Jean-François Lyotard’s “On What is ‘Art’,” trans. Robert Harvey, Toward the Postmodern, ed. Robert Harvey and Mark S. Roberts (Amherst, New York: Humanity Books,1998), pp.164-175.
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“This is art.” Lyotard’s aim, in this essay, is to defend this sentence, the proclamation that some “this” “is art” by showing its consistency by its inconsistency. Consistency means that some given proposition does not contain a contradiction. In Aristotelian logic, this would mean that there exists some model or interpretation, a rule or principle, under which all formulations of the proposition are true. He utilizes Paul Valéry (1871-1945, French philosopher and poet (in the vein of French symbolists), a true French public intellectual on cultural and social issues) and Kant (see ~here~) in his defense.
If taken literally, Lyotard proposes, it is easy to see the sentence’s inconsistency. Imagine all of the different “this’s” that could be ostensively indicated in the utterance of the phrase: a Van Gogh painting, a cup of coffee, an exit sign, a person, a sunset, a kitten. These disparate referents seem to violate their inclusion under a single rule of “art.” This literal evaluation ignores any distinction between the ideas of art’s creation versus its reception, wherein one might want to say that to the creator, the X is art, even if the audience does not receive it as art, or that the creator may not consider X to be art, but it is received by others to be such. Instead, the literal interpretation considers it merely as a semantic, logical, or epistemological question.
Lyotard wants to show that one’s motives for deeming the sentence to be inconsistent may be the traits inherent in the “reflexive status in the artistic operation … and of its reception” (164). In other words, that there is a reflexive, a circular or bi-directional, nature between creation and reception (production and consumption). He adds that he will end with a brief sketch of subsequent observations concerning disorder and order, nothingness and its witnessing, and singularity and consensus.
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Consistency, he states, is that expected between properties of a sentence that claims truth or falsity. He identifies these as cognitive judgments (in the language of The Differend (see ~here~), this is a phrase that operates within the cognitive genre of discourse). This dictates that he will presume the phrase “this is art” to have a real referent. In this genre, the sentence is a partial determination to a complete description, i.e. definition, of the referent, that is, it attributes the predicate “art” to the subject, “this.” This is the common form that we designate as knowledge. With the utterance, we know that the object “this” belongs to the class of “what is art.”
However, as he has shown in The Differend, he bears tremendous skepticism as to the legitimacy of knowing a reality. (This is because every occurrence overflows its possible situation within reality, within that fixing of the phrase universe.) He briefly lays out the three operations necessary in the cognitive genre of discourse where a phrase is thought to indicate the truth or falsity of the meaning (sense) of the referent:
(1) The phrase must be endowed with meaning. It must connect one term with another and this connection must operate by a rational or at least reasonable connective. In Kantian terms, the phrase must be synthetic, that is link the terms by a synthesis wherein the sensible representations are applied to and organized under rational principles, i.e. the categories. The particular “this” must belong to the universal class of “what is art.”
(2) The phrase must be confronted with reality. In other words, the idea must be compared to experience in order to judge / verify its truth or falsity. The experience brought forward for validation are cases. To present ‘evidence’ is to say there are such cases; the “there are” presuppose the “this’s” that make it up; “this’s” are particulars capable of being presented. He notes that “this” is a deictic.
(3) Notice, however, he prompts us, that “this” only refers to a “there is something” to the extent that there is a particular “this” being indicated in the context of the utterance. As we saw in The Differend, the nature of deictics must be carefully examined, specifically, first, the current moment in which their sense is intended. For performance artists, the moment of the “this” is in actu (in the very act), for the performance art, the moment is in situ (in the very position, situation). Deictics indicate a time contemporaneous with the occurrence of the intended referent: we utter the phrase “this” indicating here-now. Saying “today” is not the same as saying “November 16, 2011.” The measurement of the date is carried out according to the rule of a calendar. The “today” is measured in a wholly different way. “Today” detaches from its particular day and applies itself to many days, whereas the date does not. Names and dates designate; they have a greater fixity than deictics; they are “rigid designators.” They can still refer to more than one particular, e.g. Kant the philosopher and Kant the lion, which means that they designate, they do not signify (fix a definition), but their fixity is greater than the “this.” The rigidity of designation is required for the “this” to prove or disprove an assertion such as “this is art.” That is, the “this” deictic must be situated within a network of meaning, within the world of nouns independent from performances. The “this” of the performance art here-now must have the same referent when we say “this” to indicate the performance art in a different here-now.
