
new, unseen percepts, figures and affects. Like the timbre of musical instruments, it challenges, and even undoes any deduction (cf. Kapotgeschoten, 2000 and Vluchtelingen, 1999). In Kantian terms, Gabriëlla Cleuren marks the point where one goes from the synthesis of perception (apprehension, reproduction, recognition) to aesthetic comprehension (rhythm) and to the catastrophe (chaos), and back again. Her paintings are not monuments, do not recollect or merely ‘comprehend’ what we may have overlooked or forgotten. Her paintings open up a new chromatic world in which we may dwell and through which we are being shocked and transformed: once you have had a sublime encounter with a Cleuren painting, you will never be the same person anymore. Cleuren’s paintings are not just painted objects, but what Lyotard calls colouring events (événements colorants). This is not mystical: ‘far from being mystical, it is, rather, material. It gives rise to an aesthetics ‘before’ forms.’ (Lyotard, 1991: 150; italics added) An aesthetics of bodily intensities and of material presence which is imponderable. This is the same kind of aesthetic we need to be able to feel and appreciate the force of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Cézanne’s landscapes and Francis Bacon’s figures. Instead of liberating us, as Schopenhauer seemed to think, or exalting us or offering us a mirror of the world, as Hegel thought, Cleuren’s art rather disturbs our way of life, of looking, acting, feeling, and sensing. Experiencing her art is not often very easy: an art work disturbs our ordinary way of life and transforms it into something unrecognisable, something uncanny. We no longer feel at home when we see a Gabriëlla Cleuren (or a René Magritte or a Francis Bacon) painting: the ‘grammar of trust’ that helps us to survive in this often complicated and hard life is unrecognisable, the environment is unreliable and the people have become unpredictable and strange. How do Cleuren’s art works succeed in this? The key to this problem is: by decomposing and recomposing, through decontextualisation and recontextualisation, i.e., by destroying the clichés that haunt out ordinary perceptual fields (especially through the mass media). The development (not: progress) of the arts is dominated by ever new perspectives, continually different alienations, compositions and recontextualisations. (For instance, the decomposition and recomposition of movement in Cubism or in Gerhard Richter’s work.) To be able to ‘sense’ those recontextualisations and experiments and to cope with them, a good knowledge of the history of the arts is indispensable. This is necessary to be able to acknowledge all the disturbances, breaks, interpellations and ruptures that Cleuren’s art works engender. Art as such does not exist anymore today. Nobody will deny that the arts – plural – are characterised by an immense proliferation of styles, genres, art forms, and so on. To acknowledge this has often been confused with some or other (postmodern) relativism. This
does not have to be the case, though. That there is no context free, universal idea of art does not imply at all that art is without value or that it is useless. This does not have to lead to the quite popular idea that good works of art should allow for an infinite number of interpretations either. More important however, is the question whether it is right to measure the value of the arts according to what value or meaning they have to human beings. In a certain sense, it is impossible to underestimate the fact that the arts – just as religion, science, and philosophy for example – participates in human life practices and that works of art are themselves such life practices too. Yet this does not imply at all – whatever humanism may want to teach ‘us’ – that the arts borrow their values or meanings from the human being. Neither does it imply that humanity is the origin and the end, archè and telos, of the arts. If we determine the sense of the arts in relation to the degree in which human beings may benefit from them, the discourse on the value and significance of the arts is reduced to an economic discourse about supply and demand, profit and loss, offer and competition. Then art stops being art and the art work becomes an art product determined by the laws of the market and commerce. It may be naïve to think that the arts can completely escape these laws: this has obviously never been the case and perhaps is not even necessary either. But this does not mean that the way we speak about art has to convert to this economic terminology, at least if we still want to talk about art works instead of about art products. This awareness clearly but subtly pervades Cleuren’s work: the chromatic violence and shady figures in Kan de mens ooit anders? or the ‘ordered chaos’ of her Ook dat is mensheid: a touching reminder of the flaws not just of human beings but also, more importantly, of the ideal of humanity as such. In this sense it rightly criticizes a humanist aesthetics that does not dare to question the value of the human. Instead Cleuren’s work offers a (melancholic) aesthetics of affirmation, reminding us of Samuel Beckett’s: ‘we have to continue, we cannot continue, we have to continue’. This call for affirmation is not so much moral as it is aesthetic: a kind of interpellation that destroys our ordinary habits and haunts our lazy immobility. One cannot but react to Cleuren’s paintings, by affirming the disasters, the misery and joys of the world. Even forgetting becomes an act of colour in her work: see Vergeten (1999). But the activity of forgetting is never simply an act of reconciliation: the wounds are never completely healed, the disaster will be traumatically re-enacted again and again, and her work is the dynamic witness of this trauma.

