March 06, 2006

Research Notes: The aim of art according to Deleuze and Guattari

Writing about The artwork as monument, active memory, time of the artist from Art

Why artistic creativity? A new perspective on the world? A recording of events. Or a new world? The creation of events.

Painters and sculptors go to extraordinary lengths in order to create the "monuments" to their struggles, their works. In creating, capturing and preserving the "time of the artist" they carve out a slice of their chaosmos, cut from their plane of immanance, relative to a virtuality. This may all cease to exist at any time, and may even be destroyed by the artistic act itself – a painful surgery or self-mutilation (Van Gogh). The surgical method is this: reduce the world and its vast circuits to a small repetitive loop. In the case of Cezanne, the loop circulates and re-circulates between Mont Saint Victoire, the palette and its oils (themselves reduced to a few greens and blues), the hand, the brush or knife, and the canvas. In this way the artwork is built up over time through a kind of mangrove effect not disimilar to that described by Andy Clark.

Everything is invested – "the artist is already in the canvas" (Deleuze, Logic of Sensation). Then make each run of the circuit entirely dependent upon the last, each time applying a filter modulated by the results of the previous passage (Cezanne, Van Gogh, Bacon and others replace an optical filter with a haptic filter). The circuit carves out an escape route within the imprisonment of actuality. The loops are repetitions, movements between points, but across different virtualities or the infinite and irreducible but necessary slices of reality. This opening up of new degrees of movement is the experiment of the diagram. It is a high risk operation. With so much vested in a small and critical set of functions, catastrophe is always near at hand. In his treatment of Francis Bacon, Deleuze quite rightly argues that painting is the artform that takes this risk to its most extreme. This is true. The consequences of architecture, for example, are too great. Few architects are prepared to go there (Libeskind?). Perhaps only in improvisational jazz does music reduce everything to catastrophe or the sublime. Otherwise there are too many chances of a second take. Bacon happily destroyed botched canvases, but it was almost too much for him both artistically and financially.

What then drives artists to the edge of disaster or beyond?

1) There is the attraction of the unknown and unknowable, the promise of a critical passage across some absolute threshold. Beyond this pure event, the world would be transformed. Something impossible would come to pass (surrealism). Behind this drive is the knowledge that this passage must have already happened at least once: the artist and the world as it is having come alive. But also the belief that it can happen again. The creation of substance, the irreducibly different, sharing no attributes. The impossible as possible. The artist thus seeks to create something new and substantial for themselves and the world. Joan Miro, for example, explored a rarifying seriality in order to create art as new substance: As Andre Breton commented on Miro's Constellations:

"They belong together and differ from one another like the aromatic or cyclic series of elements in chemistry. If one considers them both in their development and as a whole, each of them assumes necessity and value like a constituent in a mathematical series. And finally, they give the word 'series' that special meaning by their uninterupted and exemplary sequence." Miro by Janis Mink, Taschen 2000.

Felix Guattari described this creation of artistic discovery, and the mutant subjectivities that it makes possible, as akin to the rarifying seriality of chemistry, creating something substantial and necessary:

"In this conception of analysis, time is not something to be endured; it is activated, oriented, the object of qualitative change… A singualrity, a rupture of sense, a cut, a fragmentation, the detachment of a semiotic content – in a dadaist or surrealist manner – can originate mutant nuclei of subjectivation. Just as chemistry has to purify complex mixtures to extract atomic and homogeneous molecular matter, thus creating an infinite scale of chemical entities that have no prior existence, the same is true in the 'extraction' and 'seperation' of aesthetic subjectivities or partial objects…that make an immense complexification of subjectivity possibile – harmonies, polyphonies, counterpoints, rhythms and existential orchestrations, until know unheard and unknown." Chaosmosis (page 19)

Seriality and rarefaction is similarly employed by other painters, inlcuding Cezanne and Bacon. Also common to these artists is the prevailing terror of plunging into one of these cycles only to find no way out, that the filter or diagram no longer applies to the product of the cycle: the catastrophe.

2) And more commonly, there is an incremental investigation of objects partially apprehended at the limit. An often shy and nervous peering into things. But sometimes a full-on and clinical dissection of orders and lineages (abstraction). This investigation is often undertaken with a degree of altruism. Whether the aim is to reveal more clearly some necessary aspect of Being, or simply to help us to see objects with greater clarity, the artist may act in the interests of our perceptual powers and faculty of judgement.

Kant gives us these two modes of art in the Critique of Judgement. The artistic event as trans-liminal, as a virtuality (the sublime) eventualizing actuality (the time of the transcendental subject or artist). And the event as a series of dispatches, taken from a view of the edge, passing freely over infinite modulations of intensity, but always staying firmly this side of reason – communication, a sense in comunis, a beautiful passage.

Questions for Deleuze and Guattari's aesthetics:

  • is it underpinned by this distinction?
  • do they consider the creation of new substance to be the role of art? – if so, what does this mean, is it feasible, how does it work?

Also, see the essay by Isobelle Stengers for Deleuze's discussion of the difference between the limit and the threshold.


This paper can be discussed on the What Is Philosophy web site.

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