Thus, we see what it is that makes the phrase “this is art” inconsistent. He lays this out in detail in three points:
(1) “It is not inconsistent because it presupposes the class of ‘objects that are art’” (166). A logically inclusive relationship must be established between the two parts, objects and art; recognition must take place. The class “art” is defined beforehand; if this is the case, then we can say that the sentence is consistent. If the acknowledged definition of art is unable to be changed, than a protest of “no,” “this is not art” is not legitimate; only if we admit the definition can be changed can this protest be sensible. Neither of these issues, that the class of art is defined beforehand and that it must be either admitted to be flexible, leads to inconsistency in the phrase.
(2) Inconsistency with respect to the phrase’s truth or falsity arises when we consider the lack in the name of “this.” Here, the phrase is inconsistent because it is incomplete. The “this” needs to be linked with designators, e.g. “The Venus de Milo [name] or the Large Glass [name] is this [deictic], and this is art.” Without the linkage of the “this” to a name, there is no assurance that the same referent is in question over time or between parties.
(3) However, Lyotard then adds the limitation to this defect of inconsistency in the phrase that it is only such in the cognitive genre of discourse, that is a sentence “… whose purpose is to tell the truth concerning a referent” (167).
Lyotard’s reason for pointing out this limitation is that he wishes to challenge our consideration of the validity of the sentence within the cognitive genre alone. “My thinking (following many others) is that the question as to whether this is or is not art (assuming that “this” is named) can only be settled cognitively to the extent that “this” (under its name) is submitted as an object to know or recognize, that is, as a referent either belonging to or not belonging to the class of “what is art” (167). The cognitive genre necessitates that the “this” designated is a thing, a sensible object, to be classified in a set.
Of course, artworks can be taken as objects. As objects, they can be classified under defined sets. He then quotes Valéry’s Introduction to Poetics at length on this possible operation. Valéry notes how we can look at art as an object to which we do not add any of ourselves to it; this is an attitude of viewing wherein there is complete absence of the production of value. That is, we restrict the possibility of rendering a use from it (think of Kant’s disinterest). What do we do with the thing? We can measure it; we can classify it according to some model (principle of rule that determines the class to which it belongs). This measuring, however, does not fully distinguish works, but only classifies them in accordance to what is materially definable about them. Thus, two works may both use symbolism, thus they are classified as such; this classification does not designate the masterpiece from the fluff. He then asserts: “Everything that we can define is immediately distinguishable from the producing mind and stands in opposition to it” (168). Thus, the intentions of the artist, what went into the creation of the work, the stories behind it, the value it bears in its creation or for the artist are not any of the things that are considered when we define the work as belong to some class or another. This cuts the producer off from the receiver of the art; neither stand in a reciprocal relation.
Lyotard notes that Valéry proposes that the producing mind, the artist, is outside of this definitional relation to the “this;” thus suggests that one may say that classification only begins the moment that the creation or production ceases.
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“This is art” is not consistent within a cognitive genre of discourse. Valéry’s critique implicit in his suggestion of this definitional attitude to art as object cannot even be considered within the cognitive discourse; it violates the rules of the cognitive genre (one therein cannot account for the aspects of artwork not discernible in it as an object). Lyotard is now going to move from the cognitive to the poetic to explore the consistency that can find itself grounded upon the phrase’s inconsistency. He sets out four points thus.
(1) This anabasis, the going up or expedition, will further utilize Valéry because the stress we place on the “this” is parallel to the stress he places on the “act” or “in-act.”
For Lyotard: the deictic only refers to an element of a situation (“him” indicates a person, “now” indicates a time, “here” indicates a place, etc.) by placing the actuality to which is referred in relation to the utterance of the deictic. One must relate/link/situate the referent and the deictic. He says that Valéry agrees.