The Inhuman Interpellation

These important remarks inevitably lead to the question of the significance and function of art criticism and philosophy of art. Critics and philosophers have to try to locate and interpret new artistic experiments as subtly as they can – and I mean in all practical domains: arm chair aesthetics is not aesthetics. If we are talking about James Joyce, Rineke Dijkstra, Franz Kline or Anne Theresa De Keersmaeker, this does not make any difference in principle. It is important to estimate the potential force of the art work in order that the singular exquisite interpellation that the art work effects will be made palpable in the critic’s or philosopher’s text. The question that the critic or philosopher has to answer is not what are possible interpretations or meanings of this particular work, but: how does this art work manage to interpellate, to interrupt and disturb, in other words how does it manage to be an art work (with the stress not on ‘art’, as is too often the case in contemporary aesthetics, but on ‘work’), and help to dicover the sheer materiality, the material presence, of the bodies. Investigating how something works and transfigures or interrupts being is not an easy task; it is not very profitable either, so to say. It does demand much commitment: looking, feeling, listening, and again and again, … and this takes time, a lot of time! Not many people seem to be able to do this anymore. The system wants us to ‘win time’: it does not tolerate us to ‘lose time’, it does not let us work slowly, touch carefully, sense subtly, listen attentively, read slowly and write heedfully. Moreover, investigating and wording the artistic interpellation demands detailed attention to and description of the techniques that art works apply in order to make an aesthetic appraisal possible. The question that leads the philosopher’s research is which techniques make the force of the art work possible, which experiments make the work of art work. Hence art’s most important function – if one can call it a function – is not to make us more human, in whatever sense that may be: morally, aesthetically, politically, … It is completely different – although not completely opposite: art makes us more inhuman, or at least a little less human. In 1913 Apollinaire already wrote that ‘artists are people that want to become inhuman’. As Jean-François Lyotard argues in his great book The Inhuman, there are two kinds of the inhuman. The first is the inhuman cruelty of the current system that has only one aim: sustain and complete itself, guarantee that the system remains intact, without caring for what and who needs to be sacrificed for that. The only thing that the system is interested in is making progress and only those activities that serve this purpose of perfecting the system are ‘tolerated’. The second kind is the inhuman of aesthetic emotion which is a possible consequence of the interpellation of a work of art; an exquisite emotion that has nothing to do with the feel good
sentimentality of Hollywood films. (Lyotard, 2001: 1-7) The inhuman of good art does not consist in some sort of superficiality that sacrifices everything in favour of sustaining the system where ‘time is money’ rules, but is to be situated in the often painful confrontation with what is other than human, with what cannot be captured in classic anthropocentric and Cartesian forms and categories. The feeling of the sublime is still the best term to qualify this kind of ‘experience’ – which is not an ordinary human experience but transcends humanity in many ways. Thus this is a confrontation that is superficial in an altogether different way, an encounter that awakens the ‘infans’ is us, the child that has not gained access to the symbolic order yet, and that leads us back as it were – as it were, because there is no regression here – to a prehuman state, where our being-in-the-world (to use Heidegger’s term) has not yet been contaminated with human, all too human categorisations. An art work pierces our being-human, defers our being-human as it were and appeals to powers that are always slumbering ‘in’ us but can only suddenly emerge in and through an aesthetic interpellation. This can easily be misunderstood, as if the dynamics of an art work should have to be understood psychoanalytically or religiously. But confronting art works does not lead to unheard, unconscious depths but to what is dwelling on the surface of the skin, of our sensualaffective dealing with the world; it leads to what we always carry with us, as it were, what has marked our skin, just like a tattoo, but not from the outside by carving itself in our bodies – to these dynamic surfaces do art works really take us. In this sense there is no exaltation above the affects, if one means some kind of Freudian sublimation, but there is affective intensification, which – as Nietzsche has described so beautifully – engenders a transfiguration, transcends the levels of the human and the personal, it leads to a level where the visual and the tactile fuse. Thus if artistic interpellation still means anything, it must be the this: it opens new and unexpected perspectives, it opens towards a future, another future, another life, than the one promised by the system – which is not really a future, since it has been completely programmed by the system. The future perhaps of a little child that can barely talk, barely walk and stumblingly seeks some way through her early life, understanding nothing of what those big people want from her and that sees the world growing – falling on the floor and standing up again, but mostly falling – second after second, as it were, discovering that her environment is becoming a world… Humanism teaches us other things: a child is inhuman, an ‘infans’, and must and will become human! A child has to be raised – the English phrase ‘to raise a child’ is no coincidence – a child will be taken to a higher level (as in a computer game) and will grow up to become an adult that functions perfectly in the system, and this is possible only if it will have left its childhood and inhumanity behind.