For Valéry: “… the work of the mind exists only in-act” (169). Outside of the act, what remains is just an object with no particular relation to the mind. [Relating this directly to Lyotard, a deictic is only meaningful when the relation exists between its occurrence and the event to which it refers; Valéry is saying that the (full) meaning of art is only when there is this direct relation between the artist creating and the thing created. When these relations are broken, the deictic, as a word, is still meaningful (it does not become complete nonsense, e.g., “here” is still a legitimate word even when the referent, the “here” intended is unknown), just as the art, as an object, is still meaningful (it can be hung in a museum or classified in terms of its style or period), BUT the meaning that remains in the broken relation is not the same as the meaning had with the intact relation.] The Parthenon, to the Athenians, is their temple dedicated to Athena; but, the Parthenon to another imaginable group, is a mere quarry of marble. There is still meaning, in one sense, to the latter group, but it is not the same as the meaning to the Athenians. But, the Parthenon to the latter ceases to be a work of the mind; the “use” to which it is put is foreign to the conditions of its origin. The latter put a consumption value to it that is denied it in its creation by the Athenians.
For Lyotard: the meaning of the work as a work of the mind, to its creator and in its originary conditions and situation, is “… (negatively) circumscribed at the outset as what is not the artwork as object or thing” (169). Its whole meaning as originally created in its creation is cut off from the deeming of its meaning as an object. “The artwork as act is not the artwork as object” (169).
Artwork as object is namable; something that can be cognitively signified (given meaning), classified according to a set of conditions. The (cognitive) mind that seeks to recognize it, classify it (“is it art?”), is not the (poetic) mind that made it. The poetic mind is only in-act, in the here-now. It gives it no permanent meaning because it does not give it a definition or identity; what is is, is not what can be said of it at some other time by some other mind. The poetic mind does not have the finite at its disposal; it is incapable of the linking to and from the artwork so as to situate it, give it a name that is a designation that can have greater fixity beyond and for others. Fixing the form (for a form is created, an object or event is wrought from creation) is not bound to the project (the act of creation). Thus, the consuming mind, who has the art as an object, has greater power over the artwork; it can name, classify, fix it in its reality (170).
However … let us not be too rigid in assigning the poetic mind to the artist and the cognitive mind to the consumer. Valéry asserts that the consumer, as well as the artist, is affected by the work of the mind. The poetic mind is a “state,” so long as we think of a state as “a mode of temporality remarkable for its discontinuity and discreteness” (170). Thus, the consumer can be in the poetic mind in his/her encounter with the work of art; it is a different meaning than that of the artist, but also different from the cognitive meaning of the classifiable object. [Think, for example, of a play; the artist writing it will have a relation with it that is a truly poetic, creative work of the mind; an audience member watching it being performed can forge a relation to it as an event that is also poetic work of the mind, albeit this one will be different than its artist’s and yet distinct from a critic (one cognitively engaged, yet passionately disinterested, “objective”) who will consider the play as one among other plays and classify it in such a way.] The linkages that are made in creation, in poetic experience, since they are not fixed/situated in a lasting way, require a “decision” to be made at each moment as to how to form the linkage.
(2) “Expectation” and “doubt” – and “decision.” The event of the art is that which concludes our expectation, that completes our thought or raises our doubt. Lyotard notes that “decisions” must be made therein the encounter with the artwork as to how to link it at every moment; these linkages are not fixed, set out in advance. They come into being in time and, in the poetic reception of it, remain in the passing presents. There is uncertainty about linkages, one in which “… the disconnection of moments throws the mind …” (170). This disconnection affected by the artwork is one of the “… proliferation of possible linkages between one moment and the next” (170). Most uniquely, he adds: “… the mind waits for a decision. A decision one waits for is not a decision one makes” (170).
This is critical to puzzle through. Using Valéry, Lyotard is showing us that the work of the mind, the meaning forged between the artist and the creation of the art, is not available to the cognitive classification of art as an object, nor is it available to the others who may encounter the art as consumers, who yet maintain a poetic mind to it. Nevertheless, the unavailability of the artist’s ‘full meaning’ of the art does not prevent the art from affecting those who encounter it poetically, those to turn towards it as an event to be engaged with, as opposed to the disinterested critic who cognitively ‘knows’ it as what is given by it being an object. Thus, the poetic consumer (although this also goes for the artist in his/her creating) does not receive fixed representations that are loaded with meaning already established, yet receives the event as having affective capacity. Thus, this mind awaits the linkages to come in the unfolding of the encounter with the work. The mind may be said to create these linkages only in the sense that the relation between the viewer and work founds them, makes them come to be, to be received. In a sense Pseudo-Dionysius would appreciate, there is an activity and a passivity in this relation; one that creates linkages in the sense of receiving linkages that are not already created and given.
This relation, between the poetic consumer and work, is not properly a temporal one, but more so of exis, of being-there, or, better, he says, of ethos, an availability or disposition. One must contribute to the ethos, to receive from it, but it is not a sole creation of a one-way intentionality that subject creates object (meaning).
The artist or the consumer (who thinks poetically) waits for the linkage to come along; s/he waits for the event of the “decision” that serves to act for the end and end the infinity of possible linkages. The mind does not have the “finite at its disposal,” it must wait for it to come along. Valéry calls this not-having the end “disorder” (171). And, everything is at stake in this state, this anxious waiting; yet this disorder is also the fecundity of the mind. This is its freedom. [Contrast Descartes’ freedom (knowing the good and choosing it) versus this freedom (not knowing and must await its coming).]
The “act” that “decides” is not strictly active. It is an event—one that concludes our waiting by deciding the linkage, by ending the moment’s disorder. Lyotard calls what is in this “freedom” or this “disorder” “passibility; a disseizure” (171). This comes about, in Valéry’s language, when one gives oneself over to the work’s substance alone (that from which we make the form, the determined end of the art).
(3) Lyotard affirms the passibility or disseizure necessarily resulting from one giving oneself over to the event of the art, but very quickly adds, “Yet this is a disseizure and a passibility in expectation of their end result” (171). Thus, we give ourselves over to the event, anxiously awaiting the finality of a decision, and yet we hold firmly onto an expectation of the finite coming to be, of a decision coming, being given in our relation to the event. It is not the simple expectation of getting what one wishes for, thus one wishes for it. Nor is it the voluntary action from the I who wishes, for the wished for is not the I, it is not something the I will create, that object, which then becomes a simple referent for the consumer who classifies.
What is it then? That is wished for “at the heart of uncertainty, in the proliferation of imaginary possibilities? What is desired? Simply the event of an end. In a sense, a death. Yet is it a death of what is simply possible, or a death in order to give birth to the artwork?” (172).
Here, he says, we must introduce the topos of the expectation of the act at the heart of disorder: the topos of fatigue. Topos is a common place, a locus, a topic, a type or category.
Valéry discerns two types of fatigue through art and poetics. “If I link myself to the page that I must write or to the page I wish to understand, I enter, in both cases, into a phase of lesser freedom” (172)—we commit ourselves to the task (the event of the artwork) in a turning towards it and having to await the “decision” that will come from the disorder of not-yet-knowing. There are, however, two ways that this “turning towards it” may appear: one, in which the task urges me to pursue my freedom, giving the self over to it in an enjoyable, frenzied way that continues on until fatigue sets in and the pursuit’s fluidity is clouded over and pushed back into fits of indeterminacy and disorder; the other way is if the task is immediately felt with conflict and resistance, the struggling against the disorder is more notable than what is produced, the mind’s tension is strong from the beginning and must fight against unbearable fatigue setting in and halting even struggle.
Lyotard admits he cannot do this passage justice here, but pulls out two senses of fatigue (these are two that may not be really apparent in how we want to interpret the above): one, a good disorder does not fatigue, but weariness here falls upon you; and, two, disorder that overwhelms, making the work into mere struggle and nothing more outside of that activity, this is the fatigue that comes from an obstinacy of the will that pushes on no matter what and, thus, dries out the work itself, a desertification, moving us towards sterility.