Well, it is precisely this humanistic certainty and confidence that Cleuren’s art works are continually questioning. That is also why the arts in general have always had difficulties in maintaining – as we say – their ‘position’. Yet this humanisation does not succeed completely: the ‘remainder’ of the inhuman, of the ‘infans’ remains present in and through works of art. Think of Antony Gormley’s sculptures or Rineke Dijkstra’s or Bill Henson’s photos, for instance. Just as little as rationality has succeeded in annihilating what is irrational, or as little as peace is the destruction of war (both are at the utmost merely deferrals of irrationality and war respectively), does the system succeed in wiping out the traces and the memory of the inhuman surfaces: the efforts to do away with the ‘voice’ of the infans – which is not really a voice, but a cry, a language of the body ‘before’ language: what biologists call impulses and reflexes, that is, superficial irrational bodily reactions. The efforts to destroy the ‘child’ leaves its own traces, and the efforts to wipe out those traces, creates new traces, etcetera. This is palpably present in nearly all Cleuren’s works in the Desastres series, but perhaps most obviously in Kan de mensheid ooit anders? The humanistic ideal has tried to sustain a system that is itself inhuman; a system that is traumatized by that which it always wanted to remove and annihilate: the inhuman which art works bring to life again – although often very brutally: a Cleuren painting is (fortunately) not a Hollywood attraction. The brutality with which art often turns us upside down and inside out, and agitates our soul – I am purposely referring to a term Kant often uses in connection with the sublime, viz. agitation (Erschütterung) – does not take us to the unknown depths of the unconscious, as a naïve psychoanalytical reading of art wants us to believe, but confronts us with the uncanny surface of things – the flesh of the world, as Merleau-Ponty has so aptly called it. The material surface or invisible skin of things, which Francis Ponge’s, Virginia Woolf’s or Italo Calvino’s texts, and David Lynch’ films, Harold Pinter’s plays or Giorgio Morandi’s and Gabriëlla Cleuren’s paintings render so palpably (and often painfully) present. They (as so many other good artists) know that art has nothing to do with an imitation of reality – the mimesis view that still pervaded Hegel’s philosophy of art – but with rendering visible, audible what would otherwise remain unseen and unheard. An artist creates a world that is at least partly recognizable to us – otherwise an aesthetic interpellation, art criticism and interpretation would be wholly impossible – but his creation is such that this world appears at the same time strange, uncanny, unheimlich. Not because an art work necessarily refers to something frightening, not because it confronts us with the atrocities of life – these may be but are not necessarily the themes of art – but because the way the things, events, people, subjects, forms, forces and colours interfere with one another in the work renders our usually so familiar environment so intensely that it seems as if we see
(or touch, or hear, …) this world for the first time – as was the case when we were still a baby. This is what I try to point out by using the terms ‘inhuman surface’ and ‘inhuman remainder’: dimensions of reality that human beings do not see – not because they are too ‘large’ to be apprehended by us, as the religious-mystical discourse wants us to believe – but because it is too subtle, elusive, forceful and too richly detailed and organised to be noted. The fine timbres of a voice or an instrument, the endless richness of nature in fall, which mostly remain unperceived in our busy daily lives, all of a sudden occur through a work of art and will deeply move the flesh of our soul. As Paul Klee says, the task of the artist is ‘not to render the visible, but to render visible’.