(4) Let us pause, Lyotard says, on “sterility.” “In any ‘this,’ is it not, at bottom, a question of a banal analogy with the pain of childbirth and with the impatience to give birth” (172). Valéry says that in the creation of an artwork, “action comes into contact with the undefinable” (172). Is this not, Lyotard asks, saying that “the phallus touches that which lacks it?” (172). [I think it is safe to discern a note of sarcasm, asking us, is this not other than what Lacan has said, albeit everyone before him was saying basically this, too, that the creative power is a desiring one that comes to touch what lacks it, the nothingness of indeterminacy that resists identity/identification?] “And by this touch, assuredly killing the hysterical agitation of renewed beginnings to be forgotten, that of disorders to be misread, of the panic before virtual linkages, a child, too, is engendered: the artwork” (172). For once the child is born, we can subsume it under a rule of knowledge, “But at that cost, he will remain misconceived like a child born of inconsistency, as long as he himself has not engendered upon the ‘consumer’ this very same agitation and this very same expectancy of the end of agitation from which the artwork is born” (173). Thus, will not this child/artwork be misconceived if it cannot affect the consumer with the very same ‘full meaning’ from which it came to be? Will the child not truly, authentically be the child it is if it is not ‘understood’ affectively as it is essentially, all that that is more than what can be apparently, phenomenally discerned? Will the artwork never be the artwork it truly is/means without imparting the meaning of its wholeness to the consumer? If it cannot make the consumer its addressee so that s/he can be its truthful addressor and get the ‘sense’ right? Thus, can we never answer the question of what is art if we do not ‘get’ the ‘full meaning’ of the art that is beyond what the art is as an object? Valéry is obsessed and perplexed by this. But, this perplexity can be understood as Kantian. Consider the Kantian preoccupation with his division between imagination and reason. “With the beautiful, it lies in a division or emulation, tempered by a marriage, and with the sublime it lies in a conflict brought to the point of rupture where the proliferating network of imaginary possibles become shredded and the act or comprehension appears as it truly is in its princely principle: not the rule of knowledge but the law of transcendence and the unknowable, the event itself and the act that is incomparable to any regularity” (173). Lyotard admits he is not beholden to the Lacanian/Valéry division. Instead, simply, he says, “this is art” is a cognitively inconsistent sentence, but one that is consistent with regard to the double inconsistency of art. There is an “initial” (but, poor term, not temporally prior) inconsistency in the indetermination of possible linkages that is nevertheless not just hysteria, “itself unfelicitously determined in its repetition” (173); and there is a “final” inconsistency of a determinate work-producing event, one that produces not as an object, but as an occasion, a “this,” here and now, that is the occasion for reiterating the same conflict (sweet or furious) in the ‘consumer.’
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Now, he says he promised a reflection, “I lack the moment of reflection, as I always do” (173). An aside that is infused with meaning to the content.
Reflection, in the Kantian sense, is of the order of a time in relation to which what we call time (clock time) never ceases to be sufficient. The time of reflection, in the Kantian sense, “is exactly what I have discussed in reference to Valéry under the name of artwork’s time” (173).
Determining an object implies that we already have the rule of its signification (the class to which it can belong, etc.). Reflection supposes that we do not possess that rule. Thus, we do not even posses the object, since we are in no position to signify it or name it. We can only ever barely even call it a “this” as a case or occasion. The aesthetic object, for Kant, is only occasion.
We do not possess the rule, but await it. It is not the rule of comprehension for which we await. It is the form that imagination might take. Despite not having any rule, the occasion of reflection, being uncertain, full of expectation and uncontrolled senselessness, is of utter importance. Perhaps even especially because it is so uncertain and awaits not for a concept, but for the form.
Reflection is a disposition of the mind by which it judges without a concept. To judge is to settle, to decide, to discern—a having of the strength, the power to discern, which is also the power to bring together, to synthesize. This is to do what Valéry call “act”—to create, not the object, but the linkages that bring form into being.
This takes place without a concept because it is the pure flux of all possible linakges coming before the ‘decision’ … the free play of the imagination with what it can play with.
Reflection is not a bending back of thought upon itself; but a bending within thought of something that seems to not be itself since thought cannot determine it… the bending of more than what is inside of oneself, more inside thought than thought itself. This further inside thought is feeling (Empfindung), affect. Without the affect, there is no linkage that makes an artwork an artwork, makes a poem more than mere signs strung together. Inspiration of an affective state – this is the “this” that is not an object. It is an occasion for a pure feeling … pure, because it is not motivated by anything. It is not the intentions of the artist, it is the something that the artist awaits to come. This is the voice, the double voice, as Lyotard puts it, in Kant that declares this is beautiful disinterestedly and subjectively, and yet calls for others to all share this feeling-judgment.
For Valéry, works of mind refer to what engenders what engendered them.
For Lyotard, this is art if “this” engenders the pure feeling (disorder, expectation of its end, hope of its transfer to a receiver) from which “this” itself was born.
This is the resistance of art—that which contains all its consistency: “determination should never exhaust birth” (175).