Saving the Surface

Hence one cannot stress enough the importance of a concrete material contact with particular art works: not to be able to surpass others in scrutinizing the depth, the meanings behind the work, but – what is far more difficult – to be able to be touched by the surface of the work, to be able to move your haptic eye over the skin pores of the sculpture, the skin of the painting, the pixels of the photo… Seeing means looking again, hearing means listening again: in the case of music it implies not just listening to the melody and harmony but also to the timbre of the instruments, the way the strings of the violin or cello are stroked, being sensitive to the rich shades and timbres of diverse instruments, tenors, sopranos, … Because the surface in aesthetic-artistic praxis, we can never ascribe one and only one meaning to a work of art: the eye moves again and again over the skin of the sculpture, diverse performances of the same Beethoven string quartet stir up new emotions, affects and senses, and so on. The other extreme view, which has become more popular for a couple of decades of postmodern mania, that we can only understand an art work if we interpret it differently all the time, as Gadamer and Derrida have maintained, is equally flawed. We can only be touched by or cope with a work of art – a work of art can only speak and appeal to us, on the basis of a world that we share with that work of art. Only because an art work participates in a life practice that is at least partly intelligible to us – no matter how minimal our ‘comprehension’ of it may be – and in which we participate too, can the work appeal to us and move us. Naturally there are different interpretations of art works possible, but this does not imply that each and every interpretation is equally successful nor that some interpretations need not be excluded. Different interpretations or strategies of dealing with it only make sense on the basis of a locally shared life practice. Complete relativism that annuls every ground for a comparison or evaluation of works of art
and interpretations, is absurd. Evaluate successful and less successful interpretations is crucial but can only happen on the basis of a (at least partly) common ground or standard. Such a standard never lacks completely: speaking of the radical Other or radical Otherness is nonsense in this view. If the other (or his work) differed completely from me, I wouldn’t even know of this other, let alone understand that what he is saying or doing or making is interpretable and intelligible. In order that an aesthetic interpellation be possible and interpretation be feasible, there agreement between ‘my’ world and the world of the other has to be made as big as possible. Some sort of ‘mutual attunement’ is necessary: communication and being-together rests on attunement in a large number of judgments. Whatever ‘meaning’ is ascribed to each other’s utterances, actions or works, will emerge from a degree of moral and emotional attunement and contestation of interpretations. This applies as much to the familiar other as to the foreign other. A fortiori, we would not even have thoughts, feelings, emotions, … if there were no others that understood us and that we understood, so with whom we could share our lives. Thus there would be no art works, no artistic praxis, if there were no other human beings with whom the artist shared a common world – which does not imply that he has to share the same essences or forms in the mentalist or Platonic sense: the fact that there are similarities between life practices is no reason to presuppose that is a core, or some essence, rationality, prototype or transcendental subject that these life practices necessarily share. Understanding of what is similar is always particularised, and has to be claimed again and again in human interactions. Thus a work of art is not a means to communicate with other people, but exists only on the basis of sharing a practice with at least one other human being. The arts borrow their existence and dynamics from the fact that (at least two) people share a world. That world, and especially its material presence, appears only on the basis of two people that mutually attune their activities and art works succeed in rendering this usually invisible, unheard ‘understanding’ palpable – in Heidegger’s sense of Verstehen, which means something like ‘coping with’ or ‘coming to terms with’. Works of art interpellate us, they come ‘between’ us and the world, disrupt our confident being-in-the-world and show us the world ‘before’ it turns into a human world. This disturbance, this fissure is what causes – what Nietzsche called Dionysian frenzy (Rausch): there is a multiplicity of types of frenzy or intoxication that find expression in art works. As Nietzsche writes in the Twilight of the Idols:

If there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole
machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this; above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy. Also the frenzy that follows all great cravings, all strong affects; the frenzy of feasts, contests, the frenzy of daring, victory, all extreme movement; the frenzy of cruelty; the frenzy in destruction; the frenzy under certain meteorological influences, as for example the frenzy of spring; or under the influence of narcotics; and finally the frenzy of an overcharged and swollen will. (TI, ix, 8)

The development of the arts is the frenzy of a continual modification of forms, colours, relations, ruptures, sounds, etcetera. Outside of this the arts have no aim: the aim of art is art and nothing else (definitely not religion, philosophy, etc.). Certainly not humanity. To continue this pursuit of new perspectives, colours, nuances, timbres, … we need art critics and philosophers that become aware of the inhuman surface of the arts and that know how to value the material presence and lack of humanity in works of art. Presence and lack: an art work is no commemorative symbol that gathers what may otherwise have been lost or forgotten. The lack in art works is no hidden dark origin which Schopenhauer claimed to be a cruel, blind will. The lack refers to the incompleteness that is typical of works of art: art works are not incomplete, nut they do incomplete (in a transitive sense) – a work of art is an event, an exquisite palpable gesture which exceeds visibility, an object exceeding its objecthood, and (pace Gadamer) belongs more to the Talmud than to Western history. It has presence, but ‘touched’ by forgetfulness, not commemorating an event that has been forgotten, but anamnesic in the sense that ordinary time-space gets totally disturbed: an ‘experience’ clearly evocated in the commemorative painting Uitgeroeid (1999): its affective echo is floating like a cloud on the surface of our body, of the flesh of our soul. There is indeed – what Edmund Burke calls – terror and delight in Cleuren’s work: the visual art work communicates the anxiety that the eyes may be abandoned, that nothing might happen; her work gives birth to colour and matter, but always wry, melancholic. It mourns the loss of that which has never been there. Within this threatening void something takes place and at the same time, as it were, announces that everything is not over yet. The question of her art runs: how can the surface be saved form its superficiality. Therefore, Gabriëlla Cleuren makes it crystal clear that the inhuman surface has to be explored again and again: not in order to lead to ‘deeper’ meanings, but to show us its own origin which is also ‘our’ origin and justification: the many worlds, countless life practices in which we participate, which form no stable and unchangeable beds in which our life stream runs, but dynamic networks on the ground of which we can continue our existence and through which the arts too may continue theirs. This is obvious from exquisite paintings such as: Vluchtelingen
(1999), Niet toegelaten (1999) and De 21e eeuw (1999), where the artist’s pixel technique is perhaps explored and revealed at its best. What is ultimately at stake in these paintings is perhaps what Nietzsche meant when he said that ’only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified’ (BT, 5, 24). Most commentators have concentrated on the adjective ‘aesthetic’ in this famous quote, but have forgotten to explore the dimensions of the term ‘phenomenon’. To acknowledge that the world and existence are not monolithic wholes but phenomena – Platonically speaking, mere appearances of the eternal Idea – that should be claimed and actively changed, fabricated and contested, and are full of things, stimuli, pulsions, and masks that speak to us from and through their surface may well be the first step towards an aesthetically sublime experience. No better way to achieve this than through encountering Cleuren’s art works. In the constant renewal of our life practices, in which the arts are but a tiny but nevertheless crucial element, in the continually changing and ‘incomplete’ aesthetic communities she creates, in the momentary communities we share with Cleuren and many other artists that speak to us from their graves, and in caring about the material presence of the things that also speak to us, our life may become a little less human – and perhaps therefore also a little less sad.


Benjamin, A. (2004). Disclosing Spaces: On Painting. Manchester: Clinamen Press. Deleuze, G. (2004). Francis Bacon: Logic of Sensation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Eco, U. (2002). Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press. Lyotard, J.-F. (1991). The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Nietzsche, F. (1993). The Birth of Tragedy: Out of the Spirit of Music. London: Penguin Books. Nietzsche, F. (1990). Twilight of the Idols / The Anti-Christ. London: Penguin Books. Serota, N. (2000). Who’s afraid of Modern Art?, Dimbleby Lecture, by.shtml



Back to Publications